Last week, a woman named Cassandra Colon left a voicemail telling me that her aunt Sylvia Arnett — known to all as Miss Syl at Syl’s Lounge on West Broadway in the Russell neighborhood — had died Monday, Aug. 9, at age 85. Colon and I talked by phone Thursday, Aug. 19. “We buried her yesterday,” Colon said, mentioning the funeral at St. Stephen Church and burial at Evergreen Cemetery, on Preston Highway near Male High School. “This is a devastating blow. There wasn’t a person who knew her who didn’t love her. The mayor even spoke,” Colon said. “She never saw the bad in people, and there’s a lot of bad out there. She fed people. If you didn’t have bus fare she would just pay for it, not worried if you would pay her back.” — Josh Moss, editor, Aug. 20, 2021
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 edition of Louisville Magazine.
It’s Friday night at Syl’s Lounge and Sylvia Arnett is holding court, her “Bow to the Queen” birthday broach pinned with cash. She swirls a rum and Pepsi, laughs toward the karaoke performer serenading her with a Billy Vera and the Beaters tune, his arm outstretched in her direction.
A crowd has packed into the low-lit West Broadway bar that feels like a 1960s Harlem dive. Red light bulbs give the faded wood bar, stained-glass lamps and weathered wood paneling an otherworldly glow. Men in brimmed hats and leather jackets nurse bottles of light beer next to well-dressed women in careful makeup and hair, who sit large purses on the bar and slowly sip vodka-cranberries whose ice has gone watery. One senior stands in a 1970s leisure suit. The place is bathed in the familiarity of a family reunion, with boisterous greetings, sudden bouts of dancing and hints of heavy perfume and dry-cleaned Sunday best.
“Happy birthday to the one and only!” a man in his early 70s says, joining the crowd clustered around Syl’s table.
“Aw, thank you, sweetheart,” she responds, drawing out her words with Southern charm and accepting a kiss on the cheek.
On this March evening, Miss Syl, as she’s known, is celebrating her 82nd birthday. She might pass as just another senior at a church picnic, but in her bar she’s a celebrity in a silver necklace of interlocking rings and an elegant white V-cut blouse. She carries herself with a quick step and wields a buoyant wit that belies her age. Her short hair and gold-accented eyeglasses obscure brown eyes that, in equal measures, telegraph a onetime Marine wife’s no-bullshit stoicism and grandmotherly kindness. The bar’s over-50 regulars surround her. Many are bonded by time, by lives spent navigating similar touchstones: childhoods in west Louisville neighborhoods; strict parents who took no lip; factory jobs out of high school; urban renewal; civil rights and busing; family picnics in Shawnee Park; plant closures; pensions; life’s everyday setbacks and small victories. One of Syl’s sons calls the bar “the black Cheers.”
Syl’s Lounge is an institution that has 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.”
The 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.” The Rev. Kevin Cosby, Syl’s pastor at St. Stephen Church, says that’s important in a community that has lost many such institutions. “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,” 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. These 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.
The karaoke soul singer’s rendition of “At This 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.
The 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. The 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. “The neighborhood we grew up in, we were surrounded by whites. But we had three little portable (classrooms) for elementary grades. That was our school,” Syl says. “Then 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.”
Syl and Johnny were secretly married at a small Southern Indiana wedding chapel, with plans that she would visit Johnny in California during summers until she graduated college. But she quickly found out she was pregnant. “That changed the whole game plan,” she says. She dropped out and followed Johnny into two decades of military-base life in California and North Carolina. Their first child, Johnny Jr., was born while they were stationed at the El Toro base near Irvine, California, with sons Alonza and Anthony to follow. They were raised as military brats in spartan base housing and apartments in places like Camp Lejeune. Activism wasn’t exactly encouraged, so Syl learned about the civil rights movement in newspapers. “You were aware of it and knew it existed, but you’d gotten away from it. For some reason you seemed isolated,” she says. “It was a rude awakening when we came out (of the military). You know, and all this turmoil is going on.”
