Changeless and Changing in Lincoln Center

Creators
Valerie Baloga and Denise Chavez

“To a New Yorker, the city is both changeless and changing. In many respects it neither looks nor feels the way it did twenty-five years ago”. When E. B White wrote these words in his book “This is New York” in 1948, the New York that had seen change was about to transform once again in another decade. Seven years after his book was published, a small part of Manhattan was about to be demolished to become what would later be known as Lincoln Center.

Residents knew the neighborhood in question as San Juan Hill. San Juan Hill extended from W. 60th to W. 66th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. The area was home to mostly working class African Americans and Puerto Ricans. The most famous resident to come out of the area was jazz musician Thelonious Monk, who resided in 243 W. 63rd Street. As seen in the 1940s census record of Thelonious Monk’s household, everybody in the neighborhood was African American.

It was Robert Moses, the City Parks Commissioner, who had come up with the plan for massive urban renewal. When Fordham University President Father Laurence J. McGinley was looking for a mid town campus that was reasonably priced, he turned to Moses for help. Robert Moses, who was an appointed commissioner and not elected, held massive influential and political power. It was around the same time that others looked to Moses in helping find a new home for the New York philharmonic, whose lease at Carnegie Hall was to expire after 1958. To Moses, these two places could share the same locale. Moses had a new plan, he called it the “Lincoln Center Urban Renewal Project.”

He planned to create a “cultural center” which involved having to displace many families. As many as 7,000 low-income families and around 800 businesses were to disappear. Moses did plan to have housing in the area, but not for the people who were to be displaced. Instead he would create luxury apartments. In 1958, opponents filed several lawsuits in an effort to stop the evictions – to no avail. The new project would replace their old homes with high-rent luxury apartments, and there was no chance of these same residents being able to reside in them. Most families moved to other parts of Manhattan and a large group moved to the Bronx. The new area was for wealthy patrons of the arts.

When Leonard Bernstein composed “West Side Story” with his collaborators, they envisioned the brown stones that were in San Juan Hill. For a person to watch the film now, they would wonder what part of Manhattan the film is even depicting, only because there aren’t any Manhattan neighborhoods that look like San Juan Hill. The huge displacement of the neighborhood is obvious in comparing census records from 1940 to 2010. Thelonious Monk’s census depicted an African American neighborhood. In comparison, today only 20 % of the area is occupied by African Americans.

Bibliography and credits
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Inspiration
P. 48 “To a New Yorker the city is both changeless and changing. In many respects it neither looks nor feels that way it did twenty-five years ago.”

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