Remains of the Renaissance

I took this shot of the address imprint of Harlem’s Renaissance Ballroom in March of 2006. Wow, things have changed in the ensuing 5+ years.

I can’t say it any better than a couple of websites have already.

Go here: and here: to learn more about the Ballroom and to hear the sad news detailed.

The Renaissance came to my attention when I first moved to New York. By 1986 I was living around West 125th Street. I had just read Mezz Mezzrow’s Really the Blues, I found some community in his story (he and his Chicago crew always made me think of the Louisville Punks similarly eating out of tin cans at times – all for the love of music) and I took to visiting every location that he had mentioned that I could still find, as I was living close by. More often than not,  I ended up trying to conjure my destination out of a facade of crisscrossed peeling boards and broken glass barely seated in window frames while I summoned ghosts of liveliness. Of Mezzrow and his circle in the alley on a “Mezz” break. Looks like the Ballroom has joined the corporeal past.

This is a good primer on Jungle Alley, where many of the most popular clubs were located:

And Kareem Abdul Jabbar, in his book On the Shoulders of Giants on the Renaissance:

Jungle Alley, also known as The Street, Paradise Valley, and The Stroll, had the highest density of nightclubs and cabarets in New York City. And certainly nightclubs filled with dancing girls, famous jazz musicians, mobsters, illegal booze, and international celebrities are much more romantic than some intense young writer quietly sitting in his room scribbling about the unjust plight of the Negro. But these famous, and infamous, clubs did as much damage as good to the cause of the African-American. While they promoted and celebrated the original music of black Americans, they also promoted a false, rose-colored image that kept white America from recognizing the real problems faced by African-Americans in Harlem and across the country.

This was the notorious area that had become popularized in literature because anything was for sale here, and to keep the customers flocking in, Lenox Avenue maintained a Picture of Dorian Gray persona. If visitors focused on the many ritzy nightclubs that featured dynamic jazz and dancing revues, this section of Harlem seemed giddy with innocent celebration of life. But if they looked in on the buildings where the locals lived, they’d catch a glimpse of the nastier soul of the place — the run-down apartment houses and dilapidated buildings hidden in the dark shadows cast by the bright lights of the resplendent nightclubs.

But no one was interested in looking in those shadows.

These two Harlems were characterized by two of Jungle Alley’s most famous, but radically different, clubs: the Cotton Club and, a couple blocks to the west, the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. The two clubs came to define the two Harlems — Harlem Light and Harlem Dark — as clearly as the blue and gray uniforms of the Civil War. The Cotton Club symbolized how white America perceived African-Americans: as happy, dancing children, obsessed with sensuality and therefore incapable of sophisticated thoughts or actions. The Renaissance Casino and Ballroom symbolized the ideals of self-reliance and community values that the Harlem Renaissance was preaching…

The other Harlem — the one that was inhabited by the black residents — was represented by nightclubs like the Lenox Club, the Plantation Inn, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. These establishments served the black community and were the places that Harlemites frequented for entertainment or to hold social, political, or family events. Many major local events were held at the Savoy, which boasted not only a large mixed-race clientele, but was also famous as the home of the trendy dance the Lindy Hop.

The club that in many ways most represented the ideals of the Harlem Renaissance was over on 150 West 138th Street — a two-story redbrick building called the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. This was the place that the Cotton Club building had first been erected to compete against. And just as the name implies, this establishment embodied the heart and soul of what the Harlem Renaissance was all about. While the corrupt, mob-operated Cotton Club flaunted its patronizing attitude toward African-Americans, the black-owned-and-operated Renaissance Casino celebrated African-American achievements. This is where many of Harlem’s more dignified events took place, including the annual awards dinners held by the NAACP’s periodical, the Crisis, the magazine that had done the most to define and develop the ideals of the New Negro. Meetings of black unions and clubs were common, including the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Business and Professional Men’s Forum. Patrons danced to the jazz licks of the house band fronted by Vernon Andrade, as well as other renowned musicians and entertainers such as the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, Louis Armstrong, Elmer Snowden’s band, Rex Stewart, Dickie Wells, Cecil Scott, Roy Eldridge, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. While the Cotton Club rejected the black community, the Renaissance clientele reflected the black community. But most important, it celebrated the black community, from its workers to its artists to its writers.

While I’m at it…lots of people seem to have captured this marquee of the Chinese restaurant that was in the building back in the day. I guess I’ll throw mine in the ring too.

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