Long before Lincoln Center became one of the world’s foremost destinations for the performing arts, the land it sits on was at the heart of a thriving Black and Latino Upper West Side neighborhood on the Upper West Side known for its musical richness. It was called San Juan Hill and it fostered top jazz musicians, Broadway talent and other Black icons — and yet its memory is now largely lost.
Now, almost 70 years after that community was razed, Lincoln Center’s leadership is grappling with the pain inflicted on those the city displaced and is searching for meaningful ways to widen the reach of the cultural landmark, which has mainly served white audiences.
“In order to move forward as a more inclusive and just institution, we should start at our roots,” said Henry Timms, the organization’s president and CEO. “That means engaging with the origin story of Lincoln Center’s development in its full truth.”
Around the turn of the 20th century, Black residents and Caribbean immigrants started to move to San Juan Hill, which was bounded by Columbus and West End avenues, between about 58th and 70th streets. Perhaps the neighborhood was named after the Buffalo soldiers, the 2,000 Black troops who fought under Theodore Roosevelt in Cuba during the Spanish American War. Many of them are said to have relocated there.
San Juan Hill soon became a neighborhood of bustling creativity. The area was so well-known by the 1930s that Duke Ellington and his orchestra recorded a song called “San Juan Hill.” It’s reputedly where pianist James P. Johnson introduced a dance called “The Charleston,” which swept the country in the 1920s.
It’s also where the musical “Shuffle Along” debuted in 1921. It was an all-Black show with an all-Black creative team, and when it transferred to Broadway, it introduced jazz to the stages there, becoming a sensation among the mixed-race audiences who came to see it. The 2016 version about the making of that musical, starred Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter.
Ram Ramierez — who wrote songs for Billie Holiday, including “Lover Man” — lived in the neighborhood with his family after they migrated from Puerto Rico in the 1920s. Jazz pianist Thelonius Monk moved there as a child around the same time, in 1922, and the neighborhood’s cramped clubs became a crucible for BeBop, with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker playing there.
Monk later raised his children in San Juan Hill. His son, the drummer Thelonious Monk, Jr., spoke with WNYC in 1984, two years after his father died, about growing up in the neighborhood.
“What Amsterdam looked like back then — little shops, drug store, ice cream parlor, little houses — teeming, like the Lower East Side in the ’20s, crowded, full of life and colors and people doing their daily business,” he said in an interview that’s now held by the NYC Municipal Archives.
By mid-century, the neighborhood had also become a center of Puerto Rican life, as large groups of migrants settled in the area.
“There were so many different kinds of people,” Monk said in the 1984 interview. “It was just a great, great neighborhood.”
He remembered San Juan Hill as a place filled with performance. There were puppet shows in the park, he said, and on summer evenings, a screen was hung from a flagpole so residents could watch outdoor movies.
And he remembered that everything changed when Robert Moses, then chair of the New York City Committee on Slum Clearance, decided that San Juan Hill was an ideal candidate for one of the nation’s largest “urban renewal” projects.
“We called it ‘urban removal,’” Monk said. “Of course, they told everyone they were going to refurbish the neighborhood and everyone was going to move back. Of course everyone never moved back. And the rents went sky high.”
Title I of the federal 1949 Housing Act allowed local governments to take property through eminent domain — and provided some of the funds to do it — as long as they then built middle-class housing for the post-war population boom. The New York Times said, by the time the neighborhood was demolished, the city moved 7,000 families and 800 businesses out of the area.
Moderate-income housing was built after the San Juan Hill tenements and brownstones were leveled — but the centerpiece of the development was Lincoln Center, which now sits on more than 16 acres, including LaGuardia High School, and Fordham University’s Upper West Side campus.
The Lincoln Center complex, which opened in 1962, was a citadel. Critics noted that it was designed to separate itself from the Black and Latino people who still lived in the area, particularly in the New York City Housing Authority’s Amsterdam Houses, which were built in 1948 as part of an earlier eminent domain project. While Lincoln Center’s east side opens out onto a wide plaza with its iconic fountain, its western edge is blocked by an uninviting, blank wall that runs along Amsterdam Avenue.
“When Lincoln Center was built, crime was an issue in New York City, and so it was built as a kind of moat to keep the city out,” said Lincoln Center’s former president, Reynold Levy, in a past interview with THIRTEEN.
Lincoln Center was built specifically for performance companies that were bastions of white culture — the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, Julliard, and later the New York City Ballet, Lincoln Center Theater and others. These new neighbors, with their galas and gowns, were worlds away from the lively music halls and crowded clubs that once lined the streets.
Leah Johnson, Lincoln Center’s chief of communications, marketing and advocacy, said she remembers visiting the plaza with her family as a child to take photos by the fountain. But, she said, because they were a Black family in New York, they didn’t believe it was a place for them.
“There was never a moment where we thought, ‘Oh, we should go inside and get tickets for something,’” she said.
Johnson, who grew up in Brooklyn, later learned that her grandmother had been born in San Juan Hill before moving to Harlem. But she said it wasn’t until she began working at Lincoln Center in 2019 that she discovered the richness of the neighborhood that had been there.
“I didn't really know that they were Black people living there in those days, because we had always just thought about Harlem or Bed-Stuy,” she said.
Today, Lincoln Center is reckoning with its history. Transforming the organization is “why I came here,” Johnson said, “bringing Lincoln Center into that 21st century mindset and really being very engaged in our city.”
To do that, Lincoln Center has tried to throw wide the castle doors. This past summer, it invited outside cultural groups, including Dance Theater of Harlem, Ballet Hispánico and the Korean Culture Center, to perform their own choreography on new outdoor stages. And it added visual works by a more diverse range of artists, such as Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, who is Thai and Indonesian, and Carrie Mae Weems, who is Black, to its buildings.
But in addition to being a culture center, Johnson and CEO Timms also want Lincoln Center to be known as a “civic” center — a place where people can gather, but also access resources. It invited LaGuardia High School students to use its terraces to rehearse, and it turned its central plaza into a temporary grassy area last spring with seating and snacks.
It also recently held high school graduations and blood drives, and it served as a vaccination site and food bank. It was a polling place for the June primary and the 2020 Presidential election, a role it had previously resisted when the city had searched for early voting sites.
The question Lincoln Center is asking itself is whether people who fall outside it’s traditional audience will feel welcome to come in, or whether they’ll stay outside by the fountain, like Johnson’s family did decades ago. She said internal discussions are underway about how to make tickets, which can be quite expensive, more equitable.
“If you get a ticket at whatever the price is you can afford, should you be relegated to up in the boonies? Or should we figure out how to make sure ticketing is accessible?” she asked. “You know it makes a difference when you say, ‘Our doors are open.’”
Additional research by Amanda Almonord and Andy Lanset.