Royal C. Smith’s dream was to build a community within a community.
He found it in an 824-square-foot tavern in Roxbury that had been a neighborhood gem since 1980. First it was C&S Tavern, then it was the iconic Sonny Walker’s. It was always a safe haven for the Black community, a place where everyone was fast friends. Smith took over the lease in 2018. He reopened it as District 7 Tavern with one goal: Continue the tradition of joy and togetherness.
“It’s a small bar with deep roots,” says Smith, 35. “We are more than just a watering hole. We have a book club, live music, toy drives; community leaders bartend. We are a sounding board for a lot of seniors who are not connected to the younger generation. It’s not just the drinks. It’s the conversation.”
But will this historic space become a Black history memory due to the coronavirus?
When Congress rolled out that $2 trillion relief package, there was supposed to be assistance for small businesses in the form of loans, tax breaks, and paycheck protection. But the application process was hard. Not even lawyers agree on how it works. And in order to get loan forgiveness, a business owner must spend the money within eight weeks, keep the same number of employees it had before the pandemic, and use 75 percent of it on payroll.
To make it harder, a lot of big businesses like Ruth’s Chris and Kura Sushi were getting money meant for the little local joints. Shake Shack may have returned its funds, but a lot of small restaurants are on their own.
Restaurants owned by immigrants, Black people, and other people of color have historically struggled to get business loans, liquor licenses, and contracts. Now, COVID-19 is amplifying the inequities in how those businesses will stay open.
The first place we saw coronavirus shutter was Chinatown, where businesses experienced a dwindling number of customers due to xenophobia months before social distancing, shutdowns, and widespread infection.
Now, we’re seeing how the virus could close down the few Black-owned restaurants we have, like District 7 Tavern. Smith, along with the owners of Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, the renowned Wally’s Café, Savvor Restaurant & Lounge, and Soleil Restaurant & Catering have formed the Boston Black Hospitality Coalition in an effort to survive.
They are challenging city and state officials to create a task force specifically for Black-owned businesses and restaurants and looking for community support.
Smith says he estimates each of them have about another month before they have to consider closing their doors for good. District 7 Tavern closed in mid-March and is already $120,000 under. Collectively, the five businesses will have lost over $1 million by the end of the month. Smith applied for the federal Paycheck Protection Program but hasn’t received any funds. He’s rethinking his business model.
It’s a problem so dire minority-owned microbusinesses nationwide are facing closure without major government support.
Last week, US Representative Ayanna Pressley and Senator Kamala D. Harris introduced the Saving Our Street (SOS) Act to lend federal support to small businesses during the crisis. The act, if passed, would establish a Microbusiness Assistance Fund of $124.5 billion and provide up to $250,000 directly to microbusinesses: the tiny operations with staffs of fewer than 10 people — 20 if half the staff is from a low-income community. The application process would require demographic data, to ensure minority-owned businesses aren’t excluded.
“In the Massachusetts Seventh [congressional district], our smallest neighborhood restaurants and businesses are the backbones of our communities. These businesses need real help now, but so far too many have been left out and left behind by federal relief efforts," Pressley said in a statement.
“We cannot allow the systemic barriers that have long prevented Black business owners from accessing capital to persist amid this crisis. Our relief efforts must be intentional and race-conscious to ensure minority-owned small businesses get the resources and support.”
The Boston Black Hospitality Coalition isn’t asking for much: $500,000 as a collective. The NAACP’s Boston branch contributed the first $25,000.
Ultimately, Smith says, they want the fund to benefit not just the owners involved, but also to boost Black-owned businesses like ZAZ in Hyde Park, The Coast Cafe in Cambridge, and the hundreds of musicians out of work.
“If we ain’t getting money, they ain’t getting money," Smith says. “When it comes to minority businesses and minority dollars banks and companies want to invest in, Black people are the minority of the minority. There’s a lot of zeros floating around. We are just looking to survive.”
And their survival is vital to an entire people.
The Teacher’s Lounge comes together most often at Black-owned restaurants to uplift Black educators and educators of color. Market Sharing helps feed the homeless, thanks to their relationship with Savvor. Queens Co. often holds its women empowerment events at Black-owned restaurants.
These places aren’t just places to eat and drink. This is often where Black Boston builds, networks, and thrives.
Farrah Belizaire, founder of LiteWork Events, says Black ownership is a key part of economic mobility and sustainability in our community. Her organization is dedicated to curating events for professionals of color, so keeping the doors open at places like La Fabrica and Darryl’s and Cesaria is important. Before social distancing, she was a guest bartender at District 7 Tavern.
“I’m often having to combat the stereotype that Black people don’t exist in Boston,” she says. “One way to change that narrative is to amplify the existence of social spaces owned and occupied by Black Bostonians. During these times it’s especially important to make sure these places can stay afloat.”
Smith says 2020 was supposed to be the year Black Boston showed up and showed out. He’s right. The NAACP was scheduled to bring its national convention to Boston this year, putting the city and Black-owned businesses in the spotlight.
He and the rest of the hospitality coalition first came together to advocate for city contracts and a seat at the table in discussions on liquor licenses, preferred vendors, and contracts. They were hoping to make a big impact, starting with the convention. And then coronavirus postponed life as we know it.
“We have to wait to have some of those conversations,” he says. “The focus is on coronavirus right now, as it should be. But what happens when the lights turn back on?”
The new normal cannot be to add more inequities to the pot.
We have to make sure people not only have places to return for work, for their food, drink, and camaraderie. We have to make sure we are crafting recipes that don’t leave them in the dark.