Beale Street is unique. That isn't rose-tinted boosterism or uncultured naivete, it's true. Exempt from both city and state open-container laws, Beale Street is part of a special coterie of places where folks can openly booze it up in the middle of the street. If there's anything we Memphians and the kind of tourists we attract love, it's drinking al fresco. Such an amenity is bound to draw a crowd. And it does, so much so that a cover charge is now a perennial discussion — despite the corny name, layers of questionable optics, and uncertainty whether the program even worked last time.
A fact-finding mission to the French Quarter must have come up empty, otherwise we'd have strip clubs and video poker by now. According to the Beale Street Task Force's study, there have been eight "stampedes" since April. There's no denying that crowd control is an issue. So the city hired a consultant to tell the mayor and merchants what they want to hear: Beale Street Bucks are a good idea.
Nowhere else is such a fee necessary. But Beale Street is unique. Other more practical recommendations included setting crowd capacity at 20,000 and reconfiguring the entry points to alleviate crowding at Second Street.
- Sean Pavone | Dreamstime.com
- Beale Street
Assessments of the situation and their costly fixes seem to overlook the encompassing reality that Beale Street's biggest problem is that it's not very big. The distance from Blues City to the New Daisy is less than a quarter-mile. When something outgrows its container, you don't discard the excess, you get a bigger container. Expanding the perimeter would make sense. This was the intent behind a resolution earlier this year that would have expanded the open-container zone to include South Main. Unwilling to yield their dominion on street-booze enjoyers, stampedes be damned, Beale Street's merchants bristled.
As long as the primary source of entertainment in the entertainment district comes from a bottle, with thousands of sweaty people up in others' personal space well past bedtime, there will be issues — cover charge or no. Whodini was right: The freaks do, indeed, come out at night.
So I'd like to propose some alternative solutions designed to lure people off the street. I'm happy to offer my consulting expertise to anyone who wishes to put these ideas into action in exchange for a commemorative plaque or unlimited mozzarella sticks.
Visit a pro sports arena in any other city. On your way, you'll pass at least one sports bar filled with eager pregamers gorging on jalapeño poppers and cheap beer before they move on to $9 drafts at the stadium. With AutoZone Park and FedExForum yards away and locals' enthusiasm for basketball, football, and now soccer, the area is overdue for a real sports bar. The Liberty Bowl brings thousands of college football fans in December, and Memphis in May always coincides with the NBA Playoffs. So hang some old growl towels, Memphis State gear, and a couple dozen monster televisions. Whip up a few flavors of wing sauce, ice down some beer buckets and watch the cash pour in. Call it Hop City — like Hoop City, but with beer, get it?
As companies consider making the move Downtown, surely their representatives have noticed a lack of options for grabbing a sausage biscuit on the way to work. This is essential to economic development. A 24-hour diner on Beale would meet this need and fulfill revelers' need for 4 a.m. sober-up eggs. Lives will be saved. Plus, it would help bridge that weird identity gap between the historic, family-friendly Beale Street tourists enjoy during the day and the boisterous playground it becomes at sundown. It doesn't have to be blues-themed or have a pig logo and 901 in the name. Call it whatever, as long as it serves jet-fuel coffee and thick-cut bacon on demand.
One of the liveliest spots on Bourbon Street is a Krystal. Surrounded by some of the best food in the world, the restaurant with the square hamburgers and the hot dog carts stays busy. Drunk people need to eat, and "Kitchen Open Late" is bar-speak for "Kitchen Open Until We Send the Fry Cook Home."
Am I suggesting more — or at least different — businesses on Beale would disperse crowds and prevent fights from breaking out? Hardly. But open containers and walk-up drink service encourage loitering, and more reasons to get people out of the street and into the businesses couldn't hurt. A cover charge perpetuates the perception of danger, and that iconic street deserves so much better.
Jen Clarke is an unapologetic Memphian and digital marketing specialist.