It’s impossible to avoid the news that local gangster, Whitey Bulger, was arrested in Santa Monica yesterday. I was listening to the radio at 5 a.m. when the BBC reported it. I came downstairs and one of the people I am staying with was already up. The third person, who grew up in South Boston, was still asleep. I wrote “Bulger caught in L.A.” on a piece of paper and passed it under his door. In a few minutes, he came out holding the paper, saying “I got an alert on my phone last night.” So, he already knew.
We three sat around the TV watching images of his cozy, rent-controlled, hideaway a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean.
Bostonians interviewed on TV said they would not have recognized the aging Bulger if they saw him on the street. But I don’t think Bulger would have recognized Boston either. The city he terrorized is gone. Gone baby, gone.
In the past few years, the seamy side of Boston has provided fodder for a string of movies. It is not a side I am that familiar with. I do know that the city is no longer the atavistic, inward, suspicious place it was when I moved there in 1975. Through the movies, the city is becoming famous for being a place it no longer is.
Sometime around 1995, Boston opened. It could finally make eye contact with the outside world. Race relations were better as first Mayor Raymond Flynn and then Mayor Tom Menino, provided the healing leadership missing in years past. Economics played a big roll, too. Gentrification pushed working class rivals out of the city while those who remained, were the ones less parochial, less fearful.
Busing had inflamed racism in some but not all of Southie’s residents. It was never the racist place it seemed. Politicians and gangsters like Bulger, played on fears that were more economic than anything else. The irony was that the drugs, suicide, crime, and unemployment that was eating away at Southie were doing the same to the predominantly black neighborhoods of Roxbury and Mattapan.
In 2008, I was in a car driving down Broadway, the main street in South Boston, and saw a giant poster on a building, “Obama-Biden 2008.” I did a double tack. A poster for a black candidate, even the Democratic nominee, was unthinkable in that spot just a decade before. Times had indeed changed.
When Mayor Menino was asked his reaction to Bulger’s arrest, he congratulated the FBI and other agencies and said, “He’s arrested. Let’s move on.”