Summer in the City

The controversy over Beale Street’s Saturday night cover charge

By Bill Dries

Saturday night on Beale Street is more than a catch phrase for businesses there.

It is chapters in old, out-of-print books like Lt. George W. Lee’s “Where The Blues Began” that you can only see in the Memphis-Shelby County Room of the Central Library. You can’t check the book out because of its rarity and age. But you can also find references to the lore of Saturday nights on Beale Street on plaques in the entertainment district that current patrons walk past without even noticing.

Saturday night crowds on Beale Street are at the center of a new debate about the best ways to control the crowd but draw people into the entertainment district. The Memphis City Council last month dropped the $10 cover charge after 10 p.m. Saturdays to $5 as a task force prepares to make recommendations. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Saturday night crowds on Beale Street are at the center of a new debate about the best ways to control the crowd but draw people into the entertainment district. The Memphis City Council last month dropped the $10 cover charge after 10 p.m. Saturdays to $5 as a task force prepares to make recommendations. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Saturday night after 10 on Beale. Large weekend crowds were a tradition in the decades before the district’s decline and eventual reopening in 1983. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Memphis Police are part of a crowd-control effort on Beale Street that includes a $5 cover charge. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

“Saturday night was the fabulous night on Beale Street,” reads a quote from Irving Strauch on a plaque by King’s Palace. Strauch’s parents owned a business on Beale.

It is an institution – part aspiration, part tradition and part artifact, and maybe even part artifice. The more you try to define it, the more elusive it can become. But that’s just what a Beale Street Task Force is undertaking.

The street’s colorful nightlife is one thing from the safe distance of more than half a century. It is another in the here and now.

Some of today’s merchants see crowds outside their doors as an obstacle to people with money coming inside. Others see a continuation of the street’s tradition as more than the sum of its businesses. Still others see new customers making a judgment about Memphis by their experience on the street alone.

It is Saturday nights that are at the heart of what Memphis City Council chairman Berlin Boyd calls “the Beale Street question.”

“The biggest concern in my district that comes back to me is, ‘Why do you guys charge for a taxpayer to be on the street?’’’ he said last month at the first meeting of the task force. “It’s hard to explain to the general public. The reason this has been such a hotbed topic is we are about sick and tired of getting the Beale Street question.”

Council member Jamita Swearengen didn’t put it in the form of a question or perception.

“We all know that that’s the night that most African-Americans visit the Downtown area,” she said.

Dwain Kyles, son of the late civil rights leader Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles and head of the 21 Beale Street group that wants to run the district for the city, questions the entire orientation of the district today and its connection to culture and history.

“Beale Street was built on the culture of African-Americans who could go no place else back in the day. There was no place else for us to go,” Kyles told those at a gathering of the Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens this month in Tom Lee Park.

“If you go to Beale Street right now you are going to be very hard-pressed to have any idea why Beale Street’s famous,” he said. “We can never be, as a city that is an urban center, what we want to be if we don’t honor and respect everybody – everybody’s culture, everybody’s circumstances.”

The 21 Beale Street group was the last candidate standing to manage day-to-day operations on the street after two separate requests for proposals. His company didn’t land the contract even in a competition with few bidders.

“I think it’s really because the people who are pulling the strings in this city didn’t want to have someone come in and highlight the cultural legacy of the street and really cut into all of those shenanigans that have been going on with that street,” Kyles said of his firm’s rejection.

This is the second consecutive summer of a cover charge to get on Beale Saturday evenings in the spring and summer after 10 p.m. The cover charge is rooted in crowds that swell later on Saturday nights to the point that there become long lines to gain access to the street. A few violent stampedes on these crowded nights have contributed to the perception, if occasionally the reality, that Beale Street presents a public safety issue on those nights.

The council reduced the cover charge from $10 to $5 in June, ending the $8 in coupons those paying the cover could use in most, but not all Beale Street businesses.

The council also formed the task force to make recommendations on alternatives to the cover charge going forward, once the council has a handle on just how much money is involved and what the costs of alternative security solutions might be for Beale at its peak.

The $10 cover followed a June 2015 federal court ruling that ended an eight-year practice of Memphis Police sweeping Beale Street at 3 a.m. and ordering those standing outside the businesses to go into one, leave the district entirely or face arrest.

