Beale Street has been so many things since its development by Robertson Topp in the 19th century.
Decades later, Beale Street is still evolving and we hope the three-block entertainment district can expand several ways.
First and foremost, we would like to see the district become more than an entertainment district of bars and restaurants.
Beale Street can become a cultural center that grounds everything on and around it in something more substantial than arguments about which version of the blues is the “real” blues. And in the process, that kind of gravitas will bring Memphians to the street on their own terms, not as escorts to out-of-town visitors.
Our search for authenticity on Beale Street should be leavened with the knowledge that people come to the street for a good time these days. For whatever reason, we too often make access to a good time much too difficult. There has to be a better way to address security concerns than the current iron bar barriers and security guards that go up at what seems an arbitrary hour for people we are trying to make forget about time.
The definition and draw of “a good time” is also broader now than it was back in the fall of 1983 when the renovated district opened.
Passengers on four riverboats that stop regularly at the foot of Beale – what amount to floating hotels – pay a lot of money to be immersed for weeks at a time in our culture.
As we noted in our cover story, there is already some semblance of cultural critical mass in the reconfigured A. Schwab general store and the easternmost block of the district that has faced the most turnover and the longest running vacancy in the district.
The long-awaited Beale Street report recommends incentives be considered to help get the eastern block of the district over the hump. Those same incentives pointed at that critical mass could establish a foothold for a Memphis cultural and historical presence in the district that links up to other institutions like Stax and Sun and the National Civil Rights Museum.
It doesn’t hurt that the best representation of turn of the 20th century music that existed on Beale Street is to be found about a block south at the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum.
A Memphis version of Preservation Hall in New Orleans would go a long way as well to satisfying the desire in some quarters to define what is authentic blues.
Preservation Hall is open for three hours every day and admission is $15 a person.
For our version, keep that cover charge and the ideal location is the Old Daisy once the existing Beale Street Development Corp. is evicted. What Beale Street needs more than a squabble over “real blues” is a real cultural guardian that knows the meaning of the words nonprofit.