Scenes from the Lost New York Conference (II)

FROM SESSION V: MARSHALL BERMAN AND DAVID FREELAND IN DIALOGUE

Marshall Berman has just finished reading from On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, and now it’s David Freeland’s turn.

Freeland: I’d also like to read something related to a specific cultural site — Harlem — and I think this will give you an insight into my approach into writing this book. For those who have not read it, in Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure, I uncover remnants of still-existing but little-knownManhattan buildings in order to explore lost cultural histories and human stories. All the buildings are related to different facets of our entertainment culture.

So I’m going to read something from the epilogue, which is actually the first time since the introduction that I step back into the first person and engage readers in questions about the future of our city and preservation. I hope that by this point, after exploring all the stories in the earlier chapters, people will have had the chance to think about some questions of their own.

So here I’m turning to the scene of one of the sites that I’ve discussed earlier, the former Nest nightclub on 133rd Street in Harlem, which opened in the early 1920s and became a place that nurtured so much of what we’ve come to know as performance culture in the city — and in the country. The Nest Club and 133rd Street as a whole was a precursor to “Swing Street” — as 52nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues became known, beginning in the 1930s and lasting until the 1950s. (Ironically Billie Holliday and other musicians referred to [133rd Street] as the copy of 52nd Street.) . . . As some of you may know, aside from the old 21 Club, [52nd Street] is all  office towers now, while elements of the original 133rd Street have survived, even though there are no plaques or signs to mark the spot.

Berman: It was under the radar.

Freeland: That’s right.

Freeland then began his reading. Click the continuation link to read the passage that he chose. We’ll let the conversation between Berman and Freeland begin tomorrow.


It is a sweltering afternoon in August 2007. Armed with a flashlight, I
head toward 133rd Street, where I plan to tour what remains of the Nest
Club, now heavily damaged after a fire and On the market for sale. A
young man from the realty company meets me in front, beneath a rounded
canopy that still advertises “Browns Palace” (the last business to be
located here), and shakes my hand. He is probably less excited than I
at the prospect of crawling through an ancient jazz shrine without air
conditioning on One of the hottest days of the year. Given this, his
friendliness is admirable, especially conSidering that I am hardly a
likely buyer. He knows this
but offers to let me inside anyway.

My flashlight proves unnecessary for the building’s ground level, the
part that Once served as the Barbecue Club. Thin shafts of light dart
from two cross-barred windows in back, spotlighting a narrow walkway
made of wooden planks, laid in a zigzagging line down the center of the
room. The entire expanse of floor, save for the planks, is a sea of fallen
paint, thousands of blue shards that gather like creatures in a moat.
Above, giant sheets of pressed tin, rust-colored except for a few
patches still covered in blue, descend at 90-degree angles from the
ceiling.

Moving upstairs to what once was the kitchen we encounter an overturned
sofa resting against a wall, bottom up. In the middle of the room,
broken chairs, drawers, tin pots, and bottles of talcum powder have
been gathered in a tall pile. Set to the side like a bonfire survivor
is a paperback
copy of Call Her Miss Ross. I reflect upon the weird boomerang effect
of cultural influence: a germ of creation leaves the Nest and gives
birth to 133rd Street, which in turn nurtures Billie Holiday, who rises
to greatness, dies, and is portrayed in a movie by Diana Ross, who
eventually becomes the subject of a pulp biography, a copy of which
lands back at the Nest
like a mutated descendant.

Perspiring, we head to the basement, where the Nest itself was located.
Its walls now resemble the peeling frescoes of Domos Aurea} a faded
patchwork of color. Evidence of !looding persists in the green
outgrowth of mold creeping toward the ceiling, Still, it is possible to
stand within this tiny space and understand the close-fit nature of it
and, further, grasp just how revolutionary 1920s speakeasies and
nightclubs truly were, especially those in Harlem: men and women of
varying races and orientations, grouped together in a place no larger
than most living rooms. With Sam Wooding’s band thrust next to dancers
and guests, an evening at the Nest would have offered a communal
experience unmatched even by today’s cramped jazz clubs in the Village,
Inside these walls, protected by darkness and depth, New Yorkers who
ordinarily would not have spoken to one another in the daytime created,
temporarily, a new world through the negotiation of space. Herein lay
the magic of the Nest.

