A West Side Story: Making Lincoln Center What It Is Today

Walking through Lincoln Center today, one is surrounded by endless artistic venues such as theaters, art galleries, dancing schools, and performing arts clubs. Lincoln Center is home to household names such as the Juilliard School for the Performing Arts, the Walter Reade Theater, the Metropolitan Opera House, Fordham University, and the David Rubenstein Atrium. Every street that lines Lincoln Center seems to be bursting at the seams with artistic talent and infinite amounts of success. The local inhabitants of the Lincoln Center area seem to be people of vast sums of wealth, dressed in the exquisite avant-garde fashion that is crafted by the most notorious names in the world of designers. Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, Hermes, and Givenchy are donned by almost every trendy person lining the street, and it is quite easy to be overwhelmed by the grandeur of it all. It is difficult to imagine a time when Lincoln Center was not a hub for affluence and artistic finesse. However, there was a time when Lincoln Center was home to vast amounts of poverty and lower class citizens. Lincoln Center is actually one of the most gentrified areas throughout all of New York City. The main actors who played a role in the “revamping” of Lincoln Center were master-builder Robert Moses, an architect most known for his work throughout the City of New York in the mid twentieth century, and John D. Rockefeller III, who crafted Lincoln Center in accordance with the “Lincoln Square Renewal Project.”

Robert Moses is easily one of the most controversial figures in the history of urban planning in twentieth century America. As a result of many of his renovation projects, thousands of lower class citizens were left without a place to call home. Following the Great Depression, New York City, along with many cities in the United States, was looking for ways to bring wealth into the city and fill the pockets of the government that was reeling from the bruises the hopeless economy was impressing. Reinventing the city-scape and transportation service was Moses’ main contribution to the improvement of New York City. He is credited with the creation of numerous bridges throughout the city, such as the Henry Hudson, and he crafted multiple expressways and parkways, including the Cross-Bronx Expressway, to make transportation within the city much easier.

While Moses was the man who grabbed the City by its horns and took it for a spin, John D. Rockefeller III was named the president in 1956 and moved on to become the chairman in 1961. He raised more than half of the 184.5 million in private funds in order to bring to life this cultural hub. On April 21, 1955, Lincoln Center was chosen as a prime spot for urban renewal. Lincoln Center’s three primary buildings: Avery Fisher Hall, David H. Koch Theater, and The Metropolitan Opera House were opened in 1962, 1964, and 1966. The artistic community was brought to life, and the neighborhood of San Juan Hill as it used to be would never be the same.

The Mayor’s Slum Clearance Committee marked Lincoln Square as the prime location for an urban renewal project. The creation of Lincoln Center destroyed the entire neighborhood of San Juan Hill, prominently featured in the Hollywood film West Side Story. A neighborhood of tenements packed full of black and Puerto Rican inhabitants, the area of San Juan Hill is speculated to have been the most densely populated African American neighborhood in twentieth century Manhattan. In 1940, the New York City Housing Authority deemed the area “the worst slum section in the City of New York,” and the City organized to demolish the area and make way to create the cultural hub that is Lincoln Center. Without care about the displacement of the underprivileged inhabitants of the area, the construction of Lincoln Center commenced without so much as a thought about the current residents of the San Juan Hill community. If one could not afford to stay in the area once the prices were raised and the quality of life skyrocketed, then they were thrown on the streets regardless of their ability to support themselves and their families’ lives.

While Robert Moses and John D. Rockefeller III had high hopes for this new cultural hotspot to be birthed, the success of Lincoln Center was surely not instant gratification. Roberta Brandes Gratz, a publisher for the New York Times, in 1967 purchased a fully renovated four story brownstone in the Lincoln Center area. Gratz reflects on her friends’ dismay that she was buying an apartment in the Upper West Side in the late 1960s, as the neighborhood was “rife with drugs, crime, and decay.” Before the work on the building of Lincoln Center commenced, in the early 1950s, many buildings were broken up into tiny apartments that were eventually “neglected by landlords” who saw no hope in regaining profit from the rundown Upper West Side. Although the condition of the Upper West Side and Lincoln Center seemed bleak at the time, contractors managed to turn the area around, and render Lincoln Center an artistic hotspot.

While many believed that the best idea was to throw up affordable housing and create a simplistic fix to an impoverished area, John D. Rockefeller III saw beyond the minimalist idea of creating cheap housing for a similarly lower class public. He decided to revolutionize the Upper West Side, building an artistic empire on top of the site. Rockefeller intended to render Lincoln Center a place where not only idolized musicians, dancers, and actors would go to showcase their talents, but amateurs would flock to in order to train to be the best generation of performers that the world had ever seen before.

The first organization to lay its roots in the new cultural stomping ground was the New York Philharmonic, followed by the Juilliard School, and then the Metropolitan Opera. On May 14, 1959, president Dwight D. Eisenhower came to give a speech to the town in front of a crowd of 12,000. It was there that he uttered the words that perfectly embody the spirit of today’s Lincoln Center: “The beneficial influence of this great cultural adventure will not be limited to our borders. Here will occur a true interchange of the fruits of national cultures. From this will develop a growth that will spread to the corners of the Earth, bringing with it a kind of human message that only individuals, not governments, can transmit.”

As lavish and exquisite as Lincoln Center has become, I can’t help but reflect on the damage that its production inflicted on countless families from the 1950s through the 1960s. Every time I walk down the streets of Lincoln Center, I am bombarded by images of wealth. Beautiful ballet dancers prance to their gigs gracefully, while patrons of the show, clearly upper class citizens, are still gabbing on their phones in an attempt to close last minute business ventures. The refinement and style of the Lincoln Center area, while mesmerizing to look at, is almost disturbing to me, being aware of the history that paved the way for the construction of Lincoln Center. In order to achieve such extravagance, lower class families were booted from their homes with nowhere to take shelter. The homeless population skyrocketed as a result of this project, along with the other “renovation” projects put forth by Robert Moses. The glamour of Lincoln Center did not come without a price. Was the pain that the construction of Lincoln Center prompted worth it in the end? For New York City’s economical stature, absolutely. For those upper class citizens who adore the performing arts, maybe. But in my opinion, tearing apart lower class lives is in no way justified by the amount of wealth one can bring in. As I gaze at the handsomeness that the Lincoln Center area boasts, I can not help but instead see the agony and distress that it has afflicted.


Image courtesy of Nils Olander (Wikipedia)

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