Photo via Boston Public Library
Boston’s liquor licensing quota was born out of elitism and has fostered a poisonous disparity over the past century. Can lifting the cap break the cycle?
“Except for the city of Boston.”
This historically pointed phrase punctuates every paragraph of liquor license legislation in the Massachusetts General Laws. In short, the exception means the Hub is alone among Commonwealth locales in getting especially screwed in the number of wet establishments allowed in its borders.
At a February public hearing on Beacon Hill, hope was on the table for some in the form of “An Act to Modernize Municipal Finance and Government.” If passed, the measure would wrest control of liquor license quotas from the state and place the power over such decisions in the hands of municipal lawmakers.
Except for the city of Boston.
Hub residents, activists, and restaurant owners testified in protest of this vested restriction. Their argument isn’t a new one, but such gripes have gained significant steam in the press and public consciousness over the past few years: Restricting the number of licenses in the Hub, many Bostonians argue, both damages our local economy and demonstrably suppresses development in less affluent areas.
At this particular February hearing, something notably strange occurred, bringing the debate to a screeching halt. Advocates for Boston independence were shot down, but not for the usual reasons. According to Barbara L’Italien, the Democratic state senator from Andover, the complainers have been wrong all along.
“Boston already has the capability to determine the number of liquor licenses the city has,” L’Italien claimed. “Boston sets the rules for Boston. Boston sets the number.”
The senator’s bold words—that the Hub itself can determine the number of liquor licenses allowed in city limits—caused legislative staffers and restaurateurs alike to balk in confusion. Anyone who’s ever paid attention to Boston’s notoriously broken licensing system knows the opposite to be true—the state capped the number of licenses Boston could distribute decades ago, and the ensuing procedural rigmarole has been an issue of contention ever since.
The current quota system has spawned a hardly regulated secondary market in which the cost of a license can run upwards of $350,000. It has fostered political corruption, bred an incestuous cuddle puddle of greed and hand greasing, and stymied Boston’s growth potential in the long run—all while posing a staggering disservice to communities of color.
As L’Italien’s possible mix-up showed, there’s an absurd amount of confusion driving the disparity. Our months-long plunge into the rubble of the Hub’s regulatory past reveals that city and state officials barely agree about which body is responsible for what and when. According to activists, finance and regulatory experts, Boston city councilors, and restaurant industry professionals, lifting the cap would invigorate the local economy and help narrow the cultural gap between more booming parts of Boston and neglected corners of the Hub. Removing the cap could additionally be a powerful first step toward addressing an enduring segregation.
In practice, however, after nearly a century of paradoxical precedents, redrawn zoning maps, and a tightly monopolized market, distributing the opportunity to entertain has become an uphill battle with no real end in sight.
MORE THAN A YEAR AGO
On a brisk Saturday afternoon last October, the mood was festive inside Dudley Cafe, the bright and sunny first-floor space in Dudley Square’s new Bolling Municipal Building. Restaurant owners Solmon and Rokeya Chowdhury chatted with Boston City Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley and members of her staff. Neighbors and friends lounged on couches in a corner; groups of local activists and employees of nearby businesses mingled in the open space, enjoying sandwiches, pastries, and coffee. A few people looking to fight the cold or just unwind ordered beer or wine.
It was the third stop on DINE617, a celebratory tour across the city hosted by Pressley featuring four restaurants—one in Hyde Park, one in Dorchester, one in East Boston, and Dudley Cafe in Roxbury. All four received liquor licenses as a result of a 2014 home rule petition (legislation originating in a municipality that is later approved by the state) filed by Pressley that pushed 75 new liquor licenses into Boston’s historically shallow pool. Twenty-five licenses will be made available each year until 2017. Sixty of these licenses are restricted to businesses operating in specific neighborhoods where liquor licenses have been particularly sparse for years.
“The impetus for this [legislation] was neighborhoods that had been disenfranchised,” Pressley said. She explained the impact of having the Commonwealth’s nose in the details of such permitting, which creates a messy extra layer of bureaucracy that’s resulted in a feast-or-famine landscape. The councilor continued, “We have a 100-year-old law on the books choking the economic potential and promise out of these neighborhoods.”
