When I originally pictured Southie, my impressions were populated by Good Will Hunting and Mystic River. It felt dark and alluring, dangerous… authentic. My gut insisted that, if I was really going to discover Boston, I’d have to look there. I was apprehensive about exploring it alone — a little afraid of what I might find on the other end of the T: burned out cars, barking dogs behind chain link fences or packs of hard-scrabble young men with eager, indiscriminate fists.
South Boston was, in my mind, a world apart from the garden district where Maya lived in the South End. At home on Claremont Park, I was only a few minutes walk from friendly landmarks: Fenway Park, the Boston Public Library, Copley Square and the Christian Science Mother Church. In Southie, I imagined squat, dark bars like the L Street Tavern full of locals with non-rhotic accents that I longed to hear… and streets of dilapidated housing, burned or boarded up, haunted by lanky Irishmen lurking in shadows as purple as their bruises.
When Joe offered to drive me through Southie, I quickly accepted. Who better to navigate the dangers of South Boston than the assistant DA who leads the gang crimes unit? He pulled up in front of Maya’s house in a modest black sedan peppered with toys and a sippy cup for his daughter. Like me, he was also in his late 30s with dark hair turning silver in flecks, and a warm, humble demeanor. I liked him immediately.
Our tour of Southie came at the end of the day, one that began with Boston Latin School –the nation’s oldest public school, which opened in 1635– where he attended as a child. From there, we retraced his childhood steps to his parents’ home, tucked across the street from Highland Park in Roxbury. It was a thirty minute walk to school each morning, one that often landed him in fights, as one of few white kids in the neighborhood back in the 1980s.
He spoke off-handedly about being beaten up. At age 12, he was new to town and it was a normal part of growing up as a boy in a tough urban neighborhood. We talked about how things had changed since then with more and more families moving in where there were once vacant or run-down lots. I was surprised that he spoke with nothing but affection for Roxbury, despite the violent streets that enticed his classmates into gangs and drugs — the forces he still combats as an adult.
For Joe, there was no question of attending a local college or building a family here; it’s not just home, it’s a city he dearly loves.
He didn’t say as much, but his childhood beginnings shaped his desire to protect Boston. I was impressed that he has been able to separate any fear that he had felt back then and remain positive about the future in spite of what he sees on the job. He referred to his old schoolmates, many still his friends, and his law enforcement partners like brothers. Each time he answered his cellphone, he began with, “Hey buddy…”
We surveyed greater Boston from atop Fort Hill at Highland Park, once a battleground and now a grassy jewel shaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. Staring into the muggy wind, it occurred to me that Boston is a city of hills and fights — from muskets and bayonets to fists and handguns. The rocks that rose from the grass before us looked like blackened knuckles.
Now, in spite of 400 years of scrappy brutality, there are flowers and park benches, emerald green Victorian row houses, like the kind Joe grew up in, and a never-ending canopy of trees that links the city together, from Mattapan to Charlestown. Where gangs and militia once bled the ground red, moms push strollers and drink lattes.
After a walk through Arnold Arboretum, Joe took me for the ultimate working man’s lunch at Doyle’s Cafe — a wood-paneled Irish pub that opened in Jamaica Plain in 1882. A known gathering spot of cops and city officials, I glanced around for familiar faces, but only found black-and-white movie star photos grinning back. Worn smooth by decades of customers and cleaning rags, the old wooden bar and bench seats smelled sweetly of dust and bourbon; they made me want a cold beer with my burger.
Listening to Joe discuss filing motions with a colleague on our way through Dorchester made his job and my apprehensions swell with a bit more weight. Until then, our tour through his memory lane seemed like a quaint episode from Spenser: For Hire, but in the reality of Joe’s world, these were not first or second-time offenders, nor were they fictional characters. By the time his office prosecuted them, the defendants had been convicted of numerous and often violent crimes: stabbings, drug deals, shootings, assault and armed robbery. Their offenses were organized, usually pre-meditated.
Ruthless. Business as usual. Almost predictable.
Most days when Joe isn’t in court or preparing for cases, he spends time in Dorchester with families in community meetings, hoping to prevent crime by working with kids as young as he and his Boston Latin classmates had been. I asked him how many hours a week he works — sixty, seventy?
“Ach, who knows?” he shrugged with a self-conscious smile that made me like him even more. “It’s a lotta hours, and I miss my wife and my daughter, but… ya know…” He trailed off, but I knew that he spent so much time at his job exactly because he loves them so much.
The moment we crossed into Dorchester, the shift between Joe’s worlds was apparent.
As I would later realize, Southie was nothing compared to this. I saw the first buildings of multi-family housing since I had arrived in Boston, most of them subsidized apartments within a sea of barred windows. Burly men with baggy pants passed each other on the street, shaking hands and occasionally passing things back and forth. African American and Latina women in bright, tight skirts and jeans strutted in pairs or with strollers. Few of them laughed or smiled.
