Lincoln Center revisits the painful history of San Juan Hill In New York City, the area dominated by Lincoln Center was formerly home to Black and Puerto Rican communities. Etienne Charles' new musical work addresses that difficult past.

Revisiting San Juan Hill, the neighborhood destroyed to make way for Lincoln Center

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Think back to the opening of last year's film version of "West Side Story."


SUMMERS: 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, home to the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic, among others. In the 1950s, that neighborhood, called San Juan Hill, was mostly a community of Black and Puerto Rican residents. Their story and even the name of their neighborhood was mostly scrubbed from history. As NPR cultural correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas reports, the New York Philharmonic is now premiering a new piece of music which aims to acknowledge that past.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: 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. Duke Ellington and cornet player Rex Stewart even co-wrote a tune named in tribute to this community, "San Juan Hill."


TSIOULCAS: But in the 1950s, the powerful urban planner Robert Moses led the effort to have San Juan Hill razed. 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.


ROBERT MOSES: Now, I ask you - what was that neighborhood? It was a Puerto Rican slum. Do you remember it?

ROBERT SAM ANSON: No, I don't remember it.

MOSES: Yeah, well, I lived on one of those streets there for a number of years, and I know exactly what it was like. It was the worst slum in New York. You want to leave it there? Why - on account of neighborhood business? Christ, you never could have been there. That was the worst slum in New York, and we cleared it out.

TSIOULCAS: 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.

YARIMAR BONILLA: Robert Moses in particular - he used a lot of kind of medical language, talking about the slums as these cancers that had to be eradicated and cleaned up and - almost as if it was a disease that could spread.

TSIOULCAS: Sixty years after Lincoln Center's opening and a $550 million renovation later, the New York Philharmonic's home at Lincoln Center, now called David Geffen Hall, is reopening this weekend. And Lincoln Center is taking this opportunity to readdress the narrative of its history. 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.


TSIOULCAS: Etienne 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. But he eventually realized that the razed neighborhood had significant Caribbean connections and to jazz. The Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander told Charles that composer and pianist Thelonious Monk had grown up in San Juan Hill.

ETIENNE CHARLES: Monty Alexander came to my house, 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, you know, I never thought about it. And he started playing "Green Chimneys." It went, (vocalizing) boom, boom, boom, boom, ba doo dum. Boom, boom, boom, boom ba dum.


TSIOULCAS: Etienne 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-disciplined 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.

SHANTA THAKE: 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 and 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.

TSIOULCAS: In his musical portrait of San Juan Hill, Etienne Charles wanted to move through many dimensions - chronological, stylistic and demographic - from Geechee Gullah shipyard workers to recently arrived European communities.

CHARLES: This piece is about showing the magic of the culture that was created when these people came together here. Gullah dance here, paseo rhythm there, Antillean waltz here, Sicilian folk chant there, Irish drunk song there - like, you know, all of these different pieces together mixed up. The blues from the South 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.

TSIOULCAS: 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 B. Johnson.


CHARLES: And then from "The Charleston," we get to the serious part, which is "Urban Removal." Those were the 10 years from 1949 to 1959, when it went from the Housing Act to groundbreaking of Lincoln Center. And then the last part is a piece called "House Rent Party," where it's like, you know, we can all come together.

TSIOULCAS: Tickets for this world premiere are priced as pay what you want, starting at $5 per ticket - another way of making Lincoln Center a truly welcoming space for all New Yorkers. "San Juan Hill" has its world premiere this Saturday. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.


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