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San Juan Hill, Manhattan

A row of residential housing and commercial establishments along 63rd Street, 1956

San Juan Hill was an African American, African Caribbean, and Puerto Rican community in what is now the Lincoln Square neighborhood of the Upper West Side in Manhattan, New York City. It was predominately African American and one of the largest Black communities in New York before World War I.

The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is a 16.3 acre complex of buildings built on what was once San Juan Hill. San Juan Hill was bound by 59th Street to the south, West End Avenue to the west, 65th Street to the north, and Amsterdam Avenue to the east, 11th Avenue.[1]


There are different opinions as to why the area was called San Juan Hill. Some critics say that it refers to the bloody Spanish–American War of 1898 fought in Cuba. It is also said that it was because African-American veterans from the war lived in the area. Others say that the name was given to the area due to the constant racial gang fights between African-Americans and Irish-American gangs.[2]


African Americans moved into the area around the late 19th century from Greenwich Village, where an earlier black community existed.[3][4] While Lincoln Center has been popular since the 1960s, there is a rich history that lies before it, San Juan Hill. Jazz and art thrived in this area as its popularity began to grow. The neighborhood had a jazz club called "Jungle Cafe" nicknamed the jungle by the members of San Juan Hill. This term was used by Milton Mezz Mezzrow, a White jazz clarinetist was introduced to Jazz while living in Harlem, where he heard recordings of James P. Johnson, the pianist who was from San Juan Hill in which he said "Here’s a boy from the Jungles who makes all the other piano players look sick!” [5] Moreover, this basement club was where Charleston was allegedly born and got its start. Now we have "Jazz at Lincoln Center" in order to keep and maintain a part of this rich history.[6] Historian Marcy S. Sacks quotes in her book, Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I (Politics and Culture in Modern America) that San Juan Hill had lots of tenement basement clubs that ranged from dives to higher-level clubs. And that there were also poolrooms, saloons, dance halls, and bordellos.

San Juan Hill had many black churches that historian Marcy Sacks says moved into the area around the 1880s and 1890s. Among them St. Mark's Methodist Episcopal, Mt. Olivet Baptist and St. Benedict the Moor Church. Although St. Benedict the Moor Church was located in neighboring Hell's Kitchen, it was built in 1883.[7] The area had numerous community and fraternal organizations, such as the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, Negro Elks, and the Colored Freemasons. This community also attracted war veterans returning from the Spanish- American War of 1898 which could have given rise to its name.[8]

Aerial view of the construction of Lincoln Center and demolition of San Juan Hill, 1962


The History of San Juan Hill was mostly erased due to urban planning, leaving a number of people never to know it even existed. In the early 20th century African-Americans started to move from San Juan Hill to Harlem although it was the largest black community in New York City before the first world war. The black population decreased while the Puerto Rican population grew. More Puerto Rican families started moving there in the 1950s coinciding with a massive influx of Puerto Rican migration after World War II. In the 1940s the neighborhood of San Juan Hill was designated as a slum and called "the worst slum district of New York City" by the New York City Housing Authority. Declaring the area of San Juan Hill a slum later became the first step in a city redevelopment project in the name of urban renewal. In 1947 tenements were beginning to be demolished for Amsterdam housing. Robert Moses a developer and chairmen of Committee on Slum Clearance and who led Urban Gentrification throughout most of the 1950s and 1960s, used a federal program to claim the land in the area of San Juan Hill under eminent domain. This law was Title I of the 1949 Housing Act. It gave federal backing for “urban renewal” projects. The "urban renewal" projects created middle-class housing. This post-WWII transformation of San Juan Hill neighborhood is said to have been an early example of urban gentrification.[9][10] In 1947 the City of New York made San Juan Hill an area for redevelopment. Parts of San Juan Hill, from 61st to 64th Streets along Amsterdam to West End Avenues were destroyed in 1947, and the Amsterdam Houses were completed in 1948. More than 1,100 families, mostly black and Puerto Rican, were evicted to build the Amsterdam Houses. During this time the displacement of more than 7,000 lower-class families and 800 businesses happened, mainly being due to the price increase regarding the renewal process of clearing up the slums. Although 4,400 new housing units were intended for future residents. The rent of rooms after the urban renewal project took place would range from $40-$50 a room, which was too high for the original residents. However, few tenement houses still stand today, one prominent one being Phipps Houses on 63rd Street. The buildings make up the oldest affordable housing units that led to the move of the working class and quality of life that was rare for the people of color during this time. Moreover, Roseanna Weston, a resident of San Juan Hill who lived in this housing said that she remembered that before living in Phipps houses, her family lived in a run-down tenement.[11] Known as the ideal tenement, it was one of the last tenement buildings left standing after the demolition of San Juan Hill.[10] In the 1950s, the neighborhood was torn down and Lincoln Center was built where the San Juan Hill neighborhood used to be. The land was obtained by Moses using eminent domain and turned a multi-ethnic community into an elite cultural venue. By 1955, Robert Moses struck a deal with the Met Opera to develop the neighborhood north of Columbus Circle into a home for the arts. Other organizations such as Fordham University, the New York Philharmonic, and the Juilliard School of Music soon followed suit moved their headquarters and campuses to the center.[12] The area had been the home of over 7,000 residents. [13][14][15] President Dwight D. Eisenhower was present at the groundbreaking for the development project in 1959.[10] [9][16]


