Tag Archives: Philadelphia Housing Authority

Preservation Month 2017

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate places that matter to you. On May 6, I led a Jane’s Walk, “Ridge Avenue Stroll through Philly’s Jazz History.” The first stop was the legendary Blue Note. The Ray Bryant Trio was the Blue Note’s house band. Interestingly, Bryant co-wrote the smash hit, “Madison Time,” which was released in 1959.

The highlight of the stroll was 2125 Ridge Avenue, the former location of the Checker Café, a “black and tan” (read: racially integrated) jazz club. The nightclub’s motto was “Good Food. Good Cooks. Good Service.” One of the servers was a teenage singing waitress named Pearl Bailey.

Checker Cafe - This Place Matters Collage

Since October 2016, I’ve been locked in battle with the Philadelphia Housing Authority which wants to demolish the building that has been a visual anchor for more than 100 years. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission agreed with me the building is of historical significance. Last week, PHA signed a programmatic agreement that saves the building for now. Under the agreement, PHA must stabilize the building.

I say for now because PHA has made it clear it wants to demolish the building. I guess it doesn’t fit their “vision” for a revitalized Ridge Avenue. In an area full of vacant lots, PHA wants to replace a building that is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places with yet another vacant lot.

I encouraged the 40+ people who participated in my Jane’s Walk to make some noise and tell decision-makers that this place matters. If you care about preserving Philadelphia’s cultural heritage, DM me on Twitter or send message to phillyjazzapp[@]gmail.com.

Checker Café

The Checker Café opened in 1934. Located at 2125 Ridge Avenue, it was in the heart of the Ridge Avenue Entertainment District.

Ridge Avenue Cultural District

The Checker Café was a place to see and be seen. On May 23, 1935, Philadelphia Tribune columnist, “the Negro Councilman,” wrote:

When the show has nearly ended you will then see no other than our own sepia Gloria Swanson, who is direct from the Grand Terrace in Chicago and then you can tell the world that you have seen a real show.

As with many jazz venues, the Checker Café was about “intersectionality” before it became a thing. The “sepia Gloria Swanson” was a female impersonator.

Checker Cafe Ads

In the 1980s under new ownership, the nightspot was renamed the Checker Club.

2125 Ridge Avenue - Checker Club Sign

Trumpeter Cullen Knight is the recipient of the 2015 Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts “Living Legend” Award. Knight shared some memories with Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron who wrote:

It’s a bit ironic that the Checker is the only one of those Ridge Avenue joints to survive. It wasn’t the biggest or best known of the venues that lined the avenue during North Philadelphia’s jazz heyday in the mid-20th century. That distinction was probably held by the Pearl Theater on the next block, where Bailey and her sister Jura worked as ushers, and brother Bill tended the candy counter.

Trumpeter Cullen Knight, who grew up a block away, says the Checker was where musicians hung out before and after the shows, partly because the food and the house trio were equally reliable. Its motto was “Good Food. Good Cooks. Good Service.” Among those providing service was Pearl Bailey, who did a stint as a singing waitress and is now immortalized by a mural on the building’s south side. In the ’30s, a gay singer known as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” was also a regular.

While some clubs, like Ridge Cotton Club and Blue Note, took their inspiration from famous Harlem venues, the Checker got its name from the black-and-white pattern painted on the ground floor. Its horseshoe-shaped bar had just enough space in its curve for a small band. Tables occupied the rest of the room.

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Historic Preservation and Social Justice

Two years ago I launched All That Philly Jazz, a place-based public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. In documenting the places where jazz history unfolded, I am also contextualizing the impact of jazz musicians and the jazz culture on the struggle for social justice.

Fact is, the jazz culture was about “intersectionality” before the term was coined . As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron notes in her column, “Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club,” gay performers such as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” were an integral part of the scene.

Checker Cafe Ads

In a piece for PlanPhilly, I wrote about why historic preservation matters:

1409 Lombard Street helps tell the story of artistic greats like Lady Day, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and McCoy Tyner. It also tells the story of disruption and defiance. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said jazz is “triumphant music.” If walls could talk, they would tell how the jazz culture broke down social barriers. The first racially integrated nightspot in Center City was a jazz club, the Downbeat. For the first time, blacks and whites mixed on an equal basis. Jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was “a steppingstone” to the Civil Rights Movement.

At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Who decides what gets saved and whose story gets told? The built environment reflects racial inequalities. Given African Americans’ socioeconomic status, few of the buildings associated with black history meet preservation standards regarding architectural significance. Although unadorned, they are places that tell a more complete American story. The stories of faith, resistance, and triumph are relevant to today’s social justice activists.

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Malcolm X and Historic Preservation

Before his awakening, Malcolm X was known as “Detroit Red,” a fixture on the jazz scene in Harlem. In 1948 while incarcerated in the Norfolk State Colony in Massachusetts, Malcolm joined the Nation of Islam. In 1954, Elijah Muhammad sent him to Philadelphia to expand Temple No. 12.

Until recently, there was confusion about where Malcolm X resided during his time in Philadelphia. Eyewitness and videotaped firsthand accounts have confirmed his address in Sharswood. So All That Philly Jazz is sponsoring the nomination of 2503 W. Oxford Street for listing in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

In a Q&A with Hidden City Philadelphia’s Mike Bixler, All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson talks about Malcolm X, jazz and historic preservation:

Michael Bixler: The FBI files from 1954 have Malcolm X at living at 1522 N. 26th Street, but you have discovered otherwise. How did you confirm that 2503 Oxford Street was his correct address?

