The Battle of Midway

By Michael Blanding | Boston Magazine |

If the walls at the Midway Café in Jamaica Plain could talk, they'd
probably slur. What passes for décor is a mismatched collection of
secondhand guitars, an American flag, and a pair of longhorns draped
with Mardi Gras beads. On stage is a band called the Cinders, whose
members look as if they haven't washed their hair in weeks. Just two
dozen people have come out tonight to hear the band's jangly guitar
rock. Still, its licks are tight, and heads are bobbing in the crowd.
 

“We were trying to re-create the feel of a house party in somebody's
basement,” says Jay Balerna, who owns the Midway along with his
brother, Dave. Both are tending bar tonight, and with a cover charge of
$5, it's a safe bet the owners and the band are all working for beer.

On nights like this, the Balernas eye the wall behind the bar, which
they've wanted to knock down for more than a decade to allow more
people in. “If we could bump up the capacity, we could charge a $10
cover,” says Jay. “Then you are going to flush out some bands people
will really turn up for.”

But the Balernas have been repeatedly stopped from expanding by the
city zoning board. They place the blame squarely on Doyle's Café, the
venerable watering hole a block up Washington Street with which they've
fought for years. If the Midway is the black sheep of the neighborhood,
Doyle's is the favorite son. Mayors, governors, and senators have been
regulars there, and the walls are lined with political memorabilia from
decades of city history. In the back there's even a Menino Room, named
in honor of the current mayor. To the Balernas, that smacks of
cronyism. “You don't name a room after someone until they're dead or
out of office or both,” says Jay.

The neighborhood dispute has grown into the biggest bar brawl in Boston
since Cheers took on Gary's Old Towne Tavern. It pits Jamaica Plain's
melting pot of townies, lesbians, and indie-rock hipsters against a
living relic of the neighborhood's Irish roots, harkening back to the
machine politics that ruled Boston in the days of the Rascal King,
James Michael Curley. The Balernas have filed suit in Superior Court,
charging that their application was denied because of political
pressure. Around the same time, a mystery bidder tried to buy the land
Doyle's sits on, but was stymied when the city sold it to Doyle's on
the cheap. And mayoral candidate Maura Hennigan has all but accused Tom
Menino of patronage in the dispute.

“There will always be Hatfields and McCoys,” says Hennigan, a city
councilor. “But what should never happen is a city government that
plays a role based on favoritism. I have no doubt that's what's
happening here.”

Doyle's Café was founded in 1882.During Prohibition it served booze
supplied by William Burke, grandfather of the current owner, Eddie
Burke. William Burke helped deliver votes to Curley, then a city
councilor. When Curley became mayor, he awarded the concessions
contract at the Franklin Park Zoo to Burke, who passed it on to his
son, John.

After Eddie bought the bar in 1971, he brought in his brother Jerry,
then working for Mayor Ray Flynn. Soon, Flynn started hanging out at
Doyle's, as did Senator John Kerry, Governor William Weld, and a young
city councilor named Tommy Menino. In 2003, to celebrate Menino's 10th
anniversary as mayor, the bar honored him by naming the back room for
him and lining it with framed glossies of Menino alongside the likes of
presidents Clinton and Bush Sr., Mother Teresa, and Pope John Paul II.

The contrast with the back room at the Midway Café could not be more
stark. Jay Balerna opens a door to a 363-square-foot space strewn with
tables and crates full of books, CDs, and holiday decorations. “We've
been paying taxes on this [room] for years, and it's just sitting
here,” he says.

The Balernas, who grew up in Hingham, bought the Midway in 1987. Like
many Boston feuds, their problems with Doyle's began over
parking—specifically, Midway patrons using spaces in the Doyle's lot.
Epithets were hurled; police were called. The Burkes filed charges
(later dropped) against the Balernas for trespassing. One of the
Balernas' employees accused Eddie Burke of kicking him in the groin.
The Balernas say Doyle's spearheaded the opposition to them before the
zoning board, which in 1994 turned down their first attempt to expand.
“They'll say they had nothing to do with it,” says Jay, shaking his
head. “But in my heart of hearts, I know that's where it comes from.”

