National Geographic : 1994 Jul
FEW WEEKS before the city's mayoral election last fall-won for the first time in nearly seven dec ades by a candidate of non-Irish strain-I listened to a patron declaiming in Doyle's Cafe, a hallowed Hibernian bar in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Of unmistakable Irish extraction, with steely gray hair as wavy as rippled potato chips, he worked for the city, and thus dis played a prudent political correctness. "I'll say nothing bad about Tommy Menino if he's elected," he said. "I like Italians." But clearly he was bewildered by the drift of things in Boston nowadays. Thomas M. Menino's picture had been hung in the coveted spot behind the mahogany bar at Doyle's even before the election. And Jamaica Plain was now the section with per haps the broadest mix of national heritage anywhere in the city. Public schools needed improving. And the crime.... He snorted. "Read them their rights, huh? How about we read 'em their last rites?" He added a bill to the wet change on the bar for a tip and rose from his stool. "What's happened?" he asked of no one in particular. "What's happened to the place?" Well might he wonder. That morning I had ridden in two cabs, both driven by Haitians. The night before I had eaten in a restaurant owned by a Lebanese who came to Boston six months earlier and had already made enough money to send for three cousins. On a morning walk in the city, I had passed, it seemed, at least one exotic grocery store on every block selling staple foods of other lands. Haitians, Dominicans, Southeast Asians, and others have come to Greater Boston in recent years by the tens of thousands, settling mainly in Dorchester and Mattapan (map, page 10). At the same time other sections, such as Roxbury, are occupied predominantly by blacks. Only Charlestown and South Boston remain in the grip of the Irish. Nor have the changes come without inci dent. Racial invective, cross burnings, and assaults-all have occurred, reaffirming Bos ton's repute as a city of fragile tolerance. But the wonderful incongruities of the city's character remain unchanged, and they con tinue to confound and delight the visitor. Bos ton still can be seen as the breeding ground of blue-blooded culture, a fusty place, yet one where saloon-based sociability prevails, Beantown. It is a city of worldliness but also of shackling provincialism. It is here that Brah mins breathe the rarefied air of Beacon Hill at the same time that City Councillor Albert Leo "Dapper" O'Neil is setting new records for attendance at wakes. "In my last campaign for reelection," Dap per was saying, having just returned from a fitting for a new tuxedo, "I didn't pass out any literature. I didn't even have poll workers. ButI work the job seven days and seven nights a week. I'm visible. Last night I went to five wakes, seven the night before. I did 30 for the week, and while I lost 30 voters, may God rest their souls, I gained 30 families." O'Neil is 74, and when he ends his City Hall service, now in its 23rd year, Boston will have exhausted its draw on the Irish-American political legacy of James Michael Curley, the legendary mayor (and Massachusetts gover nor) who once warned that if Herbert Hoover were reelected President, Americans would come to envy India's loincloth-wearing spiri tual leader, Mahatma Gandhi, for his lavish wardrobe. It was only natural that Curley would attract lifelong devotion from the likes of John "Up-Up" Kelly. Dapper O'Neil, of course, was a friend of both. "When Curley came to speak at a rally," O'Neil told me, "it was Kelly's job to run through the aisles yelling, 'Up, up. Up, up for the governor.' "Up-Up was also responsible for planting a guy in the front row. He'd look like a broken down bum. As Curley was speaking, the bum would stand up, look at Curley, and start weeping. Up-Up, who was near the rear, would yell, 'Sit down, sit down.' Of course, the bum was a professional weeper, and he'd go on to tell the crowd about what wonderful things Curley had done to help his sick mother, "The worst thing about Harvard was that college had to end," says graduating senior Pete Stovell (center), celebrating as he and classmates head to the 342nd commencement at the Boston area's best known school, in Cambridge.