It all started, as ethnic misunderstandings have been known to do, with diversity training.
Late last summer, the Boston Housing Authority gathered residents and staff at a voluntary diversity meeting, where the talk turned to the power of ethnic symbols. Someone suggested that shamrocks, the Hallmark-approved symbol of Irish pride, might be perceived negatively by the non-Irish living in Boston's housing projects. Soon afterward, trans-Atlantic hell broke loose.
A column in the South Boston Tribune reported that local residents who'd attended the workshop were "insulted" by the notion that shamrocks could be hate symbols, and alleged the BHA was telling residents to take down shamrocks displayed on their apartment door and windows. Columnist John Ciccone called the diversity training "another way of saying brainwashing." Readers began debating the supposed shamrock ban in letters to the editor.
The notion that the shamrock, which is believed to have been used by St. Patrick to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity, could be banned in Boston had local Irish-Americans seeing red, not green.
Soon it was international news. The Irish Echo, the nation's largest Irish-American newspaper, reported that the BHA was asking residents to remove shamrocks from their property. Lydia Agro, a spokeswoman for the Boston Housing Authority, did not deny the story, saying that residents were told to avoid public displays of any "bias indicators."
In Dublin, the Sunday Tribune headlined the story "Outrage as shamrock is seen as 'hate symbol.'" Agro was quoted again: "We want people to talk about what they may be doing that is causing an effect that they did not intend and not to display symbols people might consider to be bias indicators on the outsides of their buildings." The Boston Globe and Boston Herald followed with stories a week later.
Arguably the Irish capital of North America, South Boston had been plastered with shamrock symbols, from planters to shutters to basketball courts, for decades. There are three low-income housing projects in Southie: Old Colony, West Broadway and the Mary Ellen McCormack Developments. Traditionally home to poor Irish-American families, today they are only one-third white and most of those are elderly women of Irish descent.
For more than six months, BHA has been in damage control.
"To me, this whole thing started out as a rumor. This is the story that just won't quit," said a frustrated Agro recently. She claims she was misquoted by reporters.
Sandy Henriquez, BHA administrator, quickly pounded out letters to residents and Boston city officials. She wrote: "The BHA has no oral or written policy banning shamrocks nor has it given any of its residents any directive not to use shamrocks or other ethnic symbols such as the Puerto Rican flag." She said that no one at the BHA training session ever stated that the shamrock was the equivalent of a hate symbol. She wrote to the thousands of residents in South Boston's projects that banning shamrocks "is totally and completely false and has been fueled by very biased and incorrect reports."
But still, all these months later, the rumors persist. And it gets weirder. A South Boston Tribune editor told me the paper never ran a story about banning shamrocks, even though it was widely read and produced a ton of reader mail. And the columnist who wrote it, John Ciccone, did not return telephone calls about the controversy.
So how did the rumor start? And who's telling the truth? This Rashomon tale is typical of South Boston, a notoriously insular and self-protective neighborhood that's still reeling from its clash with the federal government over forced busing almost three decades ago.
South Boston is still infamous for its bitter opposition to a school integration plan in the 1970s. Race riots broke out following Judge Arthur Garrity's decision to bus local kids to other schools, while black students were bused into Southie. As with so many social engineering strategies, this one fell on the backs of the black and white working class. The poverty level is high in South Boston, and in recent years the neighborhood has struggled with a tragic epidemic of youth suicide that parents and professionals are at a loss to explain.
This is the turbulent South Boston that elite Irish in the city would like to forget exists. And longtime Southie residents want to make sure they can't forget. Government intrusion is fought viciously here, so the rumor of a shamrock ban fell on particularly fertile soil.
Jeanne McDonald used to work for the BHA and lives in the McCormack Development. She leads its tenant task force and is one of the neighborhood's most active volunteers. Southie has been her home since birth. "This story [of the shamrock ban] goes back at least a couple of years. I have been hearing rumors that the BHA was going to consider banning shamrocks," she said. "I never heard anyone inside BHA say this, but I told them that if they even attempt it people would plaster this place with shamrocks."
According to McDonald, the rumor mill started churning way back in the '80s, when the government began integrating South Boston's housing projects. Black families complained they were being passed over for residency in South Boston. The BHA entered talks with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the NAACP. No lawsuit was filed -- the BHA settled out of court -- but as minorities started moving in, some locals became convinced that the government's goal was to fill the projects with minorities and oust the Irish-Americans.
As Irish descendants started moving out, and new people started moving in, the BHA suddenly started talking about "symbols" and diversity, McDonald said, and shamrocks seemed at risk.
"We didn't want the city government telling us how to integrate. We were doing well. We still are," she said. "Cultural symbols are going to represent the majority, whether it's Puerto Rican or Irish. And it's always been Irish, until now. But the ones who remain are not going to take down their shamrocks, not ever."
Today South Boston is also being invaded by the better off, not just the minority poor. Its real estate is hot, with a commanding view of the Boston skyline. It's a 10-minute train ride from downtown, a haven for moderate-income white folks who are being priced out of other neighborhoods.
Bill McGonagle, the deputy administrator of BHA, whose grandparents emigrated from County Donegal, Ireland, grew up in the Southie projects and still lives in the neighborhood. "It will never be an intention to ban shamrocks on our property," he said. "To me the shamrock is a symbol of cultural pride. It's also a religious symbol."
But the tension won't go away. Too many of Boston's race conflicts just happen to break out here. More recently the shamrock controversy has been edged out of the news by a wrangle over a South Boston bar that occasionally decorates with an "African jungle" motif, complete with monkeys. Owner Tom English says it's to make the bar feel warm in the winter. But in February his patrons began joking that it's a celebration of Black History Month.
So now officials from the Boston Licensing Board, the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League and the Massachusetts Coalition Against Discrimination are looking into the bar's decor as a possible hate crime. English is understandably upset. English, who talks with the help of a medical device that replaces his voice box, says he decorates his bar in various motifs year round. Yet he's probably headed to court to defend his decorating decisions.
But the news isn't all bad from Southie. An energized McDonald wants to change the neighborhood's image once and for all, especially in the housing developments. "There are good people here. They get a bad rap. We want to accentuate the positive in all of us."