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A Revival for Black Districts

Long written off, areas like Memphis' Beale Street are starting to turn a new page. But their success has renewed debate over whites profiting from African American communities.

September 16, 1998|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — 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.

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