Warner Brothers / Everett Collection

The rise and fall of Whitey Bulger and Boston public housing

There’s as much to learn from “Black Mass” about Southie’s social conditions as about its most notorious gangster

September 20, 2015 2:00AM ET

Early in “Black Mass,” the new biopic of Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, he is pulled over by a corrupt cop. The ensuring confrontation ends with the Mob-connected policeman snarling a warning to the “project rat” who would soon be the most powerful criminal in Boston.

“Black Mass” covers Bulger’s career from the midway point, picking up just before he is approached by FBI agent John Connolly about becoming an informant on the Mafia. This twisted partnership had the nation’s top law enforcement agency covering for a known murderer for decades, but the relationship that grounded it began years earlier. Connolly, Whitey and Billy Bulger — who grew up to be the longest serving president of the Massachusetts State Senate — all grew up in South Boston’s Old Harbor Village, a tightly knit public-housing development.

When “Black Mass” viewers hear about the Bulgers’ and Connolly’s upbringing in public housing — which is repeatedly emphasized throughout the movie — they probably envision a rough, rundown, poverty-stricken warren of crumbling high rises. But the Bulgers were not raised in a neighborhood haunted by extreme poverty and gang violence. Old Harbor Village did not at all accord with the stereotypical image of a housing project, at least when he lived there. Instead it was the crown jewel of the Boston Housing Authority’s housing stock: stable, extremely safe and segregated by income and race. (It was entirely white until the 1990s.)

In the years since Whitey Bulger’s youth, the fate of the public housing complex where he grew up traced the arc of the program overall. From robustly funded and segregated worker housing to increasing concentrations of the very poor, often people of color, and correspondingly decreased political support and funding — culminating in an existential crisis for the program today. 

Working class public housing

Like most working class neighborhoods, South Boston was hit hard by the Great Depression, throwing thousands of people out of work. But unlike most its counterparts, “Southie” had an able Congressional champion in New Deal-enthusiast John McCormack. (Decades later as Speaker of the House, he wrote to J. Edgar Hoover on behalf of Connolly, who failed in his first attempt to join the FBI.) McCormack fought ferociously for public housing in his district and by the end of the 1940s, South Boston would contain 3,000 units of public housing —almost a fifth of the city’s housing stock.

The construction of Old Harbor Village, the first public housing complex in New England, created 1,016 units of housing in 22 three-story apartment buildings and 152 in row homes. 10,000 families applied for entrance, “yielding a rate of acceptance considerably more stringent than that then prevailing at Harvard College,” writes MIT professor Lawrence Vale in his history of public housing in Boston, “From the Puritans to the Projects.” (Much of the following historical data can be found in the book.) Nearby Old Colony opened a few years later, providing over 800 additional units.

Whitey was more accessible than the welfare office, the Boston Housing Authority, the courts, or the cops.

Michael MacDonald

Author of “All Souls”

Old Harbor Village was very selective because public housing during the New Deal, especially its flagship developments, were reserved for working-class families anchored by steady employment. The median rent was $25.25 a month, the highest in South Boston. Applications were so restricted that even those employed by the Works Progress Administration — which paid a monthly stipend of $41.57 ($702.61 in today’s dollars) — were largely denied admittance. Those forced to rely on welfare were out of luck too. The public housing complex had an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent (only five Boston neighborhoods had lower rates) while 30 percent of the rest of Southie’s labor force was unemployed or on relief. It’s amazing the Bulger family got in at all. In the 1920s Whitey Bulger’s father lost an arm in a freak industrial accident and unsuccessfully sought regular work thereafter. Not the kind of candidate most likely to be accepted. But somehow the Bulgers made it in, to the lasting advantage of most of the five children — with the arguable exception of Whitey.

“I was born and raised with 5 brothers and sisters in Southie about 100 yards from where the Bulgers lived, so I have a little history on this matter,” says Bill McGonagle, chief administrator of the Boston Housing Authority. “I have very, very fond memories of my childhood there. Many of the folks I grew up with years ago I’m still friends with. It was a wonderful place to live. This sounds kind of corny, but it really was a neighborhood where everyone looked out for each other.”

Old Harbor Village bristled with voluntary and civic associations, including 12 softball teams and three Boy Scout troops. The housing project even enjoyed its own newspaper, credit union and orchestra. The tight knit community surely related to the shared race, culture and religion. With Irish street names such as Monsignor Dennis F. O’Callaghan Way, it was clear who Old Harbor Village was catering to.

