“I think I’ll go back to san juan”: Where is West Side Story? – an excerpt

This book narrates the creation of the iconic musical West Side Story and the backlash to urban developer Robert Moses’ plan to build Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in the 1950s. These events are connected: the neighborhood that inspired the setting of West Side Story – San Juan Hill – was on the performing arts site. As crowds gathered to watch the Jets and the Sharks engage in a murderous turf war on the ‘West Side,’ over 7,000 families fought for their homes less than a mile away. Many people have written about the origins of West Side Story. Many others have written about urban renewal in 1950s New York. But the link between these two stories has been largely lost to time. 

Now: San Juan Hill has faded from memory – andWest Side Storyis larger than life. With a Broadway and Hollywood revival in the same year, it seems like the ‘West Side’ lives on onstage – but the truth is not this simple.

The following excerpt is from the third chapter of the book, which describes how West Side Story opened at the height of resistance to Robert Moses’s redevelopment. The first two chapters covered the beginning of West Side Storyand of the Lincoln Square Slum Clearance Plan. In 1949, Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. They initially planned to set the play on New York’s Lower East Side, framing Juliet as a Jewish girl living on Allen Street and Romeo as an Italian Catholic over on Mulberry. A few years passed, and the collaborators were drawn to an entirely different story. Perhaps they realized an East Side Story was closer to the New York of their parents’ generation than theirs. Or perhaps, as Laurents puts it, the growing issue of juvenile gang violence was “extremely topical, timely, and just plain hot.”[1] The story moved to the West Side and the characters we know were born – the Jets, “an anthology of all that is American,” and the Sharks “who are Puerto Rican.”[2] A young and aspiring Stephen Sondheim was brought on as lyricist. He was initially anxious about veracity: “I can’t do this show…I’ve never been that poor and I’ve never even known a Puerto Rican.”[3] Nevertheless, the show went on. 

Meanwhile, three seemingly unrelated events occurred in the city. Up in the Bronx, Fordham University President, Laurence J. McGinley lamented the lack of a midtown campus. Ruth Baker Pratt, opera-lover, was scandalized at the Metropolitan Opera being forced to perform at its decrepit 39thStreet venue. Down at Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra did not renew its lease.  Responding to all three, New York’s planning czar Robert Moses had an idea. Why not use city funds to clear eighteen blocks – fifty-three acres – of land near Columbus Circle on the West Side? It would solve these issues – a new center for the performing arts, right in the middle of Manhattan, with space left over for a new Fordham campus.

Of course, there was the small matter of all the families and businesses on the site. Moses’ development would require the clearance of the Lincoln Square neighborhood – affectionately called San Juan Hill by its residents – pushing thousands of people out of their homes. But that was a problem for later.

Chapter III: The Battle of San Juan Hill

Harris L. Present often said he was “born to be a lawyer.” In 1940, at the age of 27, after several years selling furs in the garment district, he graduated from New York University’s Law School.. Fifteen years later, he was fed up with grappling with City Hall. As former pro bono counsel for the Spanish-American Youth Bureau, Present had long been involved in advocating for the rights of minority groups in New York City.[4] He had frequently voiced his frustration at the ill treatment and exclusion of Puerto Ricans in letters to the editor published in The New York Times. On October 30, 1954, he criticized the make-up of the Mayor’s Committee for Better Housing, surprised to find that there were no Puerto Ricans among in its ninety-six members. Given that over 500,000 Puerto Ricans lived in New York City, most of them in “anything but favorable housing conditions,” Present asserted, “They have stake as great as, if not greater than, any other segment of our population in achieving better housing.” The letter set off a back-and-forth between Present and the mayor’s office. It was only one of the innumerable times he clashed with public officials.[5]

By the summer of 1955, Present was working with tenant activists as the chair of the City Wide Committee on Housing Location Problems – but he quickly grew frustrated with his colleagues. They focused on using independent studies and reports to illustrate the problem, wary of alienating the mayor. For Present, these respectable methods were no longer enough. He thought it was time for direct action – letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations, petitions, and the like. Ultimately, the Committee chose not to confront the mayor. Present resigned his position as chairman and left to form a new group – the New York City Council on Housing Relocation Practices – devoted to more aggressive moves to help tenants. 

