BOSTON DIDN’T NEED to brag when it pitched itself to Amazon as the logical spot for a second headquarters. The city’s air snaps with innovation, sparked by a surfeit of brainpower in technology, education, health care, and life sciences.
But just try to grab a burger and a beer after 11 p.m.
That’s why an idea taking hold in other cities — Amsterdam and San Francisco among them — should get serious consideration here: a night life manager. City Councilor Michelle Wu recently told Globe reporter Matt Rocheleau she’s open to the idea because it could bring economic benefits. “The real opportunity is unlocking this part of our economy that can create jobs for the people living in our neighborhoods,” Wu said.
It’s not like the city hasn’t tried. Mayor Walsh, recognizing the need to think beyond Boston’s traditional and tribal boundaries, set up a late-night task force, which recommended extending liquor license hours in select areas and easing restrictions on live music performances. But those efforts faltered in the state Legislature over concerns about an increase in drunk driving, traffic, and noise.
Other cities have notched some victories using the soft power of persuasion to find middle ground between conflicting agencies and interests. San Francisco’s night life coordinator led a commission to help ease permitting for live music. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed on to create an Office of Nightlife, led by a “night life mayor” who would work with bars, music venues, and neighborhood residents. The office has a $300,000 budget, according to the Observer.
Boston, of course, is not New York, and the city’s patchwork of century-old historic districts — along with active neighborhood groups who often turn out at meetings to oppose new development — can pose special challenges. “One thing we have to remember about Boston’s DNA is that we were founded by Puritans,” says Meg Mainzer-Cohen, the president and executive director of the Back Bay Association and a member of Walsh’s earlier task force. On Newbury Street, the number of full-service dining locations has actually gone down since the year 2000, according to an association study.
There’s no question that the city that pulled together the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, designed to apply data to civic projects, has the smarts to assemble the right hive mind in order to reinvent night life in 2018. To succeed, however, it will take dedicated resources — a night life manager with a savvy staff — and a willingness to experiment.
Boston could target specific neighborhoods and allow late-night restaurants and entertainment, as well as businesses to serve workers on the late shift. Any new task force needs to include voices not always heard in official planning efforts: millennials, startup entrepreneurs, and representatives from neighborhoods that aren’t predominantly white, for example. While previous efforts to jump-start late-night MBTA service have proved too costly, the advent of driverless cars suggests an untapped opportunity. Lyft customers on the South Boston waterfront can already order a ride in a self-driving Renault.
Whether or not Amazon chooses Boston, attracting and retaining brainy workers should be a priority. Appointing a “night mayor” is a great first step.