Sites of the Green Book: The Lenox Lounge
Between 1936 and 1967, the Negro Motorist Green Book was essential for the survival of thousands of Black Americans in an era of segregation cemented into the American legal system through Jim Crow laws, sundown towns where Black Americans were under threat of violence by white supremacists after sunset, and a sharp increase in lynchings and other forms of hate crimes. For the last year we’ve been working with Candacy Taylor, one of our African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund fellows, to further explore sites included in the Green Book. In this last story of her fellowship, we examine The Lenox Lounge, which was featured in the Green Book from 1938 to 1955.
The Lenox Lounge was a legendary Green Book nightclub in Harlem. Founded in 1939 by Ralph Greco, it was nestled among 1880s-era brownstone tenements on Lenox Ave, a major artery in Harlem. The Lenox Lounge was one of the approximately 330 nightclubs listed in the Green Book.
The 1200-square-foot club had a stunning Art Deco neon sign, zebra-print booths, and a mahogany bar. Patrons and luminaries such as James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Langston Hughes sat in plush burgundy leather couches (one of the booths was reserved for Billie Holiday) to hear swing, bebop, and jazz performed nightly by the leading artists of the time such as Dizzy Gillespie, Lady Day, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis.
From Rebirth to Loss
From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Lenox Lounge fell into decline and did not feature jazz until Alvin and Ethel Reed, both raised in Harlem, purchased the club in 1988 for $85,000. Alvin Reed was born in 1939, the same year the club was founded, and moved to New York in 1945. The Reeds refinanced their house in Queens to buy the property, and Ethel managed Lenox Lounge while Alvin worked full time at the post office. In 2008 the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone helped to finance and restore the Lenox Lounge so the Reeds could restore the club to reflect its Deco roots. He also hired a DJ and added R&B dance nights.
Since Reed played jazz he understood the challenges fellow performers faced, so in 1992 the club signed a union contract with Local 802, the “American Federation of Musicians,” to ensure a better living and financial security for musicians. After running the club for nearly 25 years, a prolonged lease dispute between the property owner, Ricky Edmonds, and the Reeds caused the Lenox Lounge close on December 31, 2012. The rent had doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 dollars a month, and they simply could not afford it, so the property was taken over by Richard Notar (who managed the Nobu restaurant chain) to open a jazz venue.
Notar may have had the property, but Alvin Reed made sure that he would not have the club. At midnight, Reed stripped the bar down to a shell of its former state. He took the doors, light fixtures, and the iconic Art Deco facade and sign and moved everything two blocks away to open a new Lenox Lounge at 333 Lenox Ave.
Since Reed retained the trademark of the Lenox Lounge (and was not willing transfer it), there was little Notar could do with the property, so he moved on to other ventures. Unfortunately, Reed wasn’t able to keep the Lenox alive at 333 Lenox, and it closed shortly after. The site was never eligible—even though the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone tried—for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
A Continuing Legacy and Lesson
Despite its troubles, the Lenox Lounge still made its stamp in popular culture. Mariah Carey used the backdrop of the Lenox Lounge on the cover of her album, the Zebra Room was used to film the Mad Men pilot, and it was featured in the film American Gangster, Madonna’s music video Secret, and Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X.
The closing of the Lenox Lounge, a devastating loss to Harlem, is an example of the aggressive gentrification tactics that are changing the culture and the tenor of Harlem. Of course, Harlem isn’t unique. Unfortunately, this form of gentrification is playing out to some degree in nearly every American city and as a result there is a continuous loss of important nightclubs and sites—like the Lenox Lounge—that were listed in the Green Book.
To date, nearly 80 percent of these Green Book sites are lost, and less than 5 percent are still operating. The sites that are still with us symbolize survival. It is critical to save the ones that are left because these sites of sanctuary symbolize Black ingenuity, resourcefulness, strength, entrepreneurship, and resilience. They carry a cultural memory with them and reveal the untold story of Black travel, offering us a rich opportunity to reexamine America’s story of segregation, Black migration, and the rise of the Black leisure class.
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