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A Short Distance from Southie, but a World Away


Tara Wanda Merrigan | Longreads | September 2017 | 14 minutes (3,431 words)


South Boston, my first world, extends out on the Boston Harbor like an oversized jetty. Winds that whip off the brisk, slate-colored ocean often make the neighborhood feel 10 degrees colder than the weather report, a great advantage in the summer. The grid of streets mapped onto its slopes — lettered verticals and enumerated laterals — offers relieving certainty in a haphazardly planned city known for its confusing road designations. The three-decker, a multi-family home with three individual apartments stacked on top of one another, reigns supreme here. Before gentrification swept across the peninsula and housing prices skyrocketed, entire extended families could live together in the blissful discord of tight quarters. South Boston was, and still is to some extent, the kind of place where residents nod to the people they pass on the street, because if they don’t know the passerby personally, he’s likely the best friend of one of their uncle’s drinking buddies. It is a small town in an urban metropolis. For all these reasons, and many others, some residents insist it’s the best place in the world.

My parents spent the first years of their marriage in South Boston — commonly called “Southie” by residents — living in a waterfront multi-family on Columbia Road. It was there I learned how to crawl and to push buttons on the television remote, and, when presented with my first birthday cake, to smear chocolate frosting all over my face. But a few months before my sister was born, my nuclear family moved to Milton, a “white flight” suburb south of Boston. But the house stayed in the family, and the rest of my mother’s family — my grandparents, uncles, cousins — stayed in South Boston. So it was in South Boston that I celebrated holidays. It was in South Boston that I spent my childhood summer vacations, sitting in front of the air conditioner in my grandparents’ tiny three-room apartment on East Eighth Street.

And Columbia Road once again became my home, after my parents’ divorce seven years ago and the subsequent selling of the house in the suburbs. (It’s as if the suburban experiment was just some dream gone awry.) So Columbia Road was the place I sought refuge when I left my first post-graduate job at a magazine in New York. I lived with my Aunt Jola and Uncle Jack in the first-floor apartment. They tended to me well. They offered me coffee in the morning and wine in the evening. My aunt learned my favorite foods — avocados, blue corn tortilla chips, kale — and made sure to buy them when she went to the market. She saved the Sunday Globe for me. From my bedroom window I could see the small waves of the Boston Harbor splash against the beach across the street.

But after a few months I realized I had to leave Southie. After you’ve lived in a place so different from your home and become of that place, you can never really go home again.

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