Boston bar buzz-kill
City wants young innovation workers to flock here, but stifles their late-night fun
Like a lot of people, Mayor Tom Menino is hoping to make Boston a destination for eager young workers who might otherwise flock to Silicon Valley or New York. He’s proclaimed an Innovation District on the waterfront. He wants developers to build tiny, cheap “innovation units” to house work-focused techies and entrepreneurs. He’s even broken ground on an innovation center with meeting rooms and event space.
That’s all well and good, but what he ought to be thinking about is bars.
Nightlife — the bars, clubs, and restaurants where people hang out after hours — is a major part of the image a city presents to the world, or at least to a crucial sliver of entrepreneurial, highly mobile workers who are prone to comparison-shopping among cities. Yet Boston’s anti-fun image isn’t just bad publicity; it’s written into the law. Happy-hour drink promotions are banned statewide under a Dukakis-era state measure meant to curb drunk driving. Another state law requires bars to obtain a specific license before they allow patrons to dance. Boston’s entertainment license application asks venues to quantify their dartboards and wide-screen TVs. The rules are enforced. At a February concert at the House of Blues, Boston police broke up a mosh pit they deemed insufficiently supervised.
These restrictions hint at a deeper unwillingness to leave young Bostonians to their own devices, and they exist alongside more substantive barriers to nightlife — the scarcity and sky-high cost of liquor licenses; de facto neighborhood vetoes over new venues; and poor late-night transportation options.
Many of these restrictions exist because we in Boston have treated nightlife as disreputable. Yet these restrictions often aggravate the problems they’re meant to solve. And as Boston seeks to deepen its role in the innovation economy, a standoffish attitude toward bars and clubs threatens to hold the city back. What Boston needs is a dynamic, varied nightlife whose patrons are treated like sophisticated adults instead of drunken louts.
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IN HER BOOK “The Warhol Economy,” urban planning scholar Elizabeth Currid-Halkett documented how bars and other informal gathering places are crucial to New York’s art and fashion worlds, and she argues that high-tech startups work the same way. “These are industries that don’t adhere to 9 to 5,” she says in an interview. “The people in them are obsessed with their work, and it tends to spill over. And having social places for things to spill over to is crucial.” Malia Lazu, executive director of a new group called the Future Boston Alliance, argues that Boston has plenty to offer hard-partying college students and upscale empty-nesters — but far less for anyone in between.
This isn’t a theoretical problem for Diana Epstein, a 27-year-old Boston University graduate who’s an account executive at a mobile-advertising startup. She enjoys going out at night, and likes to entertain prospective clients at casual lounges that aren’t full of college kids. But there just aren’t many such establishments, she says. At bigger clubs, the fights at closing time are off-putting, and the dearth of cabs is a practical obstacle — not to mention a safety issue — for young women in heels. In 2005, when the cash-strapped MBTA canceled the Night Owl bus service that was transporting 1,200 riders a night, it wasn’t the city’s fault. But it is the city’s problem.
Let’s stipulate that not everyone who’s out drinking at 1:45 a.m. is taking a short break from designing iPhone apps, and that closing time is chaotic outside big clubs around the Theatre District, Lansdowne Street, and Faneuil Hall. As young patrons stream out ahead of the state-mandated 2 a.m. closing time, the MBTA is shuttered. As inebriated clubgoers argue about who hailed which cab, or as disagreements move from the dance floor to the sidewalk, fights break out — or far worse.
But the city’s response assumes that all drinkers are alike, and that imposing order is the only solution. After a murder at about 1:57 a.m. on April 28, Menino urged the Boston Licensing Board, the gubernatorially appointed agency that oversees liquor licenses in the city, to force clubs to stagger their closing times; the implication was that some should close well before 2 a.m.
Yet cracking down isn’t the only option. What if bars closed not sooner but later, so that patrons could dribble out on their own as they get tired or bored, instead of mobbing the sidewalk all at once? What if the city has too few nightspots packed into too few neighborhoods? Perhaps Boston needs more small, low-key nightlife venues scattered around the city.
