5. San Juan Hill was a neighborhood near present day Lincoln Center

Aerial view of Lincoln Square
Cover of the “Lincoln Square Slum Clearance Plan.” Image from New York Public Library.

Perhaps American history buffs know the term “San Juan Hill” from the Spanish-American War battle in Cuba, but perhaps fewer know that the Upper West Side used to have its own San Juan Hill neighborhood. San Juan Hill was a community in what is today Lincoln Square that had one of the largest Black populations in the city prior to World War I. The neighborhood, mostly inhabited by African Americans and Puerto Ricans, was bounded to the south by 59th Street and to the north by 65th Street. The name of the area has unknown origins — some believe the name was inspired by the battle, since some African American veterans moved to the area, but others think it may have derived from conflicts between African American residents and local Irish American gangs.

Many of San Juan Hill’s first residents moved from Greenwich Village, and the area quickly developed its own arts and jazz scene before the construction of Lincoln Center. The area had many basement clubs inside tenements, as well as a popular club called Jungle Cafe. A few years before the turn of the century, many Black churches began opening in the neighborhood, which grew significantly following the Spanish-American War. Much of the area’s culture and history was erased, though, due to urban renewal projects that pushed many Black residents northwards to Harlem.

Sections of San Juan Hill were demolished in 1947, and thousands of families were evicted or displaced to make way for other apartments. Robert Moses claimed the land of the “slum” due to eminent domain, and by the 1950s the area was almost completely torn down. The demolition of sections of San Juan Hill was actually halted for the filming of West Side Story, which includes shots of actors standing amid piles of debris.