September 18, 2019
By Roy Lincoln Karp
By now you’ve probably heard about Doyle’s. News that the historic pub in Jamaica Plain will be closing at the end of October was met with deep sadness and dismay across the city. At a time when Boston is being transformed by new residential development, this loss really hit a nerve. One cruel irony is that the bar’s liquor license is being purchased by Steve DiFillippo for a 15,000 square foot “mega-restaurant” he’s opening at the site of the old Anthony’s Pier 4. If only Doyle’s could bottle historic character and sell that instead.
Many patrons took the old pub for granted. We assumed it would be there forever, that we could always walk through the side door on Williams Street and immediately get the feeling we were entering a special, almost sacred space. For the uninitiated, Doyle’s was a living museum with high, pressed tin ceilings, varnished wooden booths, and walls covered with murals and memorabilia documenting the city’s storied political history.
It was also a place where you would run into neighbors, attend a community meeting, hear an Irish session, or simply grab some pints and catch a Sox game on a warm summer evening. At a time when Americans have increasingly retreated into separate sociological spheres, it was rich in diversity, a place where a lawyer, social worker, and bus driver might sit side by side at the bar and fall into friendly conversation.
Though the lights will go dark next month, many are hoping that Doyle’s can still be saved. A devoted patron and local activist, Kristin Johnson, started a group called Save Doyle’s Café, which quickly attracted over a thousand supporters on Facebook. She describes Doyle’s as a unique “democratizing space” that “offers the community the chance to interface directly with elected officials.”
Johnson also has empathy for Gerry Burke, Jr. and his financial situation. Last week, he told reporters from the Globe that business has been slow and that he can’t afford to stay open. While Gerry, Jr. owns the liquor license, he rents the bar from his uncle Eddie, who owns the land and the building. Johnson wants to work with the family and the community to save the beloved bar. “This is Jamaica Plain,” she exclaims, “the neighborhood that successfully fought the expressway.”
Doyle’s has endured massive societal changes since Bill Doyle opened his workman’s saloon in 1882. It survived Prohibition (by operating a speakeasy in the back and a grocery store in the front), as well as the Great Depression, a period of high crime during the 1960s and 70s, construction of the new Orange line in the 1980’s, and (until now) several decades of gentrification.
One strategy the group is pursuing is getting the building designated as a historic landmark. The bar’s interior, with its murals commissioned by the Works Progress Administration, should have been landmarked years ago. Johnson also understands that landmarking alone will not save Doyle’s. At the end of the day, the business needs to be commercially viable. She believes the business could reopen if a critical mass of patrons committed to come at least monthly or even purchased shares like a farm CSA.
A groundswell of support for Doyle’s, similar to the campaign 20 years ago that saved Fenway Park, could perhaps succeed. Building on the site would require a zoning change or variances, which could scare off prospective investors wary of a costly, drawn out approval process. This could also give leverage to community members okay with some new construction on the site as long as the bar is preserved.
Wouldn’t that that be a fitting start to Doyle’s next chapter: a shrine to Boston’s political history saved by good old Boston politics?