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Lincoln Center San Juan Hill Demolition-NYC1963, image via NY Daily News

Along with the Garden of Eden and Central Park, Lincoln Center impresses the visitor as one of those Genesis institutions, fashioned by God to remind us how pathetic we are. It’s so vast, exalted, and venerable; surely nothing so grubby as human hand’s could’ve been behind it, much less Robert Moses’ hands. But you can’t get it away from it. The man who played God, laying a bridge here, demolishing a neighborhood there, and never once facing public election, is responsible for Lincoln Center. And if you think it wouldn’t be a Moses product without a little whole-sale bull-dozing thrown in, you’re be right. Before Lincoln Center, there was San Juan Hill.

San Juan Hill 1940s-2San Juan Hill in the 1940s, via Ephemeral New York

Like Lincoln Center itself, nobody’s quite sure how San Juan Hill got its name. The reference to the Cuban¬†battle site is irrefutable, but no knows whether the name honors the black soldiers who fought there, or the exceptional bloodiness of the battle itself. One thing is certain: San Juan Hill, which stretched from 59th Street to 65th street and Amsterdam Avenue to 11th Avenue. According to miNY Stories, the 1940 Census revealed the neighborhood was exclusively African-American. As for the bloodiness, historian Marcy Grey notes “the violence and contention that was going on constantly between the black residents of this neighborhood, the Italians to the north, and the Irish to the south in Hell’s Kitchen.” Gang fights in the neighborhood were so common that the Robbins, Bernstein and et al. set West Side Story in the neighborhood. The introductory shots to the movie version were filmed there.

sanjuanhill
San Juan Hill in the 1940s, via Ephemeral New York

San Juan Hill was home to much more than violence, however. A densely packed district–more than 5,000 people occupied each block of low-rise tenements–it was also home to some of New York’s jivest jazz joints, including The Jungle’s Casino. This is the club where, in 1913, the pianist James P. Johnson wrote a tune to accompany the “wild and comical dance” of off-duty dock workers. The result was the Charleston, perhaps the biggest dance-craze of the 20th Century. Decades later, San Juan Hill was home to Thelonious Monk. Residents remember him as an eccentric man who walked around beneath their windows singing to himself–no doubt composing some of jazz’s most memorable melodies.

www.flickr.com_2014-03-17_12-27-47Thelonious Monk, via The Library of Congress

In the 1950’s, both Fordham University and the New York Philharmonic approached Robert Moses looking for real estate in Mid-Manhattan. This suited Moses perfectly, as he was looking for a culturally invigorating civic project, something to attract and hold the affluent white people who were, at the time, leaving the city in droves (can you believe it!?). Lincoln Center, he decided, could hold both institutions, and got the area designated as a slum. Protesting residents took their cause all the way to the Supreme Court, but the judges ruled against them, and over 40,000 people found themselves eminent domain-ed out of their homes. Most moved to Harlem and the Bronx.

Lincoln Center

From the beginning, Lincoln Center was a BIG DEAL: President Eisenhower broke ground in 1959, President Kennedy attended the inaugural performance in 1962. What was swept under the rug was the human cost of this project. As for Moses, his time was nearly up. Trying to build a highway through Greenwich Village a few years later, he stepped on a too many toes and soon got thrown out on his ass. It was too late for San Juan hill, however. What had once been the city’s center for black life, comparable to Harlem in terms of cultural importance, was paved off the map.

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24 Comments

  1. For the record, “the famous Puerto Rican battle site” was not in Puerto Rico. San Juan Hill, is in Cuba, remember the Spanish-American War?

    • michelle young says:

      Whoops, that has been duly corrected!

      • Michael Meehan says:

        Hi Michelle,

        I was one of the lucky ones who never knew anything about class distinction, gentrification, politics or anything other than putting one foot in front of the other and go forward or side step when needed. Grew up in/on San Juan Hill @62 and Amsterdam Ave. I love it more now for it has given me much appreciation of life and its vicissitudes. It was the world’s greatest playground for the world’s greatest “”mischieveants”” !!!!!

        I’d love to chat:732 569 3174

        Michael Meehan
        67 Amsterdam Ave.
        NY. NY. 10023

    • Hoss Gardner says:

      It was called San Juan Hill, I have read, because of the Spanish people that lived there. It was a nickname. Many Puerto Rican people lived there although San Juan Hill battle was in Cuba. I guess all spanish speaking people were seen as one in whoever named it.

