Why Tourists Are Sustaining Local Culture

I've had the chance this year to visit Chicago and Memphis and in both cities I took in at least one blues show. Judging ...
by | September 16, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

Corkys-barbecue-m I've had the chance this year to visit Chicago and Memphis and in both cities I took in at least one blues show. Judging by the number of digital cameras and bags people were carrying from places like the Art Institute of Chicago, I would say that the crowds in each club were comprised of at least 40 percent tourists.

And thank God for tourists.

I know it's always fashionable for tourists to complain about restaurants that are filled with (other) tourists. Everyone wants to find the little hole-in-the-wall that only locals know about. Believe me, I look for such places myself.

But there are also classic experiences that you expect and want to have when visiting certain cities. San Francisco is home for me so I go back once or twice a year, but it's been decades since I've ridden a cable car. But I certainly wouldn't begrudge any first-time visitor that clanging ride up Nob Hill.

And the point is, such attractions often survive only because of tourist support.

Does anyone think enough locals in Chicago care about blues to support several clubs? It seems unlikely, since blues clubs are a comparative rarity in most cities. It's only because a big enough fraction of the tourist trade feels obligated to take in a show, after visiting the Art Institute or the Tower Formerly Known as Sears, that the blues continue to flourish there.

That's why, incidentally, both Chicago and Memphis have blues clubs named for famous artists -- Buddy Guy and B.B. King. It helps tourists have a sense of which joint they're supposed to go to, as opposed to someplace called C.C. or Kingston Mines.

Once upon a time, my wife and I were in Savannah and we went looking for a place to eat breakfast. We asked some random people standing waiting for a bus "where people around here" eat that meal. A woman said, "Shoney's" -- the South's answer to Denny's.

There's a reason there are so many chain restaurants. People like to eat at them and they know what to expect. Residents of Memphis definitely do eat more barbecue than people in, say, Washington, D.C., but in a lot of places the famed local delicacy is only an occasional treat. Like crabs are around here.

It's tourists who keep old traditions alive in a lot of places where most people would rather eat hamburgers or listen to hip-hop.

These thoughts, by the way, are occasioned by Forbes' list of "America's most entertaining cities." I was expecting the list to be made up of places like Las Vegas and New Orleans -- playgrounds for adults.

Instead, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington ranked high based on numbers of restaurants, theaters, sports teams and venues and museums. All of those things certainly qualify as entertainment options -- but some things are going to be more entertaining to some people than others.

I suspect that I'm more likely to visit a museum than most visitors to most cities and that I care less about sports venues than people with even a casual interest in baseball who feel obligated to try to score tickets to Fenway when in Boston.

I don't think people, unlike magazines, pick destinations based on the extent of the smorgasbord available. People know there's a lot to do in New York. But most people pick Denver one year for the hiking, Miami Beach to see the sea and the models the next. Obviously, you want to be able to get a good meal wherever you go -- but that's what chains are for.

Alan Greenblatt | Senior Staff Writer | agreenblatt@governing.com