New York City is young by European standards but it has many phantoms and ghosts of the past. Sadly, those ghosts barely recognize the city neighborhoods where they once lived. New York has built over or totally destroyed the old and replaced it with new structures. Manhattan’s West Side has had many stories but they have vanished with time. What you see likely never was. Tenements weren’t just on the lower East Side. They were found on the West Side too. Do you remember San Juan Hill? Those stories are mostly forgotten.
Sometimes (actually quite often), what people deem as reality has been real for only part of a lifetime. New York City has undergone hundreds of changes since it was first settled b6y the Dutch as New Netherland in 1624. By 1664, the area we call New York became New Amsterdam. Ironically, that was the year the British invaded (through the city of Brooklyn) and converted Manhattan to New York. Realities only last a couple of generations. Countries change borders and cities change structures. New York City is one place where changes often obliterate what was real before. One such example happened around 1960 to a poor, African-American neighborhood known as San Juan Hill of infamy.
San Juan Hill was settled before Harlem. In the late 1800’s, the neighborhood west of Central Park was one or the less desirable [laces to live. A mostly African and Indian community in the west 80’s was called Seneca Village but was mostly wiped out after the construction of the New York Reservoir. The area, now part of Central Park’s Great Lawn, was virtually gone by 1860. With limited means of transportation, the poorest of the poor settled in nearby areas. One such area was known as San Juan Hill on Manhattan’s now trendy west side.
San Juan Hill was located around 60th Street to 65th Street, west of Broadway, and featured thousands of African Americans squeezed into one of the few areas where they were able to rent apartment in the late 1800’s. The area may have been one of the birthplaces of jazz, if anyone remembers San Juan Hill. The neighborhood was a reality very long ago but not necessarily long ago. Most of us know the area as Lincoln Center, a destination point for tourists and affluent residents.
When Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim wrote West Side Story in the late 1950’s, the west side of Manhattan was very much like this. The turf extended from 50th Street up to 66th Street. From 50th to 59th Streets, the Irish were the big bosses. Above 60th Street, there were no bosses. The area was known as San Juan Hill and it was largely an Afro-American and Puerto Rican neighborhood. In West Side Story, the Irish gang was the Jets. In San Juan Hill, the Hispanic gang was the Sharks. From 60th to 65th Streets between Amsterdam Avenue and the 11th Avenue railroad tracks, was San Juan Hill, one of the largest and poorest African-American neighborhoods in Manhattan before the rise of Harlem.
By the 1950’s, the African-American exodus to Harlem, opened the neighborhood to Puerto Ricans, dubiously attracted to San Juan. One can only wander if the Puerto Rican prevalence in San Juan Hill inspired the lyrics of America in West Side Story. It would be serious business to surrender San Juan Hill to the Jets.
Harlem offered underground subways along Broadway, 8th, 6th, and Lexington avenues. It was a haven for African Americans fleeing the slums of downtown. The noise and fumes from the elevated lines didn’t touch Harlem’s streets.
At the time, the stretch of Hell’s Kitchen and San Juan Hill was a cesspool of poverty. Whites were at the south and African-Americans were at the north end. Homes were wood and brick. Many were not upgraded to meet New York City housing codes. An influx of Hispanics settled in San Juan Hill in the 1940’s. The gang activities may have inspired West Side Story as a modern take on Romeo and Juliet.
In 1940, the New York City Housing Authority characterized the area as the worst slum section in the City of New York.. But much didn’t happen to focus on developing San Juan Hill until the 1960’s.
Prior to 1908, when the Hudson and Pennsylvania railroad tunnels linked Manhattan to New Jersey, people travelled from Newark and Hoboken by ferry to New York. It would be 30 to 50 years before other bridges and tunnels were constructed. The neighborhoods stretching up the west side by the Hudson River were dank, dark, and dangerous for travel. Only two ancient, elevated passenger railroads served the extreme West Side, inviting the working poor opportunities to find living space. There was the 9th Avenue Elevated and the West Side Elevated Railroad on 11th Avenue (remnants are called the High Line). A short-lived freight railroad, called the Miller Railroad, was nearby over 12th Avenue. It later became the elevated West Side Highway. The structure was demolished in 1980’s. These elevated structures helped make the extreme West Side a haven for violence.
