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The Secret to Memphis's Blues District Success

The Secret to Memphis's Blues District Success
Flickr/rniche

In New Orleans and Kansas City and Memphis and Chicago and Los Angeles and New York, jazz and blues emerged from the fertile soil of vice: drinking, gambling, prostitution and general lawlessness.

Defiance of prohibition and enforcement of segregation created the environments in which black (and white) musicians could develop the music of outlaws. But eventually, of course, alcohol was legalized and segregation was stamped out, and in some towns, these districts emptied of both people and business.

Kansas City’s jazz and Memphis’ blues scenes were twins in this respect. Both blighted districts were subject to revitalization projects in the last few decades: As I’ve written, Kansas City’s 18th & Vine area, despite having good museums, a few cool clubs and some world-class jazz programming, hasn’t reached the critical mass to become a well-traveled cultural hub. Memphis’ Beale Street, on the other hand, is once again thriving.

Think of these two cities like those sisters from The Parent Trap, only born into a household of boozing and endless music (maybe this was the Lohan version). When they were split up, 18th & Vine was raised on government support, while Beale Street got brought up on mostly private funding. A Disney saga if ever there was one.

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John Elkington was already a successful developer in his early 30s when he decided to take on the restoration of Beale Street 30 years ago. This was the place where W.C. Handy established a base camp for blues, at which musicians like B.B. King, Muddy Waters and others refined the Memphis Blues sound.

But the unsettling effects of lawfulness, de-segregation and blight worked over Memphis as well, and for 20 years the street sat mostly empty. Elkington’s efforts brought business back to the area, clubs and shops and restaurants. Memphis Magazine last year in a “movers and shakers” issue honored Elkington thusly: “To understand the impact John Elkington has had on downtown Memphis, consider Beale Street before he began to manage it in 1983: blocks of abandoned and boarded-up buildings, and trash littering otherwise empty streets.” But Elkington “transformed it into Memphis’ premier entertainment district and one of the top tourist destinations anywhere.”

Which, three decades on, sounds pretty nice, even if Elkington says it cost him a marriage, partners and nearly his entire business.

"I got in a situation where I had so much money involved in Beale Street that if I had failed I could have never ever gotten back to where I was,” he says. In the high-stakes world of development, you do the Spartan thing and either come back with your shield or on it. “You've got to have somebody who's saying, ‘Hey, I'm gonna risk everything ‘cause I believe in what we're doing. If it works, fine, if it doesn't work, fine.'"

Even if you don’t care about the ultimate fate of jazz, the blues, American history, economic development or having fun, every now and then you’ll have to unbolt the trap-door of your musty cellar and lurch out into the hateful sunlight for more iodine pills or some such. There you’ll see the results of development, whether an Applebee’s upon the Acropolis or a strip of subsidized condos built over an ancient burial ground.

Point being: Development is everywhere, and eventually it’ll get around to jump-starting the flow of time in even the most bygone places. So the questions to ask are: What will it become? And who’s going to get it there?

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Elkington contends that it’s dangerous to let government come up with the answers. “Government cannot do these projects. Government can do infrastructure, they can help with regulations, they can make sure that the building department makes life easier, they can help with zoning. There's a lot of things they can do.

“Anything more than that is really counterproductive,” he says, “because you want to be on the edge all the time in these developments, and government is always politically correct.”

He thinks that’s what’s holding Kansas City up. “That should be one of the great places in America. But I think they allowed government to really say, ‘Okay, we're gonna solve this problem. Here's what we're gonna do: We're gonna recreate this.’ Can't do that,” he says. “You gotta get people to take risks, as we did, and then what happens is if it's successful then other people will come in and take measured risks too.”

With Beale Street, as with 18th & Vine, bringing back the old days was impossible. In both cities people were uncomfortable with the legacies of vice, and with lingering racial tension. “There was a lot of people who didn't want Beale Street to come back.”

Elkington moved forward with three goals: bring commerce back, preserve musical viability and keep it diverse and open to everybody -- meaning diversity of owners and patrons. What resulted wasn’t the original Beale Street, and people were quick to point that out.

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A 1998 Los Angeles Times article by Stephen Braun discussed the success of the then-15-year-old Beale Street renaissance while wondering whether a white developer was really the most qualified to revitalize a historically black district. At the time, Kansas City’s brand-new Jazz District, with its steady stream of federal and city money, seemed like it might be a smarter model, according to Braun:

Some black leaders point to Kansas City's revival of its jazz district as a preferable alternative to Elkington's Beale project--a community renovation project overseen by a black mayor and tied to public funding that guarantees a role for black businesses and opportunity for neighborhood residents. In fact, Elkington and Kansas City Mayor Cleaver have toured each others' projects--and both men argue that theirs is the only way to restore blighted black business sectors.

Moreover, Beale wasn’t anything like it was in its forbidden heyday. So figuring out what to do with a place like it, or Kansas City’s 18th and Vine, means understanding its spirit, even as it evolves into something else.

"When I first started, people criticized and said, ‘Well, it wasn't like Beale Street used to be,’” Elkington says. “Well, Beale Street was a segregated street, and now it wasn't. We couldn't recapture that completely, but we created a fertile ground.”

So was it necessary for Beale Street to fail before it could grow up again? And what to make of this argument that the old Beale was somehow better? Is it better to change in order to thrive? Or to preserve some version of the old, even if it’s artificial?

Either way, even Elkington is secretly seduced by the promise of permanence. He says he’s retiring this year, and wonders both who will take his place, and what kind of legacy they’ll inherit. “Truthfully, I'll say this, and I've never said this to anybody in my life: My great fear at the end of the game is: I get to be 70, is Beale Street still gonna be there?” he says. “I believe we've planted the roots pretty deep, I think it's very successful, but when I'm gone, will people care the same?”

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Should development (or redevelopment) be headed by public or private leadership? Elkington’s contention that only personal investment will lead to success is certainly supported by Beale’s regrowth. But private development can be myopic, too. It may get things done, but when you see another strip mall of chain restaurants, you wonder: What’s the point?

"America has homogenized retail, restaurant, commercial areas. You can find an Applebee’s in every city, you can find a Chili's and a Macaroni Grill,” says Elkington. The secret to development, he says, is in creating something that feels right. (Otherwise you’ve got a place that doesn’t fit the city, and its citizens, like a cultural immune system, reject the foreign invader.) “You're looking for things that are unique and different and special, and you're looking for people who have unique concepts and have experience in creating these type of areas.” Elkington says the solution is to encourage local and regional business to come in. Make something that’s not like anyplace else, he says, but that could only be there.

So the answer comes down to, what? Resigning ourselves to choosing between Government’s long slow drain and Private Development’s one-style-fits-all projects until some visionary comes along? Is this the economic development version of Nietzsche’s “will to power”?

Probably. But why not? The very reason Kansas City and Memphis are on the cultural map at all is because of some big visions. Sure, the confluence of culture, race and money made the music possible. But beneath that is something else, something that might strike you as disturbingly libertarian: People want the freedom to do what they want. When those people are artists, great art -- controversial and paradigm-shifting -- is the result. Those same qualities in a developer can shape cities.

Photo credit: Rniche/Flickr

Keywords: Kansas City, Memphis, Music, Jazz

Brandon R. Reynolds is a writer living in Kansas City. All posts »

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