Crime just isn’t what it used to be

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Crime just isn’t what it used to be
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Monday Jan 4, 2010

Did you hear what happened to Biff? Robbed in front of his condo at 3:00 a.m.! They took his $500 Movado watch, a $3,800 gold ring, and a brand new Hermès tie, still in the shiny little bag!

If you’ve ever seen the T-shirt, "Only the Tough Survive in the South End of Boston," you know Biff wasn’t wearing one. Doesn’t anyone have street sense anymore?

Many newcomers believe the South End became safe-or should have-the day they crossed the threshold of their "luxury" condos. In shock, they see crime everywhere. Crime is only a fraction of what it used to be, and many of the incidents that upset them terribly seem random or minor to old hands-we wonder if they were born yesterday. Obsessed with prostitution and drug dealing, they find piles of syringes and used condoms in their front yards (in all my years here, I’ve found maybe one). Years ago, they were all wearing crime-stopper whistles around their necks, like little kids, but, when cell phones came in, they found it much easier to call the police on crimes such as drunks sitting on the stoop-"Private property!" It saved them the trouble of dumping water on their heads.

Race always enters, although they vociferously deny it. A white neighbor mugged in front of a downtown movie theatre labeled it a "racially motivated" incident, because the kids, the manager, and the usher were black. "But they picked the wrong target," said he, "because I live in an integrated community."

A few years ago, a Pembroke Street woman wrote to South End News that she was rethinking her move to the South End: "I’m now second-guessing my choice because of all the stories I’ve heard about shots fired over on West Newton, and I’m now very nervous. You come to the street and it’s tree-lined, it’s a historic district, there are Victorian townhouses and you don’t think you could be a victim."

Why not? What do historic Victorian townhouses have to do with it? Didn’t she take a good look around before she moved in?

The present may seem dicey, but newcomers are horrified by the South End’s notorious past. "They think it was much worse than it was-a murder a day," says a friend, and that we were out of our minds to have lived here. What was wrong with us? Why hadn’t we forced the police to do their job? Contacted our elected officials? And, by the way, why hadn’t we restored our houses?

Of course, a lot did go on in the old days, much of it serious. Prostitution and "gaming" were rampant, muggings and break-ins endemic, guys sold gold chains on the corner, and we decent women were plagued by "white hunters." Newscasters frequently reported "another South End incident"-to no one’s surprise.

Somehow all that crime never concerned me much, despite being robbed on the street several times and my house broken into-it wasn’t easy to hold onto a stereo back then. I felt crime against the person was huge, but theft of money and property, although alarming and inconvenient, was only a trade-off, a small price to pay for the privilege of living in a bona fide community.

I’ve recently been looking through some old South End Police Protection Committee minutes. The monthly crime statistics were always grim, yet the meetings, run by tough-as-nails women, were fun. Even the District 4 police deputy leaned back in his chair and seemed to thoroughly enjoy being grilled. To this committee, however, the worst crime may have been pretentiousness, and herein lies one of the big differences between the Old and New South End. The group had no patience for the likes of Biff.

A lot of good stories came out of crime in the Old South End and often brought us together. Many a traumatic mugging turned into a hilarious tale told with great flare, details enhanced with each telling. I told several myself. Like the time my typewriter was stolen with my resume still in it, and I reenacted the scene at Uncle Ned’s pawnshop: "You don’t look like no Alison Barnet!" and then imagined how they’d laugh themselves silly over my employment history. Or the time I went to a jobs fair for youth at the Harriet Tubman House and on the way home a youth, no more than 15, barreled across an empty lot pointing a gun at me. He actually said, just like in the movies, "Give me your money or I’ll shoot." Because he handled the gun like a toy, I wasn’t scared until the police told me it fit the description of a Magnum 45. Of course, I didn’t even bother to call the police until after I’d called the organizer of the event to share the irony of being held up by a youth on the way home from a jobs for youth fair.

That was then and this is now. Can anyone make a good story out of the theft of a Hermès tie, damage to an Eileen Fisher blouse, or the keying of a jeep?

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