Keep the Strut at home

Keep the Strut at home

April 8th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Discontent with Mayor Ron Littlefield's surprising decision to shift the Bessie Smith Strut from its traditional, 30-year home on Martin Luther King Boulevard to Riverbend's riverfront venue has generated enough backlash that there's a chance it will be reversed. And that's a good thing. The decision was made without any consultation between the mayor and the Strut's advocates, especially those in the city's African-American community for whom the event has long held symbolic significance. For that, and a number of other reasons, it should be reversed.

The Strut's music, ambiance and atmosphere resonates with a diverse mix of area residents and visitors, to be sure. Tens of thousands of people from every corner of the region have long embraced the open, annual street bash, strolling, laughing and jiving to the music from one sound-stage to the next between Lindsay Street and Central Avenue.

Many share a sense of interracial pride and ownership of the Strut, but it is the black community that most feels a sense of personal loss over the decision to move the Strut. There's ample reason for that. The Strut was established on Martin Luther King Boulevard not just to celebrate the legacy of Chattanooga-born Bessie Smith, the legendary queen of the blues in her time on the national and international stage. It was fixed there, as well, for symbolic cultural reasons -- to celebrate the community's African-American heritage on what then was still the traditional center of the city's black community.

Martin Luther King Boulevard today is hardly a shadow of the old Ninth Street. Before the renaming of the street in 1982, and after it for while, the street was the lively center of the city's black community. Before its slow dismantling began, it was lined fully on both sides with two-and-three story brick buildings that housed bustling black businesses, restaurants and nightspots. The surrounding black neighborhood, now more diverse, provided supporting texture.

In the era of this city's piece of the Civil Right's movement, and through the 1970s, the boulevard was also the scene of large demonstrations against racial discrimination here. And for decades after that, the racial divide that made Ninth Street/M.L.King Boulevard the cultural center of the black community between downtown and Central Avenue to the east remained demarcated by a deliberate sidewalk gap.

When Miller Park was built and opened between 9th and 10th Streets in 1973, the sidewalk on the south side of Ninth Street, between Georgia Avenue and Market Street, was purposely taken up and replaced with a formidable earthen berm that ran to the curb. For members of the black community who walked into downtown from their business and cultural center east of Lindsay Street, where the Bessie Smith Museum now stands, that barrier largely stopped them from meandering into what was then the only downtown park and green space.

It steered them, instead, across the more difficult crossing at Georgia Avenue to north side of the street, where businesses remained until Miller Plaza was built. The notable sidewalk gap remained until Mayor Bob Corker, Littlefield's predecessor, fixed it before he left office in 2005.

The Bessie Smith Strut was created in 1983 in an effort to help mend such divisive history. So the appeal of black leaders, who are now rightly seeking support from the City Council to reverse Littlefield's decision, merits redress. The city should continue its partnership with private sponsors and the Friends of the (Riverbend) Festival that have long made the Strut possible.

Mayor Littlefield, who has suggested the risk of violence as the reason for moving the Strut, is throwing obstacles in the way. He wants the thin M.L. King Merchants Association to assume liability and security responsibilities and to manage the Strut.

He shouldn't make this such a hard path. There can never be a guarantee of safety in public places. The cultural value of the Strut, moreover, rises far above entertainment. Killing it, and needlessly staining the city's racial relations and partnerships, is the larger risk.