Sadly, that’s not easily achieved. A quirk in state law makes liquor licenses far more expensive in Boston than in the rest of the state and thereby pushes license holders to move upscale — or do a volume business. No wonder Boston, despite its restrictions, ends up tarred as “America’s drunkest city,” as The Daily Beast recently deemed it.
Boston’s liveliest area may be the North End, whose dense concentration of small restaurants and watering holes keeps the neighborhood vibrant even at 10 o’clock on a weekday night. Inevitably, some residents feel victimized by their neighborhood’s popularity. On St. Patrick’s Day, North End residents complained about revelers who’d swarmed in from South Boston, where city officials had sought to combat rowdiness after the annual parade by requiring bars to close early. But the North End doesn’t need to shoo visitors away; much more of Boston needs to be like the North End.
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THE PERCEPTION REMAINS in some quarters that bars and restaurants bring noise and other nuisances while adding nothing in return. In Boston, we have a tradition of giving residents veto power over projects in their neighborhood. That was admirable when it stopped the Southwest Expressway and the Inner Belt a generation ago. Today, it means that city licensing agencies see their job as mediating between neighbors and would-be bar owners — and that even reasonable proposals can therefore be micromanaged, or blocked entirely, by abutters with exaggerated fears.
At the edge of Blackstone Square Park in the South End, for example, a key corner storefront on Washington Street sat unused for several years. Last summer, though, the owners of Stella, a successful restaurant across the park, proposed a Latin-themed, mid-priced bar and eatery for the site. The space is spectacular: during the daytime, big windows let in sunlight; at night, the hustle and bustle inside would have invigorated a desolate corner. But some neighbors steadfastly objected to the proposed hours, and to a patio that the restaurateurs deemed essential. After weeks of wrangling, the restaurateurs gave up. The space is still empty.
The potential for conflicts between nightlife and neighbors may only grow, as people move into the Financial District and other areas once devoid of residents. Big licensing headaches on top of high real estate costs mean that small, innovative bars and restaurants are less likely to emerge in Boston than in Cambridge and Somerville. That’s not terrible; Inman Square and Union Square are only a short car ride away. But concerns about drunk driving alone argue against letting nightlife stagnate in the heart of Boston. The Innovation District, at least, is increasingly lively, as national restaurant chains and local hospitality empires set up glittering new outposts. But is that enough? As City Hall tries to draw tech startups to the waterfront, it would be ironic if all but the most established, best funded nightlife companies were banished outside the city limits.
Any solution to what ails local nightlife will require leadership from the mayor’s office. In his latest term, Menino has promoted some of the main features of a progressive 21st-century city: a bike-sharing system, food trucks, a geographic space where high-tech businesses can cluster. Another key feature — a varied nightlife — can’t be imposed from the top down, but City Hall could help by persuading the Legislature that Boston needs looser rules. How about a new class of liquor licenses especially for smaller bars, or a new crop of nontransferable licenses with annual fees that support late-night bus service?
Today’s limits on nightlife are part of a broader pattern in Massachusetts. By restricting new market-rate housing, we’ve told young workers not to make homes here. By setting up unpredictable permitting gauntlets, we’ve told businesses to set up shop somewhere else. Yet there’s a vast quantity of economic activity that wants to happen in and around Boston, if only we let it. Boston isn’t the Big Easy, but it needn’t be the Big Difficult, either.
A city can overcome a sleepy nightlife scene, just as it can overcome chilly weather, or high real estate costs, or a perpetually troubled transit system, or the overtures that venture capitalists in California and New York make to its cleverest entrepreneurs. But a city can only fight the current in so many ways. The welcome we’re offering is conditional. Boston is asking young people to come here and work their hearts out — but on our terms, not theirs.
Dante Ramos, deputy editor of the Globe editorial page, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.