Just 15 years ago, former Mayor Menino’s proposal to lengthen the hours during which alcohol could be served in hotels was laughed out of City Hall. Back in 2005, in response to demands for later public-transit hours, MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo told The Harvard Crimson, “This is not like New York, the city that doesn’t sleep. This city does sleep.” And Uber? Just three years ago, the online car-sharing service’s arrival in the Boston area was greeted by a lawsuit and demands from political leaders to go back where it came from.
Today, things are different. Elected officials are in a footrace to follow the lead of Somerville, with its embrace of later closings and more nightlife options. Bostonians are behaving like they live in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; or, God forbid, New York.
Earlier this year, when Mayor Walsh proposed that some Boston bars stay open until 3 a.m., there was rampant applause. From Brighton to Back Bay no one complained a tweet. Everyone seemed to agree: The new Boston will stay open late — the later the better.
And when Governor Patrick said the T will run until the wee hours of the morning, it was as if the Berlin Wall had come down — again. MBTA General Manager Beverly Scott donned her wool cape and dashed out to Park Street station to twirl among the hipsters and undergraduates celebrating the expanded public-transit service as if they were at a Flaming Lips concert.
Recently, when taxi drivers protested, yet again, about the disparate regulatory treatment they were receiving as compared to Uber, most Bostonians dismissed them as self-interested Luddites. Don’t they know they’re on the wrong side of history?
And wasn’t that economic development chief John Barros at the recent Boston Business Journal Real Estate breakfast saying we need more of the currently illegal house-party concerts because that’s where people meet?
You want craft breweries? Done. Food trucks? Done. Pop-up art shows? Parklets? Streaming data? Done, done, and done.
So what happened here? Did voters rise up and demand change? Actually they did not. Voting patterns appear virtually indistinguishable from those of past years. Even though the numbers of young people aged 18 to 29 are on the rise, at 35 percent of the voting population, they collectively accounted for only 12 percent of the voters in last year’s preliminary mayoral election, according to an analysis by MassINC Polling Group. Conversely, voters age 60 and older, who are just 18 percent of the population, were 34 percent of the vote.
In other words, if you want to win elections in Boston it’s still about knocking on the doors of older white voters who live in traditional voting neighborhoods like West Roxbury, Hyde Park, and Dorchester. Not exactly ground zero for the tech set.
While demands for change kept coming from the media, new-economy workers, and recent Boston transplants, they didn’t show up at the ballot box. So why would Boston’s political leaders make moves that are particularly appealing to voters who don’t often show up at the polls?
No politician wants to be the last dinosaur. When things turn, they turn fast. Just try to find any Massachusetts elected official who openly opposes marriage equality, something that just a decade ago was widely considered politically anathema. And while there are still some political dinosaurs out there, few with ambitions for higher office are jockeying for the title. Like a school of fish, woe is the guppy that misses the turn and loses the protection of the pack.
Last week, the mayor’s office and Chamber of Commerce staged an eight-day festival known as “Idea Week,” devoted to thinking, provocateuring, and crowdsourcing. Notably absent among the young crowd were the once-familiar complaints about our early closing hours, lack of late-night public transit, and reluctance to change. A panel of the very change agents who helped engineer Boston’s turn from sleepy to slap-happy focused instead on what reforms should come next. (I served as moderator.)
And there was much to focus on. Boston’s permitting and zoning is antiquated, a lack of housing creation is gentrifying neighborhoods, and our cultural diversity leaves much to be desired. But as Idea Week participants danced to live music and toasted each other in the Silver Line’s Court House Station (yes, drinking in an MBTA station), it seemed like it might actually be time to celebrate. Boston is staying up and having fun again.