Auld lang syne for ‘Old Harbor’

Ed Forry

A group of current and former South Boston folks who grew up in Old Harbor Village are planning a reunion at Florian Hall in Dorchester on Sun., Sept. 24, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. They will gather that afternoon, even as plans advance for a massive demolition and reconstruction of the historic complex.

Now called the Mary Ellen McCormack development, it sits on 31 acres on the northern edge of Southie between Old Colony Avenue and Dorchester Avenue. It was the first public housing development built in New England, and remains to this day among the largest ever built.

Old Harbor was a federal Public Works Administration (PWA) project that was begun in 1936, as the country was beginning to emerge from the Great Depression. It opened in May, 1938, and consists of more than 1,000 apartments, with 27 three-story apartment buildings and 152 two-story row houses. The project was championed by South Boston’s then-Congressman, John W. McCormack, and was later named to honor his mother.

“Let’s raise the roof before they raze the Old Harbor,” headlines a flyer promoting the reunion prepared by the ad hoc committee. A handful of them met at the firefighters hall in Dorchester one afternoon last month to make plans for the get together. “We were one of the first families to move in,” one woman told me. “We moved in May 1938, and I was one year old. We lived at 65 Logan Way, in one of the row houses – three bedrooms, one bath, six kids, mother and father, eight people. Everybody was like that,” she said.

When I joked that I heard that Logan Way was the best street in the project, everyone chuckled: “McDonough Way,” one person said. “Well, I did better; there were eight of us,” one man said. “Five girls, three boys, one bathroom.” “We survived, though,” someone said, and they all agreed.

The meeting was teeming with a warm sense of nostalgia, as one person’s memories brought forth a torrent of recollections. “I remember that my father was in the service, and there were so many kids around. If you had children, you couldn’t be drafted, but you could volunteer,” another said. “And many guys did, because it was a job. So there were a lot of single parent families… There was a woman right next door to me, her husband was in the Navy, and my mother and she used to go to the movies together; that was how they spent their time. There was no TV, of course, and they were encouraged to go to the movies, because they could collect dishes and place settings to outfit the kitchen.”

“Mothers were the mainstays of the project- you knew everybody’s mother,” someone said. “I remember Mrs. Flannery. She was a baker, pies and brownies and everything… you always went to see her!”

One of them recalled,”My mother made a cake; she called it poor man’s fruit cake.” Another said, “Of course Saturday night was beans and franks, and remember the cans of brown bread?”

The project, now 80 years old, will soon undergo a total reconstruction that could take as long as ten years. The WinnCompanies was awarded a $1.6 billion contract to transform the current 1,016 subsidized apartment units into a mixed income community, demolishing all 27 three-story buildings, replacing them with 3,000 new units in a mix of “workforce housing, market rate and homeowner condominiums. 

“All units will be identical in quality and integrated evenly among the newly constructed buildings, no matter what the income level,” the company said in a press release about the plans, which includes creation of other amenities, and possibly some retail uses.

“The team we have assembled on behalf of the BHA and Mary Ellen McCormack residents brings with it two centuries of combined experience on large-scale, phased mixed finance redevelopments,” said WinnCompanies CEO Gilbert Winn. “Our collective goal is to create a 21st century neighborhood where the residents are the highest priority, not just through new homes and new community amenities, but through social and job programs designed to create a better quality of life and the chance to pursue brighter futures for themselves and their families.”

Said Southie’s Brian Wallace in an email: “Just as the wrecking ball is about to change the Mary Ellen McCormack Development we knew into something completely different, a bunch of former Old Harbor residents decided to have one last hurrah to celebrate the unique place we knew as Old Harbor. Old Harbor was the first of its kind back when it was built. No other development had single apartments, grass, trees, markets, drug stores, basketball courts, and incredible camaraderie. It was also unique in the lifelong friendships it engendered.”

Event organizers may be reached at