Why Is Boston's Nightlife Scene So Uptight?
If there’s one thing everyone involved in Boston’s nightlife seems to agree on — perhaps the only thing — it’s that we’re more uptight than a prom in Utah. Last week, the Globe hosted a panel discussion titled “Loosen Up, Boston?” as part of its Building a Better Commonwealth series, which was promising, if only for the fact that in the past, the city’s starched-collar establishment saw urban nightlife in much the same way that 19th-century ranchers saw Indians. Unfortunately, the 90-minute discussion and Q+A session was rich with predictable axe-grinding, and short on worthwhile questions, let alone answers or ideas.
Naturally, the things that came up immediately, as they do in every such discussion, included our 2 a.m. last call and the fact that the T’s carriages turn into pumpkins about the same time as Cinderella’s. But the effect of these on nightlife is hardly axiomatically negative: San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, and Portland, Ore., all have 2 a.m. last calls (2:30 in Oregon) and transit systems that begin shutting down after midnight, to name just a few cities we’re often compared to unfavorably.
More irrelevant still was the discussion of housing costs that came up repeatedly in panelist comments and audience questions. Panelist J. Alain Ferry, CEO of Innovation District start-up RaceMenu, spoke of the plague of young engineers who graduate from one of our local schools, spend a year or two here after graduation, then decamp to the brighter and more lively shores of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. My experience in the tech sector agrees with Ferry’s: We’re probably a distant third or fourth behind the Bay Area and NYC in desirability for young software whiz kids, and once they move there, they rarely return. But if anyone is choosing to live in Williamsburg over the South End, or the Mission District over JP, it’s certainly not because of the lower housing costs. I don’t know what the nightlife is like in Buffalo, where last call is 4 a.m. and a couple months of Back Bay rent could probably buy a house, but it probably makes Worcester look like Ibiza in the high season.
One worthy topic that did get at least some discussion if not much in the way of answers, was the role that neighborhood civic associations play in permitting and licensing. Randi Lathrop, deputy director of community planning for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, bemoaned the fact that no matter what the BRA tried to do or how it advertised meetings, nobody but the same old-timers ever showed up. “Go out and get involved” was her answer. Panelist Malia Lazu, executive director of the Future Boston Alliance, pointed out that as a young, single woman, showing up at her first neighborhood association meeting made her feel like an alien from outer space. Beyond that, it’s hard to see how younger people, who may move across town three to five times in the decade after college graduation, have much chance of building a lot of influence with neighborhood groups that reward seniority. The only sure answer is to give these groups less weight. I bet we’ll see Tom Menino campaigning in a Yankees hat before we see him defying his most reliable voting bloc.
But perhaps the best example of why progress here seems so tentative and halting came up in a discussion about bar closings and food trucks. Lathrop brought up the interesting point that the Boston police have seen downtown food trucks as a boon, because they’d rather see drunks stumbling around eating tacos and hot dogs than knuckle sandwiches, and this pointed to an increased opportunity for food trucks. But this point was quickly turned back by panelist Ali Fong, owner of the Bon Me food truck, who pointed out that trucks aren’t allowed to park close to bars and restaurants that the city sees as “competing” businesses. Moreover, only a handful of trucks are allowed to stay open after 10 p.m. Lathrop suggested that the City was thinking of allowing a few more to stay open until 11, and perhaps even 12 in the next year or so.
And therein lies the problem: Even presented with an idea on which the BRA, BPD, and local boozehounds largely agree, the City’s answer is to perhaps take one baby step this year, and another next year, and hey, maybe in five or 10 years we’ll get there. Innovation isn’t just a matter of how far you go, it’s also, and sometimes more importantly, a measure of how long it takes you to get there. And for many in Boston, not least the people who bought their houses and condos around the time today’s 20- and 30-somethings were born, there’s just no sense of urgency.