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.