For the boys, being a military family meant getting to experience beaches, karate and horseback riding. Johnny was a strict disciplinarian, which Syl worked to temper. “She was like our lawyer; she’d try to save us when we got in trouble,” Johnny Jr. recalls. “I remember there was a creek behind the housing units where we lived. There was a rope swing. We’d get sopping wet in that creek every time. My father said, ‘Don’t go down there.’ Of course, the very next day we went down there. Alonza fell in. So we snuck back to the house, changed clothes real quick before (our father) got back.” Their dad knew right away, saying, “Boy, you all been down to the creek.” “He pulled off the military belt, ready to give us a whooping,” Johnny Jr. says. “My mother came in and said, ‘Don’t whoop them! They’re just kids.’ My mother was very kind-hearted and loving.”
By 1971, Johnny was a Marine retiree at 37. The family returned to Louisville, purchasing a picturesque two-story brick home with white shutters and a neat green lawn on Loretto Avenue, near Shawnee Park. Johnny got a job as a gate security guard at the Ford plant, and Syl found work first as a switchboard operator, then later in the accounting department at American Standard. But by 1990, Johnny had retired again, and they were looking for a third act in life.
“You know, I wouldn’t mind having a little bar,” Johnny told a friend.
“I got just the spot for you,” the friend replied.
According to an undated Courier-Journal clipping, circa 1990, Mills Lounge had already established itself as a landmark, offering “a clean environment where people could have good conversation and listen to relaxing music.” Even then, it was known for its signature red lighting. Johnny — who enjoyed horse racing and entertaining guests with barbeque, jazz records and drinks (his favorites were Johnny Walker Red scotch on the rocks and Stroh’s beer) — decided that sounded good.
Syl sighs recalling it now, but she reasoned that Johnny had earned it, because, she says, “He done worked for 40 years.”
“OK,” she told him. “We’ll try it.”
On a rainy night in late May, Syl, in a flowered blouse, sidles up to the last barstool near the kitchen, next to 85-year-old John Manson, who, after nearly 28 years, is still at Syl’s almost nightly, his hunched shoulders squared over a light beer diluted in a glass of ice. “Hi, John, how are you doing?” Syl says in a singsong voice.
She gives a side hug to Manson, who’s in an Obama hat and Cardinals shirt (reflecting two of the bars favorite causes). Two other women, relatively young in their 60s, walk over to greet him. “Hi, Mr. John,” one says. Manson’s age shows in his raspy, distant voice, and in how he strains to hear questions and answers in an over-loud voice. Affixed to the wood bar in front of him is a gold plate with his name engraved on it. “We decided with his dedication he deserved a seat reserved just for him,” says Syl, standing before the bar’s haphazard tableau of bottles of Crown Royal and Hennessy, a blue plastic Christmas tree, a potato chip display, ceramic liquor bottles, U of L sports banners, a framed drawing of Johnny and a “Think before you shoot” sign atop a fridge holding cans of Colt 45 and Pepsi. “When people are sitting there and he comes in, they get up — because Mr. John is in the house,” Syl says.
Mr. John was among the first in the house when Syl and Johnny took the keys in 1990. It was sink or swim. They switched the name from Mills to Syl’s, in an effort to keep a similar-sounding name to retain customers. They stocked up on liquor and beer but made no renovations or redecorations. “Tried and true” — one of Syl’s mother’s sayings. On opening day, Syl wore a tropical-patterned dress and posed in a photo with Johnny, in slacks and a white shirt and tie, his collar spray-starched as usual.
One early patron, a singer named Chase Brown who still goes to the bar, remembers sparse crowds in the beginning. “You could go in there with somebody else’s wife and nobody would know,” he says with a laugh. That changed with jazz. It was the genre people told Syl would never draw customers, but Johnny tapped his friends to play in a cramped corner of the dark bar. “It would be like four or five of them in the corner with an organ, drum, saxophone and all that stuff — can you imagine how crowded it was up there?” Syl says. “Live jazz — no one else had it around here. And it took off, and boy I tell you, we had some good years. We had some good musicians, white and black. We even had kids from the U of L who were taking music and wanted to know how to blow with soul. They’d come down here and they would blow.” One jazz musician dubbed Sylvia “Miss Syl” and it stuck.
