For municipal officials in Boston, it’s unfortunately fitting for City Hall to be physically situated at the foot of Beacon Hill, awkwardly wedged under the legislature’s heel. The metaphor is spot-on, and a reminder of how the blue bloods who once dominated state government distrusted their ethnic urban counterparts, from the Irish who rose to prominence in the early 20th century, to leaders of color who have since come of political age through local ranks. This prejudice has historically fueled a number of power grabs, including the appointment of a watchdog agency, the Boston Finance Commission, designed to keep the Hub under state supervision.
Of the many handcuffs for which Mass lawmakers still hold the keys, none hobble civic progress more than tight restrictions on liquor licensing. In short, Massachusetts puts a cap on the amount of bars and restaurants that are allowed to peddle booze, and as such has spawned a status quo in which a license just to operate a wet establishment sells for in the ballpark of $500,000. As a result – and since owners can transfer those permissions anywhere they want – Boston suffers from intensely deep nightlife disparities. Whereas Back Bay has in excess of 100 spots to grab a cocktail, for example, Roxbury and Mattapan have a combined total of three such entertainment options. In the words of Future Boston Alliance Executive Director Malia Lazu: “The old power structure was scared about the new power structure coming in, so it comes from a hurtful place.”
To correct this epic inequity, City Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley has for years led a crusade to bring more restaurants to squares and corners where liquor stores outnumber bistros, grills, and taverns. Before Tom Menino left office, Pressley won support from the former mayor (and all but one city councilor) to petition the state Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure to surrender its hold over liquor permitting. Yesterday, the councilor’s effort finally reached Beacon Hill, where her and a brigade of other advocates explained how licensing is simultaneously a civil rights and civic issue with innumerable social factors mixed in. There were far too many moving testimonies to mention in the detail they deserve, but these few moments particularly resonated …
-Karen Henry-Garrett, owner and operator of the Dot 2 Dot Cafe in Dorchester, shared the gist of her monthly numbers, which have kept her popular spot floating for more than five years, but have never tallied high enough for her to turn a profit. Henry-Garrett said her cafe has become a well known diverse community space, but worried that without a light at the end of the tunnel – a beer and wine license, for example – she’ll have to make drastic adjustments. As things stand now, she can’t afford to staff her restaurant for Friday dinner, as the prospective customer base is too small without a wine menu.
-Carlos Pineda, a new restaurant owner at Mi Casa Tu Casa on Hancock Street in Dorchester, said he’s inquired about beer and wine licensing, but has been told to not bother applying, as the prospects of him actually attaining such a permit are infinitesimal. To keep the grill hot and water running, Pineda still works an additional side job six days a week.
-We heard from Donnell Singleton, a Roxbury resident and business owner who lamented the lack of places around his community for families to patronize after church on Sunday. Driving home his point, Singleton communicated how the purchasing power of Roxbury residents is unfairly compromised when locals have to dine elsewhere. Greg Ball, a Dorchester native plus the brains behind the Boston-based media outfit KillerBoomBox, doubled down on those sentiments.
-Rev. Dr. Bill Loesch, a senior citizen and Codman Square activist, said he’s discussed this issue on numerous occasions with former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, and they both agree that an expansion of licensure could spur needed business in deserted corners of the city.
-Chris Douglass of the Ashmont Grill and Tavolo stood up for restaurateurs who are selfless enough to hope younger chefs can start up with a fraction of the overhead and headaches he endured. Impressively, Douglass employs about 60 people in total, many of whom come from the surrounding Dorchester area.
-State Rep. Russell E. Holmes, who sponsored the House bill on behalf of Pressley and its Boston boosters, reminded the committee that Mattapan and Roxbury are the only two neighborhoods with more liquor stores than restaurants. He also stressed how the latter can serve as critical anchors for struggling business districts, and complained about having to “leave our neighborhoods to get fine dining.”
-Other state officials also threw their two cents in the tip jar. State Sen. Linda Dorcena-Forry dittoed many of the comments by colleagues before her (and said she’s spoken with the administration of Mayor Marty Walsh, who is also on board), while State Rep. Dan Cullinane, who represents neglected nooks including Mattapan Square, called liquor licensing “an issue of equality and economic justice.”
-Roxbury Councilor Tito Jackson, also a longtime proponent of securing avenues for food and nightlife ventures in his district, was explicit in his advocacy: “This is not about wanting to party,” he said. “It’s about access to opportunity.” Jackson also spoke about the $600 million-plus in development planned for Dudley, and his fears that incoming workers and residents will spend their discretionary income elsewhere. “There’s literally no place [in Dudley] for me to sit down, eat, and have an adult drink,” Jackson said.
Of them all, no one spoke more more convincingly than Pressley, who shepherded this effort from forgotten main streets throughout Boston all the way to Beacon Hill. Admirably determined in tone, she mocked the current law for being more than 100 years old, and linked an increase in restaurant activity to the promise of healthy communities. In a heartfelt prepared statement that would have come off as a tad excessive if the stakes weren’t so high, Pressley laid out a potential motto for the movement to bring communities of color up to speed with Boston’s economic boom: “This is about fairness … The time is now … Success that isn’t shared really isn’t success at all.”
Surprisingly, there was little vocal opposition; even the two parties who testified against certain aspects of the bill – an attorney representing various downtown interests, a delegate from the grotesque Massachusetts Restaurant Association – only took issue with relatively minor details. They could be playing hardball behind the scenes, as a handful of license holders are expected to take issue with the perceived threat of competition. Their concerns, however – that restrictions should be put on transferability, that some kind of cap might be better than no permit limit whatsoever – seem reasonable. With that said, it’s important to call out the aforementioned lawyer for noting that the Beacon Hill Civic Association is considering the measure, and has vowed to work with Pressley. While that’s a lovely gesture, it would be nicer if they took their pretty heads out of their spoiled asses long enough to acknowledge that this isn’t about them one bit, but rather about under-served communities that haven’t benefited from centuries of privilege on top of close proximity to legislators.
In their role, the committee members vetting testimony seemed vaguely interested overall, and at times insultingly dismissive. Not one legislator had a single question immediately following Pressley’s testimony, leading one to wonder just how seriously they are considering the bill. Depressing as that is, in a way, their apathy is okay, because if licensure expansion advocates learned anything on Beacon Hill Tuesday, it’s that the House and Senate may need to have some sense beaten into them regarding this issue, and perhaps even a visit from the NAACP and any other number of civil rights groups. Like Back Bay resident and outspoken progressive Sarah Wenig told lawmakers, the century-old system guiding Boston nightlife “was discriminatory then, and it’s more discriminatory now.” If they didn’t get the message this week, they will soon.