Leonard Quart: Preserving New York City's rich, historic past

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NEW YORK >> Novelist Dana Spiotta ("Eat the Document") wrote that when living in Los Angeles after years of inhabiting the suburbs, she "felt for the first time the sense of a secret history waiting to be read in its architecture and geography."

As a New York chauvinist, I take pride that the city's history is much longer and more richly textured than LA's.

The city had its beginning with its first European visitor, Giovanni da Verrazzano, in 1524, and European settlement began with the Dutch in 1609, who in 1626 bought Manhattan from the Indians. The English established rule over the Dutch New Amsterdam, and renamed it New York City in 1665.

Constantly transforming itself, the city has evolved since then. It has turned today into a booming, gentrifying metropolis, that contains vast pockets of painful squalor and poverty.

Address of choice

Spiotta's statement moved me to reflect on the complex layers of history that New York buildings and neighborhoods rest on. I live near Washington Square North, lined with a unified series of Greek Revival townhouses across the street from Washington Square Park. In the 1840s it was the address of choice for Manhattan's wealthy merchants and bankers, but after the Civil War they began to move north. The houses then may have no longer housed the wealthy, but they still recalled the gentility of a bygone era.

Henry James visited his grandmother who lived at 18 Washington Square North in that period — evoking a nostalgic view of the area around the Square in his 1881 novel "Washington Square." Some famous residents lived there as well, including the great Realist painter Edward Hopper who lived with his wife Josephine in a spare studio on the top floor of 3 Washington Square North from 1913 until the day he died in 1967.

Today many of the townhouses are used by New York University for offices, but they have preserved their elegant fa├žade details, like white marble stairs leading up to ionic columns flanking the entrance.

Washington Square North may no longer be primarily residential, but it looks not very different from the way it did in the 19th century. That's not true for the area surrounding and including Lincoln Center.

In the early 20th century it was a neighborhood of tall, monotonous tenements called San Juan Hill, and was the most heavily populated African-American section in Manhattan before the rise of Harlem. San Juan Hill was inhabited by working-class and poor black New Yorkers, and up to 5,000 people could be jammed into a single block — beds being often used in shifts, shared by boarders. It was often a violent neighborhood where gang fights were common, especially between its black residents and the Irish of Hells Kitchen just to the south.

Still, the neighborhood had a lively jazz and nightclub scene (where Thelonius Monk lived and played), and was one of the few neighborhoods where blacks could rent apartments. It served as an oasis for them in a generally hostile city.

By the 1950s a black exodus had taken place from San Juan Hill to the Bronx and Harlem, and Puerto Ricans had begun to move in. The gangs in Bernstein and Sondheim's "West Side Story," the white ethnic Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, resided respectively in Hells Kitchen and San Juan Hill. But that was the last gasp for the area, as it was demolished in one sweep of urban planning to make way for Lincoln Center, whose first buildings opened in 1962.

Lincoln Center was built by a consortium of civic leaders led by John D. Rockefeller III as part of the "Lincoln Square Renewal Project." And it was given to the ruthlessly, imperious "Master Builder" Robert Moses to clear the slums in his usual draconian fashion.

Lincoln Center was partially built to create more attractions to bring the white middle class back to the city, and as an embodiment of American cultural preeminence during the Cold War. It ranked as the largest urban renewal project in the country to date.

The project replaced 18 city blocks of aging tenements, warehouses, small businesses, and light industry with new homes for the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic, a new campus for Fordham University, and luxury housing. The approximately 7,000 families who lived there were replaced by what urban planning critic Jane Jacobs viewed as "a piece of built-in rigor mortis."

However, though Lincoln Center preserved almost nothing of San Juan Hill's past and relocated many of the displaced families to densely packed slums, the cultural center ended up being successful in more ways that Jane Jacobs could foresee. The gleaming complex, which continues to be altered and revitalized — a new public green space, the President's Bridge over West 65th Street and the future renovation and renaming of Avery Fisher Hall (home of the New York Philharmonic) — has seen an affluent neighborhood spring up around it.

Past gets lost

Celebrity and corporate CEOs filled buildings like 15 Central Park West and lesser luxury buildings abound. In addition there is the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle that offers upscale restaurants like Per Se and shops like Coach and Armani.

The neighborhood may be thriving, but as in much of Manhattan, there is little housing for working class people. There are the low income Amsterdam Houses built in 1948, and some of the new buildings going up have set aside 20 percent of their units for low and middle income housing.

Still, this is a neighborhood for the moneyed. Maybe next time a cultural center is built, some thought will be given to maintaining a piece of the neighborhood's past (including its residents), not just obliterating it.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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