Lawrence Sumulong / Courtesy of Lincoln Center
Think back to the opening of the 2021 film version of the musical West Side Story. The very first thing we see are acres of rubble and a sign: “This property purchased by the New York Housing Authority for slum clearance.”
It’s an allusion to a real neighborhood that was destroyed to make way for Lincoln Center. In the 1950s, San Juan Hill was primarily a community of black and Puerto Rican residents. Their history – and even the name of their neighborhood – has been largely erased from history. Now, a new piece of music created by the New York Philharmonic aims to acknowledge that past.
Long before Lincoln Center existed, San Juan Hill was a nexus between African American and Caribbean culture. It nurtured many jazz greats, who lived and played there, including alto saxophonist Benny Carter, who grew up in the neighborhood, and pianist Herbie Nichols, who was born there to parents from St. Kitts and Trinidad. . Duke Ellington and cornet player Rex Stewart even co-wrote a track named after this community, where dance halls and jazz clubs flourished.
But in the 1950s, powerful city planner Robert Moses led efforts to raze San Juan Hill, intending to establish a downtown campus for Fordham University and create Lincoln Center. It moved more than 7,000 families as well as some 800 businesses. In a 1977 interview with New York’s public television network WNET, Moses defended the destruction of San Juan Hill.
When the interviewer asked about San Juan Hill, Moses retorted, “Now I’m asking you, what was that neighborhood? It was a Puerto Rican slum. Do you remember that?” No, admitted the host.
“Yeah, well, I lived on one of those streets there for a number of years, and I know exactly what it was like,” Moses replied. (There is no record of Moses residing in this neighborhood, according to Robert Caro’s masterful biography of Moses, The Power Broker.)
“It was the worst slum in New York,” Moses insisted in the TV interview. “Do you want to leave it there? Why ? For neighborhood business? Lord, you could never have been there. It was the worst slum in New York,” he yelled, clapping his hands for emphasis. “And we cleaned it up.”
Professor Yarimar Bonilla is director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. She says Robert Moses intentionally used very loaded language about San Juan Hill.
“Robert Moses in particular,” says Bonilla, “He used a lot of medical language to talk about slums as these cancers that needed to be eradicated and cleaned up, almost as if it were a disease that could spread. ”
Lawrence Sumulong / Courtesy of Lincoln Center
60 years after Lincoln Center opened and a $550 million renovation later, the home of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, David Geffen Hall, reopens this weekend. Lincoln Center is taking the opportunity to rewrite the story of its founding.
He invited Etienne Charles – composer, trumpeter, percussionist and Guggenheim Fellow – to think deeply about this complicated past and create a piece of music that would acknowledge this hidden history. So Etienne Charles created a new work for the Philharmonie and his group, Creole Soul entitled San Juan Hill: A New York Story.
Charles is originally from Trinidad. He had never heard of San Juan Hill until he moved to New York to study for a master’s degree at Juilliard, part of the Lincoln Center campus.
Charles eventually realized, however, that the razed neighborhood had important ties to the Caribbean — and to jazz. Initially, Charles learned that pianist Herbie Nichols (whose roots were also in Trinidad) was from San Juan Hill. Soon after, Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander told Charles that composer and pianist Thelonious Monk had also grown up in San Juan Hill.
“Monty Alexander came to my house,” Charles says, “And we were working on music for his concert. He started playing Monk’s music and he was like, ‘Do you realize Monk’s music has a Caribbean rebound, right?’ And I said, ‘I never thought of that.’ He started playing Green chimneys “Boom, boom, boom, boom, ba-doo-boo, boom, boom, boom, boom, ba doo,” Charles said, setting out the rhythm of Monk’s tune. “Monk heard Caribbean music at San Jan Hill all around him.”
Charles notes that once Lincoln Center opened in 1962, even its physical campus seemed literally exclusive to some. The general shape of the institution, he says, is of the letter C, with a large plaza and an impressive fountain facing Broadway. “And the C turns its back on the neighborhood,” he adds — an area that includes the Amsterdam Houses, a public housing project just behind Lincoln Center. “You can make huge statements with architecture,” observes the musician. “It’s body language with bricks.”
Charles recalls an interview that he and one of his San Juan Hill collaborators, photographer Hollis King, did it for this project. “Hollis asked someone who still lives in the neighborhood, ‘What was your most memorable musical event in the neighborhood?'”
“And he said,” Charles continues, “My most memorable musical event was when Tito Puente performed.” And then he added, “But it wasn’t in the neighborhood. It was at Lincoln Center.” see.”
Charles’ Meditation on San Juan Hill will be the first-ever piece of music to be heard in Lincoln Center’s newly renovated David Geffen Hall. It is also the first time Lincoln Center has commissioned music for the New York Philharmonic. Charles worked with a number of creative multidisciplinary collaborators to bring San Juan Hill to life.
Shanta Thake is the artistic director of Lincoln Center. She says commissioning Charles to write such a play was a pivotal moment for the institution.
Michael Moran / Courtesy of Lincoln Center
“What an example, what a moment it would be, to open David Geffen Hall with this commission, with this story, and really face our past head-on as we move into the future,” Thake said. “It’s not kind of a blank slate, but it really makes things more complicated for ourselves – and I think in a way it actually allows us to make room for what’s next.”
Thake continues: “I think the cultural sector has an even greater responsibility to preserve our stories, not cover them up. It is important to know who we have historically told stories to. It is certainly important that we tell our own story fully, and with all the complexity and mistakes that we have made.
In his musical portrait of San Juan Hill, Etienne Charles wanted to cross many dimensions – chronological, stylistic and demographic, from Gullah Geechee shipyard workers to recently arrived European communities, as well as historical moments and characters from the neighborhood.
“This piece is about showing the magic of the culture that was created when these people came together here,” Charles explains. “Gullah dances here, step rhythm there, West Indian waltz here, Sicilian folksong there, drunken Irish song there – all these different tunes mixed together, Southern blues. It created a vibe that not only nurtured American culture, but influenced everything that was to come in and out of New York for the next 50 years.”
Charles’ play references many music made and heard in the neighborhood, including Charleston dancing. Although named after the town in South Carolina, he was actually born in San Juan Hill, thanks to composer and pianist James P. Johnson, who grew up partly in the neighborhood and later performed frequently in the one of his clubs.
“Then from the Charleston, we come to the serious part,” Charles explains, “which is the urban kidnapping, with the 10 years from 1949 to 1959 where it went from housing law to the inauguration of the Lincoln Center. And then the last part is a room called House Rent Party, where you know, we could all get together.”
Tickets to this world premiere are priced at whatever pay you want, starting at $5 per seat, with free tickets available the day of the performance – another way to make Lincoln Center a truly welcoming space for all. New Yorker.
San Juan Hill: A New York Story has its world premiere this Saturday.