“Food desert” is the term used to describe a geographic area — typically one in poor urban communities — where access to healthy and nutritious food is limited or unavailable, leaving people to do much of their food shopping at corner stores. Cities have tried to address this challenge by opening supermarkets in underserved locations. Boston has done pretty well in this area, doubling its grocery store footprint within the last 25 years and cracking down on stores serving customers poorly, like the Stop & Shop temporarily closed for unsanitary conditions in March.
However, when it comes to quality sit-down restaurants — places where you can order a meal and enjoy a glass of wine or cocktail — Boston’s low-income communities face another desert. These sorts of destination restaurants can also draw in customers from other neighborhoods, providing a much-needed economic boost. But the longtime lack of places to eat other than fast-food joints in some parts of the city is in stark contrast to Boston’s more affluent downtown neighborhoods, where nearly two-thirds of liquor licenses in the city were held as of 2013.
For places like Mattapan, where 91.5 percent of 34,616 residents are people of color, there is not much in the way of alternatives. There are only two liquor licenses: Macumba Latina, a nightclub on River Street, and the American Legion on Blue Hill Avenue, which isn’t open to the general public.
For many cities and towns in Massachusetts, the remedy for such a problem would be simple — issue more licenses. Not in Boston. For one thing, before 2014, no new licenses had been made available since 2006. The only way to get one was to buy it on the open market, where it could cost as much as $450,000. That was an impossibility for most neighborhood-based restaurants.
On top of that, the State House didn’t allow Boston to control its own liquor licenses for more than 100 years. The situation stemmed from a power struggle between the old-line Brahmins who controlled state government and the immigrant Irish who ran City Hall, which led to the Legislature’s taking control of many Boston laws — including who gets a liquor license and who doesn’t. The composition of the government has shifted, but the power struggle remains.
In recent years, however, there’s finally been a push to loosen the state’s grip on Boston’s licenses. City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, fighting against what she calls “retail redlining,” helped to pass legislation in 2014. She also began working closely with a community-based group called Epicenter Community, which is trying to increase the numbers of restaurateurs of color by increasing the number of liquor licenses.
The new legislation, which required the Legislature’s approval, provides for the issuance of 25 new licenses per year for three years. Two years into the program, the results are incomplete but promising. Before the infusion of new licenses, businesses in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan represented only 7 percent of all licenses citywide, even though the neighborhoods are home to a third of the city’s population. But Roxbury and Dorchester received nearly half of the 50 new licenses issued since 2014, the largest share in the city.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Mattapan didn’t get any.
Pressley wants Mattapan to get a quality restaurant of its own, and is working with others to achieve that. But she also points to success stories — other minority-owned restaurants that are now receiving licenses. One such, she says, is Rincon Caribeno in Hyde Park, where owner Javier Diaz spent years trying to get a full liquor license without success. As a result of his new license, his Fairmount Avenue restaurant is thriving.
The Legislature’s continued hold on Boston’s liquor licenses is wrong and bad for economic development. Efforts like Pressley’s — and the BYOB law recently advanced by City Council President Michelle Wu — show forward momentum and should continue.
And when the last batch of 25 licenses lands, officials must make sure they help neighborhoods that have been underrepresented for so long — beginning with Mattapan. In the places that need them, each license is capable of turning a desert into an oasis.
ALCOHOL POURING LICENSES
By select Boston Neighborhoods, 2015
> 226 — Back Bay
> 129 — Downtown
> 128 — North End
> 103 — South End
> 68 — Dorchester
> 21 — Roxbury
> 2 — Mattapan
Licensing source: City of Boston