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Sadly more pretty than gritty

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOSTON - In Mystic River, the celebrated new film directed by Clint Eastwood, the climactic scene occurs at the Black Emerald, a ramshackle bar on an abandoned waterfront. The dive - a place where thugs in leather jackets order whiskey by the bottle - exudes the grittiness of the working-class precincts of Boston that the film aspires to capture.

Except for one thing: The bar doesn't actually exist. Unable to find a dive that suited their purposes, the filmmakers built the Black Emerald from scratch and then demolished it after filming, because a city inspector deemed it unfit to remain standing.

The Potemkin bar is a fitting example of the disconnect between the rough-and-tumble world invoked in the film, which is based on a 2001 novel by Dennis Lehane, and the more genteel reality of today's Boston. The filmmakers shot the movie in one-time blue-collar bastions like South Boston and Charlestown, but it's increasingly hard to imagine those neighborhoods as the setting for the hard-bitten types and hair-trigger violence that fill Eastwood's film.

The average price of a house in Boston rose to $339,700 this year, making it the fifth-most expensive city in the country. The number of murders plunged from more than 100 homicides a year in the early 1990s to 39 in 2000, the year Lehane's novel is set. Grandstand seats at Fenway Park now cost $44.

Walk into a cafe in many of Boston's former lunch-pail districts and you're likely to have an easier time ordering a bottle of Cotes du Rhone than a fifth of Jack Daniels.

"If you know where to look you can still find the pockets of grittiness in some parts; if I were a Hollywood producer, I could go in and find what I'm looking for," says Thomas H. O'Connor, a Boston College historian. "Now, is that characteristic of the whole neighborhood? My tendency is to say no."

Plenty of cities, of course, have witnessed the gentrification of working-class quarters in recent years. What makes the transformation in parts of Boston unusual is the city's deep attachment to the blue-collar identity that places like South Boston ("Southie" to local residents) have long represented.

Even as nondescript three-decker homes are broken into $300,000 condominiums for young professionals or empty-nesters from the suburbs, many like to imagine those neighborhoods as remaining the repositories of the city's working-class soul. A city that realizes it's best known for its universities and high culture (the score of Mystic River was recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra) also wants to get some credit for having produced its share of colorfully nicknamed gangsters.

It's a notion that Mystic River taps right into: Local newspapers reported excitedly on the filming around town without questions about whether the sites were still suitable backdrops of proletarian despair. Boston may be that rare city that welcomes being portrayed as more dangerous and bleak than it actually is.

"I'm sure people will see [the movie] and say 'That's the way it is,'" says O'Connor. "There's a certain pride in that."

The movie concerns the intertwined fates of three men who were boyhood friends in the fictional neighborhood of East Buckingham. One of the men, played by Tim Robbins, is haunted by his abduction in fifth grade by two pedophiles; the second, played by Sean Penn, is an ex-con gone straight who seeks revenge for his daughter's brutal murder; and the third, played by Kevin Bacon, is a state police detective investigating the killing.

The novel's East Buckingham appears to be a composite of several working-class neighborhoods, mixing features of Lehane's native Dorchester, South Boston, East Boston and Charlestown. Eastwood's crew shot scenes in all those areas in search of sufficiently frayed parks, bars and streetscapes.

The filmmakers' use of those neighborhoods draws smiles from some residents. Don Shields, a retired maintenance worker and Southie native, recalls when the area was ruled by "big burly Irish cops." Now, he has a hard time seeing Southie, where many apartments rent for $1,500 and up, as the backdrop of a rugged police drama.

"It's a whole changed thing. It's all condos, condos. I call it condo city," says Shields, 64, resting on a bench at Joe Moakley Park, on the waterfront between Southie and Dorchester. "It's all strangers now. I used to go up the street and know everyone. Now I don't know anyone."

Southie achieved notoriety years ago as one of the strongholds of Irish-American mobsters such as James "Whitey" Bulger, and as the scene of some of the worst anti-busing riots in the 1970s.

On Broadway, the neighborhood's main drag, travel agents still advertise cheap flights to Dublin, but taverns such as Shea's and The Clock have been joined by, among others, a Middle Eastern deli and Cafe Arpeggio, where mothers sip lattes over their baby strollers.

One of the new arrivals, Jeremy Whitcomb, doesn't miss the old Southie. The 31-year-old pharmacist moved into a $300,000, two-bedroom condominium near the high school two years ago, drawn by the area's proximity to downtown.

"It's a great place to live," he says as he walks his poodle. "There are those who are annoyed about people moving in, but they should be thankful for the increased property values, if they haven't sold out already."

Even more transformed is Charlestown, the area north of downtown in the shadow of the Bunker Hill Monument that once also played host to mobsters and anti-busing riots, but where gentrification was well under way by the late 1980s.

Doug Roessler, 36, an investment adviser with an office on Main Street, had heard that Mystic River was filmed partly in Charlestown, and had also been amused. It reminded him of Good Will Hunting, another movie that somewhat romanticized blue-collar Boston.

Rough-hewn types like those in Mystic River "used to be around here 20 years ago. It's not that they're not around anymore, but they've been pushed back," Roessler says. "It's a safer area, but at the same time there's not the same color."

In his novel, Lehane confronts the city's gentrification. At one point, Jimmy, the ex-con, rants that his world "is going to disappear soon ... because interest rates are low [and] everyone wants to move back to the city because the restaurants in the suburbs suck ... When they move in - and they're coming - crime and half the neighborhood will move out."

Their neighborhoods are not completely free of the hard edge that the movie purports to portray, residents note. South Boston and Charlestown are home to public housing where crime and drugs remain a problem, limiting even further gentrification.

Meanwhile, though the mob's influence may not be what it once was, organized crime has not completely vanished from the neighborhoods. After all, Whitey Bulger is still on the lam. And some old-time unsavoriness may even have intruded on the movie's filming: The Boston Globe has reported on a federal investigation into intimidation and payroll padding by Teamsters on the set.

Alan Coscia, for one, is confident areas like his own Southie won't lose all their grit. On medical leave from a Federal Reserve job, Coscia, 48, is a sometime ticket scalper at Fenway.

"Every part of [the neighborhoods] that they clean up a little, they raise the rents. But Southie is holding on," Coscia says. "There are still a lot of criminals there. And most scalpers are from there."

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