The timing was perfect. In late 1955, as Present looked for new responses to the relocation problem, the Lincoln Square Residents’ Committee and the Lincoln Square Businessmen’s Committee sought him out. His experience fighting housing discrimination and tackling public officials made him the ideal figure to spearhead the movement against Robert Moses’s “slum clearance plan.”[6]

Throughout 1956, Present and Lincoln Square residents resisted the clearance on multiple fronts. Residents and businesspeople organized petitions, picketed public appearances by Moses and his allies, and engaged locals in their cause. They badgered Mayor Wagner with thousands of postcards telling him, “You will need our votes in November,” urging him to vote against the clearance.[7] These tactics would have alarmed Present’s former colleagues. But they worked – his access to city officials was helped rather than hindered by boosting public attention to the project. A series of letters to the editor and some quotes in The New York Times helped highlight how many people would be displaced by the development. Newspapers went from blindly reporting Moses’s estimate of about 6,000 families needing relocation to recognizing the tenants’ figure of 7,000.[8]

The vehement resistance caught Moses off guard. He added a 420-unit building of middle-income housing and made some hasty promises to build more public housing nearby, hoping to defuse the situation. It didn’t work. In 1957, the residents stopped trying to delay the clearance. Instead, they aimed to kill it. 

On August 28, 1957, the Lincoln Square Residents’ Committee and the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce jointly sponsored a rally outside the High School of Commerce, near the edge of the neighborhood. Present headed the event. That night, over 400 people showed up to defend their neighborhood.[9] As Present looked out at the crowd – a mere piece of the colorful and cultured community that risked being bulldozed out of existence – he urged them to march on City Hall on September 11, hoping to overwhelm the City Planning Commission with pickets and testimony. The residents’ presence at the commission’s hearing on the Lincoln Square Slum Clearance Project would give them the chance to articulate their defense of their neighborhood. It would be a marked shift away from the voices of the development planners and supporters that had defined the project as a paragon of progress rather than dislocation. In the following weeks, San Juan Hill was filled with reminders of the upcoming event. Flyers were designed in the style of a court summons to residents. Widely circulated, they proclaimed: “A Huge Turnout at the Hearing Can Defeat It.” 

 Flyer for City Planning Commission Protest on Lincoln Square, 1957. Source: Lincoln Square for Performing Arts Archives, Inc. Archives

Less than a mile away, the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway was filled with a a different kind of anticipation.  As previews in Washington D.C. drew to a close, actors prepared to take their place onstage in New York. For many, like Carol Lawrence, starring as Maria, this could make or break their careers. On September 8, Times critic Seymour Peck did a feature on the preparations for West Side Story, calling it an “ingenious paraphrase of Shakespeare”. He praised the writers for recasting the doomed lovers as a “Puerto Rican girl new to the city”  and a “city boy” whose gang is “ruled by hatred of newcomers,”[10] notably avoiding the racial difference behind the prejudice. The accompanying pictures from previews in Washington D.C. gloss over the set’s resemblance to San Juan Hill. The likeness, though, would become all the more apparent with real-life proximity when the play opened in New York later that month. 

Three days later, as performers prepared for their move to the Broadway stage, over 50 Lincoln Square residents travelled down to City Hall at Chambers Street near the southern tip of Manhattan. The signs ranged from impassioned, “Moses is clearing People, not Slums”, “Our children need Homes, not Promises”, “We Refuse to Move until Homes For Us are Made Part of the Plan,” to sarcastic. Abraham Halikman – owner of an auto parts shop in the neighborhood for over 50 years – sat in an armchair on the sidewalk in front of City Hall, with a sign that read “For Hire! 68 Years Old. Small Businessman. Apply…Robert Moses.” The pickets outside were bolstered by witnesses inside City Hall. 

Abraham Halikman, 68, a storeowner on the Lincoln Square site, protests the clearance. (New York World Telegram Photo Collection, Library of Congress)

The hearing lasted almost 11 hours, with 24 speakers supporting the clearance and 36 opposing it.[11] For the first time, the likes of Robert Moses and John D. Rockefeller III were placed in the same room as the people who would be displaced by their vision for “urban renewal.”

Inside the crowded room, tension hung in the air. Isabelle Manes, resident of West 66th Street, captured the residents’ fears in her testimony, stating that the development would transform Lincoln Square from a “well-integrated, racially and economically balanced neighborhood” to “an entirely high-income and professional” one. Vincent Radhighieri was more direct: “Why should we give up our homes for this conglomeration of culture?” voicing the question posed by protesting residents since the year before, but conspicuously absent from major press coverage. Josephine Montrose, a sympathetic Brooklynite, questioned the forced choice between homes and culture in Moses’s plan, asserting, “You must have a home for some culture. Culture is not just in a center, a large center located at Lincoln Square. Culture is also something in the home, in the place where the family lives.” Mary Aitken, an elderly resident of Lincoln Square, challenged the supporters’ definition of culture: “It was wonderful to hear those gentlemen speak about culture and music and education. But what about our homes? Aren’t our homes beauty and culture?” Neighborhood resident Aramis Gomez sardonically captured the unspoken answer to those questions: “But who cares for the little shopkeeper so long as we have culture? Who cares whether we have a home so long as the Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera have one?”

