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What the Whitey Bulger Trial is Really About: Gentrification

The Boston Globe reports that Irish mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger has been referring to his ongoing trial as “The Big Show,” and who could blame him? Since testimony began two weeks ago, the press—and even the lawyers—haven’t been able to hide their fascination with the drama of Bulger’s life, which turns out to be just as hair-raising as all those movies that were based on him. Witnesses have painted a portrait of a guy who ate two dinners a night with two different lady-friends; claimed to have killed 40 men in his life (he stands accused of murdering 19 people); and cracked jokes like, “Barrett is going downstairs to lie down a bit,” before dragging a rival into a cellar to torture and shoot him. 

These tales are so colorful, it almost doesn’t register that they are also true. In the words of one witness, whom Bulger’s gang shot in a case of mistaken identity, the trial is “a three ring circus for the bad guys.’’ (Whitey's romantic appeal has been amplified by his denial that he was a rat for the FBI, or that he killed two women, both of which violate the clannish law of the streets.) But Whitey isn’t the only one being lionized in that Boston courthouse this summer. His old stomping grounds are getting the rose-colored glasses treatment, too.

It’s impossible to talk about Bulger without mentioning the neighborhood where he was feudal lord and patriarch for over two decades: South Boston, or “Southie,” which has come to symbolize a particular variety of gritty urbanism and street smarts, largely thanks to Bulger’s legend and that of his Winter Hill Gang. The day the trial opened, The New York Times made the mistake of declaring Southie dead, defeated by the forces of gentrification and their attendant “glassy condos.” They dubbed this new neighborhood “SoBo”—an abbreviation coined by advertisers and scorned by locals. Bostonians were not amused (as one tweeted, “Go home NYT, you’re drunk”). Thus, on Bulger’s first day back in the national spotlight, the most heated debate in his corner of the Internet was not about him, but about his city, and what it has become.

This isn't new. Bulger has long been a rallying point for the gentrification debate: Essays about South Boston’s transformation seem duty-bound to mention him. A 2005 piece in the Globe’s magazine notes, “A sushi restaurant and a wood-and-brass bar are in the block formerly occupied by the Triple O's, a bucket of blood frequented by members of [Bulger’s] gang.” In a New Yorker article from the year before, Susan Orlean wrote that the residents’ refusal to turn Bulger in, even after he had extorted their businesses and sold drugs to their kids, revealed South Boston as “a sort of sentimental evocation of a small town, with its own rules, its tortured intimacies, its layered loyalties.” Every depiction assumes that the thing Southie stands to lose to the army of invading yuppies is, precisely, its ineffable Whitey-ness.

The halo of anachronism that makes Bulger irresistible is, in part, the reflected light of our nostalgia for what we imagine city life once was. Bostonians aren’t the only or the worst offenders. Lower Manhattan is home to thousands of would-be Bohemians, all with B.A.s and respectable nine-to-fives, who regret nothing more than missing out on the world of Patti Smith’s Just Kids, when you spent your meager dollars on getting high instead of sky-high rent. A popular East Village blog, EV Grieve, describes its self-appointed mission: “Appreciating what's here while it's still here. Remembering what's no longer here. Wishing some things weren't here that are here.” Washington, D.C., which has metamorphosed as fast as any American city in the past two decades, is full of bars and restaurants that evoke its less-bourgie past; as Garance Franke-Ruta wrote in The Atlantic last summer, the increasingly white downtown has relied on its largely black, “rich pre-riot, and even pre-World War II, cultural history as the thing that might be able to give it new life.”

There’s something funny, but also deeply hypocritical, about well-to-do new arrivals who yearn for their adopted homes’ grittier pasts. Many of the Washingtonians who complain most vociferously about the city’s sanitization are themselves transient residents who contribute to the rising rent; many of the Massholes who slammed the Times’ SoBo faux pas know Boston as an emerging middle-class metropolis, with a low crime rate and a nascent tech scene. But it’s easy to see what they (or, to own the truth, we) twenty-first-century urbanites see in the cities of the past. As our neighborhoods shift, they all start to look a little bit the same. When I recently walked into a freshly opened bar on my block, it even smelled new, and looked as though it came straight from a “Build Your Own Brooklyn” kit—complete with jam jar cups and an antique bicycle mounted on the wall.

D.C. is not New York, and neither, as those Red Sox fans so clamorously attested, is Boston. But the cities' distinguishing traits and quirks are rooted in the past, not the present. It is Bostonians' pride in their image—unhurried, unpretentious, a little parochial and blunt—that guarantees the Massachusetts capital will never be New York, no matter how many “wood-and-brass bars” rear their heads. And that image was a little truer in the pre-boom 1970s and '80s—the Bulger era—than it is today. The appeal of the Bulger trial is not just its gory, sensational detail; it's an escape from our sanitized realities. But at the end, we’ll remember that we couldn’t hack it in that world, and, when all’s said and done, we wouldn’t want to. 

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker