It was a sunny day on a spot that has seen its share of darkness.
The Old Colony public housing development, an icon of the old South Boston, is undergoing a dramatic facelift, and officials celebrated completion Tuesday of the first phase of the redevelopment, including a large new apartment building, a learning center with a library branch, and rows of three-story townhouses that Councilor Bill Linehan said “look like they should be in a seaside resort.’’
Old Colony has long been celebrated for its village-like atmosphere and large families, while simultaneously maligned for a shadowy underbelly of crime and substance abuse. The liquor store that was headquarters for James “Whitey’’ Bulger’s organized crime ring is just across the street.
“But times are changing for the better,’’ said Nick Collins, a state representative from the neighborhood. “It’s less dense, there’s more space, and the quality of life is going to drastically improve on day one.’’
Phase one includes 116 new affordable rental units, which replace 164 distressed units that were leveled along Columbia Road and Old Colony Avenue.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was attended by Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and various local officials, drew a huge crowd from the neighborhood on a first day of spring that felt like the first day of summer.
Boston Housing Authority administrator Bill McGonagle, who grew up in the Mary Ellen McCormack housing development just across the street, said the new designs are part of an effort to get away from the “projects’’ feel of older housing developments.
“We eliminated as many common hallways as we could, which create security problems,’’ McGonagle said, “and give most folks their own front door, their own back door, a little patch of grass out front, and a little patch of grass out back that they own.’’ He said this was based on an architectural concept called “defensible spaces,’’ and said it “makes a world of difference.’’
The ceremony also honored the late Joseph M. Tierney, a city councilor who grew up in the development and for whom the learning center was named. In a speech, Menino called Tierney his mentor when he first entered government.
Tierney’s family attended the ceremony, including the late councilor’s daughter, actress Maura Tierney, best known for her roles on the television shows “E.R.’’ and “NewsRadio.’’
As reporters swarmed and the sun shone, Bob Juliano, a longtime resident of the development who has already moved into one of the townhouses, looked around and called the transformation incredible.
“That’s the ‘before,’ ’’ Juliano said, gesturing to the low squat buildings, built in 1940, that are still occupied. Another large section of “the bricks,’’ as they are known, is slated to be demolished and rebuilt as part of the project’s second phase.
“Then the ‘after’ is a total flip-side: It’s the same people, the same faces, but it’s just so, so different,’’ he said, pointing to the newly manicured lawn in front of the learning center. “You feel like you’re in the country.’’
For generations, Old Colony was a symbol of all that was good and bad about South Boston, a proud Irish-American enclave “where everyone claimed to be Irish, even if his name was Spinnoli,’’ Michael Patrick MacDonald wrote in his best-selling memoir about growing up in Old Colony, “All Souls.’’
But, as “All Souls’’ highlighted, there were also real and regular horrors that plagued the neighborhood, from drugs and racism to the heavy hand of the Irish mob. Whitey Bulger and his brother, former state Senate president William Bulger, grew up across the road in the McCormack development - known to locals by its former name, “Old Harbor’’ - and Whitey was a regular face around the Old Colony development. Kevin Weeks, one of his chief associates, grew up there.
Much has changed in recent decades as the once all-white population of the development has become mixed and as the neighborhood at large has gone through gentrification, but many residents say it was, and still is, a great place to live.
“You had an opportunity to have a good clean living in a great community,’’ said Linehan, who grew up in the D Street projects and had friends in Old Colony. “And it was affordable enough to put a little money aside to actually buy a house. That’s what my father did.’’
The development, then and always, was known for its vast number of children, the sort of place where there was always someone watching from a window. If you were to act up, residents said, your mother would know about it before you even got home.
The redevelopment, which received a heavy dose of funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will enter its second phase this fall, when another 223 units are slated to be demolished and replaced by townhouse-style buildings and four-story elevator buildings.
Missing from the festivities at Old Colony was perhaps its proudest son: US Representative Stephen F. Lynch. He was in session in Washington D.C.