Gomez highlighted the specific plight of Puerto Rican residents – 24 percent of the residents on the performing arts site – who had nowhere else to go but other Puerto Rican neighborhoods, many of which were also facing clearance. “Is it any wonder why we oppose the project when it would only offer more suffering and no housing for us?” He went on to draw a parallel between Lincoln Square and one of the original sins of American history: “Why, this is more like the Old West, where we, the poor people, are the Indians with valuable land that settlers want. So, like long ago, they take the Indians and put them on a reservation.” 

Residents’ Committee Chairman Hubert Lewis remarked: “I think it is a disgrace if anybody that professed to love the arts…could at the same time ignore human beings.”[12] Lewis captured the disconnect that motivated people who saw his neighborhood as an opportunity rather than a home. The hearing ended around 10 p.m. – almost thirteen hours after people had first gathered outside City Hall. The date of the City Planning Commission’s next meeting – October 2 – suggested a brief reprieve for the residents of Lincoln Square.[13] However, another troubling attempt to divorce “art” from “human beings” loomed on the horizon.

On September 26, West Side Storyopened on Broadway. The next day, drama critic John Chapman’s review in the Daily News extolled it as “splendid” and “super-modern.”[14]

However, the initial acclaim was accompanied by censure. Puerto Rican communities in both New York and the mainland had long objected to the line, “Island full of tropical diseases” in the showstopper song, “America.” In late August, New York Spanish-language newspapers La Prensa and El Diario had called for a picket of the Broadway opening. [15] The boycott never occurred. However, three days into the show’s New York run, Dr. Howard Rusk, a prominent physician, supported the criticisms with an article in the Times. He denounced the line as a “blow below the belt” that was “not based in fact,” using statistics to debunk the image of Puerto Rico as a disease-riddled island. “Would that we in New York City could find as effective measures to control our social blight…as Puerto Rico has…found in controlling its ‘tropical diseases,’”[16] he wrote. 

Rusk’s article strengthened opposition to the play. In the next fortnight, protestors targeted Puerto Rican officials who had expressed support for the show, specifically Governer Luis Muñoz Marin and former health commissioner Antonio Fernos Isern by criticizing them in major publications on the island. In response, Muñoz told reporters that the show’s portrayal of juvenile delinquency had nothing to do with Puerto Ricans. It could have worked just as well with any other two groups.Evidently, Muñoz thought the show’s value lay in its portrayal of life in New York rather than having any bearing on Puerto Rico. His comments dismissed the specific denigration of the diaspora in lines such as “…them Puerto Ricans is ruinin’ free enterprise” as a general depiction of juvenile delinquency, begging the question: where did Puerto Ricans in New York belong? Muñoz’s remarks and the prevalent discrimination both on- and offstage in the U.S.A implied the answer was “nowhere.”

Moses’s Lincoln Square Slum Clearance Plan emphasized the real-life counterpart to the abstract issues of identity and belonging sparked by West Side Story. Ten days after Muñoz’s statement, residents of San Juan Hill gathered for another hearing at City Hall – this time defending their right to a small piece of America before the Board of Estimate, the city’s main decision-making body. The City Planning Commission had approved the project based on Moses and Rockefeller’s assurances that the relocation would happen in “a decent and proper manner.” Now the Board of Estimate – consisting of the mayor, borough presidents, and representatives of the city council, among other public officials – would make the decision. The meeting would be the longest single session in City Hall history. It began at 10:30 a.m. on the October 25 and finished at 4:28 a.m. on the 26th– only two minutes short of eighteen hours.[17] Despite this, the Board of Estimate followed suit with the Planning Commission and unanimously approved the project in late November. Present would later describe these meetings as “shams,” believing that the real decisions were made behind closed doors.[18]

On June 10, 1958, a little over six months later, the first residents of Lincoln Square were relocated. Present asserted, “The battle of Lincoln Square is not over.” As West Side Story completed its Broadway run and its following national tour, residents were gradually moved out of the neighbourhood. In mid-1960, as the last moving trucks were leaving the neighbourhood, film crews moved in. Shortly before demolition, the vacant tenements, shops, and streets were used as locations in Jerome Robbins’ 1961 Hollywood version of West Side Story. For better or worse, this film is one of the last visual records of the neighbourhood.


