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South Boston shuns ‘protector’ myth of Bulger

“He doesn’t deserve the attention. He’s a horrible human being,” said Phyllis Stavris, who sat with her husband, Norman, at Castle Island on Tuesday. The couple are both South Boston natives.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“He doesn’t deserve the attention. He’s a horrible human being,” said Phyllis Stavris, who sat with her husband, Norman, at Castle Island on Tuesday. The couple are both South Boston natives.

It was never the real truth. Instead, it was an agreed-upon truth for many in South Boston: Whitey Bulger protected the neighborhood. Whitey Bulger was the good guy. Whitey Bulger was Robin Hood.

The story of reputed mob boss James J. “Whitey” Bulger was always shrouded in a mythology that sounded good on the street corners: the local guy who defended the walls of the famously insular neighborhood.

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“I always thought he was for the poor, that he was a good guy,” Mary McClellan, 54, said recently as she sat on a bench at Castle Island. “But that was a long time ago. People have come to know that he was a bad guy. The secret is out.”

As the jury prepares to deliver a verdict in Bulger’s racketeering trial, it’s difficult to find anyone in South Boston who still buys into the romantic idea that Bulger, who is accused of 19 murders and a host of other crimes, was a Southie version of a dark knight defending the community.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“The idea that [James ‘Whitey’ Bulger] was a good guy was so ridiculous,” Stephen Holmes said as he waited in line for a burger at the Southie institution Sullivan’s.

“The idea that he was a good guy was so ridiculous,” said Stephen Holmes, 60, as he waited in line for a double cheeseburger at Sullivan’s. “I’m disgusted with him. When I was getting out of my car, I was thinking about how he walked these paths.

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“When I drive by Tenean Beach, I think of bodies,” he said of the site in Dorchester where authorities excavated the remains of one of Bulger’s alleged victims. “That Robin Hood image is a long time ago. I hope nobody still buys into that myth in any way. It was hard to believe that lie even at the time.”

In Bulger’s heyday,which ran from the 1970s through the early 1990s, many in the community bought into the narrative that Bulger was misunderstood by the outside world, that his actions were driven by a desire to “protect” the neighborhood by controlling it. In the aftermath of court-ordered busing in 1974, South Boston was a community deeply caught up in an “us against them” mentality that made such mythology easier to digest.

‘He doesn’t deserve the attention. He’s a horrible human being. ’ — Phyllis Stavris, who sat with her husband, Norman, at Castle Island on Tuesday. The couple are both South Boston natives.

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Even as court documents and investigative journalists began to pick apart that tale, painting Bulger as a ruthless psychopath, some clung to the idea of him as a protector.

Yet many who lived through the Bulger years in South Boston said they always found it hard to invest in the idea that his criminal actions somehow helped the community. Rather than say such things publicly and risk reprisals, many said they simply steered clear of the crime boss.

“I never bought into it,” said Phyllis Stavris, 84, who was at Castle Island with her husband, Norman, 89. Both were born in the neighborhood, and their daughter went to high school with Kevin Weeks, one of Bulger’s henchman. “He doesn’t deserve the attention. He’s a horrible human being,” she said.

But even today, there are many people who refused to give their name when speaking about Bulger. Nearly two decades after he fled the neighborhood to escape law enforcement, talking about Whitey, at least on the record, still makes many nervous.

“They were nasty, nasty people,” said a man at Castle Island who would only say that he was 71 and from South Boston. “I can remember in the ’70s and ’80s when I’d hear people say he was keeping the drugs out of Southie,” he said, before contorting his face into an expression of doubt. “Any illegal activity, he’s getting a piece of it. He’s no Robin Hood. I have no idea where that came from.”

What has changed since Bulger was in power is the makeup of the community. Young newcomers have flocked to the neighborhood, three-deckers have been converted to condos, and the old Southie of pubs and sub shops is slowly being replaced by boutiques and bistros. South Boston has become just another place where the young go to be young before they move elsewhere to raise families of their own.

And it is the transience of that population, more so than the iron fist of Bulger, that has weakened the community’s own natural protections, according to many longtime residents.

“Everyone used to know everyone,” Patrick O’Leary, 61, said as he stood on a stoop on Old Harbor Street. “There were eyes watching everywhere. Whitey didn’t protect the neighborhood. The neighborhood was protected by the community.”

Billy Baker can be reached at
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