Boston Rambles

Boston Rambles

A Rambler Walks and Talks About the Hub of the Universe

Seeing Red in Boston

Looking up Broadway in South Boston

Looking up Broadway in South Boston

Recently fishermen on a boat off the coast near Beverly found a rare blue lobster in one of their traps. According to the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, blue lobsters turn up about once for every two million lobsters harvested. The carapace (shell) of an uncooked wild lobster (Homarus americanus) is typically a combination of blue, green, and brown, with red highlights, particularly on the claws. This color pattern is thought to provide the lobster a bit of camouflage in the multicolored environment of the aquatic depths of the northeast Atlantic Ocean in which it normally resides.

As anyone who has eaten a lobster knows, a cooked lobster turns red. The reason for this remarkable color change has to do with the unraveling, or denaturation, at high temperature of a protein called crustacyanin, which results in the release from its molecular grasp of a type of carotenoid  (an organic pigment; the name is derived from the Latin word for carrot (carota), which are full of these molecules, hence their bright color) called astaxanthin. In an uncoupled state, the astaxanthins in the carapace of a lobster appear red (this molecule is also responsible for the color of salmon, shrimp, and flamingos), but when they interact with crustacyanin the combination produces a blue color (I will skip the complicated details which cause this bathochromic (or color) shift). A  genetic mutation is thought to result in overproduction of crustacyanin which reels in all the available astaxanthin molecules. Such lobsters appear to be electric blue as a result, which likely places them at an evolutionary disadvantage as they are pretty easy to spot. This hypothesis leads to the prediction that an electric blue lobster will turn red upon being boiled. This is in fact the case, although blue and other rare unusually colored lobsters usually end up in aquariums. Besides, you would have to be an insensitive jerk to cook a blue lobster!

I ponder this thought as I sit at an outdoor table on a (rare) warm November afternoon at Sullivan’s in South Boston, eating a lobster (just kidding, fried clams).  Sullivan’s, which sits in the shadow of Fort Independence, is a decades old institution serving typical New England fried seafood as well as hot dogs and hamburgers. You have likely flown directly over Sullivan’s if you have ever taken off or landed at Logan Airport from the south. Open from the end of February through Thanksgiving, Sullivan’s annual opening is a harbinger of spring and a summer fixture. As the website says, they close when there are more seagulls than cars in the parking lot. To be honest, there are a large number of seagulls in the parking lot, so I doubt that would be good for business.

Sullivan’s is located in Ward 6, Precinct 9, a precinct that, although not quite as rare as a blue lobster, is a unique exception among the 255 precincts of Boston: it is a red precinct in a sea of blue. In the 2012 Presidential election it was the only precinct to cast a majority of its votes for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

Ward 6 Precinct 9 , South Boston, highlighted on a map of the Wards and Precincts of Boston

Ward 6 Precinct 9 , South Boston, highlighted on a map of the Wards and Precincts of Boston

In a previous entry I suggested that Boston is not as liberal as some of the other large cities in the United States. In this entry I want to take a look at one of the neighborhoods that tilts the Boston vote slightly to the right, South Boston. There is some disagreement over what exactly constitutes South Boston, but for the sake of this argument South Boston comprises Ward 6 and most of Ward 7 (see the accompanying map).  The western boundary in my version of Southie is the Fort Point Channel, then Dorchester Avenue from Broadway Station to Andrew Station on the Red Line. The southern boundary is Columbus (Joe Moakley) Park and the adjacent shoreline of Dorchester Bay east from Carson Beach to Castle Island. The eastern and northern boundary is Boston Harbor. For the sake of argument I include all of what is called the ‘South Boston Waterfront’ by the city of Boston, mainly because some precincts in Ward 6 are split between South Boston and the adjacent ‘Waterfront’ district.

