By Seth Daniel
Pedigrees are very important status symbols in the downtown neighborhoods, and people often measure their investment in the community based on how many years they’ve been around.
A person with 10 years under their belt gets some credence in any discussion, but one who moved to the South End 30 years ago can dictate quite a bit of neighborhood policy.
However, a very select few have been in the neighborhood their entire lives, and for those folks, they can go so far as to only go by one name – in this case, ‘Duffy.’
And just by that one name, everyone in the South End knows exactly who Paul Duffy is.
From being born in Boston City Hospital, to selling newspapers as a kid in the Combat Zone, to being a successful property owner as the transformed neighborhood, Duffy has seen it all in the South End, and for his life-long dedication to his home enclave, the Ellis South End Neighborhood Association awarded him the Arthur F. Howe Award at its annual meeting last Wednesday, May 10.
Duffy is a founding member of the Ellis.
“God bless the South End and I’m so pleased of the advocacy of the Ellis Neighborhood Association,” he told the Sun, noting the great work of Executive Director Stacy Koeppel. “I’m thrilled to have been given the award they’ve given me.
“I miss some of the things, but I understand why I miss them,” he continued. “It was very, very popular to see women on the stoop because women didn’t work back then. They would sit on the stoop while kids played on the street. There were a lot less cars then. On my building on Clarendon Street, there’s an old rusty sign that the former owner, Mr. Folger, put up in 1949 that said ‘No Ball Playing Allowed.’ We would bounce the ball off the stoop and he got so upset with us he put up that sign, and now I own the building. When I renovated, I told the contractors not to touch that sign. I look at it with my brother and we miss the sounds of ball playing in the streets from the kids. I miss those things, but some things were unfortunate. When we started the neighborhood association, it was a neighborhood watch for crime and we were giving whistles to women so they could protect themselves from men who might come up to them aggressively, and we had the phone trees. Now, the association has the Book Club, the Wine Club and that’s just wonderful.”
In 1939, Duffy was born in City Hospital (now BMC) and soon moved to St. Charles Street with his familyand then later to Hanson Street.
He said one of the things he would do was hang out at the Ellis House on Berkeley Street, which was a clubhouse for newspaper boys before it became a neighborhood services house. Duffy said he would sell newspapers in the Combat Zone downtown to the military men and the girls in the bars. It was a profitable venture, he said, for a kid on the hustle in the late 1940s.
“I would go into a bar and I knew they would only want to buy the paper for the number,” he said. “So I would sell them the paper and then go to the back and watch girls until they kicked me out. On the way out, I would ask the girls ‘Do you still want the newspaper?’ They never did because they only wanted to see the number, and so they gave it back to me. So, I would then be able to go and sell the paper again. I made good money for a little while on that.”
He said growing up in a big family in the South End required young people to work, and another job he had was shoveling coal in the basement of what is now the Beehive Restaurant at the BCA. He said there was a big furnace right where the stage is now.
“I didn’t pay much attention to going to school, so they sent me to the M. Gertrude Godvin School in Egleston Square,” he said. “I spent two years there and they taught vocational classes like sheet metal fabricating and welding. It made me realize how important it was…We’re all aware of the great needs of IT, but then again, we shouldn’t forget how important it is to keep the carpenters, automotive, electricians and plumbers in top form too.”
To that end, Duffy has started a scholarship program with the Ellis to help a South End student pursue a career in vocational school trades. They have one applicant already, he said.
“I’m really excited about that,” he said.
Meanwhile, key to Duffy’s story is that when everyone was fleeing the South End, he and his family stayed, raising his daughter, Siobhan, there. He said he bought his building on Clarendon Street in 1969, so the family had no choice but to stay. With his daughter at a good school in the Back Bay, he and his ex-wife just worked really hard to maintain things.
In those difficult days, he joined neighbors Joe and Sue Park in helping found the Ellis, though he said Park was the driving force and he simply attended meetings.
“I really feel like all of my efforts were self-serving,” he said. “All of what we did has made my building and my neighborhood better.”
Now, however, the neighborhood has completely turned around, and the bottom floor of his building hosts the popular South End Buttery, and he has great tenants in his building. He said of his five units, over the last 10 years he’s had 13 babies in those apartments. Even right now, he has four children under 3 in his units.
That is a treasure for him, he said. This past March, he invited all of the former tenants and their families to come back and celebrate his birthday with him. Many of them came, and that was pure joy for the life-time Southender.
But most days, he said, he is busy picking up his two grandchildren from school in Jamaica Plain, where they live. He said he loves going down every day to pick them up and find out what they’ve done in school.
“That’s the most exciting job I’ve had in the past 20 years,” he said.