A West Side neighborhood before Lincoln Center

The bell started tolling in 1956 for the rough-around-the-edges neighborhoods west of Amsterdam Avenue in the West 60s.

“New York stands on the threshold of a brave, new era in the performing arts,” lead a New York Times article in April 1956. “An integrated center to serve the theatre, opera and operetta, music and dance is well into the planning stage.”

[Below: a man crosses West 63rd at Amsterdam in 1956]

Amsterdam163rdstnycparksarchive

To build that integrated center, of course, meant doing a little urban renewal: bulldozing the tenements, shops, and light industrial spaces spread out across coveted acreage in the neighborhoods of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill.

Lincoln Square’s boundaries aren’t clear; this working-class area may have encompassed Columbus Circle to 72nd Street, from Central Park West to the Hudson River.

Womenandkidsstooplincolncnter

[Above: a woman and kids hang out on a stoop before it makes way for Lincoln Center, 1956.]

San Juan Hill was a vibrant, mostly African-American enclave of tenements, music halls, and theaters.

[Below: a street in the West 60s, 1956]

Lincolnsquaretenement1956

Before the wrecking ball arrived in 1957, proponents for and against building what would be known as Lincoln Center duked it out at City Planning Commission meetings.

The argument then is the same one used to today whenever a big project threatens a neighborhood’s existence.

“Friends of the project praised it as a potential contribution to civic progress, education and the cultural arts,” stated a later Times piece.

Kidsinemptylot1956lincolncnter

[Above: kids play in an empty lot strung with laundry, 1956]

“Opponents viewed it as another slum clearance scheme the failed to take into account such human values as the adequate relocation of 7,000 families and hundreds of small businesses.”

LincolncentermetoperahouseLincoln Center is 52 years old this year, so we know how the story ends.

But for the curious who wonder about the neighborhoods that once stood where the Metropolitan Opera House and Avery Fisher Hall are today, photos like these remain.

[Photos: New York City Parks Department photo archives]

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50 Responses to “A West Side neighborhood before Lincoln Center”

  1. FRANK M Says:

    “…a potential contribution to civic progress, education and the cultural arts,” unaffordable to those displaced but administered by (minimum) six-figure “not-for-profit” management executives and with budgets that would support small cities. And in 57 years nothing has changed. Too bad the “potential” was never realized, but that’s life in the Big City.

  2. marckehoe Says:

    Nice piece, but third picture is not of tenements.

  3. Joe R Says:

    The intro scene in the film version of West Side Story is shot in the rubble of the demolition of San Juan Hill.

  4. Julia Benjamin Says:

    In my life I’ve only known Lincoln Center. Thanks for sharing the backstory surrounding it.

  5. Chris Says:

    Nice work – I grew up in the 50s and 60s and remember the excitement. Definitely helped to reshape the New York profile which to be honest was a little scary at that time

    • nestor cataquet Says:

      Whether it was a slum or not I don’t care, Critics, it was my remembering neighborhood, where I learned how to be” mischivious” n open my eyes: stickball, skating on yesturday’s skates, bicicle riding, swimming in the YMCA’S two pools n on the dirty water of the Hudson river, being a boys scout, going to the community center (on Ámsterdam Projects, 64 street), seeing movies in Trivoli n Chelsea theaters, playing in Central Park n sneaking in the caroussel n having to run so as not to be caught. Nothing last for ever, people. Thank-u for sharing

      • Mary jane Nilsen Says:

        I know this is an old article but you brought back a lot of memories. I grew up on 53rd & 9th but my grandmother, cousin & uncle lived in your area & I visited often. I went to the Tivoli also & to dances in the gym at St Paul’s. I’m on Facebook in a group called Westside Hell’s Kitchen. I hope to hear from you. Mary jane Nilsen

  6. chas Says:

    Certainly Lincoln Center has provided much throughout the years (I can barely miss the Nutcracker around the holidays) but for me there is still a certain nostalgic charm of the old NY…and I have only known LC in my life as well…

  7. Richard (Rick) Ward Says:

    The picture of the empty lot is on 62nd street between 9th & 10 ave. As a kid I played there. It stunk and was loaded with dog poop. I dont recognize any of the kids. As bad as it may seem, it was a good neighborhood with hard working people. What great memories I have of it.

  8. Tony B Says:

    I went to grammar school for 8 yrs. at Blessed Sacrament on 70th and B’way. I grew up on 65th street between Central Pk West and Columbus Ave between 1950 and 1964. I have been searching for photos of that street during that time period but so far no luck. If anyone could point me in the right direction I I would really appreciate it. Thanks.

