Pioneering Black Celebrity Enclave Gets Landmark Status

Addisleigh Park in New York City was home to Basie, Billie, Dizzy, Ella, Jackie, Lena and Louis when housing options for affluent African Americans were limited by racial covenants.

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Dr. William McKinney was thrilled when he heard the news that his neighborhood, Addisleigh Park, would be officially recognized as a historic district. On the first day of Black History Month, the honor was bestowed by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on a community that was once home to some of the best and brightest creative people and intellectuals ever assembled in one place.

A cozy, picturesque enclave of predominantly black St. Albans, in southeast Queens, Addisleigh Park became home to scores of uniquely talented African-American residents. World-famous entertainers, history-making athletes and high-achieving professionals in a variety of fields overcame the racism of the time to create rich lifestyles despite the fact that they were not wanted, and by doing so, they turned a page in the history of blacks in the city.

The landmarked area -- which to this day maintains its architectural integrity and charm -- comprises 422 neatly landscaped English Tudor homes and other classic designs. The community is most celebrated for its "history that illuminates African Americans' struggle for, and achievement of, the basic civil right of homeownership," according to LPC Chairman Robert Tierney.

The historic district is a roughly 80-acre (less than one square mile) triangular area in a section of Queens long dominated by African Americans, who have been joined more recently by people of Caribbean background. The St. Albans Congregational Church, located at the western corner of the historic neighborhood, opted out of the landmark designation.

Landmark status is meant to preserve the community's unique architecture by requiring the LPC's approval of major exterior alterations. While the new rules worry some residents, old-timer and jazz aficionado McKinney is unfazed. He bought his home more than 50 years ago from legendary heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, and considers the designation a "great honor, damn it, and I want my name in there."

McKinney, a retired dentist, spent many an hour at the bar in the basement of his home, talking music and sampling his collection of thousands of jazz albums with tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, who lived down the street. Louisiana-born Jacquet was the first jazz musician to serve as artist-in-residence at Harvard, in 1983. But he was more famous for his solo on "Flying Home," whose honks and grunts inspired R&B musicians. "He used to stop by all the time," said McKinney.

From Harlem to the Middle Class

In the late 1940s and early '50s, Addisleigh Park was a mecca for black entertainers, iconic athletes and upscale professionals. But despite myths to the contrary, the majority of families living there were middle income and included teachers, beauticians, salesmen, contractors and a variety of civil servants. Six-figure-a-year bandleaders and vocalists socialized at home with $1,500-a-year salaried employees.

Perhaps the most sparkling talent in the neighborhood was Lena Horne -- singer, actor and star of movies, Broadway and television -- who was blackballed in the 1950s and prevented from working because of her political views and civil rights activism. She overcame the injustice to reach new heights during her remaining 30-year career.

There were so many greats: Milt Hinton, the master bass player, as well as iconic vocalists Billie Holiday (Lady Day), who popularized the protest song "Strange Fruit"; Ella Fitzgerald (the First Lady of Song), winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and James Brown (the Godfather of Soul), who arrived in the 1960s, singing, "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud."