Columnists :: South End Character
Remembering Steve Fotos
by Alison Barnet
Wednesday Jul 18, 2012
When Steve Fotos came up from Florida for a South End reunion in 2005, he went to see the house he grew up in on West Newton Street. A realtor told him the house was worth $2M, and Steve was incredulous. "How could that be?" This had been his mother’s boarding house where rooms rented for $2.50/week-that’s if they had a sink.
At the reunion, he pursued me, anxious for me to understand the South End he had grown up in and was still intensely loyal to. Coming up from Florida for the occasion was only one indication of his deep feelings. "There should be a Pembroke Street in every girl and boy’s experience," he said, referring to the street behind his house where he and his friends hung out.
We developed a long-distance relationship. He even sent me a prepaid phone card so I could call him with questions.
Steve lived at 63 West Newton Street from 1928, the year he was born, until 1957 when he left to teach in San Diego. Girls’ High School was next door-it was "another world" with girls coming from all over the city. His mother, who stitched sailors’ caps during World War II, came to the U.S. from Lebanon as a baby. His Greek father also came here as a baby but left the day Fotos was born. An older brother, Joe, became a teacher too and then a school superintendent.
It’s a wonder the brothers did well, given the quality of the neighborhood schools. Steve went to the Alcott on West Concord Street and the Williams, which would be in the middle of Peters Park now. Due to poor eyesight, he was in special class for kids who wore glasses. "I can’t tell you how bad the education was," he said. "I knew nothing, learned nothing." Instead, he got "a great education" in the streets, where he mixed with everyone, including the local gangsters.
Low self-esteem was rampant. "We as young men never looked beyond the South End for our girlfriends because we would be out of our element, out of our class element and our financial element," he said. "Even Roxbury was out of our element. First of all, we had no car. I mean, you could meet someone in Brighton who lived in a real house by themselves and two parents-most of us had only one parent. We had a sense of insecurity, we were beyond our element. Why go out to make a fool of yourself? we thought; it’s all here."
There were barrooms on nearly every corner. Joe said, "We used to bet that if you tried to have a drink in every bar from Northampton to Dover, you wouldn’t make it." Steve said, "When you’re from the South End you were automatically a loser. If you made it in the South End, you moved to Dedham. We sold the Record at night in barrooms for three cents. If someone gave us five cents and told us to keep the change, it was a big deal."
On one of his visits north, Steve noticed a plaque that said the South End was the largest extant Victorian neighborhood. "If we had known that, it might have given us a boost," he reflected.
Adversity, however, made for powerful ties. "I loved everyone in the South End, even my enemies." He told a classic story:
"The South End itself would erase any differences you had with other people. Let’s say you don’t like me for some reason, maybe we had some difficulty between us, some argument. When we pass each other on the street, we don’t speak anymore. We just pass each other by. Then one day, a friend happens to mention that someone in your family died last year. Something comes out of me. So when you walk my way again, I say, ’Billy, how are you? I understand your mother died.’ Billy doesn’t say anything. After all, you haven’t talked for years. But the next time he walks by, Billy says, ’Hi, Steve.’"
Steve went to Boston Trade High School and, after serving in Korea as a combat medic, to BU on the GI bill. Like other South End kids who didn’t know their own strengths, he was surprised when the military recognized his abilities. He spent fifteen years teaching in Saudi Arabia, where participating in a drama club also boosted his ego.
At the reunion, I tried to describe the present South End to him and mentioned SoWa. It was hard for Steve to understand and he asked me to repeat it-"It must be an Indian name," he concluded.
Steve died on June 9.
Alison Barnet is the author of Extravaganza King: Robert Barnet and Boston Musical Theater. She has lived in the South End since 1964 and has been writing about it for almost as long.