Lincoln Center in 2010

San Juan Hill was known as the birthplace of the Charleston and Bebop. Today, Lincoln Center is the home of the New York City Opera, New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera.

The film West Side Story was filmed in parts of San Juan Hill following the condemning of the neighborhood's buildings in 1961.[12]

Notable residents

Thelonious Monk in 1947

Thelonious Monk, the jazz pianist, grew up in San Juan Hill. He was raised in the Phipps houses on West 63rd street. A portion of a street in the old San Juan Hill neighborhood was named after Thelonious Monk. After his death, Monk's family created the Thelonious Monk Foundation to help improve music education throughout the United States.[17] Pianist James P. Johnson, one of the pioneers of the Stride (music) style of piano playing family moved to San Juan Hill in 1908. Johnson composed the Roaring Twenties popular song "Charleston". Many of Johnson's compositions have been used as film scores and movies dating from 1929 to 2007. Jazz pianist Herbie Nichols was born in San Juan Hill, and became friends with Thelonious Monk later in life.


  1. ^ []. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ "Vintage Photos: The Lost San Juan Hill, Lincoln Center and a West Side Story". 19 March 2014.
  3. ^ "Lincoln Center: From Dutch enclave and notorious San Juan Hill to a thriving cultural center - 6sqft". 6sqft.
  4. ^ "Manhattan's Long Gone San Juan Hill - Destinations".
  5. ^ "A West Side Story". NY Press. Retrieved 7 May 2019.
  6. ^ Geberer, Raanan. "NY Times -Weekend Explorer".
  7. ^ "A West Side story".
  8. ^ "Remembering Neighborhood Voices Part 1". Archives of NY department of records and information services.
  9. ^ a b Sara (25 April 2011). "American Civilization: From the Slum to the Center: Robert Moses and the Creation of Lincoln Center".
  10. ^ a b c "How Lincoln Center Was Built (It Wasn't Pretty)".
  11. ^ Archives of NY Dept. of records and Information []. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. ^ a b keithyorkcity (2012-10-10). "Lincoln Center: Making Music atop San Juan Hill". Keith York City. Retrieved 2019-05-10.
  13. ^ Strausbaugh, John. "Weekend Explorer - Lincoln Center Area".
  14. ^ "A West Side story".
  15. ^ "Manhattan's long-gone San Juan Hill". 15 October 2008.
  16. ^ "San Juan hill Lincoln Center west side story - LifeDocLifetime".
  17. ^ Gray, Christopher. "Streetscapes/Henry Phipps and Phipps Houses; Millionaire's Effort to Improve Housing for the Poor".

External links