One night the Balernas had a run-in with the mayor himself. As Jay
tells the story, Menino was coming out of Doyle's when the brothers
approached him with a package of information detailing their plans. The
mayor refused to take it, asking where they expected the extra patrons
to park. The Balernas say they walked away, dispirited. The story that
went around City Hall, however, was different. “Supposedly I called the
mayor a 'fucking moron' in front of his wife,” says Dave. Both brothers
insist this never happened. “I'm a businessman, not an idiot,” says
Dave. Adds Jay: “I was right there and I'll take a lie-detector test.
You don't ask for something and then curse the guy out.”

Mayoral spokesman Seth Gitell declines to comment on the supposed
incident. But whatever happened that night, it wasn't just the mayor
and the Doyle's owners who opposed the Midway's expansion. “The
neighborhood was pretty unified,” says Maureen Monks of the Stonybrook
Neighborhood Association. “They didn't respond to complaints about
noise or drunk patrons.”

Beginning in 1997, the Balernas changed their tune and sought
neighborhood support. Dave went to community meetings and donated soda
to block parties. The brothers came up with a plan to address
residents' concerns. “It was a 180-degree shift,” says Monks.

When they went back before the zoning board in January, the Balernas
were confident they had dotted all their i's and crossed their t's. One
local resident after another praised them. Five city councilors now
supported the expansion. Then a representative of the mayor stood up
and said Menino was still opposed because the written agreement with
the neighbors hadn't been in effect for a full year, as the mayor's
office had requested. When the vote was tallied, it was 2-2. The
Balernas had lost. “We were shaking, walking out of there,” Jay says.
“It was crushing.”

Jerry Burke says the dispute with the Midway is “ancient history” and
sums up the difference between the two bars this way: “As Jim Curley
used to say, a Great Dane always has a few poodles yapping at his
heels.”

A top city official agrees that Doyle's had nothing to do with the
ruling against the Midway. “Our decision is based on the merits of the
case and our experience with the applicants,” says Jay Walsh, director
of neighborhood services. The Balernas' recent cooperation with their
neighbors doesn't outweigh their years of neglect, he says. “When
residents start complaining because there are people parking on their
streets, the folks responsible for that is us.”

But to the Balernas' lawyer, Ed Cooley, it's much more simple. “If the
mayor decides you are not going to get the approval, you are not going
to get it,” Cooley says.

The story might have ended t h ere if not for a bizarre twist. In
March, the Boston Water and Sewer Commission quietly placed a notice in
the Boston Herald announcing it was selling a parcel on Washington
Street. What the notice didn't say was that the land was right beneath
a part of Doyle's and had been leased to the bar for $10 a year for
almost 100 years.

At auction, there were two bids for the parcel: one for $5,000 by the
Burkes and one for $101,000 by real estate lawyer Michael Tobin,
submitted on behalf of an anonymous client. The Balernas and Tobin deny
that the Midway was involved, though any new owner could hike the rent
for Doyle's or, according to one city official, demolish part of the
bar. “I got a good laugh out of seeing that,” Jay says of the secret
bid. He later met the bidder—a former cop, he says, who once had a
run-in with the Burkes.

When the commission announced its choice, though, Doyle's was the
unanimous winner, despite having bid $96,000 less. In a written
explanation, the commission said Tobin's bid was incomplete: It lacked
an explanation of what the bidder would do with the land and what
relevant experience he had. “It's explicit in the request that the
proposal must include all of that criteria,” says commission spokesman
Tom Bagley. “It weighed heavily.”

Like the Balernas, Tobin's client is considering suing, the lawyer
says: “It's pretty baffling. I think the city basically said that 'we
wouldn't give it to anybody else.'” Hennigan has called for a hearing.
“This property really belongs to ratepayers of Boston,” she says. “[The
commission's] job is to maximize people's assets to work on behalf of
the people. For it to completely throw out a $101,000 bid is a breach
of public trust.”

Whatever happens in court or council chambers, the annals of Boston
history may mark the Battle of Midway as the last gasp of an era. Last
month Eddie Burke ceded ownership of Doyle's to his nephew Gerry Jr.
and a partner, Chris Spellman. The Balernas describe the new owners as
standup guys who, like them, have worked in the trenches. “Hopefully,
with the new regime that moves in there, we can heal it over,” says
Jay. “But I have some deep wounds on this thing, you know.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2006/05/the-battle-of-midway-1/