There was something suspiciously un-Bostonian about the beer gardens that popped up in spots like the Greenway and the Seaport over the last two years. Something about people drinking beer, outside, at night, surrounded by the twinkling lights of the city, in a place that wasn’t quite a restaurant and wasn’t quite a bar.
It was far too much fun.
Really, who was surprised when a couple of lawmakers, backed by surly restaurateurs, proposed cracking down on beer gardens this month? If it’s new, and it’s fun — and especially if it’s outside — count on some official to nix it, or impose a raft of new regulations.
Remember what happened to those wild and crazy establishments that dared to spontaneously open their patios during the Super Bowl parade? Ticketed by Boston police. How long will it take to open a pot shop in this town? Three months after the first ones opened elsewhere in Massachusetts, permitting is still ongoing. Maybe we’ll never know.
“The people of Boston are much cooler than Boston’s culture,” declared Malia Lazu, the founder of the Urban Labs and a longtime activist on quality-of-life issues in the city.
Lazu, whose activist career started when she couldn’t get a permit to hold a hip-hop concert on Boston Common, has worked on getting late night T service and loosening the liquor license restrictions in the city.
Not much has changed on those fronts in seven years. That intractability keeps power in the hands of the powerful, she said, instead of a new class of entrepreneurs and leaders.
State and city politicians say they want Boston to be more experimental and bold, Lazu said, but fail to take the steps to “become an open system where people can thrive.”
While the specific language of the new beer garden bill has been in flux, the proposal would limit the one-day alcohol permits that both seasonal beer gardens and nonprofits have depended on to host events. The bill’s sponsors say the government should create a new seasonal license for beer gardens.
But beer garden proprietors fear the changes could be permits that are more expensive and difficult to get.
Others are worried about the bill, too. Geno Green, who runs the day-drinking party Brunch So Hard through his 1120 Entertainment group, fears the new legislative proposal on one-day liquor licenses — the beer garden bill — could jeopardize his plans for a series of fitness brunch events this spring (think workouts followed by mimosas).
He said the city empties out on long weekends to the point that he’s wary of hosting events.
“You need places where you can hang out and have a beer and not spend a ton of money,” Green said.
Boston, of course, has a proud history of being anti-fun, going back to the Puritans.
“Typical Boston,” Neil Miller said with a sigh after being told of the beer garden dispute. Miller, an English professor at Tufts University, is the author of “Banned in Boston,” a history of the Watch and Ward Society (a.k.a., the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice). The group banned books, burlesque shows, and gambling from 1878 to the 1930s to protect city residents’ morals.
“New England has this moral conscience,” Miller said. “We’re sort of an old city compared to someplace like Los Angeles or Miami, where you didn’t have this ruling class that were looking out for the good of everyone else.”
Public libraries and caring for the poor are the upside of that moral heritage, he said. Fun is not.
Some cities, like New York and Washington, D.C., are taking a new approach to regulating fun after dark. Inspired by European models in Amsterdam and London, both have recently installed “night mayors” to act as a liaison between nightlife businesses and government.
Boston officials scoff at such novelties — and at the idea that they’re sticks-in-the-mud.
“We are constantly transforming the way we traditionally activate space and encourage entertainment to better serve residents, businesses and visitors and maintain Boston's high quality of life,” John Barros, the city’s chief of economic development, said in a statement.
As Barros noted, the city did, in fact, assist with permitting the Trillium beer garden on the Greenway and brewery in Fort Point, as well as other colorful additions, like public art and pop-up retail.
To demonstrate their commitment to fun, representatives from the mayor’s office supplied an official list of “Playful Boston” initiatives, from opening up Newbury Street to pedestrians, to creating parklets in parking spaces, and hosting a series of events — including, yes, another beer garden on City Hall Plaza. In all, the city issued 82 one-day licenses for beer gardens last year.
Local officials complain that state laws complicate such innovations by requiring the city to go hat in hand to the State House to get approval for new alcohol provisions. The city has pushed for more direct oversight of the liquor licensing process in an effort to create a more equitable license distribution and vibrant streetscape. Its latest petition seeks 184 new nontransferrable licenses.
“Our restaurants and businesses serve as economic engines for our neighborhoods and, for them to succeed, Boston needs flexibility over the liquor license process so we can make sure they have the tools they need to thrive,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement.
Beer garden advocates say the legislative proposal to overhaul those licenses would only throw up more roadblocks.
State Senator Nick Collins of South Boston, who cosponsored the bill, insists he isn’t a 21st-century Cotton Mather.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I like beer gardens,” he joked over coffee this week. (His busy schedule prohibited him from getting a beer with a reporter, he explained.)
Beer gardens, under current law, have to pull a series of one-day permits to operate — and often have several employees submit the paperwork to get around the 30-permit-per-holder limit. Collins wants semipermanent beer gardens to have seasonal licenses instead. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association, which sees beer gardens as a threat to restaurateurs, loves this idea.
But established seasonal beer gardens, like Trillium, are concerned about the changes because they have no idea what might be involved in the new process, only that it might be more costly to get a permit and they might become harder to get.
Trillium co-owner Esther Tetreault said earlier this month that she wants to work with lawmakers “to create a better solution” that benefits consumers and nearby residents.
Collins contends the bill simply aims to ensure beer-soaked events occur legally. “Otherwise we’re promoting scofflaws,” he said, acknowledging the irony of using the term (a Prohibition-era term for “lawless drinker”).
But he conceded that the Legislature might reconsider some of its priorities. Perhaps, he allowed, lawmakers should reconsider the state ban on happy hour. Or consider using state-owned land to build retail and entertainment complexes, like New York’s Hudson Yards project.
“Maybe,” he ventured, “we need a legislative package geared toward fun.”
Three cheers to that.