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‘Boston is not a real city’: College students say city night life is lacking

It’s hard to have fun if you’re not 21 — and once you are, be prepared to pay up.

Bostonians danced through the night at Mariel Underground, a nightclub in downtown Boston, last summer.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

After tens of thousands of students returned to Boston last week month on the busiest moving day of the year, the city feels back to normal.

With over 150,000 college students, Boston is widely accepted as a college city — but it’s missing a major element. Boston is not famous for its night life, but rather for its lack thereof: clubs, bars, and public transportation close early and going out is expensive.

Students at universities in Boston say the city has its good qualities, but many feel night life is not one of them. Students’ complaints are myriad, but, like other Bostonians, they say they’re not getting enough bang for their buck.

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“It gets boring. It gets monotonous,” said Emma Fraley, a 23-year-old graduate student at Boston University who uses they/she pronouns. “If you want to try something new, you have to go to a bigger city.”

On a night out, Fraley and her friends frequent queer night life spaces such as Legacy in Chinatown and Club Cafe in Back Bay. They said the cost of getting there, buying drinks, and getting home make the experience much less fun. With the T’s last trains departing as early as 12:30 a.m. and most clubs closing at 2 a.m., Fraley said they and their friends often opt to Uber home. If prices are too expensive, they said, they just walk home from the Back Bay venue to their homes in Brookline.

While Fraley wished the T would run later — ideally 24 hours, but she said she’d settle for later schedules on the weekends — Fraley said they were glad they felt safe enough to walk home.

“Even if we’ve been drinking, we never feel unsafe,” Fraley said. “It makes it easier to go out because you don’t have to worry about how you’re getting home, especially if the T is closed.”

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For other students, like 22-year-old Logan Meda, the lack of late-night transportation puts a damper on a night out. Meda said he and his friends opt for bars or clubs within walking distance of Mission Hill, where he lives, instead of downtown, to avoid getting stuck there after the T closes. When they do go downtown, he said, it’s nearly impossible to have a carefree night out.

“It really is a barrier that you have to constantly be watching the clock knowing you have to get to a T stop at a certain time,” Meda said.

Students also lamented the lack of night life options — and the price to get into each venue. In many cases, students said they regularly paid between $10 and $30 just to enter a bar or club where drinks started at $9 or $10. High covers serve as a clampdown on bar hopping, and expensive drinks mean most people start the night with a “pregame” — meeting up to share a few BYO drinks before heading out.

Justin Chen, a 22-year-old Northeastern student, said high cover costs put an unnecessary pressure on going out.

“You have to commit to going to one place because every time you want to go somewhere you have to fork over 10, 20, 30 bucks,” Chen said. “Cover should not be a thing. I’m going to spend money inside, and I might spend more if I don’t pay a cover.”

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Chen, who is friends with Meda, said their group often seeks out other activities — such as trivia nights, bars with built-in arcades known as barcades, and bowling — that don’t charge them to enter. While these events are typically family-friendly, Meda pointed out that many venues are age-restricted and exclude underage patrons.

Spots that allow people of all ages, like restaurants, often close before bars or clubs, leaving younger college students with nowhere to go when the night is still relatively young.

“Being under 21 in Boston is difficult because even things that aren’t about buying or consuming alcohol are affected by it,” Meda said. “You can’t do a lot of family-friendly stuff unless you’re 21, so what you’re left to do once everything closes is drink outside or in a friend’s apartment.”

“There’s a lot of encouragement to do things in a sneaky, breaking-the-rules way because it’s the only thing you can do,” he added.

While many students look forward to turning 21, being of age is a double-edged sword, said 21-year-old Maddie Edwards. The doors to many popular spots open, but so do students’ wallets, putting extra strain on low-income young people living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.

“Boston is so much more fun when you’re 21, but it’s also infinitely more expensive,” Edwards said. “When I’m on co-op I can afford it, but I don’t know how students can afford going out.”

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Edwards said she spends “way too much” on her nights out, estimating $10 or $15 on transportation — splitting the cost of an Uber with friends — and another $20 or $30 on drinks. If there’s a cover, she’s out another $20 on average, bringing her nightly total to a minimum of $50.

Fraley, Meda, and Chen estimated they spend $30 to $50 a night.

But why even go out if it’s so expensive? Dr. Michelle DiBlasi, chief of inpatient psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center, said it’s essential to human brain development that people build relationships and socialize, especially as adolescents and before the age of 25, when the brain is considered developed.

A lack of socialization can lead to mental health concerns such as loneliness, anxiety, and depression, as well as long-term health risks such as cardiovascular disease and dementia, DiBlasi said.

She said a healthy social life has balance: It’s not expensive enough to cause financial stress, but still provides meaningful connections and experiences.

“[Young adulthood] is about learning how to be a successful adult,” DiBlasi said. “There are lots of facets, but the big ones are relationship building, social interaction, and executive functioning — things like balancing finances and planning ahead. ... If [going out] is important to someone, they have to balance it out in their budget.”

While its high cost of living and tight housing market put Boston in the same sentence as cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, it doesn’t have the same redeeming qualities, such as dollar-slice pizza or happy hour, Edwards said, one factor why many young people don’t see themselves living in Boston long term.

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“After visiting New York, I was like, Boston is not a real city,” she said. “It’s just as expensive here housing-wise, the night life is infinitely worse, public transportation is not up to par. … It’s just, like, why?”


Vivi Smilgius can be reached at vivi.smilgius@globe.com. Follow her @viviraye.