Robbed of its new image? Charlestown hopes not

Affleck’s new film is the talk of the Townies

By Billy Baker
Boston Globe
September 18, 2010

When Pat Owens was growing up, there were a lot of stereotypes about Charlestown kids, but his least favorite was this:

“You’re from Charlestown? Oh, you must be a bank robber.’’

Like all Townies, he’s heard the jokes when armored cars go by. But locals say that old joke is just that: an old joke. The bank robbers, who were very much an element of life in the neighborhood for decades, have been gone for 15 years, replaced by a new Charlestown where gentrification has taken hold and the more accurate stereotype of the moment is: “Oh, you must be a yuppie.’’

Now, with the opening of Ben Affleck’s set-in-Charlestown bank robber film, “The Town,’’ many Townies are wondering whether they’re about to get the broad-brush treatment as a community where just about everyone is a criminal or knows one.

“I have a lot of customers who ask me, ‘Was it true?’ ’’ Owens, 35, said as he cut hair in Bunker Hill Barbershop. He makes a brief appearance as a barber in the film (they filmed in his shop), but caters mostly to the white-collar workers who have been flocking to the historically Irish-Catholic neighborhood since the late 1980s. “The truth is, yes, but it’s ancient history. I think some people are getting bent out of shape that the skeleton is going to be pulled out of the closet.’’

On the streets of Charlestown, much of the buzz about the film is centered on a line from the movie’s trailer. “There are over 300 bank robberies in Boston every year,’’ a voice-over says. “Most of these professionals live in a 1-square-mile neighborhood called Charlestown.’’ (Deep into the credits at the end of the film, a disclaimer of sorts says that while the bank robberies are an authentic part of Charlestown’s history, its people are, for the most part, “good and true.’’)

This portrayal of Charlestown has long been a sore subject in the neighborhood, and — at least these days — is a wild exaggeration.
Special Agent Gail Marcinkiewicz, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Boston office, does not track bank robberies by neighborhood but made a point of mentioning that the movie is “based on a fictional book.’’ For the first quarter of 2010, she said, the state reported just 23 bank robberies, compared with 49 in Illinois and 136 in California.

Of course Hollywood can do what it wants with a story, which stings in a neighborhood that has long fought to shield itself behind its famed code of silence. Some say that ethic, which has its basis in a distrust of outsiders, especially police, was an attempt by Charlestown to control its story. But when the neighborhood becomes cinematic fodder, that control is lost.

“This is based on a book by a guy from Canton brought to the big screen by a guy from Cambridge,’’ said Jack O’Callahan, a Charlestown native and a defenseman on the US hockey team that upset the mighty Soviets en route to winning Olympic gold in 1980. (O’Callahan’s toothless smile is the centerpiece of the iconic photo of the event). “When they were younger, they wouldn’t have crossed the bridge.’’

O’Callahan, who has not seen the film but read “Prince of Thieves,’’ the novel by Canton native Chuck Hogan upon which the film is based, said the story did not ring true to the Charlestown he knows.

“There was an element of crime. Everyone knew it,’’ O’Callahan said from Chicago, where he owns a financial services company. “But it didn’t bleed into the neighborhood. And those guys were pretty good parents who went to church on Sundays. They were gangsters, but they were good neighbors.

“This bit with a bunch of guys in nuns’ habits running around with machine guns,’’ he said, referring to one of the key scenes in the movie, “I don’t know where that happened.’’

On Main Street on a recent day, nannies pushed strollers, dog walkers wrestled with golden retrievers, Townies and Tunies (the local term for non-natives) bought fresh fruit at a farmer’s market. When they wanted to get money out of the bank, they used ATM cards. There was no drama, and even the Townies-Tunies rivalry, most say, has died down.

Over the past 15 years or so, local realtors say, more young professionals have decided to stay in Charlestown to start a family, and have begun setting down roots in the neighborhood, getting their children involved in local sports and hoping they’ll get into Boston Latin.

One of those newcomers walking on Main Street was Dennis Lehane, who has become the poet laureate of Boston crime. The Dorchester native’s novels “Mystic River,’’ “Gone, Baby, Gone,’’ and “Shutter Island’’ have been made into movies. Lehane, who now lives in the neighborhood, said people need to realize this is genre filmmaking, based on a genre of fiction that is about dramatizing events.

“We’re crime writers,’’ he said of himself and Hogan as he walked to a playground with his wife and baby girl. “If it comes between the truth and the legend, you print the legend, what works dramatically. I’m not sure I’ve ever understood the impulse of why people say, ‘You’re painting us all this way’ just because you’re setting something in one part of town.’’

Lehane, who attended the premiere at Fenway Park on Tuesday (Affleck directed the adaptation of Lehane’s “Gone, Baby, Gone’’), said if anything, the movie is so visually gorgeous in its treatment of the iconic brownstones and the Bunker Hill monument, it will make people want to move to Charlestown. “My wife kept saying, ‘I can’t believe we live there,’ ’’ he said.

Hollywood’s fascination with Boston-Irish street toughs is nothing new. And while the past several years have seen South Boston as Hollywood’s favorite setting for those characters — with films like “Good Will Hunting’’ and “The Departed’’ — Charlestown was its baby for much of the 1990s, in such films as “Blown Away’’ and “Monument Ave.’’

But unlike those films, “The Town’’ is set not just on Charlestown’s streets, but in its history. Charlestown has plenty of history to be proud of. In addition to Bunker Hill, it is the home of the USS Constitution; of O’Callahan; of Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long; of 4,000 men and women who fought in World War II; of Robert B. Parker’s fictional detective, Spenser, who was featured in a TV series in the 1980s. But with “The Town,’’ some worry that could all be overshadowed by a film that focuses on its seedy past.

“There was a lot more to Southie than Whitey Bulger,’’ O’Callahan said. “But that’s not what people around the country think.’’


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