published Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Attendees say higher admission price reduces Bessie Smith Strut crowds (with video, slideshow)

Thousands attend Bessie Smith Strut
Both attendees and vendors enjoyed the music and crowds gathered on Martin Luther King Boulevard for the annual Bessie Smith Strut on Monday. This was the first year that everyone, with or without a Riverbend pin, had to pay to gain entry to the Strut.
JUNE 7-15 • CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE

With sunlight filtering through a haze of barbecue smoke and a soundtrack of wailing blues guitars and sidewalk vendors touting the superiority of their pulled pork, Monday night's Bessie Smith Strut looked, sounded and smelled like it always has.

But to many who have come to the city's annual block party along M.L. King Boulevard for years, there was a fundamental -- many said unfortunate -- shift in the atmosphere this year.

"There are about half as many people. It feels more like a corporate event," said Terryl Greene, as he stood on a sidewalk across the street from the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, which this year has taken over as the Strut's primary steward.

"They took the soul out of it, the grit," he added. "Granted, I still love it, but it's not what it used to be; it's a different thing."

Many of the same elements were present that long have attracted people in the thousands to an evening of communal meandering up and down the boulevard while eating slabs of ribs, enormous barbecue sandwiches and plates of fried fish.

However, many attendees were disappointed by the doubling of the admission cost -- introduced last year at $5 for those without Riverbend pins -- which they suggested was at the root of this year's noticeable drop in attendance.

"I don't like paying to get in; I don't like it at all," said Cherrick Sanders, as he sat on a bench on the corner of Foster Street and M.L. King Boulevard. "I think it should be free for everyone. I think the price probably will affect how many people come."

  • photo
    Chloe Rae Terry, left, and Olivia Diamond wait to go onstage with Deacon Bluz on Monday at the Bessie Smith Strut.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

Early on, his prediction was strikingly accurate, as crowds trickled in through security check points at the three entrance gates, where bags and patrons alike were searched by private security. Despite processing people fairly quickly, the lines tended to be long early on, causing the normal flood of strutters to diminish to an impatient trickle as they waited to be searched.

"I'm used to seeing more people here at this time," said Tracey McKenzie, 17, as he and his brother, Cedric, 20, walked up a mostly empty boulevard shortly after arriving at 5 p.m., an hour after gates opened. "If it doesn't pick up, I'm sorry, but I'm leaving. Right now, this whole thing would normally be lit up."

Not everyone was disappointed by the changes this year.

Benny Turley has been attending the Strut for a decade, and he said changes in recent years to how security is handled have made the whole event feel noticeably safer because it is filtering out an element of the crowd that would be there for the wrong reasons.

"The Strut has changed for the better," he said. "When it first started, there was a lot of riffraff -- a bunch of young kids -- coming in here, and that's where your trouble comes from."

Aaron Shepherd, the owner of veteran Strut vendor Shep's Chicago Style Polish Sausages, said that, despite smaller crowds, he saw an increase in sales that he credited to the tighter security, which he described as a necessary evil.

  • photo
    Cole Williams dances while performing with The Pimps of Joytime.
    Photo by Angela Lewis.
    enlarge photo

"We need the security; we need that," he said, his trademark menu of enormous turkey legs and sausages sizzling on the grill behind him. "Some people just ain't going to do the right thing, and you can't expect the city to absorb all of that cost."

Longtime Strut volunteer Judy Schwartz said she supports the decision to impose an admission fee but, after noticing the thinner crowds, hopes the Cultural Center is willing to consider tweaking the policy.

"I would hope they would continue to work out a way to reach the right balance, so there aren't barriers to everyone attending, which is the essence of this event," she said.

By early evening, the sun began to cascade down the boulevard in picturesque beams, and the crowds rallied to something more closely resembling the traditional ambling sea of strutters.

Looking out on that crowd, however, some attendees said they hope the fee increase doesn't ultimately homogenize an event that long has served as a melting pot for the city's black and white communities.

"It's like they took the black people out of the Strut," Greene said. "It was so much fun before because you felt like you were part of a community that you were naturally involved with."

Not that it was a complete wash, he added.

"On the positive side, I had the best hot fish sandwich of my life."

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

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about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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