South Boston Transformed In Whitey Bulger's Absence

When the FBI brought reputed mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger back to his old stomping ground of South Boston to be tried in federal court after 16 years on the lam, he must have done a double take. The neighborhood that Bulger is accused of terrorizing with murders and extortion is booming. This story originally aired on All Things Considered on July 18, 2013.

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Now to Boston. The jury is off for the weekend after four days of deliberations in the Whitey Bulger trial. The trial itself is a strange sort of homecoming for its notorious defendant who spent 16 years on the lam. The federal courthouse sits on the waterfront in South Boston, Whitey Bulger's old stomping ground. In the mob boss' absence, the neighborhood has transformed dramatically.

Curt Nickisch of member station WBUR takes us there.

CURT NICKISCH, BYLINE: Welcome to South Boston. The neighborhood that Whitey Bulger is accused of terrorizing with murders and extortion is now a destination.

RON RUMBLE: How you doing?

NICKISCH: On L Street, a busload of tourists unloads into a corner tavern where bartender Ron Rumble shows them where movie scenes have been filmed.

RUMBLE: Ben Affleck and all his buddies bought a real cheap old car.

ELIZABETH ROUSE: Yeah, we just watched that clip before we came in.

RUMBLE: Oh, you just saw that clip? OK. In that clip, the film was - the car was actually right outside here.

NICKISCH: The film "Good Will Hunting" told the story of an abused kid who escaped South Boston. Other tour stops show scenes form "Mystic River" and "The Departed." Guide Elizabeth Rouse says the gritty Irish neighborhood depicted in those movies almost feels likes Hollywood fiction now.

ROUSE: Even when I was little, and I'm not that old, it was a much different place.

NICKISCH: When she was little, her family told her to walk quickly past where Whitey Bulger was known to hang out. Today, she's bringing busloads of tourists here. South Boston has become such a desirable neighborhood, she can't afford to live here anymore.

MATT THAYER: I sell $30-a-pound cheese.

(LAUGHTER)

NICKISCH: Matt Thayer is the co-owner of American Provisions on South Boston's Broadway. He opened it after noticing affluent newcomers were doing their shopping outside the neighborhood, though Thayer says he's made a big effort to become accepted by everyone.

THAYER: Fifty years ago, you'd go to a bakery, you buy fresh bread, and that money's staying in Southie, you know what I mean? So that's how we try to tell it anyway. I'm sure we're still the yuppie shop around the corner, though, but it is what it is.

NICKISCH: South Boston's waterfront beaches and proximity to downtown office buildings make it popular with workers who haven't started families yet, but have pets. Dogs now outnumber schoolchildren here more than two to one. In 1980, this neighborhood was 99 percent white. It's about 75 percent today. Longtime residents are getting weary of the changes.

BILLY EVANS: No, it's so crowded now, it's over-condensed. There's no parking.

NICKISCH: Police officer Billy Evans attended a recent neighborhood meeting about a new condo development. Another resident, J.J. Cee, says the nouveau riche are forcing him out.

J.J. CEE: Oh, I'll say hello to them, if they're going to be neighbors. But I won't be here that long because I won't be able to afford the real estate tax. That's how they're getting us out. That's why I'm calling it economic apartheid.

NICKISCH: This week, another development with more than 400 apartments got approved. They city's aggressively branding the South Boston waterfront closest to downtown as the Innovation District.

ADAM ZIEGLER: And it's amazing not only what has happened in this area of Boston, but what's going to happen.

NICKISCH: Adam Ziegler founded a start-up called Mootus, kind of a Wikipedia for lawyers. From his 14th floor office that he shares with more than 100 other start-ups, he looks out on expensive seafood restaurants and a new corporate headquarters, and also right out on the courthouse where Whitey Bulger is being tried for racketeering.

ZIEGLER: To see what's happening with all this real estate, that's really being put to its maximum beneficial use, as opposed to just sitting unoccupied or, worse, used for, you know, nefarious criminal activities.

NICKISCH: It's hard to know how much South Boston's boom is thanks to Whitey Bulger being out of the picture. Lots of other things happened since he went on the lam. Take the Big Dig. The infrastructure project made South Boston much more accessible.

Even so, Lonnie Newburn says if he also had to stress about extortion, he definitely wouldn't be opening a distillery in Southie.

LONNIE NEWBURN: You know, that's been a trial in itself. There's been a lot of struggles and a lot of hoops we've had to go through.

NICKISCH: And Newburn says few customers would have ventured down for tastings in the old days for fear of seeing someone gunned down.

RUMBLE: The past is the past and we got by that.

NICKISCH: As he washes a beer glass at the L Street Tavern, bartender Ron Rumble says he'll take the South Boston of today and tomorrow over Whitey's Southie any day. For NPR News, I'm Curt Nickisch in Boston.

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