Music spread to Friday nights and then Saturday. Characters, laughter and good stories were plentiful. “We had one guy who could play the keyboard with his tongue. He was something else,” Syl says. “One night, it was his birthday, and he got so high. And we locked the place up, and he was back there sleeping under a table. No one noticed him. We got home and the alarm goes off. We come up here. He had locked himself in the club and went out the back door.”
When musicians weren’t lugging upright basses and saxes in and out, a jukebox filled the space with soul and R&B — Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Ray Charles. The rap music that was blowing up nationally? Forget it. Syl’s didn’t serve food but at Derby time and on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, they put on barbecue rib dinners with greens, corn and all the fixings. Eventually, the place even drew visitors such as former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry and the comedian Sinbad. The couple thrived on late nights, pouring cognacs and uncapping cold bottles of beer for new friends gathering to unwind from work, network or make romantic connections. Were there wild times? “Oh, my goodness, yes, yes, yes. But like they say: What goes on in Syl’s, stays in Syl’s. We don’t talk about it,” Syl says, smiling. “This used to be a secret meeting place because it is so dark, the low lighting. People that were probably married but meeting with other people. It was a rendezvous” — which a few times led to awkward confrontations between, Syl says, “girlfriend, boyfriend and other girlfriend.”
Johnny kept any barroom trouble at bay — the love triangles, unruly jazz musicians, drunks, the growing number of homeless people in the area who would make off with the free sandwiches the bar once set out for patrons. “He would sit up front and watch everybody come in. And if they weren’t suitable, he’d tell them they had to go,” Syl says. “His friends would sit at the bar and make bets on how many people Johnny was going to put out of here.”
Syl’s no-nonsense demeanor, burnished through decades of being a Marine wife, combined with her easy ear and infectious laugh. Johnny taught his youngest son, Anthony — who had bounced around from college, automotive school and jobs at places like White Castle — how to tend bar, order supplies and keep the books. But five years into the venture, the couple’s new chapter slammed shut.
On a cold night in January 1995, Syl was in the kitchen of their home near Shawnee Park when she heard a strange noise coming from the bedroom. Johnny hadn’t been feeling well. She knew he had a heart problem, but he’d kept its seriousness from her.
“You OK?” she asked. No response. “He was laying there with a glazed look,” she says.
After a long ambulance ride, the doctors delivered the news: Johnny was dead from heart failure. Gone was Syl’s partner of 42 years. “That was a blow,” she says.
“Daddy passed away,” Anthony says, his eyes filling with tears as he repeats the line his brother said to him over the phone more than two decades ago.
After the funeral at St. Stephen Church, attended by hundreds of mourners and marked by a 21-gun salute, people began to wonder about the fate of the bar. Syl had depended on Johnny to run it. Demetria “Mackie” Wakefield, Syl’s niece who lived with the Arnetts as a teen, says some believed Syl wouldn’t want to keep the bar without him. “A lot people told her she wouldn’t make it in the business because she’s a woman,” Wakefield says.
“(Johnny) said, ‘Sell it if anything happens to me,’” Syl says. “But I was in love with it.”
Syl lives alone in the same Loretto Avenue house near Shawnee Park, where she spends most days with her pit bull, Sasha, who recently came home shot in the foot. (The neighborhood can turn rough at night, she says.) When she does venture out (to Bingo City with her niece, for example), folks often recognize her. The vanity plates on her black Infinity read “MS SYL.” “I had a headlight out and I was stopped” by a police officer, she says, laughing. “And the guy was giving me a bunch of crap about it. And then he walked around to look at the license plate and said, ‘Aw, Miss Syl. Well, go on. But get that light fixed.’”