Faye Anderson: On January 16, the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus held a screening of civil rights documentaries at the Pearl Theater. One of the films screened was “Seeds of Awakening: The Early Nation of Islam in Philadelphia,” which included first-hand accounts of Malcolm X’s time in the city. In the film Brother Richard Hassan recalled:

We would sit up all night. When Malcolm was here, we’d sit up all night talking. We had a Unity House, a Fruit House, on 2503 Oxford Street. A big house. That’s where Malcolm would stay and all the brothers would come.

The documentary was produced by the New Africa Center, part of the Scribe Video Center’s Muslim Voices of Philadelphia community history project. I have since spoken with Abdul Rahim Muhammad, executive director of the New Africa Center, who confirmed the address with Brother Hassan. While Hassan no longer lives in the Philadelphia area, I have his phone number so I will be able to get an affidavit from him if necessary. I also have contact information for Malcolm’s former press secretary and photographer.

MB: What are the next steps to getting an historical marker placed?

FA: Architectural historian Oscar Beisert and I are preparing the form to nominate 2503 W. Oxford Street for historic designation by the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. We will submit the nomination on or about February 21, 2016, the 51st anniversary of the assassination of El-Hajj Malik Shabazz [Malcolm X].

MB: Why is it important to you to have an historical marker placed there?

FA: The historical marker is important because 2503 W. Oxford Street is a place where history happened. Malcolm X lived there for about six months in 1954. To be clear, the house does not meet architectural standards for historic properties. Instead, the building has significance in the cultural characteristics of Philadelphia and is associated with a person significant in the past. The building also exemplifies the political, social and cultural heritage of the African American community. What happened at 2503 W. Oxford Street laid the foundation for what is now one of the largest populations of African-American Muslims in the country.

The historical marker will tell a more complete story about the Sharswood neighborhood. Sharswood is about more than concentrated poverty and race riots. It’s a community that provided safe havens from the indignities of segregation. Jazz giants roamed Ridge Avenue and iconic leaders like Malcolm X and Charles W. Bowser resided there.

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Ridge on the Rise

Back in the day, Ridge Avenue was a vibrant commercial corridor. The heart and soul of North Philadelphia was also an entertainment district. The Blue Note was at 15th Street and Ridge Avenue.

Blue Note

The Bird Cage Lounge was one block up at Ridge and 16th Street. I don’t know whether it was named after him, but Charlie “Bird” Parker played there. The legendary Pearl Bailey began her singing and dancing career at the Pearl Theater, which was at Ridge and 21st Street.

Pearl Theater Collage

Some of the jazz giants who roamed Ridge Avenue likely stayed at the Hotel LaSalle, which was close to the Pearl Theater. The hotel was listed in the The Negro Motorist Green Book. The Crossroads Bar at Ridge and Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) was at the western tip of the storied “Golden Strip.”

Ridge began its steep decline in the aftermath of the 1964 Columbia Avenue race riots and construction of the Norman Blumberg Apartments public housing. Fast forward 50 years, Ridge is on the rise.

In 2014, the Philadelphia Housing Authority announced that transformation of the Blumberg/Sharswood neighborhood was its top priority. The Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan is a massive $500 million project that would, among other things, revitalize the Ridge Avenue corridor.

In an op-ed piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah wrote:

The redevelopment of a community is about turning ideas into public policy and putting policy into action.

PHA’s revitalization efforts are a targeted, coordinated development model designed to maximize the economic benefits of neighborhood revitalization, not the piecemeal dispersed development model of the past. To transform communities into neighborhoods of choice, there must be good schools for every child, quality affordable housing for all families, and a vibrant small business commercial corridor. The challenge is turning the ideas and rhetoric into policy and practice.

In remarks before the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s recent conference, Marion Mollegen McFadden, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Grant Programs, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, noted a community has both tangible and intangible assets:

I see preservation’s efforts to recognize and honor the cultural heritage of minority and ethnic groups as a valuable component of strong communities, in particular many of the communities that HUD serves. And I don’t just mean preservation of buildings and places, but also of diverse cultural ties and traditions, the intangible dimensions of heritage that together enrich us as a nation.

McFadden concluded with a quote from HUD Secretary Julián Castro:

History isn’t just a subject for books and documentaries. It’s alive and well in buildings, sites, and structures that shape our communities. They tell us who we are and where we come from – and it’s critical that we protect our past for present and future generations.

The Sharswood/Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan raises the question: Does PHA value the area’s tangible and intangible assets that give the neighborhood its identity? If so, will a transformed Ridge Avenue preserve the neighborhood’s cultural heritage for current and future generations?

Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Icon

This year marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of Mary Lou Williams. Since 1995, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has paid tribute to the legendary pianist and composer with the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival.

Williams is the subject of a new documentary, Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band. The film premiered on public television on April 1.

Missed it? If you’re in the Philly area, you’re in luck. There will be a screening of the documentary on Tuesday, July 14, at the International House. Hosted by the Scribe Video Center, the screening and conversation with director Carol Bash is co-sponsored by the Leeway Foundation, Philadelphia Jazz Project, Ars Nova Workshop and Reelblack.

Sadly, luck is running out on the Women of Jazz mural, which depicts jazz icons including Williams, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. This cultural asset is on the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s chopping block.

Women of Jazz Mural

On June 1, I provided public comment before the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless, which is chaired by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. I brought to Blackwell’s attention the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish the mural. I made it clear the goal of increasing the availability of affordable housing and preserving the City’s jazz heritage is not mutually exclusive.

COUNCILWOMAN BLACKWELL: Thank you very much. So you’re saying they’re slated to tear down the mural?
MS. ANDERSON: Yes. The Women of Jazz mural at 3200 [block] of Arlington. It will be torn down sometime this year. The date to be determined.
COUNCILWOMAN BLACKWELL: All right. I’m happy to work on that.

The complete transcript is available here. Clap along if you’re happy.