Nestled between West End and Columbus Avenues from 58th to 70th Street, the neighborhood known as San Juan Hill inspired some of the setting for “West Side Story.” It was where pianist James P. Johnson introduced a dance called the Charleston, which would go on to sweep the country. It’s where “Shuffle Along,” a musical with an all-Black creative team, debuted before going on to dazzle audiences on Broadway. And for years, San Juan Hill simply was home for a lot of people.
But then, in a process that culminated in the opening of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1962, San Juan Hill was razed in the name of urban renewal.
On Saturday, the history of the lost neighborhood will come to life as Lincoln Center reopens the newly renovated David Geffen Hall with back-to-back performances of “San Juan Hill: A New York Story,” a new work by Trinidad-born trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles. Lincoln Center commissioned the piece, and is presenting it jointly with the New York Philharmonic.
“After doing some research, and Robin Kelley’s [Thelonious Monk] book coming out, learning that San Juan Hill was a neighborhood very rich in Caribbean culture and Caribbean migrants before Harlem and long before Brooklyn, I was like, wow, OK. Let me start doing some digging,” Charles told Gothamist. “And then this opportunity came up to write this piece. It was something that I kind of pitched to them. I said this story needs to be told, there needs to be a dialogue.”
His composition brings together his group, Creole Soul, and the New York Philharmonic, along with recorded interviews of former San Juan Hill residents and texts spoken by poet Carl Hancock Rux. Charles said the piece spotlights not just the neighborhood’s rich jazz history, but also a deeper story of the migration of Black people and culture to the neighborhood that ultimately helped to build New York City.
“There's so many people who don't know the story, and it's interesting,” Charles said. “It's a part of American history and that's very important. Thelonious Monk was from this neighborhood; Benny Carter, he grew up here. Two of the most influential composers in the history of American music were both from this neighborhood. So that's really why I wanted to kind of dig in: not just from the musical standpoint, but because of the history of Black New York, and understanding where people moved from.”
The neighborhood’s story starts at the turn of the 20th century, when an influx of new arrivals from the Caribbean began to move into the area that would become San Juan Hill. The neighborhood thrived as a space for Black creatives well into the 1930s. Some of the most significant artists in music called the neighborhood home, according to Julie Golia, associate director of manuscripts, archives, and rare books at the New York Public Library.
“You have early pianists like James P. Johnson, developing the stride style of piano and developing the song that eventually came to launch the dance, the Charleston, on American culture, which is one of the most iconic dance moves of our nation's history,” Golia said. “And then legacies of other jazz pianists like Thelonious Monk, all people who lived in that neighborhood, and worked and played in that neighborhood – we associate these things with American jazz culture writ large, but we don't often remember that they were very rooted in a particular space in a particular city.”
Things began to change for San Juan Hill when urban planner Robert Moses took an interest in shaping the vision of how New York should look, and how its residents should live.
“Robert Moses was one of the most powerful under-the-radar figures in New York's 20th century history,” Golia said. “He had titles like the chairman of the mayor's committee on slum clearance, or the chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority. These don't sound very sexy, but they come with enormous power and they come with enormous money.”
Moses anchored the Lincoln Square Renewal Project, which displaced and destroyed communities that had been there for generations. Historian Julia Foulkes said it’s hard to make sense of where people relocated to after the demolition.
“They claimed to make a commitment they would only move people into places that were better than what they were leaving,” Foulkes said. “Maybe, maybe not. Regardless of that, what happened was the loss of the community, a loss of people, loss of neighbors, loss of people that they knew – they have to start over again.”
Acknowledging that difficult history was imperative to Lincoln Center’s artistic leadership. In the weeks leading up to the grand reopening and premiere, the institution hosted a series of events called “Sounds of San Juan Hill,” aimed at discussing issues like gentrification and connecting Lincoln Center’s history to the present.
“I think the beauty of art is to complicate that narrative, to bring multiple perspectives into a space,” said Shanta Thake, Lincoln Center’s chief artistic officer. “And I think the more we learned through Etienne’s piece, the more we learned about this neighborhood, the more it really required us telling not just a few stories, but as many as we could get our hands on.”
Charles said that even now, with the debut performance of his new piece looming, he’s still constantly digging for new information. He hopes to continue telling the San Juan Hill story in as many places as possible.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Julie Golia's name was misspelled.