On a recent night, Syl parks on 24th Street, cars zipping past on Broadway and pumping hip-hop music. She strolls under the red awning tucked between the defunct Hameem’s Q.G. Fashions and a long-abandoned appliance store. A lighted sign features a scripted “Syl’s” and a martini glass that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1950s Rat Pack movie.
Syl pushes through the door, the one with the piece of paper declaring “Syl’s House Rules”: no short-shorts, no tank tops, no hoodies, “Age 35 & up only.” Once you reach 35, she says, you usually know how to act. It also keeps out the hotheads with guns. Nobody checks IDs, but Syl isn’t shy about approaching groups of young people that occasionally come in. “You probably didn’t see the sign on the door,” she’ll tell them. No, ma’am, we didn’t see it. “Well, you’re in here now, but it’s over 35.” She’ll let them stay but few come back. She also doesn’t put up with nonsense from older folks, including two middle-aged women arguing almost to the point of blows: “You gotta knock off all this noise, cussing, calling each other names. I don’t care who said what. You either got to stop and sit down or get out.” Syl’s voice often undulates with a soothing charm, easy laughter flecking her speech, but her words become low staccato bursts when she gets tough with customers.
On this night, the first to greet Syl is JoAnn Williams, a 70-year-old retired GE worker whose spot is at the table next to the front door. Vivacious, outgoing, fast-talking and full of superlatives, she is an unwavering promoter of all things Syl, including the bar (“I don’t go nowhere since I came here. This is it, baby! The hottest club in town!”), Syl herself (“She’s the queen, baby!”) and the benefits of aging amid a four-day-a-week dose of friendship and music on the nights Syl’s is open (“Look at me! Seventy years old! And still kicking it, baby!”). Some years back, in another neighborhood, Williams’ daughter was shot and wounded as a bystander. “Everyone knows: If you have a problem, talk to Syl,” Williams says. “She gave me a hug, talked to me, went at the hospital, came to rehab.”
Syl serves many roles: friend, mother, hearer of confessions, grief chaplain. She says that recently, when a bar regular’s brother died — a Vietnam veteran who had suffered from exposure to Agent Orange — her home phone rang early in the morning. “I’ll be right over,” she said, bringing doughnuts to the house and offering a shoulder to cry on.
Along the bar, two older men turn on their stools and reach out for hugs. Syl obliges. Mid-hug, one of the men says to his friend, “Smitty, eat your heart out.” Syl walks behind the bar, pours a Bacardi and Pepsi for herself in a white plastic cup and surveys the cramped bar as if it were an estate, her eyes darting around to see who’s here.
“Hey, Joe, you OK, sweetheart? You need anything?” she says, leaning on the bar toward a patron.
Syl’s son Anthony helps run the bar in addition to juggling two young children and a day job at UPS. A handful of mostly family staff includes Syl’s niece Mackie, who listens quietly to patrons as she polishes glasses and pours drinks. Two larger regulars volunteer as bouncers if needed. “At 82, she’s up there every night, welcoming guests, watching the club, making sure the bills are paid, the liquor is ordered and stocked. That club is her life,” Johnny Jr. says, marveling at his mother’s stamina. Each Sunday after church, Syl makes Anthony bring the books to her home, and they go over the numbers at the dining table.
Syl worked much longer hours in the aftermath of Johnny’s death, with family pitching in and often staying from 2 p.m. until 2 a.m. to keep the bar afloat and prove the doubters wrong. Meanwhile, just outside her door, the neighborhood continued to change. The Philip Morris cigarette factory closed in 2000 after nearly 50 years at 18th and Broadway, leaving a big economic hole in the neighborhood. Over the years, Syl says more and more homes around the bar seem to be left abandoned, and that drug use and crime have intensified. Other classic West End clubs like Joe’s Palm Room closed. To some patrons, Syl’s feels like a bulwark against the changes.
