Tucked in between Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's first interview since Benazir Bhutto's assassination and Roger Clemens' first interview after being named as a steroid user, “60 Minutes” took more than 10 million viewers to Marshall Street on Sunday for a profile of a former killer who was part of the gang that continues to cast a long shadow over the neighborhood decades later.
John Martorano was the designated murderer for the Winter Hill Gang - a loosely organized group of criminals that became the top non-mafia gang in New England under the leadership of Buddy McLean, Howard T. Winter and eventually James “Whitey” Bulger. They etched out a place in the annals of criminal history for themselves by fixing horse races, gunning down enemies in broad daylight and corrupting the Boston office of the FBI.
And until 1980 when Bulger moved the Winter Hill Gang out of Winter Hill and into Boston, the operation was run from the back room of a Marshall Street auto body shop complete with a trap door nobody wanted to see the bottom of.
On Sunday Martorano brought “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft - and millions of Americans -- to the old headquarters and reminisced about the wild days of Winter Hill when murder seemed to be an appropriate way to resolve conflicts.
But in reality the neighborhood as it is today bears little resemblance to the gangland capital that once hosted triggermen, shootouts and Irish gang wars. Residents, business owners and elected officials say life in Winter Hill is far tamer in 2008.
“I wouldn't be here if I didn't feel safe. I don't know how people can bring that old stuff up and think that still exists,” said Nick, owner of Leone's Sub Shop on Broadway a neighborhood landmark for decades.
Nick would not give his last name for this story. “I never give out my last name. Everyone here knows me as Nick Leone that's good enough for me.”
“Most people who live in the neighborhood now don't even know those days existed. Nobody thinks about it. All those guys are gone now - dead or in jail or forgotten,” said Acting Police Chief Robert R. Bradley.
The leadership of the Winter Hill gang may be incarcerated, in the grave or, in the case of Bulger, a fugitive from justice lying low, but their crimes and images continue to shape the identity of the neighborhood for some, particularly the media.
When Jay Meaney - a man with absolutely no ties to the gang -- was found lying dead with his pants and underwear pulled down and his driver's license on his stomach between two brick apartment buildings on Broadway in the summer television and print news reporters quickly brought up the neighborhood's distant past invoking the names and images of gangsters who likely had not walked down Marshall Street for decades.
“Winter Hill has an interesting and colorful history but the reality is it is now a vibrant community with a mix of young and old families with a lot of neighborhood bonding,” said State Rep. Carl M. Sciortino, D-Somerville, who represents the neighborhood.
The streets that were once dominated by Irish and Italian children are now just as likely to be home to Brazilian and Haitian kids. At the Winter Hill Community School 57 percent of the children speak a language other than English at home. And today a Brazilian Social Club sits across the street from the auto body shop the gang once called home.
In addition to shifting demographics the area hard by McGrath Highway and Mystic Avenue has seen a significant increase in property values and rents causing most longtime residents, who may remember the days of Winter and McLean, to either sell their homes at a profit or move to cities such as Malden or Everett in search of cheaper rents.
The 2007 sale prices of condominiums, single and multi-family homes in the neighborhood have each more than doubled since 1997 and many multi family homes have been converted into condos.
Many residents agree: Winter Hill is more than just the Winter Hill Gang. On a recent afternoon two business owners stood on Broadway passionately discussing immigration policy while sweeping their sidewalks. When asked by a reporter about everyday life in the neighborhood away from the media glare one of the men, who would not give his name, said “Don't listen to Howie Carr or anyone else. This is a good neighborhood. Those guys Howie Winter, Buddy Mclean they didn't know us and we didn't know them. And anyways, now they're gone.”