Around here, the opening of any bar or restaurant that serves so much as wine is cause for major celebration. As is any procurement of a beverage license by a person of color. Since the 2014 legislation, the number of liquor licenses owned by black Bostonians has more than doubled.
There are still fewer than 10.
“When we tell people that, they are just stunned, their jaws drop,” says Malia Lazu of Epicenter Community (formerly Future Boston Alliance), a Roxbury-based nonprofit focused on building a more racially equitable Boston. Since 2012, Lazu has fought for an elimination of the cap on liquor licenses in Boston, while her colleague at Epicenter, Erin Anderson, has played watchdog at nearly every meeting of the Boston Licensing Board since October 2014. Both worked closely with Pressley’s office to illustrate the disparity current regulation has created.
“People just have no idea it’s that bad,” Lazu says.
SHOW ME THE HONEY
Boston’s been torn up about liquor licenses for a long time. In 1906 the city elected Mayor John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, John F. Kennedy’s maternal grandfather and an Irish-American politician who was famous for championing the working man (at least publicly). The victory caused an uproar in the old money- and Yankee-dominated State House. According to city lore and many books and articles written on the subject, to limit the power of the Irish mayor, Brahmins in state office placed various arbitrary restrictions on Boston officials.
The number of licenses was set for the Hub in 1933, the year Prohibition ended and during the third term of infamous Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. Curley was a schmoozer. And, some say, a political gangster. Downtown nightlife and Boston drinking culture remain steeped in his legacy: jm Curley on Temple Place and the Last Hurrah in the Omni Parker House hotel both pay homage to the smooth-talking pol, and if there was ever a Boston politician for the State House to be wary of, it was Curley. Prohibition may have ended, but the Commonwealth was quick to put a stop to Curley having free reign of booze licensing, and there’s been a cap ever since. While all other municipalities were granted one on-site license for every 1,000 residents, the law stated, “In Boston, one such place may be licensed for each five hundred of the population, but in no event shall the total number of licensed places therein exceed one thousand.”
Boston’s 2013 population was just under 650,000, which doesn’t even begin to address the thousands of people who commute to the city each day or their out-of-state colleagues who frequent the Hub but actually reside elsewhere. Without the cap, if it were treated like every other city and town, Boston would be eligible for about 300 more licenses.
The original legislation was a mess. Similar to the contemporary tussle over marijuana, deliberations between representatives over the details of liquor licensing were often absurd and contradictory. Newspaper editorials called early plans to ban the sale of hard alcohol in bars and restaurants an invitation to let speakeasy culture continue. At one point, lawmakers even considered special permits for the purchasing of some potent liquors. Through it all, a magic number of 1,000—for how many establishments in Boston could serve alcoholic beverages—to some degree stuck, affecting the city ever after.
The state’s micro-regulation has amounted to a major pain in the glass. And an expensive one, too. By the early 2000s, the market price for an all-alcoholic beverages license was upwards of $350,000. The economic basics of supply and demand took firm control, and permission to serve booze became a hot commodity available exclusively to the highest bidders. Local law firms came to specialize in finding ways to secure licenses for clients, their fees significantly adding to the financial burden of opening a restaurant and hobbling scores more would-be entrepreneurs attempting to enter the Hub’s nightlife scene.
“The fact that there are Bostonians who are basically not allowed to open restaurants because they’re priced out of it, the fact that [certain] neighborhoods aren’t allowed to develop and be attractive to other people … that’s horrible injustice,” says Lazu of Epicenter Community.
“This is a problem for Boston,” adds Robert Bench, a Boston-based attorney who has worked with Epicenter and Pressley to draw attention to social injustices tied to the liquor license cap. “It goes directly against what we’re trying to do here as a city, which is trying to make it more livable for everyone.”
On top of needing capital, restaurant owners must garner support from local neighborhood associations and public officials. During hearings before the Boston Licensing Board (BLB), representatives from city council offices speak in favor of or against applicants; their comments may or may not sway the BLB vote, but they account for some of the potential obstacles that would-be restaurateurs often face. Put simply, it helps to have as many wired allies and connected legal representatives as possible.