Though the inner neighborhood streets held trees, the main drags looked dry, rusted and bereft, populated instead with dilapidated vehicles, weedy lamp posts and bus benches rather than pocket parks or gardens. Several buildings were tagged or closed, some with broken or boarded-up windows. It was quiet enough in places as to be ominous. Someone was watching, it just wasn’t clear who — or from where.
That watchfulness was present in the expressions of people we passed. I felt like I was trespassing on tender ground. At stoplights, their eyes looked squarely into mine, telling me that I’d never set an actual foot on the street. Part of me wondered if I was over-dramatizing things.
I said this to Joe and he laughed, “Nah, we’re not going to let you get out around here. These streets we’re drivin’ down now… this is where most of it –the worst of it– happens.”
It made me think of how safe my world seems in Seattle, a deceptive microcosm. A friend who lives on Bainbridge Island leaves her keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked when she leaves her car for service. I think little of dashing to the powder room at the coffee shop while my purse and laptop sit across the table from strangers.
Like politics and advertising, the perception of safety is even more deceiving because we like the illusion.
Soon, we crossed another invisible line, and things changed again. After the raw streets of Dorchester, Southie reminded me of the Pike/Pine corridor just as the developers came in: low-rise brick buildings with local retail on the ground floor, three- and four-story walk-ups and vibrantly colored Victorian row houses on the streets behind them. Like Capitol Hill, Southie holds a thin patina of the old days — the kind of grit that makes trendy neighborhood cafes and resale shops feel legit but far from scary.
I smirked as we paused at the real L Street Tavern; Southie was so civilized that I felt sheepish for not coming by myself. Joe drove me out to Marine Park flanked by linear grass and sandy beaches peppered with tourists, families and senior citizens. I couldn’t believe that I had been so abundantly cautious. As we drove back through Southie to Maya’s, I tucked away a mental picture of myself walking home down Broadway from the T-stop, thinking that it would be fun to live there, stopping for a pint in the evenings on my way home from work.
A few days after my ride-along with Joe, I was surprised to see Jesse’s tweets from Cambridge, a hot hipsterland of boutiques and gourmet farm-to-table restaurants like Craigie on Main:
“Was just a drive by shooting on Willow St & Lincoln St #CambMA. I heard the gunshots. Looks like 1 down. Cops everywhere now.”
This wasn’t Dorchester or Roxbury, or even Southie. It was Cambridge. It was outside of those carefully delineated crime zones.
“Crime tape up at Willow St. Cop just went into my landlord apt to see some pics he caught of car driving away.”
“My landlords went over to help. Saw a girl on the ground not breathing.”
“Cops just arrested this guy who has been on Willow St scene the whole time.”
“Tragedy in Cambridge. Drive by shooting. One teen dead, another injured. Sad, sad, sad.”
Jesse didn’t know that, two days before I returned home, the unthinkable happened in Ravenna, near the University of Washington. A man named Ian Stawicki shot and killed four people at Cafe Racer and another at Town Hall Seattle before turning the gun on himself. Normally reluctant yet stalwart about waiting for a bus at Third and Pike after 10:30 pm, the news of these murders had me hailing a $45 cab from the airport rather than my normal $2.50 ticket for light rail and a bus home.
The illusion of safety is omnipresent — Cambridge, Seattle, small town America… our personal relationships. We imagine that we can avoid the well-placed neighborhoods of danger: Dorchester, the Central District, the bus stop at Third and Pike. What’s truly risky is to try and label it –give danger a district, an intersection, a park, a name– and believe that this where its reach ends. We hope to disguise the fact that it weaves in and out of our homes and workplaces, our cafes and schools, life and love, far beyond our control, and truly, our prediction and our defenses.
The victims weren’t shot at Third and Pike or Dorchester, after all. They were killed in neighborhoods filled with families, children and college students. The murders happened in places with nice yards where people know and care for each other.
The danger isn’t just in cities or dark corners, of course, but in ourselves.
Looking back, I feel sheepish about refusing to venture into Southie alone. One could say my sense of caution was understandable or even wise for a woman traveling alone. True as it may be, I feel like I let myself down; without a guy to drive me, I wouldn’t have gone. The fact that I let my fear prevent me from exploring a cool corner of the world gives me a sinking sense… because that’s not really where the fear ends. Like my hesitance with Southie, I find myself shrinking from other unknown emotional territory, too.
It’s a gradual line between protection and inhibition, between intuition and fear, between missing out and lucking out. It doesn’t stop at the curb.
Shuddering when I think of my isolationist Midwest upbringing, I continue to ask myself what fear-based choices like that indicate about me.
They say a person’s character is tested when no one is watching — when there is no possibility for punishment nor opportunity for reward. My inner court reporter keeps reminding me of my record… as well as my resources. Thus, I will temper my thoughts of self-recrimination with the reminder that, all things being equal –in Cambridge, Ravenna, Dorchester, and most especially in my heart– good and bad can happen anywhere.
We can only control so much –which is to say, nothing— but that shouldn’t stop us from turning corners or walking down unfamiliar streets… alone, with friends and most especially amongst strangers.
Of course, there’s no harm in keeping a police whistle in my pocket.