L. Kasimu Harris walked into Art’s, one of the oldest still-living African-American bars in Pittsburgh, with the hope of photographing some of its patrons, but he knew it wouldn’t be that simple. For one, he didn’t look like anyone in there. Harris, an artist and writer, donned none of the black-and-gold Steelers gear that is standard dress code around these parts. The burgundy beret on his head suggested that he might have just flown in from Paris or some other artsy-fartsy place. But Harris had already penetrated Pittsburgh’s black bar scene, having shot at the Black Beauty Lounge and Jay’s in the city’s historic Hill District, both of which he approached without advanced notice, and dressed just as boldly.
The half-dozen or so barflies sitting in Art’s this brisk late-February afternoon didn’t initially absorb him into their chuckling circle, but in less than an hour, Harris was huddled with Art’s owner, Caren Miller, who at first addressed his photography requests cautiously. But Harris was able to break the ice. Soon, he was taking in story after story from Miller about her own family’s black bar ownership lineage, which stretched back generations.
Harris honed his skill in navigating these kinds of not-always-inviting spaces while studying the history and landscape of black bars in his native New Orleans home. Over the last two years, he watched as several black-owned bars in his neighborhood shuttered, owing to various factors — Hurricane Katrina, gentrification, aging out, or some hybrid of all of the above.
He began shooting some of the bars that were still in business, which became the grist of his photo art series “Vanishing Black Bars & Lounges.” The series was inspired by the photographic journey that Birney Imes took through the Mississippi Delta to capture the quickly fading landscape of blues bars for his book Juke Joint. Harris debuted his “Vanishing Black Bars” exhibit at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh in January. His thesis is that the closing of black bars in New Orleans is fostering an erasure of the “ancestral DNA” of black New Orleanian culture that dwells within these dark often unassuming buildings.
“But as these bars shutter, culture is displaced, and in New Orleans, that has come with a rising fear that venerable traditions could be subject to new restrictions,” wrote Harris in an essay for The New York Times on his photo series.
CityLab spoke with Harris during his most recent visit to Pittsburgh, where he hopes to expand his purview of vanishing black bars beyond New Orleans and the Deep South. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
CityLab: I think some people are probably wondering how black bars are vanishing in a black city like New Orleans.
L. Kasimu Harris: I don’t think New Orleans is so black anymore to be honest with you, and I definitely don’t think we own as many businesses as people would think. We might have the population, but we’re not the biggest economic force in the city. And even within black communities, this culture is not important for everyone. If your parents did well and you lived in the suburbs, or you live really far uptown, this is not something that you probably would have participated in.
In Nelson George’s book The Death of Rhythm and Blues, he talked about that divide among black people from years ago, where instead of teaching your black kids the blues, you taught them classical piano because you were trying to ascend and be acclimated to a higher social status among white folk. I think if people could look at it for the genius that it is, in the stories that are told and the culture that pours out from these places—if you can look at it like that, we would have a much higher appreciation for it, and perhaps a more united front to serve and protect and preserve and promote this culture.
So you see black bars as being an essential part of the “ancestral DNA” of black New Orleanian culture that includes the second lines, jazz music...
And Black Masking Indians—yes. All of that is encompassed in these black bars. All communities need to be with their own kind at some point. That’s why you have Jewish community centers and Chinatowns, or why you have a gay bar. It’s not that you can’t be with anyone else, but it’s nice to be with your own sometimes, for a certain commonality. It’s a certain safe space that you have. And for black folks you need all of the safe spaces you can get.
Talk about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the disappearance of black bars.
A lot of people didn’t come back, and 80% of the city was devastated. A lot of the people who did come back were dealing with so much trauma while trying to rebuild amidst so much uncertainty, and city government didn’t always help people out. The diminished population really helped to shutter some black bars. Then you had some older bar owners who were like my mother: She owned a floral shop and was probably about 65 when Katrina happened. Katrina was the thing that took her out. Her health was already declining. But after Katrina, she just didn’t have the strength to reopen.
So, you come back from Katrina and you are trying to rebuild, but now you have all these laws in place or ordinances that don’t really make it easy for a small business. Katrina was a confluence of things happening for bars to not reopen, and, if you didn’t own your building, then you were at the expense of someone else who may be ready to let it go.
How does the history of black bars in New Orleans inform how and where black people gather and socialize today?
You have to go back to like the late 1800s, way before desegregation, when there were a lot of black spaces. One of the oldest on record is Economy Hall. You had a lot of these mutual aid societies, and these were groups that made sure that black people had proper burials. Basically it was like joining a co-op or joining an organization where you pool resources and pay dues. A lot of them owned buildings that had spaces where black people could meet to socialize, dance, and have a sip. Economy Hall dates back to about 1857 and then there was Pythian Temple, and San Jacinto Hall. These were black spaces because those were the only places where they could go. They couldn’t go to Bourbon Street or somewhere else. Those were the precursors to black bars. I think going to the neighborhood bar today is kind of like a return to going back to when there were mutual aid clubs.
What about the political currency rumored to circulate throughout New Orleans black bars?
I can’t talk about that, I mean I just don’t know. But you hear about people meeting up at Pampy’s or how you can go into Sweet Lorraine’s and see movers and shakers of the city, sitting and having drinks and socializing, but doing a lot of business too. For a lot of those things, if you didn’t have the social capital to move in those spaces, that was a large population of votes that you probably wouldn’t get if you were running for office.
How else has the city been complicit in black bars’ disappearance, beyond Katrina?
New Orleans makes its money off the backs of black folk, but they don’t reinvest it in black people. They almost have a zone of where tourists can and can’t go, like stick to the Quarter, but don’t go to this black bar or that black neighborhood. They know that people are coming down here for the Second Lines and for the food that a lot of black people are making. But black folk are not receiving any return on that investment. It’s almost like a bait and switch: Come down here for the black folk, but just don’t spend any money with them. So then a lot of your interactions with black people might be either as entertainment or as the help. We’ve got to get past that.