In the rare moments that they’re not pitching policy proposals or shaking hands on the campaign trail, the five major candidates to be Boston’s next mayor do occasionally allow themselves a bit of fun.
Annissa Essaibi George likes to let loose on the dance floor. Andrea Campbell treats herself to sushi and a lychee martini. Michelle Wu takes in jazz at the Beehive or gets tacos while watching Shakespeare in the Park. John Barros is happiest when live music is playing at his Dorchester restaurant, Cesaria. And Acting Mayor Kim Janey might be found watching a spoken word or neo-soul act at Darryl’s.
Which raises the question: How will the next mayor help make Boston more fun for all of us?
It’s not that Bostonians don’t know how to have a good time. But let’s be honest, this isn’t New Orleans. We end our evenings early. We keep our containers closed. We still have a few blue laws to remind us of our Puritanical roots. And the past 18 months has been brutal for the businesses we turn to when we want to let our hair down: 120,000 jobs in Greater Boston’s leisure and hospitality sectors were lost in March of last year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, and only 55,000 have returned.
So we asked the candidates: what would you do to make the city livelier and more vibrant, and to bolster the vital swath of the economy that is in the “business of fun” — the hospitality, entertainment, and tourism sectors — in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among their answers, some common themes: help small business owners navigate the city’s labyrinthine permitting process; reform the way liquor licenses are awarded and regulated; and keep thinking creatively about outdoor dining and public space.
Essaibi George immediately recognized the irony of talking fun when, as the mother of four boys, she’s typically called the “fun police.” But given the events of the past year-and-a-half, she says, now is the time to think about how the city can inject more fun into daily life.
“We have an opportunity to reimagine things on the other side of this pandemic,” said Essaibi George, who owns the Stitch House yarn shop in Dorchester and said cutting red tape for small business would help new ideas thrive, particularly for business owners of color.
“The city has to play a bigger role in cultivating those opportunities,” she said.
A self-described night owl who grew up visiting the city’s clubs, Essaibi George supports extended venue hours — with input from neighborhood residents — and revisiting late-night T service, both for club-goers and third-shift workers. And she thinks it’s time to do something about Boston’s reputation as a party town.
“We have to think creatively about jazzing up Boston,” she said. “People nationally come to Boston because we have history and sports, I don’t know if people see Boston as also the fun place to be. It’s a great deal of fun here but we have to really sell that.”
Campbell is working hard to sell her own agenda on fun. She says she’s the only candidate who has created a Restaurant Recovery platform, which includes expanding the use of patios and bringing pedestrian-only Open Street events into many more neighborhoods and creating a hospitality division to help City Hall better understand the industry’s needs.
One key issue: The availability of a liquor license.
State law limits the number of licenses in Boston, which has driven up the cost to buy one on the open market to roughly $400,000. This poses a massive barrier to entry for smaller operators, particularly restaurant owners of color, who are often outbid by deeper-pocketed downtown restaurants. In recent years, city officials have created more neighborhood-specific licenses, to help change that dynamic. Progress has been slow.
“Liquor license reform is essential,” Campbell said. “I live in Mattapan and it still doesn’t have a sit-down restaurant with a full liquor license.”
Campbell says one of her favorite initiatives is her plan for vacant lots. She wants to identify blighted city-owned buildings and lots and transform them into sites for housing and public spaces that can be used for events, concerts, and other gatherings.
“We know artists and performance spaces are being threatened by displacement,” she said. “The intention is to activate and make a community more fun.”
Wu believes that bringing people together is not only fun, but it’s good for democracy. That’s why she’s been pushing for more block parties and for Boston to adopt a Summer of Play program like the one in Philadelphia, which brings ice cream trucks and portable playground equipment to the city’s streets.
The pandemic-era shift toward working from home, and — for some anyway — to the suburbs, should prompt a rethinking of urban life. Boston can’t take its own desirability for granted.
“It’s up to cities to present a new value proposition,” Wu said. “It very much sits on how we support our arts and culture scene, our restaurant scene, and our placemaking and community building as we recover and reopen.”
That means supporting entrepreneurs.
Before moving to Boston Wu opened a tea shop in her hometown of Chicago, and saw firsthand the “barriers” that often keep immigrants, BIPOC entrepreneurs, and families with young children from launching businesses. As mayor, Wu said she’d ease access by “unwinding” the liquor license system through buybacks or a reverse auction, and will keep pushing for late night T service — long a priority of hers.
Having a thriving late-night scene isn’t just about the nightclubs downtown, she said, but about ensuring that various cultural and ethnic communities have spaces to gather into the night. Similarly, she said, many in Boston’s LGBTQ+ community have seen popular bars close amid rising rents and new development.
“It impacts more than where you go for a drink, but how you feel comfortable being a resident in the city,” Wu said.
Barros believes making Boston more inclusive is key to making it more fun. As chief of economic development under former mayor Martin J. Walsh, Barros helped launch the new All Inclusive Boston tourism campaign, featuring corners of the city that even Boston lifers may have never visited.
“It’s really a rebrand effort,” Barros said, advertising “that we are a cool city and a diverse city.”
Part of that means beefing up nightlife, Barros said, both downtown and in the neighborhoods. He wants to provide tax incentives so small businesses can host artists, musicians, and poets in their venues, subsidizing the cost through workforce development programs. Barros, too, points to liquor licenses, saying he’s open to a buyback program to provide cash to “businesses that are under water.”
And Barros wants to open up streets with more pedestrian zones and seasonal events, like a winter Festival of Lights.
“I think we need to have more permanent infrastructure where people can meet other people,” Barros said. “It starts with creating safe spaces to go in places you don’t know.”
Since taking over as acting mayor, Janey has introduced what she calls a “Joy Agenda” that aims to keep fun front and center. So far, that’s manifested in free yoga and Zumba classes in public parks, coffee hours with artists and city officials, and grants to help local civic groups host events.
“We have to build relationships with each other to help in the dismantling of structural racism, and to deal with the many crises of housing and public welfare,” she said. “All these things require hard work. And it’s important that we take time for that joy.”
Janey says she would also help small businesses. A new app launched under her watch, B-local, offers a reward program at neighborhood businesses, and the city is creating a program that will provide funds that restaurants struggling to find staff can use for recruitment and retention bonuses. She’s aiming to put equity front and center at City Hall as a way to spread Boston’s prosperity across all its neighborhoods. And she’s already funneled an extra $1 million to the All Inclusive tourism campaign.
In general, Janey said, she hopes Boston can overcome some of its more Puritanical ways, while respecting residents’ quality of life concerns, and bring residents together in a new, joyful way.
“Boston is both an old city and a young city,” she said. “There is a tremendous opportunity to move us forward.”