When Lincoln Center opened in 1962, it was the culmination of a brutal chapter in a West Side story of gentrification and demolition. As the David Geffen Hall reopens on Saturday after a $550m renovation, the next chapter will begin with the premiere of a musical work by Etienne Charles entitled San Juan Hill: A New York Story.

Etienne Charles Lincoln Center San Juan Hill
Etienne Charles with his trumpet at Lincoln Center. Photo: Lawrence Sumulong/Lincoln Center

Amid protests, the San Juan Hill district from W58th to W70th Street was razed to make way for the Lincoln Center. Locals marched with banners reading: “Shelter before culture” and “You don’t tear down homes in a housing shortage.” The protests were ignored by city officials, led by infamous urban planner Robert Moses, and the mainly Black and Latino neighborhood that was famed for its role in West Side Story disappeared under the bulldozers.

Now Charles’s music will recall those who lived in San Juan Hill. “Before there were seats here, there were streets here,” he said on Instagram.

David Geffen Hall
Theatergoers turn to look at the soon-to-be-opened David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center last night. Photo: Phil O’Brien

During Charles’s research for the project, he learned that pianist James P Johnson, who introduced The Charleston to millions throughout the world, lived in San Juan Hill and the area was home to jazz legend Thelonius Monk. It was also where the musical Shuffle Along had its debut before heading to Broadway.

“I was really thinking about what are the melodies and influences of this neighborhood and I just went through time,” said Charles about his research. “It’s about the sounds that made New York, the sounds that New York has danced to. It was a way of shining light on what was there before, who was here before, what we played.”

Shelter Before Culture Lincoln Center
Mrs Ellan Levitt leads a picket line protesting the proposed destruction of San Juan Hill and Lincoln Square neighborhoods to build Lincoln Center. Photo: Phil Stanziola/NYWT&S/Library of Congress

“Most people don’t know about the neighborhood unless they had family in the area when it was at its height. San Juan Hill is the birthplace of Charleston Dance and New York Amsterdam News — the oldest Black newspaper in New York,” Charles told Ebony last month. “It was also where Zora Neale Hurston lived at points in her career as well.

“Although this area often gets labeled as rough or as a high crime neighborhood, it has only been from the perspective of one person’s lens. I hope that people will walk away with a better understanding of the richness of the area, because without San Juan Hill, Harlem would likely not be what it is today,” he added.

San Juan Hill: A New York Story will be performed by trumpeter Charles’s group Creole Soul and New York Philharmonic, and conducted by Jaap van Zweden. There are two performances at 2pm and 8pm this Saturday.

Jaap van Zweden leads the second acoustic rehearsal with New York Philharmonic at the newly renovaded David Geffen Hall, 8/16/2022. Photo by Chris Lee
Jaap van Zweden leads the second acoustic rehearsal with New York Philharmonic at the newly renovated David Geffen Hall. Photo by Chris Lee/of New York Philharmonic

Tickets for the performances have been on sale on a Choose-What-You-Pay basis — they are currently sold out, but more may be released. In addition, a limited number of free tickets will be available on October 8 at the Welcome Center at David Geffen Hall, opening at 10am.

As part of the opening, two site-specific visual artworks by Nina Chanel Abney and Jacolby Satterwhite were commissioned in a partnership between Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The Studio Museum in Harlem and Public Art Fund.

Abney’s San Juan Heal enlivens the building’s nearly 200-foot-long W65th Street facade with an installation featuring 35 icons: portraits of some of the neighborhood’s pioneers and celebrated musicians, as well as symbols and text derived from the era’s protest flyers. At the center of the grid is the word “Love.”

65th Street Facade Mockup  Nina Chanel Abney San Juan Heal, 2022
Art will also feature in the Lincoln Center’s tribute to San Juan Hill. This art — San Juan Heal by Nina Chanel Abney— will appear on W65th Street. Photo: Nicholas Knight/Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts,

Accelerated during the pandemic, the hall is opening two years ahead of schedule and on budget – the result of a close collaboration between Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic, and supporters across the city.

“This must be the first NYC building project that is finishing early! And on budget! I want to congratulate all those who stepped up to get this done, especially during such a tough time. It is a remarkable achievement. This is great for Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic, and the arts. Most of all, this is great for New York. It is so much more than a renovation: it is a true re-imagination,” said David Geffen. “This new hall is not only about great music, it is also about creating a welcoming destination for everyone in our community.” In 2015, Geffen pledged $100 million towards the renovation of what was then called Avery Fisher Hall. His gift, approximately 20% of the hall’s renovation costs, gave him naming rights in perpetuity over the building, now known as David Geffen Hall, according to Wikipedia.

Inaugural Concert Lincoln Center 1962
Inaugural concert for the opening of Philharmonic Hall in 1962. Photo: New York Philharmonic/Shelby White & Leon Levy Digital Archives

Throughout October there will be events to celebrate the reopening, culminating with a free open house weekend on October 29 and 30 featuring hundreds of artists animating the entire hall with performances, participatory activities and family events.

Wu Tsai Theater 2. Credit_ © Michael Moran
Rehearsals at the new Wu Tsai Theater. Photo: Michael Moran/Lincoln Center
David Geffen Hall Lincoln Center
Theatergoers in front of the the soon-to-be-opened David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center last night. Photo: Phil O’Brien
President Eisenhower Lincoln Center
General view of ceremonies at Lincoln Square when President Eisenhower — with plans for the new Lincoln Center in front of the podium. Photo: Ed Ford/World Telegram & Sun/Library of Congress
In 1969. the Lincoln Center played host to West Side Story. Image: Library of Congress
Opera stars Leontyne Price and Robert Merrill
Opera stars Leontyne Price and Robert Merrill deliver an aria at topping-out ceremonies for the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center The $42.7 million, 14-story building, in the background, is the largest of five structures in the center. Photo: Phil Stanziola/World Telegram & Sun/Library of Congress
Hauser Digital Wall. Credit_ © Michael Moran
The Hauser Digital Wall is a feature of the new lobby at the David Geffen Hall. Photo: Michael Moran/Lincoln Center

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  1. Great historical review in your terrific publication. I only wish there was an eMail icon so I could eMail it to myself and share. Thanks for all you do. (I am a former resident of NYC now living in CT, but feel always feel connected to the City.)

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