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Last call for Roxbury's 'Cheers'?

Locals love it, but police want Packy's pub closed

From left, Booker T Hunt, Brad Jones, Nick Simpson, and an unidentified man played dominoes Monday at Packy Connors in Roxbury. From left, Booker T Hunt, Brad Jones, Nick Simpson, and an unidentified man played dominoes Monday at Packy Connors in Roxbury. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / April 11, 2009
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Name a month, the police can list an incident. Two Decembers ago, it was a 22-year-old gang member shot behind the bright red bar. This past January, two women were stabbed in a fight that police say started inside the tavern. In March, a gun-wielding man being chased by police hid amid the patrons inside.

To police, Packy Connors, a small pub on Blue Hill Avenue, is a hotbed of crime in Roxbury, the subject of 100 service calls in the past five years, a place that must be shuttered - swiftly - for the safety of the neighborhood.

But to its patrons, it is an institution, "the black Cheers," as one waitress recently called it - a community gathering place where men play dominoes and Pac-Man, women chat over piping-hot steak tips, and R&B songs from smooth singers like Sade and old-school rap play in the background.

Packy's is, in many ways, two distinct places, depending on the time of the day - by afternoon and early evening, a gathering spot for longtime neighbors; by night, a lounge for the twenty-something set, all of whom are checked for weapons on the way in the door.

One recent afternoon, the tavern was half-filled with working-class patrons, professionals, and retirees. Christine Bobo, a 76-year-old former nursing assistant who goes by the name "Miss B," played word puzzles on her favorite bar stool. A retired detective played dominoes with three old friends. The air was thick with the smell of hot sauce and fried food.

"I couldn't wait to be 21 so I could come here," said Nielita Thompson, a 33-year-old teacher who waitresses at the bar. "It's not even that it's fun. It's got history."

This is not the crowd Boston police were worried about last month when they asked the city Licensing Board to revoke Packy's liquor license and shut the establishment down, creating a showdown that is reverberating from the bar and rippling through the community.

"The facts speak for themselves," said Police Superintendent Daniel Linskey. "This bar has been a location of violence directly in and around it."

Daniel F. Pokaski, board chairman, said a revocation hearing will probably occur in May. Police say that since November 2007, the bar has received 17 violations from 33 premise inspections. Already this year, it has failed two liquor-law enforcement stings.

Pokaski said the bar was always well run, but in recent years, complaints have spiked, a trend he attributes more to problems in the neighborhood than with management.

"What we're going to do as a board is listen to the police, listen to their complaints, and allow the licensee to defend themselves," he said. "The board can then make a decision."

Packy's opened in Roxbury soon after Prohibition was repealed in 1933. The current owner, James Cairns, 69, bought the business from his grandfather when he was 17, and is one of the only white business owners on the street. He stayed in Grove Hall even after the race riots of the 1960s chased away most of his other white neighbors.

For that, he has earned the loyalty of many in the neighborhood - black and white. Politicians have held campaign events at Packy's, police have hosted retirement parties, and newspaper reporters have tossed back whiskey with beer chasers after deadline.

"The people in the community around here, they absolutely love us," Cairns said. "We do get a lot of nuts in here, but they behave themselves in here."

But in the past five years, Cairns has increasingly drawn the ire of police, who have come to his establishment more than 100 times for complaints ranging from too much noise to a shooting outside the bar, according to police reports.

"This is a bad area," said Cairns, who insists most problems occur outside his doors. "It's just crazy around here, and we do a top-notch job inside."

He added, "You really can't control what happens in the community."

Linskey accused Packy's management of failing to cooperate with investigators on crimes around the establishment. No one from the bar reported the stabbing of the women in January, according to police reports.

"They need to change the way they're doing business and stop impacting the quality of life in the neighborhood around them," Linskey said.

Despite police assertions, in March the Licensing Board found that the bar was not liable in the stabbing. Bar managers said that the stabbing occurred nearly half an hour after closing and that employees were not immediately aware of the attack.

Cairns said he takes security precautions most bars in downtown Boston do not: Everyone is checked for weapons with a security wand, no dancing is allowed (too much potential for fights sparked by jealousy), and drinks are served in plastic cups instead of bottles and glasses. There are eight bouncers, and the bar pays for police details on weekend nights, said Cairns's 33-year-old son, Packie Jr.

"We do our best to keep this place as safe as possible," he said.

Inside, the wood-paneled walls are covered with framed photos of Celtics stars, past and present, Bruins legends, and famous black artists who have visited Packy's.

Around the register, obituaries and photos of patrons who have died are pasted alongside pictures of employees' children and grandchildren.

Kelly Trainor, a 38-year-old Verizon employee, summed up the bar very simply: "Bad area, good place."

Sipping a Cape Codder at a booth in the early part of the cocktail hour, she said: "You can be any race. You can be any color. It doesn't matter. If you come in here enough, we'll say hello even if we don't know your name."

"I always call it the Irish bar in the ghetto," said longtime customer Debbie Green, a 55-year-old computer technician who on a recent weekday was at the bar, nursing a Hennessy-infused cocktail called "Sex in the Hood." "Everybody knows you and they look out for you."

Then she added: "But I don't come at night."