Primary sources:

NB: All articles accessed on March 15th2020.

Chapman, John. “‘West Side Story’: A Splendid and Super-Modern Musical Drama”, New York Daily News, 27thSeptember 1957, p.593

City Planning Commission Report, 11thSeptember 1957, accessed April 16th2020

Grutzner, Charles. “Foes threaten a Political Fight against Lincoln Square Project”, New York Times, 8thSeptember 1956

Grutzner, Charles. “The First Lincoln Square Residents will Begin Moving Out Today”, New York Times, 10thJune 1957

Peck, Seymour. “West Side Story”, The New York Times, 8thSeptember 1957, p.SM31

Poteele, Robert A. “Lincoln Sq. Hearing on For 18 Hrs”, New York Herald Tribune, 27thOctober 1957

Present, Harris L. “Letter to the Times”, 25thNovember 1953, 8thNovember 1954, 12thNovember 1954, 29thDecember 1955

Rusk, Howard. “The Facts Don’t Rhyme”, New York Times, 29thSeptember 1957

Unknown, “Lincoln Square Protest Urged”, New York Daily News, 29thAugust 1957, p.360, 

Unknown, “Lincoln Square Rally Tonight”, New York Daily News, 28thAugust 1957, p.200, 

Weil, Henry. Letter to Robert Moses, 12thSeptember 1956, “Robert Moses Papers”, New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts, Box 116, Committee on Slum Clearance Housing Files 1-3 – 1955-1957: File 1

Secondary Material:

Bernstein, Leonard. The Leonard Bernstein Letters 1918-1990(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) p.343

Foulkes, Julie. A Place for Us: West Side Story and New York(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Laurents, Arthur, Bernstein, Leonard, Sondheim, Stephen, and Robbins, Jerome. West Side Story: A Musical(New York: Random House, 1969

Zadan, Craig. Sondheim & Co. (New York: Harper and Row, 1989) 

Zipp, Samuel. “The Battle of Lincoln Square”, Manhattan Projects(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) pp.197-249

—————– “The Battle of Lincoln Square: Neighbourhood Culture and the Rise of Resistance to Urban Renewal”, Planning Perspectives24.4 (2009) pp.409-43

[1]Arthur Laurents, letter to Leonard Bernstein 19 July 1955, “West Side Story: 1955-1957”, The Leonard Bernstein Letters 1918-1990(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013) p.343

[2]Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Jerome Robbins, West Side Story: A Musical(New York: Random House, 1969) p.3

[3]Craig Zadan,Sondheim & Co. (New York: Harper and Row, 1989) p.14

[4]Samuel Zipp’s chapter entitled “The Battle of Lincoln Square” in Manhattan Projects(2010) and article of the same name in Planning Perspectives(2009) provide most of the information about Harris L. Present provided here, as well as the NYT articles I cite later in the paragraph.

[5]See Harris L. Present, “Letter to the Times”, 8thNovember 1954 and 12thNovember 1954 – dates in text are dates letters were addressed.

[6]Zipp, “The Battle of Lincoln Square” (2009), p.415

[7]Charles Grutzner, “Foes threaten a Political Fight against Lincoln Square Project”, NYT, 8thSeptember 1956

[8]Charles Grutzner, “Lincoln Square Plans Disturb Tenants”, NYT, 28thAugust 1956

[9]See “Lincoln Square Rally Tonight” New York Daily News, 28thAugust 1957 and “Lincoln Square Protest Urged”, 29thAugust 1957.

[10]Seymour Peck. “West Side Story” in The New York Times (hereafter NYT), 8thSeptember 1957

[11]Zipp, “The Battle of Lincoln Square” (2009), p.423

[12]All testimony taken from Zipp’s quotes in “The Battle of Lincoln Square” (2009), pp.423-427

[13]City Planning Commission Report, 11thSeptember 1957

[14]John Chapman, “‘West Side Story’: A Splendid and Super-Modern Musical Drama”, New York Daily News, 27thSeptember 1957

[15]Information about Puerto Rican responses in this graph taken from Julie Foulkes’ A Place for Us: West Side Storyand New York (2016), pp.82-83

[16]Howard Rusk, “The Facts Don’t Rhyme”, NYT, 29thSeptember 1957

[17]Robert A. Poteele, “Lincoln Sq. Hearing on For 18 Hrs”, New York Herald Tribune, 27thOctober 1957

[18]Zipp, “The Battle of Lincoln Square” (2009), p.429

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