  2. Hoss Gardner says:

    In 1961-62 my dad and I used to walk around the San Juan Hill area. We lived at 444 W 58th Street and then 64th Street and Broadway at the Woodrow Hotel, now condos. I remember when the wrecking ball and the large derrick was hitting the buildings to tear them down to make way for Lincoln Center. There was a feeling of old New York then. When Symphony Hall and the Opera Building were built, still working on the Theatre, we used to sit at the fountain. The granite type circle was different then. The marble or granite went down to the ground. We used to sit at the fountain and watch the water in the middle rise high and then level off again. My grandmother lived at the Empire Hotel and used to sit in Dante Park. My mother went to St Matthews Church while a little girl, now torn down. You can see the rectory door in the movie West Side Story. My first school is also shown in the movie. San Juan Hill may have been a slum but it had the feel of old New York.

  3. Obama bin Biden says:

    Mr Moses did the city a great service. I can only imagine what a hell hole the area would be today if Lincoln Center was never built.

    • Anne Marie says:

      Obama bin Baden(silly screen name btw)……You have no idea what the hell you are talking about. It was NOT a slum area before Lincoln Center was built. The pics that are shown here are NOT an accurate depiction of the area. Those pics were issued by the city to justify the demolition of a neighborhood of generations of families and neighbors. The streets were not garbage ridden, buildings were not run down. I know I lived it, as did my great grandparents when they emigrated from Ireland in 1886. grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. Please don’t embarrass yourself by commenting on something you know nothing about.

  4. Anne Marie says:

    I have tried in vain to find accurate pictures of the area that was uprooted due to the construction of Lincoln Center. The two pictures shown are maybe two of five that I have seen in multiple searches. I have often wondered why there are no pics to be found showing what the area truly was. It saddens me that so many did not know the true essence of the area. This was a true New York neighborhood of generations of families and extended families. I lived it, as did my parents growing up, my grandparents, great grandparents, their children, and their children’s children, all within a two block radius. I unfortunately did not live there for very long before the forcible uprooting of the neighborhood to make way for Lincoln Center. The two pictures shown are not a true depiction of the area. The pic of the demolition is accurate When I look at that picture it saddens me to recall that is where I once went around the corner to my grandmothers, the street where I once jumped rope, and the streets I walked to school @ St. Paul the Apostle. The same school my father graduated from, as did his brother and sister, cousins, and my three older brothers. I have always been proud to say, “I am originally from 62nd and Amsterdam Avenue on the West Side of Manhattan.”

    • Anne Marie,
      Please contact me at gustavius@builtforload.com. I would like to hear about your experience living in San Jaun Hill. Thank you

    • Michael Meehan says:

      I knew two girls named Ann Marie who lived at 62nd and Amsterdam Ave. Ann Marie Fox and Ann Marie Sullivan.

      I lived on the third floor of 67 Amsterdam Ave. Ann Marie Fox had three older brothers: John, Thomas and Joseph. We lived right above them. Your grandmother was Mrs. Faye around the corner. Your Aunt Kitty lived on the top floor. You had a dog Tippy

      Now I live in Toms River, NJ. If you’d like to chat I can be reached at 732 569 3174. or E Mail wwwthemic@aol.com

      Thanks,

      Michael (Mickey) Meehan

      • Michael Meehan says:

        Hi again,

        I have no way of knowing if my E to you was received. You can reach me at 732 569 3174. i now live in Toms river NJ.

        Thanks,

        Mickey Meehan

      • Anne Marie says:

        Yes, you got the right Anne Marie. The Sullivan girls on our block were Eileen (Leenie) and Mary. Their brother is Jimmy Sullivan. I seem to remember they lived in building next to the Poveromo’s. My grandmother was Mrs. Faye who lived around the block from us, as did most of my family. My Aunt Kitty did live in our building, 67 Amsterdam. Aunt Kitty was the sweetest. I remember Aunt Kitty bouncing her shopping cart down the stairs early in the morning. She always brought us back a treat from her shopping. Our dog was “Blackie.” May have had one named Tippy before I came along..:) Anne Marie Fox-Cody

        • Michael Meehan says:

          Hi Anne Marie,

          Sorry about not knowing Blackie was the name of your dog.

