Odd Fellows at the Rockland Palace
The Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression intersected at the Rockland Palace.
You’re at the Rockland Palace, sitting fifty feet above ground in a gilded mezzanine. You’re looking down at two long tables each set for one-hundred-fifty guests. It’s the Depression in Harlem. You’re starving. Surrounding the table are three tiers of balconies soaring straight up to the ceiling and packed to capacity. The ceiling is painted like the heavens, giving those, like you, who are furthest away from the table the illusion of paradise. The table below is so full of food it’s nearly collapsing. Waiters rush around producing limitless trays, serving bells, bowls of hot corn and corn bread so fresh you can see the steam rising. And the guests at the table, it’s a rainbow coalition: blacks, whites, Jews, Catholics, and the Lord is in the house.
Father Divine stands and welcomes everyone to the banquet. He is a short, merry man in a gabardine suit, smiling under a tidy mustache. You feel warm. Soon, you, too, will be invited to the table. And while you are watching, too rapt by the scene below to notice, your foot knocks a tube of dusty old lipstick under your seat; and under your neighbor’s seat is a generous but withered brassier insert; and down the row, under another seat, are fragments of a golden wig, each of these objects left over from some other time and forgotten. And somewhere in Kansas, a teenaged Charlie Parker is practicing his sax, hoping to one day bask in the glow of stage lights, which will be these stage lights, though much later and long after you have eaten and left.
The Rockland Palace sat on the street that divides Harlem from Washington Heights—155th and Frederick Douglass Avenue. During the course of its life, this Romanesque-style theater served as a community center, a sports stadium, a drag ballroom, a utopian banquet hall, a bebop and blues stage, a roller rink, and probably uncountable other things, mini-phases of use in a continually shifting space. The history of Prohibition, the Harlem Renaissance, the Depression, all run through the Rockland Palace, though it is now a giant parking lot. Of course, this happens all the time. Neither is it unique that the Rockland Palace was once refuge of many paradoxical inhabitants—queer people and celibate Christians not least among them. I mean, what building which survives for more than a couple of decades does not contain multitudes?
In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas proposes that it is the city’s grid which provides the pressure cooker-quality for such distinct phases in the city’s public life. Each block, he says, becomes an impenetrable “urban unit” which is “immune to totalitarian invasion.” The city changes only through a “mosaic of episodes.” It finds a way where there is no way to evolve without conquest, even under conditions that mimic conquest—like urban renewal or parking lots. And so the buildings must (this is me thinking now) shift the way the blocks do, like a mosaic. Mosaics are lateral—they do not represent forward or backward movement, nor a genealogy, but rather a whole, incongruous world on a single surface.
The Rockland Palace begins for me with Father Divine, not because his was the first or most important use of the building, but simply because it is through Father Divine that the building became visible to me at all.
Father Divine came to me, as many things have, by accident while walking through the library stacks. I was in graduate school at the University of Wyoming, looking for a book about Pentecostal celebrity preacher, Aimee Semple McPherson, and across the aisle was this irresistible name on a variety of books: Father Divine and the Struggle for Racial Equality; God Comes to America; Blacks and the New World. I grabbed a couple of titles off the shelf and then never got around to much more than flipping through them: Divine was the leader of the International Peace Mission Movement, a utopian Christian religious community more or less established in 1919 and still going today, which hinges their practice on racial integration and communal socialism as a way to build heaven on earth. Also, Father Divine claimed to be the second coming of Christ, which is to say, God.
Divine encouraged his followers to cooperatively invest in businesses and divide profits among themselves. In the mid-1920s, he started his first interracial commune in a big house in Brooklyn, where everyone lived under strict rules to abstain from substances, gambling, and (though the extent of this is not clear to me) sex. When the surrounding community eventually had him arrested for public disturbance, and then the judge overseeing his arraignment died suddenly from a heart-attack (“Divine retribution!” papers tittered), Divine’s movement was thrust into the limelight and he moved his ministry to Harlem in 1931.
In the blocks between 125th and 155th Street, he bought up buildings—apartments, churches, hotels—and turned them into Peace Houses, inexpensive, integrated living spaces, which were part of the communal trust. Within months, he was a celebrity, delivering a sermon to ten thousand people at Rockland Palace, followed by a banquet there, and another, and another.
