Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll look at the neighborhood that was razed to make way for Lincoln Center. We’ll also look at the latest twist in Mayor Eric Adams’s personal war on rats: He persuaded a judge to throw out one of two summonses for rats at a rowhouse he owns in Brooklyn.
Credit…via Lincoln Center
As an executive vice president of Lincoln Center, Leah Johnson was involved in a project to tell what she called “the origin story of Lincoln Center,” about the predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood that was cleared in the 1950s to make way for the travertine citadel of concert halls and theaters.
Then things got personal.
She was nosing around on Ancestry.com and found that her grandmother, born in 1908, had lived at an address in San Juan Hill, as the Lincoln Center neighborhood was known early in the 20th century.
Johnson was startled: She had not heard of San Juan Hill until after she went to work at Lincoln Center almost four years ago. The family story was that her grandmother had been born in Harlem and had lived there until she moved to Brooklyn, where Johnson grew up.
The discovery “prompted me to really begin to understand what the population of San Juan Hill was,” Johnson said.
The project to tell the story of the neighborhood became “Legacies of San Juan Hill,” a website that went live this week and includes archival photographs, interviews with former residents and scholarly essays. “Legacies” was created in collaboration with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (whose eponym, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, lived in San Juan Hill in the 1890s) and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.
The website tells how more than 7,000 families and 800 businesses were displaced by “urban renewal” as the plans for Lincoln Center became reality. “We called it ‘urban removal,’” T.S. Monk, the drummer and son of the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, said in an interview for “Legacies.” He added: “Building Lincoln Center was kind of an affront to the community. It was not built for us.”
Thelonious Monk had lived in the neighborhood but moved to the Phipps Houses, just south of the area that was cleared, in the mid-1950s. “My father used to say ‘Lincoln Center is my neighborhood,’” T.S. Monk told me. “I didn’t quite understand why he felt so strongly about that. In many ways, that seemed to be more important to him than the urban removal and upheaval that was taking place” as Lincoln Center took shape.
The name of the neighborhood name might have been a tribute to the Black cavalry unit that fought in the battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898. But the historian Marcy Sacks has argued that the name reflected the constant tension between Black residents of San Juan Hill, Italian Americans in the blocks to the north and Irish Americans to the south in Hell’s Kitchen.
Sacks wrote in an article for “Legacies of San Juan Hill” that it was “an incredibly cosmopolitan community” and quoted Frances Blascoer, the sociologist who was the first secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: “From one apartment come the strains of a Bach fugue being practiced by the daughter of an established merchant of the neighborhood. Still another few steps discloses a front stoop alive with children and a bandanaed ‘Auntie’ fresh from the South.”
By the time Johnson’s grandmother was born, San Juan Hill housed the city’s largest Black community. But Sacks also writes that “racial intolerance among Manhattan’s white residents grew in tandem with the increase in the number of Black residents.”
“Increased harassment by whites” drove Black people “into ever-more-limited residential spaces,” Sacks wrote, making San Juan Hill “one of the most congested neighborhoods in New York.”
The Lincoln Center complex took shape after the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance, led by Robert Moses, announced that San Juan Hill and the adjacent Lincoln Square area were a blighted slum that demanded urban renewal.
“Lincoln Center was the shining ornament of a large, gritty slum clearance and redevelopment program that promised to revitalize the city’s traditional urban fabric by destroying whole sections of it,” the architectural survey “New York 1960: Architecture and Urbanism between the Second World War and the Bicentennial” concluded. Robert A. Caro, in “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” wrote that “Moses was not making a pretense of creating new homes for the families displaced; to replace the 7,000 low-income apartments being destroyed, 4,400 new ones were being planned — 4,000 of them luxury apartments.”
With “Legacies,” Johnson said, “you begin to peel back what was going on” — and also stir memories.
“My first time coming to Lincoln Center was as a kid,” she said. “We got dressed up on a Sunday and came and took pictures around the fountain. I don’t know whether it should have occurred to me as an 8-year-old, but it never occurred to me that there was something inside those buildings that was for us.”
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In the mayor’s personal war on rats, a split verdict
Mayor Eric Adams discovered this week that you can fight City Hall and win, 50 percent of the time. He succeeded in overturning one of two rat-related summonses that targeted the Brooklyn rowhouse he owns.
A judge upheld one of the summonses on Monday and ordered the mayor to pay a $300 fine.
The mayor’s fight against a part of the municipal government that he presides over began in December, when he persuaded an administrative law judge to throw out a summons from a Health Department inspector. The summons accused Adams of failing to control rats at the property in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The day after the judge dismissed that summons, the inspector who had written it issued two more.
One described the presence of “active rat signs,” including a rat burrow at the edge of a fence. The second said recyclables lying on the ground in the mayor’s front yard had created “harborage conditions that encourage the nesting of rats.”
The mayor appeared at a remote hearing last week with evidence, including a video he said made clear that the rat burrow was not on his property, but on a neighbor’s.
Samantha Cherit, the administrative law judge, did not find the video evidence persuasive. But she said that receipts showing he had spent nearly $8,000 on extermination efforts amounted to “a meritorious defense” — a sign that he was trying to control the rats — and tossed the first summons.
But she let the second one stand, even though the mayor said he put his recyclables in clear plastic bags and had bought a metal bin to hold them. She said the photograph he presented at the hearing showed several plastic bags of recyclables “next to the garbage bins, not in rodent-proof bins.” That “could provide shelter or protection for rodents, which amounts to a harborage condition,” she wrote.
Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor, said Adams “is grateful that one of the two summonses was dismissed, and he is reviewing the second decision. One decision is clear, however: The mayor still hates rats.”
My wife and I were on the N headed to a restaurant in Queens on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
The train pulled into the Queensboro Plaza station, and passengers danced their way in and out of the busy doors. The 7 train was waiting across the platform to allow riders to make a transfer.
The bell signaled that the doors were about to close, but they remained open a little longer than usual even after everyone seemed to have taken seats. Finally, the train left the station.
“What took you so long?” the conductor announced over the loudspeaker to a mystery passenger. “There was plenty of time back there to get across the platform!”
Everyone looked at one another in surprise. Then laughter filled the car as we rolled on to the next stop.
— Ramy Fakhr
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.