June 6-14 • 21st Century Waterfront, Chattanooga, TN
As they made their way down M.L. King Boulevard last night, attendees to this year's Bessie Smith Strut might have been looking forward, but there were many minds firmly fixed on the past.
Up and down sidewalks lined by noticeably fewer vendors, people made frequent comparisons to Struts before 2012, when the Bessie Smith Cultural Center stepped in as the event's new organizer following uncertainty about where it would be held.
Some longtime Strutters applauded steps the center has taken to improve security, including charging an admission fee -- $10 this year -- and implementing gated entrances and bag checks. Others suggested these changes had resulted in diminished crowds and a less communal atmosphere.
Last year, Chattanoogan Michael Bostick decided not to attend the Strut for the first time since the event started in the early '80s. Bostick said he normally attends solely on the hope of running into friends from his days at Howard High School. Like him, however, many of them decided not to come last year because of the admission fee.
This year, Bostick opened his wallet to give the Strut another shot, but as he looked out on the still lightly populated boulevard about an hour after the gates opened, he wasn't prepared to commit to shelling out again in 2015.
"Who I see will decide whether I come here next year," he said. "I'm just going to see how it goes today."
Bessie Smith President Rose Martin said Strut administrators were aware that the new policies had turned some people away but had brought in new faces as well.
"With the change to the admission, there were people who stopped coming because they didn't want to pay, but on the other hand, there were a lot of people who never came before who started coming," she said.
Last year, Cultural Center officials reported an attendance to the Strut of 5,639, an increase of about 500 over 2012, the first year ticket sales made it possible to keep accurate attendance counts.
In response to community feedback regarding the event's shorter duration, organizers extended the Strut this year by 30 minutes, scheduling the annual clean sweep by police for 10:30 p.m.
Currently, the Cultural Center maintains its partnership with Riverbend organizer Friends of the Festival, which assists with promotion, booking and production. Some day, the Strut might completely sever its ties to festival, but for the moment, it's a beneficial partnership, Martin said.
"I've enjoyed working with Riverbend, in terms of thinking through the process of booking talent," she said. "We do discuss the concept of what we're trying to do, collectively."
For their part, businesses along the boulevard said the Cultural Center's changes hadn't noticeably affected them and applauded the center's efforts to involve them in the planning process.
By 7 p.m., local blues guitarist Husky Burnette's smoking blues riffs and pneumatic foot stomping had attracted an even larger crowd than normal to the sidewalk beside Champy's Chicken, where his annual performances have become a strutting staple.
Champy's might not have survived long after its opening a few days before the crowds descended on M.L. King for the 2009 Strut, said owner Seth Champion.
"That first Strut gave us the push to get through," Champion said. "It gave us a chance to get some good exposure for the business and for the boulevard."
A few blocks away, JJ's Bohemia owner John Shoemaker said he'd heard from many locals that they'd decided to take another chance on the Strut this year after staying home in 2013.
"Nothing is going to be like the old Strut when you could let anybody in for free ... but it's also going to create a better environment," Shoemaker said, as a steady stream of people filed in the Lindsay Street entrance. "You sacrifice one thing for another, but I'm already starting to see faces I didn't see last year.
"They've taken their year of sabbatical and pouting, but they realize that $10 is still a good deal."
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.