The Lenox Lounge closed on New Year’s Eve after 73 years in Harlem. The landlord doubled the rent on its current owner Alvin Reed, from $10,000 to $20,000 per month, essentially forcing him out of business after 24 years of stewardship.

On New Year’s Day, these heartbreaking photos appeared on Twitter and Instagram. Already the gorgeous chrome neon letters are gone and the door has been plywooded and padlocked. The historically detailed facade has been ripped off, leaving only the underbelly of weathered wood. It is painful to look at.

Lenox Lounge Stripped
Photo: Nobodies of Note 1/1/13

The interior gutting has begun. The long wooden bar has been ripped out.

Lenox Lounge Stripped
Photo: Hosea Johnson

Was this done by Alvin Reed or the new owners? Black Enterprise reported last month, “When Reed leaves he’ll be taking the iconic Lenox Lounge neon sign with him.” Said Reed, “If they want to use Lenox Lounge, they will have to negotiate with me. I brought it back and I want to see it stay there. I want to keep the legacy alive. I am Lenox Lounge, and I will be Lenox Lounge for quite some time. And if they want Lenox Lounge, they want me.”

I guess the new owners decided not to negotiate.

Lenox Lounge Stripped
Photo: CMTapper

The lounge is being taken over by Richie Notar, who runs the luxury restaurant chain Nobu. Robert DeNiro may also be involved. According to the Daily News, Notar will rename the place after himself, putting up a new sign to read NOTAR JAZZ CLUB. He will close it until March to renovate and add a bakery. “I don’t want to change a thing about how it looks,” he said, adding it will be “not too much different than what it is now.”

We know what that means. We’ve seen it all before (again and again and again). The Lenox Lounge will never be the same.

Lenox Lounge Stripped

Before it closed, I went up for a final drink (or two), to be in that rare atmosphere one last time.

The bar was quiet on late afternoons, as the sun goes low and golden over Lenox Avenue, streaming across the wide-open space of the vacant lot across the way, a grassy field that will surely one day be crammed with condos and chain stores.

Black men drank at the bar and watched the football game. A few couples, mostly mixed-race couples, sat in the ragged, duct-taped booths sipping neon-vibrant cocktails and eating fried catfish, lazily reading the newspaper. The bar felt easy like this. A neighborhood joint decked out in faded glamor.

Lenox Lounge Stripped

A walking tour went by the window with people snapping photos. Inside, the bartender explained to a couple of white tourists exactly what made the Lenox Lounge so special, “All kinds of people come in here. All ages and ethnicities. On any night you can find a doctor, a lawyer, sitting next to some guy with no teeth.”

Lenox Lounge Stripped

Originally owned by Ralph Greco (whom Jet magazine referred to as “ofay” in the 1950s) and built for white customers seeking black jazz, the Lenox Lounge was bought and revitalized by Harlem local Alvin Reed in 1988. He brought jazz back in the late 1990s and the white people came back with it. As Reed told the Times in 2000, ”I thought I was bringing jazz back to Harlem for black folks. I thought I would bring out a lot of locals.”

But the black folks mostly stayed in the bar, while the zebra-skinned back room was frequented by whites and tourists. Said Reed in the Times, “A lot of whites are very disappointed because they are coming for our culture. They want to see how we pop our fingers and get with it, and they get in here, look around and it’s nothing but white folks.” By 2001, reported Ebony magazine, 90% of the customers were white.

As Reed told Ebony, “I didn’t envision Whites walking in my door. But they made it work. I have to be totally honest. Without them, jazz would not be in here right now.”

Lenox Lounge Stripped

That was 2001, a tipping point for Harlem and the city at large. Bloomberg was taking over where Giuliani left off and everything was about to change at an unimaginable pace and intensity. You could see the shift, you could feel it, but you could also stay in denial. In our own neighborhoods, we all thought: It can’t happen here.

In the same Ebony article, Charles Rangel said about gentrification: “I walk the streets of Harlem and I don’t see it. Sure, I see Whites, but I don’t see them moving in and attempting to take over Harlem.”

What a difference a decade makes. From river to river, Harlem has since been colonized. East Harlem got rezoned and loaded with condos. Manhattanville was nabbed via eminent domain and handed over to Columbia University for bulldozing. And many in Harlem have fought the big rezoning of 125th Street to no avail. Said planning commissioner Amanda Burden in the Times, “this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to frame and control growth on 125th Street.” Since then, the chains have moved in and many local businesses, like Alvin Reed’s Lenox Lounge, have been pushed out.

Said a shaken and heartbroken Reed in the Daily News recently, “It’s like I don’t exist.”

Lenox Lounge Stripped

Lenox Lounge Vanishing
Lenox Lounge at 70

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