Just before 6 p.m., Corean Reynolds moseyed into Hue, a glitzy Back Bay supper club, to talk to a reporter about her new role in City Hall, wearing a Barbie pink blazer and Crocs. By way of introduction, she blurted out a laughing admission.
“No one,” she said, “seems to know what my job actually is.”
That job — the title, at least — is director of nightlife economy, a new role in the Wu administration charged with repairing Boston’s reputation for being dull after dark.
Reynolds started on March 6, and already misconceptions about her role abound. Some people seem to believe she’s in charge of fixing every minute licensing hurdle. So much so that when a Fenway restaurant recently sought to extend its hours until 2 a.m., Reynolds received a flood of e-mails demanding she get involved. (“That’s too micro,” she said.) Others seem to think she’s there to schmooze on the taxpayers’ dime. (“I wish my job was just going out,” Reynolds quipped. “That sounds like a dream.”)
What is the job then?
Reynolds’s responsibility is to “be a liaison” — a word she used at least a half-dozen times — between club promoters and politicians; to clear the way for more businesses to operate late into the night; and to craft policy that will expand nighttime culture in all 23 neighborhoods, for all demographics.
“Because we’re popping during the day,” Reynolds said. “But at night. . . .”
At 31, Reynolds does not have professional experience in nightlife specifically. But a dozen high-powered Bostonians heralded her as a champion for entrepreneurs of color with a knack for learning on the fly. For seven years, she doled out grants and loans at the Boston Foundation, making what former colleague Vetto Casado described as a “meteoric rise” through the century-old organization in her 20s.
In “the city that always sleeps,” Reynolds is the first to admit that she alone can’t mend the T or a liquor licensing system that favors white neighborhoods. And only the Legislature can reverse the 1984 ban on happy hour.
But what Reynolds can do, according to Nicole Obi, president of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, is be “the sand between the rocks.”
“Boston has housing issues, transportation issues,” Obi said. “We’ve got to do better on racial equity. But there are already smart people working on those things. This job is ideal for Corean, because she can fill in the gaps the rocks don’t cover and focus on this crucial part of the city. She can make nightlife thrive.”
Corean Reynolds (pronounced “ko-reen”) grew up on the South Side of Chicago, though from ages 5 to 9 she lived in Boston, Methuen, and Revere. Her parents met in Harvard Square — her father was among the Ivy League’s few Black graduate students in the 1980s; her Puerto Rican mother worked at the bookstore. Most relatives on her mother’s side are “people who keep the city going,” she said, including firefighters in Back Bay, nurses at Boston Medical Center, and the former head custodian of Boston Public Schools.
She remembers her childhood in musical milestones. In fifth grade, she was cast as the lead in a musical. A few years later, she joined the Chicago Children’s Choir, traveled as far as Japan and Korea to perform, and performed as a backup singer for an enthusiastic 12-year-old on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Then came college at Michigan State, where the idea of a music career lost its zhuzh.
Reynolds tried an urban planning class, then another.
“That’s it,” she thought. “I found it.”
Upon graduating, Reynolds moved back to Chicago. But the city felt stale. Her mother had a spare room in Mattapan, so Reynolds retreated to Boston. After a year of odd jobs — retail and nannying — she was weeks from moving to Austin, Texas, to work for Apple Maps when the Boston Foundation called her back with an offer to manage funding for organizations that support immigrants and marginalized groups.
Her boss, Damon Cox, took to her quickly.
“I wanted someone who was a neophyte as much as I was to a certain extent,” said Cox, who now works at MassChallenge. “Her knowledge of politics, her city planning background, the arts — all of those skill sets led to her understanding the space.”
During her time at the Boston Foundation, Reynolds raised $9 million and cofounded the Business Equity Fund, which has invested in 19 Black- and Latino-owned companies since 2018. At the start of the pandemic, she launched a fund for companies that did not qualify for Payroll Protection Program loans and became a driving force behind the Coalition for an Equitable Economy, a fledgling small business advocacy group.
The week that the PPP launched, Reynolds hosted a training session on the application with trade groups and nonprofits.
“Before you even had a chance to think, Corean had 60 folks on a call,” said Urban Labs founder Malia Lazu.
But when it comes to nightlife, some are still wondering if she’s right for this job.
”What makes her qualified to decide on nightlife rather than the people who have been in and around the industry for years?” said Mivan Spencer of Caffe Dello Sport and Pazza on Porter. “Has she owned a restaurant before? A club?”
But Lazu believes that might be an asset.
“Corean doesn’t owe the usual suspects anything,” she said. “No one is going to roll up to her at the country club telling her she’s messing up.”
Then there’s her tendency to be, as Reynolds put it, “a squeaky wheel in a quiet room.” Colleagues remember her emceeing fund-raisers, singing in team meetings, and whipping up fried chicken in her Jamaica Plain kitchen during a pandemic-era virtual event. Shortly before Cox left the Boston Foundation in 2018, Reynolds threw together a goodbye bash themed after his favorite musician, Prince.
“It just shows that she has a knack for making people feel seen,” Cox said.
Of course, Reynolds isn’t the first person to try to fix Boston nightlife.
Former mayor Martin J. Walsh gave it a shot in 2014, when he assembled a 24-person task force. Two years later, the team released a list of recommendations to allow restaurants to stay open later, extend live music hours, and streamline the liquor license process.
It started a public conversation but made little tangible progress besides a 2017 rule that changed the number of licenses in farther-flung neighborhoods.
Now Reynolds has those same goals on her agenda. For the next few months, she intends to assemble an advisory council of her own, fill up vacant downtown storefronts with after-hours options, and create a database of activities for couples, partiers, and sober folks alike.
“Where can I go to listen to hip-hop?” Reynolds asked. “Or watch a drag show? Or eat scallops?”
Then there are ideas she riffs off nonchalantly, while tapping her nails — imprinted with the City of Boston logo — on the table. Reynolds is considering expanding “bring your own bottle” licenses and diversifying ownership of after-hours establishments. She also wants to drum up excitement for all that Boston already has yet doesn’t get credit for: Mangia Monday at MIDA, pistachio martinis at the Pearl, and R&B nights at Big Night Live among them.
“I never walk away from something unless I do it and I fail,” Reynold said. “Growing up, I thought of the world as my own. And I think of this city as my own. Everybody knows the problems with nightlife. They are repeated again and again and again. Let’s get to the solutions.”