“Tame and redundant” no longer? An exploration of Boston’s street food scene

Henry Tonks (he/him) was a 2022 Summer Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, who worked with the Streets Cabinet and the Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion to imagine more vibrant and equitably opportunities for vending on city streets.

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Boston streets are still quieter than they were in January 2020. All well-meaning American urbanists are called upon to invoke Jane Jacobs from time to time; the emptying out of Boston’s streets followed by an only gradual, hesitant return of city-goers has reinforced the truth of Jacobs’s claim that “streets and their sidewalks” are a city’s “most vital organs.”

Busy streets and bustling sidewalks contain energy, but it is especially when they are quieter — and when underutilized commercial buildings loom above them, isolated and imperious — that one sees how “streets are not just for travel,” in the words of MONUM’s Michael Evans.

We ought to recognize that streets are for recreation, leisure, commerce, and community-building. This recognition animates the series of “Open Streets” program we see in major American cities. In Boston, the Open Streets initiative is part of a new mayoral administration’s broader agenda around increased activation of more inclusive public spaces. And that recognition encouraged MONUM’s interest in exploring Boston’s street food scene.

Boston has had a food truck program since 2011 (it originated under the aegis of a then-Summer Fellow at City Hall named Michelle Wu). But, as one recent arrival to the program described it to me, Boston’s street food scene is “tame and redundant.”

I was tasked with understanding and evaluating this street food scene when I arrived at MONUM in mid-June as a Summer Fellow. The project was immediately interesting to me, but it was also daunting. In my regular life, I’m a graduate student in the History Department at Boston University, used to the solitary study of 20th-century U.S. politics.

On this project, I would be working with several City Hall departments. The project would involve liaising with folks outside City Hall as well — vendors, business groups, and nonprofit organizations such as Commonwealth Kitchen and About Fresh. I might be out-and-about in the city sometimes, rather than keeping my head down in an archive. A line came to mind from the 1970s spy thriller Three Days of the Condor: “I’m not a field agent, I just read books!”

However, guided by an enterprising MONUM supervisor, the summer experience was fascinating and immersive. While evaluating Boston’s current street-food ecosystem, we connected different City departments whose work impacts vending and crafted recommendations for how to add more flavor to the city’s street food scene.

Expanding and modernizing street-food vending involves managing streets and sidewalks so that their use for travel is not disrupted even as we endeavor to maximize the social and commercial aspects of the city streetscape. Street-food vending is also a way to make our parks and green spaces more vibrant. Viewed from the perspective of the vendor, however, street food provides a vital pathway to entrepreneurship, especially for immigrants and historically economically-disadvantaged communities — pathways that could be occluded if cities do not facilitate this entrepreneurialism with technical and financial assistance. From City Hall’s perspective, a wider range of programs has some revenue-raising potential; for example, an existing vending program only for City parks is essential for funding all recreation programming in these parks.

In other words, looking for ways to enhance Boston’s street food scene is about making public spaces more vibrant, increasing consumer choice, providing economic opportunities, and generating revenue for public-service provision. My summer was an early stage of this project, but it has been exciting to begin connecting these aspirations. When you next enjoy some street food — from gelato in the park to a sidewalk tamale — think about the fact that many different civic, economic, and political issues intersect at first bite.

Henry M. J. Tonks is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at Boston University, where he studies postwar U.S. politics and liberalism. His research focuses on Democratic presidential primaries and the rise of the “New Democrats” in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Raised in Birmingham, in the United Kingdom, Henry’s interest in cities and local government began when he worked before graduate school at a business improvement district in his hometown, where (among other things!) he planted a rooftop bee garden on a city center office building. When not studying Democratic Party politics, Henry can be found at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, at the MFA, or traversing Boston in search of the perfect doughnut.

About the Fellowship:

The New Urban Mechanics Summer Fellowship is designed for entrepreneurial students and professionals interested in working in public service. During this highly selective eight-week program, summer fellows work as a team and on their own projects, generating and implementing creative and thoughtful new prototypes to benefit the City of Boston.

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The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.

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New Urban Mechanics

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.