Cover of the “Lincoln Square Slum Clearance Plan.” Image from New York Public Library.
The glossy cultured patina of Lincoln Center reveals nearly nothing of what the neighborhood once was, and New Yorkers, accustomed to the on-going cycle of building and demolition, have likely forgotten (or never knew) about the lively San Juan Hill that was demolished to make way for the famous cultural center. Any such development dating from the 1960s wouldn’t be without the fingerprints of the now-vilified Robert Moses, who was more than willing to cut up neighborhoods both poor and wealthy in the eye of progress.
While the tough reputation of Hell’s Kitchen on the west side just south of Lincoln Center is well-documented in the history of the Irish diaspora, the history of San Juan Hill was mostly erased by a single sweep of urban planning, by nature of simply no longer existing. As New York City expanded and industrialized, immigrant communities moved northwards. African Americans were also part of this movement, even pre-Civil War, along with their neighbors the Irish, Italians and Germans.
Originally, all groups were mixing and getting in trouble down in Five Points. Harlem’s reputation as the center of African American culture wouldn’t exist without the gradual northward movement of their community through the 1800s. After Five Points, the population moved into Greenwich Village, then to the Tenderloin in the streets between the 20s and 30s, then to Hell’s Kitchen. The area that’s now Lincoln Center was the logical next step, originally settled by the Dutch as an enclave by the name of Blooming Dale with its leafy aristocratic country homes.