The Bessie Smith Strut is on life-support in a vegetative state of existence. And that’s referring to the clone that exists now; the original Strut has been dead for decades. It’s poetic irony that Mark Making finished removing the Bessie Smith mural from the side of Champy’s Chicken just in time for the Bessie Smith Strut. Of course, there is another on the historic street, a head portrait equal in size to another of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The mural that is going to replace the one removed commemorates an event very worthy of commemoration (the 1960 Howard student-led lunch counter sit-ins), but still, couldn’t the removal have waited a week or two? I see this hasty removal as a foreshadowing of what’s going to eventually happen to the Bessie Smith Strut. And happen fairly soon, I expect.
Riverbend started as a moderately-priced (dirt cheap compared to now) ten-day festival for the whole community. One of its initial goals was to draw people downtown to make them aware of the venues available for dining and entertainment, or at least to get them focused on the long-ignored possibilities of the city’s riverfront.
Monday nights were dedicated as a people’s festival, free of charge, to draw people to the shrinking but still thriving business district along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, née East 9th Street. Back then the name change wasn’t even a year old and many still called it by its old name; I helped in the campaign for the name change and I still do.
Part of the people’s festival idea was to bring together folks from across all socioeconomic and racial spectrums, which it did, from upper to lower class, including middle and working class, both black and white, many of the former either neighborhood residents or frequent patrons of the still numerous entertainment venues on the street. I couldn’t help noticing when I saw the photo in this Tuesday’s edition of Times-Free Press that the crowd seemed more than a little monochromatic and homostratous.
In the beginning of the Bessie Smith Strut, Ninth Street (MLK Boulevard) was lined with places such as the Whole Note bar and dance hall (which also had superb lunch buffets very cheap) and Shirley’s Jazz Den, a frequent haunt of mine (and my parents, as well, both of them—she still is—jazz aficionados) in addition to numerous other bars and restaurants, like Memo’s Chopped Weiners. Let and Let Live barber shop had been operating for decades, and still is, along with several other barber shops and beauty salons. There were also gas stations, liquor stores, and mom & pop convenience stores. And, of course, the history-filled Martin Hotel above it all.
Live and Let Live and the other hair places remain, but all the entertainment spots vanished in the face of the crack cocaine tidal wave that hit in the late 1980’s. Between my last visit in late 1987 before leaving for the Philippines and my first visit after my return in January 1990, Ninth Street had become a ghost town. The Martin Hotel had closed its doors shortly before I left for boot camp and was demolished a year later.
But the Bessie Smith Strut continued.
After returning from the Philippines again in late December 1991, this time from working with the U.S. Refugee Program, this time with a wife and son, I looked forward to visiting Ninth Street again for the Strut, always my favorite part of Riverbend. I quickly learned, however, that the character of what used to be the people’s festival had very much changed, along with the greater festival surrounding it.
The entertainment at the Strut has always been superb, but since all the entertainment businesses on MLK Blvd. have closed, having the festival there has been like administering medicine to the dead, to twist the use of Paine’s axiom. It no longer bears any resemblance to the Bessie Smith Strut as it was intended. Charging a fee and having fences only add insult to mortal injury.
The Bessie Smith Strut, if it is to continue, should be separated completely from Riverbend and made free and unfenced once again. Maybe then it could get back to its original purpose and assist in bringing back an area finally showing signs of returning life (Champy’s, Chattanooga Smokehouse, for examples). After all, if UTC doesn’t ingest the remainder of MLK Blvd. the way The Blob of the 1950’s ate people, the neighborhood may survive.
Otherwise, end the charade and put it out of our misery.