Photo: Matt Green. License: CC.

The Culture Wars of Charlestown

Townies v. Toonies: one of many clashes in the streets of Charlestown, Boston's oldest neighborhood.


“Move yah fahkin’ cah, yah fahkin’ f*g!”

A small leather-gloved hand pounded on the glass next to my head. It pounded on the windshield and the hood of the car. It pounded everywhere. Short, mid-forties, the little fist was dressed in a tan trench coat that she’d purchased in the 1990s, in the same year that she’d permed the hair that stuck out at all angles from under her knit cap.

“You don’t even live he’a, yah fahkin’ f*g.”

There it was again. I didn’t know people still used “fag” as an insult.

Maybe it was the endless drudgery of shoveling snow in Boston’s unending winter of 2014-2015, when an unprecedented 110.6 inches of snow blanketed the city. Maybe it was madness of being housebound with a small child for weeks on end. Or maybe my last name—which rhymes with lag, sag, and bag—had made my high school years completely miserable. But something inside me snapped. I waited until the fist had moved around to work on the front of the car and then I shifted into drive. I glanced in the rearview mirror and caught the eye of my three year-old daughter, which was the only reason I didn’t hit the accelerator. Instead I let my foot off the brake, momentarily, long enough to tell her that she had won.


Chestnut Street in Winter Showing Custom House Tower, 1930. Courtesy of Boston Public Library.

But as she came around to the driver’s side of the car, I lowered my window and did something that parents aren’t supposed to do—I yelled back. Screamed, really: Didn’t she see that I had a fuckin’ child in the back of the cah, or that someone else had taken my fuckin’ spot, or that I had been her fuckin’ next door neighbah for moah than three years. When we both had vented our spleens to cosmos, I gently rolled the car away. I probably could’ve outwaited her and left the car where it stood, but then I probably would’ve had a car with slashed tires and dog shit on the door handles the next day.

“Papa, what was that?” a little voice from the backseat asked. That, I thought, was Charlestown.

This battle for space was a long time in the making. Charlestown is Boston’s oldest neighborhood. It was, and still is, a town of separatists—a group of alienated colonists in need of a home. Settled by Thomas and Jane Walford in 1624, Charlestown, originally known as Mishawum, served as the point of departure for John Winthrop and the Puritans before they moved on to create the city of present-day Boston. Today, most Americans regard the Puritans as the heroic founders of a chosen nation, but in the 17th century they were widely regarded as schesmatics and misfits, misfits who came to understand alienation as a justification for violence.

At Charlestown’s center is the Bunker Hill Monument, a 221-foot obelisk that towers over the neighborhood commemorating the spot where colonists first drew British blood in 1775. And over the centuries it’s been the site of a number of insurrections, battles, and resettlements.


Bunker Hill Monument, 1848. Courtesy of Boston Public Library.

In the 1850s, Irish immigrants settled in the North End, a knob of land in Boston Harbor that became a central mercantile district, but then the Italians invaded and pushed the Irish to South Boston and north to Charlestown. When the Irish rebelled against British rule in the late 1800s, this neighborhood became their American headquarters. John Boyle O’Reilly, a poet, newspaperman, and the leader of the Irish rebels, escaped from a British jail in Australia and fled 5000 miles to Charlestown. The threat of displacement is at the very heart of what still-Irish locals fondly call “the Town.”

In the twentieth century, two groups have laid siege to the neighborhood. The first was repelled. When African Americans came to Charlestown in the 1950s the Townies (original inhabitants of the Town) made a concerted and mostly successful effort to keep them out. Concerted: like beating and shooting them. In 1976 (when most of the rest of the world thought the Civil Rights Movement had won) a group of young men from Charlestown and South Boston beat a black civil rights attorney—with the pole from an American flag. These are white folk who pride themselves on a self-determination that fades seamlessly into open hostility.

The racial violence has dissipated (although obviously it still lays some small claim to hearts and minds), but some important things haven’t changed: Townies, on the whole, are not black. This is not to say that African Americans don’t live in the zip code of Charlestown, but they don’t live in the Town. I live three blocks from one of the largest and most well established public housing projects in Boston, 24 acres of run-down brick buildings, 1100 apartments in total, with a untold number of African American inhabitants. I just don’t see them. Ever. According to legend, there is a food market near the projects, a half-mile from my house, where these invisible people buy food to eat, but I’ve never had the occasion to drive by. All the streets that run to the projects, save one central artery, Bunker Hill Street, are one-way.


Bunker Hill Monument. Photo: Bill Ilot.

I am fairly sure this is not what Thomas Dalton had in mind for social and political equality when he lived in Charlestown in the mid-19th century. Dalton (who was black), along with abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison (who was white) and David Walker (who was not), organized anti-slavery conventions prior to the Civil War and fought for equal education for African Americans throughout his life. Dalton died in 1883—along with many of his ideals—in his residence at 384 Bunker Hill Street. Today, across the street from Dalton’s house stands a white brick row house with an Irish flag and a three-leaf clover painted on the side.

Ben Affleck’s popular movie, The Town, presents a snapshot of what alienation and rebellion became in the 1980s: bruising, bank-robbing, car-stealing, trash-talking, Irish mobsters. This remains one side of the little community, and it probably accounts for the way that middle-aged women can beat on the cars of their neighbors who violate the unspoken rule of taking other people’s unmarked parking spots in a snowstorm.

How the fahk was I supposed to know that it was her fahkin’ spot? This is a question only a “Toonie” would ask. Toonies, like me, are the next wave of invaders threatening the Town—relatively affluent individuals who are buying out the neighborhood at an astonishing rate. Charlestown is supposed to be one of the most family-friendly neighborhoods of Boston, so it’s understandable that the Toonies would want to move in with their UPPAbaby strollers, Canada Goose jackets, and labradoodles. The Toonies—for better and for worse—will not be repelled and will not end up in the projects.


Boston Harbor, Charlestown, MA. Photo: Bill Ilott.

Gentrification has not been particularly kind to the Townies. Their local Johnnie’s Supermarket, a gathering place to buy cheap groceries after smoking cigarettes on the worn benches outside, was bought out by Whole Foods the year after me and my Toonie partner, Carol, arrived. (No Townie would use the word “partner” unless said Townie was a bank robber or a fahkin fag). While some Townies still smoke outside the Whole Foods, only Toonies can afford to shop there. The Charlestown Mothers Association, which had long represented wholesome Mother Ireland, has morphed into a group of well-meaning female professionals and highly annoying Stepford wives. The house prices have skyrocketed in the last decade, but most Toonies know better than to discuss this on the street for fear of having their BMWs keyed. Today, 384 Bunker Hill Street, the one-time home of Thomas Dalton, has been converted into a 42-unit condominium complex called the Armory; one-bedroom apartments start at 600,000 dollars. And all the occupants will shop exclusively at Whole Foods. It is, indeed, an armory of sorts.

So maybe I misunderstood my assault in the snow. Maybe she wasn’t angry about me taking her parking spot. Maybe she was angry about what I was going to take next.


Image License: CC.