The Original Swing Street
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We stood in the basement of 169 W. 133rd Street in Harlem shining a lantern at the rotted walls, saturated ceiling panels, and corroded fixtures. A lawn chair surrounded by discarded soda bottles occupied a corner of the room where the bandstand once stood. Who knows how they got there, or who would’ve wanted to spend time in so dank a space. Eighty years ago the Nest would have been throbbing with music, drinking, and dancing. The day we visited with our guide, David Freeland, author of Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure, we found the space as silent as a recording studio. Mushrooms sprouted out of the cold muck on the floor.
The Nest, which lies padlocked behind the doors of an abandoned building on a quiet residential block, is arguably one of New York City’s greatest unsung cultural landmarks. The development of jazz as an artistic movement in the city is linked to this spot, which opened on October 18, 1923, in the basement of what was then a barbecue club. In its heyday, during the height of Prohibition, the Nest hosted some of the most popular names in Harlem, like Sam Wooding and Luis Russell. It also attracted super star patrons like Mae West. Eventually more speakeasies opened in basements along the same block as the Nest, fostering a culture of clandestine drinking and improvised performance for an integrated audience. On a given night one could spot Duke Ellington, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Fats Waller, and Billie Holiday either performing or catching each others’ sets at Pod’s & Jerry’s, Club Mexico, or Basement Brownie’s. Billie herself said 133rd Street “was the real swing street, like 52nd Street later tried to be.”
It all began to vanish in the years following Repeal when the demand for covert drinking spaces evaporated. The music moved to Midtown where it found a more commercial infrastructure, and the 133rd Street clubs died out.
Still, most of the buildings on 133rd Street that housed the original speakeasies remain standing, including one spot notable for a resurgence of jazz on the block: Bill’s Place, formerly Tillie’s Chicken Shack, where saxophonist Bill Saxton performs every Friday night with a rotating cast of talented musicians. The lively scene at Bill’s offers a stark contrast to the ghostly ruins of the Nest down the block.
Standing there in the dark, we imagined what it must have been like all those years ago at the Nest, but soon it was time to go before we were exposed to any more mold.
–Daniel Ross, producer