Harlem nights fall silent with loss of lounge

 

New York

Last call at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem will be just that on New Year's Eve, as its owner will unplug its iconic neon sign and put away the shot glasses on the low mahogany bar for the very last time, unable to pay the $20,000-a-month rent now being demanded by the landlord.

One of Harlem's best loved after-hours institutions, the Lenox Lounge has served as a stylish oasis since it first opened in 1939 for lovers of liquor, music and good company. Among those who have performed on its small stage include such giants of jazz as Miles Davis, Billie Holliday and John Coltrane.

Its demise is a symptom of the success of Harlem's regeneration which Alvin Reed – the owner of the Lenox Lounge for the past quarter century – has himself worked to make happen.

A part of Manhattan that was once a refuge for drug dealers and gangs, where anyone who lived below 90th Street was too afraid to visit, it has recently spawned top-end restaurants such as the Red Rooster, opened by former White House chef, and will soon see the opening – steps from the Lenox Lounge – of a Whole Foods organic market. Mr Reed had been warning since last spring that he couldn't afford to renew his lease.

Voza Rivers, the head of the Harlem Arts Alliance, told the New York Daily News: "The reality is, there is this new transitional change that is happening. Of course, it's a sad moment ... it's now another page in history. The community loses another one of its valued treasures... We were pre-warned that it would happen. It's a sad day."

An art deco jewel box that feels part diner, part night club – the zebra wallpaper in the back room is not easily ignored – its interiors have appeared on film and television including Mad Men, Malcolm X and Shaft.

The lounge sits just south of 125th Street, Harlem's main commercial thoroughfare, on Lenox Avenue. The lease on it has already been sold to Richard Notar, one of the partner's in Nobu, the international restaurant chain that caters to celebrity sushi-lovers and which was co-founded by the actor Robert de Niro.

Not a Harlem man (he is from Queens), Mr Notar may face a challenge if he hopes to take over where Mr Reed is leaving off and keep the musical soul of the Lenox Lounge intact and its regulars happy. For now, it isn't even clear that he will be able to retain the Lenox Lounge name, which will remain the property of Mr Reed. "If they want to use Lenox Lounge," Mr Reed noted a little coldly, "they will have to negotiate with me."

But Mr Reed remains proud of his contribution to Harlem and also to the lounge, which he rescued from seedy disrepair in 1988. "The most important thing I did for the club was to institute a jazz policy, which played a major role in bringing more customers into the club," he suggested. "I wanted to make a difference in Harlem, and I think my ownership of the Lenox Lounge helped me achieve that goal."

All that jazz: the Lenox

First opened as a speakeasy in 1939, the Lenox Lounge boasted among its earliest acts the Haba Haba Girls, a chorus line of black dancers. Through the early 1940s, it become a favoured pilgrimage point for white Manhattanites who would come from the other end of the island to enjoy some jazz.

The lounge was also a favourite haunt of writers associated with the so-called Harlem Renaissance such as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.

More recently the Zebra Room at the back was used for a scene in American Gangster, the 2007 film starring Denzel Washington and Cuba Gooding Jnr.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consulta...

Recruitment Genius: Production Operative

£13000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to a period of sustained an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Content Leader

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role requires a high level...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent