Beale Street: No Fun Zone

Originally posted on Open Salon on May 28, 2012, this post was co-authored by Eric Garcia and Jovana Babovic. 

Memphis’s Beale Street has a place in America’s popular history as ground zero of the blues, and later rock’n’roll.  In the latter half of the nineteenth century, travelling musicians began to perform in the neighborhood, and by the turn of the century, Beale Street began to flourish as an entertainment district. Many legends of blues crossed paths—and many stayed on Beale Street in the 1920s and 1930s—when the neighborhood’s heyday rang in the style dubbed the “Memphis blues.” However, by the 1960s, two of the densest blocks were sectioned off as a National Historic Landmark in an effort to halt the spread of urban decay that was afflicting the region. Beale Street was designated for investment and re-building, but the urban renewal was not successful until the 1980s. It is now billed as one of the central tourist attractions in Memphis; as visitors to the city in 2011, we were eager to see how Beale Street was integrated into the urban fabric. In an unexpected twist, we didn’t have fun on Beale Street.

In a recent article, Will Doig wrote about “blocks where no one has fun.” These portions of a city, he argues, are products of a single visionary (usually a billionaire) or a developer who attempts to impose a particular function onto urban space. They are “swath[es] of cityscape whose character has been pre-ordained by a city council vote and is now identified by brightly colored banners affixed to lampposts.” Using Dallas’Arts Districts the case par excellence of a block where no one has fun, he then contrasts it to places such as Water Street in Milwaukee. According to Doig, the latter developed with governmental assistance and represents an example in which art and culture might develop organically in urban spaces that already have (or had) a place in the city’s fabric. The “blocks were no one has fun” moniker does not fit Memphis’ Beale Street. Beale Street is neither hyper-planned, nor is it an organically developing center of culture; it’s in between. It is a place that is supposed to be fun because history attests to it having been fun. Yet, the joy feels manufactured, much like the history of Beale Street, and it is therefore no fun at all. Beale Street becomes more akin to a Disneyland of Blues, where you purchase your fun at an inflated price: cover charge at every bar, $12 pints, and garage parks by the hour. These costs are circularly justified—after all, it is Beale Street.

Unlike Dallas’ Arts District, the problem with Beale Street is not its inauthenticity, but its insistent authenticity. Its revitalization meant new venues and businesses that fit within a clearly demarcated idea of what Beale Street meant historically and ostensibly also what it should mean today. The “authentic” experience one now gets on Beale Street is something that had never existed before. It does not have the problem of unused spaces, which plagues Dallas’ Arts District, but contemporary Beale Street has a similar problem. Doig argues that Dallas’ empty spaces create a “vacuum [that] has made the district itself a museum of sorts, something impressive to observe but strangely inert.” Beale Street has also become a museum, but it is not because it is abandoned or empty. Instead, it is something akin to a reanimated historical relic and a lived museum of blues history. Beale Street is crowded, and it’s evident that the majority of its patrons are tourists: college kids, families, and older couples. People come to Beale Street because of its past. Yet, the street is inert precisely because of this: in the attempts to capture history—a zeitgeist—Beale Street only captures the tourist market.

The legacy of Beale Street, but also its contemporary reiteration, was one of the things that attracted us, too, to Memphis. And, indeed, you hear blues’ standards on Beale Street. However, it’s difficult to hear anything else; the commodification of Beale Street into the historical blues epicenter of the country has excluded all other genres from the area. The music remains good—whether a singer-songwriter in third-floor lounge or an energetic five-man band pumping out Sam & Dave covers—but it’s hardly possible to enjoy it on Beale Street. Crowds of inebriated tourists snake in and out of bars seemingly unaware of the different performers, families with unhappy toddlers sit down for dinner at B.B. King’s, and the flashes of cameras are frequent enough to induce blindness. Everywhere we looked, people were racing to “experience” Beale Street—to drink in the zoned off street (an additional novelty), to eat fries, and to document all the fun they had while the blues played in the background. But, just steps outside the marked Beale Street area, Memphis becomes a ghost town.

In order to take in more music, we tried off Beale Street venues. In Cooper Young, we were met with a local band rendering Radiohead-esque interpretations of the blues. But, unlike Beale Street, the audience at this show was so scant that the band delayed their set several times, apparently hoping that more patrons would arrive. Despite the fantastic performance, we were disheartened by the lack of an audience. On another evening, we walked on empty streets and under a highway overpass for the specific purpose of listening to a local performer who came highly recommended, only to be disappointed that the show—at another small and empty venue doubling as a pizza parlor—had been cancelled.

On and off Beale Street, music was hard to enjoy in Memphis. Part of the problem is the demand. Because Beale Street is essentially a tourist destination—a historical site of the blues—it’s trapped in commercialization. Other sites of music in Memphis, such as Graceland and Stax Studios (now theStax Museum of American Soul Music), have been transformed into museums where the experience is geared towards learning about the history of music, rather than participating in it. Yet, unlike Graceland and Stax, Beale Street professes to be a space where the blues can be experienced live, not where it is memorialized or historicized. This feeds into the other part of the problem—supply. Beal Street has an official website, a Facebook page, and daily tours. It is branded as “the home of the blues” and “the birthplace of rock’n’roll,” while an unselfconscious advertisement professes that “Beale Street was built on memories.”

But Beale Street was not built on memories. It was built by the energy of the Delta blues, the communities of musicians who jammed together, and the intersections of American history. It might be better said that Beale Street today is being built on commercial aspiration. Here is where Beale Street, like the Dallas Arts District, falls into a similar trap Doig outlines. Why didn’t we have fun on Beale Street? As a place of tourism, Beale Street comes at a high price. As a place of history, Beale Street capitalizes on an undisclosed, yet static, moment in blues history. And, as a place of entertainment, Beale Street hardly makes an effort to veil its mass-consumption fun. We didn’t have fun on Beale Street because fun entailed participation in commercial consumption, and hardly had anything to do with history, and much less music.

How could Memphis’s Beale Street be transformed into a music district that lives up to its promises of being “the home of the blues?” An obvious suggestion is to make the area more affordable, and thus more attractive as a lived neighborhood for local residents and local musicians. Another consequence of Beale Street’s commercialization is that it has excluded music incompatible with the “blues” label; the city would do well to open a more inclusive repertoire that might promote an organic development of a new Memphis sound. And, finally, instead of cordoning off music into several blocks, Memphis might benefit from supporting music outside the Beale Street limits—its visitors surely would.

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