Louisville Magazine

AUG 2018

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 8.18 65 endured as the history of west Louisville, its past troubles and new promise, has unfolded around it. Syl's Lounge is viewed by many as a vintage oasis of community, respect and old-school values in a neighborhood of boarded-up houses. Outside, a cross on a nearby fence marks a deadly shooting. For regulars, Syl's Lounge is a safe place to take in the Al Green, cold beer and friendly hellos that wash over them each time they enter the place where age doesn't mean feeling old or out of place. A laminated sign taped to the glass front door reads "Age 35 & up only." As one Facebook post put it: Syl's "is where the grown and sexy party at." e lounge has drawn honorary proclamations from former Mayor Jerry Abramson and current Mayor Greg Fischer, a nod to a role in the community unusual for a bar. State Sen. Gerald Neal calls Syl "a stabilizing force because of the kind of place she runs. Syl's was always a place where you could intersect with a really wide cross-section of people, from laborers to professionals. You could run into your friends, people you had business associations with." e Rev. Kevin Cosby, Syl's pastor at St. Stephen Church, says that's important in a community that has lost many such institutions. "ose of us who remember west Louisville when there were movie theaters, restaurants and more strong, stable families" view Syl's as "a throwback to what we used to have," Cosby says. "And I think maybe psychologically people see in her institution the hope of what is yet possible." At the center of it all is Miss Syl, a barstool sovereign who has lived through the death of three partners and all 10 siblings, who has, through it all, held together her bar's unchanging world. ese days, in quiet moments, she grapples with more existential questions. She finds herself in a late chapter of life, wondering what that means for the future and fate of a bar that for nearly three decades has held an outsized place not only in her life, but the life of patrons and the wider west Louisville community. But she's not pondering that tonight. e karaoke soul singer's rendition of "At is Moment" builds to a climax. Everyone packs in tighter. "I fall down on my knees, kiss the ground you walk on," he belts out. "If I could just…hold you... again." He nails the crescendo, and the bar breaks out in applause, hoots, raised drinks, birthday wishes and professions of love. Syl throws back her head, laughs and claps her hands in joy. Bow to the queen. She didn't plan for this. She didn't even want it, at least not on that June day in 1990, when she stood on the corner of 24th Street and Broadway, squinting her eyes at what seemed like a bad idea. In front of her was a narrow, one-story brick bunker of a building, barely wider than a shotgun house and filled with threadbare carpet and brown Naugahyde barstools. Called Mills Lounge, it was for sale. e place was already entwined in west Louisville's tumultuous history. Syl says its owners, Juanita and Homer Mills, had been forced to relocate their business, formerly a restaurant, when urban renewal tore down the Russell neighborhood's once-thriving business district known as "Louisville's Harlem," a bustling epicenter of black-owned movie houses, clubs, shops and restaurants. e Millses opened a grill at 24th and Broadway in the early 1960s, turning it into a bar several years later. It was less than a mile from the spot where riots broke out in May 1968 in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and tensions over racial injustice and policing. In the decades that followed, Syl says it's a part of town that was increasingly hobbled by a lack of investment and by unemployment, crime and neglect. But the lounge had a small crowd of regulars, and Syl's husband, Johnny Arnett, wanted to spend their savings of $50,000 to buy it. He was a hard-driving Marine with a soft side who loved jazz. And he had a plan. "I don't know," Syl told him, skeptical. Syl and Johnny's love affair had begun more than three decades earlier, in 1953, when they met at the segregated Sheppard Park public swimming pool at 16th and Magazine streets, one of the few parks open to blacks. She worked summers there to earn money for school clothes. A friend introduced her to Johnny, whose mother had run a restaurant called the Yellow Dining Room. Johnny was three years older than Syl and had served in a Marine supply unit in the Korean War. He was going to be transferred to California. "He was a good-looking guy. And I thought, wowie," Syl says. "He was immaculate from head to toe. He was a suit-and-tie man. Everything matched up and just fit so perfect. Once I met him, it was all over." Johnny courted Syl and one night they snuck off to Southgate, Kentucky, for dinner and dancing at the famed Beverly Hills Supper Club. "We didn't have no business going that far. I wasn't even supposed to be out of town," Syl says, giggling mischievously at the memory. Sylvia Williams was the youngest of 11 siblings who were raised in a tiny wood- frame home near Churchill Downs. Her father made bathtubs and toilets at the American Standard factory on South Seventh Street, and her mother canned backyard apples and peaches. Before meeting Johnny, Syl graduated from Central High School, then the city's only public high school for African-Americans. (Central also produced Muhammad Ali and activist Lyman T. Johnson.) She enrolled at the University of Louisville to study elementary education, just as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. "e neighborhood we grew up in, we were surrounded by whites. But we had three little portable (classrooms) for elementary grades. at was our school," Syl says. "en over on Heywood, (the white kids) had this great big nice brick school. One block away, but we couldn't go over there. But we never thought anything about it, you know? It was just something you accepted." "Those of us who remember west Louisville when there were movie theaters, restaurants and more strong, stable families" view Syl's as "a throwback to what we used to have," the Rev. Kevin Cosby says. "And I think maybe psychologically people see in her institution the hope of what is yet possible."

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