In 2013, a civil lawsuit was filed by Lakendus Cole, a Memphis Police officer with the Organized Crime Unit, and Leon Edmond, a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms after both were arrested in the sweeps while off duty. A jury in January 2015 found for Cole and awarded $35,000 in compensatory damages.

Six months later, U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla added a court order that left no doubt that the city had to end the sweeping policy.

The city had announced it was discontinuing the sweeps in June 2012, but police continued to enforce the policy for another three years.

“Of particular concern to the court is the city’s continued refusal to end the practice,” McCalla wrote. “The city’s post-verdict arguments reinforce the conclusion that the city has yet to accept and institutionalize the constitutional balance required by the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution in policing the Beale Street Entertainment District.”

One year to the month after McCalla’s ruling, Downtown Memphis Commission president and CEO Terence Patterson announced in June 2016 the $10 cover charge called “Beale Street Bucks.” The DMC has been managing Beale day-to-day on an interim basis for three years.

“We can’t ignore the serious overcrowding and safety issues that predictably occur during a few hours each summer weekend in the wee hours of Saturday night and into Sunday morning,” Patterson said from a podium in Handy Park. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings cited “the recent surge of patrons physically on Beale Street who are not patronizing the businesses, causing dangerous overcrowding on the street during weekend nights.”

Patterson, who is African-American, denied any racial profiling.

“We are not looking at identifying specific races or genders or colors of people to take off of our street. Beale Street is for everyone,” he said. “Any intimation of anything like that is patently false. If we at any point – we being the Downtown Memphis Commission – think, believe or see any of that happening, it will be summarily ceased.”


In another year from June to June, much changed on Beale.

It began with the council voting to abolish the Beale Street Tourism Development Authority less than two years after a previous council created the authority to be the leaseholder of the entertainment district owned by the city.

The authority never carried out its first task – finding a day-to-day manager for the district. The last applicant – 21 Beale Street – was the only African-American company when the authority broke off negotiations with it.

From there, the council began asking questions about the city’s business arrangement with the authority and the merchants on Beale – specifically, where is the money from the $10 cover charge going? The short answer was some to the merchants, some to run the five check-points or gates, wristbands and metal detector wands, and some for private security beyond that.

The coupons, or “Bucks,” that could be spent with Beale Street merchants participating in the program were money in the coffers of those businesses. About 25 percent of patrons who paid the $10 cover to get on Beale Street didn’t use the coupons, according to Joellyn Sullivan, owner of Silky O’Sullivan’s and a vocal advocate of Beale Street Bucks.

“We all had significant financial impact last summer with the violence that was Downtown. That cannot come back,” she said. “You have to acknowledge the fact that Beale Bucks has worked to do what we wanted it do to.”

The first Saturday that the reduced $5 cover was in effect – June 17 – the gate for the night totaled $14,390 before expenses. Those expenses have been approximately $1,370 based on past experience.

The DMC keeps the money from Beale Street’s cover charge, rents and other Beale revenue in three accounts, separate from its work as a downtown development corporation. Last month, the total from those three Beale Street accounts was $215,000, according to DMC Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Oswalt, who is now interim director of the DMC with Patterson’s resignation on July 6.

Boyd says that money is the city’s and the cover charge program operates at the will and pleasure of the council.

“We are the authority,” Boyd told Patterson in May. “I can go get the charter and show you. That’s our right. That’s our city asset. The city council decides what goes on at our city asset. … No judge can circumvent what our city charter says. We are the authority. Don’t get that twisted, my man.”

Strickland, Rallings and Patterson all contend the $10 cover charge is the reason there haven’t been any stampedes since it was implemented.

“We’ve seen Saturday night demographics reflect the demographics of the city of Memphis,” Sullivan added. “We need to save space for people that have got money to spend. … We now have enough experience with the program to know there will be enough capacity with Beale Street Bucks that are not redeemed to have enough to pay for the administration of the program and have additional money to pay for security.”

Meanwhile, Beale Street Development Corp. director Lucille Catron has sued over the cover charge, claiming it is racially discriminatory. The development corporation was the district’s leaseholder with the city, but its authority was diminished and the Beale Street Tourism Development Authority was created in its place.


