Revisiting San Juan Hill, the neighborhood destroyed to make approach for Lincoln Middle

Suppose again to the opening of the 2021 movie model of the musical West Aspect Story. The very very first thing we see is acres of rubble, and an indication: “This property bought by the New York Housing Authority for slum clearance.”

That is an allusion to an actual neighborhood that was destroyed to make approach for Lincoln Middle. Within the Nineteen Fifties, San Juan Hill was largely a group of Black and Puerto Rican residents. Their story — and even the identify of their neighborhood — has been largely scrubbed from historical past. Now, a brand new piece of music being premiered by the New York Philharmonic goals to acknowledge that previous.

Lengthy earlier than Lincoln Middle existed, San Juan Hill was a nexus for African American and Caribbean tradition. It nurtured many jazz greats, who lived and performed there — together with alto saxophonist Benny Carter, who grew up within the neighborhood, and pianist Herbie Nichols, who was born there to oldsters from St. Kitts and Trinidad. Duke Ellington and cornet participant Rex Stewart even co-wrote a tune named in tribute to this community, the place dance halls and jazz golf equipment thrived.

However within the Nineteen Fifties, the highly effective city planner Robert Moses led the trouble to have San Juan Hill razed, with the intention of creating a midtown campus for Fordham College and creating Lincoln Middle. He displaced greater than 7,000 households in addition to some 800 companies. In a 1977 interview with New York’s public tv station, WNET, Moses defended destroying San Juan Hill.

When the interviewer requested about San Juan Hill, Moses retorted: “Now I ask you, what was that neighborhood? It was a Puerto Rican slum. You bear in mind it?” No, the host admitted.

“Yeah, nicely, I lived on a kind of streets there for quite a few years, and I do know precisely what it was like,” Moses responded. (There isn’t a file of Moses residing on this neighborhood, in accordance with Robert Caro’s magisterial biography of Moses, The Energy Dealer.)

“It was the worst slum in New York,” Moses insisted within the tv interview. “You wish to depart it there? Why? Out of account of neighborhood enterprise? Christ, you by no means may have been there. That was the worst slum in New York,” he bellowed, clapping his palms for emphasis. “And we cleared it out.”

Professor Yarimar Bonilla is the director of the Middle for Puerto Rican Research at Hunter Faculty. She says Robert Moses deliberately used extremely charged language about San Juan Hill.

“Robert Moses specifically,” Bonilla says, “He used lots of type of medical language speaking in regards to the slums as these cancers that needed to be eradicated and cleaned up, nearly as if it was a illness that might unfold.”

Lawrence Sumulong / Courtesy of Lincoln Middle


Courtesy of Lincoln Middle

A mural depicting the historical past of San Juan Hill by graffiti and visible artist Depraved GF (Gary Fritz) and his graffiti crew The EX VANDALS, created in Brooklyn as a part of the San Juan Hill: A New York Story venture.

60 years after Lincoln Middle’s opening and a $550 million renovation later, the New York Philharmonic’s dwelling at Lincoln Middle, David Geffen Corridor, is reopening this weekend. Lincoln Middle is taking this chance to readdress the narrative of its founding.

It invited Etienne Charles — a composer, trumpet participant, percussionist and Guggenheim fellow — to suppose deeply about that difficult previous, and create a bit of music that may acknowledge that hidden historical past. So Etienne Charles created a brand new work for the Philharmonic and his band, Creole Soul known as San Juan Hill: A New York Story.

Charles is initially from Trinidad. He had by no means heard of San Juan Hill till he moved to New York to review for a grasp’s diploma at Juilliard, which is a part of the Lincoln Middle campus.

Charles ultimately realized, nevertheless, that the razed neighborhood had important Caribbean connections — and to jazz. Initially, Charles realized that pianist Herbie Nichols (whose roots had been additionally in Trinidad) was from San Juan Hill. Not lengthy after, the Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander informed Charles that composer and pianist Thelonious Monk had additionally grown up in San Juan Hill.

“Monty Alexander got here to my home,” Charles recounts, “And we had been engaged on some music for his live performance. He began enjoying Monk’s music and he is like, ‘You understand Monk’s music has a Caribbean bounce, proper?’ And I stated, ‘I by no means considered it.’ He began enjoying Inexperienced Chimneys — ‘Growth, growth, growth, growth, ba-doo-boo, growth, growth, growth, growth, ba doo,'” Charles says, enunciating the Monk tune’s rhythm. “Monk heard Caribbean music in San Jan Hill throughout him.”

