(Photo: Bill Brett)
When Michael Patrick MacDonald walks down ‘methadone mile’ he sees a familiar story among the addicts and panhandlers.
“Most people down there come from places like I come from,” MacDonald said. Places of “poverty” and “trauma.”
MacDonald grew up in the Old Colony housing projects during the height of the cocaine epidemic in the 80’s. In his best selling memoir, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, he recounted the “hundreds, upon hundreds, upon hundreds of deaths” caused by the drug trade that Whitey Bulger brought into his neighborhood.
Bulger is now in federal prison serving multiple life sentences for the murder of 11 people. But for many of the families MacDonald grew up with, addiction is a prison of its own.
“The children and grandchildren of All Souls are all dealing with heroin,” MacDonald said.
In 2015, there were an estimated 1,659 unintentional opioid related deaths in Massachusetts, according to the Department of Public Health. There were 488 overdose-related deaths in the first six months of this year, statewide, nearly 75 percent of which were white, and 80 percent male, demographics that are similar to those of the victims of South Boston’s cocaine and heroin epidemics, MacDonald said.
“It’s still overwhelmingly poor, and white, and male,” MacDonald said of the victims of opioid addiction.
Much like it was in South Boston was when he was growing up in the 1980s.
Back then, South Boston was 97 percent white, according to a neighborhood profile conducted by the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The poverty rate was 31 percent, and median family income was just $13,000, the lowest in the city.
The southern tip of South Boston had the “highest proportion of female-headed families of any white underclass area in the nation–73 percent” U.S. News and World Report said in its study “The White Underclass”
McDonald’s family was among them.
When they moved to South Boston’s Old Colony housing projects in 1973, it was considered “ghetto heaven.”
The three story development was one of the largest and oldest in the city, and they paid $80 a month for their six bedroom apartment at 8 Patterson Way.
MacDonald’s mother, Helen, played the accordion in barrooms to make money and everyone bought stolen clothing from “the local klepto” Skoochie, who sold stolen clothing from Filenes and Jordan Marsh.
They acclimated well.
“We had all of the best possible traits of a community, that kind of tight knit fabric,” MacDonald said. “Even in shared struggle.”
But the good times didn’t last long.
In 1974 U.S. District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ordered the desegregation of Boston’s public schools and implemented a plan to bus students to schools in neighboring communities.
Waves of violence erupted soon after and images of South Boston residents throwing rocks at black students as they made their way to South Boston High School were a regular occurrence on the nightly news.
South Boston was labeled as racist, MacDonald said, prompting the community to become even more insular.
“Southie and the outside world parted ways most extremely during busing,” MacDonald said.
This opened the door for Bulger and his drug cartel to prey upon the neighborhood, MacDonald believes.
As the neighborhood spiraled into chaos McDonald and his family felt the ramifications of it first hand.
One night, while MacDonald was waiting to watch the TV show “Dallas”, his mother was hit by a stray bullet while she was washing dishes.
She initially refused treatment, telling ambulance workers because she needed to play her accordion that night to earn her money for her family.
EMTs were eventually able to to convince her to get into the ambulance. But not without her accordion.
Sadly, MacDonald’s three brothers weren’t as lucky.
Davey committed suicide after a long battle with mental illness. Frankie was shot and killed during an armored truck heist, and Kevin committed suicide at Bridgewater State Hospital after he was arrested for his involvement in a jewelry store robbery.
If that wasn’t tough enough, MacDonald’s sister Kathy was left permanently disabled after she fell off of a roof, MacDonald wrote. Doctors found valium, speed, and cocaine in her system after the accident.
When it wasn’t a member of their family who was dying, it was someone they knew. One year during the 1980’s MacDonald’s mother attended 37 funerals.
In 1990 the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Massachusetts State Police stepped in to put an end to South Boston’s drug trade and the violence it caused. They rounded up 51 drug dealers in all. Bulger was not among them.
Around this time, his family moved to Colorado, and MacDonald moved to Downtown Boston and began working with victims of violence in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan
A few years later, MacDonald moved back to South Boston. He wanted to help the community heal from the decades of trauma it had suffered.
He organized a vigil, similar to those he had attended in Charlestown, with a group of South Boston mothers to remember those who had died of drug abuse, violence, or suicides.
The group produced a list of 250 people who lost their lives, and helped break through the neighborhood’s code of silence, getting many to and talk about the pain they had experienced
“We started to see the beginning of a truth–telling movement for the first time ever,” MacDonald said
Unfortunately, around the same time the healing process was beginning, so too was gentrification, which MacDonald said coincided with the heroin epidemic of the mid-1990’s.
“People talk about heroin now, but it exploded in Southie and Charlestown, and it exploded hand and hand with gentrification,” MacDonald said.
“What you’ll see is that heroin epidemics often go hand and hand with gentrification,” MacDonald said. “It pulls the rug out from an already traumatized population.”
MacDonald said he believes the heroin epidemic from the mid 90’s is similar the opioid crisis ravaging communities today.
“It’s what we saw 20 years ago,” he said of the drug plague which ravaged the city more than two decades ago. heroin epidemic of the mid 90’s. “At the beginning of it, we were burying people constantly.”