On any given day, all you were likely to find were a couple of spotted alley cats asleep on the banister, maybe a handful of tattered souls sipping warm beer out of the bottle, and always the sweet, antagonizing old lady behind the bar.
“How you be, baby?” she would ask. And then the jab. “Now where you been? And don’t give me no excuses, baby.”
Stay long enough and the street vendors would be by.
“Got tube socks. Two for a dollar. Stripes. Red, blue, yellow.”
I always felt for the vendors. Not so much because they were walking ghetto streets at midnight pawning umbrellas during a drought. More because of the tongue-lashing they were about to receive from that sweet old lady behind the bar.
It would start with a look.
And then, “Get on out of here. You got no respect. Find another way to support your habits. Not in my bar.”
On it would go. “I asked you to leave, didn’t I? So why you still here?”
Out of someone else’s mouth, you’d expect an ugly exchange of some kind, maybe a brawl. But a tongue-lashing from 82-year-old Gerri Oliver had only one result, and I’d seen it time and again–the offender would creep out slowly, deliberately, as though praying for salvation, head and shoulders hung with the look of a sad dog.
I met Oliver about half a year ago, when there was still some fight left in her. That first night, she took out an old postcard of her tavern and turned it over to write something on the back of it.
I said, “Gerri, you write just like my grandma.”
She stopped writing, looked up at me, and said, “Baby, I am your grandma.”
For the last 45 years Gerri Oliver has been owner of the Palm Tavern, once the hottest jazz club in the city and lately the last remaining window, no matter how filthy the panes, to Bronzeville’s swinging days as the “Black Metropolis.” It was the hangout for Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billie Holiday. Josephine Baker, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, and Dinah Washington. James Brown, Quincy Jones, and Willie Dixon. Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, and Dorothy Donegan.
And the list goes on.
Oliver says she likes to think about the “old cats and the old days,” but good luck getting her to talk about them. Some of the jazz greats she calls “obnoxious drunks,” others “petty and vain.” But she stops herself before going into detail. “They were my friends,” she says. And like a good friend, she takes the good with the bad and keeps the dirt under the rug.
“Gerri’s not one of these owners who throw their arms around celebrities for a picture to hang on the wall,” says architectural historian Andy Pierce, who helped compile a report nominating the Palm Tavern for the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois’ list of ten most endangered historic places. “Dizzy Gillespie, Josephine Baker–they came in to put their arms around Gerri.”
But the Palm Tavern was known for more than just music. In its heyday you might see Richard Wright sitting at a table with his notepad, or Langston Hughes after a day’s work at the Chicago Defender, whose offices were just up the street. It was Harold Washington’s political headquarters when he ran for mayor in 1983, and the site of the celebration after his victory. It was where Reverend Jesse Jackson held meetings before he started Operation PUSH, whose headquarters are a short walk from the tavern.
Until recently a photograph of a young Jesse in loose bohemian clothes, a straw hat balanced upon his Afro, was still propped up behind the bar.
But not for long.
The historic tavern and other businesses on 47th Street between Vincennes Avenue and King Drive have long been targeted for takeover by the city as part of a revitalization project spearheaded by Third Ward alderman Dorothy Tillman to transform the area into a blues entertainment district. In June Oliver ended a protracted legal battle by signing an agreement with the city. “What else could I do?” she says.
Her struggle is old news. The Reader, the Tribune, even the Washington Post have all run stories on it. The new news is simply this: it’s actually happened. After missing a July 2 deadline to evacuate the Palm Tavern, Oliver was physically removed from the premises the following day. A small crowd of neighbors gathered in the street to watch as the woman known to all as “Mama Gerri” was rushed out of the tavern, which had doubled as her home for the last ten years. Looking confused and scared, her sandals unstrapped and two plastic bags clutched to her chest, she was led by the arm to a waiting car by a couple of city officials. As friends called out “It’s not right” and “What about her cats, what about all her things?” three young men wrapped a chain around the handles of the double doors and secured it with a padlock, to which Oliver would have no key. From now on Oliver could enter her tavern only when a security guard let her in.
Area activist Harold Lucas, who was with Oliver when she was removed from the tavern, said the city had been overly aggressive with her.
“They barged in here,” Lucas said. “It was completely disrespectful.”
Through August 2, Oliver has daily access to the tavern from 10 AM to 6 PM in order to move her things out. The city is paying her $89,000 for the vintage cash register, the mirror beneath the famous murals on the east wall, and the stove that Joe Louis’s personal chef used to cook on. The Chicago Historical Society and the DuSable Museum are interested in the murals themselves and in Oliver’s old photo albums.
For the time being she’s living with a friend while she looks for a place in Bronzeville that allows pets. The city has agreed to pay the cost of storing her possessions, help her find a new place to live, and cover her moving expenses and rent for three years. And since the Tribune ran a piece last February reporting–wrongly, Oliver says–that she’d “fallen on hard times” and was sleeping on a mattress in a back room, the city has insisted paternally that it’s doing her a favor by moving her into new housing at taxpayers’ expense.
“I’m no pauper,” Oliver replied in frustration. “I have means. I don’t need their help.”
