Did you see William C. Rhoden’s wild column, D-League Team Could Bring Rens Back To Harlem, in the New York Times today?
It will likely make you disappointed in David Stern and his N.B.A., or the Rev. Calvin Butts III and his Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC). Or both. Stern for his seeming insincerity, and Butts for his seemingly blind capitalism.
Rhoden is a well known sports writer; he’s the guy who wrote Forty Million Dollar Slaves, that great book which explains why highly-paid athletes (NBA and other sports) have no clue about how powerless and vulnerable they really are. The veteran columnist says that N.B.A. commissioner David Stern claims he wants to put an N.B.A. Development League (D-League) team in Harlem. “The Knicks are all over it,” says Stern.
But if so, then the only place that team should play, says Rhoden, is at the old, once-famous Renaissance Ballroom and Casino on the corner of 138th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. That’s where legendary New York Renaissance, a.k.a. the Harlem Rens basketball team used to play.
That building has been vacant and boarded up since the late-1970s and since 1991 its owner, the Abyssinian Baptist Church (and its related ADC), have squandered opportunities to bring the structure back to life as the magnificent jewel of Harlem that it once was.
For years the surrounding community, and Harlem extended, had been hoping to protect the rich cultural heritage of the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino by having it designated as a historical landmark.
For years, Butts, supposedly the local community leader, fought to block any efforts to memorialize and preserve the place while it rotted away.
Owned and operated by African-American entrepreneurs, the Renaissance was Harlem’s first multi-purpose entertainment complex where movies, plays, assemblies, dancing, and sports could be enjoyed. At a time when black people were forced to sit in the balconies at racially segregated theaters in their own communities, the Renaissance promoted itself as the first and only theater in New York City “built by Colored capital and owned and managed by Colored people.”
The Rens, the brainchild of team owner and Hall of Fame member Robert Douglas, featured Hall of Fame players Charles “Tarzan” Cooper and William “Pop” Gates, as well as others deserving of enshrinement, including 93-year-old John Isaacs, who is still living (and working every day as a counselor at a Boys and Girls Club). The Rens dominated basketball from the late 1920s through the early 1940s and won the inaugural World’s Professional Basketball Tournament championship in 1939 by beating America’s ten best white teams.
Butts, who is no fool, knew that landmark designation would prevent his plans to tear down the building and replace it with high-paying condos.
Rhoden, the sentimental dreamer, says he can see a new Renaissance basketball team playing in Harlem, at the old ballroom.
Stern, the patronizing saint, thinks he is teaching us something. “Harlem represents a basketball tradition that for decades and decades and decades has given the N.B.A. so many players,” Stern explained to Rhoden. Really?!
Earlier this year, as reported in the New York Times, Butts and ADC successfully defeated landmark designation once and for all.
They did it with the unprecedented help of some surprisingly influential (but disappointing) supporters. The Landmarks Commission voted 6-1 against landmark protection after hearing opposing arguments from the Municipal Arts Society, the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Historic Districts Council, and, of all people, former New York City Mayor Dinkins. Landmark designation “would create insurmountable obstacles to bringing ballroom and the cultural space back to life,” they argued.
The voices of the people of Harlem couldn’t stop the full scale sell out.
“It’s a great mistake to feel that modern development needs to crowd out the great history,” Morningside Heights Historic District Committee member Carolyn Kent told the New York Sun.
As Chris Rock would say, “Grand opening! Grand closing!”
ADC will gut the historic interiors of the structure and build a 19-story condo tower in its place, which reportedly will have 112 units, 27,000 square feet of cultural and performance space, 10,000 square feet of community space and 10,000 square feet of commercial space.
Some parts of the building’s facade might remain for show.
Back to basketball. Although they won’t play at the Renaissance Ballroom, of course, I would be delighted if the D-League brought the Rens back to Harlem. Fans of the Black Fives brand, especially those from Harlem, have sought an NBA-Black Fives brand collaboration for a long time because it could enable the advancement of many culturally and historically enriching basketball-related initiatives.
Major League Baseball has a long standing collabo with the Negro Leagues, and it has worked OK.
People would be really excited if something like that did go down.
How do you feel about it?