A Piece of Harlem History Turns to Dust

The Renaissance Theater and Casino in Harlem, where Duke Ellington performed, Joe Louis slugged opponents and the Black Fives basketball team called the Harlem Rens dominated games, is now mostly in piles of brick, metal and dust.

The developers who bought the property had hoped to salvage the tiles but now will not.

The developers who bought the property had hoped to salvage the tiles but now will not.

Efforts to preserve the building known as the Renny, which opened in 1921 and was at the heart of African-American culture at a time when racial segregation laws undermined black achievement, were the subject of a Dec. 21, 2014, Metropolitan article. Protesters stood outside the vacant theater on Sunday mornings for weeks, seeing in its demise yet another lost piece of Harlem culture. They organized a petition drive that garnered more than 1,000 signatures, calling on city officials to support the preservation effort. Though the block long brick structure along Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard at West 137th Street, adorned with North-African inspired mosaics, was considered for landmark status years ago, it never earned the designation.

The push to save the building came to an end on March 30, when the new owners began to tear it down.

“It sort of feels like a death in the family,” said Claude Johnson, founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation, a group devoted to the history of black basketball players and teams before the game was integrated. Mr. Johnson, who took part in the preservation effort, has returned again and again to the site as demolition slowly reduces the Renny to rubble.

“I am just going there out of sorrow because I felt like you pay your last respects,” Mr. Johnson said.

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