Chattanooga Now Phillips: Strutting a different story this year

Chattanooga Now Phillips: Strutting a different story this year

June 15th, 2012 by Casey Phillips in Chattnow Music

Tuesday has always been a significant Riverbend moment for me, but not because I am particularly enamored with sweet tea or Christian music.

Since it's the day when I flip my brochure over, it is the symbolic equivalent of cresting the peak and starting the downhill slide to Saturday's fireworks show.

When I went to act out my annual ritual earlier this week, however, I noticed the pamphlet's second half doesn't start until Wednesday. At first, this was confusing, until I remembered that uncertainty over where the Bessie Smith Strut would be held this year kept it from being listed on the schedule.

While minor, this was yet another reminder of the far-reaching changes to the Strut this year.

In March, the mayor tried to relocate the event to the riverfront without consulting Friends of the Festival. After the public rightfully argued that doing so would neuter the event, there was a whirlwind of activity as new organizers were sought to keep it on M.L. King Boulevard.

Eventually, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center stepped forward to do just that, but the transition was not without cost.

Monday evening, strutters faced a slew of changes designed to increase security, including a $10 admission price, a chainlink-fence-enclosed perimeter, guarded checkpoints and a slightly earlier shutdown.

These alterations -- and perhaps the intermittent afternoon rain showers -- combined to make this one of the quietest, most homogenous Struts I've attended.

It was odd, and a little sad, to see so much empty space after years of squeezing through a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. The lower attendance also made the police presence seem more significant than other years, although the same number of officers were present.

Another uncomfortable change was the lack of racial diversity. The Strut has always been about bringing the community together, but this year, the crowd featured many more white faces than black, a fact that didn't go unnoticed by the attendees.

At first, all this made me feel like I might be experiencing the last Strut to grace the former Big 9. If so, that would have been a travesty, but as the sun started to set and the crowd regained some of its usual swell, I began to feel less anxious.

It's easy to forget in the rush to point out the differences that this year's Strut was essentially put together on the fly and under tremendous scrutiny. That it happened at all was something of a miracle and a testament to the very communal spirit it stands for.

This year's Strut was inarguably different, but whether that's good or bad depends on whom you ask.

Some will say it felt safer, myself included. Others, again including myself, will say it lacked some of its spirit. Few, however, will argue that keeping it on M.L. King was a bad move, and even fewer will suggest it should have been allowed to die out.

With a full 12 months to plan, I'm confident the next Strut will regain some of its absent former glory. I'm sure I'm not the only one looking forward to it.