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]
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.
[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]
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.
[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.”
Lincoln 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]