Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Bar Business, Boston Style

This is a story about a long running battle between two sets of brothers: Ed and Jerry Burke, neighborhood bullies, and Dave and Jay Balerna, the guys who wouldn't be cowered by him.

It's a story about big shots (insofar as any bar owner can truly be a big shot) with big cajones and big friends in big places, pulling big strings to do big damage to a coupla of regular guys who just want to run a neighborhood bar which just happens to be three doors down.

Doyle's Cafe has been an institution in the City of Boston for more than a century. Founded in 1882, it is the quintessential Irish Pub, with a capacity for 265 patrons (don't go near the place on St. Patty's Day). Long ancient wooden bar, big tall old wooden booths -- Guinness on tap everywhere, and a Boston brogue as genuine as any. It has been a watering hole for local politicos, political junkies, reporters, police officers and neighborhood regulars. James Michael Curley even drank there. The current mayor, Tom Menino, is a regular (if not frequent) visitor and has a room named after him. And of course, the mayor' closest friend and political advisor is a fixture -- has his own booth and everything. And he is asshole buddies with the owners, the Burke brothers.

The Midway Cafe is,'s a dive. A hole in the wall. A real roots city bar. Capacity of only 60 (and that's tight). Just a bar. A daytime pool table that gets broken down for a stage at night. Live music, six days a week, catering to the wide variety of J.P.'s melting pot -- not too many of whom would prefer to be regulars at Doyle's.

The bar is owned by the Balerna brothers, who are not from J.P., but they could be. Just regular guys trying to make a place work. And to make it work, they need a larger capacity.

They've been trying for more than ten years to increase their capacity to 99. Every time they've attempted to obtain zoning approvals, they've been shot down. They've worked with the neighborhood association, sponsored clean-up days, donated soft drinks to to community events, improved their noise control. Eventually, they won the neighborhood association over, and prepared to seek zoning approval for the fifth time. Represented by the most wired zoning attorney in the city, the Balernas went before the zoning board in January, with the neighborhood association and five city councilors supporting them. The attorney is also a very close friend of the mayor, and he knows well that when the "word comes down," it comes from him, not from the Office of Neighborhood Services or some paper pusher.

Usually, he knows in advance if his client will be approved or not. But this time, it was special.

There was no evidence or testimony against the application. Not one neighbor spoke in opposition. No one from Doyle's spoke against it. Of course, they didn't have to. The word had already come down from the mayor: "Blow it up."

The zoning board did not look happy when their time to act arrived. The Chairman asked for a motion. No one would offer one. The members looked down at their desks. Finally, one member mumbled something about denying the application. Silence followed. The Chairman rolled his eyes. "Well can I have a second??" More silence. Finally, "second." And yet, still, with the Word from the mayor, the vote was 5-2.

The bullies had won, again. Profiles in Courage.

Or had they?

As is frequently the case in old-time Boston politics, the truly wired are favored with inside deals, and the Burkes had been favored with a big one from the outset. There is a small tract of land underneath Doyle's Cafe that is owned by the city. It is a parcel some 2,202 square feet, and it runs right under the bar. Doyle's has paid rent in the princely sum of $10.00 a year for the privilege of having its bar situated over a culvert that diverts an underground stream. To access the culvert, there is a trap door on the floor behind the bar.

But sweetheart deals like that don't last forever, because sooner or later, when the light shines on such dark and gritty places, a lawyer somewhere within the bowels of City Hall does his job and strongly recommends that the city follow the law and advertised the property for sale at a competitive bid.

Which the Boston Water and Sewer Commission just did. And the bullies got the shock of their charmed lives.

The Burkes bid just $5,000 for the parcel -- which must have seemed like a lot to a cheap son of a bitch who had paid $10 a year forever.

But a "mystery" bidder has offered the city $100,000.

The Balernas swear they are not behind it. And the city is not obligated by law to accept the highest bid. But if they don't, and the Burkes wins again, I would suspect that is something that people with subpoenas should look into.

In the meantime, the Balernas have sued the zoning board, and it will be interesting to see what each of the members has to say when he is deposed by their attorney, the legendary Earl Cooley.

In the Globe story, Jerry Burke is quoted as saying "Some people like to get in the ring and fight. We like to do it behind, where nobody's looking. That's what makes life fun."

The Balernas have showed that they know how to play that game too, and they're finally going to have some fun of their own. Stay tuned.

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