There is a man in Boston named Ezra Dyer.
Ezra writes a snarky column for the Improper Bostonian, and while his particular brand of snark is usually harmless, he sometimes makes the kind of attempt at rhetorical substance that makes me want to stop listing “writing” among my hobbies.
This is the same look I got in 1992 from that guy who was always slowly driving around in a windowless van looking for his puppy.
This guy wrote an article about South Boston – the place where I grew up – that struck me as so ludicrous that I couldn’t help but pen a response. Southie has been experiencing gentrification as of late, and newcomers to the neighborhood often instinctively characterize natives as violent, drunken, toothless caricatures. Let’s swoop in and save these lowlives from themselves!, these young, wealthy former suburbanites seem to say. They’ll thank us later once they’ve tried this delicious artisanal cheese!
Dyer’s column reinforces that attitude, and eff that, I say. If you want to insinuate that my family and I are a certain way, Ezra, I suggest you think about it first. It’s a fallacy to suggest that you can ascertain the specifics of my personality knowing only that I grew up on a street named for a letter.
My response is below:
As a professional writer, you must know that the most important part of writing an article is not necessarily to stick to proper grammar and syntax, but to establish a compelling line of reasoning, however whimsical it might be. Anyone can formulate a sentence. You’ve been granted the opportunity to write a column because you can put thoughts together. Bravo, Ezra. Nevertheless, I believe you have failed in that regard.
I’m writing to you because I take exception to a column you wrote entitled “Reflections on the New Southie.” It is beyond doubt that I am not the only one who feels this way, but I’ve decided to write to you anyway in hopes that I can rationally convey the very cogent reasons why I regard your point of view as more than a little self-righteous. Bear with me.
Because I already know a little about you, perhaps I should tell you a little about myself. As you might expect, I was born and raised in Southie. My family has lived in Southie since my great-grandfather arrived from Ireland on the day the Titanic sank. As you might further expect, I am not the type of toothless, drunken stooge who is often chosen as a poster-boy for Southie natives by people who have little perspective on the neighborhood.
I am, however, extremely tired of having to explain to people that being a Southie native and being an educated, responsible, productive professional are not mutually exclusive. Those two conditions need no reconciling. The only thing that fundamentally separates the average native South Bostonian from you, Ezra, is that we put more emphasis on the significance of place. For you to cast aspersions on people who were born in Southie, and to whom Southie is important for a number of good reasons, is not only offensive, but arbitrary. It stems not from a rational assessment of the place, but from a reactionary response to a small, albeit visible, group of people that are not representative of the whole. I do a lot of statistics on the day-to-day, Ezra, and I hope you won’t consider it uncouth for me to point out how logically unsound that is. (As an aside, I certainly don’t expect you do to statistical analysis for your column, but I do think it would be reasonable to expect someone with such a broad readership to refrain from dealing so blatantly in ill-conceived generalizations. You do get paid for this, after all.)
In your article, you mention a number of high-class bells and whistles which you consider to be value-adds to a neighborhood. “Chimay on tap” stands out, as does “Indian food.” I certainly do not begrudge certain people’s taste for the hip lifestyle of the young, rich, and single, yet you cross a line when you assign value to the trappings of that lifestyle in and of themselves. As such, I would urge you to reconsider the ultimate significance of these things. Take away the sushi and the Chimay, and what is there to separate someone like you from a Budweiser-drinking guy you might run into at Murphy’s Law? Just the fact that he liked the place where he grew up enough to stay, and you didn’t.
“[Southie] is where you live,” you quote a Southie native as saying, “but where are you from?” What I’d like to know is what specifically makes that an aggressive question. As I’ve said, Southie natives tend to emphasize the importance of place. This is the case for a variety of reasons, but mainly it’s because many of us instinctively draw a parallel between our positive upbringing and the supportive, tight-knit community we grew up in, for which Southie was the setting. When we ask people where they’re from, it’s not our way of threatening them; to be honest, it’s a little silly for you and others to suggest that’s the case (Southie people are, if anything, forthright, and if they wanted to threaten you, they would have done so in a straightforward manner). Rather, it’s just how natives of Southie express their somewhat jaunty disbelief at how quickly their neighborhood became so trendy. Many of us remember a time when you couldn’t pay someone to live here.
You’ve tried to offer some deference, I gather, to what you regard as the traditional side of Southie, as you trouble yourself with light-heartedly juxtaposing the new Legal Seafoods with the recent gang-fight-that-wasn’t at Carson Beach (the media narrative apropos of that turned out to be inaccurate, as Adam Gaffin of the widely-read blog Universal Hub has pointed out, among others). What I’m trying to communicate is the inherent falsehood of that dichotomy. The perceived conflict between natives and newcomers in Southie is a misunderstanding, but it is a misunderstanding marked by very real contempt which newcomers would do well to recognize exists within their ranks to a similar or greater degree than it does among natives. I take exception to your article primarily because it feeds the flames of this unnecessary fracas. I know that you’re just a lifestyle columnist, but couldn’t you think about what you’re writing a little bit more? Is it that hard to try and squeeze a little bit of truth out of your subjective observations, rather than simply writing down what you observe?
Of course newcomers are going to bristle if they sense that they’re unwelcome in a neighborhood they’re probably already paying too much to live in. Of course natives won’t react positively if they sense that newcomers are looking down upon them for no good reason (maybe that their demand for organic marmalade and expensive artisan bread hasn’t historically been great enough to support a store like American Provisions?). The tone of your article suggests that you don’t recognize that reality. If folks like you really wanted Southie to retain some character and not get whitewashed and dry up like Harvard Square or Williamsburg, which are still trying to live off the remnants of a coolness that essentially disappeared twenty-five years ago, then you’d cease to lend credence to this townie/yuppie struggle by using your soapbox to stereotype Southie natives and start distancing yourself, at least implicitly, from people that manufacture conflict so they can feel like they have the upper hand on someone.
Truth is, newcomers are just now discovering something we’ve known for generations, which is that Southie, for so many reasons, is a nice place to be. So next time you find yourself considering how trendy Southie is over an overpriced brunch at the Franklin Cafe, consider the fact that we were into Southie before it was cool. And that makes us more hip than you. See you at Murphy’s.
Matt Rusteika is a life long resident of South Boston and recent graduate of Brown University (MFA.) To read more of Matt’s comments and observations check out his blog at www.schmoliticsma.wordpress.com.