Cashing in on the blues, Memphis stages a party Cleveland could learn from
Cashing in on the blues, Memphis stages a party Cleveland could learn from
October 4, 2010
Robert L. Smith
In the renowned entertainment district of Memphis, Tenn., in a city much like Cleveland, nightlife demands a little more protocol.
Last Saturday night, people approaching B.B. King's Blues Club, at the corner of 2nd and Beale streets, first passed through an outdoor checkpoint. A security guard in a bright yellow shirt scanned IDs, looked into purses, and waved a metal-detecting wand over outstretched arms. Only then did she wish them a good time on a street that calls itself the home of the blues.
If you're going to try walking with your feet "10 feet off of Beale," as the song suggests, you'll first have to prove you're old enough. No one under 21 is allowed on Beale Street after 11 p.m.
As Cleveland debates how to control crowds, promote diversity and preserve the fun in the Warehouse District, it has plenty of models to ponder. From Beale Street in Memphis to King Street in Toronto, entertainment districts have wrestled with drunken patrons and underage crowds, endured problem bars and gangsta rap, and addressed charges of discrimination.
Many aspired to be better and emerged stronger from the effort, rewarding their cities with stable economic engines that generate both tax revenue and pride. Experts say Cleveland could do the same.
The Memphis formula
Beale Street in Memphis is a work in progress, say its designers, who constantly tweak the formula to enhance popularity and security. But these strategies, they say, helped to make Beale the top tourist attraction in Tennessee.
A curfew: After 9 p.m., you must be 21 or with your parents to be on Beale.
Checkpoints: Everyone entering the street at night passes through a metal detector and must show ID.
Specially trained cops: Beale is patrolled by its own police unit, whose officers receive training in crowd control and courtesy.
Collaboration: The restaurants and bars pool money to pay for private security.
Pedestrian friendly: Beale is closed to car traffic at busy times, like weekend nights.
A staggered stop: The music is softened at 1 a.m., the street is cleared at 2 a.m., the bars close at 5 a.m.
A theme: Beale memorializes the blues with historical displays and nightclubs that feature live music.
The Memphis sound: Beale discourages clubs from playing rap music, heavy metal and other genres not associated with the blues.
-- Robert L. Smith
Previous Plain Dealer coverage
* As Warehouse District roars, some see a need to quiet the party
* Mayor Jackson meets with Warehouse District merchants, officials
* Cleveland City Council seeks conversation on race, safety in Warehouse District
* Warehouse District struggles with popularity, race issues and legacy of Flats
Beale Street coverage
* Memphis attractions: Beale Street
* Developer set to end 30-year tenure on Beale Street (Memphis Daily News)
* Beale Street chaos: Management of strip club remains in flux (Memphis Daily News)
* Ground Zero Blues Club on Beale Street remains shuttered as court hearing is delayed (Memphis Commercial Appeal)
"I think the Warehouse District has great potential," said Jim Peters, president of the Responsible Hospitality Institute, which specializes in creating attractive urban social scenes. "You have a great menu of options. It really is a matter of what you want to be."
After a busy and controversial summer on West 6th Street here, some work awaits. But the ideas are plentiful. Elsewhere after dark, cities are shaping nightlife economies by widening sidewalks, influencing the music, imposing curfews and retraining the cops. They are shaping the ambience by setting the stage.
Often, the efforts have a grassroots flavor. In Pittsburgh's lively South Side neighborhood, bar owners are pooling money to hire extra clean-up crews and security.
Typically, city halls get assertively involved. To energize and control East Fourth Street Live!, Louisville, Ky., closed the street to cars and gated the entrances.
Some cities strive to tie into a larger trend. Toronto recently welcomed a day care center to its Entertainment District, where the residential population is growing rapidly.
In contrast, Atlanta is taking a more liberal look at bars and their power to spark activity downtown. It's considering pushing back closing times from 2:30 to 4 a.m.
To guide strategies, Peters advises adopting a theme that rings with authenticity. New Orleans celebrates jazz in its French Quarter. San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf romanticizes the sea.
The Cleveland theme?
"It really is a matter of deciding what you want to be, and then building systems to support that," Peters said.
That effort may have begun Thursday, when Warehouse District merchants and managers joined city officials and community leaders at Old Stone Church for a day of cultural sensitivity training.
beale street 2.JPGView full sizeSpecial to PDMemphis police officer M. Merritt of the Beale Street entertainment district unit keeps an eye on revelers during a recent Saturday night.
By spelling out acceptable practices and protocols, city officials say, they hope to foster an atmosphere of inclusion. It's only a start, they say, to finding strategies that will take the district to new heights.
As it seeks best practices, Cleveland might look south, to a hard-working city with some familiar qualities.
Memphis is black-majority city with high poverty, limited cultural diversity, and a hugely successful entertainment district downtown.
While the bluesy, neon-lit bars and rib joints of Beale contrast with the fine restaurants and glitzy dance clubs of the Warehouse District, the neighborhood's share key characteristics.
