Thursday, April 26, 2012

Beale Street Development

Memphis’s Beale Street and Nashville’s Second Avenue/lower Broadway entertainment district are the subjects of a 2010 article by Ola Johannson that appears in the scholarly journal Material Culture. Johannson, a geographer at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, is interested in the processes by which the two entertainment districts were created and the effect of the processes on the “function” of the districts. As he points out, the Second Avenue/lower Broadway district in Nashville emerged more or less organically, driven by market forces; in contrast, the Beale Street district was the result of a top-down project managed and directed by John Elkington, a prominent Memphis developer, through his company Performa Entertainment, which was formed in 1983 specifically to renovate and revitalize what black Memphis businessman George W. Lee called "the Main Street of Negro America." Johansson observes that although the processes by which the two districts came into being differed, the two “are very much alike in a functional sense”—that is, the two districts contain a similar mix of commercial establishments and other concerns (nightclubs, restaurants, tourist traps, and so on).

The impression one gets from Johannson’s article is that John Elkington pretty much runs Beale Street and that no business can open without the developer’s approval. Although Elkington has put a lot of money into Beale Street, his methods and agenda have sometimes been questioned: among other things, Johannson mentions Elkington’s dubious commitment to neighborhood development. Elkington’s side of the story is told in his Beale Street: Resurrecting the Home of the Blues (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2008).

Johannson, who in 2004 completed a PhD in geography from the University of Tennessee, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Lund University in Sweden, where, I presume, he was raised. He tells us that he first visited Memphis and Nashville in the early 1990s. “The impression was of decay and neglect,” with the areas adjacent to the central business districts showing “strong signs of disinvestment.” Things, of course, have changed, and “a visit to downtown Nashville or Memphis today is quite a different experience.”

Johannson’s article is titled “Form, Function, and the Making of Music-Themed Entertainment Districts in Nashville and Memphis.” Material Culture is published by the Pioneer America Society and is now in its forty-fourth year.

1 comment:

  1. Beale Street is a mess. I moved to Memphis in 1995. At the time Beale was hopping. There were bands setting up in Handy Park (Beale and 3rd) which is were the Blues players of the 20's would set up and play for local fish fries and weekend parties. There were also street musicians, which made me happy, being one myself. The fist thing they did was ban street musicians with the lopsided logic that people weren't going to go into the clubs and buy overpriced drinks if they could hear music on the sidealks for free. Funny, it sure works for New Orleans. No other Blues clubs could open downtown since it was decided they would compete with Beale, even though tourists were quickly bored with the limited amount of clubs on Beale and didn't stay in town long. The final straw for me was when the real home of the blues (handy park) was surrounded by a brick wall in order to charge admission. Shorty after, it was followed by a gift shop and a name change to The Pepsi Pavillion. If I was looking for a way to ruin Beale, I couldn't have done a better job. I went down there last weekend. On a friday night the street was dead, with cruisers parked at both ends, garbage all over the street and nothing but Rap blaring out of a club wwhich should never ave opened in the first place. If you want Blues, go to the festival in Helena Arkansas or the W.C. Handy Blues Festival and BBQ in Hendersonville Ky. You won't find any in Memphis. - J.K. Rost