    • Dave O'Flaherty Says:

      tony,
      I don’t know if you’ll ever read this..bit I also went to B.S. on 70th st..I lived on west 67th st as did my good friend and classmate Lou Patalano(Jumbo)..it was the greatest place in the world to grow up..went to B.S. for 8 years..1954-1961…Lou still lives in the area..I’m in Florida..I have not found photos of the area either..but I have the wonderful memories still in my head..my grandmother had to move from west 64 st to the projects at 5o Amsterdam Ave.. wishing you the best
      Dave O’Flaherty
      941 918 0278

  9. SearchingForAmerica (@searchingforame) Says:

    Nice article – I remember what a big deal it was building Lincoln Center. Unfortunately we remember less of the disruption of the people living there – “progress.”

  10. Karen Says:

    My Dad was an iron worker from local 580 , while he was working building Lincoln Center the Maestro was testing the acoustics with the orchestra . The maestro was Leonard Bernstein ?

  11. robert dowling Says:

    grew up in the upper west 60s Amsterdam avenue 1942 till bounced out for lc atrocity perpetrated on the people of this nabe. this was the age of urban renewal and penn station tear down and projects and the tear down everything mentality. thank god a diff world today or maybe the empire state building would be gone. moved to upper west side projects for 2 years and then to bx nyc. oh I forgot thgios was the age of moses and I am not talking bible. moses was the epitomy of good stuff/bad stuff i.e. c bx exp./Jacob riis park and orchard beach and numerous roads, except the c. ower man exp which was stopped. just think of the travesty that it was to tear down penn station (old one of course), contractor I believe said it would take a year, took 4 years. of course the people are paramount in all this, this was the age of tear down but not so much structures but lives-you can move back when it is built, oh yeah. lioke I said the age of urban which I learned a lot about in j high school (ws joan of arc) and then into hs (nys of printing). this was a failed experiment as at that time they never really took into account people in the urban renewal craze. urban renewal as we knew it would never fly today.

    • nestor cataquet Says:

      My sisters n I made our first communión at Saint Pauls the Apostles church n on Sundays we went to mass n went to confess our sins on some occasions. After the hood was uprooted we never attended mass or confessions again , but tonight I want to confess. My little sis n me were in mass once n when it ended someone left a wallet on the pew n we took it, went to a bodega, bought groceries, especially a loaf of bread n went home, told our mother n she did not agree with what we have done. We got punished for our sin, though ‘ cause inside the bread there was a dead cockroach. For our mom it was religiously terrible. We lived on 160 w 65 st in front of Commercial High School 1954, 55, 56 n 57.

  12. robert dowlingephemeralnewyork Says:

    just few more tid bits from above, bob dowling 3/6/2016=ps94, st Mathews church and rectory, the models, all inshots of west side story. all blocks were empty, cars placed for movie. remember west side, bar, kellys, white rose, gas station (gulf) bway and Amsterdam at 69st., one timemhad whale on display under tent, last show was taken to sea and dumped, rotting, station house w68st off of Amsterdam , power memorial school (lew Alcindor), omnibuses, surface trans buses ran down 69thst to west end, mcgirrs bar, Amsterdam houses(still there), con ed bldg. on Amsterdam bet 64-65st ??, although tech notmin nabe=joan of arc jhs and blessed hs and vets parad on west end bet w72st andtowards uptown=no one remembers that, Verdi square with joe Verdi, my grandmothers cousin, removed a few times, central saving bank, theather on bway bet 73 and 74th sts., a&p on bway bet w69 and w68sts., library on Amsterdam at w 69st and trolley tracks left over, Amsterdam being 2 way street, enoughfor now, I’m 73 (from1942) guess I remember a lot.

  13. N. Cataquet Says:

    To
    Enid Gonza’lez,.
    . on 40 Amsterdam.lived a friend of my sisters. Her name is or was Migdalia Flores,her mother’s name was Carin, father Augusto, n her little brother Augustito. We lived on the same brownstone on 160 west 65 st, n the two families would to the roof top.hang out. The senior would sent me to buy The Daily n gave me a tip. Iknow that he passed a long time ago n I suppose that Carin, too.my thinks a lot n remembers them Nice to hear from them n reminist

  14. nestor cataquet Says:

    To all Westsiders out there, i Im still alive n still searching desperately for people n pictures from the old hood. there’s this lady that says that she has old pics, n her name is
    Sandra (march 5, 2011), from the other column. Pleased post them I’m Nestor Cataquet.

