Time to party like it’s 1933.
The last of Thanksgiving leftovers are gone and Christmas and Hanukkah are further away than our inner children would like, so what to do between now and Dec 24? Easy: History has handed us the most timely of holidays in honor of the worthiest of causes—but we still have work to do.
On Dec 5, 1933, the United States ratified the 21st Amendment and repealed the 18th Amendment, which outlawed alcohol, therefore ending Prohibition. Ever since, bartenders and drinkers across the nation have exuberantly celebrated the fifth day of the final month of the year, which is right around the corner.
Ladies and gentlemen, friends and lovers, get ready to party like it’s 1933.
But, wait! Stop! There is still work to do, remember?
Yes, there is, because as of today, Boston is the only city in Massachusetts that cannot decide for itself how many liquor licenses shall be in circulation within its borders.
Now what in the hell are we going to do about it?
Prohibition was a dark time for the country (not nearly as dark as the next four years may be, but dark enough). From 1920 to 1933, one could not legally purchase alcohol. Proponents of Prohibition and more strident factions of the conservative temperance movement held that outlawing alcohol would eliminate crime and cure the nation of practically everything—from mental illness to infidelity—but we all read The Great Gatsby in high school and know that isn’t true.
Though often overlooked for larger cities like New York and Chicago in the chronicles of America’s dry years, Boston holds a very special place in Prohibition history. The 18th amendment didn’t pass until 1920, but the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, an official club for people against drinking to get drunk, was founded in 1813 and, in 1827, Boston hosted the founding meeting of what would later become the American Temperance Society. By 1830, New England was home to an astonishing one-third of the nation’s temperance groups.
This makes the Hub out to be a pretty harsh buzzkill; but while the roots of temperance trace back to Boston, the city was also host to an extensive and highly successful underground liquor economy. In 1930, according to Stephanie Schorow’s book about our history with alcohol, Drinking Boston, there were 155 alleged speakeasies in the city
In fact, the success of the local underground (and its ties to the working class) during Prohibition can be counted as a major reason Boston’s liquor license system is still so mucked up today. When Prohibition ended in 1933, state lawmakers on Beacon Hill handed down a sobering measure: Boston was allowed one liquor license per every 500 residents, but strictly forbidden to have more than 1,000 businesses serving booze.
I covered the twisted history and legacy of the arbitrary liquor license cap rather extensively in “The Thirsty Games,” a big ol’ investigation into how and why Boston became saddled with this ridiculous measure and what it’s done to the local economy and politics; but in a nutshell, it’s clear that capping the number of licenses we’re allowed to have has put a stranglehold on the local industry’s ability to truly flourish, particularly in less affluent parts of the city.
The cap has made licenses a hot commodity, selling for upwards of $350,000 on the open market, pricing a huge number of would-be restaurateurs out of the game and building up an intense amount of steam in local politics. Attempts to lift or alter the cap have been made: In 2006, 55 licenses were added to the pool; in 2014 City Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley fought for and won 75 licenses, 25 a year for three years, most of which are restricted to neighborhoods like Roxbury and East Boston, where a watering hole is tough to come by and getting a drink with dinner is damn near impossible.
Yet this past February, the state legislature passed “An Act to Modernize Municipal Finance and Government,” which took control of the number of liquor licenses out of the State House and put it into the hands of city and town officials everywhere except for Boston.
So while we certainly ought to be celebrating Repeal Day on Dec 5, and you can do so at any bar that’s open Monday night (you may, though, want to check out one of our local speakeasy-inspired establishments like Yvonne’s downtown, Drink in the Seaport, and Saloon in Davis Square, which are sure to be pulling out all the stops), keep your ears open for news of public hearings surrounding liquor license legislation in Boston.
Because the day that cap is lifted will be the day Boston truly, finally abolishes Prohibition.
Copyright 2016 Haley Hamilton.
Terms of Service is licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.