The Manhattan Casino, an embodiment of nostalgia in the city’s African-American community, has also become a symbol of disappointment.
The offshoot of a Harlem soul food restaurant failed on the historic site. So did a concept fusing Caribbean and soul. Now another idea to revive the once vibrant space also appears to be on its way out.
As I thought about the uncertain fate of the historic Manhattan Casino, it seemed necessary to look back at how it all began. Well, not all the way back. Not to the beginning, in 1925, when it was built by successful African-American businessman Elder Jordan.
I thought I’d try to find out more about how and why the Manhattan Casino at 642 22nd St. S was resurrected after it fell into disrepair.
For that, I spoke with Goliath Davis III, the city’s first African-American Police Chief, who became its first deputy mayor with a portfolio for Midtown – as the predominantly Black and underserved area of St. Petersburg was christened during Mayor Rick Baker’s administration.
“It was my project when we were working with Midtown economic development,” Davis said of the venue. “I had a desire to look at our community from an asset perspective versus a pathology perspective, because typically, the media would write about and talk about the pathology in Midtown – crime, etcetera.”
Baker was a keen student of history, he said, so they looked at Midtown from a historical perspective and saw that it had “a plethora of assets.” The mission became to restore and repurpose those sites.
Davis plotted the plan for me. Going south, he started at the historic Seaboard Coastline Railroad Station at 420 22nd St. S.
“Then you had the Manhattan Casino. You had Mercy Hospital, which we ended up having to tear down part of it, but we kept the wing that was historical, and we had the (Dr. Robert) Swain building on 15th Avenue and 22nd Street, and directly across from that was Doctor’s Pharmacy. Continuing south there was Dr. Clark’s office. He was an African-American dentist. South of that was Dr. Fred Alsup’s office.”
Davis continued: “If you turned right at Ninth Avenue and 22nd Street, you ran into the closed Jordan Elementary School. The building had been condemned. It was renovated and repurposed for Head Start. As part of the redevelopment, we got an occupant for the train station. We refurbished the Manhattan Casino.”
Actually, though, only three of the building’s four exterior walls are original. Those, said Davis, are the north, south and west walls.
“The east wall, we had to tear down and refurbish. Everything else was torn down. We had to redo the roof. We redid the dance floor. Downstairs, when we tore up that flooring, we left just sand and dirt.”
The reason was, he said, to give a hoped-for restaurant flexibility to design its space. The project cost $2.8 million, a sum Davis said was well worth it to preserve the landmark on the historic African-American entertainment and business corridor of 22nd Street S, also known as the Deuces. Federal funds helped with the renovation.
The project was an important part of the plans for Midtown’s economic development, Davis said.
“If you go back to my tag line, ‘Continuing the Progress,’ I reached back and built on assets that came about during the Fischer administration. When everybody was criticizing him for planting trees and the infrastructure improvements, rather than look at that and criticize it, we built on it.”
He said the Midtown economic development initiative went on to create a business assistance center to help current and emerging business owners in the community.
“We worked to ensure that they had a sounding board; they had some place to go when they were experiencing difficulties; they had thought partners; they had assistance in writing business plans. The mission of the business assistance center was modified to some extent and totally diminished under subsequent administrations, so individuals who were competing for, and opening businesses, no longer had the access previously provided,” Davis said.
“Facilities like the Manhattan Casino in Midtown deserve equal consideration to be nurtured and supported financially and otherwise, just like those at other facilities in other development areas of the larger city that benefit from special connections and concessions. But you also need at least competent operators.”
The old Manhattan Casino closed in 1968, after decades as a popular entertainment and cultural venue during segregation. Musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald performed there.
Davis, who was too young to go inside at the time, said he would stand outside and listen.
“I remember it during the dance hall days,” he said. “People had their proms there.”
The popular Sno-Peak, which sold hamburgers, chicken gizzards and milk shakes, was across the street.
The Manhattan Casino would eventually go through several iterations before it eventually closed, Davis said.
As he observes the latest crisis besetting the historic venue, Davis notes that attempts to rejuvenate the site spanned several mayors. “We started with Baker, then Foster to Kriseman,” he said.
Now it’s on Mayor Ken Welch’s watch, the city’s first Black mayor, who, I suspect, probably feels the pressure more than any previous leader.
I sensed frustration as I listened to a hastily organized community conversation by the Urban Collective, which partnered with the most recent Manhattan Casino aspirants – the Callaloo Group. They owe rent for the city-owned building and blame it on a series of unfortunate circumstances, including broken air conditioning that prevented them from renting the lucrative upstairs event space, and months of road work that discouraged customers.
The city is closing the facility for repairs and will determine what happens next. Would a sophisticated version of a Sno-Peak work? An Atwaters? Perhaps a Shirley’s Soul Food?
Davis says he’s not ready to give up on the Manhattan Casino: “As the book of Ecclesiastes says, ‘Everything has a season.’ And the Manhattan Casino’s season is there. We haven’t realized it yet, but I firmly believe that given its history, like the phoenix, it will rise from the ashes.”