As Boston gears up for a historic Election Day, it’s worth looking back at some of the issues voters implored the candidates to address. In addition to major concerns like housing, education, and policing, another issue also garnered some lively debate: inequities in Boston’s nightlife scene.
A community forum organized last month by George (Chip) Greenidge Jr., director of Greatest MINDS Boston, a nonprofit focused on cultivating the next generation of civic leaders, highlighted the ways in which Boston’s party scene is failing its Black communities.
At the Late Debate forum, about 80 people discussed the issue until the early morning hours at Kay’s Oasis, one of the only nightclubs in Mattapan. Both mayoral candidates Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu participated, as well as several City Council at-large candidates. Here are some of the issues voters raised at the event and in interviews, and what the candidates had to say about them.
Dress codes are still unfairly keeping people out
It’s common for nightclubs to have a dress code, but to many, they are thinly veiled attempts to keep out Black people, and Black men in particular.
That was the lesson City Council at-large candidate Bridget Nee-Walsh received at the Late Debate when she attempted to share what was apparently meant to be a funny story about former Patriots player Ty Law being turned away from a nightclub because he was wearing sweatpants.
“In the city, the dress code was implemented to keep us out of the clubs,” Marv Neal, general manager of 98.1FM The UrbanHeat, told Nee-Walsh during the Late Debate.
In an interview with The Boston Globe, Neal, who has worked as a club promoter, said there was a time when people could wear anything to a club, but at some point, establishments set rules around what types of clothing were banned.
“And these certain items of clothing [were] very specific to what young Black people were wearing at the time,” Neal said.
Some people at the event said dress codes weren’t enforced equally; white men would get in wearing the same type of clothes or shoes that kept Black men out. And some said they were less likely to be enforced on Black people on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday nights compared to prime evenings later in the week.
Refusing to play hip-hop is all too common
Another way Boston clubs often block Black folks from enjoying themselves is by refusing to play hip-hop, or refusing to host hip-hop centered events, some said.
Nomadik, a local DJ who also attended the Late Debate, said in an interview that in her experience, newer clubs or those trying to get more people in the door would open their venues up for hip-hop nights.
“But once it’s up and running and they’re having a lot of different things being booked, then all of a sudden, there’s no more hip-hop,” she said.
Neal said that as an events promoter, he’s been asked by club owners what kind of music he intends to play.
“If I say hip-hop and R&B, it’s like, ‘Oh no, we don’t do that here,’” he said.
You shouldn’t have to go all the way downtown to party
Many community members who spoke up at the Late Debate forum complained that enjoying a night out required them to head downtown because there weren’t many nightclubs in other neighborhoods, like Mattapan, where the event was held. Other than Kay’s Oasis and one or two other spots, “there’s no place for us to congregate,” Neal said in an interview.
“It just would be nice to have places that we could go, that didn’t involve us having to travel all the way downtown and have to pay for parking,” he said. “There should be places in the community that we can go and have a drink, and sit down and socialize with friends.”
At the community forum, mayoral candidates Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu agreed there should be more places for folks to enjoy a night out within Boston’s diverse communities, but both said Black and brown business owners should also have the opportunity to thrive downtown.
More Black-owned clubs could help address these issues — but too few exist
For his part, Neal said having more Black-owned clubs would reduce how often these issues come up.
“I understand some of the issues that we as Black people face when it comes to nightlife,” he said, “So, I’d be a bit more accommodating if I were a Black club owner.”
But the uphill battle doesn’t end when a Black person owns a club.
Late Debate organizer Greenidge and at-large candidate Ruthzee Louijeune both said Savvor restaurant and lounge was the only Black-owned nightclub in the downtown area, and that it was facing unfair noise complaints.
Greenidge said at the event that Savvor was also often blamed if a fight broke out on the street nearby.
The liquor licensing process poses a major roadblock
For many of the political candidates present at the Late Debate, liquor licenses played a key role in hindering Black business owners — and could prove equally key in helping them thrive.
These licenses can be prohibitively expensive. Wu told the crowd that eight Black-owned restaurants currently hold liquor licenses in a city where thousands of liquor licenses exist.
“The process is broken,” she said, pledging to remove barriers for small businesses that want to obtain liquor licenses and using federal COVID relief funding to support their growth.
“We do have liquor licenses especially associated with Mattapan that are ready, that are waiting for the right person to come along,” said Essaibi George, adding that the city recently received its first application for Mattapan. “The first in a very long time is a failure.”
She also pledged to use federal COVID relief funding to support small business.