Monday, April 25, 2011

From the Slum to the Center: Robert Moses and the Creation of Lincoln Center

Today, Lincoln Center exists as one of the world's premier performance venues, a home to the New York City Opera, New York Philharmonic, New York City Ballet, and the Metropolitan Opera, among other world-renowned performance troupes. While the Center's notoriety may lend it a certain timeless quality, construction of the site only began a mere fifty-two years ago. Before President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke ground on the construction site in 1959, the land and its immediate surroundings were home to over 7000 residents of the neighborhood then called Lincoln Square. This transformation from so-called slum to cultural center is a prime example of the urban gentrification led by developer Robert Moses throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In addition, it brings into focus the attitudes of city government towards racial and ethnic minorities during post-war era, and the effect of these attitudes on public policy at large.

Between 1950 and 1957, New York City lost over 750,000 white middle class inhabitants to the suburbs (Dodson, 1960). During the same period of time, the city witnessed a vast migration of black and Puerto Rican residents, totaling over 650,000 new Manhattan residents of these ethnic minorities (Dodson, 1960). In order to curb this rapid change in racial demographics, the city's government began to heavily employ the powers it was granted by the Housing Act of 1949, which included extended eminent domain to over densely populated areas deemed “slums” (“Slum Clearance,” 2005). After Robert Moses, a famed developer and close friend of New York Senator Robert Taft and Mayor Robert Wagner, named himself the chairman of the New York City Slum Clearance Committee that was warranted by Title I of the Housing Act of 1949, he began a city-wide push to rid the metropolis of the dense slums populated largely by black and Hispanic residents, and create more attractions to bring back the city's white middle class (“Slum Clearance,” 2005). One such effort was Lincoln Center, a proposed cultural center that would be made more accessible to white commuters via massive highways and parking lots. In order to create this cultural center, however, Moses faced one obstacle: the residents of Lincoln Square.

Lincoln Square

Lincoln Square, 1957

Before Moses proposed the site for the new Lincoln Center, the plot of land from West 59th Street to West 72nd Street between Central Park and the Hudson River was home to one of the largest black and Hispanic communities in Manhattan (Strausbaugh, 2008). It's center, San Juan Hill, is known as the birthplace of bebop and the Charleston, as well as the hometown of Thelonius Monk (Strausbaugh, 2008). The cultural history of Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill leading up to the construction of Lincoln Center are explored in depth in the following multimedia edition of The New York Times' Weekend Explorer from February 2008. Particularly interesting are the sections about the neighborhood's background (start through 3:07), interviews about Thelonius Monk (4:03 through 4:36), and childhood in San Juan Hill (6:12 through 6:45).

The community was so well known as Manhattan's center of black and Hispanic life that it served as the setting for the opening sequence of the film West Side Story (of course, as it's Hollywood of the late 1950s, all the hired extras are white).

Lincoln Square was composed mostly of tenement houses and industrial warehouses, and thus suffered a very densely packed population; often described as a "honeycomb," the neighborhood at its most congested held about 5000 tenants per square block (Strausbaugh, 2008). By 1955, Moses deemed the area a "blighted slum," and began proposing its demolition as part of an urban renewal effort ("Lincoln Square", 2009). Moses suggested an arts center in its place, promising new buildings to both the New York Philharmonic, Julliard, and the Metropolitan Opera ("Lincoln Square," 2009). In 1956, Moses appointed John D. Rockefeller III the president of the forthcoming Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, who assisted with the expedition the Lincoln Square urban renewal process both financially and through his powers of influence ("Lincoln Square," 2009).

