In Defense of the Next Southie

“We don’t want to become the next Southie” 
— that guy at every Dorchester community meeting
“We don’t want to remain part of the old Southie.”

Sooner or later, if you haven’t already, you will run into someone who will tell you that Dorchester is destined to become “the next Southie”. You will immediately fight the urge to roll your eyes — but let me argue why you should embrace this phrase, even though it really doesn’t apply.

First off, you can’t avoid it. Even if you hate it, you’re almost guaranteed to hear this come up whenever people talk about neighborhood change in Dorchester. The phrase appears to be a new perennial in a wide swath of the city — maybe even as far south as Quincy. No one will hate it more than our friends in that now trendy neighborhood we could all agree to call “the former Dorchester Neck”, but for whatever reason, do not.

So take a moment to think a bit more about everything “the next Southie” has going for it as a signifier of our current situation. Sure, there are expansive words like “gentrification” or “displacement” that you’ll hear in many of these discussions. The rhetoric helps activists convey the risks of our situation with urgency and moral authority and create a movement— but I fear these words are dangerous to the extent they hide the truth that no two places are really the same. “Gentrification” conjures up a picture of coffee houses, bicycle lanes — of Brooklyn, of Harlem, of the Mission District, and yes, South Boston. When we try to learn from the experience of change in other places we may ignore or reinterpret important detail that may be only happening here. We can mistake the trees for the forest.

The language of gentrification — our all encompassing, go-to frame for upwardly mobile neighborhood change — has become as homogenized as the neighborhoods it seems to create.

No, to its credit “the next Southie” conjures up a very specific, locally shared image, and herein lies its strength and evergreen quality. Hear the phrase and you immediately think of the packed buses. The skyrocketing rents. The storefronts that change overnight. The cookie cutter Dwell magazine condo buildings. The Starbucks popping up on every corner. The people that sell their family homes for millions, then retire (and then go on to complain about how the neighborhood was ruined).

This is why I have decided to embrace it when I hear it. Even if it does not speak in the language of social justice — even if it is in fact, reductive of what is happening in South Boston itself — the next Southie speaks directly to the local fear of loss of neighborhood identity. The breathless and presumptive connotations are more quickly recognized and critiqued. We will only be the next Dorchester, and nothing else. Skepticism of an inevitable future is always a good thing.

“The next Southie” also allows room for a wider set of possibilities for community response than the frame of gentrification. “We don’t want to become the next Southie” can be interpreted as a NIMBY cry, but it does not just imply opposition to development. It highlights the desire in Dorchester to retain our uniqueness and continuity even as other neighborhoods of Boston become more and more indistinct.

And yet…coming back full circle, perhaps the biggest argument in favor of the phrase “the next Southie” — we will always know whether it has happened or not. We can all see that the predicted tsunami of originally-from-Connecticut newcomers has failed to appear on our shores. “Gentrification” on the other hand is not falsifiable in Boston — it pops up everywhere, all the time — so much so that we can never prove or disprove its occurrence. We are all fish in that water.

So how has Dorchester avoided the fate of being the next Southie? I’ll be sharing my thoughts on this topic in my next post, soon. In the meantime, give me your feedback on Twitter.

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