          John and Thomas worked with the Wire Lathers as did I and my brother and as did many in the neighborhood. I graduated from St Paul The Apostle in 1958 as did your brother Thomas. At 65 Amsterdam Ave. was the Hickey family …5 brothers and one sister,Mary.

          I remember Leenie very well although have not seen nor heard from her since we were all forced to move. had some great pictures up until Hurricane Sandy 2012. I had been living in Staten Island and got washed away. so here I sit in Toms River,NJ. It is a 55 plus community and a far cry from midtown Manhattan.

          You lived next door to Walter and Thomas (Boy Boy) Tracks . There mother was Aggie Dugan. We lived above a Buthcher shop, Lushkin’s, who also was our Landlord. The Proveromos lived at 73 Amsterdam Ave. over the 5 and 10 cent store. There was a drug store on the corner of 63rd. I am sure your brother John has a more vivid memory than I do. Please tell John that Jimmy Kelly has been trying to get in touch with him.
          If you’d like to talk I can be reached at home at 732 569 3174.I do remember you very well. Love to hear how life has been for you.

          Mickey Meehan

          • Anne Marie Fox-Cody says:

            Hey there Mickey….My brother Johnny corrected me on dog’s name. The one you remembered was before my time..:) When we were forced to move our dog at the time was Blackie. We were unable to take the dog to new place in Queens. My grandmother (Mrs. Fay) took the dog with her to apartment she moved to on lower west side. My mom was surprised when leaving work @ The Grace Institute to see Blackie waiting for her by the front steps of building. Blackie found his way back to W 60th. One of my mom’s co-workers took Blackie to a friend that lived Upstate.

            I remember the names you mentioned very well, from being friends with Johnny and Tommy. Quite a few no longer with us. Other names I remember from friends of theirs was Bobby Lopez, Tommy Lutz, Mattassa (sp) Lorentz (sp) To name a few.

            My brother’s Johnny and Tommy were wire lathers, as was many of our uncles. Johnny and Joey are retired NYPD Detectives. Johnny’s youngest daughter now NYPD, proudly wears my brother’s badge # With heavy heart, we lost Tommy about 16 years ago. His being no longer with us has left me, Johnny and Joey with a void in our hearts in the bond we have as siblings.

            I was unable to complete St. Paul the Apostle due to our move. The first year we lived in Queens I did go to Paulist Father’s for third grade. Joey was going into 8th grade just after we moved. Mom wanted Joey to finish SP the A, so I went back and forth for his 8th grade year. My dad graduated SP the A. I posted his graduation picture on the FB group page. Look for me on FB, send me a message on FB and I will add you to the SP of A group.

            We did live next door to Tracks. Do you remember the Ajax family that lived on first floor? Mother and daughter. I remember their bathroom was in the hallway. I got yelled at quite often by both of them when I would bang on bathroom door, and run away when either was in there…LOL.

            I recently connected with a mutual Woodside, NY alumnus. He is in a FB group “Growing Up in Woodside” that I am a member of. Woodside is where we moved to when we left west side. Anyway, he posted a picture of a woman that was his mom’s aunt. It was Dolly Erle, who lived in our building also. When I saw the name, I immediately sent him a message that I knew her when younger and growing up on west side. Small world! My brother Johnny told me some stories about Dolly’s son, John Erle.

            It is unfortunate that many that visit this web page, will never know the truth about the area we came from. Sure it did have it’s problems, as did every neighborhood in NYC. Those that visit will only know a one sided, Robert Moses and City depiction of the area. No where is it ever mentioned the families, friendships and connecting bonds that lived within those streets of NYC….Anne Marie

  5. Ty says:

    Mr. Moses hated poor people. Possibly because he came from them. Since so many African-Americans were poor by extension he hated African-Americans. He built Lincoln Center and made a Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood safe for rich white people who still frequent it today in large numbers…and then leave, back for the Metro-North.

    Robert Moses was a despicable man, that is pretty much agreed on these days. Lincoln Center with its cold white marble, its too good for you raised platform, its sterile Berlin wall against the projects on Amsterdam Avenue, and its programs of entertainment pandering to elitist, Euro-worshiping wealthy people serves a purpose. It serves as a long-standing marble-clad reminder of how close we are to becoming a nation ruled by a tiny powerful elite similar to most of the now-neutered western European nations who used to think nothing of bulldozing thousands of peoples homes so they can put on a show.

