A Revival for Black Districts

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Streets age like people, Ernest Withers always figured, and Beale Street was no different. Once it was gone, it was gone. When he closed his shop after two decades working there as a photographer, there was no imagining the storied old boulevard would have an afterlife. There was no imagining he might find a home there again.

Like any of the historic commercial districts that pulsed with the modest economic successes of black life during the first half of the century, the time-defeated corridor Withers left in 1969 grew sadder by the year. Beale went the way of Los Angeles’ Central Avenue, Harlem’s 125th and Lennox, Kansas City, Mo.’s 18th and Vine--thriving arteries that shriveled as integration spurred a middle-class black exodus, and violence, drugs and chronic unemployment cast a pall over inner-city life.

The street’s raucous blues and jazz nightspots stilled, and its storefront community of barber shops, doctors’ offices and pool halls emptied. The bustling doorways Withers roamed past for three decades chronicling Memphis’ black society and the turmoil of the civil rights struggle became ghost buildings, wind-swept carrion for bulldozers.


But Beale Street’s death notice was never delivered.

Instead, Beale is kicking again, its rubble replaced by a flank of neon-bedecked buildings, its sidewalks flooded with visitors, its stores and nightclubs expected to take in nearly $35 million in tourist revenues this year. And Withers, at 76 one of old Beale’s survivors, is back, too, camped behind a tattoo parlor in an office filled with darkening prints. His photographs depict three decades of the street’s glory years, its slow fade and its startling rebirth.

“It’s not the same place,” Withers said. “You can’t duplicate history. But it’s alive again, and that’s saying something.”

Beale Street’s success has sparked envy in cities that long to bring back their own deflated minority business districts. But it also has left preservationists and black leaders agonizing over whether African Americans should reap the lions’ share of profits from their revived streets--and over whether whites deserve a pivotal role in their restoration. After years spent dreaming of rebirth, some worry that Beale’s success could turn old nerve centers of black life into playgrounds for mostly white tourists.

“These were black neighborhoods, and this is black history,” said Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver II, who is leading the renaissance of his city’s 18th and Vine jazz district. “To bring them back, you need black participation.”

Revival of Streets a New Trend for Cities

The movement to rejuvenate America’s historic black streets is still in its infancy. Landmarks like the Apollo Theater in New York and the Chicago Bee building, headquarters of a long-vanished black newspaper in that city’s South Side Bronzeville district, have been saved from the wrecking ball.

Construction on Harlem USA, an eagerly awaited entertainment complex, was slated to start over the summer on 125th Street in New York. Old homes are being rehabilitated in Bronzeville. But there are no assurances investors and tourists will follow.


In Los Angeles, there are only pipe dreams. On Central Avenue, the old Dunbar Hotel has been saved, the sole nod to the past along a strip where Latino merchants now occupy storefronts that once comprised the city’s black lifeline. “There’s no one out there who could bring Central Avenue back,” said Bette Cox, a former city cultural affairs commissioner who has chronicled the avenue’s past.

But in more than a dozen smaller cities, from Roanoke, Va., to Jackson, Miss., officials are rushing to replicate Memphis’ success. Many are turning for advice to Beale Street’s savior, John Elkington, a brash white developer who preaches that abandoned inner-city hubs can become vibrant again by fusing black history with live music and entertainment.

In Jackson, Elkington persuaded officials to consider converting their dormant Farish Street neighborhood into an entertainment district. And he won the backing of the National Trust for Historic Preservation by including plans to make use of Jackson’s historic sites--as he did with the few brick facades that survived on Beale.

“Any time you mix history with entertainment, you play with fire,” said John Leigh-Tetrault, director of financial services and community partnership programs with the trust, who is working with Jackson’s redevelopment project. “But so far the balance seems to be working.”

Elkington’s strategy is to aim at a broad tourist base of suburban whites, conventioneers and young music buffs--as well as black vacationers. His success depends on making historic black districts safer and more appealing. An inner city strip like Beale can work, he said, only if it is sanitized and the vestiges of crime and poverty are swept away.

“You have to homogenize a little,” he said.

The result is a Beale Street that has become alien to its survivors, even as it stirs to life again. “I’m old enough and wise enough to know that nothing lasts forever,” Withers said, nearing a club blaring rock music. “The street’s not what it was. It’s something else now, and you just got to take it as it is.”


A Street With a Past, and a Future

What Beale was lives on in hundreds of old photo prints that Withers crammed into steel file drawers in the shop he moved to in 1995 after a 26-year exile.

There are shots of gospel choirs and a hotel gathering of black chauffeurs. Black garbage strikers march on Beale, and a sleek, young Elvis Presley cavorts with soul singer Rufus Thomas, outfitted like a witch doctor. And there are scores of cityscapes of Beale’s dark doorways, cluttered thrift shops, seas of black faces.

Beale Street’s faces are now more white than black. The old cramped clubs that once catered to African American patrons, hosting soul music legends like Otis Redding, are gone. Sagging office buildings where black dentists and junkmen mingled with influential civil rights lawyers like Benjamin Hooks Sr. are gone, too.

About 40% of the new businesses are black-owned, Elkington says proudly--among them a new Black Entertainment Television studio. But white-owned ventures dominate the new Beale. There is a Hard Rock Cafe, a nightclub owned by the Presley family, an upscale juke joint that bears the name of black guitar great B.B King, yet is run by a consortium of white investors.

Even the street’s black-owned enterprises have to appeal to whites to turn a profit. “We couldn’t make it with just black customers,” said Memphis Music manager Malcolm Burke, whose uncle once sold roses from a pushcart on Beale.