  15. P. J. Arndt Says:

    Hello Nestor, I’m part of a team doing a documentary, The Met Opera: 50 Years at Lincoln Center. We have been talking to families who were displaced by Lincoln Center project for a sequence in the film. If interested please call 212-666-1357 Thank you!

    • Dave O'Flaherty Says:

      P.J.
      did you make the documentary?..if yes, how can I obtain it?
      thanks,
      Dave O’Flaherty
      formerly west 67 st

  16. nestor cataquet Says:

    Hello robert dowling (april 26 2016), yes I do remember a lot of ur “few more tid bits” from our west side, especially the veterans parade on west end ave. I participated by marching with the boys scout troops once. I don’t recall the year, though. I hope someone had a camera, took pics n put them so that ephemeral nyc would print them.

  17. nestor cataquet Says:

    Yes, nothing last for ever but some memories stay put in the back of our brains a lifetime. Now I recall that my friend n I made some deliveries for shoppers at the A & P supermarket, located at the northeast corner of Bdy n 68 streety. Also we would go to the railroad tracks n eat some apples. Yes there were some apple trees down there. At the PS 77 school we sliced the auditorium’s huge curtain, and minutes later the vice principal came to our eléctrical shop searching for the vandals and I was scared to death. Mischievius??? At that age almost everybody is. Good luck to all of U from that era

  18. nestor cataquet Says:

    N going back in time to the West Side,when Lincoln
    Center was not Lincoln Center but our neighborhood, I recall that the police’ll (la jara) come around, some times, n take our stickball bat away, break it or put it in the trunk of the patrol car, but we were not lazy ’cause we would go to the backyard of our tenements (65 st. n 64 st.) look for another broom, saw off the wig, round off the edge, wrap black tape around the handle n the game would go on.Remembering those yesteryears now is just as fun or, simply, entertaining. Thank-u for sharing.

  19. Richard Brennan Says:

    Bad research. The neighborhood was Italian, Irish, German, Greek and Peurto Rican. Blacks lived on 61st and 62nd but were in minority.

    • robert dowling Says:

      blacks were in 61-62sts basically, sanjuan hill. further up towards high 60s to 70st cut off and then rich peope for the time above 70st. puerto ricans started if i remember right in 1950s when migration from pr brought alot here esp nyc and as i remember lived in pockets, not spread out. last comment-for my time and others back then (born 1942) urban renewal by do gooders was not about better housing, it was and still is today the mind set that i know best and will tell you how to live and control you-urban renewal was like an out of control bulldozer, plow throught and leave devastation in its wake. no area was safe at least in big cities-rememb er east barlem, lower east side, south bx, bk and a little in queens si escaped for the most part until the bridge- the verranzano is a modern day bulldozer asfar as si isconcerned.

  20. joe valenzano Says:

    I grew up on 68th Street and Amsterdam Avenue…..170 Amsterdam to be exact…. and went to Blessed Sacrament on 70th Street just off Broadway in the late 1950,s! Great neighborhood to grow up in. I still am in touch with many of the folks who also grew up there and my classmates from Blessed Sacrament!

  21. Michael Meehan Says:

    I remember San Juan Hill very well. In retrospect I must say it was complex and very simple. It was a balance of white, black and Spanish speaking people. Needless to say there were fights and friendships just like any neighborhood.
    As a kid of the 50’s I am left with many memories; memories which i feel prepared me for life.

    Michael Meehan
    St Paul The Apostle
    class of 1958

    • dave o'flaherty Says:

      Mike,
      I didn’t know you..I lived on west 67th st between Amsterdam and b’way…I went to Blessed Sacrament on west 70th st…I loved growing up in that neighborhood…still have friends from there..my grandmother lived in 50 amsterdam ave..in the projects..we used to play softball against the guys from the projects..they had na great pitcher named Whitey…so many wonderful memories from a neighborhood in “transition”…meaning..getting rid of the poor so they could build Lincoln center…we moved ..but my heart stayed..glad to hear someone else uses this site
      dave O’Flaherty
      Venice, florida

      • Michael Meehan Says:

        Yes, it was a great place to grow up. Never a dull moment, lots of kids with lots of ideas how to pass the day.
        And the nuns at school kept a tight ship for all us kids. We had over 50 kids in a classroom and the nuns taught all the subjects while we never had to leave the desk we were assigned. i think our world today would be much better if still had those brilliant and dedicated nuns. An occasional knock on the head was to wake you up and pay attention. “I was poor cold not afford to pay attention”!

