Ella and Billie sang there. Basie swung there…and James Brown boogied down there.
For more than a generation, one neighborhood was home to some of the most famous African-American entertainers, athletes, and businesspeople. And the neighborhood once known as “the Black Hollywood East” has now been designated a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
The designation of this vibrant, attractive neighborhood of beautifully landscaped, turn-of-the-century English Tudor and other classically designed homes is a celebration of the rich history of the community and “illuminates African-Americans’ struggle for and achievement of the basic civil right of home ownership,” according to the commission.
The Landmark designation also means that the unique character and architecture of the neighborhood will be preserved, because the LPC will have to approve any major alterations to houses including extensions or significant changes to the facades.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Addisleigh Park was the home of some of the biggest-named entertainers and athletes of their time. One of the first Black residents of the neighborhood was Thomas “Fats” Waller, who came to the neighborhood in the 1930s. Other entertainers followed his lead, including Count Basie, who held legendary pool parties at his home with his wife Catherine; Duke Ellington’s son and band leader, Mercer Ellington; and other jazz greats including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Brooke Benton. The Godfather of Soul lived there in the 1960s and 1970s–he built a moat around his home. And baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella called the neighborhood home. Dr. William McKinney, who bought his Addisleigh Park home more than 50 years ago from legendary heavyweight champion Joe Louis, said “I think it’s great, and dammit, I want my name in there too.”
Addisleigh Park was one of the first suburban-style neighborhoods where Black people could live in New York City. Located in the Southeast Queens neighborhood of St. Albans, the enclave lies in a rough triangle bounded by Linden Boulevard on the south, 112th Avenue on the north, 180th Street on the east and Merrick Boulevard on the west. The triangle-shaped St. Albans Congregational Church–where Fitzgerald once prayed–is also located within the neighborhood’s boundaries but is not included in the landmarking designation.
Addisleigh Park and St. Albans are important neighborhoods because they were the first places that offered African-Americans the opportunity to share in the so-called American dream of a home and a yard. Kenneth Austin, a Manhattan lawyer who grew up in Queens, remembers the neighborhood from his youth, when his family owned a house on 174th Street. His grandfather built their former family home in 1928, and the property stayed in the family for more than fifty years until the 1970s. “This is a wonderful opportunity for community to be recognized,” said Austin. “Every other historic community has received recognition.”
During and after the Harlem Renaissance, Sugar Hill and Strivers’ Row became home to many Black luminaries such as Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall and others, said Roscoe Brown, who heads the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Education Policy.
But, as time went on and it became more fashionable to live in suburbia, many Blacks began moving to Queens in search of houses over apartments, and big backyards for their kids to play in, said Greg Mays, who grew up in St. Albans and whose family owns a home in Addisleigh Park. Mays, the former president of the Addisleigh Park Civic Association, has been a leader of the campaign for landmark status. His parents, both educators who raised their family in neighboring St. Albans, restored and moved into an Addisleigh Park home in the late 1980s. The Mays family are typical Addisleigh Park residents–for generations the neighborhood has been home to both middle- and upper-income Black families.
In addition to being a home to legendary figures, Addisleigh Park was important to Black people because, in the 1950s, racial covenants which prohibited Blacks from owning certain homes were overturned in the neighborhood.
Artist Brent Baylor, a second-generation owner in Addisleigh Park, remembered the white neighbors’ response to his father’s purchase of a home in 1948. “The people on the block voted on whether to allow us to move in, and, of the 24 families, only one voted in our favor,” Baylor recalled. “That family became our best friends.”
Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the restrictive covenants unconstitutional, officially lifting a legal–if not the only–barrier to equal opportunity for Blacks in housing. “Even before the decision, white owners and Black buyers were making deals in defiance of the covenants, and, as more Blacks moved in, ‘white flight’ increased,” says percussionist Bill Jacobs, whose family came to the neighborhood in 1950.
The Supreme Court victory was attended by mounting activism among African-Americans and their allies for equality in all aspects of American life.
Psychologist Regina Meacham, whose late father, the prominent Harlem attorney Thornton Meacham, moved his family to Addisleigh Park in 1952, warmly recalled her childhood as peaceful and protected, insulated from the racial storms swirling around the country. “The struggle wasn’t over in the north, and probably not even in New York,” she said. “But it was over for us in Addisleigh Park.”