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.
San Juan Hill was home to the majority of the black population in city at the end of the 19th century, who had migrated north from Five Points to the Tenderloin and up through Hells Kitchen. In the 1940s, the neighborhood was deemed by NYCHA to be the worst slum in all of New York City, despite its reputation as the city’s destination for jazz. San Juan Hill was also the setting for West Side Story, and indeed opening scenes for the film were shot there before the neighborhood was demolished. But with the financial and political backing of John D. Rockefeller, the campaign for Lincoln Center was done deal by the 1960s.