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 startup 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.

  • joe

    Hi,great writeup but even you missed the most obvious omission. Ummm ,how come there was no one from the actual nightlife community. It was ABOUT nightlife. Not one person on the panel was from the industry. And the Q&A was a bunch of rambling dissertations about the high cost of housing.Instead of worrying about other cities and what we can’t control,such as climate and housing costs,how about we figure out how WE as a city can move forward.As excited as I was that such a topic was even being broached,I was equally disappointed that at the end of the day,Boston is not ready to change. How can change be affected when we can’t even have a logical,thoughtful conversation with the people who are actively involved. Or have even one city official who can affect any change. Same crap,different day.

  • Gustavo

    I agree Joe- to not have a single nightlife entrepreneur on the panel really misses the mark. However, I do think there were some very important points made about THE critical issue: the high cost and low supply of liquor licenses. It was pointed out how incredibly expensive and difficult it is to obtain a license. This creates enormous barriers for new entrepreneurs who may want to start a small, maybe non-traditional, maybe untested restaurant or bar concept. Instead, the high cost of the liquor license alone has helped to create an almost “mono-culture” of nightlife with the predominant nightlife option being fairly cookie cutter sports bars. Those are easy concepts to make a lot of money off of from their very broad audience. Of course the City has a number of great nightlife options that are more eclectic and creative in vision, but their minority status in the sea of flat screen tv glowing mega bars in town is one of the reasons we are often ranked lower than other cities. Its not so much that we dont have nightlife, its the breadth of its diversity. Understanding the root cause of that is important if we are to build our way out of that hole.

    • http://blogs.bostonmagazine.com/boston_daily/author/ckingsbury/ Colin Kingsbury

      Joe: Very good point. Wonder if any were invited, and declined. If I had a license, I’d probably lean towards keeping my head down and mouth shut.

      Gustavo: Cambridge doesn’t have a state-imposed cap on liquor licenses, they can issue more anytime they want. Is the nightlife there that much better/different than Boston’s? I’m all for more licenses, but from what I’ve seen, getting a liquor license is an expensive proposition in a lot of cities, not just here. I’m not convinced we’re uniquely worse.

      What I have noticed in a lot of other cities that is almost completely absent here is tolerance for a little chaos and anarchy. Dance on top of bar in NYC or SFO, and you might get a free shot. Here, you’ll get bounced. Then you have the recent ban on moshing. The lines of “acceptable behavior” are a little tighter here and that gives us a more uptight texture.

  • Liz

    I wonder how the following factor into the general social vibe of Boston. These are my general observations as a Miami gal who lived in Boston for 15 years..

    1) Largest employers are medical and higher education. Overall, a serious-minded group of people*, who of course like to go out, but may tend to keep public, social situations down to a low roar.

    2) Boston is a small enough city to be more like a town. You run into people all the time when you are out and about. I heard all kinds of comments that went like this: “Did you see so-and-so last night. Wow, s/he drank a lot.” Now of course we all will party like this once in a while, BUT if people start noticing behavioral patterns over time, it is not positive. The repercussions of how people perceive us over time can keep us “in check” today while we are out socializing. Future jobs and opportunities are in the same room with us today.

    3) People have roots in Boston. The scenario above is likely to develop more often than not b/c people know of each other, if only socially, over a period of several years.

    Just food for thought….

    *I say this as a generality. I’m also married to a professor, and worked in higher education for 15 years. At one institution, I signed a document indicating that I understood I am a representative of X, on and off the clock. Read between the lines…

  • expat from other city

    nightlife? Boston has no central districts where young people hang out. the scene is far too dispersed – maybe a handful of bars/clubs in far flung neighborhoods where only people who live nearby hang out – and if you live somewhere else you whine about how the T doesn’t run past midnight – whereas other cities where there is more of a perceived night-life it’s all concentrated in maybe a couple areas.

    dance clubs seemed to not have survived around here like in other places – although the dance club scene in places like NYC is mostly creepy middle-aged eastern europeans and the cast of jersey shore – elsewhere it’s mostly just kids on drugs.