The Beale Street Historic District, the heart of the party, would about fit into West 6th between Lakeside and Superior avenues in Cleveland. Like West 6th, Beale suffered years of neglect and was largely vacant before re-emerging in the 1980s as a center of music and culture.
Today, it's the single largest tourist attraction in Tennessee. The district generated $57 million in revenues in 2009 while employing more than 800 people and pouring millions into the city treasury.
"Every year for 25 straight years we've increased our sales," said John Elkington, the CEO of Performa Entertainment, the private company that manages Beale Street for Memphis.
Tourist and townies alike find an oasis of casual good fun.
On Saturday afternoon, couples, families, retirees and motorcycle enthusiasts strolled the red brick street. They lunched at restaurants called Pig and Rum Boogie, sipped sweet tea and explored funky souvenir shops. A live blues band played in compact W.C. Handy Park. Sidewalk counters promoted "Drinks to GO."
It's OK, way OK, to carry your beer on Beale.
At 9 p.m., the street began its transformation into a gated community. Several years ago, teens roamed the late-night street. Fights were common, even stampedes. No more.
"The key is to keep the young people off the street," said Lew Winston, a former sheriff's deputy who, as Performa's security director, designed Beale's system of checkpoints. "They're not going to spend any money. They're just going to bring you headaches."
After 9 p.m., anyone under 21 must be with a parent. After 11 p.m., it's 21-and-over only.
As the tourists walked off their dinners, thousands of locals joined them, pouring through the checkpoints like concertgoers. If anyone minded being wanded, it was hard to notice.
"It's for our safety. It's cool," said Kendra Peete, 22, who arrived with friends from work. Not long ago, she stood outside -- too young to get onto Beale. Now she likes the curfew, explaining, "It makes a better vibe."
beale street 3.JPGView full sizeSpecial to PDMemphis police officers escort an unruly person from a club on Beale Street.
The crowd skews professional, diverse and musical. Most every club offers live music. Blues, jazz, Motown, gospel and rockabilly fires from open doorways and rain onto a street that, by midnight, resembles a river of people.
A small army keeps the river controlled.
Club owners share the cost of a private security force that staffs six checkpoints and the doors to the bars. Memphis police, while visible, keep a distance. Unlike in Cleveland, they are prohibited from working for nightclubs.
Major Steve Grisham, commander of the Downtown Entertainment Unit in Memphis, believes the detachment makes them a more efficient, less threatening force. His 42 officers on duty this night also received special training in crowd control and courtesy. They patrol nearby streets and parking garages on bicycles and Segways, contributing to Beale's reputation as the most watched place in Memphis.
"It's straight up safe," declared Rudy Williams, holding a trumpet and sitting under a straw hat outside King's Palace Caf . After 58 years on Beale, the locals call him mayor.
"People from all over the world come to Beale Street," Williams said, adding that he just met a group from Sweden. "People love the blues. If they come to Memphis, even if they come to see Elvis, they come to see Beale Street."
Not that Memphis has it all figured out. Where Kendra Peete and her friends stood outside of a nightclub that plays rap music, the crowd was overwhelmingly young and black. Further up the street, where rockabilly shook the Blues City Cafe, it turned noticeably whiter.
"A lot of people don't realize, but there's two sides of Beale," said Jim Woerner, sipping a drink inside a sprawling saloon called Silky O'Sullivans. "It's not official, but there's a dividing line."
Woerner graduated from Orange High School here in 1983. He ended up in Memphis after attending Ole Miss. He described Beale as, "very much a work in progress."
Some practices on Beale, and in many other entertainment districts, would not translate readily to Cleveland. Memphis owns most of Beale Street and that lends the city maestro-like control.
A hip hop scene is emerging but Grisham said police will shut off the music if they hear gangsta rap. Businesses are expected to collaborate on everything from security to diversity hiring.
About 60 percent of Beale's workforce is black, Elkington said, and 60 percent of the clubs are owned by women and minorities. Meanwhile, the district mines a theme unique to Memphis, the delta blues that came up the Mississippi.
Tom Yablonsky, executive director of the Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation in Cleveland, notes that people do not live on Beale, not in the numbers found in the Warehouse District, which more than 3,000 people call home.
"We're not a bar district, we're a mixed-use neighborhood," he said. "The Warehouse District should keep its Cleveland originality."
Still, Memphis offers charms that could apply most anywhere. In a downtown arguably not as attractive as Cleveland's, horse-drawn carriages clip clop along lamplit streets, exuding calm and elegance.
Street musicians audition to perform on Beale to tipping crowds. Public spaces are carved out for bandstands, historical displays, a soulful trumpeter.
Memphis shaped the kind of place where, as the song "Mustang Sally" fired from a corner bar, a couple across the street stepped instead to a bluesy pianist crooning the Mark Cohn classic, "Walking in Memphis." Hand in hand, they danced lightly up Beale, looking far from blue.