With this pay-to-play pattern well established since the end of Prohibition, in 2008 the toxic status quo finally reached critical (and criminal) mass and exploded. Hit worst were two elected officials, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner. Both highly regarded in their districts—overlapping communities of color, including Roxbury—Wilkerson and Turner were convicted of accepting bribes. Wilkerson, who had risen to become the highest-ranking black woman on Beacon Hill, had been caught greasing the wheels to fast-track a liquor license for a Roxbury nightclub.
In the aftermath of an ugly and extremely public fallout, during which Wilkerson resigned her senate seat and she and Turner both served time in prison, relatively little attention was paid to the underlying story. Ron Wilburn, the prospective Roxbury club owner who ultimately went undercover, went to the authorities out of desperation after being rejected by the BLB. His frustration with the system was hardly resolved; following the controversy caused by his cooperation with authorities, Wilburn told the Boston Globe “he felt he had been used by the FBI to topple a pair of prominent black politicians, while four months after the first arrest, no white officials have been charged in the investigation.” The newspaper reported further:
The arrests of Wilkerson and Turner were followed by a flurry of subpoenas that landed at the Boston Licensing Board, Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s office, on the desks of multiple City Council members, as well as at the State House, the state’s Liquor Control Board, and the offices of developers and construction companies. Despite the widespread expectation of a broader investigation that was fueled by the subpoenas, no additional arrests have been made.
Asked about his own attempts to secure a liquor license from the city, Wilburn told the Globe that his experience before the BLB enraged him. The chairman of the board at the time, the businessman recalled, “treated [him] like a runaway slave.”
Years before Pressley’s home rule petition made headlines, there was another attempt to bring equity to nightlife in Boston.
It was December 2006, and the anguish caused by the pinch on licenses had spun out of control. To help correct the situation, then-Governor Mitt Romney signed legislation granting 55 new licenses—25 all-alcohol and 30 beer and wine. The cost for these new licenses was just a few thousand dollars in initial charges and fees—far from the hundreds of thousands that one cost on the secondary market at the time.
These permissions were special. In addition to being the first to become available in nearly a century, the licenses were the first to ever be designated as nontransferable—they cannot be sold to another establishment but instead must be returned to the city when the current holder no longer has use for it.
Of the 55 new licenses, all of the beer and wine and 10 of the all-alcohol permits were restricted to areas deemed “main streets districts, urban renewal areas, empowerment zones, or municipal harbor plan areas”—those at an acknowledged disadvantage in developing a more lucrative restaurant economy, largely because of the cap-induced price of liquor licenses.
The plan to stimulate bar and restaurant activity in forgotten corners of the city didn’t last long. Daniel Pokaski, then-chairman of the BLB, told reporters there was actually a way for the city to grant licenses to restaurants or bars outside the designated zones. All officials had to do was have “the BRA enlarge one of the covered zones.” Like that, the maps originally meant to favor certain areas—Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, other “urban renewal areas” or “empowerment zones”—were completely ignored.
“The City of Boston had no authority to change the boundaries of the map,” says former Sen. Wilkerson all these years later. [Ed. note: Wilkerson has contributed to BINJ in the past, though she did not assist in the production of this article besides offering quotations and context.] Wilkerson says the licenses released by Romney were all issued in the first three months of 2007, with not even one going to applicants from Dorchester and Roxbury, of which there were three in total. At the same time, Wilkerson and others started asking questions about licenses going to places like Back Bay that were well outside designated zones.
“Clearly, to have allowed them to do so would have defeated the entire purpose of what the legislature intended and directed,” Wilkerson says. “What became clear is that several of the licenses went to neighborhoods that were never included on the map. When we figured that out and began to press for answers, we were met with stonewalling, and outright deceit on the part of certain persons inside City Hall.”
“The stated goal in the 2006 legislation was to designate those licenses in areas where their siting could serve as an economic catalyst. That didn’t happen. Clearly, the circus and media frenzy over the arrest of Councilor Turner and I allowed the underlying scandal to go unchecked.”
The arrest of two prominent politicians is certainly an easier story to tell than that of how a poorly understood and arbitrary, not to mention ancient, piece of legislation steeped in discrimination is continuing to damage Boston’s communities of color.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and with research assistance from Epicenter Community. Please join both nonprofits for a discussion about liquor license disparity at Dudley Dough in Roxbury on Tuesday, March 29 at 7pm.
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.