“Do we want to live in an almost pseudo dictatorship or do we want to live somewhere civically engaging, where people feel comfortable, where you don’t have to go through one or two people who make all the rules?”
How did the idea of Future Boston Alliance come about?
Greg: When I started Karmaloop, I had a lot of people asking me why I was starting this whole sort of fashion, cultural thing in Boston when it made more sense to start it in New York or LA or San Francisco. Obviously I didn’t agree with them because I kept it here. And I wanted to keep it here because I have a lot of beliefs in the future of the city and there’s a lot happening. In general, things are going the direction that we want, we just want it to go faster.
But I ran into a couple trips: One is that I had a hard time attracting people from Boston. About 85 percent are from other places, and they were skeptical about living in Boston, so they would ask people and hear, “Oh Boston’s really racist, it’s really white.” They were kind of concerned about that. And then they had parents and other people tell them that Boston is lame, it has a reputation for being boring. And then--and you know, I took some of it for truth, some of it was just exaggerated. The second thing, which is definitely more real and is going to be where we want to focus, is to change our image externally, but I think that happens as we change how we do things here.
But the main thing is that we get people here. And these guys were DJs, they had their own clothing brands or they were musicians, and they were just constantly having bad experiences.
I heard a lot of people say, “Oh, Boston is so lame, there’s nothing to do, there’s no restaurants.
There’s no place to work out in the evening. It’s just dead.” I’m sure you’ve heard the same complaints yourself, pretty much everyone I’ve talked to has. And people were just confused, you know, “Why would you build a city like this?” And I think it’s very clear that we lost things, like Facebook, we have a major brain drain of kids leaving after college. They don’t want to stay in the city.
And if we don’t make those changes, we’re going to suffer economically. We have so many good things, like the universities, biotech, high tech. You know, we have the foundation, so we just need to build on it. But I think the point was that I was trying to argue with people but at the same time, I kind of agree with you.
So we could either say everything sucks and move or we could try and make some change, and that was the idea for the Future Boston Alliance.
So what would you say is holding us back?
I think there are small incremental changes we can make in the city that will have a positive impact on the culture and how people feel here. So what are some examples? I think it’s around what cultural creatives like, and what they want to do. A lot of cultural creatives and entrepreneurs are around 25-35 years old, they want to take taxis. In this city, you know around city hall, there’s a very outdated view of taxis because they have this automobile-based mentality, right? Like they get out of work and take a private car, probably haven’t been on the T for 40 years. The politicians, they don’t take taxis, they tend to have government cars.
So they think, you know, who uses the taxis? It’s college students, who are going to lease, and the tourists, who are stuck. So what do they do? They charge the living hell out of you.
So that means I could go from Boston to New York on a bus and it would be cheaper than going from my office to Brighton. You know, the taxi drivers won’t let you use the credit card machine all the time. You’ve been in a cab and had them tell you it’s broken. It’s like, that thing better work or I’m not paying you. Most of the time it starts working.
Again, for them, taxis area a second rate way of getting around. It’s not important to them. But a lot of the young people living in the city don’t own a car, they want to be able to take a taxi or their bike, or public transit.
Unfortunately public transit doesn’t go everywhere. So another problem is they haven’t added any taxi medallions since 1928, there are only 40 taxi medallions. They’re limiting it, they’re restricting it, so like everything else, it’s incredibly expensive to operate a taxi. The city charges so much just to operate a cab. And then the issue of the universal medallion. In Cambridge, I could have five empty Boston cabs zip right by me, and that’s because the cities have conflicting attitudes. Why should I work with them? Screw them. They’re our competitors.
There’s gotta be a way to work out this system so it works more smoothly, so you can pick up a cab in Cambridge or Somerville or Brookline or Chelsea or Somerville. Boston is so old—areas we consider other towns, anywhere else they’d be the same city—I’m not saying we need to change the towns, but after this many years of living next to each other there should be a little bit of compensation.
In many ways, they feel like extensions of one larger Boston-entity.
