Boston’s evolving face creates change in Southie

Printed from:

BOSTON – In an upstairs loft in South Boston, watercolor paintings line the walls of Dan McCole’s studio and living space. His works depict scenes from the streets nearby and some of the locals who live there.

McCole, who grew up just six blocks away, on East Broadway, on a recent day reflected on Southie’s character, how the neighborhood has evolved and how it has remained the same. For instance, he said, for as long as he can remember, residents of the area have been accused of being insular and setting themselves apart from others in the city.

“A lot of people can’t quite understand – we’re a separate district,” McCole said, pointing out the neighborhood is largely bordered by water. “We’re an island and we have an island mentality.”

Historically, that differentiation may have been reinforced for many during the busing crisis of the mid-1970s and a subsequent flow of residents relocating outside the city to places like Quincy and Braintree. As a New York Times article noted in 1997, Southie residents long sought to protect their families “by raising barriers against outsiders and change.”

Since at least the 1990s, though, the area that stretches from Fan Pier and the Seaport District along Fort Point Channel to the Southeast Expressway to Dorchester Bay has seen an influx of college students, young professionals and their families, and even older empty-nesters flocking in. They’re drawn by lower rents than could be found in Back Bay or Beacon Hill to an area that still offers a place to live that’s not much farther from downtown than those pricier places.

That movement has gradually eroded the moderate-income, largely Irish-American demographics that once dominated in Southie.

“It’s changing the flavor of the community,” said McCole. “You just want to say OK, but don’t run away from it.”

From 2000 to 2010, the South Boston population climbed almost 13 percent according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Along with a higher population the median home value rose from roughly $350,000 in 2007 to about $542,000 today, according to realty website, which predicts a rise of about 3 percent over the next year. Rents, Zillow reports, have also surged, climbing 75 percent in the past four years to $2,800 a month on average.

“More people are living in a smaller space,” said Maureen Dahill, the founder of the online magazine Caught In Southie. “Unfortunately, the result is that the middle class is sort of getting forced out.”

As housing costs soar, low- and middle-income families find it increasingly difficult to live in the neighborhood. Dahill, who has seen a lot of families move out, said it has been tough for such a tight-knit community.

“I think it’s going to become the South End with less families 10 to 15 years from now,” Dahill said. Still, urban information website shows some parts of Southie remain enclaves of middle-income families.

But already in some parts, like the Seaport area, household incomes and rents are more than double those in the rest of the neighborhood. With the surge in commercial development replacing parking lots and fish processors, tensions have been growing between what the city has designated as an Innovation District and the mostly residential areas in the rest of the district.

“We are always trying to get them to understand that they were part of this community,” said McCole, who had a gallery and studio outside the Seaport World Trade Center and who is a member of the South Boston Arts Association. “We keep trying to attempt to bring them all under one umbrella.”

As the demographics have changed, so has the makeup of restaurants and shops along West and East Broadway and in other parts of the neighborhood, said Mike Foley, a real estate agent in Southie.

“It has a younger buzz” compared with 10 years ago, he said. “People like to work and play in the city.”

New residential units being built next to older buildings on West Broadway Street in South Boston (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)
« of 12 »

Pam Santorelli, who owns both the Habit and Wears + Wares clothing boutiques in Southie, said she still has her loyal customer base of neighborhood residents but has also started to see a younger crowd frequent the shops as well. Many newer stores nearby target young professionals, while there has also been an increase in baby stores as more young families move in.

“It’s not just a bar neighborhood anymore,” Santorelli said. “When I moved here, there was just a couple of stores. Now, five or six years later, it’s the place to be – it’s booming.”

Increasingly, Foley said, homebuyers looking in the neighborhood are childless couples from outside the city looking to return to their urban roots. He said they tend to be older and more established.

For all the changes in the neighborhood, some things have remained the same – like the chronic shortage of on-street parking.

Foley, a 30-year resident, sees it as the only real downside of living in Southie. He foresees an eventual culture shift, where couples share one car instead of owning two, and others forgoing owning a car in favor of using public transportation or a vehicle-sharing service like Zipcar.

In any case, he said, he’s not planning to leave.

“I’ve invested in the community and I’m staying,” Foley said, adding that he recently renovated his home.

Years ago, Dahill said, her grandfather gave her a tip: “Southie is a secret for now, but it won’t be for long.”

Today, she added, it’s clear: “The secret is out!”