BOSTON — The death of gangster James “Whitey” Bulger brings an abrupt end to a notorious chapter in the history of South Boston, the neighborhood where Bulger once ran a ruthless gang responsible for loansharking, extortion and a string of murders.
But the South Boston of Bulger’s era was gone long before 89-year-old Bulger was slain Tuesday in a federal prison in West Virginia. He was serving two consecutive life sentences plus five years after his 2013 conviction of participating in 11 murders, on racketeering, extortion and other crimes.
Bulger’s South Boston, known as “Southie” to generations of people who grew up there, was a place where mostly blue-collar, Irish-Catholic families raised their children and everyone knew each other.
It was in this neighborhood that Bulger ran his gang in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, Southie had a gritty, rough-around-the-edges feel.
Today, South Boston has the polished feel of a hip, urban neighborhood. It is an ethnic melting pot where millennials snap up upscale condos, eat at trendy restaurants and buy drinks at pricey coffeehouses.
“It’s all yuppies and their yuppie bars, said Chuck Finley, 52, a South Boston resident for nearly 40 years.
“It’s not what it used to be. I remember when you could go to a bar and know a lot of people,” Finley said.
Bulger and many other South Boston natives grew up in some of the oldest public housing projects in the country. The neighborhood was also known for double- and triple-deckers where multiple generations of families lived together. Groups of kids would play street hockey and hang around on corners.
Longtime residents complain that their sons and daughters can’t afford to live there because young professionals attracted by its waterfront district and proximity to downtown Boston have driven up housing prices.
The Irish pubs that once were hangouts for locals have been replaced by swankier bars and restaurants.
Triple O’s Lounge, a dive bar where Bulger allegedly collected unpaid loans, in later years was replaced by a sushi bar, and most recently by a restaurant that served oysters and tacos.
Finley grudgingly acknowledged that the neighborhood feels safer today than it did in Bulger’s day, but newcomers have brought new headaches such as rowdy bars, noise and traffic.
“On weekends, it’s almost like St. Patty’s Day,” Finley said, referring to the neighborhood’s famous St. Patrick’s Day parade.
At a Starbucks in the neighborhood’s main row of shops and restaurants, Stephen Eysie views Southie’s transformation more positively.
Eysie, the oldest of six kids raised in Southie, left Massachusetts for college, but moved back to the neighborhood a few years ago to take a job in the Seaport District, the name for South Boston’s redeveloped waterfront. The area is now home to the corporate headquarters of General Electric and Reebok, as well as technology companies, law firms and financial institutions.
“I honestly never thought I’d be back, but it’s an interesting time to be here,” Eysie said.
“There’s hipster bars and gastropubs. You can’t turn the corner without seeing something new opening or crane for a new building going up.”
Still, Eysie isn’t convinced that Bulger and his crimes will fade from memory anytime soon.
“My generation didn’t grow up with him, but we heard the stories. We saw the movie,” he said, referring to the 2015 film “Black Mass” starring Johnny Depp as Bulger.
“He’s part of the local legend,” Eysie said. “You can’t escape it.”
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