A Tale of Two Towns

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  September 29, 2009
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KEEPING IT REAL: In shooting The Town, director Ben Affleck uses such arcane but vital landmarks as the Foodmaster on Austin Street and the Monument Laundromat on Bunker Hill Street.
Urban rednecks
Like the CVS-jacking thugs in Hickey's film, the gang in Hogan's Prince of Thieves has as much respect for authority as they do for the New York Yankees. Affleck, a son of Cambridge, has already proven that he can orchestrate a true-to-life Boston film with Gone Baby Gone, his dark 2007 drama about a fictional Dorchester kidnapping based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same title. In The Town, the Oscar winner appears to once again be doing diligence — not only by adopting source material that is rich with dead-on detail, but by holding casting calls at the Charlestown Community Center (specifically requesting that candidates have thick Boston accents) and using such arcane but vital landmarks as the Foodmaster grocery store on Austin Street and the Monument Laundromat on Bunker Hill Street (where, at least in the book, Affleck's character, Doug MacRay, is seen reading a Boston Phoenix).

Though the urban rednecks with stubbed-out butts tucked above their ears are still around in small numbers, when I go to scope the set of The Town, I see no obvious negative Townie archetypes. Down here, the only physical threat to Affleck or any other Hollywood hunk is a pack of roving cougars. As the crew sets up along the skirt of Bunker Hill, brigades of baby strollers are navigated by young mothers wearing Nike Shox, retro-faded Red Sox hats, and wedding rings that dazzle in the late-summer sun shower. From the renovated brick-and-pastel row houses facing the manicured monument, it's hard to believe that the hideous and blighted projects are just a few blocks to the east.

A small gallery of yuppies, hipsters, and tourists play paparazzi, snapping iPhone pics at grips and gaffers. It becomes obvious why Affleck chose to showcase both glistening and leftover pockets of Charlestown. Gentrification is a central theme in Prince of Thieves, and The Town's female lead, the naive suburban Claire Keesey (played by Vicky Cristina Barcelona actress Rebecca Hall) symbolizes a monumental social shift. In the mid 1990s, a slew of news reports fashioned, quite accurately, that young single women were colonizing Charlestown. The Townie antiheroes — who one cop in Hogan's book describes as "blue-collar bandits" and "salt-of-the-earth numbskulls" — are more conscious than their fathers, to whom nothing exists beyond Charlestown and the penitentiary. But they're still skeptical and even downright resentful of the perceived takeover.

Gone, baby, gone
As The Departed did from Southie residents, such violent portrayals as The Town and Oxy-Morons are sure to draw ire from some disapproving locals. But others would argue that all Charlestown stories — even ones that some folks would rather forget — should be told. Maureen McNamara, who produced and directed the 2007 documentary The Green Square Mile: Story of the Charlestown Irish in conjunction with the Charlestown Historical Society, believes that the cheerless points in Townie history are essential to understanding the overall neighborhood dynamic. Her 60-minute film does not portray more recent theft-and-opiate culture, but it does address the gang wars of the 1960s, as well as the source of the clan mentality and survival instinct for which Charlestown is renowned. "The history of Boston was written by the Yankees and the Puritans," says McNamara. "Even now, the people of Charlestown feel that they're only mentioned negatively in the Boston Globe. Mine is the Townie version of their history."

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