Uh oh, it appears that Boston’s pell-mell rush to be party capital of the world is now on hold. For the time being, New York looks to remain unchallenged as the city that never sleeps.
Sometimes it seemed as if the most pressing issue in last year’s mayoral election was the demand for later closing times. State law currently prohibits alcohol sales after 2 a.m. That may be fine for sleepy little hamlets, ran the thinking, but not for Boston. The booming city is increasingly a haven for the young and the high-tech and if Boston wanted that boom to continue, if it wanted to be (that most over-used of terms) world class, it had to accommodate the newcomers’ apparently insatiable desire to go drinking until the wee hours.
Most of the mayoral candidates, including Marty Walsh, said they were on-board. So when Walsh became mayor, it looked as if dusk-to-dawn boozing was right around the corner. All that was needed was a signoff from the Legislature and, since Walsh used to be a legislator, it seemed like a done deal. Until, suddenly, it wasn’t a done deal at all. And blame for that appears to belong to state legislators from Boston who were listening to their constituents.
The recalcitrant legislators may eventually cave — and they should — but even if Boston is permitted to expand closing times, the battle doesn’t end there. It’s not that people don’t want bars open until all hours. It’s just that they want them to be open somewhere other than where they live. Once, perhaps, one could find areas where there were few city dwellers, and no one would mind nocturnal carousing. Not anymore. The Seaport? Not with a residential building boom underway. Downtown Crossing? Its resurgence is being marked not just by new retail but also new apartments and condos. Allston? New developments are now targeting an older, non-student demographic.
Indeed, Boston’s very success — the fact that seemingly everyone has decided they want to become new urbanites — now means there are almost no sections of the city where residents wouldn’t squawk about all-hours establishments in their midst. True, it’s NIMBYism — not in my backyard, thank you — but it’s utterly understandable. People unhappy with revelers vomiting on their front steps at 2 a.m. will be even more unhappy when it happens at 4.
Still, one thing is odd. Why is the Legislature getting involved in this at all? Why are state reps from Pepperell or state senators from Amherst weighing in on closing times in Boston? If there’s anything that should be up to local control, it’s obviously local matters such as opening and closing times — or, for that matter, how many liquor licenses can be issued and who it is that can issue them.
Not only does state law limit closing times, but it also specifies how many licenses any city and town is allowed to have. The quota is a formula based on population, with one license allowed for every 1,000 residents (with provisions for additional licenses for larger cities). For places like Boston — whose population swells daily with commuters, tourists, and those seeking nightlife — those limits are too tight. Then, to add further injury, Boston isn’t allowed to issue the licenses. Unlike every other city and town, Boston’s three-member licensing board is appointed by the governor.
It’s embarrassing, a holdover, allegedly, from the days when the Irish ruled the city and distrusting Brahmins controlled state government. The origins of the policy in bigotry make it particularly offensive, but whatever the motivations, limits like these don’t make sense. Merely as a matter of principle, Boston — and not the Legislature — should have control over what goes on within its borders. Walsh is right to seek to change all three: longer hours, more licenses, and local control.
But even if Walsh wins these battles, that just shifts the political action from the State House to City Hall. If anything, city pols will be even more sensitive to residents’ objections. Oh well. There’s always cold tea in Chinatown.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.