Exactly. I think our city governments are just sort of cut from that colloquial cloth, where they feel like they have to be adversaries.
We think its silly to think in terms of these little fights, everywhere else you go its all the same place, so we just need to get rid of this division in how these towns work together. The taxis are just one microcosm of how things work in Boston. Very old, out of date way of looking at things.
Zero sum game, everything is punitive, you have a power structure that has all the power concentrated in one place, there’s very little dialogue. It’s hard to criticize the city without the mayor or someone getting very angry.
Saying why don’t you leave or how dare you or whatever. Like, c’mon, we’re old enough to get past that. I get up, go to work and it’s more a share of ideas, it’s a flat organization, and that’s the way the world’s going—decentralized, flat organizations where people share ideas and there’s not power concentrated in the hands of just a couple people, and that’s how things tend to work in Boston. We need to start getting to be more like other cities that don’t have such a monarchy type style of managing everything.
How does that “monarchy” style hold us back?
If you look at liquor licensing, it’s all concentrated in the hands of a few people. We’re the most expensive city in the country for liquor licensing. It’s outrageous. All you can get are college bars, with a high volume, or really expensive restaurants. The 35 year olds who want a place to hang out, there’s nothing for them, so of course they’re going to leave. You can’t have little venues like they have in San Francisco or the village or Brooklyn because it’s just too cost prohibitive to buy a liquor license.
In New York, you can buy a liquor license for a couple hundred bucks. It can still get turned down or removed—problems with neighbors, the normal stuff—but that’s it.
And the city always cops out, calls it a state issue. We don’t have any 24-hour restaurants open, there’s no health clubs, no night clubs open really late. Every other major city has them all over the place.
And that’s because City Hall has an outdated, 9-5 mentality and I honestly think, they think why do we need to stay open? Elicit activities will happen. What happens if someone trades on the Asian market? What happens if they’re entrepreneurs and they stay up all night? What happens if they just want to work out at 1 am because they have a different schedule?
I don’t see why we should have the entire city on lockdown as soon as it gets dark. It just doesn’t make sense.
What about areas where we’ve improved, like food trucks?
Ah, the food truck thing. You know, now we have food trucks, great. The city government wants to be patted on the back and told how progressive they are. They’re two or three years late on the food trucks.
And if you read the articles and stuff, food trucks have been set up to fail. The city took away any place where they could possibly make money.
And by the way, some of the powerful people are landlords that own stuff, and they don’t like them. So they’re just kind of letting them die a slow death.
The city government thinks they’re cool for getting on this hot button issue, but do they really understand it, do they really know how to make it work, and work for everyone? The point is, we don’t want to necessarily have a fight with them, we want to tell them, look, this is what you really have to do if you want to make this city progressive and exciting and a great place for people to start businesses and do creative things. We need to open the city up.
We saw some of this attitude earlier with the Farmer Brewing licenses—the ABCC almost killed off all these emerging breweries before there was a huge public outcry.
See that’s the perfect example, we’re trying to be a catalyst, to get like minded people together that think this way, whether its supporting food trucks or breweries, it’s all the same thing.
It’s really, fundamentally, about the city we want to live in.
Do we want to live in an almost pseudo dictatorship or do we want to live somewhere civically engaging, where people feel comfortable, where you don’t have to go through one or two people who make all the rules?
There are cities already like that, and that’s what the city of the future is going to look like. So we can say all we want about innovation and making the city fun and interesting. It doesn’t jive with reality.
We haven’t had a new night club space in Boston in 30 years.
Not night club, but the space. They change names, but they don’t really change. There’s no real outlet for change or trying something new. In Boston it’s just stuck. I think what we can do as a group.. that brewery thing is a perfect example… Maybe we’re being naive, like Obama saying he’s going to change the culture of Washington.. but we’re going to try, we’re not going to back away from a fight. We need to be able to have a dialogue, we need to be able to criticize something without people saying we need to leave. But we want it to do it in a way that’s constructive, we want to work with…
Who are you working with to affect these changes?