According to the 1939 New York Times article, “It’s Not All Swing in Harlem,” Father Divine’s Peace missions provided room and board more cheaply to the Depression-era populace than almost any other service in the city. The banquets at Rockland Palace were part of this, where “[a] full meal (chicken dinner) costs 15 cents,” and beyond that, “Shoes are shined for 3 cents in Peace shops. Laundries, dress shops, barber shops, groceries and fruit stands have almost unbelievably low rates. The Krum Elbow estate up on the Hudson provides work for hundreds, as do the other farms, and fresh eggs, milk and vegetables pour into New York City daily on Peace trucks.” Divine was against the social safety nets provided by the New Deal; the safety, instead, would come through Him. One of his Peace Mission buildings on 126th Street displayed a sign that read: “‘No true Divine follower on relief! Saved the city $20,000,000 since 1932!’”
The Rockland Palace banquets were huge, elaborate spreads—and in old film footage, they look like those midcentury cookbook pictures, all red/pink light and pineapple towers pinned to sweaty meats. The hall is packed. At one point, for three minutes straight, the camera is trained on Father Divine and he is passing out tureen after tureen after tureen, plate after plate after plate, almost as though on a conveyor belt, sending piles of chicken and greens and bread down the table.
An article about Gladys Bentley pops up on my Facebook feed. I follow the article to a Gladys Bentley digital archive. I keep the tab open in my browser in the way you do with things you don’t want to forget, but have no immediate use for. Bentley was a Harlem drag king in the 1920s, and I read about her fascinating life, her marriage to a woman, her performance routine in a white tuxedo and top hat.
Then while I am looking for images of Rockland Palace a week later, I find one from the 1970s right before the structure was demolished. It looks shabby with a sagging awning stretched to the street like a sad hotel. Next to this image is another one with a common tag: it’s Gladys Bentley.
Gladys Bentley was among the Rockland Palace’s common performers, “a bulky piano player and singer of low-down ditties” (says a bygone listing in the Niagra Falls Gazette). She sang dirty songs, dressed in her signature tuxedo. She took blues standards from the time, songs written mostly by men, and parodied them. She tipped her hat. At the time, Harlem was home to a robust drag scene. A mostly black queer fraternal organization called the Hamilton Lodge which held drag balls—the brightest and best of their kind—at a number of venues, though the biggest of these were at the Rockland Palace.
The full chapter name of the group was Hamilton Lodge No. 710 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in Harlem. They had been hosting balls since the 19th century, but in the decade after the WWI they were hot shit—and everyone came to see, even quivering white people from downtown. Inside the baroque ballroom were competitions, dancing, music, feathers, lipstick, golden wigs, big brassiers. Celebrities came. The aristocracy came. Langston Hughes wrote that during this 1920s tourism boom of Harlem, “it was fashionable for the intelligentsia and the social leaders of both Harlem and the downtown area to occupy boxes at this ball and look down from above at the queerly assorted throng on the dancing floor.”
This was not only pre-Stonewall, but pre-War. Patterns of conservatism do not run in a straight line upward, nor down. Same goes for patterns of progress. Things get better, then retrench.
The fifties was a time of retrenchment. Queers and commies go underground. A feature by Bentley in Ebony proclaims “I am A Woman Again.” In photos she wears a house dress, prepares dinner, turns back bedsheets. She says she is married to a man, though the man in question denies this later. She is still recording music and she owns a house. She becomes deeply involved in The Temple of Love in Christ, Inc, and is even in the process of seeking ordination when she dies in the early sixties.
Though when I look for the roots of the Temple of Love in Christ, Inc, now, literally the only mention of this church I can find is in connection to her name.
For Father Divine, real estate was central to the creation of heaven on earth. Real estate had metaphysical implications. Rockland Palace was the site of the paschal feast, the eucharist, the last supper, everyone brought to the same level.
During the years of the banquets, he endorsed the Communist Party of the USA. (Later of course, he changes his mind.) But Rockland Palace, the sermons and the banquets, were a vision of a kind of American communism in action, as well as communion.
During the video of one of those old banquets, a voiceover of his sermon overlays the scene—the packed palace, the feasting followers. In the sermon he says, “Now I would like to say once again, as I said yesterday, it has long since been declared that the MESHIACH—the MESSIAH, the CHRIST—was to come, and when HE comes you will get your money that the people owe you. Isn’t that true? You know they told you that! Now aren’t you all getting your money from everyone who is converted to ME?”
