When Claude Pettus thinks about what Kentucky Avenue used to be, he wants to cry.
Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughn once headlined there, and stylish crowds of African-American residents and visitors filled the streets nightly. Black-owned businesses were everywhere in Atlantic City’s Northside — 37 beauty parlors and barbershops alone.
“We had everything we needed right here. We didn’t have to leave Atlantic City for anything,” Pettus said.
Once the epicenter of this seaside Harlem, Kentucky Avenue is a grim reminder of the urban decay that has gripped the city for decades. There has been talk of rebuilding the area or at least memorializing its historical significance, but funding has always been an issue.
And some see the avenue’s neglect as a continuation of racial lines — invisible, but still real — that once kept blacks on the Northside from crossing Atlantic Avenue unless they were going to work.
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“Back in its heyday, people were coming from all over the world to see Kentucky Avenue, and today they don’t even want to drive down the street,” Pettus, 53, said.
He’s sitting in a chair in Sonny Lea’s barbershop, getting a shape-up.
Lea’s shop, opened in 1969, is the last remaining business on what was once the bustling Kentucky Avenue. Before he took it over, it was Sap’s Restaurant, a famous barbecue joint.
“But 95 percent of the buildings are gone, and it kind of hurts. Sonny’s here is the last, and he’s been cutting my hair since I was 5,” Pettus said.
Pettus was too young to ever get inside Club Harlem and see Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington or Billie Holiday perform, but he remembers being on the street and watching the glamorous crowds roll by, the smell of ribs wafting all the way to the Westside.
At some point, Pettus and the other local children would have to go home.
“When we went to bed, we all knew it was time for our moms and dads to go on out there,” Pettus said.
For many that would be a night at Club Harlem, where Patty Harris and the club’s revue dancers would wait behind a red door for the booming word that would send them bounding out onto the stage.
It was a word that capsulized everything the club and the avenue had come to represent.
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Harris danced at Club Harlem in the late 1950s. Now 79 and still living in the city, she remembers it vividly. It saddens her to know that a parking lot is all that remains of the famous club.
Kentucky Avenue’s decline began in the 1970s, part of the general demise of the city as a whole, but hastened by a vicious shooting at Club Harlem that killed five people and wounded 25 on April 2, 1972, Easter Sunday.
The arrival of gambling only made things worse, as the casinos lured away the acts and the crowds, thus ensuring money that used to be spent in the black community was now feeding the new halls, said historian Ralph Hunter.
“CRDA and casinos are the cause of what happened here on Kentucky Avenue and in this city,” said Pettus, who began working in the casinos when he 16 years old.
Atlantic City Democratic Committee member and Zoning Board member Glenn Banfield sees Kentucky Avenue’s decline as proof of the historical exclusion of the resort’s black community.
“The black community is treated like a stepchild. Fast-forward to now and everything included in the Do AC ads, you would think there are no black people in Atlantic City,” Banfield said.
Today there is a new tourism district in Atlantic City, but so far what’s been built along Kentucky Avenue and in nearby areas of the new tourism district seems focused elsewhere — as if giving the avenue its back — say Pettus and Hunter.
In 2011, development group Polaris proposed turning Kentucky Avenue into an entertainment district. Those plans, headed up by community activist Steve Young and Cornell Davis, never came to fruition.
In 2012, CRDA introduced redevelopment plans for Kentucky Avenue in the city’s master plan in February 2012, but little has been done.
The plan’s stated goal was to “offer a historical connection and pay homage to a rich era of the past.” CRDA planned to push for the development of nightclubs, restaurants, bars and theaters where Pacific and Atlantic avenues cross Kentucky.
Elaine Shapiro Zamansky, a CRDA spokeswoman, said nothing has been done regarding the proposed project. She was unable to find out if it is still being considered.
CRDA’s ambitious plans included adding radio stations, lighting, recording studios as an homage to its musical past, encouraging redevelopment of existing buildings and creating a “Stars of Atlantic City” program to honor past and present entertainers.
None of that has happened, including plans to stamp stars in the sidewalks honoring those giants of the avenue.
There are historical markers in the sidewalk along Kentucky Avenue, four of them, commemorating Club Harlem, Ike’s Record Shop, The Smoke Shop and Sap’s Restaurant.
You can see them — along with the cigarette butts and other litter that frames them — if you ever decide to visit.
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