It could be said that the fight to save the Palm Tavern united activists, professors, students, and musicians nationwide. There were petitions, rallies, and letters to the mayor. But this makes the crusade sound like more than it was. A protest in May in front of Alderman Tillman’s office a block west of the tavern brought out about a dozen people. A news crew showed up, but with so few protesters the story never ran. A planned protest outside the mayor’s office never happened. Piles of petitions with thousands of names were “lost” and never recovered.
Just a week before the city took over the tavern, Bronzeville preservationist Paula Robinson staged a conference on ways to save it. Robinson had promised the attendance of not only Tillman but also Mayor Daley himself, but neither showed and only a handful of other people turned up. No editorials or columns championing the Palm Tavern appeared in the dailies, and no leader capable of uniting the tavern’s pockets of support ever got behind a microphone to make it an important cause.
In sum, the Palm Tavern was going out with more of a fizz than a bang. That is, until the night of June 23. That night, the tavern was in all its fabled glory. Onstage was the legendary Malachi Thompson Freebop Band. Every stool, chair, and booth was taken, and there was barely room to stand or move. In the crowd were musicians and publishers, students and professors, street vendors and streetwalkers, business owners and welfare recipients–all there to mark the end of an era. At the table closest to the stage was 20th Ward alderman Arenda Troutman, whose ward borders Tillman’s to the south. Troutman, who heads the city’s Landmarks Preservation Council, hadn’t lifted a finger for the tavern, though her hands were raised high above her head throughout the night, leading the applause after each virtuosic solo.
People were dressed to the nines, each patron looking to outshine the next. Men wore bold and bright silk handkerchiefs and black-and-white suede shoes, women were adorned with ivory bracelets and earrings and elaborately colored headwraps. “This is what it was like back in the old days,” said Oliver. “It was like this every night.”
At this last possible hour, people to every side of me were driving their fists into the bar, speaking indignantly about keeping the tavern open. “Who are these people?” I wondered. I had never seen their faces before, and I’d been going to the Palm three or four days a week for months.
I posed the question to Oliver. She frowned, shook her head, and said, “I don’t even want to think about it.”
The building that houses the Palm Tavern is a shambles. It was owned by David Gray of Midwest Real Estate Investment Company, who bought it in 1989 for $8,000 and turned Oliver down when she offered to buy it from him for $25,000 a little later. Earlier this month Gray turned the building over to the city, which cut him a check for $60,000.
Dorothy Tillman’s first run for alderman began at the Palm Tavern. Her husband, a musician, used to gig there. Oliver has snapshots of Tillman’s children and says she used to baby-sit them. But somewhere along the line there was a split. The Washington Post intimated that the alderman turned against Oliver for personal reasons.
Then there’s Jesse Jackson. Oliver remembers him slinging a towel over his shoulder and playing bartender there for his growing band of followers. Several months ago Oliver went to Operation PUSH and asked for Jackson’s support. She says he curtly shook his head and walked away from her, and later made no gesture on her behalf.
During the Malachi Thompson performance, someone grabbed the microphone and shouted, “Where’s Jesse? He’s fighting battles down in Puerto Rico. Why isn’t he here to fight the battle happening in his own backyard?”
Jackson couldn’t be reached for comment.
And there were the newspapers. The Sun-Times, through it all, never deemed the tavern’s closing worth a mention. The day after Oliver was moved out the Tribune ran a front-page Metro story declaring her readiness to go. “I’ve got on my traveling shoes,” the Tribune had Oliver saying, “I don’t mind leaving now.”
Oliver called the reporter a “damned fool.”
Cook County commissioner Jerry Butler, a musician and a friend of Oliver’s, didn’t speak up for her, though he added his name to the petitions. He told me the tavern was a “lost cause” because Oliver didn’t own the building. Alderman Troutman said she didn’t want to step on another alderman’s toes. In addition, she said, nobody ever came to ask for her support.
The Bronzeville activists who waged the fight to save the Palm Tavern met irregularly and failed to recruit new allies. Patricia Hill, runner-up to Tillman in the last Third Ward aldermanic election, said they “didn’t know how to organize.” Compare their performance to the hyperorganized community activism of Hyde Park, the neighborhood directly east of Bronzeville. From the controversial revetment plan at Promontory Point, the shoreline peninsula at 55th Street, to issues of redevelopment and parking shortages, hundreds of Hyde Parkers turn out whenever they feel change threatening their neighborhood. They know how to persuade the dailies to write editorials, and they even managed to get Park District superintendent David Doig to sit cross-legged on the floor of a University of Chicago meeting room and pledge his support for protecting Promontory Point.
Hyde Parkers could have mentored Bronzeville’s residents on effective community organizing, but few knew there was anything next door to organize. Again Hyde Park earned its reputation as an island unto itself in Chicago’s otherwise largely impoverished and embattled south side.
Under Oliver’s stewardship, the Palm Tavern fostered the musical, political, and artistic careers of many of this country’s greatest talents for nearly 70 years. Over the last several months Oliver has felt a sense of betrayal (“I’m under so much stress I can hardly remember my name,” she told me) that stemmed from an old fear, she said. It was that despite everything she gave of herself and her business, when she needed a hand there would scarcely be one offered her. In the end this fear was justified.
As Mama Gerri said in one of her more despondent moments, “Where’s the loyalty? Where’s the respect? Where’s the love?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.