The West Side's story

Museum of the City of New York

A whirlwind tour through the history of the "West Side Story" neighborhood from its first settlement through to the construction of Lincoln Center.

The countryside becomes the city
A quick look at rise of Manhattan's Upper West Side from its rural past up to 1940.

Europeans settled permanently in what was to become Manhattan's Upper West Side by the 1680s. Access to bustling trade on the Hudson River made the area appealing for merchants and farmers. In the painting done around 1840, the land around 62nd Street is largely pastoral. Compare this view...

...with this one from present day showing the Hudson River at roughly the same location.

Both before and after the Revolutionary War, the Upper West Side consisted of farmland, small villages, and country estates the wealthy. When the Commissioners' Plan of 1811 divided the island into a grid of streets, the area remained relatively rural.

The Upper West Side changed quickly at the turn of the 19th century. Advances in building techniques allowed for the construction of large apartment buildings which appealed to those seeking relief from the overcrowding of downtown. Their migration was aided by the opening of a subway line along Seventh Avenue and Broadway in 1904 and the city's first elevated train on Ninth Avenue.

From 1879 to 1940, an elevated train ran up Ninth Avenue (Columbus Avenue) with a station at 66th Street. The train line opened further downtown on July 1, 1868, it was New York City's first elevated train. After it closed, the tracks were dismantled opening up the avenue.

The Neighborhood
A suggestion of city streets and alleyways; a workable brick wall. --Description of the setting from the script of "West Side Story"

The neighborhood most associated with West Side Story spans north of 59th Street, south of 72nd Street, west of Columbus Avenue and east of West End was called San Juan Hill in the first few decades of the 20th century. Though its origins are uncertain, the name does not come from the Puerto Rican capital city. Some residents did migrate from Puerto Rico, but the neighborhood was predominately African American.

One of the most famous residents was pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. Walking around the neighborhood in the 1950s, a person was more likely to hear the rhythms of jazz than the music of Puerto Rican bomba and plena.

The neighborhood was no stranger to gang violence as residents clashed with the Irish to the south in Hell's Kitchen. In the 1950s, New York saw an escalation of youth violence and juvenile delinquency.

The neighborhood's association with West Side Story was cemented with the film version of the musical. The opening dance sequence was shot in wake of San Juan Hill's destruction, as the heart of the neighborhood was demolished to make way for new apartments and a performing arts center.

Something's coming...
With the fall of San Juan Hill comes the rise of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Robert Moses, city planner and head of the Committee on Slum Clearance, decided in 1956 to raze San Juan Hill. Calling the neighborhood "the worst slum in New York," Moses's plan displaced thousands of low-income residents for the construction of new apartment buildings and a large performing arts center.

Taking up over 16 acres of city space, the new performing arts complex was funded largely through the efforts of John D. Rockefeller III, one of the richest men in America.

Construction site for the Lincoln Tower apartments at the northwest corner of 66th Street and Amsterdam.

That same corner today.

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts opened its first theater in 1962. Today, a visitor to Lincoln Center can see ballet, opera, theater, and concerts or watch a recording of the most recent Broadway production of West Side Story at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Credits: Story

All objects included in this exhibit come from the collections at the Museum of the City of New York.

Exhibition curated by Morgen Stevens-Garmon.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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