Following recent violent incidents on famed Beale Street, city leaders in Memphis, Tennessee, are contemplating a proposal by business leaders to impose a $10 fee on weekend nights, which would buy a $9 voucher for purchases in the tourist venue’s many clubs, bars, and restaurants. It is just one of several remedies under review. As the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported earlier this month, Memphis leaders are being very careful to characterize this proposed policy as anything but a “cover charge,” which carries the unwanted connotation of privatizing public space. It is indeed a touchy subject. In 1982, as College of Charleston history professor Robert D. Russell describes in his essay in American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition (Chicago, 2012), when Beale Street was considered “skid row,” the City of Memphis entered into a public-private partnership with a real estate management firm with the latter responsible for coordinating the process of making a short segment of Beale Street into a major tourist destination. Although the city government wrested complete control of the district from the private company in 2011 following a decade-long legal battle, Beale Street remains much more akin to an outdoor mall than an ordinary public street.
The concern over loitering and crime is hardly unique to Beale Street. Plenty of other cities have devised various tactics to control crowds and police public behavior for years, often in ways that blur the boundaries between public and private space. It is hardly surprising that streets in tourist zones enjoy (or endure) greater control to ensure a predictable experience, but in recent years, the tensions that underlie the use of public space have reached a boiling point in many urban destinations. In 2010, for example, Cleveland, Ohio’s historic Warehouse District, which centers on a four-block-long strip of nightspots along West Sixth Street, a highly publicized incident outside a popular nightclub raised questions about racism, nightlife, and policing. In its wake, one Plain Dealer reporter suggested that Cleveland could learn from Memphis’s treatment of Beale Street, both in terms of its theming and its policing of public behavior. Memphis’s nighttime curfew, heralded just two years ago, clearly has not in itself proven sufficient to maintain the safe, predictable tourist atmosphere the city’s businesses demand (and that Beale Street delivers on most nights).
Police cars bookend the Beale Street tourist strip in downtown Memphis. Photo by m0bile on Flickr
Last summer, in the Cleveland inner-ring suburb of Cleveland Heights, the annual Coventry Street Fair ended with a suspected flash-mob incident that raised a similar set of concerns to those in Memphis and Cleveland. Nicknamed the “Haight-Ashbury of Cleveland,” Coventry Village is no stranger to difficulties with public behavior. In the early 1970s police fought a motorcycle gang that frequented the street, and the original street fair was shut down in the mid-1980s as it swelled to what some regarded as an uncontrollable crowd. Following the most recent unrest, which developed at the time police were attempting to clear the street, the city of Cleveland Heights imposed a controversial 6 p.m. curfew for unaccompanied youths in Coventry Village and one other popular commercial district, both of which, if not national tourist destinations, are certainly leading metropolitan-area attractions.
From curfews to cover charges, urban destinations are the proving grounds for various tactics to maintain a carefully controlled environment. As explored in many of the essays in American Tourism, imposing control over places is a hallmark of tourism, and nowhere is it more challenging than in cities. Urban destinations reflect both the delicate balancing act inherent in restricting freedom and the ambivalence we continue to bring to our cities – places we seek for their excitement but also go to great lengths to make predictable.