 “You know, Mae West used to come here a lot,” I mention casually,
seeking, I guess, to impress my young guide. There is silence.

“Urn, do you know who that is?”

“Uh, no, actually, I don’t.” He is cheerful, and there is no reason to
expect that he spent his childhood watching old movies all his local
UHF station. Cultural reference points, I realize, have shifted.

“If someone buys this, what do you think it will be used for?” Until
now I have hesitated to ask this question, but always there is hope.
New Yorkers who grow attached to their buildings remain incautiously
optimistic.

“It’ll probably be a knockdown!” My heart wants to sink but I
understand that this is a building for sale, and it is the realtor’s
job to soil it. We are on struggling block of West 133rd Street, not in
landmarked Sugar Hill or some other neighborhood emblematic of New
York’s social elite, The former Nest represents a development
opportunity, and, like many Harlem buildings, it seems to face two
choices: it can remain and grow even more decayed or it can be
replaced. But there is a third possibility of adaptive reuse, one that
would preserve elements  of the structure — its
graceful facade, for example — so that some recognition can be given
to its specialness, its importance as a site where a quintessentially
New York institution, jazz performance, was fostered. That would be
something for Sam Wooding, for Luis Russell, for the “sepia” Gloria
Swanson, for all their contributions — and for us.

[And then just a couple of questions I’d like to end with.]

When future New Yorkers explore their neighborhoods, what will they
see? Will they be able to trace history the way we have done in this
book, by finding visual clues and investigating them? New Yorkers are
an inherently curious lot; once they make the city their own they want
to know
everything they can about it. The challenge they will face in the
future is that exploring history becomes mare difficult once the
physical markers themselves are gone. In Harlem, on old Doyers Street,
along Tin Pan Alley, even in chaotic Times Square, it is still possible
to discern small pockets lingering behind the advance of development,
as if to tell us their stories while they still can. With their
assistance it is possible to reconstruct a world, using the pieces they
have to offer as a foundation on which to create and build. By
contrast, who today Can truly imagine what the Astor Hotel bar might
have been like, or the theaters of Union Square, or the Haymarket dance
hall? So completely have they disappeared that to envision them now
would require an act of conjuring far beyond the powers ofliteral
observation. The resources of city archives and libraries provide our
only key. Though these collections are comprehensive, actually seeing a
building with one’s own eyes and understanding the physical context in
which it lives is tremendously gratifying.

But what is the purpose of exploring our history? How do we as New
Yorkers benefit from it? The answer, like so many of the contentious
issues affecting the world landscape, lies in the conceptual
understanding of home, of one’s own residence as a place of security
and order. We need to feel that we belong in our space, that we have a
right to it. Our struggle to define New York and shape it for ourselves
has led, as we have seen, to the creation of distinct zones,
characterized largely through the ways in which we choose to spend our
money and our leisure time. The boundaries have been contested, often
by those in charge of apportioning the city’s resources, and their
preservation has come as the result of struggle. In many cases we have
lost, and no doubt we will lose again in the future. Lurking behind the
current argument about Manhattan’s depletion of character is the fear
that somehow, through the accreted loss of physical space, the city as
a site of being will no longer be ours. Architecture grows and exists
largely outside our personal orbit of influence; we cannot always
control what is put up and taken down. But we continue to lobby for the
kind of city that reflects who we are as citizens of New York.

New York was not built upon the efforts of a few; it grew out of the
collective dreams and wishes of its multitudes. The people who have
made it great are not just Rockefellers and Vanderbilts; they are
chorus dancers, saloon owners; police, entertainers) workers,
visitors-all whose contributions,
however limited in immediate scope, have built Manhattan into a place
of cultural influence. Their presence can be felt still; they ask to be
remembered even as they evaporate before us.