Pubs, pints and pride: Entering South Boston

by Beacon Staff • March 5, 2008

Take a step off the T at the Broadway stop and a new realm is breached-a world in which the essence of the Irish-Catholic culture of the immigrant influx of 1840's remains frozen in time. Southie, an endearing nickname for South Boston's pub-plastered streets, is a wormhole in the sundry melting pot of Boston's. Mechanics, old brick factories and auto-shops line the streets among a sea of shamrock gilded pubs, local shops and stone-steepled churches.

Kelly Davis, a freshman communication disorders major, has lived in of Southie her whole life and described the cultural enclave of her youth fondly.

"Everybody was on first-name basis with the ice cream man, and we always knew the right people to go to for free Slushies at Store 24," Davis said. "There were a few people in the town everybody knew. Rocky was the town drunk, he's still around today. He'll talk your ear off endlessly but he's harmless."

Davis said, of growing up where West Broadway and East Broadway meet, that the neighborhood was a mostly residential, fun and safe place to live and the Irish culture was inescapable.

"Everybody was Irish and if they weren't, they claimed that they were just to fit in," she said.

While the stereotypes at the core of Irish Catholic culture are endless, Davis said that there is some truth behind the beer bottles and blue-collar stigma of the neighborhood.

"People from Southie take pride in it," she said. "There is at least one bar on every block. There were rumors that the priest in my elementary school got hammered before sermons. Drinking is big in Southie-it's part of Irish culture, but it's not a major issue that needs to be changed. Southie wouldn't be the same without it."

While people like Davis, who grew up in Dorchester Neck felt a close connection to the location, others entering the turf at another point in life see the town in a different light.

Ian Elkus, who attended Emerson from 1986 to 1988 to study theater, lived in Southie for six months during his sophomore year. He had a very different impression of the area while residing in a small apartment in Roxbury. He described the neighborhood as very local and felt as though he was as an intruder on the prevailing family-rooted culture.

"If you hadn't lived there for several generations, you were an outsider absolutely," Elkus said. "I'm half Irish and a white guy and I've never been so scared in my life."

He said that while he was never approached or attacked, he did not feel welcome as a young college student, new to the area. While the cultural ties were strong, Elkus said that if you weren't in the loop, the atmosphere was uneasy.

"It was just very rough and tumble," he said. "Sort of like it wasn't even attached to Boston in a lot of ways. If you didn't have family there, they didn't go to school with you or if you didn't have cousins on every block they knew, you definitely veered to avoid eye contact and to stay out of everybody else's business. You definitely knew your place."

But Dorchester Neck's demographic has had a face-lift since Elkus's Emerson days. The Big Dig and the major redevelopment of the Seaport District have re-shaped the local business economy and residential areas drastically, resulting in the gentrification that so many local neighborhoods have endured.

"Gentrification in Boston, I would imagine, is no different than gentrification in San Francisco or New York," said Elkus. "People with money move in, they buy old houses, they turn them into condos, all of a sudden there is a Starbucks where there hadn't been one ever. As for the three-generation family that lived beneath me in my building, I can't imagine that they are still there."

Despite pleasant reminiscing of her childhood days on by East and West Broadway, Davis also said that the community is not as close knit as it once was because of the new housing developments.

"Richer people are moving into the town and forcing the Irish out who have been here for generations," she said. "The atmosphere is different because of it."

The freshman also said that people she grew up with were pushed out when they apartment buildings were replaced with luxury condos. It is this changing demographic that makes Southie different for Davis.

"When I was younger, it would have been ridiculous to put condos in