Artists Remember Bella Luna & The Milky Way, Boston's 'Cheers' For People Of Color

After 27 years, Bella Luna & The Milky Way closed permanently in June. (Courtesy Bella Luna & The Milky Way)
After 27 years, Bella Luna & The Milky Way closed permanently in June. (Courtesy Bella Luna & The Milky Way)

After nearly 28 years of business, the owners of Bella Luna & The Milky Way announced on June 18 that the restaurant won't be reopening. In a statement on their website, the owners wrote, "the public health hazards of COVID-19 will exist for over a year; and without being able to operate at full capacity, our business is not financially sustainable."

Bella Luna, which originally opened in 1993 in Hyde Square as a small pizza parlor, has expanded and grown over the years. The restaurant moved into the current location at the Haffenreffer brewery complex in 2008. Not only did Bella Luna serve as a place to get late-night pizza and a good cocktail, it was also home to community programs, dance parties, open mics and more. Artists and performers of color in Boston, particularly queer and trans POC, found a second home at these inclusive spaces created at Bella Luna. Here's what they had to say about their memories of the restaurant and bar.

Eddie Maisonet - Poet and Storyteller

"There are few outside spaces I crave actively like Bella Luna/Milky Way. In a sentence, as a black queer and trans person, I felt genuinely safe there. Boston’s public and social spaces, I will say with my chest, are actively aggressive to the presence of people like me: broke, black, trans, queer people. I was a regular patron as well as performer at the space. The way people have their gym friends I had my Bella Luna friends. I adored the staff, felt so good about the professionalism of the sound tech, and knew I could see art that mattered. How often have the QTBIPOC panels, mics and affordable parties been at this venue? There are few places that have mocktails on the menu, staff knowledgable about the ingredients in the food, interesting and funny bartenders from my community, and a ramp with automatic doors. I could bring any of my friends there. I don’t know where I’ll take them after this. I don’t know where I’m going to go when I want to dance till my shirt is soaked through. Where will the organizations that serve my communities host their events and fundraisers? To say this is a huge loss is only the beginning of the deep sadness and anger in my heart."

Jha D Williams and D. Ruff introduce the ground rules for the "If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It" open mic at its 10th anniversary celebration. (Courtesy Bryan Trench/The Event Shooters)
Jha D Williams and D. Ruff introduce the ground rules for the "If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It" open mic at its 10th anniversary celebration. (Courtesy Bryan Trench/The Event Shooters)

D. Ruff - Poet and Organizer of "If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It"

"In 2009, I was new to the Boston art scene, though Boston has been all I’ve known my whole life. 2009 was the year I first met Jha D Williams, heard her work, and was invited to an open mic that was happening twice a month at the time. She explained how it was different, as she highlighted the values of uplifting and prioritizing QTPOC voices in a working space. I accepted the invite, and the first time arriving at the Milky Way was a fulfilling and warm experience being surrounded, encouraged, and embraced by Black people. Soon after, Jha would ask if I would be her co-host and the rest is history. For the next 10 years straight, Milky Way/Bella Luna would be the home of the ‘If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It’ open mic. Every month we’d be able to reconvene, celebrate and heal. Each mic there would be a new face needing to see a reflection of themselves, a new voice who wanted to be heard and understood, and new groups who have stumbled across our community by accident. We continued to grow each year and our name became one of the go-to spots in the city for Black artists, calling QTPOC artists to the forefront. Milky Way was the new ‘Cheers’-like atmosphere where you knew everyone’s name, recognized familiar faces, and welcomed people who have stepped away from the scene for a while or those stepping out for the first time. Milky Way has been my foundation as an artist and activist, it was the place I honed in on my stage presence and hosting skills to become this outspoken artist. Thank you Milky Way for everything, every month, every event, every drink, laugh and tears. You will be missed."

Amanda Shea - Poet, Artist and Organizer

"Hearing the news of Bella Luna closing was an emotional rollercoaster initially. It was like a film was being played instantly that had nothing but smiling faces, music, dancing and poems! The 'If You Can Feel It, You Can Speak It' open mic, to me, is the equivalent to the Apollo [Theater] when it comes to talent. Some of my favorite performances from Boston artists took place there. You instantly felt the magic when you walked in the door. The only mic you could feel at home when you identify as LGBTQIA. 'Nonelitist, nonpretentious, open open mic,' Jha states at the beginning of each mic that ran every second Thursday of every month. You bared your soul on this stage because you felt comfortable to do so. You felt free. I’m truly going to miss this space. The vibes were always lit! I met my now partner at this mic. It’s incredibly bittersweet."

