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mike ross

Let the bubbly flow on Boston Common

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Recently, the young families of Petworth — a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. — found themselves in remarkable agreement over what they were missing: “What we really need is a beer garden that includes a playground.” This online post went viral, suggesting a ripe business opportunity in the otherwise residential enclave, lined with row houses and filled with children.

No such luck for Boston, however. Here, The Way We Parent Now runs squarely up against antiquated Yankee mores.

The dispensing of adult beverages in parks and public spaces is common throughout Europe. In many enlightened American cities, too. It helps to attract more people, whether meeting co-workers and friends at the Boathouse in New York City’s Central Park, or warming up with a “vin chaud” among ice skaters in front of Paris’s City Hall. On the Boston Common, however — where there is a daily struggle to find positive activities and vibrant uses to drown out the panhandling, drug use, and petty crime — teetotalers rule.

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On several occasions, Boston had a chance to get it right. In 2011 an abandoned structure on the Boston Common was publicly bid to house a private eatery, but the operator was forbidden to sell alcohol. (Disclosure: As a city councilor I was involved in the push to revitalize the space.) What resulted was not a fun little bistro, but just an average sandwich chain more typically found in suburban shopping malls.

In the winter, skaters at Frog Pond can sip hot chocolate at the cafe, but unfortunately there’s no mulled wine on the menu. And then in the summer there’s Shakespeare on the Common, with its sublime performances, free to the public, that remind Bostonians why they love living here. Instead of the Parks and Recreation Department or the nonprofit benefiting from needed concession revenue through the sale of wine and beer, a warning on their website forbids it, resulting in people flouting the law by bringing their own ensconced in picnic baskets (well, my group did anyway).

Boston’s prohibition harkens back to another time, when alcohol was seen as a scourge — and not the economic development tool it’s become to foster community.

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In 1934, New York City Mayor LaGuardia’s plan to established beer gardens in Central Park were decried as “debauchery” by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Since then, though, that city has moved on, while things on Boston Common remain stubbornly the same.

Meanwhile, elsewhere throughout the city, progress abounds, with the Globe Magazine even recently asking, “When did Boston get so fun?

On Lawn on D, South Boston’s exciting open space, beer and wine are safely served. Even at the city-owned golf course at Franklin Park, as of mid-season last year, according to the Parks Department, the mayor directed operators to allow for the service of beer along the course as they do at the other city-owned course, George Wright.

Liquor sales aren’t going to solve the serious challenges that plague the Common. But, by attracting more families and younger Bostonians, they’re not going to make them worse, either. By next summer, Shakespeare on the Common should be allowed to sell wine and beer. The Frog Pond’s next bid in 2020 should include criteria that includes a liquor license. And perhaps across the street at the crown jewel of the park system, the Public Garden, officials might find a tasteful way to allow visitors a cool sip of wine.

It’s time for the city’s central play space, the Boston Common, to catch up.


Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.