The State Of The Strut - And Response

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

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) 10-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 and 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.

Chuck Hamilton 

* * * 

Really? The fences and fees have added insult to injury. Silly me. I always felt it was the gun play, one of which was fatal and the mass surge of festival goers running from fights. Lets not forget the robberies.  

The police and city leaders hold their breath on the evening of strut day and don't breathe until the street sweepers come out and clean up the thrown trash left behind from the participants at this hallowed area.  

The gangs just days ago opened fire in daylight at a gathering which included small kids across from Howard School. It's not 1950 anymore, it's 2013. Yes, folks used to sleep at night with their doors unlocked and windows opened, but not anymore. But if it'll make you feel better then by all means, go ahead. it's a free country, or it used to be. As for me? I'll always vote for common sensibility and be prepared for the evil that runs our streets every single day.  

Michael Burns


Time For Tennessee To Act On Climate This Earth Day

Tennessee will join the rest of the southeast region, the nation and countries across the world in celebrating Earth Day on April 22. The entire month of April is a great time to reflect on the strides we have made to reduce pollution over the last 44 years, and assess current environmental conditions while evaluating our personal responsibility to a cleaner environment.  ... (click for more)

Tim Boyd Will Represent The Common Man

I would like to show my support for Tim Boyd for our District 8 commissioner.  He deserves to have our support because he has stood up to represent the common man and not the super block of politicians.    He tells it like it is and I believe he deserves another term.  I also believe that the average voting citizen will see the way he has represented our district ... (click for more)

Haslam Signs Bill Ending Forced Annexation And Giving Tennesseans Right To Vote

Governor Bill Haslam signed HB 2371/SB2464 on Wednesday. The law ends forced annexations and gives Tennesseans the right to vote. The law now requires cities to annex by consent of the landowner or through referendum approved by a majority of the landowners to be annexed. As an additional protection to farmers, land primarily used for agriculture purposes may not be annexed by any ... (click for more)

One Of "Worst Of The Worst" Gets 10-Month Federal Sentence

One of the men labeled as the "worst of the worst" in a Chattanooga round up was sentenced Tuesday to 10 months and three years supervised release after he plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. Guy Wilkerson told Federal Judge Sandy Mattice, "I'm just a young father and I want the best for my kids." He said he apologized and that he knew what he ... (click for more)

Cuonzo Martin Leaves Tennessee For Job At California

Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin apparently took his name out of the coaching search at Marquette so he could put it in a hat at the University of California at Berkeley. On Tuesday, Martin broke ties with the Volunteers and accepted the head coaching job with the Bears. Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart admitted Martin’s move surprised him. “Not from my perspective,” ... (click for more)

Mocs Win Women's Southern Conference Championship

The Chattanooga Mocs are your Southern Conference Women’s Golf Champions. That’s five straight team titles and sophomore Emily McLennan (Queensland, Australia) made it the fourth consecutive sweep winning medalist honors. McLennan was solid shooting 222 for her 54 holes on a tough week for scoring. She won by four strokes over Furman’s Taylor Totland and was seven clear of ... (click for more)