For a Blues Birthplace in Memphis, Challenging Next Steps
MEMPHIS — It was for years an open secret that behind the blues music, barbecue trophies and neon signs of Beale Street, the small strip of clubs, restaurants and history that helped put Memphis on the map, a legal and political mess existed that tourists never saw.
These days the lawsuits, management fights and turf wars have ebbed, but a long-term reckoning for one of the country’s most famous entertainment districts is only in its infancy.
“The turmoil that existed on the street for years, arising out of the litigations — plural — between the various parties with interests on Beale Street, was very distracting from the business of Beale Street,” said Paul Morris, the president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, which last year, in the wake of a bankruptcy settlement involving the street’s longtime developer, became the interim manager for the city-owned district, collecting rents, maintaining the area and promoting it. “You go through a war, and now you have reconstruction.”
If some of the sparring has ebbed, the challenges and decisions that could shape Memphis’s downtown for decades are still being sorted out. The city, for instance, is weighing whether to stretch Beale Street’s blocks of bars, restaurants and shops toward the Mississippi River, and it is searching for a real estate company to take control of the street and its day-to-day management.
Questions of public safety continue to shadow Beale Street. And, perhaps validating the concerned chatter in some quarters that Beale Street will never quite measure up to the giddy cacophony of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Memphis’s entertainment district has struggled to emerge as a round-the-clock attraction.
Even though an alcohol-fueled crowd can swell to 15,000 people at night, a weekday afternoon might draw only a handful of curious tourists to sample championship-winning gumbo in a largely empty restaurant or pose for photographs with Jerry Lee Lewis’s white Cadillac.
“This is where music was born,” said Donna Mazza, a recent visitor from Long Island. Walking past all the marquees and clubs where so many musicians made their names, “you just feel it,” she said.
“And I love the fact that, in its day, this is where they all came to go to their doctors’ offices and to buy food,” she added.
But Ms. Mazza and her family stayed in Memphis only briefly before they moved on to Nashville, Tennessee’s other musical heavyweight, for a longer visit. “People around the world have heard of Beale Street,” Mr. Morris said. “If they’ve heard of Memphis, they kind of know Beale Street — that and Elvis. And some people get here and they walk down Beale Street, and they’re like: ‘Whoa, that was quick. Is that it?’ ”
The entertainment district of Beale is just a few blocks of a downtown street that runs for just shy of two miles. And so the notion of expanding the entertainment district has taken hold in Memphis. That notion is likely to dominate much of the search for a new operator who, officials acknowledge, will have to accept a generation of lease agreements that expire in 2034 and that, for the moment, produce relatively little revenue.
“Getting someone to come in and operate the street is no small feat,” said Archie Willis III, the chairman of the city’s new Beale Street Tourism Development Authority. “It’s going to be a challenge finding someone that can figure out how to make some money now — what potential opportunities there may be for them to be a part of the expansion and make money on that — and then addressing the concerns you have to address with existing merchants.”
The city itself makes little directly from the district. Last year, Mr. Morris said, the local government netted less than $1.2 million from rent and sales taxes on the street. “It’s going to generate revenue, if it’s managed properly,” Mr. Willis said. “It’s got to be fun. Music is the heart of it, and you want to keep that historical identity of it being a great place where you can hear great music, with a focus on blues, which is the origins of Beale Street, and a place for people to have a good time.”
That there is even a Beale Street to enjoy is in itself a turnaround story.
Less than half a century ago, before Beale Street was drawing millions of visitors each year, the area that had once been a hub of African-American life in Memphis had shriveled into a ramshackle wasteland.
Boards covered nearly every business, and the street had been all but abandoned. By the early 1980s, after the city bought most of the buildings in the neighborhood, a revival was in its early stages. Time, and Beale Street’s emergence, eventually brought setbacks and squabbles that prompted years of litigation, negotiations and grandstanding that set the stage for today’s lingering suspicions.
City officials and business owners have also labored to portray Beale Street as a safe area after years of high-profile violence. They acknowledge that a five-hour stretch — from 11 p.m. on Saturdays to roughly 4 a.m. on Sundays — is particularly problematic. Officials concede that they have not yet found a crowd control strategy that improves safety but avoids a public outcry similar to the one prompted by a $10 cover charge tried out last summer. “How do you find some kind of in-between where the public doesn’t think we’re limiting their access to a public street and our customers are safe?” asked Ty Agee, the owner of Miss Polly’s Soul City Cafe and the president of the Beale Street Merchants Association. “You have to learn on the run.”
Another crowd management strategy, known as the “Beale Street Sweep,” this month drew the ire of a federal judge, who harshly criticized the Memphis authorities after a jury found that the police had for years cleared the blocks at 3 a.m. The practice “violated the constitutional rights of thousands of persons,” Judge Jon P. McCalla of United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee wrote in a June 3 order that largely banned the practice except in instances of threats to public safety.
To Memphis residents who have observed Beale Street for decades, talk of potential stability and an end to infighting is welcome. There is, however, a deep skepticism that the sense of cooperation will endure.
“Nobody wants to be in charge of Beale Street, but everybody wants to be in charge of Beale Street,” said Weldon Conard, a retired corrections officer who was walking recently near Handy Park, a Beale Street park named for W. C. Handy, the composer and lyricist responsible for the oft-covered “Beale Street Blues.” “If they could come to some kind of consensus, this could be a dynamite tourist attraction.”
Robert L. J. Spence Jr., a former Memphis city attorney who represented the two men who challenged the so-called sweep, said he sensed that Memphis was growing into a city capable of hosting a significant tourist draw.
“I do think we’re getting there,” Mr. Spence said. “It just sort of took a brawl to figure it out, to get a better management in place, to get the cops under control, to make it better for the public. That’s just a big city trying to grow up.”