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Shamrockunder fire

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jim Smith

BOSTON — In a controversial measure designed to placate offended minority residents, officials of the Boston Housing Authority are asking residents to remove shamrock displays from doors and windows in housing developments across the city, the Irish Echo has learned.

Confirming rumors that have been circulating around South Boston in recent weeks, Lydia Agro, BHA’s communications director, told the Echo that housing managers are advising residents that shamrocks and other “bias indicators” are offensive to some minority residents and should not be publicly displayed.

“There are a number of symbols that have been identified by some of our residents as making them uncomfortable and unwelcome,” Agro said. “In response to those concerns, we’re including shamrocks along with swastikas, Confederate flags and other symbols which may give offense.”

According to Agro, some tenants complained about shamrocks during recent mediation training sessions offered to BHA employees and residents. The training, geared toward addressing issues of bias and harassment, was recently nominated for one of federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Best Practices” awards.

“We’re aware that symbols such as shamrocks can reflect racial and ethnic pride,” Agro said. “We respect that, but at the same time we want to promote a sense of community here. There is no written policy. We’re simply asking our residents to avoid public displays of any bias indicators.

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The policy is being greeted with outrage and incredulity by many residents in the South Boston housing developments and by some city officials.

Jean McDonald, a leader of the residents task force in the Mary Ellen McCormack Development, which was named decades ago for the mother of former House Speaker John McCormack, said that elderly tenants are especially anxious about the policy, which sends them the message, she said, that their traditions are no longer acceptable.

“Some of the women here already feel like they’re living in a prison colony,” she said. “Some of them have been here for more than 20 years. You’d think they’d be entitled to some respect. Instead, they’re actually living in fear, not knowing what to expect next.”

James Kelly, president of the Boston City Council, told the Echo that the percentage of whites and Irish Americans in the city’s public housing has been dropping sharply in recent years. “There’s only a small number of Irish Americans left, mostly elderly on fixed income,” he said. “Having them take down their shamrocks is a hateful way of letting them know their time has passed. Believe me, the ‘no Irish need apply’ mentality is very much alive and well at the BHA.”

According to Kelly, minority residents now constitute the majority of every family development in the city, and the BHA is administered almost exclusively by blacks and Hispanics.

An attempt at harmony

Although the anti-shamrock policy was purportedly designed to foster harmony and camaraderie among a diverse population of residents, it is having the opposite effect.

“You’ll probably be seeing even more shamrocks around here now, and I hope we don’t have any violence over this,” McDonald said, vowing to put a wooden shamrock outside her dwelling in the coming days in defiance of the BHA.

Many residents are especially miffed that the BHA is putting shamrocks and swastikas in the same category of offensive symbols. The shamrock, a trifoliate plant said to have been picked by St. Patrick as a symbol to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, is regarded as the national emblem of Ireland, while the swastika is the anti-Semitic emblem of Nazi Germany.

Jeannie Flaherty of the McCormack development said that she’ll be putting a shamrock on her door any day now. “I’d like to see someone try to get me to take it down,” she said. “There’s a Chinese man who lives across the hall with some kind of Oriental sign on his door. Maybe they should check that out when they come around to talk to me.”

McDonald said that the policy is reminiscent of the forced busing controversy that has plagued Boston since the mid-1970s. “They brought the minorities into the schools here and told the people in Southie to send their kids to school across the city,” she said. “When the people rebelled, the press jumped all over them and called them racists. Now we’re supposed to give up our symbols and traditions because somebody’s offended. Give me a break!”

Writing recently in the South Boston Tribune about the controversy, John Ciccone, director of the South Boston Information Center, said: “If new people move into a neighborhood, especially one as established and close-knit as South Boston, it is they, the newcomers, who must adapt. Long-time residents here will not change and give up their traditions such as the shamrock and others because it might somehow make a new arrival uncomfortable. And that’s just the way it’s going to be. Get used to it.”

At the Old Colony development in South Boston, a former city youth worker told the Echo that the BHA is concerned primarily with minority statistics and less with the lives of the residents who live in the developments.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said that shamrocks, which still adorn basketball courts and murals in the development, were symbols of pride when he was growing up there. “Even the Italian kids wore shamrocks,” he said. “We had our differences, but we got along OK.

“Nowadays, the kids in here would rather shoot heroin than basketballs. This place has been going downhill for years, and kids are literally dying from drugs. It’s supposed to be for low-income people, but they got drug dealers from Roxbury driving fancy cars and living here. Nobody cares. It’s a real sad situation, and the BHA’s talking about shamrocks?”

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