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West Palm Beach CRA Wins Knight Cities Challenge Grant To Turn Historic Northwest District, Sunset Lounge Into Cultural Hub

A revitalized jazz lounge, a hospitable bed and breakfast run out of a 1920s apartment building, and a brand new public park will all be coming to West Palm's Historic Northwest District next year.

Over the next 18 months, West Palm Beach hopes to transform the historically black neighborhood, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, into a cultural destination for locals and tourists alike by offering these attractions and more.

The effort will be underscored by a renovation of Sunset Lounge, a historic jazz club where Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong all performed.

"The Sunset kept bubbling up to the top as the thing everyone would like to see preserved," said Jon Ward, executive director of the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency. "There were lots and lots of folks that had great memories of going to shows there." 

Though the plans have been in the works for a while, the West Palm Beach CRA was just awarded a Knight Cities Challenge grant of $171,650 to support public outreach initiatives for the project. The grant from the Knight Foundation is one of 37 awarded to groups across the country looking to make their cities more successful; all together, the groups received $5 million in funding.

Turning the Historic Northwest neighborhood—bounded by Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard to the north, Banyan Boulevard to the south, and Rosemary and Tamarind avenues on either side—into an entertainment hub is also an educational and economic opportunity, according to Ward. 

Sunset Lounge's upstairs ballroom will be used for large concerts and could be used to host weddings, reunions, historic exhibits and more, he said. The downstairs lounge also has a small stage for smaller acts. 

Sunset Lounge

(Historic photo of the Sunset Lounge ballroom. Courtesy West Palm Beach CRA)

The CRA's project also calls for a Walk of Fame featuring the names of acts that have performed at Sunset Lounge; the first large city park in the neighborhood, which would have a performance stage to host musical performances; and a row of constructed shotgun houses—narrow, rectangular open-plan spaces—to retain the look and historic feel of the neighborhood. 

Ward expects the shotgun houses, which will be open to the public during community events, to also host historical exhibits or be rented out for local organizations' meetings. Food trucks would be parked in between each shotgun house, and guests could take their food inside what will essentially be built as one-room homes with air conditioning and bathrooms. Popular food trucks would have the potential to work with the CRA to build brick-and-mortar restaurants in the area as well.

"What we're hoping will emerge from this is a real sense of place and a sense of pride in the neighborhood," Ward said. "…We want to attract businesses back to the neighborhood."

As part of the educational component, local arts students could explore the music business by working behind the scenes during community performances and even learn about being museum docents or tour guides.

Payne Chapel

(Payne Chapel was built in the 1920s by the city's first black architect. Courtesy West Palm Beach CRA)

African-American cultural tourism is on the rise, Ward says, and the hope is to ultimately attract visitors to the area who would like to learn about West Palm's history. The Northwest neighborhood encompasses hundreds of designated historic buildings, including several significant churches, such as the Payne Chapel, built in the 1920s by the city's first black architect, Hazel Augustus

"Everyone wants to go to Selma or to Memphis and see the Lorraine [Motel]," he said, referring to where Martin Luther King was assassinated. "There's a great interest in talking about history now for the first time."

Ward also hopes visitors will learn about the challenges faced by African Americans in the area through sites like the Storm of '28 Memorial Park, which marks the site of a mass grave for almost 700 African Americans who died in the natural disaster and were buried together instead of in individual coffins.

"We think that this cultural tourism opportunity is also a good opportunity to talk about those kinds of things," he said.

Gardenia Avenue

(This apartment building on Gardenia Avenue in downtown West Palm will be relocated to the Northwest neighborhood. Image via Google Maps)

To host out-of-towners looking for an authentic, historical experience, the CRA will be launching a bed and breakfast on the site of the old 1917 Moore home donated after Alice Moore, who lived in the historic neighborhood for more than eight decades, passed away. In its place will stand a two-story 1920s apartment building being relocated from downtown West Palm Beach. (Moore's home had too few rooms to run a full B&B.)

"We think that we've got the bones for a compelling set of stories and a good chance to establish this kind of tourism attraction," he said. 

The Knight Foundation grant will go toward hosting a 10-month series of public engagement events dedicated to workshopping the plans and gaining feedback. The series will culminate in a two-day Better Block event to help the community envision the end result with prototypes of the neighborhood's future improvements.

Take a closer look at the CRA's plans for the Historic Northwest neighborhood in the sketches below: 

community music park

Overview of community music park and row of shotgun houses and food trucks

Music park

Music park with a stage for outdoor performances

shotgun houses

Street view of food truck row and shotgun houses