THE TOWN/ PRINCE OF THIEVES

Ben Affleck’s newest movie, THE TOWN, in which he stars and which he directed, is opening today.  The reviews I have seen are positive.  It is a Boston movie and to understand the movie and the book on which it is based, it is necessary to get an idea of Boston’s neighborhoods.

Boston, or more accurately the original city, is a group of cobbled together units.  On the map, there is a relatively large yellow area marked Charlestown.  Southeast of Charlestown, is South Boston.  In the ocean are the words North End and a line leading to this small part of the city.  To the northeast of the North End is East Boston.  All the other labeled areas are also Boston neighborhoods but they play no role in the story.

During the 1970’s, Charlestown was the robbery capital of the United States.  It was a career choice for some of the young men who believed getting rich quick was the only smart route to follow.  Charlestown’s bank robbers were, frequently, straight out of Jimmy Breslin’s THE GANG WHO COULDN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT.

Affleck,  although from Cambridge, is considered a Boston kid.  Chuck Hogan grew up in the suburbs but close enough to the city to be accepted as a local.  Hogan wrote the book, PRINCE OF THIEVES, from which THE TOWN was adapted.  PRINCE OF THIEVES is about Charlestown bank robbers.  I haven’t read the book; I knew some of the people on whom Hogan may have based some of his characters.

In the ’70’s, I taught at a Catholic high school for girls in the North End (the little piece of land).  This is the part of Boston where Paul Revere lived and had his silver shop.  Through the years, it became the neighborhood of the newest wave of immigrants – first the Irish, then the Jews, and finally, the Italians.  The Italians came and stayed, spilling across the harbor into East Boston.  The school was originally established so that the daughters of North End families could get a high school diploma.  Many of the families wouldn’t allow their girls to leave the North End for school.  The neighborhood was insulated and they wanted to keep it that way.

Charlestown was Irish and they wanted to keep it that way.  It had become an area defined by its housing project and the problems among the people living there.  Charlestown had moved away from its history.  The Revolutionary War’s battle of Bunker Hill was fought there (actually it was fought on Breed’s Hill), and Old Ironsides is on display at the Charlestown Navy Yard.  Charlestown had a variety of Catholic elementary schools and it had a public high school.  Townies didn’t have to leave the neighborhood to get a diploma.  Charlestown was poor and working class and it was very proud of its people and the culture that went with being a Townie.

The North End and Charlestown would abut each other if it weren’t for the water from Boston Harbor; Charlestown is a peninsula.  The two areas had nothing to do with each other and neither did the two rival gangs that controlled the neighborhoods.  The North End was old-fashioned Mafia.  Charlestown was the Irish mob.  The North End was tightly controlled, Charlestown was not.  Kids from the North End didn’t rob banks.  There was a terrible penalty to pay if police attention was drawn to the neighborhood.  But that’s another story.

Both areas changed radically in 1974.  Boston’s public schools had open enrollment; students did not have to go to school in their neighborhoods although most did.  In 1974, Judge W. Arthur Garrity, who lived in a very wealthy town west of the city, decided that Boston’s schools represented de facto, not de jure, segregation.  There was no law segregating the schools but they were, in fact, segregated because the neighborhoods were.  Garrity destroyed the neighborhoods and he destroyed the Boston Public School system.  Thirty-six years after the ruling, education in Boston has not improved and it isn’t likely that it will.

The North End had one public elementary school and many Catholic schools.  It had the high school for the girls and there were a few Catholic high schools for the boys not far away.  Charlestown had a public high school; half of the students were going to be bused out and the seats would be taken by students from black neighborhoods.  This plan guaranteed that no one would go to school.

Gradually, the Charlestown families who could afford to do so sent their girls to the private school in the North End.  So did the families of girls from East Boston.  The girls from the immigrant families were very sheltered.  The girls from Charlestown were not.  East Boston split down the middle.  Gradually, the geographical differences abated and the school was able to go about the process of education.

The problems with the some of the Townies weren’t school related.  They were based in the community.  A significant number of the boys stopped going to school when busing began.  Without skills, they couldn’t get work but robbing banks seemed easy enough.  It got to be something of a joke.  When a bank was robbed, it would be reported that the suspects were from Charlestown.  They were not very good at it.  Most got caught quickly and didn’t waste the taxpayer’s money with a trial.  They went to prison but the corrections department came up with a furlough system that allowed some prisoners a weekend off for good behavior.  We started losing students because the Charlestown girls, spending time with their furloughed boyfriends, ignited their own baby boom.  And sometimes rivals groups got involved in some turf battles, easy to do in an area as small as Charlestown.  Guns were carried as if they were wallets.   Three boys were killed in three separate incidents; two of them had sisters at our school.  Charlestown became the most depressing and depressed area of the city.  Townies didn’t leave; they stayed and got ground down.