Composer and trumpeter Etienne Charles, whose <em>San Juan Hill: A New York Story</em> inaugurates the newly renovated David Geffen Hall.

Lawrence Sumulong / Courtesy of Lincoln Middle


Courtesy of Lincoln Middle

Composer and trumpeter Etienne Charles, whose San Juan Hill: A New York Story inaugurates the newly renovated David Geffen Corridor.

Charles notes that when Lincoln Middle opened in 1962, even its bodily campus felt actually unique to some. The establishment’s common form, he says, is of the letter C, with a big plaza and spectacular fountain going through Broadway. “And the C has its again to the neighborhood,” he provides — an space that features the Amsterdam Homes, a public housing venture instantly behind Lincoln Middle. “You may make enormous statements with structure,” the musician observes. “It is physique language with bricks.”

Charles recollects an interview that he and certainly one of his San Juan Hill collaborators, photographer Hollis King, did for this venture. “Hollis requested any person who nonetheless lives within the neighborhood, ‘What was your most memorable musical occasion within the neighborhood?'”

“And he stated,” Charles continues, “My most memorable musical occasion was when Tito Puente performed.’ After which he added, ‘But it surely wasn’t within the neighborhood. It was at Lincoln Middle.'” Charles pauses to let that alternate sink in. “There’s generally that second when any person tells you what you see.”

Charles’ meditation on San Juan Hill would be the very first piece of music to be heard within the newly renovated David Geffen Corridor at Lincoln Middle. It is also the primary time that Lincoln Middle has ever commissioned music for the New York Philharmonic. Charles labored with quite a few inventive multi-discipline collaborators to make San Juan Hill come alive.

Shanta Thake is the chief creative officer at Lincoln Middle. She says commissioning Charles to put in writing such a bit was an important second of reckoning for the establishment.

The newly renovated interior of David Geffen Hall: the Wu Tsai theater.

Michael Moran / Courtesy of Lincoln Middle


Courtesy of Lincoln Middle

The newly renovated inside of David Geffen Corridor: the Wu Tsai theater.

“What an instance, what a second that may be, to open David Geffen Corridor with this fee, with this story, and actually confront our previous head-on as we transfer into the long run,” Thake says. “Not type of clean slate every little thing, however actually make issues extra difficult for ourselves — and I feel in a approach really permit us to create space for what’s subsequent.”

Thake continues, “I feel the cultural sector has much more of a accountability to carry our histories and to not plaster over them. It issues whose tales we now have traditionally informed. It actually issues that we inform our personal story totally, and with all of the complexity and the errors that we made. That is okay.”

In his musical portrait of San Juan Hill, Etienne Charles needed to maneuver via many dimensions — chronological, stylistic, and demographic, from Gullah Geechee shipyard employees to lately arrived European communities, in addition to historic moments and figures within the neighborhood.

“This piece is about exhibiting the magic of the tradition that was created when these folks got here collectively right here,” Charles says. “Gullah dance right here, paseo rhythm there, Antillean waltz right here, Sicilian people chant there, Irish drunk track there — all of those completely different items collectively blended up, the blues from the South. It created a vibe that fed not simply American tradition, however influenced every little thing that may occur and are available out of New York for the subsequent 50 years.”

Charles’ piece references plenty of music made and heard within the neighborhood — together with the Charleston dance. Though it is named after the South Carolina metropolis, it was really born proper in San Juan Hill, due to composer and pianist James P. Johnson, who had grown up partly within the neighborhood and later steadily performed at certainly one of its golf equipment.

“Then from the Charleston, we get to the intense half,” Charles explains, “Which is city removing, with the ten years from 1949 to 1959 when it went from the Housing Act to the groundbreaking of Lincoln Middle. After which the final half is a bit known as Home Hire Occasion, the place was you understand, we may all come collectively.”

Tickets for this world premiere are priced as pay-what-you-want, beginning at $5 per seat, with some free tickets obtainable the day of the efficiency — one other approach of constructing Lincoln Middle a really welcoming house for all New Yorkers.

San Juan Hill: A New York Story has its world premiere this Saturday.

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