In Harlem, Mourning Another Historic and Cultural Marker
By ASHLEY SOUTHALLAPRIL 3, 2018
In 1994, a musician and patrons at St. Nick’s Pub stand behind “Fergie,” known as the unofficial mayor of Harlem. Gerald Cyrus
Rubble is about all that is left of St. Nick’s Jazz Pub, the venerable Harlem hangout whose blood-red facade once beckoned jazz greats like Lena Horne and Miles Davis during the Harlem Renaissance.
The basement pub had been closed for seven years before a fire on March 22engulfed the landmark townhouse on St. Nicholas Avenue at West 149th Street, killing a firefighter. Afterward, contractors chiseled away what remained.
Fire marshals continue to search for the cause of the fire in what’s left of the building in Sugar Hill, a celebrated neighborhood where prominent African-Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois, the scholar and activist, and George Schuyler, a journalist, once lived. Neighbors, musicians and historians have begun asking what will rise in its place.
St. Nick’s Pub had been closed for years after a police raid before it was destroyed in a fire last month. Gerald Cyrus
“We need to know what’s happening here,” Elizabeth Eastman, 58, said on a recent morning as she peered over a metal barricade at the remains of the building.
The club was still a lively place when Ms. Eastman’s parents moved to Harlem in the early 1960s. Today, she lives on West 147th Street, two blocks from the building.
Over the years, historic and cultural markers of the neighborhood’s past have disappeared, like the Renaissance Theater and Casino, where Joe Louis slugged opponents, and the old Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, where Malcolm X was eulogized. Many were demolished and replaced by expensive apartment buildings, restaurants and shops catering to a wealthier, whiter demographic.
Critics blame their disappearance in part on what they see as bias and bureaucratic inertiaat the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must sign off on plans for the future of the space where St. Nick’s stood. Atiba Kwabena-Wilsonperformed at the pub with his band, the Befo’ Quotet, for several years before it closed, and he is among those who say the commission’s inaction contributes to changes that are erasing Harlem’s past.
Kiane Zawadi and Earl Davis performing at the pub in 1996. Gerald Cyrus
“We pay a price for that,” Mr. Kwabena-Wilson said. “It reflects all of our life experience and informs us of how to move forward. So these are very important legacies.”
St. Nick’s was still drawing a crowdwhen it closed in 2011 after a police raid, and its destruction last month was another blow to Harlem’s jazz scene, coming just 10 months after Lenox Lounge was razed. The lounge, which opened in 1939 and hosted performances by Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, closed in 2012 amid a rent dispute and sat vacant for years.
An architectural rendering online sparked rumorsthat the lounge will be replaced by a Sephora, the French cosmetics boutique. But Thomas J. LaPorta, a principal at the firm handling the project, Gambino + LaPorta Architecture DPC, said no tenants had been signed to the location.
Few jazz clubs remain, including Showmans Jazz Club, open since 1942, and Minton’s, which opened in 2013 as the second reincarnation of the former Minton’s Playhouse.
In 1994, Laurel Watson, a Harlem legend from the big band era, is second from left at the bar. Gerald Cyrus
Ms. Eastman, who is the treasurer for the West 147th Street Block Association Inc. Between 7th and 8th, said she would like to believe St. Nick’s can rise from the ashes.
“I think there’s a hope that we can preserve some of the old Harlem,” she said. “Blend the old and the new so that we can remember the culture, African-American culture. It’s beautiful.”
St. Nick’s had been the longest-running jazz club in Harlem before it closed. Over its history, the pub had many iterations. It opened as the Pooseepahtuck Club in 1935, and new management seemed always to bring a new name: Luckey’s Rendezvous in the 1940s under Luckey Roberts, the composer and piano player who influenced Duke Ellington, then the Pink Angel in the 1950s under Lillian Lampkin, the current owner’s mother. It became St. Nick’s in the 1960s.
Among the luminaries who frequented the pub was the writer James Baldwin, who introduced friends to the joint. Miles Davis and Charlie Parker clinked glasses at the pub, too. And Stevie Wonder was known to pop in.
Dancer Kathy Sanson hugging tap dancer Buster Brown in 1995. Gerald Cyrus
“They would have good house bands,” Jacob Morris, the director of the Harlem Historical Society, said. “It was always a popular place to go.”
The current owner, Vincent Lampkin, 57, inherited St. Nick’s and the apartments above it after his mother died in 2010. He had hoped to reopenthe pub. He did not return a request for comment submitted through his lawyer, who has said Mr. Lampkin plans to rebuild.
In its last days, the pub had been used as a film set for “Motherless Brooklyn,” an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s detective novel set in the 1950s in New York City. The “King Rooster Jazz Club” sign that the film’s crew put up for the shoot hung outside the building until contractors began demolishing it.
Whatever rises in its place must be approved by the preservation panel, which will consider “the design, massing, materials, and how it relates to the streetscape and the historic district,” Zodet Negron, a spokeswoman, said. Neighborhood residents will have a say through the local community board.
A long night at St. Nick’s Pub in 1997, when it was still going strong. Gerald Cyrus
Mr. Morris, the historian, said that St. Nick’s destruction does not have to portend its erasure. He cited the Red Rooster, a bustling restaurant on Malcolm X Boulevard near 125th Street, named in honor of a former speakeasy that attracted African-American luminaries like Nat King Cole, the pianist and singer, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the civil rights leader who served 26 years in Congress (and for whom the stretch of Seventh Avenue above Central Park is named).
Like its predecessor, Red Rooster occupies an influential space in Harlem’s core, where it attracts old-timers, newcomers and visitors. President Barack Obama dined at the restaurant in 2011 during a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee that raised $1.5 million. Its downstairs speakeasy, Ginny’s Supper Club, is home to a weekly gospel brunch and live music on most nights.
“Even though it’s a completely new entity, they’ve recreated the ambience and the spirit of what the old Red Rooster meant to Harlem,” Mr. Morris said.
He said the loss of St. Nick’s is painful. “What we’re dealing with now is we’ve got a tragedy,” he said. “But out of tragedy can come resurrection and we’d all like to see it.”