South Boston became the angry, irrational face of the busing debacle but take a look at the map.  If you were the parent of a 6 year-old who was assigned to a school in East Boston, would you let your child go?  On the map, it appears that East Boston is separated from the rest of the city by water.  It is.  The trip from South Boston to East Boston requires a trip through downtown Boston to reach the tunnels that take traffic under Boston Harbor to East Boston.  It would be no exaggeration to say the trip could easily take an hour.

The people in South Boston stayed, too.  The National Guard and State Troopers augmented the Boston Police Department at South Boston High School.  There were no students in the building and there were screaming parents outside of it.

Every neighborhood in Boston experienced white flight.  Charlestown and the North End are no longer neighborhoods.  The families left, the small, cramped apartments were turned into condos, and gentrification is the norm.  Charlestown High School has about half the students it had before 1974.  Only 15% of the total student population of Boston is white.

How’s that for de facto segregation?

Stories about bank robbers from Charlestown aren’t entertainment.  Stupid kids who watched too much TV and knew they didn’t have a future robbed banks.  Some died, most went to prison, few moved more than a few streets from where they grew up.  The Bunker Hill project is still a problem.

The book and the movie may be very good.  I just can’t put Charlestown and bank robbery into the entertainment category.

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11 Responses to THE TOWN/ PRINCE OF THIEVES

  1. paul stewart says:

    Everything in this article has hit the nail on the head. I grew up in Charlestown in the 70s and 80s and I almost became a statistic. Try living on Boyle Street and not get caught up with the crap going on Pleasant St. or down at the BH Projects, or Mischawam. Bank robbing was the only way to get any cash or respect. Glad I wised up and moved.

  2. Beth says:

    I am very happy for you. Moving out and beyond the sadness that permeated Charlestown at that time took courage. I know the ties were strong.

    The hardest part in dealing with the students was the inability to help them understand that they had choices, that they didn’t have to get locked in to a mindset that was destroying their hopes for a future. So many of the girls who became pregnant spoke of it as an inevitability, as if their outcome of their lives was pre-ordained.

    I enjoyed the years I spent at the high school. The majority of the girls were interested, not so much in the end result of an education, but in the chances they had to express opinions in my classes and to have a voice. When I started, I was four years older than the seniors; I don’t think they realized that.

    The girls were clever and funny and never boring.

    I know Chuck Hogan’s uncle; he was thrilled when Chuck’s first book was published. I wish Chuck and Ben Affleck success with the movie. I hope the movie draws readers to Hogan’s other books.

    Thank you for the comment, Paul. I wish you the best of luck as well.

  3. Beth–

    Terrific post. Just a great no-nonsense insider’s view of a city’s inner life. I liked Affleck’s first movie a lot and will be going to this one. But now I’ll be seeing it from a more informed, interestingly textured perspective. Thanks.

    –Lenny

  4. Beth says:

    Lenny, it will be interesting for locals to see how Affleck handles the Townie culture. I saw a report of one of the thousands of interviews he has done this week and he mentions the core of the Townie culture and mentality – the code of silence. If you are aren’t a member of a family that has lived in Charlestown for generations, you are an outsider and you will never belong.

    He also mentioned that the part of Cambridge in which he grew up was close to Charlestown but all the young men and boys knew better than to go there.

    Chuck Hogan took a real place and made it seem like it was fiction; unfortunately, it wasn’t.

    Beth

  5. janebbooks says:

    Beth, did you read the TIME review by Mary Pol S? She thinks Ben Affleck loves the Boston area and its people as much as you do. The sad story of Townies seems to be in good hands. Here’s part of her comment:

    Ben Affleck has a good brain for filmmaking — he’s clearly a smart and avid student of the medium — but the elements that make his second outing as a director, The Town, such an enjoyable and exciting movie have more to do with what’s in his heart. There is his love for his hometown of Boston, where the story is set, shot here with an insider’s appreciation for its past both noble and ignoble. Then there is his love for his first profession, acting: it’s rare to see an ensemble movie like this, so loaded with talented actors, in which virtually all of them get an opportunity to make an impression. Affleck is the boss and the star, but he knows how to share.

    Read more: http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,2019689,00.html/#ixzz0zmVxj6AL

  6. Beth says:

    Jane – I did read the article. Boston is a small city and so is Cambridge, Ben’s hometown. I read part of an interview that he did. He said that the area in which he grew up was close to Charlestown but he and his friends knew they couldn’t go there.

    He used the term “code of silence” and that describes the culture. Newcomers never belong and the code goes back generations. It was, at the time I was writing about in the post, a claustrophobic place. It is less cut off now because of a new bridge, but for years it wasn’t an easy place to access.

    Charlestown and the North End are part of the original city. From what I read, there is a high speed car chase in the North End. That is hard to imagine. Hanover St. is the main street in the area; people on one side can practically hold hands with people on the other. Cars are always double-parked on both sides. Driving there is a nightmare. What looks like an alley is a street. There are always people on the streets. High speed car chase could happen if the city ordered all the cars removed and kept people behind barriers on the side streets.

    Beth

    • Phil says:

      I really appreciated this history of Charlestown and the Boston area in general.

      In response to Beth’s comment about the high speed chase in the North End: It is a bit more realistic that the chase could happen because the robbery takes place in the early AM (a little after 9 if I remember correctly). I walk through the North End to work at around this time, and it is a very different feel than it is on a Saturday night when it is packed with tourists for dinner. The streets are practically empty at 9AM – you can walk down the middle of Salem St. at that hour (and I sometimes do).

      • Beth says:

        Hi, Phil

        At the time I was working in the North End there were, seemingly, no parking restrictions. Cars were parked on both sides of the streets and it wasn’t unusual to find that someone had used the entrance to a small, narrow street as a parking space.

        When I was in the North End there were many more people. The area was primarily inhabited by families. At 9:00 am, the men would be at the cafes and cantinas, the women would be heading to the market, there were likely older women congregated near St. Leonard’s after Mass, and there would have been younger women with strollers and little children in tow after walking the older kids to school.

        9:00 am was not early back then. The whole dynamic of the area was different because it was home to families. The change over to condos didn’t start until the late 70’s or early 80’s.
        That coincided with the restrictions on the numbers of Italians allowed to immigrate each year. It also needs to be mentioned that leadership of the organized crime group in the Boston area had moved to Providence. But when the North End was at the center of such activity keeping the family, in the real sense of the word, myth was very important. No one, especially from Charlestown, would have dared.

        I expect they had to shut down the streets to film THE TOWN. Curiosity alone would have made the streets impassable.

  7. John says:

    I watched the film last night and brought back many memories, I grew up in Somerville during the 50’s which abuted Charlestown and gangs and robberies were commonplace.
    Just up the hill from Charlestown was the infamous “Winter Hill Gang” whose original leader was “Buddy McLean” who was shot dead outside his favorite bar.
    Reflecting on robbries “The Brinks Job” in the North End was big news in the 50’s.
    Such movies and books substantiate many of the stories I tell friends of my youth and are disbelieved, as Paul Stewart stated “It was smart to leave” however, I have found in life that “Street Smarts” trump intellegence in many circumstances.
    “Nice to have been there, glad to be gone”

    • Beth says:

      The problem that I found with the Charlestown state of mind was the attitude that nothing could be changed. The faculty at the school worked hard to encourage the girls to think about education beyond high school. Even some of the girls who were first generation Americans went to college. But we had no luck with the girls from Charlestown. They were insulated and isolated.

      The Winter Hill gang was taken over by Whitey Bulger who was a gangster pure and simple. There was always this notion that there were no drugs in the North End or South Boston because of their various gangs. Nonsense. The gangs made money on drugs and they didn’t care who was buying. Whitey Bulger and the people who ran the Sicilian gangs in Boston were murderers.

      If you can find it, there is an old movie from the 1970’s called “The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” It is based on a Jimmy Breslin book by the same name. There are parts that are very funny and there a parts that are painfully true.

      Thanks, John, for leaving this comment.

      My parents grew up with some of the people involved in the Brinks’ robbery

      • John says:

        My uncle worked for Brinks and the night of the robbery he was slated to work in the building however, it was his anniversary and he switched with one of the victims.
        Naturally,he was under suspision and the F.B.I. had the entire family’s phones tapped for some time. We were involved
        circumstantially and became familiar with case as a result.
        Although, the “Brinks Job” about $3 million was big, in 1980″The Depositors Trust Bank” bank in Medford Mass was robbed of $25 million by of all people “cops” some of whom were intangled with the “Winter Hill Gang” they were close in those days.
        Howie Carr wrote a defining book on the Bulger brothers titled
        “The Brothers Bulger” while working for a Boston newspaper he had covered all the local gangs for years.

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