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Uptown

May 2024
3min read

In 1921 Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake brought an all-black revue called Shuffle Along to Broadway. Not only was it successful enough to spawn eight imitators in the next four years, but it also spurred a nightly white migration to Harlem that lasted throughout the decade. Long after Times Square went dark, Lenox and Seventh avenues were busy with noisy crowds of visitors, some slumming, some merely curious, some actually drawn to the music played by musicians of the caliber of Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington.

Connie’s, on Seventh Avenue at 132nd Street, is the first white outpost on the uptown colored frontier, the first stop on the route of the downtown night clubbers. A wide red canopy stretches from the doorway to the curbstone, and once he has strolled on this tented way, the host to a party of four should be prepared to kiss a fifty-dollar bill a conclusive good-by. While at Small’s Paradise the average check is only about $4 a person, at Connie’s it is more likely $12 and possibly $15.

Walk down one flight of stairs and you are in this rendezvous, so low-ceilinged as to be cavelike. Around the dance floor is a three-foot barrier built in the semblance of a village, miniature bungalows and villas, and here and there a spired church, through the tiny windows of which comes the gleam of midget lights.…The tables are set so close together as to create an illusion of intimacy, so close, in fact, that a man must trail the waiter to his seat with extreme caution lest he slide into some haughty young thing’s lap enroute.…

Harlem’s night life now surpasses that of Broadway itself. From midnight until after dawn it is a seething cauldron of Nubian mirth and hilarity.

As in the Cotton Club, mixed parties are not permitted at Connie’s. Colored parties with the necessary doubloons are welcomed, of course, but they look a bit lonesome, usually.…

New York Daily News, November 1, 1929

Harlem has attained pre-eminence in the past few years as an amusement center. Its night life now surpasses that of Broadway itself. From midnight until after dawn it is a seething cauldron of Nubian mirth and hilarity. Never has it been more popular. One sees as many limousines from Park and upper Fifth Avenue parked outside its sizzling cafés, “speaks,” night clubs and spiritual seances as in any other high-grade white locale in the country. A brand of entertainment is directly responsible for Harlem’s present distinction. It has crashed the limelight and seems due to remain. When it comes to pep, pulchritude, punch and presentation, the Harlem places have Broadway’s night clubs distanced. Celebrities in all walks of life “make” the Harlem joints every night. You’ll likely see a Lady Mountbatten on the ringside of the Cotton Club, a David Belasco at another and a diplomat in the next.…

[Harlem] has eleven class white-trade night clubs: the Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn, the Nest, Small’s Paradise, Barrons, the Spider Web, the Saratoga Club, Ward’s Swanee, the Catagona, the Bamboo Club and the Lenox. With a population of 250,000, the majority of whom are frequenters of night resorts, the actual number of colored cabarets of lower ranks exceeds 500.…

Five out of every seven cigar stores, lunchrooms and beauty parlors in Harlem are “speaks” selling gin. More chop suey joints in Harlem than any other district of similar size in the country. Two and three to a block on every main road. Food is scaled very low and entertainment in but a few of them. Dancing permitted in all, however, to radio or phonograph. The dancing is plenty hot. The district between 132nd and 138th Streets and Fifth Avenue is the hottest sector for vice in Harlem. It is called “Coke Village.” Many of the be-ermined and high-hat white gentry entering the area are on the bay for “hop.” Harlem has 300 girl dancers continuously working in the joints. About 800 are always ready for an audition, of any sort. It has 150 boys, perhaps the best aggregation of tap and buck dancers extant. But 1,500 young men claim professional standing as dancers.

There are fifteen major bands and more than 100 others in action every night. Duke Ellington is the Paul Whiteman of the Black Belt. Bill Robinson is the idol of the district. Kid Chocolate runs second. Ethel Waters is the most popular and highest paid colored female entertainer in the world.…The Park Avenue of the district is Strivers’ Row, around 137th and 138th Streets. Among the colored notables residing there are Harry Wills, Fletcher Henderson, Miss Waters and Ed Small…

— Variety, October 16, 1929

The language of the speakeasy, which is the language of the real Harlem, is a strange one to the neophyte. The stranger who plans a complete tour of the night club circuit should know the following at least:

Kelt means a white person. Funkey is used to describe the odor of perspiration, as “a funkey old man.” Bolido is the gambling game on the New York clearing-house numbers. Blue means a very dark colored person. Freakish is used to describe an effeminate man or a mannish woman. Dicty is used to describe a high-class person — a good sport. Honey man is a man who is kept by a woman. Sweet man is the same as honey man. Passing is the act of a colored person passing for white. A passer is a person who can pass as white. Boodle means a lot of anything. Dogs mean feet. Chitterlings is a tripe-like food, made from the lining of a pig’s stomach. Snouts are pickled pig’s snouts, a popular delicacy. Monkey-hugger is used by American colored folk to describe the colored people who come from the West Indies. Scronch is a dance. Eight-ball is used to describe a very dark colored person. Skip means a dance. Walk that broad means show some pep in dancing with that girl. Lap is liquor. Bird’seye maple is a light mulatto girl. High yaller is the same as bird’s-eye maple. Spruce means a sucker. Getting high means getting drunk. High means drunk. Juice joint is a speakeasy. Working moll means a prostitute. Buzz cart is an automobile. Lammer means automobile. Gigwatny is a colored person. Fay means a white person. Unsheiking is descriptive of a woman trying to get a divorce.

New York Sunday News, November 3, 1929

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