    • joseph cintron says:

      When I was eight years old my mother, father, brother and I were displaced into the Amsterdam projects. The culture, vitality was lost. As New Yorker’s we survived, the cost a way of life. The benefits went to the privileged they now had a place to gather be entertained. Someday perhaps I’ll attend a performance, now that I have the means to participate. However that lesson was never lost to me and mine. There has always been class division, the few gained at the expense of the many, whose only sin was to have been born poor.

      • michelle young says:

        Hello Joseph, thank you so much for sharing your story

      • Hello Joseph,

        Thank you for sharing your story.
        My name is Bernadette Hageman and I’m a program director at KIPP STAR Middle School. Our middle school students are creating a film about San Juan Hill and we’d very much like to interview you to get first-hand what the neighborhood was like back then. I know it must be much to ask, but we would gratly appreciate if you would share maybe a few minutes of your valuable time for a phone interview. If you’re in NYC, a in-person interview would be fabulous.

        Please email me if your schedule allows.

        Thank you for your consideration.

        Best,
        Bernadette

      • Muffie says:

        Hi!
        We are making a film about the creation of Lincoln Center and are looking for people who were forced out of their apartments in San Juan Hill. We would like to hear your stories. Please email me at meyer@middlemarch.com
        Thanks!

    • Anne Marie says:

      Ty….The area did have Black and Puerto Rican’s but it was also a high concentration of Irish and Italian. My great grandparents settled on W 61st Street when they emigrated from Ireland. Their children grew up on W 61st as did their children, and grand children. It was a neighborhood of many families for generations. I take exception to the picture that is shown on this thread. That was not the neighborhood I lived in. I never heard of the area being known as San Juan Hill until searching for pictures in archives of the block I lived on. There are no pictures to be found. I have a cousin that went to NYC archives to find something in microfilm…NOTHING. even the woman that works at the archives found it odd that there are no pics. It is as if the area referred to here as “San Juan Hill” never existed. What we called home were buildings with lace curtains on the window, baby carriages near the stoop while moms sat chatting and pillows resting on window sills of grandmothers keeping a watchful eye on the neighborhood.

      Robert Moses was a despicable man as you say. He caused the destruction of many neighborhoods in NYC. He moved people into our area that were less than desirable and featured them on news programs to build up support for his destruction. My older brother remembers a crew from the Dave Garroway show filming the area. He also remembers the people that were being filmed for the news clip were staged and not from the area.

      Robert Moses did more than tear buildings down. He tore generations of families apart.

      • Michael says:

        Hi Anne Marie,

        I tried to contact you a few months ago.

        I was just talking to Jim Kelley from 61st St and he would like to reach your brother John…they were buddies during the 50’s. I can easily be reached at this E address or my home no. is 732 569 3174. that’s in Toms River, NJ

        Thanks,

        Mickey Meehan

        • Anne Marie says:

          Hi there Mickey….Sorry I did not notice previous message. I phoned my brother Johnny as soon as I saw this message. I got his voice mail but I will definitely pass along your number to him. Johnny is on FB as well.

          I guess you saw my previous postings re: the Westide. I pass by the block on occasion when driving up Amsterdam. I know where our building sat on 62nd because the fire hydrant that was just outside the building still remains. Although I was young when we were all uprooted I have fond memories of the block, neighbors, childhood friends and St. Paul the Apostle.

          If you are on FB there is a group page for Paulist Fathers. I was surprised to see when looking through photo’s that one of the member’s posted, myself looking back at me at the age of 5 in my kindegarten graduation picture. There are many 8th grade graduation pictures on there as well. I found Johnny’s picture and Tommy’s graduation pictures as well.

          Hope life has been treating you well since our leaving the Westside…Anne Marie (little sister of Johhny, Tommy and Joeey)

          • Michael Meehan says:

            Thanks for the info about FB, Anne Marie. I will go there for a peek. Am sure I will enjoy looking at the photos.

      • Michael Meehan says:

        There was a Library at 68th St. Where ever it was relocated to would have vintage photos of the neighborhood.

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