The recent revival of a proposal to charge a fee to enter Beale Street is no better an idea now than it was a year or two ago when first proposed. We do not need to guess how such a fee would impact Beale Street, since Shreveport enacted a $5 fee on their John Elkington-designed Texas Street entertainment district some years ago. The impact of the fee along with weapons and ID checks led to Texas Street being a completely abandoned district. By contrast, Bossier City’s Louisiana Boardwalk across the Red River is booming, and although there is security and a dress code, there are neither cover charges nor ID and weapons checks.
The fee proposal will offer little in the way of improvement for Beale Street, since the facts are that those fighting have largely been adults, not youths. They generally have been fighting after being kicked out of a Beale Street venue (which means they had the money to pay and were willing to pay the cover charge). Assuming that they were drunk (a likely assumption given their behavior) they also had plenty of money to purchase alcoholic beverages. Also, none of this keeps in mind the minor nature of the incidents involved. Out of thousands of visitors, four or five get to fighting.
Kevin Kane clearly misunderstands the precarious nature of Beale. The fact is, no establishments of any kind have worked on the end of Beale nearest Fourth Street. The area has been vacant for many years now, and if business is so great that we can afford to discourage patrons from coming onto the street, why are no businesses waiting in line to occupy the extensive amount of vacant space at the east end of Beale? The former Pat O’Brien’s/Ground Zero remained vacant for well over a year before finally reopening as Dancing Jimmy’s.
Furthermore, visitors to Beale Street are already discouraged from coming onto the street by barricades, checks for weapons, ID requirements, waiting lines and a heavy uniformed police presence, including police on horseback. Tourists undoubtedly fear for their safety when they see the police overkill, and wonder if they are entering a prison camp rather than an entertainment district. Do Beale Street merchants do such a great amount of business that they can afford to run business away?
There are answers to the difficulties on Beale Street, but they require a direction for the street that neither the business owners nor the elected officials of Memphis seem to want to take. Here is what could be done to get Beale Street back to where it should be as a world-class destination for locals and tourists alike.
#1. Return Beale Street to a street. Barricade it on weekend nights of course, or during special events, but let it be a street.
#2. Abolish the weapons bans (remember, it’s a street), and ID checks, and let people walk onto the street freely. If this seems insane, realize that this is how most cities run their entertainment districts. It’s the usual state of affairs on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis, President Clinton Avenue in Little Rock or Lower Broadway in Nashville.
#3. Restrict liquor to the patios and decks of each establishment or within Handy Park. Remind establishments that selling alcoholic beverages to already-intoxicated patrons is a crime.
#4. Allow street performers to set up and play freely along Beale, as they used to be able to do when the street first opened in the 1980’s.
#5. Have more special events on the street, including parading bands on weekend evenings.
#6. Diversify the kinds of businesses on Beale. The persistent vacancies of the east end buildings suggest that there is a limit to how many night clubs and bars the district can support. These spaces could become more family-oriented restaurants, museums or retail stores. When the only purpose of Beale Street is perceived as alcohol, it’s no wonder that there is disorderly behavior and fighting.
#7. Put the focus of Beale Street on music, not liquor. This is not to say that establishments shouldn’t sell liquor, but surely an effort can be made to change the street’s culture, so that people say “Let’s go to Beale Street to hear some music”, not “Let’s go to Beale Street to get wasted.”
#8. Consider extending the district eastward to Danny Thomas Boulevard, and perhaps south along Hernando as well.
#9. Anchor the area with appropriate rehabilitation and reuse of the Universal Life Insurance Building on Danny Thomas and the Claiborne Temple Church on Hernando. These historic African-American sites could perhaps be museums.
The emphasis on alcohol and the militaristic police-state atmosphere are primarily what has caused the problems on Beale Street. As strange as it may seem, the solution will not come from more restrictions, or cover charges, which would only serve to empty out the street once and for all. The answer will come from greater freedom, and a reconceiving of the street’s purpose. Let’s hope our leaders realize it before it’s too late.