Cheers. Profanity-laced drinking chants. The clink of ping-pong balls launched in high arcs.
The unmistakable sounds of a raucous North End rager wafted from the doorway of a second-floor balcony on sleepy Greenough Lane just after 1 a.m. on a recent Saturday.
Ten feet below, Boston police Sergeant Thomas Lema frowned. Calling like Romeo at Juliet’s window, he tried to capture the attention of one of dozens of 20-somethings inside the apartment.
“Hello!” Lema bellowed. The revelers continued, starting a resounding rendition of a popular (and unprintable) drinking song. He climbed a few feet onto a fence below to move closer. “Hello, there!”
For four minutes, Lema yelled toward the empty balcony strewn with red plastic cups.
Inside the doorway, none of the partiers noticed.
The scene is emblematic of an intensifying cultural clash in the North End. In one corner, you have college students and young professionals, buzzed, and happy and a little too loud, who come out in full force to enjoy the neighborhood’s burgeoning nightlife. In the other: longtime North End residents who find each weekend night brings an onslaught of debauchery, rowdy partygoers, public urination, and not-so-apologetic responses to their requests to pipe down.
And police are caught in the middle — advocating for those fed up with the public disturbances, but also acknowledging that the late-night clatter is a part of living in one of Boston’s trendiest neighborhoods.
“Their complaint is, ‘What are youse doing about these people who are out making all the noise?’ And you want to say, ‘Well, there’s 15 bars right there that are all letting out. It is what it is,’” Lema said while driving down Commercial Street. “But you can’t say that to anybody at any meeting, that we can’t do anything about it. That’s just the wrong answer.”
On a recent Saturday night, Lema took a Globe reporter and photographer on a tour of the neighborhood at the height of a buoyant Saturday.
Each night, the rhythm is the same: At 1:30 a.m., an exodus of tipsy, jolly women and men from Faneuil Hall bars to their North End digs brings a series of shouts, hoots, and howls that echo through the narrow cobblestone lanes.
After St. Patrick’s Day, complaints hit a fever pitch. Police promised to station two additional officers in the neighborhood on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights to crack down on public drunkenness. And in August, just before the student population returned for the school year, City Councilor Salvatore LaMattina proposed an ordinance that would place more responsibility on landlords, fining them when tenants cause repeated nighttime disturbances.
But the complaints still flow. At this month’s community meeting, a resident reported seeing a man urinate in a fantastic arc off the top of an apartment building onto the alley below.
Suffolk University students bear the brunt of the accusations — so much so that the university has hired an employee to ride along with patrols to keep tabs on student parties, and police attend their student orientation meetings to warn them to behave.
“I talk to them about playing the Lady Gaga and the Poker Face and the Jay-Z too loud,” Lema said. “But they’re having a good time, and they think we’re the blue meanies breaking up the party.”
Many of the offenders, however, are not college students, but young professionals.
Lema’s strategy is to treat residents — even the young, rowdy ones — with polite greetings. Walking down the street, he smiles at passersby: “How ya doin’?”
Most stare at him wide-eyed as he passes, perplexed at how to respond.
“Good, thanks,” one man in a plaid shirt musters. Then, a hiccup.
Minutes before midnight, at a Commercial Street Dunkin’ Donuts, a lanky girl in jeans and heels is unequivocally sloppy drunk. Lema holds the door open for her and she slinks in, sideways, as if attempting an upright crab walk.
“She’s kind of funny, she’s kind of goofy, but if she tripped and fell, she’s fighting with her boyfriend, someone bumps into her, she makes a big deal out of it,” Lema said, “and before you know it, we got a brawl on our hands because of the happy intoxicated person who just had too much to drink and bumped into the wrong person.”
Outside, Lema asks a woman and two men to keep their voices down. They nod in assent — “Oh, sorry, Officer!” mews the woman — but a few feet away their voices begin to rise again.
“When we get a block away, they’ll get really bad,” Lema said.
But it’s easy to forget how well sound carries in a neighborhood of narrow streets packed with skinny townhouses that tower over the sidewalks. Take, for example, when a patrol car pulls up so an officer can check in with Lema.
“SHHHHHHHH!” came a voice from an overlooking third floor apartment as the officers exchange notes about the night.
“Who’s shushing?” said one officer.
“I am!” says the voice from on high. It’s an older woman, one of the regulars at the North End community meetings. “Shush!”
At the party in a second-floor apartment, after four minutes that felt like an eternity, a man finally walked onto the balcony, beer can in hand, staring out into the distance.
But his thoughts were interrupted: “Hey!” Lema yells. “Hiyo! How are you?”
The guy looks confused, then his eyes get wide as he ducks back inside. “Guys!” he shouts. “The cops are here!”
Now that Lema finally has their attention, he announces: “It’s time for you guys to get going.”