Black History 365: Etienne Charles: San Juan Hill: A New York Story
Revisiting San Juan Hill, the neighborhood destroyed to make way for Lincoln Center
Think back to the opening of the 2021 film version of the musical West Side Story. The very first thing we see is acres of rubble, and a sign: “This property purchased by the New York Housing Authority for slum clearance.”
That’s an allusion to a real neighborhood that was destroyed to make way for Lincoln Center. In the 1950s, San Juan Hill was mostly a community of Black and Puerto Rican residents. Their story — and even the name of their neighborhood — has been mostly scrubbed from history. Now, a new piece of music being premiered by the New York Philharmonic aims to acknowledge that past.
Long before Lincoln Center existed, San Juan Hill was a nexus for 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 tune named in tribute to this community, where dance halls and jazz clubs thrived.
But in the 1950s, the powerful urban planner Robert Moses led the effort to have San Juan Hill razed, with the intention of establishing a midtown campus for Fordham University and creating Lincoln Center. He displaced more than 7,000 families as well as some 800 businesses. In a 1977 interview with New York’s public television station, WNET, Moses defended destroying San Juan Hill.
When the interviewer asked about San Juan Hill, Moses retorted: “Now I ask you, what was that neighborhood? It was a Puerto Rican slum. You remember it?” No, the host admitted.
“Yeah, well, I lived on one of those streets there for a number of years, and I know exactly what it was like,” Moses responded. (There is no record of Moses residing in this neighborhood, according to Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of Moses, The Power Broker.)
“It was the worst slum in New York,” Moses insisted in the television interview. “You want to leave it there? Why? Out of account of neighborhood business? Christ, you never could have been there. That was the worst slum in New York,” he bellowed, clapping his hands for emphasis. “And we cleared it out.”
Professor Yarimar Bonilla is the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. She says Robert Moses intentionally used highly charged language about San Juan Hill.
“Robert Moses in particular,” Bonilla says, “He used a lot of kind of medical language talking about the slums as these cancers that had to be eradicated and cleaned up, almost as if it was a disease that could spread.”
60 years after Lincoln Center’s opening and a $550 million renovation later, the New York Philharmonic’s home at Lincoln Center, David Geffen Hall, is reopening this weekend. Lincoln Center is taking this opportunity to readdress the narrative of its founding.
It invited Etienne Charles — a composer, trumpet player, percussionist and Guggenheim fellow — to think deeply about that complicated past, and create a piece of music that would acknowledge that hidden history. So Etienne Charles created a new work for the Philharmonic and his band, Creole Soul called 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, which is part of the Lincoln Center campus.
Charles eventually realized, however, that the razed neighborhood had significant Caribbean connections — and to jazz. Initially, Charles learned that pianist Herbie Nichols (whose roots were also in Trinidad) was from San Juan Hill. Not long after, the 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 recounts, “And we were working on some music for his concert. He started playing Monk’s music and he’s like, ‘You realize Monk’s music has a Caribbean bounce, right?’ And I said, ‘I never thought about it.’ He started playing Green Chimneys — ‘Boom, boom, boom, boom, ba-doo-boo, boom, boom, boom, boom, ba doo,'” Charles says, enunciating the Monk tune’s rhythm. “Monk heard Caribbean music in San Jan Hill all around him.”
Charles notes that once Lincoln Center opened in 1962, even its physical campus felt literally exclusive to some. The institution’s general shape, he says, is of the letter C, with a large plaza and impressive fountain facing Broadway. “And the C has its back to the neighborhood,” he adds — an area that includes the Amsterdam Houses, a public housing project immediately behind Lincoln Center. “You can make huge statements with architecture,” the musician observes. “It’s body language with bricks.”
Charles recalls an interview that he and one of his San Juan Hill collaborators, photographer Hollis King, did for this project. “Hollis asked somebody 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 played.’ And then he added, ‘But it wasn’t in the neighborhood. It was at Lincoln Center.'” Charles pauses to let that exchange sink in. “There’s sometimes that moment when somebody tells you what you see.”
Charles’ meditation on San Juan Hill will be the very first piece of music to be heard in the newly renovated David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. It’s also the first time that Lincoln Center has ever commissioned music for the New York Philharmonic. Charles worked with a number of creative multi-discipline collaborators to make San Juan Hill come alive.
Shanta Thake is the chief artistic officer at Lincoln Center. She says commissioning Charles to write such a piece was a crucial moment of reckoning for the institution.
“What an example, what a moment that would be, to open David Geffen Hall with this commission, with this story, and really confront our past head-on as we move into the future,” Thake says. “Not kind of blank slate everything, but really make things more complicated for ourselves — and I think in a way actually allow us to make space for what’s next.”
Thake continues, “I think the cultural sector has even more of a responsibility to hold our histories and not to plaster over them. It matters whose stories we have historically told. It certainly matters that we tell our own story fully, and with all the complexity and the mistakes that we made. That’s okay.”
In his musical portrait of San Juan Hill, Etienne Charles wanted to move through many dimensions — chronological, stylistic, and demographic, from Gullah Geechee shipyard workers to recently arrived European communities, as well as historical moments and figures in the neighborhood.
“This piece is about showing the magic of the culture that was created when these people came together here,” Charles says. “Gullah dance here, paseo rhythm there, Antillean waltz here, Sicilian folk chant there, Irish drunk song there — all of these different pieces together mixed up, the blues from the South. It created a vibe that fed not just American culture, but influenced everything that would happen and come out of New York for the next 50 years.”
Charles’ piece references lots of music made and heard in the neighborhood — including the Charleston dance. Although it’s named after the South Carolina city, it was actually born right in San Juan Hill, thanks to composer and pianist James P. Johnson, who had grown up partly in the neighborhood and later frequently played at one of its clubs.
“Then from the Charleston, we get to the serious part,” Charles explains, “Which is urban removal, with the 10 years from 1949 to 1959 when it went from the Housing Act to the groundbreaking of Lincoln Center. And then the last part is a piece called House Rent Party, where was you know, we could all come together.”
Tickets for this world premiere are priced as pay-what-you-want, starting at $5 per seat, with some free tickets available the day of the performance — another way of making Lincoln Center a truly welcoming space for all New Yorkers.
San Juan Hill: A New York Story has its world premiere this Saturday.