BOSTON — As reputed gangster James “Whitey” Bulger goes on trial, his former stomping grounds in South Boston are sure to be the backdrop for much of the testimony.
It was here that authorities say Bulger ran a criminal enterprise responsible for illegal gambling, loansharking, extortion and the deaths of 19 people in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Four decades after Bulger first rose to power, South Boston is no longer the neighborhood of Bulger’s heyday. This once blue-collar, Irish-Catholic stronghold is now an ethnic melting pot that has been invaded by young urban professionals, pricey condominiums and upscale coffee shops.
“Southie,” as it’s been called by generations of natives, is now called “Sobo” by newcomers who live there.
“It’s not my neighborhood anymore. It’s New Yorkish,” said Scott Clark, a 47-year-old plumber who is a lifelong resident of South Boston. “It’s just not what I’m used to.”
Jury selection in Bulger’s racketeering trial continued Monday as the judge worked to winnow the pool of potential jurors. Opening statements were expected Wednesday, but Bulger’s lawyers asked that they be delayed until June 17. The judge has not yet ruled on that request.
Bulger fled Boston in 1994 and remained one of the nation’s most wanted fugitives until he was captured with his girlfriend in SantaMonica, Calif., in 2011.
Bulger and countless other South Boston natives grew up in housing projects that were among the oldest public housing projects in the country. The area was known for its double- and triple-deckers where generations of working-class families lived together.
Now, the neighborhood is dotted with expensive condominiums snapped up by professionals who are attracted to its waterfront district and its proximity to downtown Boston. Some people who grew up in South Boston can no longer afford to live here.
“The liberals came in and started to buy real estate. They realized how beautiful it is and they started throwing money at it,” said Jamie Donnellan, 41, an electrician who lives in South Boston.
Billy O’Brien, whose father, William O’Brien, is one of the men authorities allege was killed by Bulger and his gang, says while he was growing up, groups of kids would play street hockey or hang around together on street corners every night. Now, he said, he rarely sees kids outside, and spontaneous street games have been replaced by organized kickball or Frisbee leagues.
“The yuppies have invaded. It’s totally overrun by yuppies,” said O’Brien, 40, a lifelong resident. “I got nothing against them, but back then you knew the people when you were walking down the street. I don’t know anyone anymore.”
Many of the Irish pubs that used to dot the neighborhood have been replaced by fancier bars.
“Ya got yah wine drink-ahs now,” O’Brien said, in a perfect South Boston accent.
“Don’t get me wrong, I hit those places every now and then, but for the most part it’s not the town I grew up in. It’s so different.”
Many of Bulger’s old haunts are unrecognizable.
Triple O’s, a hole-in-the-wall bar where Bulger allegedly collected unpaid loans, is now a sushi bar. Across the street is a Starbucks.
Stippo’s Liquor Mart, a store that prosecutors accuse Bulger of taking from owners Stephen and Julie Rakes at gunpoint, allegedly became Bulger’s new office in 1984. Since then, the liquor store has changed hands several times. It’s now called Kippy’s Wine & Spirits.
“South Boston was a great place to live for a long time,” Stephen Rakes said. “As soon as property values went up, people started leaving and new people started coming in.”
In the ‘70s, Bulger was considered by some to be a kind of benevolent tough guy. He was known to give Thanksgiving turkeys to his neighbors and help old ladies cross the street.
But Bulger’s image, like the neighborhood itself, has undergone a transformation.
Once his former lieutenant, Kevin Weeks, led authorities to a half dozen bodies, Bulger was no longer seen as a harmless hoodlum.
“There are still people in this town who still say he was a gentleman,” Rakes said. “But there aren’t too many of them left.”