On a beautiful afternoon recently, Olivia Callanan stood on the sand of M Street Beach in South Boston, a young woman in a neighborhood that is home to thousands of young women, and said she was moving. Her whole family was moving. They had had enough.
It was not the horrific attacks on three young women in the neighborhood that made them decide to move, the 17-year-old said; they had already made the decision. The slaying of 24-year-old Amy Lord simply convinced them it was the right one.
Around her was a beach full of shiny young people — the “new Southie,” a population increasingly drawn by the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown and rents that are still cheaper than many other areas in the city. That migration, along with a glittering new waterfront and new restaurants and stores, had begun to erase images of a grittier past. But the horror of Lord’s gruesome slaying after a seemingly random abduction as she walked to the gym has exposed fears about other problems lingering beneath the polish.
For the Callanan family, living in South Boston for two generations, it is a poisonous drug problem that has invaded all corners of the neighborhood, from the housing developments to the nice houses on City Point.
“Half of the kids I used to hang out with are in jail,” Callanan said, and a few weeks ago, while circling for parking, she got caught in the middle of a shootout — police on one side, an alleged drug dealer on the other — and drove the red Jeep Wrangler she had only just learned to drive through a tiny opening and down the steps of the Old Colony Housing Development to escape.
After that, they started looking at houses on the South Shore. As soon as she graduates from Boston Latin in the spring, they’re out.
The big news in South Boston on July 23 was the 20 hours of terror that Edwin Alemany allegedly wrought on three young women in the neighborhood, including Lord.
‘The neighborhood is nice and clean, but there’s still something . . . under the surface’ — Niamh Flaherty, an 18-year-old who has grown up in the area
Shortly after came news that has become sadly predictable in the neighborhood: another fatal drug overdose. The fifth in 10 days.
Things were bad all around, and just days after Lord’s death, a community meeting in the neighborhood turned epic. Hundreds filled every corner of the Tynan Elementary School cafeteria for the meeting, including many young women wearing white ribbons in remembrance of Lord. Hundreds more listened outside on the street. With so much of Southie gathered in one place, and nearly every big official in the city of Boston on the stage, the conversation quickly turned to drugs. Edwin Alemany was in jail. But the drugs, people asked. What about that?
Lieutenant Detective Robert Merner, the commander of the Boston Police’s Drug Control Unit, said there were 450 new individuals in the court system in the past 15 months.
But it wasn’t until the end of a long series of speakers that John McGahan, president of the Gavin House, a longtime rehabilitation organization steps away from the Tynan schoolyard, hammered home the story of the recent overdoses. “In two weeks,” he said, “in South Boston.”
Officials are awaiting toxicology reports on the victims to determine if there is anything suspicious about the cluster of overdoses, including a tainted batch of heroin or the arrival of acetyl fentanyl, a powerful new synthetic opioid sold on the streets as “fire.” The Centers for Disease Control has warned public health officials of its impending arrival, and it is blamed for 14 deaths recently in Rhode Island. But preliminary testing on street buys from the areas where the overdoses occurred turned up average heroin, public health officials said.
As with Whitey Bulger before them, drugs are not part of the real estate pitch for new Southie. “It’s young and fun and close to downtown,” Maura Walsh said as she dug her feet into the sand on M Street Beach. She is 28, has been in the neighborhood for a few years, and she said that although living amid the gritty Southie, the one in the movies, was a fun anecdote, “it’s not why I moved here.”
Walsh and her roommate, Denise Dudko, live next door to the “sober house” where a young woman named Melissa Hardy was brutally slain in June. And they knew Martin Jiminez, the man charged with her killing. He was the charming local, they said, the guy who took pride in telling the newcomers how things worked in Southie.
“But the killing of Amy Lord affected me a lot more than the one next door,” Dudko said. “Because that one was random.”
But they were not exactly ready to move out of town because of it. They liked living in Southie, they said, and Edwin Alemany’s alleged attacks were just a horrible one-off.
“It’s a shock, but I don’t feel like it’s the true state of affairs in the neighborhood,” Kate Papillo, 27, said as she walked her dog along a stretch of grass on Day Boulevard. She had not heard of the overdoses, but said that side of life felt distant from her South Boston, the one she had bought a condo in a year before. “It feels like it’s over there,” she said, motioning toward the housing developments in what realtors call the “West Side” but locals have always called the “Lower End.”
Reading a book under a tree nearby, Niamh Flaherty, an 18-year-old who has grown up in the neighborhood, said it was wrong to think of the drug problem as being limited to the housing developments. Maybe once, she said, but it was now everywhere. She had escaped drugs and was preparing for her freshman year at Northeastern, but she knew kids younger than her who had already begun the opiate battle.
“It’s that side of Southie that people like to pretend isn’t there,” she said. “People want to think the neighborhood is nice and clean, but there’s still something going on under the surface.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.