John Beatty needed some land. Or at least, that’s what his grandmother preached to him from infancy. “Get some land, boy, buy you some land. If you don’t own some land, you’re nobody.” Beatty came to New York as a 19 year-old in 1957, a bricklayer by trade—like his father—and did indeed get himself some land. He opened a bar called The Hamilton Lounge on 141st Street and Amsterdam Avenue in 1967, but having bounced around the electric nightlife downtown, he was dissatisfied with the atmosphere of his own joint. “I could have stayed in South Carolina and opened a bar,” he says. “I didn’t want that––I wanted to be like everybody else, I want to be renowned.”
Flash forward 10 years to 1977: Beatty is strolling down 125th Street and sees a FOR RENT sign in the window of a small spanish nightclub on a triangular sliver of land. He rents it out, and soon renegotiates with the landlord to purchase the property for $175,000. This space becomes the Cotton Club, a jazz and supper joint deeply rooted in the tradition of its namesake—the famed 1920s speakeasy, perhaps the most important locus of jazz in the Harlem Renaissance.
Over the next 41 years, Beatty’s Cotton Club became a part of a long and tenuous relationship with Columbia University, which included phases of both harmony and conflict. This relationship culminated with the Community Benefits Agreement, a document signed in 2009 by President Bollinger and the West Harlem Development Corporation that allotted $150 million in goods and services to the West Harlem community to offset displacement and other repercussions of the Manhattanville expansion. Section VIII. B. of the CBA, notably titled “Cotton Club,” prohibits Columbia from requesting that New York State exercise eminent domain to seize Beatty’s land—a tactic that the state did use to seize land from Tuck-it-away Storage and the Singh family gas stations and grant it to Columbia.
Despite the period of contention between Columbia and The Cotton Club in the early phases of the Manhattanville Expansion Project—roughly between 2005 and 2007, in which Columbia tried to buy out the business—the Cotton Club remains an iconic part of the development of jazz and blues in America. Ten years into the Manhattanville construction, Beatty now hopes that the completion of the new campus will bring the Cotton Club further growth and notoriety within the transformed neighborhood of West Harlem.
The original Cotton Club was first opened on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue by African-American socialite and boxer Jack Johnson in 1920. The establishment was quickly turned over to Owney Madden, an infamous gangster and bootlegger under whose ownership it roared as a whites-only speakeasy during the Prohibition. Performers by likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Sammy Davis Jr. played there for audiences who, in the advent of the Harlem Renaissance, were discovering jazz and blues for the first time. The club closed temporarily following the Harlem Race Riot of 1935, and reopened in 1936 downtown, on 48th Street and Broadway.
This first iteration of the Cotton Club frequently interacted with Columbia. In 1937, the then-existing College of Pharmacy hosted a dinner dance at the Cotton Club. That same year, Columbia held an event called Dean’s Drag in John Jay, a charity dance with over 400 couples in attendance at which the Columbia Orchestra Committee nearly unanimously approved the Cotton Club orchestra to perform. This dance marked the first time a black orchestra ever played on Columbia’s campus. In 1940, when Columbia threw a prom for undergraduates, post-prom restaurant goers who visited the Cotton Club received a 25% discount on their bill.
Just four years after its move to midtown, the Cotton Club closed permanently amid whispers of tax evasion by the owners. The city was without a Cotton Club for 33 years, until Beatty opened his own iteration on 125th Street and 12th Avenue in 1977.
When Lee C. Bollinger became Columbia’s president in 2002, his promise to expand campus northward into Manhattanville—one of the pillars of his presidential vision—began to percolate in the collective consciousness of students and faculty. The 17-acre Manhattanville “project site” is defined in the CBA as three chunks of land in northern Manhattan, the biggest of which is bordered by “West 125th Street on the south, West 133rd Street on the North, Broadway on the east and Twelfth Avenue on the west.”
Among residents of the area, concerns of gentrification and displacement of residents and businesses were at the forefront of the conversation surrounding the new campus. Some of the Cotton Club’s regulars worried that, as the neighborhood they knew changed around them, the club would dissolve into an unfamiliar landscape.
Solomon Hicks, lead guitarist at the club for the past 10 years, cites the Cotton Club as the genesis of his music career—the place where he learned the tradition of jazz and blues from the musicians that built that tradition, backstage, between songs. He learned how to play in a 13-piece band and how to entertain a crowd of 250 people. He even learned the ins and outs of the recording studio, as he recorded his first album, Embryonic, with the Cotton Club AllStars. He was only 13 years old when he auditioned for guitarist at the Cotton Club with Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” 10 years later, Hicks has released three self produced albums, signed with Mascot Records, toured Spain, Tokyo, France, and opened for Ringo Starr and Jeff Beck in Holland—and yet, he tells me that the Cotton Club is still his favorite place to perform.
“It's kind of what every person who wants to get into music needs: somebody who believes in them,” he says, “and the Cotton Club was that cornerstone for me.”
In addition to supporting emerging musicians, the Cotton Club plays a vital role in invigorating the historic mediums of tap and swing dancing. Samuel Coleman, a trained swing dancer and instructor at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, explains that jazz “originally was intended for people to dance to. Somewhere along the line it became something that people just sit down and listen to like we’re at the opera.” Coleman teaches a dance class at the Joseph P. Kennedy Center on Monday evenings, and says he frequently brings his students to the Cotton Club to practice their craft. “This is a social dance. You get better when you go out and apply what you learned in class.”
As community leaders brought the Cotton Club to the forefront of their discussion on the stakes of Columbia’s expansion, the establishment emerged as an emblem of West Harlem land and culture. In 2005, then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer articulated a symbolic dichotomy forming between institution and neighborhood as a result of the Manhattanville project: “It’s about race and money and power,” he stated. “It’s about the Ivy League and the Cotton Club."
