IT’S 7:30 on a weekday evening, and the Josie Robertson Plaza at the heart of Lincoln Center is crowded. Slender teenagers from Juilliard’s ballet program, hair still up in tight “bunhead” knots, dart like gazelles toward the New York State Theater, where City Ballet is about to perform. They cut through the older operagoers flowing toward the Metropolitan Opera House. Film fans stroll diagonally across the plaza, heading to the Walter Reade Theater.
The mood is cooler at Jazz at Lincoln Center nearby in the Time Warner Center. In Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, musicians play against the backdrop of the club’s wall of windows, offering patrons at the bar and small tables a spectacular view of Columbus Circle at night.
This kind of activity has characterized the neighborhood since the 1960s. But long before President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke ground for the Lincoln Center performing arts complex in 1959, the area from Columbus Circle through the neighborhoods called Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill was already something of an arts center. Jazz and opera and rock ’n’ roll, Shakespeare and Ibsen and musical theater, the visual arts and the invention of the Charleston all happened there.
Lincoln Square, the area from Columbus Circle and West 59th Street up to West 72nd Street, between Central Park and the Hudson River, is now thick, and becoming thicker, with giant middle-class residential complexes and soaring commercial towers. Lincoln Center is undergoing a rebuilding, including extensive renovations to Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard. The goal is completion in 2009.
In the early 20th century, however, Lincoln Square’s streetscapes hugged the ground with rows of tenements and brownstones, punctuated by warehouses and industrial lofts. Its residents were mostly working class and poor, with a notable contingent of artists and bohemians. On its eastern fringe stood a variety of theaters and music halls.
Squeezed into the middle, roughly from 59th to 65th Streets between Amsterdam Avenue and the 11th Avenue railroad tracks, was San Juan Hill, one of the largest black neighborhoods in Manhattan before the rise of Harlem.
On an icy, blustery December morning, I toured San Juan Hill with the historian Marcy Sacks, author of “Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). We stood outside two of the neighborhood’s last old houses, 242-244 West 61st Street, with new construction looming beside them.
In the early 1900s the reformer Mary White Ovington observed that San Juan Hill’s “tall, monotonous tenements” were “the worst type which the city affords.” Up to 5,000 people lived jammed into a single block; beds were often used in shifts, shared by boarders.
Ms. Sacks explained that the neighborhood might have been named to honor the United States Army’s black 10th Cavalry, which fought at the battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
But, she said, “the more accepted story is that it really reflected the violence and the tension that were going on constantly in this neighborhood between black residents of San Juan Hill and the Italians to the north and the Irish to the south in Hell’s Kitchen.”
A century ago that fighting was constant, from small territorial skirmishes along the black-white dividing lines to full-scale street warfare. “Race Rioters At It Again,” read a headline in The New York Times in 1905; “Bullets and Bricks Fly in Race Riot,” read another, in 1907.
At the same time, “there was a great and thriving night scene going on in San Juan Hill,” Ms. Sacks said. “In the basements of a lot of tenements were clubs that ranged from really cheap dives to higher-level, higher-scale clubs.” They included poolrooms, saloons, dance halls and bordellos. “On any given Friday or Saturday night there could be some major partying happening,” she said.
In 1913 the pianist James P. Johnson was playing at a West 62nd Street club called the Jungles Casino. Black sailors and dock workers from the nearby waterfront, many of them from the Carolinas and other Southern coastal states, frequented the club and did what Johnson later recalled as “wild and comical” dances. One particular style inspired him to write an accompanying song.
In 1923 Johnson’s musical revue “Runnin’ Wild” had its premiere at the Colonial Theater on Broadway between West 62nd and 63rd Streets, site of the Harmony Atrium since 1979. It featured the song and dance from the Jungles Casino that became synonymous with the Roaring Twenties: the “Charleston.”
The New Colonial also brought Fred and Adele Astaire to its stage and, in 1910, Charlie Chaplin, performing in a British farce, “The Wow-Wows.”
Phil Schaap, the jazz historian and curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center, said jazz took a big leap in popularity in January 1917, when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (also spelled “Jass” at the time) came from Chicago to play at Reisenweber’s Cafe, one of the large, popular lobster palaces of the era, which stood at the southwest corner of West 58th Street and Eighth Avenue.
“Within two weeks the lines went all the way down to 50th Street,” Mr. Schaap said. The band recorded songs for the Victor Talking Machine Company (precursor to RCA Victor) on Feb. 26. A week later the record was released, he said. “And before the month of March 1917 was over, it sold a million copies.”
Later, beginning in the mid-1940s, the neighborhood was a crucible of bebop. On the north side of West 66th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue, a block now dominated by the offices of the ABC network, stood the Lincoln Square Center, where Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and others played. On the same block was the St. Nicholas Arena. It was mostly for boxing matches but, Mr. Schaap noted, “Charlie Parker played dances there, and he made the legendary record ‘Bird at St. Nick’s’ there on Saturday, Feb. 18, 1950.”
A few years later the disc jockey Alan Freed, who had brought his radio show from Cleveland to WINS, played host to his first New York City “Rock ’n’ Roll Jubilee Ball” at the St. Nick on Jan. 14 and 15, 1955. Fats Domino, the Moonglows, the Harptones and others performed for 6,000 teenagers each night.
San Juan Hill was home to a few jazz giants. The Phipps Houses, still standing at 233-247 West 63rd and 234-248 West 64th Street between Amsterdam and West End Avenues, were completed in 1912. The buildings, model tenements, were financed by the philanthropist Henry Phipps, friend and partner to Andrew Carnegie, to help alleviate the neighborhood’s slum conditions.
Thelonious Monk, born in North Carolina in 1917, was a child when his family moved into the Phipps Houses. He stayed there most of his life and was often seen roaming local streets, a quiet and distant man lost in thought. ...
Thursday, January 13, 2011
an excerpt from the nytimes
Posted by David Ballela at 10:34 AM