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“Damn the windsurfers! Full speed ahead!” Admiral Farragut looms over the neighborhood

The precinct of most interest to me is the easternmost precinct, Ward 6, Precinct 9 (6-9), which covers only about 10 blocks but also contains a large area of unpopulated land encompassing the Conley Ocean Cargo Terminal, Marine Park, City Point, Pleasure Bay, as well as Castle Island, the site of Fort Independence and Sullivan’s. On this day a half dozen windsurfers in the bay are taking advantage of the strong breeze to perform acrobatic aerial tricks, watched over by the imposing statue of Admiral David Farragut, posed at the moment he gave his famous command “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” (at least in mythology) at the Battle of Mobile Bay in August, 1864. The park and the fort deserve a separate entry and I will write an article about the history and development of this area. But beyond Farragut lies the populated heart of the precinct, the blocks on either side of East Broadway, the main artery through South Boston, from Farragut road west to P street on the north side of Broadway and west to O street on the south side of Broadway (see the precinct map below).

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Architecture of the precinct.

The neighborhood is very quiet and the proximity to the ocean and the parks makes it a very pleasant place to stroll. The architecture of these few blocks is quite varied, from imposing nineteenth century Victorian mansions and elegant brick townhouses to the familiar triple-deckers and even a small patch of mid-twentieth century public housing. Some of the buildings have been restored to their original beauty, others are covered in vinyl siding and a few are in need of some renovation. Along First Street runs a long wall separating South Boston from the docks of the Ocean Cargo Terminal. The houses are more modest along First Street and are at their grandest on Farragut Road and along Broadway. There are three or four restaurants and a couple of corner stores, but the majority of the built up area is residential. There is a significant amount of construction and renovation occurring in the district; seemingly every block has some sort of project in progress.

Yikes.

Yikes.

As of the 2010 United States Census, the precinct had a population of 1748 residents. Of these, 96.8% described themselves as White (Alone i.e. not Hispanic. The Census uses these categories to identify ‘Hispanic’ residents from white and black residents who are not Hispanic. Very artificial I know, but it is all the data there is that is reasonably trustworthy ). Apart from the two adjacent precincts 6-8 (97.7% ) and 7-1 (98.1%), 6-9 is the whitest precinct in the city of Boston. 1572 residents in the precinct were over the age of 18 in 2010, an even higher 97.3% of whom were White (Alone). The six whitest precincts in Boston and eight of the ten whitest precincts in Boston are found in South Boston. In fact, seven of the nine precincts in Ward 6, as well as Precincts 1,2,and 3 of Ward 7 are among the 23 precincts with more than 90% of the 18+ residents identifying as ‘White (Alone)’ on the 2010 Census.

Ward 6, Precinct 9 in South Boston

The reasons for this concentration of ‘whiteness’ are complicated and deserve a more in-depth article. The infamous racial strife of Boston in the 1970s was centered in this neighborhood and forty years on the area is still quite segregated. The politics of the area also have their roots in the events of four decades ago. The most conservative member of the Boston City Council is Bill Linehan, whose district is centered on South Boston. The at-large City Councilor Michael Flaherty resides in South Boston and is certainly the most conservative of the four at-large Councilors elected to the City Council. And the precincts described above are among the most likely to vote for the Republican candidate in a general election.

Below I have generated a chart which ranks the results of the top twenty precincts of the 2012 Presidential election according to the percentage of the vote that the Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney received in each precinct. Ward 6, Precinct 9 tops the list at a little more than 51%. Close behind is the precinct immediately to the south of 6-9, Ward 7, Precinct 1 at 49.33% Mitt Romney actually won this precinct as well, by exactly one vote: 480 to 479! Overall, seven of the top eight Romney precincts are found in the eastern half of South Boston.

Lest one think that perhaps there was some special relationship between Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and the voters of Southie that explains their relative affinity for the candidate I have included the results of the 2008 Presidential election as well as the results of the most recent non-municipal election, the Gubernatorial race of 2014, which was won by the Republican Charlie Baker. As the data clearly illustrate, if anything Romney fared worse than other recent Republican candidates. McCain received 52.47% of the vote in 6-9, while Baker received an astounding 60.73% of the votes of the residents of the precinct.

