The terrific PBS series Frontline is back this week with the second installment of its two-part series on "Real Justice," a behind-the-scenes look at the court system here in Boston. Unfortunately, the series' companion book "Boston D.A."- penned by Sean Flynn- does a real injustice to Boston's neighborhoods and the people who live here.
The 240-page book summarizes a sampling of the city's high profile crime cases of the 1990s- from the infamous Stuart case to the Halloween murder of 9 year-old Jermaine Goffigan.
As its title suggests, the initial focus is on Suffolk County D.A. Ralph Martin, whose personal story is worthy of a book in itself. Somewhere along the line, though, the author decided to essentially dump the Ralph Martin angle. Instead, we're left with a disjointed collection of courtroom case studies, spiced with misguided social commentary- and sadly- one barbed insult after another from Sean Flynn.
Let there be no mistake about it: this Flynn guy does not like Irish-Americans from Boston. He sets the tone early, writing, "The Boston Irish are a unique breed, a surly and indignant bunch that enjoy a low and chronic misery, a firm and unshakable belief that life will never be kind or fair to you or your kin people."
And if you happen to be from South Boston, watch out. Here's what Sean Flynn tells the world about you: "The Irish heritage (in Southie) becomes an Irish caricature, and a mean one at that." Or, there's this gem: "Southie's young men and women are a chemical stew, jacked up either on cheap beer and liquor, or in more recent years, strung out on heroin." Flynn makes no attempt to qualify this broad-stroke indictment- and it's pretty obvious that this "veteran" reporter's attitudes about Roxbury are just as jaded.
Flynn's the prototypical Boston transplant who read Common Ground in journalism school and formed an opinion of Boston -and its inhabitants- to last a lifetime. For Flynn and his ilk, the calendar stopped turning in Boston right around 1975- and so too did any chance of this town catching a break when it comes to race relations. Never mind the broad integration of neighborhoods like ours, which "dared" to defy the myth of parochial Boston and have lived to tell about it.
Like too many of his colleagues- who clearly write with a suburban audience in mind and are eager to play into the sprawlers' worst fears of city squalor- Flynn proceeds to twist another strand around this frayed ball of yarn: "Boston has always been a parochial city, divided into neighborhoods that verge on the xenophobic. Borders are drawn starkly in Boston, turf sharply defined by geography and architecture, neighborhoods defined by the contours of housing projects and narrows (sic) strips of triple-decker homes."
In another passage, Flynn remarks that Boston is a "city of starkly demarcated neighborhoods, separated by such physically solid barriers of race and class that they may as well be outlined by walls of reinforced concrete."
Okay, okay, we get it!
Much like the architects of busing- and the media who played up the resulting chaos for all it was worth- Flynn's world turns squarely on the Roxbury-Southie axis. There's no in between in Flynn's Boston. You're either black or you're white. Either you throw rocks at school buses or you duck 'em. Either you root for the Celtics or the Lakers.
Of course, most authors and newswriters - Flynn included - still don't know what to make out of Dorchester, a place where the barriers have blurred to the degree that the hackneyed racial storyline starts to disintegrate. So, Flynn and company do what lazy journalists always do with a neighborhood like ours: they ignore it. Much too complicated, all this getting-along stuff. Instead, let's rewind the tape to the Dorchester Heights scene one more time. That makes more sense to the mind of somebody whose fundamental perception of Boston and its people was minted in the Gerry Ford administration.
This city's done a whole lot better over the last two decades than Flynn- or most other "contemporary" writers - like to admit. Does that mean that the stains of our city's difficult racial history have been wiped clean? Of course not.
But, when -oh when- are these self-styled chroniclers of our culture and society going to catch up with the times. When is this neighborhood and others like it finally going to get the credit we deserve?
Don't count on it anytime soon. That's because books about neighborhood people co-existing- and even becoming friends- sell about as well as the Boston Herald on a Sunday. Class warfare and racial animosity- that's what the public craves, at least according to the Flynn scorecard.
When the ultimate verdict is handed down about "Boston D.A.", let's hope that another publisher has the guts to let someone tell a real, modern Boston story the next time around. And, hopefully the story of Ralph Martin's pioneering career, which is fundamentally undermined in this retelling, will get its just due someday. One final note to the librarians: when Sean Flynn's book arrives in the mail in a few weeks, make sure it makes its way into the ancient history section, where it belongs.