A city is built on stories, and one of Boston’s most misunderstood tales ended last week at the J. Joseph Moakley federal courthouse. Whitey Bulger gave his family a defiant thumbs up after a jury convicted him of 11 murders, shredding whatever was left of his reputation as a gangster with a sense of loyalty and purpose. He killed at least one woman. He protected drug dealers in his own neighborhood. He snitched to the FBI. He, and the parade of thugs who took the witness stand to detail their own and Whitey’s activities, showed themselves to be nothing less than vicious criminals, but also nothing more. No star-studded infamy should await them. The trial demolished Bulger's romantic image of his gang, categorically disproving a mythology that glorified Bulger — and diminished the city he operated in.
In doing so, the verdict also makes it possible for Boston to tell a more hopeful story, and a more accurate story, about itself.
What gave the Bulger story a place in the city’s larger narrative was the way he manipulated neighborhood tensions and ethnic rivalries to buy himself enablers in the city and the FBI. He was part of Boston’s history of “Tribalism and Knuckleheads,” as Dennis Lehane entitled his introductory essay to a book called “Boston Noir.” But especially as Bulger’s younger brother climbed the rungs of Massachusetts politics, stories about Whitey’s exploits spread beyond the underworld. His own criminality sometimes interfaced with political causes, whether that meant firing bullets at the Globe building for the newspaper’s pro-busing stance in the 1970s, or running guns to the Irish Republican Army. These were charades, it’s now obvious, to cover the more familiar work of shaking down bookies and drug dealers for protection money. But such enterprises bought him street credibility because they drew on preexisting tensions; a man who shot up a newspaper to protest busing could pretend that defending his own South Boston turf against black and Italian drug dealers was a matter of neighborhood loyalty.
Now, those images will have to take their place beside those of Bulger strangling 26-year-old Deborah Hussey — after which her stepfather, Bulger lieutenant Stephen Flemmi, wrenched out her teeth with pliers provided by Bulger’s ever-loyal girlfriend, dental hygienist Catherine Greig.
Of course, the trial only confirmed what most people, even in the most sympathetic precincts, had begun to understand decades ago. Only in rare quarters was there much remaining sympathy for Bulger; in the eyes of most of Boston, Bulger was found guilty long before last Monday.
But now, with Bulger headed to prison for life, the city should ask itself: If Bulger was such a fraud, what about those old tribal resentments he played off of? Many are rooted in Boston history. But the century-old story of Boston as a hive of warring factions and tribes hasn’t been true for decades. Neither has much of the colorful neighborhood lore that the Bulger trial had dredged up, about a North End under the thumb of the Mafia and a Charlestown in the grips of a code of silence. “These days Charlestown’s only ‘code of silence’ pertains to failing to tell people about a new restaurant on Warren Street because you don’t want to have to start waiting for a table,” Lehane wrote. He’s entirely right.
Yet even if the darker legends of a city riven by ethnic feuds were never completely true, they still pull on the political and civic dialogue, to the confusion and consternation of newcomers. There are still Bostonians of immigrant lineage who believe they’re knocking at the door to the city’s power structure, even though they are the city’s power structure; there are other people who feel permanently left out because of who they are or where they come from.
And yet a brighter reality is visible all around: Boston is unified and thriving. It’s a global city with a worldwide reputation for excellence. Even its poorest neighborhoods show signs of progress. Few if any US cities are better positioned for success in the knowledge economy. And yet Boston’s internal monologue sometimes fails to acknowledge these basic truths, to the city’s own diminishment and at some cost to its ability to welcome the world.
Ironically, all the attention given to the colorful testimony at the Moakley courthouse has led to a pop-culture revival of Boston as a gritty and authentic city of tribes — the Boston in which Whitey Bulger grew up 80 years ago. Bostonians should fight back against all those cheesy reality shows and movie comedies. For the best way to celebrate the fall of Whitey Bulger is to acknowledge his irrelevance to the Boston of today — to forget about him and, as much as possible, about the toxic resentments that he manipulated.