The results of all three elections were the same in one respect: Ward 6, Precinct 9 was the top Republican precinct in the city in all three of the elections shown.  The fact that the precinct is one of the most white precincts in Boston is not insignificant. Seventeen precincts gave Romney at least 40% of their vote; of these ten are among the thirteen most white precincts in the city. Similarly, John McCain received more than 40% of the vote in nineteen precincts, and of these were eleven of the twenty three precincts where more than 90% of the residents are white. Similarly Charlie Baker, who actually won a majority in 28 precincts in 2014, including twenty two of the 30 most white precincts in the city.

Ward-PrecinctRomney Vote (%) 2012 Presidential ElectionRank Romney vote% White Non-Hispanic 2010 Census (18+)white% rank/255McCain Vote % 2008 Presidential ElectionBaker Vote % 2014 Gubernatorial Election
6-951.31197.33352.4760.73
7-149.33297.87147.3658.53
6-748.08396.8542.8958.76
7-245.60497.17449.5659.53
6-645.31596.7647.3660.05
16-944.21690.02350.3055.24
6-844.19797.86246.7159.80
7-344.05894.71045.4756.84
16-1243.94992.91347.4553.55
20-1441.991090.52242.8453.67
5-641.601185.73527.7256.27
20-1240.951293.31238.2353.45
20-1940.941389.32440.1052.47
6-540.881495.2943.1354.70
20-1740.441588.72641.6549.38
20-1640.271680.74643.3250.05
20-1040.011780.04742.1450.87
3-139.821888.12828.9953.31
6-439.411991.41835.4158.20
2-538.212096.6734.9051.55

Race clearly plays a role, but the data does not suggest that all white people in Boston are racists or Republican, or even that these are the primary characteristics of the voters of South Boston. I offer two pieces of evidence to support the opposite conclusion. First, President Barack Obama actually won all but two precincts, the aforementioned 7-1 and 6-9. In the first precinct he lost by one vote and in the second one he received a respectable 47.84% of the votes cast, losing by 37 votes out of more than one thousand votes cast. So, it is clear that there is strong support in every precinct in South Boston for Barack Obama, far more than in most states of the union.

Second, if race were the only factor, then every precinct with a very high white population should have been in, let’s say, the top 100 precincts for Romney. To take one counter example, Ward 19, Precinct 8 in Jamaica Plain has the 33rd whitest (86.4%) electorate of the 255¹ precincts in Boston. In this precinct Romney received 10.50% of the vote (#161/255), while President Obama received over 87% of the vote. Even in Ward 6 itself, the area comprising the ‘South Boston Waterfront’, precinct 1 which is 70.9% white, gave over 70% of the vote to the Democratic candidate and only 27% to the Republican in the 2012 election. It is this precinct, at the opposite end of the Ward from the precinct I am writing about, which to me is an indicator of the direction of the neighborhood.

As I walk around O and P streets I notice that a great many people in the neighborhood are elderly. I speak to one man who is sitting on his porch wearing a Celtics cap with his dog in his lap (and artificial turf for a front lawn). He is a long-retired city worker, he has an Irish flag hanging alongside an American flag on his house, he lives alone, his children live in the suburbs, and he has lived there for most of his life. Next door to his modest single family house, a large Victorian mansion is being renovated. Down the street a completely new large residential condo building is being built. On Broadway, around the corner, no less than three large mansions are being gutted and rehabilitated. Who will buy these units? Certainly not people like the gentleman with his dog. It is unrealistic to believe that he will even be there in a few years time.

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South Boston World War II Memorial

This fact hit home as I stood before the South Boston World War II Memorial at City Point. Among the names on the plaques and benches around the small monument was Martin Nee, a name I remembered (because it always reminds me of my favorite movie ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’)²  from my days as a Park Ranger at Boston National Historic Park in the 1990s. Martin “Bart” Nee was the superintendent of Faneuil Hall while I worked at the park, and was a very affable and well-liked older gentleman. I never thought much about him outside of the occasional pleasant interactions we had at work and I had not heard that name for over 20 years so I took this as an opportunity to look him up and discovered that he was quite an important figure in South Boston: President of the South Boston Irish American Society, a member of the Board of Directors of South Boston Neighborhood House, a World War II era veteran who was in part responsible for the memorial in front of me, and a well-liked person in the community. He died in 2009 at the age of 81. Most of his children live on the South Shore. Old South Boston is passing away and most of the descendants have moved out of the city. Many parents of kids I grew up with in Braintree were originally from Southie or Dorchester (I have even seen a bumper sticker that reads ‘OFD’, or ‘originally from Dorchester’). Southie has moved to Braintree.

