If Beale Street Could Talk

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And so it remained until early in 1978, when the Memphis Community Development Division announced that it would accept new Beale Street proposals from private developers. The winner was Carlisle Properties, a local firm that already had begun a restaurant complex at Beale Street Landing on the Mississippi. Working closely with the Beale Street Development Foundation, a nonprofit organization made up largely of local black merchants and residents, and counting on some $4,000,000 in government loans and grants to make up 60 to 70 per cent of the financing, Carlisle Properties came up with a modest proposal that made earlier schemes look elephantine by comparison: so far as possible, Beale Street would be returned to the look of 1900, its salvageable red-brick buildings restored, the street itself turned back to brick, the old street lighting re-created. The Daisy Theatre would be restored and reopened to black musical and theatrical lrouros, traditional businesses would be encouraged to return, and office space for new businesses would be provided. A museum, under the aegis of the Center for Southern Folklore, would emphasize the street’s musical history, while cafés and restaurants would feature those who still make that music live. Work began at the end of 1978, and the first phase of the project is scheduled for completion in the fall of this year.

History may yet combine with private profit and the public good to make something worthwhile on Beale Street. The result, of course, will not even approximate the world that produced the blues which the new Beale Street will memorialize. Nor should it. For all its luminous vigor, for all its music, there was too much pain in that world, too much desperation, too much truth, finally, in the “Beale Street Blues”: “You’ll see pretty Browns in beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor mades and hand-me-downs/ You’ll meet honest men and pick-pockets skilled / You’ll find that business never closes till somebody gets killed.”