The area had an old elevated train, the oldest in New York City, started around 1870. The 9th Avenue Elevated ran up Columbus Avenue. It was a clunky, noisy diesel, or steam train that smelled-up the area. It played a significant role in making the West Side a poor, working-class neighborhood. It also was a destination route at the Polo Grounds at 155th Street, later the first home of the New York Yankees, and the New York Giants. The line went out of service in the 1950’s and was demolished in 1958. If it were still around today, it would be the entrance to Lincoln Center. But it would never be so. The area would still be San Juan Hill.
Images of the West Side taken from the 9th Avenue Elevated are the few remaining images of what Columbus Avenue was like before 1958.
In the early days of 66th Street and the west side, people came to the Saint Nicholas Arena and Rink for entertainment. It was less than a block from the train stop. The rink opened in 1896 and closed in 1962. It is on the site of the current ABC TV studios.
In its place, we now have Lincoln Center and a neighborhood called Lincoln Square. By the time West Side Story was filmed for its release in 1961, virtually all the buildings were already condemned by plans to demolish San Juan Hill. Virtually none remain west of Broadway. The demolition of the 9th Avenue Elevated probably was the catalyst that brought the city’s prominent architect to focus on what to do with San Juan Hill.
A large, gothic armory stood south of Lincoln Center near the current Fordham University campus, between 61-st and 62nd Streets. Imagine passing this at night! It was constructed in 1887 and was torn down to make space for Lincoln Center. It was one of the major structures that radically changed the area from San Juan Hill to Lincoln Square.
The planner behind the Lincoln Center neighborhood project was Robert Moses, New York’s master builder and the mind behind almost all of New York’s highways and bridges. Despite dissent from area boards and coalitions, 40,000 people were reportedly evicted and San Juan Hill was virtually demolished to make way for Lincoln Center and the surrounding neighborhood. President Dwight Eisenhower dug the first shovel to commemorate the death of San Juan Hill and the birth of Lincoln Center.
One of the only remaining references is a street behind the New York Housing Projects, Thelonius Monk Circle, at around 63nd Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenues. The jazz musician called San Juan Hill his home, at 234 West 63rd Street, among other African-American musicians.
San Juan Hill led that during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt won a significant battle against Spain here. It is likely the neighborhood was named after San Juan Hill but wasn’t the authentic San Juan Hill. The West Side’s San Juan Hill lost the battle to the city’s plans of modernization in the late 1950’s, at around the time West Side Story was written.
During the times of New Amsterdam, the west side was part of the Bloomingdale Farm. The area attracted artists, bohemians, and musicians. It seems right that Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School are here. While jazz found homes in San Juan Hill, old acquaintances are forgotten. Few west-siders are old enough to remember what was around before the tall buildings rose. We remember Jazz from Harlem but, African-Americans only moved there around World War I. The roots of New York Jazz stemmed from neighborhoods like San Juan Hill.
Having lost its lease at Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra became the first tenant at Lincoln Center. Metropolitan Opera closed its building near 40th Street and Broadway. It moved to the Lincoln Center campus in 1967. By then, Lincoln Center cemented its reputation for a place to see and hear the finer arts of music from dance, opera, and classics. The unique architecture all but wiped the memories of San Juan Hill that lay beneath the buildings and the plaza.
We often talk about what may lie beneath the streets of New York. Archaeologists find remnants of an old city beneath a new one. Such is what we find in digs throughout the world. Little remains of San Juan Hill and tourists haven’t got a clue that this Lincoln Center area was the most dangerous Manhattan neighborhoods in the 20th Century.
Few remember the significance of the Collect Pond, the names of city streets and parks, and the flavors of what made New York the great city it is. Many of those things are hidden or gone. Fewer remember San Juan Hill.
New York City has enjoyed urban renewal for at least 200 years. Robert Moses had dreams that cars would eventually replace public transportation. Demolishing the elevated railways made urban development easy. We all enjoy and appreciate the sphere that Lincoln Center has made as an inviting part of the upper-west side. Perhaps it is true that neighborhood improvement means destroying old neighborhoods.
Beneath the realities of today, below Lincoln Center and the towering skyscrapers, virtually nothing exists to commemorate San Juan Hill (other than Monk Circle). What’s left of what was once San Juan Hill memories are new productions of West Side Story and the glorious movie version. Some movies, like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, were filmed there.
From the existing (and changing) Hells Kitchen to the defunct San Juan Hill, a historic (though infamous) Manhattan neighborhood may be forgotten and (for the most part) is. May Lincoln Center reign as long as it can. Lincoln Center is a west side story reaching middle-age. Who knows what lies ahead?