****

Perhaps the direction of the neighborhood can be divined from the three restaurants, by my count, located in the precinct. First there is Sullivan’s, on this day packed with a predominantly white-haired crowd. Then there is the Galley Diner on P Street between First and Second, which on this day is filled with locals, many of whom bear a strong resemblance to the crowd at Sullivan’s. However, I am reliably informed by Yelp (oxymoron?) that this place is a big brunch hotspot for the ‘Apple-tini’ crowd. And then there is the slick restaurant on the corner of P and 6th Street called Local 149. Formerly the site of an Irish pub called the Farragut House, this new (2011) “neighborhood joint” (it says so on the menu, according to Devra First in her Boston Globe review) offers, according to its website “an incredible selection of craft beers and creative cocktails.” it also charges $8 for a chili dog. Sullivan’s charges $2.95 for a chili dog. Local 149 also serves brunch until 3pm on the weekends.

It is not for me to say whether Local 149 is good or bad (especially since I have not eaten there. It might be good!). I am merely using the arrival of the type of restaurant I expect to see in Ward 6, Precinct 1 as a harbinger of the future of the area. Sullivan’s and the Galley will no doubt be around for a while but the clientele will change and the menu might get a little slicker.  More establishments like Local 149 will arrive and surely a Whole Foods cannot be too far behind. I would be shocked to see the gentleman with the Celtics cap sitting at the bar of Local 149 only a few steps away from his house. This restaurant is for a new crowd, younger with money, probably earned at places like Vertex in the ‘Seaport District’, the trendier name that is often applied to the area listed as the ‘South Boston Waterfront’ on the Boston neighborhood map.³ Some residents of Southie were furious that the city wanted to take the area ‘out’ of South Boston and the ensuing fracas resulted in the appellation ‘South Boston Waterfront‘. However, hardly a person refers to it as such and the Seaport District is taking over in more ways than one. Perhaps even Southie will acquire a new name, ‘Farragutville’ or ‘SOS’ (South of Seaport) or ‘Lower Waterfront’.

South Boston is changing. It will still be predominantly white as it changes, as most of the fashionable areas in Boston are predominantly white. However the racial data from the Census tells us little about this transformation. Local 149 speaks volumes, as do the election results. As the clientele at Sullivan’s changes, the percentage of voters selecting the Republican candidate in the outer precincts of Southie, such as Ward 6, Precinct 9 will decrease. I say this because if you examine the results of the 2012 election in each precinct from west (the Seaport District, 6-1)  to east (6-9, the subject of this entry), you will see a progressive increase in the Republican vote, or a corresponding decrease in the Democratic vote as you travel from west to east through the precincts (see chart below). The newcomers are increasing in number every year, and they are slowly pushing east.

The demographic shift resulting from the rapid growth of Boston as a high tech hub and as a beneficiary of the renewed interest in ‘city-living’ and the resulting developmental pressure is likely to swamp South Boston in the same sea of blue that covers the rest of Boston. Unlike the blue lobster, we will have to wait a few years to see whether South Boston actually turns from red to blue which is certainly preferable to boiling.

Ward-Precinct from West to EastRomney Vote (%) 2012 Presidential ElectionRank Romney vote% White Non-Hispanic 2010 Census (18+)white% rank/255McCain Vote % 2008 Presidential ElectionBaker Vote % 2014 Gubernatorial Election
6-127.476870.98023.3238.28
6-439.411991.41935.4158.20
6-540.881495.21043.1354.70
6-748.08396.8542.8958.76
6-951.31197.33352.4760.73

¹There are now 255 precincts but in the 2010 census Precinct 5-2 is counted as one; subsequently it was split into 5-2 and 5-2A. In my data these two are merged into one precinct so that the math will work. Technically my charts show only 254 precincts.

²”We are the Knights who say…NI!”

³An interesting article about what defines a neighborhood, in this case the ‘Seaport District’

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