Who Owns Beale Street?

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If it goes to trial, I pity the judge who has to figure out who owes what to whom on Beale Street.

I'm not at all sure that John Elkington himself knows that. What I do know is that in a rant of a telephone message to me last week he said, "We're not the managers of Beale Street, we're the owners of Beale Street, we have a long-term lease." We being him and Peforma Entertainment Real Estate. It being Beale Street. Which is news to me and some other people in city government and at Beale Street Development Corporation.

Elkington and I have crossed paths and, sometimes swords, for 27 years. I came to Memphis and The Commercial Appeal in 1982 about the time Elkington & Keltner was selected as the city's development partner. What I knew about Beale Street you could have written on the head of a pin, but I started to pick up things. Joni Mitchell had written a song about Beale Street and Furry Lewis with an edge ("I don't like you," he growled to his audience), and, indeed, a famous Memphis musician once refused to do an interview when I told him my employer and I would not pay him for it. Rufus Thomas was also somewhat bitter that he had not been given a bigger role as Beale's ambassador.

Another thing I remember is walking down the street that year while bricks were being laid. The bricklaying company had the same name — Madewell — as the interim mayor of Memphis, Wallace Madewell, who succeeded Wyeth Chandler and preceded Dick Hackett. The deal with Elkington & Keltner was struck during the interim. Okee dokee. Steve Keltner would leave the company a few years later and I would not meet him face to face until last year.

In the early years, Elkington was the darling of the CA's editorial page. That would change as editors and editorial page directors moved on and Beale Street had its troubles getting off the ground. Restaurants and businesses came and went. I thought then, and still think now, that developing Beale Street, much of which was in ruins, was like cleaning out the Aegean stables and that Elkington and the club owners who stuck with it deserved a lot of credit for making it a success. And a success it was and is, in my opinion, whatever the financial back story may be. No out-of-town relative or house guest of mine has ever shown much interest in that, and all of them have had a good safe time clubbing on Beale. If you're a tourist, that's what matters.

The back story could not be ignored, however. By 1988 or so there were scores of lawsuits and mechanic's liens against Elkington, and I wrote a front-page story about it. He didn't complain, but his (now) former wife did, calling me at home early on a Sunday morning. For several years after that, Elkington and I rarely saw each other or spoke.

Time heals lots of wounds, and we became more cordial a few years ago, possibly because I made a comment to an out-of-town newspaper that gave Elkington credit for making Beale a going concern while other urban entertainment districts and projects were closing or failing to get off the ground.

After I wrote a book he liked, he praised it effusively, as flatterers and salesmen are wont to do. Elkington is both. He wrote a book on Beale Street himself last year and asked me to read it in the advance stages. Curious to see what he might reveal, I did (at no charge, because he is a newsmaker) and redlined 20 or so errors and misspellings, several of which made it into the final version anyway (including "Hardy Park" for Handy Park on the map the opens the book, Jimmy "Naifu," Rodney "Barber," "Rita" Grimsley Johnson, etc.).

He didn't reveal much of anything. I told him I thought the book had potential but was skimpy on important things and included too many verbal butt-pattings and gentle gibes at bureaucrats and people long forgotten. Ironically, the cover blurb comes from Willie Herenton, who is quoted as saying "John Elkington has done a phenomenal job moving Beale Street forward."

The most glaring omission was anything whatsoever about the who, what, where, when, why and how of the far-reaching agreement made back in 1982 or any enlightenment about the dispute between the city and Performa that has been going on for 15 years. Not so much as a page about how he became "owner" of one of the most famous streets in the American South. Chandler is mentioned once, Madewell not at all.

So I am not surprised that the dispute outlasted the Herenton administration, or that millions of dollars have been spent so far on lawyers unable to resolve it (I would require a similar fee for this impossible task; life is too short), or that Elkington was pissed off at me. I was surprised, however, to hear that he owns Beale Street. I look forward to hearing what he says under oath in a courtroom about that. Underscore, in court, under oath, with documentation. That could be phenomenal.

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