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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19 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

  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.

  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!

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