Mark Merren - Performer and Organizer

"I first discovered Milky Way around 2001. At that time I would frequent mostly Caribbean/Reggae parties. DJ Junior Rodigan played there on Sunday nights. One of my good friends told me to come check out the night. I remember walking down that staircase and feeling like I was entering a new world. I felt like I wasn’t in Boston anymore. There were bowling lanes, pool tables, and a noticeably diverse crowd. The bartenders made you feel like you knew them for years! The pizza was incredible! I never missed a Sunday after that. About three years ago, I was looking for a permanent home for my Dancehall Lounge series, a night dedicated to Afro-Caribbean music. They were open to the idea and allowed me the opportunity to grow the event into an institution at the venue. Milky Way has always been a local gem that welcomed everyone! I could always blindly recommend it to someone looking for something to do.  I am hopeful that one day we’ll be able to reunite and dance together again. Thank you to the ownership team for always staying true to their vision of creating community. I feel like they’ll be back in some form or fashion in the coming years."

Aida Manduley - Therapist, Educator and Activist

"I'd been going to Bella Luna since before I even lived in Boston proper, so almost 9 nine years. It was one of the few places this side of the river that had vegan pizza, and I was able to take friends of varied dietary needs too. As a Boricua far from home, having music from the island playing at a club night was amazing. Bella Luna became a common weekend haunt, and one of the only places I could reliably go to and find myself reflected through various prisms. I sang along to Taína Asili y la Banda Rebelde as they performed songs about revolution and resilience, danced salsa so hard it looked like I'd been dunked in a pool, and mooned over sweethearts while we ate bacon-wrapped figs. Bella Luna was a place where I knew I could take anyone in my life — there would always be some event that represented my communities, whether it was queer people, people of color, Latinxs specifically, feminists and more. I could go and I was guaranteed to see a friendly face every time. This loss hurts way more than I expected it to, as I don't usually feel attachments to places, but Bella Luna wasn't just a random building. It was a hotbed of culture and community, and that is the actual grief of it."

Marlene Boyette - Yoga and Meditation Teacher

"Receiving word that Bella Luna & The Milky Way would not reopen felt akin to learning that an old dear friend had passed. Immediately I thought of the many Thursday evenings I trekked from Fitchburg State University to this community, hoping to gather enough courage to share my poetry at the open mic nights, hosted by DJ Nomadik. The Milky Way had been a large part of my introduction into Boston’s music scene. The basement-like venue and restaurant would be bustling on any given night with musicians, poets, dancers and graffiti artists, many who later became regarded as legends. It was my experiences at The Milky Way that influenced my love and respect for Boston creatives and also for the neighborhood which I have called home for the last few years. Any time I walk past the original location on Centre Street and see the bowling pins on the door handle, a smile always takes over my face. It is terribly sad to think of Jamaica Plain without The Milky Way. Another historic part of this community, lost. I wish we could come together in an effort to save it."

Singer Genie Santiago performs during her Sunflower Concert Series at Bella Luna. (Courtesy Jen Vesp)
Singer Genie Santiago performs during her Sunflower Concert Series at Bella Luna. (Courtesy Jen Vesp)

Genie Santiago - Singer and Songwriter

"A few years ago, I started being vocal about my queerness on social media and during performances. I was new to the LGBTQ+ scene of Boston and I was searching for spaces that felt safe not only as a queer, but as a Latina and sexual assault survivor. I came across an event that was taking place at The Milky Way and it was promoted as a dance party for queer POC. Most gay clubs I went to in the Boston area were predominantly white spaces that played EDM or techno music which is cool, but it's not really my choice of music. When I arrived at The Milky Way, I was hit with an overdrive of sensations. There were so many beautiful humans dancing, the lighting was soft and perfect, but the music is what really made me melt. The DJ was playing the sounds of the Caribbean, hip-hop, salsa, bachata, R&B and more. I felt safe in this space and I shamelessly danced with whoever I wanted.

Since then, I've met other magical artists and lifelong friends at The Milky Way. I've attended countless events and even hosted two of my Sunflower Concert Series shows there. Now it feels we are going to lose the spaces we have left due to our current climate."


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Arielle Gray Reporter
Arielle Gray is a reporter for WBUR.



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