A 1956 excerpt from the Lincoln Square Slum Clearance Program, released by Moses' Slum Clearance Committee

While the residents of Lincoln Square were able to resist by bringing their case to all the way to the Supreme Court, they were unable to undermine Moses' power of eminent domain that allowed him to demolish the neighborhood (Strausbaugh, 2008). Thus, when the Court approved the takeover of sixty-seven acres of land on July 1st, 1958, city officials instated a forced relocation plan among residents of Lincoln Square, dedicating July of 1958 through October of 1961 to the relocate about 3000 families and make way for Lincoln Center (Dodson, 1960). While the inhabitants were offered priority housing at a cooperative built in conjunction with the Lincoln Center project, not one of them accepted; instead, they found their own housing in other neighborhoods (52.7% of residents), were assigned apartments by the sponsors of Lincoln Center (28.4%), moved into public housing (11.6%), or left their apartments abandoned without any notice (7.3%) (Dodson, 1960). Most families were relocated to what Dan W. Dodson refers to as “neighborhoods in flux”—in other words, other densely packed slums that were mostly populated by poor laborers of color—such as Harlem and certain areas of the Bronx (Dodson, 1960).


Proposed Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Plan, 1958

On May 14, 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke ground on the construction site of Lincoln Center, in an elaborate ceremony attended by thousands and covered by television and radio media ("Groundbreaking," 2009). The ceremony, which included performances by opera stars Risë Stevens (seen here singing Carmen's habanera) and Leonard Warren (seen here singing the notoriously challenging "Largo al Factotum" from "The Barber of Seville"), as well as the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, marked the beginning of construction for Lincoln Center.

Dwight D. Eisenhower making that first dig, 1959

Under the design of architect Max Abromovitz of Harrison & Abromovitz, laborers spent the following three years constructing Philharmonic Hall (now called Avery Fisher Hall), the iconic main building of Lincoln Center ("Philharmonic," 2009). The hall was accompanied by a parking garage, created to bring in white suburban commuters from nearby New Jersey and Connecticut. On September 23, 1962, the Hall opened with a gala concert attended by Jackie and John F. Kennedy, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk ("Philharmonic," 2009). Over the next forty-two years, Lincoln Center would continue to grow, building the New York State Theater, the Metropolitan Opera House, Alice Tully Hall, and the Library and Museum of the Performing Arts, and becoming one of the most renowned arts center.

The Means and the End

In the comparison of the demolition of Lincoln Square and the construction of Lincoln Center, a question can be put forward: was it worth it? Was the destruction of one cultural center worth the much more renowned success of another? While Moses' actions concerning Lincoln Square may be in part a result of the racism of himself and his fellow city government officials--not to mention a contributing factor to the consolidation of blacks and Hispanics in Harlem and areas in the outer boroughs--they still were the cause of the return of those with high income to Manhattan. And, as the argument follows, with income comes industry, with industry comes jobs, and with more jobs, a greater number of people are able to maintain at least a decent standard of living. Moses' use of eminent domain to transform a minority neighborhood into an elite cultural center geared towards the white and wealthy may not have been exactly ethical (or, at the very least, politically correct by modern standards), but it was essential to bringing back capital to New York City.


Works Cited
Dodson, Dan W. "Family and Agency Equity in Urban Renewal." Journal of Educational Sociology 34.4 (1960): 182-89. JSTOR. Web. 25 Apr. 2011.
"Groundbreaking Ceremony." Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.
"Lincoln Square Chosen for Redevelopment." Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.
"Philharmonic Hall Opens." Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. 2009. Web. 26 Apr. 2011.
"Slum Clearance." PBS KIDS: Educational Games, Videos and Activities For Kids! Channel Thirteen/WNET, 2005. Web. 25 Apr. 2011.
Strausbaugh, John. "Weekend Explorer: Cradle for Serious Grooving." The New York Times. 01 Feb. 2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2011.


  1. This was really interesting, thank you!

  2. In 1956 my family moved from the Lower East Side of Manhattan { Alphabet City } after migrating from Puerto Rico in 1951, to Lincoln Square, on Amsterdam Avenue & 62nd Street, across the Amsterdam City Housing Projects. In 1958 we were forced to relocate to the South Bronx, like many other families, due to Eminent Domain and the construction of Lincoln Center. I was 12-years-old. Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end. God bless, -Joe Sanchez