Housing in black and white

After the war public housing in South Boston remained both segregated and selective. By 1962 many majority African-American complexes in other parts of the city had tenant bases far poorer, with rates of extreme poverty and unemployment that were four to five times higher than those of Old Colony and Old Harbor Village (changed to Mary Ellen McCormack Houses in honor of the Congressman’s mother).

These imbalances were the result of activist agitation for the prioritization of the poorest, reflecting similar debates in cities throughout the country. This fight resulted in more stable families with employment leaving, driving down rents collected, and turning the suddenly underfunded projects into islands of desperate poverty. But the Boston Housing Authority only allowed that process, at first, in majority African-American complexes. In 1964 neither Old Colony or Mary McCormack had a single non-white tenant, according to a report by the Advisory Committee on Minority Housing, which asserted that they still provided  “model living conditions,” while majority African-American complexes were “little better than the slums these projects replaced.”

In the 1970s, after the Bulger and Connolly informant deal, Whitey’s criminal empire grew rapidly and his fortunes along with it. But South Boston suffered as deindustrialization ravaged the neighborhood. Old Colony’s population was still all white, but increasingly impoverished and their rents could not cover the growing maintenance needs. The on-the-ground reality is unsparingly described in Michael MacDonald’s memoir “All Souls” about his youth in the project, which swarmed with cockroaches and sported “Irish Pride,” shamrock and pro-Irish Republican Army graffiti.

Nowadays, just as capital is flooding back into South Boston, public housing appears to be on its last legs.

Whitey Bulger haunted the public housing — even staying in Mary McCormack periodically with his mother until her death in 1980 — and increasingly rivaled local politicians, at least in this desperate corner of the neighborhood, in his patronage power. “Whitey was more accessible than the welfare office, the BHA, the courts, or the cops,” remembered MacDonald, who otherwise presents a scathing critique of the gangster’s legacy. (For another example, see this Boston Globe video of interviews with locals after Bulger’s capture.) In the Mary McCormack homes, a black woman tried to move in but quickly changed her mind when a friend’s car was fire bombed — a tactic Whitey also deployed during the busing crisis. Meanwhile Billy Bulger, from his new perch as president of the Massachusetts state senate, began steering more funding to the beleaguered housing complexes.

In 1980 Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered the housing authority into receivership for its segregation and discrimination. Still South Boston’s public housing remained white. Real change was spurred by a Department of Housing and Urban Development investigation in 1987 that found that nearly 2,500 units across three housing complexes were 100 percent white, although 85 percent of those on the housing authority waiting list were people of color. Today none of Southie’s public housing developments are even close to majority white. Mary McCormack has the highest proportion, at 20 percent.

Integration and underfunding

Nowadays, just as capital is flooding back into South Boston, public housing appears to be on its last legs.

“It is now and has been grossly underfunded and frankly I don’t see it getting any better,” McGonagle says. The Boston Housing Authority’s capital requirement backlog is $750 million, but the agency only gets $8 million from Congress every year. (The Center for Budget and Policy Analysis found that funding for public housing fell by 25 percent in the last 15 years.) Outside of Southie the housing authority is exploring the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program, an Obama administration effort to move public housing units into the better-funded Section 8 program and, often, attract private capital to address enormous repair needs. McGonagle assumes a similar fate awaits his beloved Mary McCormack homes.

 “If I had my druthers I would not do this,” McGonagle says. “If the public housing budget was funded we could sustain and maintain these communities. But sitting around and moaning about the lack of funding is not going to go do our residents any good. We need a new way to generate capital and operating subsidies or these places are going to crumble and fall.”

It is increasingly unlikely that Whitey Bulger or John Connolly, both now in prison for the rest of their lives, would recognize either their neighborhood or its public housing. The rest of South Boston is increasingly prosperous, its population growing again, and its median income increased by over $14,000 since 2000.

The private housing stock is the polar opposite of the slums and cold water flats the Bulger family escaped in 1938. Median housing costs were $1,457 as of the last Census data, with the median sales price in South Boston $545,000 in August of 2015 (according to the real estate website Red Fin). As long as the almost 2,500 units of public housing remain, something will remain affordable in South Boston — but now only to the very poorest. Today the median income in the Mary McCormack homes is $11,640. 

Jake Blumgart is a reporter and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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