But in the time that Syl has gone from sobbing over the first black president (“We cried. We just cried our eyes out. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. It was something you hoped for but you never thought you’d see in your life”) to shaking her head over Donald Trump (“Between Trump and Bevin? Whoa”), she has nevertheless seen new signs of hope — with a big dose of skepticism — about the future of the Russell neighborhood. That’s partly because of new revitalization initiatives such as the redevelopment of the Beecher Terrace public housing, a new nearby YMCA and efforts to help people build businesses and buy homes. She isn’t sure if the changes will pull the area out of its economic or racial isolation, or if the Russell neighborhood will ever return to the kind of place it was when she was a teenager. “The stuff they’re doing in the West End is all good, but they’re still not bringing what the kids need down here,” Syl says. “We need manufacturing, an assembly plant, somewhere people without cars can get jobs.”
One night, Syl comes into the bar wearing a sad and weary look. She pours a rum and Pepsi.
She spent the day planning the funeral of her 90-year-old sister, who had been the last of her living siblings, a French teacher and the only sibling to attend college. Now they were all gone. Inside the bar, Syl accepts condolences like a battle-weary soldier.
“I’m so sorry, Miss Syl,” says one longtime friend, offering her a hug and a knowing look.
“I know, thank you,” she replies. She shakes her head and remains ever stoic, not the type to make an emotional scene.
But sitting down at a table, tears well briefly in her eyes. Bittersweet ’60s soul music plays in the background. “Too many funerals,” Syl says, noting the deaths of both men she spent time with after Johnny died — a man she’d gone with to high school prom, who died in 2005, and another who died in 2014 after she moved to Florida to be with him while Anthony ran the bar. “That’s when I said, ‘No more,’” says Syl, who has been single since. “I done put three of them under.”
Her sister’s death seems to hit her hard, stirring ruminations about the uncertainties of this late chapter of life. At 82, Syl is roughly the same age as Juanita Mills, the woman from whom she and Johnny bought the bar. Juanita worked briefly for Syl and Johnny, but patrons wanted her out because of her age, Syl says. She recalls that Juanita didn’t live long after she stopped working. Perhaps the bar kept her going, kept her connected to life, music, laughter. “She really declined fast. That was all she had,” Syl says. “She loved it the same way I do. They would have carried her out of here if that had been possible.”
Syl says she knows she doesn’t have unlimited time anymore, though it doesn’t seem to scare her. She’s not sure how long she’ll continue to operate Syl’s. While she looks at least 10 years younger than her age, she gets tired. “I’m really beginning to slow down. It’s scary,” she says, although she’s mostly healthy after a hip replacement years ago. She has thought about giving up the bar, but everybody begs her not to. The stakes feel high, for them and for her. “I don’t have anything going during the day. I get up, watch the soap operas,” she says. “I look forward to coming up here in the evenings, seeing what happens: who’s talking about who, who has died, who is getting married, who is sick?”
She says she isn’t convinced her sons will keep running it (“They might sell it if I croak,” she says), though Anthony says he wants to keep it going. Johnny Jr., busy with his own job at a local hotel, says he’s not ready to ask her to step down, and doubts she will anytime soon. “I have to let her make that decision when it’s her time. What would she do if she didn’t have that club? I think she’ll stay until she can’t go no more,” he says.
The patrons are aging, too. Some of the old-timers like Mr. John have slowed down, leaving earlier and drinking less. There’s no more live jazz — most of the musicians died off or got too expensive. The bar doesn’t lose money, Syl says, but it doesn’t make much, either. Last year, Syl’s received a small loan from the city to buy new black barstools, patterned red-and-gold carpet and a new red awning, but she’s never considered any kind of modern makeover. Like her mother always said: Tried and true. While crowds tend to be thinner during the week, weekends can still find the small bar packed, lively and loud with loyal customers. What happens when the center no longer holds is anyone’s guess. “She is Syl’s at this point,” Sen. Neal says.
But on this night, Syl doesn’t have much time to ponder.
“Miss Syl!” a woman calls out from the entrance. She strides toward Syl along the length of the bar, dying to share news about her family. Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” plays from the jukebox. Syl smiles at the woman, leans in to listen.