Sunday morning on the way to 8:30 Mass driving down Chester Avenue in Cleveland around 79th street, we could smell smoke -- even in 25 degree weather with our windows closed and the car heater blaring. I remarked to my husband that there must be a big fire somewhere in the area. Little did I know the extent of that bigness, until later that afternoon when I read on Cleveland. com that The Lancer Steakhouse, a restaurant and bar on 77th and Carnegie, had burned to the ground. No one knows the cause and reportedly nothing appears suspicious, although some suspect arson. Unfortunately, the building was not insured. Yet, George Dixon, the owner and well-respected businessman in the black community, vows to rebuild.
You see, The Lancer Steakhouse was not just any local bar and restaurant. For many in Cleveland, especially African Americans of the veteran and baby boomer generations, Lancer's stood as a historic gathering place for Cleveland politics. It was where meetings were held in the 1960s to plan and rally for Carl Stokes, Cleveland's first black mayor and the first black mayor of a major U.S. city. It was the gathering place for blacks to watch the election results for President Obama. It was not only a place where businessmen, intellectuals and social elites came to discuss power and influence strategies, but more importantly, it was where the most diverse group of people of any place in Cleveland could be found. Gatherings at Lancer's crossed many dimensions of diversity--race, gender, class, ability, and age, to name a few. Traditional business attire along with hoochie mama and daddy attire was part of the atmosphere at Lancer's. It was a "happening place" and it seemed like everyone in Cleveland had a personal Lancer's story where something memorable happened. A milestone birthday party, closing a major business deal, running from a shooting, something else besides peaches in the peach cobbler, a girls' night out, a bereavement gathering...
My personal Lancer's story happened in 1982. After 13 years as a nun living in a religious convent, my sister and friends decided I needed to become familiar with nightlife in the black community. Just weeks after shedding my religious garb of a long black dress and veil, I was outfitted by that same group, in a red silk blouse, brown leather mini-skirt, dangling earrings, three-inch pumps, and taken to Lancer's. Here, I was taught how to order a drink (started with amaretto sours), position my body as to not look aloof or stand-offish to men, make small talk with strangers and not sound too academic, master the art of giving out my correct or incorrect phone number, not screw up my face when someone swore, not complain after 11PM that I needed to take my contacts out, and a host of other very important tidbits for clubbing in the black community that have supported my successful night-life socializing to this day.
It will hard to imagine Cleveland without The Lancer's Steakhouse. It was a big fire that destroyed a big symbol of community engagement. Hopefully, if the energy from good memories can restore a building, it won't take long for The Lancer's Steakhouse to be rebuilt.