I interview Beatty on a damp Thursday night when the club is closed. We huddle around his desk, lit by a single dim lamp, the rest of the room falling away around us. I tell Beatty I will return next Monday for Swing Dance Night, the Club’s most popular event and his favorite among its Sunday Brunch & Gospel, and regular dinner and jazz shows—and he cracks a wide smile, his grainy voice taking on a rare melodic quality. “You’re gonna have a great time. You’ll see what it’s all about.” he says, after remarking that watching people enjoy the show is his favorite part of his job. His promise rattles in my head, echoed by the other Cotton Club regulars I speak with: “There’s nothing like it in New York. Nothing.”
The following Monday, I walk into the The Cotton Club and it’s an explosion of color: the lustrous brass of the instruments on stage, the rich reds saturating the walls, and the warm yellow of tableside candles, now animated with light and movement. “Take it away” the MC says, and the band does just that. 16 musicians—some trumpet, trombone, saxophone, bass, and guitar—leap into song all at once, and the crowd is cheering, laughing, and toasting.
Two couples flee to the dance floor, then four, then 10, then I lose count because I am among them, whisked from my table by a complete stranger, and doing the side-by-side Charleston before I can protest.
I see immediately that the Cotton Club is a time capsule, deeply concerned with preserving the past, and I remember that it did not always have a certain future.
Beatty claims that Columbia offered him $10 million to buy the club a decade ago, but he resisted their offer, fervently expressing that he plans to pass the establishment down to his grandsons. “It's a piece of history,” he says, with pride. “Why should I let it go?”
The effort on Columbia’s part to obtain the property didn’t stop there. The University’s original plans imagined transforming the Cotton Club land into a small park. Fearing that Columbia might petition the state to claim his land through eminent domain, Beatty went public with claims that Columbia wanted to get rid of the Cotton Club, alleging that “they don’t want black people to have any reason to be on their campus.”
The very next day, Dec. 12, 2007, then-Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin announced that Columbia was no longer pursuing the Cotton Club as part of the Manhattanville expansion project. Outside a City Council hearing, Kasdin explained the decision in vague terms: “There was a general sense that we heard that it would be a good idea to turn it into a park and then people took a closer [look] and decided that was not the way to go.”
This series of conflicts between the club and Columbia culminated in Section VIII. B. of the CBA. The section solidifies Kasdin’s promise to abandon the quest for the Cotton Club’s land with the clause: “CU shall not request that NYS exercise eminent domain to acquire the Cotton Club site.”
However, the outcome of the Cotton Club’s negotiations with Columbia was unique among those of similarly deep-rooted establishments in Manhattanville, many of which were ultimately pushed out by the University’s expansion. Floridita is one such establishment. The original renderings of the Manhattanville campus showed the Cuban diner nestled in the bottom floor of a new Manhattanville building. “This is great,” its owner of twelve years, Ramon Diaz, recalls thinking at the time. “They’re keeping the local businesses around, they’re accommodating.” Expecting to become a part of it, Diaz was initially “a big ra-ra supporter” of the expansion. But that never happened. In 2010, Floridita, which had occupied a Columbia-owned building on 129th and Broadway for 34 years, was forcibly relocated by Columbia. Floridita now resides on 125th Street and 12th Avenue.
I ask Diaz what has changed about Floridita since it’s move, and he shakes his head, releasing something like a chuckle mingled with a sigh. “In name, it still says Floridita, but it’s not what it used to be in any way, shape, or form.” Diaz was only able to keep about half of the 56 employees from his original diner, and even of that half, he explains that many “couldn’t acclimate” to the new status quo that now demands knowledge of a more expansive menu. “They couldn't transition from what they knew for 30 years, close to 40 in some cases, and make it work" he says.
By 2010, there were only two private businesses—the Singh family gas station and Tuck-it-away Storage—left on the project site, both of which were seized by eminent domain. Beatty, and his historic land, now excluded from the newest Manhattanville campus plans, stand out as a special case. The Cotton Club never left.
Despite the tumultuous era of early Manhattanville negotiations, the Cotton Club’s business has been largely unaffected by the Manhattanville expansion thus far. Beatty estimates that over 75 percent of his customers are tourists—which is about the same percentage as it was 41 years ago. (He attributes his customer demographics to what he terms the “Statue of Liberty effect": “I’ve been here for 41 years and I’ve never been to see the statue of liberty! So the locals, they feel like, ‘Oh we got plenty of time to go to the Cotton Club.’”)
Beatty says he’s seen a lot of neighboring businesses go under in the forty one years that he’s been operating the club, and he thinks it’s due to the ever-climbing cost of rent in the area. “That's one reason I'm able to stay here, because I own the property,” he explains. Even though the club’s business has been mostly undisturbed by Manhattanville, Frank Hernandez, Business and Financial Advisor of the Cotton Club for 35 years, tells me that the club has “already seen” an increase in property taxes since the construction began.
I ask Beatty if what he said about Columbia wanting to push him out to preserve a “lily-white campus” still feels true today. He replies,“maybe it’s not still true, but deep down inside, that’s the way I feel.” He says he doesn’t harbor any resentment towards Columbia, and he looks forward to the completion of the Manhattanville campus. “It’s gonna generate a lot of foot traffic,” he says, “so we’re gonna be working in harmony with Columbia.”
In the Cotton Club that Monday night, I sit flanked by a British family on my right and a group of about 50 French tourists on my left. “This is our living room,” the MC remarks during a musical interlude, and as all the customers join hands on the dancefloor to celebrate the final number, it does feel like a familial bond has been crystallized somewhere between the soul food and the tap dance and the communal singing of “Ride Sally Ride.”
Have fun leafing through our eighth issue!