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The City Concealed
The City Concealed, an online video series exploring the unseen corners of New York. Visit the places you don’t know exist, locations you can’t get into, or maybe don’t even want to. Each installment unearths New York’s rich history in the city’s hidden remains and overlooked spaces.

The Original Swing Street

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

  • comments (10)
  • Syla and Arnie

    What a great , well put together piece of Jazz info. Thanks ….Such a pleasure……

  • Shirley Zafirau

    I’m passionate about American Jazz and it’s history. This is wonderfully written, painting a visual & musical impression of yesteryear fast forwarding to the present. A “you are there” experience. Thank you!

  • dick joseph

    “The Original Swing Street” brings back to life those cellar denizens who played and listened til the sun came up
    It’s an exciting piece of Jazz History!

    Dick Joseph

  • Miriam

    Jazz clubs like these were without a doubt the best places to experience the music. The intimacy of the space worked to create a coccoon where the interplay between musician and audience created a particular magic that is impossible to recreate in the modern concert hall or club. I envy those people. Back in the 70′s there were still a few such places left in Harlem and I was lucky enough to experience some of them. Thank you so much for bringing us this wonderful series.

  • Stephen

    Great to see 133rd Street getting some attention. Our site, Digital Harlem: Everyday Life 1915-1930, and the related blog provide information on the several hundred nightclubs, speakeasies and buffet flats that made up the nightlife in the rest of the neighborhood during the 1920s — this blog post includes map that show there locations: http://digitalharlemblog.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/harlem-undercover-the-maps/

  • Joyce Mendelsohn

    Many thanks to David Freeland — an intrepid explorer of hidden New York places of entertainment. To find out more of his discoveries, buy his book: Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville, Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Placed of Leisure (NYU Press,2009).

  • Dave L.

    I absolutely loved this piece! I have always been fascinated by the other Swing Street but sadly there is nothing left of that neighborhood. It’s great to see that many of the sites of the old clubs are still there and that Bill’s Place is an active club actually housed in one of the original clubs. David Freeland sounds like my kind of guy. Now I must pick up his book!

  • rockcreek

    Love, love, love this series – is there any chance that it can get its own Facebook page so that I can get updates RE: new episodes?

  • Laurence Frommer

    I was walking that block of 133rd street yesterday and was shocked to see that the building that housed The Nest had been torn down. Clearly there is a need to designate this block as an historic district ASAP before any more of it’s history is lost!

  • holly

    Years back, Norman Mapp toured me personally in and out of what had been, was and was becoming the current vibrant corridors of Harlem today. To think we’d met when Cable TV was still a joke… ha ha, give me an amen and ‘pass the ammunition’ to that ! Oh, but if only there’d been a voice-activated recorder picking up his 50 SHADES OF BLUES and swing sifting chords across the streets and tables as he so poignantly reminisced and flowed. Thank you, Norman, and thanks to modern wonders of surfing the net, I’ve seen another old friend, Bill Saxton, is now up in the neighborhood. Looking forward to making a current visit soon, meeting new friends, hearing old tunes and reappreciating the iconic rhythms of one of NYC’s truly blessed neighborhoods… Forget about designating an historical “block”, designate the whole shabang as “core” to the Apple’s story!