The well-known version is about the upper-crust citizens of New York's glitzy Park Avenue, but the song has a racially charged backstory. In the 1930s it was fashionable for affluent white folks to go "slumming" in Harlem, a poor black neighborhood where the jazz scene was hot. The original lyrics, heard when the song was performed throughout that decade, reference the locals who pretended to be wealthy by donning their flashy duds (i.e. puttin' on the ritz) and hanging out on Lenox Avenue in Harlem:Have you seen the well-to-do
Up on Lenox Avenue?
On that famous thoroughfare,
With their noses in the air?
High hats and colored collars,
White spats and fifteen dollars.
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time
The story continues with Lulubelle hitting the town every Thursday (Lulubelle was a slang term for black maids and Thursdays were typically their nights off). The lyrics also mention the "Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns from down the levee." High browns refers to light-skinned African Americans.
Another Berlin tune, "Let's Go Slumming on Park Avenue," flips the narrative and has Harlemites descending on the swank avenue to spy on the rich ("They do it, why can't we do it, too?"). Not everyone bought into the slumming fad, though. In the high society spoof "The Lady is a Tramp
," the title lady refuses to go to Harlem driving "Lincolns or Fords" or dressing in "ermine and pearls."