They were surviving the Depression, weren’t they? What could they say?
Then Divine moves the Mission to Philly, and the Rockland Palace gets used as a musical performance space. Ray Charles plays. BB King and John Lee Hooker play. Many others play, though no one in drag, and the audiences are not mixed, not really. Rockland Palace starts hosting the big annual “Down Home Ball,” which is quite different than the balls from before.
In 1952, Charlie Parker plays there. He was fucked up on smack. He would die in two years, a ravaged old man in a thirty-five-year-old’s body. Here he was, doing his thing—changing music forever. He didn’t believe in God, but he believed in bebop. McCarthy witch hunts were on. The night Parker plays, it’s allegedly one of his best performances. It’s part of a benefit for Communist and city councilman, Benjamin Davis, who at that moment is serving time.
That Parker and Divine have ties to Communism, though opposite theological positions, is interesting. That Bentley pressed the boundaries of sexuality at the same place that Divine would later espouse a sexless utopia, is interesting. That the heteronormative Harlem of Parker's tenure did not realize they were bumping up against the Prohibition-era gender-bending Harlem of Bentley’s tenure, is interesting. Rockland Palace provides a common surface for all of that history, though the histories are not indebted to one another. Rather, the Rockland is like the last supper, though the supper guests were all present at different times, specters at the table, and all of them invited: the sexual outlaw, the addict, the charlatan.
Today, the parking lot advertises long-term Yankee Stadium spots—the stadium itself gleaming out of eyeshot over the Harlem River. I walk along the sidewalk. Overhead are the kingly white rails of the Macombs Bridge.
It’s not just Rockland Palace that was demolished in the 70s, but the whole south side of the street: the stretch of 155th Street between Frederick Douglass and Macombs Avenue is all pavement, and all behind chain-link fences.
Today, men are working in the lot. Cement trucks. City workers? At the far edge of the lot is a white, curlicue railing against a staircase that brings you up to street level with the Macombs Bridge. It’s funny to think the bridge was always here, loud and rickety above those big parties, the banquets, the music. It’s bright blue today—and, ah, there is the stadium! I walk and take pictures. Pass Colonel Charles Young park, Thurgood Marshall Academy, “black lives matter” on the small marquee of St. Matthew’s Baptist Church.
America (I find myself thinking) can’t seem to remember anything, like, really remember—not slavery, not fascism, not urban renewal, not pre-Stonewall queer New York. This is just a random sampling. And if we did remember? That a black man claimed to be the one who died for everyone’s sins, in Harlem, before the War? What would we say? That he may as well have been, that if Jesus came back, it’d probably be just like before when 99% of people at the time said, “Who is this freakshow?” And what of his ideas of peace, itself a kind of drag? What if we remembered Bentley, messing with all those lyrics, fucking up the male gaze, and all her friends around, whooping and hollering and singing along?
In 2012 there was a successful “re-occupation” of the old grounds of Rockland Palace—a tent was put up, a Kiki ball was thrown—mostly African American and Latino LGBTQ youth. They pulled it off, re-occupied the space as it was once used, and then it was gone.
You’re in Harlem and it’s the Recession. You’re a spectator on the sidelines in a folding chair, watching a non-binary teenager in leopard-print lamé sashay down a stage before a panel of judges. It is a hot, muggy summer night—the bodies on the stage are stamping and pounding, athletically dancing, voguing, whipping their arms with serpentine precision. Everyone around you is whooping and hollering and singing along. Someone’s arm clips your ear as they pump their fist. The drag queens are sweaty and exhausted, and dancing on anyway. It is so hot outside you feel you might collapse. Around you is the crowd, and beyond the edges of the crowd is a parking lot, the asphalt ringing with the day’s heat. There are some cars. There is some garbage. There is a sense that even this is not the end.
Adrian Shirk is the author of And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy, a hybrid-memoir exploring the lives of American women prophets and mystics, named an NPR ‘Best Book’ of 2017. She's currently working on a manuscript about utopian communities. Shirk was raised in Portland, Oregon, and has since lived in New York and Wyoming. She's a frequent contributor to Catapult, and her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, among others. Currently, she teaches in Pratt Institute’s BFA Creative Writing Program, and lives on the border of the Bronx and Yonkers with her husband Sweeney and Quentin the cat.