        Mick

    • Richard Ward Says:

      I think I remember you.I also went to Sr. Pauls around that time. I lived at 130 w 62nd st. next to the Armory. My name is Richard (Rickey) Ward

  22. Michael Meehan Says:

    130 West 62nd St… the same building as the O’Malley and Hughes families. And the Gillespie brothers Bernard and Patrick in the next building. The Vitaliano family lived across the street from you so did John Malone, Timmy Carey, John McNamee. Ring a bell ?

    • Richard Ward Says:

      Amazing. I now think I may have been in a class with you at St. Paul the Apostle School on West 60th Street. YES, I knew very well the Gillespies, all 3 brothers who all became police officers. Also Willy O’Mally, Harry Hughes, The Baileys, who all lived with me 130 w 62. I did not know the others you mentioned, but might recognize them on sight. I remember Dick Manilla, the Bell’s, Novalons, Gigi Ptaliano, Tony Amatoulie, George Young and his Sisters, Billy Brown, Mikey Marerro, Tucker Ix and his sister. Cant remember her name (Sandra?). Harry’s small grocery store. Amazing. That was 50+ years ago. Nice to be remembered.

      • Michael Meehan Says:

        Gigi Vitaliano and I always had some kind of disagreement. It got to the point where we, both, were on our way to “reform school (exaggeration ). But we were always punching ourselves silly. Sandra Ix is correct, she was in my class. (1958) Bernard Gillespie became a Captain of the 109th in Queens. May have gotten a higher promotion after that. Don’t know.

        I lived at 67 Amsterdam Ave across from the projects. The Fox family lived on the second floor and two sons , John and Joe also became NYPD Detectives.

        i graduated from St Paul’s on 6/28/58 and my Mom and brother Billy wound up in the Fredrick Douglass Houses on 101st st and Columbus 7/14/58. I do feel the rich pushed us aside to get their Music Hall with total disregard for our homes. Some of the buildings were not very nice but some of them were well kept…clean,not modern.

        I will always have a warm spot in my heart for San Juan Hill. There is a book by the title San Juan Hill. you can get it on Amazon.com.
        And there is a Documentary titled “The Opera House” it has been shown on the PBS station. I have a small part in it along with another resident by the name Jose Sanchez.

      • Richard Ward Says:

        Talk about a small world, after coming home from school and seeing painted on the tenements “this building condemned”, my family got the boot to the same housing project. 140 w 104 st apt 17f. Th elevators were perpetually broke and a miracle to get in the door safe after dark. I went o school ith a Paul Sanchez. Bernard Gillespie became chief of detectives as far as I know, Pat was a motorcycle cop. Sonny Ix was always sick Had bad asthma.Tucker, he brother, perpetually in trouble. There Father was Jack, a super nice guy and also a police officer. Gigi was one tough apple. And the vacant lot (known as The Lots”, was a massive toilet for every dog. There was another deli towards Amsterdam. I think it was called “tony’s”. 2 HUGE sisters lived next door and one had a daughter. They were known as Fat Fay and Big Bertha. Daughter was “Bobbi Musso”. Bertha was over 300 easy. Maybe 400 lbs.No one was rolling in dough, but almost all did what ever to make a living and try and put their kids in Catholic School.Poor people not knowing we were poor making a great and safe neighborhood.

      • Michael Meehan Says:

        Above Tony’s grocery store was the Reid family. 5 sisters two brothers all had red hair and was happy as happy con be. Father towards Amsterdam ave was Charlie and Lil’s luncheonette. Charlie built some bleachers in the back yard and use t show movies on Friday night. I watched from our third floor window. Charlie thought he’s sell more candy to the kids if they wanted to go through his store to get to the back yard. i don’t know how that worked out for Charlie?

        The Amory always had something going on: Roller Derby, Circus, Tournaments of any kind. I’d seek up onto its roof to retrieve Spauldings for stick ball.

      • Richard Ward Says:

        Charlie was called “Indian Charlie”. I think he was an Amrican Indian. I went there rarely. Too poor. Once in a blue moon, I was able to buy lunch at Rocco’s on Amsterdam Ave close to the school. I think 61st st. They had a guy in the back store room making fantastic meatball hero’s and eggs with peppers.on this little stove.Never got invited to a movie and did not even know it existed.Wish I had pictures of the Armory and the old neighborhood. Again, taking photo’s too expensive. Oh yes, I use to shine shoes with Bernie Gillespie.

