Sunday, January 2, 2022 Lincoln Center Is Reckoning With Its Racist History

[Courtesy of Lincoln Center]
James Price Johnson (1894-1955)

December 30, 2021

Jennifer Vanasco

Long before Lincoln Center became one of the world’s foremost destinations for the performing arts, the land it sits on was at the heart of a thriving Black and Latino Upper West Side neighborhood on the Upper West Side known for its musical richness. It was called San Juan Hill and it fostered top jazz musicians, Broadway talent and other Black icons — and yet its memory is now largely lost.

Now, almost 70 years after that community was razed, Lincoln Center’s leadership is grappling with the pain inflicted on those the city displaced and is searching for meaningful ways to widen the reach of the cultural landmark, which has mainly served white audiences.

“In order to move forward as a more inclusive and just institution, we should start at our roots,” said Henry Timms, the organization’s president and CEO. “That means engaging with the origin story of Lincoln Center’s development in its full truth.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, Black residents and Caribbean immigrants started to move to San Juan Hill, which was bounded by Columbus and West End avenues, between about 58th and 70th streets. Perhaps the neighborhood was named after the Buffalo soldiers, the 2,000 Black troops who fought under Theodore Roosevelt in Cuba during the Spanish American War. Many of them are said to have relocated there.

San Juan Hill soon became a neighborhood of bustling creativity. The area was so well-known by the 1930s that Duke Ellington and his orchestra recorded a song called “San Juan Hill.” It’s reputedly where pianist James P. Johnson introduced a dance called “The Charleston,” which swept the country in the 1920s.

It’s also where the musical “Shuffle Along” debuted in 1921. It was an all-Black show with an all-Black creative team, and when it transferred to Broadway, it introduced jazz to the stages there, becoming a sensation among the mixed-race audiences who came to see it. The 2016 version about the making of that musical, starred Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter.

Ram Ramierez — who wrote songs for Billie Holiday, including “Lover Man” — lived in the neighborhood with his family after they migrated from Puerto Rico in the 1920s. Jazz pianist Thelonius Monk moved there as a child around the same time, in 1922, and the neighborhood’s cramped clubs became a crucible for BeBop, with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker playing there.

Monk later raised his children in San Juan Hill. His son, the drummer Thelonious Monk, Jr., spoke with WNYC in 1984, two years after his father died, about growing up in the neighborhood.

“What Amsterdam looked like back then — little shops, drug store, ice cream parlor, little houses — teeming, like the Lower East Side in the ’20s, crowded, full of life and colors and people doing their daily business,” he said in an interview that’s now held by the NYC Municipal Archives.

By mid-century, the neighborhood had also become a center of Puerto Rican life, as large groups of migrants settled in the area.

“There were so many different kinds of people,” Monk said in the 1984 interview. “It was just a great, great neighborhood.”

He remembered San Juan Hill as a place filled with performance. There were puppet shows in the park, he said, and on summer evenings, a screen was hung from a flagpole so residents could watch outdoor movies.

And he remembered that everything changed when Robert Moses, then chair of the New York City Committee on Slum Clearance, decided that San Juan Hill was an ideal candidate for one of the nation’s largest “urban renewal” projects.

“We called it ‘urban removal,’” Monk said. “Of course, they told everyone they were going to refurbish the neighborhood and everyone was going to move back. Of course everyone never moved back. And the rents went sky high.”


Title I of the federal 1949 Housing Act allowed local governments to take property through eminent domain — and provided some of the funds to do it — as long as they then built middle-class housing for the post-war population boom. The New York Times said, by the time the neighborhood was demolished, the city moved 7,000 families and 800 businesses out of the area.

Moderate-income housing was built after the San Juan Hill tenements and brownstones were leveled — but the centerpiece of the development was Lincoln Center, which now sits on more than 16 acres, including LaGuardia High School, and Fordham University’s Upper West Side campus.

The Lincoln Center complex, which opened in 1962, was a citadel. Critics noted that it was designed to separate itself from the Black and Latino people who still lived in the area, particularly in the New York City Housing Authority’s Amsterdam Houses, which were built in 1948 as part of an earlier eminent domain project. While Lincoln Center’s east side opens out onto a wide plaza with its iconic fountain, its western edge is blocked by an uninviting, blank wall that runs along Amsterdam Avenue.

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