Police Deputy Chief Terry Landrum told the task force a handful of officers can’t handle Beale Street security on a peak Saturday night into Sunday morning. He also cited an overall police shortage citywide as the department is below 2,000 police officers.

“Beale Street Bucks thins out the crowd – people who weren’t there buying from merchants, people causing trouble,” Landrum said.

James Clark is the longest-running merchant on Beale Street. His Eel Etc. Fashions has been on the street since the district’s 1983 reopening.

“I’ve been there a long time and I know it’s been safer in the past. Then we come up with Beale Street Bucks and everybody sees dollar signs,” Clark said. “When money comes in the picture everybody starts seeing dollar signs. … I just don’t think that’s the right way.”

He is among the merchants who did not take coupons from those who paid the $10 cover and he doesn’t agree with the cover, saying the people he hears from could pay it, but won’t on principle.

“I feel in my heart it is not the right way,” he said at the first task force meeting. “I just could never be for charging just to walk down Beale to get to my business. … We’re charging you to make you safe. It’s sending out a message that is not productive for the city. I just don’t think it’s the right way.”

Boyd is a regular on Beale on Saturday nights. As a council member, he’s also looking for things the average patron might not. That includes the teenagers he saw jumping the fence into the district on Peabody Place while he had a front row seat at Havana Mix on the other side of Peabody Place.

“Young people go through that fence left and right,” he said. “You can count them going over the fence. I’ve noticed holes and ways we could improve them.”

Patrice Thomas, deputy city chief operating officer, was in line after 10 p.m. to pay the $10 cover with her husband one Saturday night when they were approached by someone with one of the clubs who offered to get them in through a back door. Boyd and Clark said they have also seen the practice. The Memphis News also encountered it.

“My husband paid $20 to bypass the line,” Thomas said. “That’s the way they promote it. That covers your cover charge for the club.”

Clubs charge individual cover charges once you pay to get in the district after 10 p.m. They range from $2 to $10.

Memphis In May International Festival president and CEO Jim Holt questioned using a cover charge as a crowd-control measure.

“If your issue is crowd control … that’s not how you do it. Police and security, they control the crowd,” he told the task force at its first meeting. “You don’t pay a cover down on Bourbon Street. The issue is crowd control and that’s for the police to come up with as far as that or a combination with private security. Beyond that funding is secondary. … $5 is still an impediment for a lot of people. … But you don’t solve the crowd-control problem with a cover charge.”

Memphis In May charges admission to its Tom Lee Park events. But Boyd says those are once -a-year events and the admission is not under the premise of paying for security.

McCalla specifically said in his 2015 ruling that there is nothing to prevent police from clearing the street “under appropriate circumstances where an imminent threat exists to public safety throughout the Beale Street area.”

McCalla was also critical of police for “a lack of understanding and training on the part of MPD officers and their superiors.”

Sullivan drew a distinction between a wall-to-wall crowd on the street and packed nightclubs.

“The reason we were over capacity was because it was a street full of people who didn’t have money to spend so they were standing in the street,” she said. “The clubs in that setting were nowhere near full. So now it’s reversed. You’ve got more people coming on the street, but they are inside and moving about the street … It’s not a hardcore maximum capacity. You want people inside the club and moving from club to club.”

The task force is looking at what other cities with similar entertainment districts do for security, and the early indications are it’s not a cover charge. There is also some discussion about security or police patrols that take in parking lots just outside the Beale district where crowds also congregate. The task force is also considering a wide range of options including whether or not to allow vehicular traffic back on the street at certain times and whether there should be a policy on music volume or the type of music.

“It’s the genre of music at that particular time of night,” Police Lt. Col. Keith Watson of the North Main Precinct said. “When there’s a party, outdoor party all night long and you can stand on that street … and enjoy the sights and sounds that’s going to breed issues. If you go to Nashville, you hear country music. If you go to Austin, you hear rockabilly or some western type of music. When you come to the home of the blues on Beale Street, you hear rap music, gangster rap.”

Boyd, meanwhile, questions those kinds of labels.

“One thing I hate hearing more so than anything is when I hear constituents say, ‘They cause problems,’” he said. “Who are ‘they?’ I’m a ‘they.’ We’re trying to find a real amenable approach and solution to this issue.”