      • Richard Ward Says:

        If I am not mistaken, in my mind I see a tall slim fellow in your youth. I think, at that time, your Father was a bar tender. Am I right? If yes, then we were in the same class together at St. Paul’s

      • Michael Meehan Says:

        nah !!! I was always first in line at St Pauls. Somebody behind me kept hitting me in the head when i would turn to see who had done it nobody would tell me. “The code of the Westside”.

        Remember Paddy Morrissey? He was a poplar guy. The girls loved him as they did my brother.

        My father was a Restaurateur in the Midway Tavern on Amsterdam Ave. According to the NYPD he was a Bookie. Funny how occupational titles have changed through the years.

      • Richard Ward Says:

        I remember a handome guy the girls seemed to like nick named “Me too”> I have n o idea of what that stood for. I remember the Amsterdam Ave boys belong to a gang called “The Dragons” . They all wore grey jackets with DRAGONS written on the back. And a poor kid that was retarded they called “doggie” cause he looked like a dog. Also an older guy that got married that lived in 130, my building, called Danny Apollo.

      • Michael Meehan Says:

        Me Too was a kid with tattoos and muscles. Me Too was so named because he always wanted something and would say “me too”. His entire building burnt down one Saturday night around Feb, 1955. About 5 buildings had to be condemned. I remember Danny Appolo, he was about 5 years older. And I remember the “Dragons” they thought it was cool to have jackets with a name. Not bad kids.

        Please use Amst67@aol.com for further contact.

        Thanks,

        Mickey Meehan

  23. Michael Meehan Says:

    please pardon my typos

    • Richard ward Says:

      Just reading all the interesting things you wrote. Brings back so many memories. Cant believe I am 76 years old and that was so very long ago. Almost 3/4’s of a century. I am probably moving out of NY. Taxes are nuts, real estate prices thru the roof, on and on. I just dont know how working people pay the rent. When I lived in130 west 62nd st. 1 flight up in the back, the rent was $27 a month and we could just barely pay it. Kerosene stove in the living room, another small one in the kitchen was our source of heat. Wash lines out side the living room windows, and many apartments had wood box’s stuck in the window used as a form of refrigeration. They seemed to work great. We had an ice box as a kid. “Nick” the ice man delivered ice and kerosene. You would write your ice and kerosene order on a board that had a pad and pencil that stood in front of Harry’s deli across the street from me. Ah, yes, luxury living. I shined shoes as a kid. Made $5 one day. Family was positive I robbed someone. Hoping you are well.
      .

  24. Michael Meehan Says:

    To Dave O’Flanery

    Do you recall the social/ athletic club called the Aces?
    Do you remember Bill Bennett, Anthony Vitto?

    • Richard Ward Says:

      Sorry, no I dont. The “guys that lived close to Columbus Ave did not associate with the guys that lived in the middle of the block. Dont know why. Different clique. Same goes for Amsterdam Ave.The only guy I actually was friends outside of the “middle of the block boys” with was Anthony Sabatini from 63rd st.

  25. Thaddeus Buttmunch, MD Says:

    I’m not a New Yorker (although I lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn from 1989-1990 and trained at a nearby Hospital) and in New Jersey for a Decade after that. I was Born in 1960 in the Midwest, so knew nothing of San Juan Hill. Wasn’t that area, or the NY Tenderloin, where Blacks lived before they moved to West Harlem?? Some things are Old, Bad, and need to be torn down. The problem is, then folks just move to other areas and They also go downhill. This happened in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and, of course, The South Bronx.

    • Richard Ward Says:

      I was born and raised in that area till I was 13 years old. The people that lived there worked hard for not much money. They were religious and spent every dime they could to give their kids the best education they could. There were very few “bad apples”. I shined shoes at 6 years old. I became President of an Electronics Company. My best friend had 2 brothers living at 134 w. 62 St. in a 4 floor walk up. 5 people in 3 tiny rooms. The 3 kids all became police officers. My best friend, Bernard Gillespie, became chief of detectives. So much for them “bringing down the next neighborhood they moved to”.

      • bocilla171 Says:

        Richard,
        great response…never forget where you came from…a great place to grow up..and even greater people..your a true Westsider…

  26. A Criscuolo Says:

    My grandfather lived at 165 West End Avenue with his family and surrounding family across the street. Anybody remember Tony “Shesh” Criscuolo? This would be 1940’s through 1950’s and demolition. Shesh was the last guy living in the neighborhood after everybody left but before the wrecking ball came.

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