It is a far cry from days when blacks, spurned by the town’s segregated stores, could shop only on Beale. Yet some African American leaders now mourn Beale’s passing as a hub of black commerce.


“You can walk down the street at night, and the crowds are almost all white,” said Ken Goins, a professor of history at the University of Memphis. “It’s a shock for someone who grew up around the old Beale Street.”

Historians like Goins and University of Memphis colleague Charles Crawford also worry that history has become like taffy on Beale, pulled every which way.

Crawford complains that Beale tour guides spread blatant misinformation--that Memphis is underlain by Civil War-era tunnels and was an antebellum stop along the underground slave railroad. And Goins fears that Elkington’s emphasis on black entertainment “sanitizes our history and makes African American culture seem exotic and apart.”

Elkington’s weary response suggests years of repetition--that he made sure Withers and other black merchants were given locations on Beale with rents that would not break them, that a new arena he plans for Memphis’ Handy Park will include a “wall of black history,” that he hiked 70 miles from the Mississippi Delta to Beale three years ago to mark the legacy left by this century’s black migration northward.

“Is there more that can be done as Beale Street matures? Sure,” he said. “But history alone didn’t bring Beale Street back, and history alone won’t bring tourists.”

Developer Invests in Renaissance

Elkington also has benefited from a geographical anomaly that makes Beale almost unique among old black business districts. Beale is a stone’s throw from downtown Memphis--close proximity that allows tourists to amble over on foot instead of coming by car or bus. Most black commercial cores are like Kansas City’s 18th and Vine, cut off from downtowns by miles of forbidding lots, warehouses and tenements.


From his third-story office overlooking the street’s club scene, Elkington controls almost every facet of life on Beale. The 49-year-old lawyer, whose firm took in $3.8 million last year, woos each new venture. He hired the street’s private security firm. He determines how clubs are built and run. He insists on eye-catching neon signs and burnished brick, and when one club introduced scantily clad dancers, Elkington threatened to revoke its lease.

His authority flows from a watertight 50-year lease granted by the city soon after his company was chosen in 1983 to develop Beale. When Memphis’ black mayor, Willie Harrington, was elected eight years ago, he asked city auditors to examine if the contract might be renegotiated.

“The mayor was concerned that from a financial standpoint, the city wasn’t benefiting enough,” said mayoral aide Carey Hoffman. “There was an audit conducted, but our hands are tied.”

Elkington felt justified in insisting on those terms because the largest amount sunk into Beale’s redevelopment was his own--$6 million. “I put up my money because I believed in this project, and I know the development community,” he said. “Nobody else could do it.”

Twice before he came on the scene, redevelopment agencies headed by black leaders tried to tackle Beale’s rebirth. Both efforts collapsed amid criticism that public money was being wasted and officials were preoccupied with bickering.

One black elected official who observed the process in the 1970s said bluntly: “White bankers here never got behind Beale until Elkington showed up. He had a track record and they knew him.”


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.

Cleaver, an adroit wooer of federal grants, committed $24 million in city funds to restore 18th and Vine, long a vacant business strip, into a gleaming brick museum complex honoring Kansas City jazz greats like Charlie “Bird” Parker and Count Basie and the glory years of the Negro baseball leagues.

Like Elkington, Cleaver is realistic about the need to attract white tourists. But he is less obsessed with quickly satisfying a profit margin, preferring to use 18th and Vine as a launching pad for fledgling black businesses and minority workers. He has amassed another $34 million in federal grants and loan guarantees and lured in Sprint. The telecommunications firm hired 60 former welfare recipients to work in a call center in the old Lincoln Building, where black doctors and lawyers once kept offices.

Cleaver, now in his last term as mayor, sees the jazz district as his legacy--a black leader’s transformation of a dimmed black jewel. “Entertaining tourists is the engine that drives a project like this,” he said. “But black pride is part of it, too.”

Most African American constituents are duly impressed. Lester Williams, 68, who hung out at 18th and Vine since he was an 11-year-old, yearns for the old days of his favorite corner. But sprawled out on a new wrought-iron bench, the old man lauded Cleaver for “sticking with his guns and keeping this a black thing. It’s got a ways to go, but if you were here 10 years ago, you would have called this place a cemetery.”

18th and Vine may soon include its own cemetery--a new Cleaver initiative that has drawn unexpected fire from within the black community. The mayor wants to transfer the remains of bebop titan Parker, buried in a remote graveyard since 1955, to a new crypt near the jazz museum. Cleaver has won the approval of Parker’s survivors. But his insistence on moving Parker’s body has alienated some former supporters--an indication that even black-led urban rejuvenation is not immune to community anger.


“People have been visiting Bird’s grave for years, but to move his bones so the city can get more tourists is a desecration,” scoffed Eddie Baker, a local jazz musician.

From Memphis, Elkington offers a more basic complaint about Cleaver’s way: 18th and Vine, the developer warns, will be propped up for years “on the federal dole. At some point you have to cut the umbilical cord. I don’t see that happening there for a long time.”

Concerns About Beale’s Future

Yet even in Memphis, where Elkington’s revenues continue to grow, it is uncertain how long a tourist-based economy can continue to drive Beale Street. Elkington believes it can last indefinitely, but he also is casting out for other ventures--the BET studio is one step in that direction.

For the foreseeable future, however, Beale Street is a place for strangers with money to spend.

Withers watches them pass from the doorway of the modest building that Elkington named after him. It tickled him when he first saw his name on the wall plaque. “That man is always full of surprises,” he said.

But he barely notices anymore, brushing by the inscription as he heads for his office. Inside, old Beale Street lives on, frozen forever on the walls, where old friends are still alive, where the familiar faces looking down on him are all black.