We’ve had talks with the Boston Redevelopment Authority, and they’ve been fairly positive and supportive. Tito Jackson is a big supporter of ours. Tito is on the board of the alliance. But we’ve met with the governors office and they’ve been very supportive. You know, the young blood, the progressive thinkers. We’re going to wait and see what happens with the mayor. But, you know, some of the things we talk about kind of directly hit that office and how they approach things. So if they’re willing to listen and learn and try things, we’d love to work with them as well.
The initial feedback through some the other channels we’ve gotten is that they’re not super excited about it, but I think a lot of people at city hall are. I think a lot of the rank and file people that work at Boston redevelopment are. Hopefully they all want to work with us.
The thing that’s interesting, that’s cool, is that the city is changing.
We have not had anyone say, “We don’t need that. That’s ridiculous.” I’m sure there are people that would say that, but we’ve had overwhelming outward support.
It certainly feels like the city’s changed dramatically, even in the last few years.
Look, it’s time for a change. Cities go in cycles, and we’ve had the old school family city hall tribalism approach to everything, saying punitive things, over regulatory things, fining and all the fees and all this stuff and saying no more than, “Yes, I think we’re at the end of that era and it has to change.”
And this young political leadership coming up—I mean there’s still a bunch of people cut from the old cloth—but a lot of these guys are totally different. I think there will be, at some point, some change in the head offices of government places. I think Patrick is actually quite invested in this stuff. And the city is on the verge of change. We just want to make it happen quicker. We think it’s going to be better for everyone and a lot more fun.
We also think that, a lot of times when you have this conversation it’s like, “Well, if you keep the bars open later this is what’s going to happen.” We don’t think it has to be that way. We’re not an organization that’s just about wanting to keep places open. That’s probably how our enemies will try and paint us, but that’s not it at all, and if that’s a conversation we have to have later, then fine.
But we don’t want it to be an us versus them thing. We want to use data and intelligence, and look at what other cities have done. There’s got to be a way that people who want nightlife and cultural activities can have more of what they want and neighborhoods who want more quiet can have it as well.
You can’t say this system we have right now is the best way to deal with the problems we have at night. It sure as hell isn’t, because we dump 10,000 people on the street every night at 2 o’clock to fight for cabs and it’s just a powder keg, so you can’t tell me change is going to be worse.
I think it could be good for everyone, and it’s about respecting people’s opinions and trying to come to a solution.
One of the things that’s important, that City Hall people love to say, is, “This is a state issue. This isn’t our fault, we can’t do this.” If you really want to get involved, if you really want to make a dent, get things done, on a state level, you have a lot of power. It’s a cop out, you know. The mayor appoints all the people on the liquor board. It’s always convenient that they can wash their hands when they just say it’s the state. There’s got to be a way we can do more for these issues and even the issues statewide.
You know, Paris has bars that stay open until 4 or 5 in the morning. Is Paris a complete zoo? Things are being trashed? I would say its probably the opposite compared to Boston.
I think we need to stop looking at things really black and white, and look at it in a more educated way. We’re such an educated city, it’d be great if we could have an educated conversation about this.
Where would you like to see the city in 10 years?
In 10 years, I’d like to see the Boston Waterfront built out, a lot of cool new tech businesses fleshed out, many more cultural spaces for young people, continuing to have things like the Museum of Fine Arts and Boston Ballet, but also things that cater to younger people: artistic and cultural facilities. To have a much larger percentage of 25-35 year olds here. I think a city that’s booming but isn’t just catering to one subset. I’d like to see much more diversity and interaction with people. I honestly think we can be one of the world leaders in 10 years, in terms of innovation, in terms of fun. I see a city with better transit options, different levels of restaurants and night clubs.
When the next Facebook comes, I want that to be here in 10 years. Apple. Microsoft. You know, those guys were here, they could have stayed here but they left. We need to retain this growing population. Boston was once 815,000, today we’re just cracking 600,000. A city that has more, you know, more of a balance. the colleges build up, not out, there’s real planning. And it’s a place where lots of different kinds of people can coexist, so it’s a place for them as well.