San Juan Hill was a New York City neighborhood that was dismantled to make way for Lincoln Center, with groundbreaking commencing on May 14, 1959. In its commitment to confront injustices in its founding history, New York City's Lincoln Center has launched Legacies of San Juan Hill, a digital hub that brings together video interviews, archival photography and audio, interactive maps and scholarly essays to uplift the people who lived in the neighborhood and interrogate the accepted historical narrative of the “urban renewal” program that displaced thousands.
The digital hub joins a major project the organization launched last October, spearheaded by trumpeter and composer Etienne Charles’ "San Juan Hill Project," a multimedia experience reflecting on the mostly Black and Brown community that was torn down to make way for the famed Lincoln Center campus, which opened in 1962. Part of his presentation includes the San Juan Hill project mural, displayed on Amsterdam Avenue and 62nd Street in Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Charles turned to musician and visual artist “Wicked,” aka Gary Fritz, leader of The Ex Vandals—the first graffiti crew in New York City—to conceptualize the mural, which was painted over seven days with seven other artists, including Resa and Menace, Renard Kelley, Ree, Keon, Noir and Fritz.
“This was a thriving Black community that they took out to bring in Lincoln Center,” Fritz shares. He actually spent hours in the Lincoln Center archives to learn more about San Juan Hill’s past. Fritz put the information he created into a concept video to share with his team. “This was a very specific story that had to be told.”
The mural depicts the neighborhood’s evolution from the early 1900s, with fixtures such as the Jungles Casino jazz club where musicians met and played and where the world-famous Charleston dance was developed. Along with Monk and other portraits of iconic figures who once lived there, such as saxophonist and trumpeter Benny Carter, author Zora Neale Hurston and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, whose namesake is the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, many community organizations’ names are written into floating bricks on the design. As the mural evolves through the decades, it reveals the redevelopment that came about as a result of the Housing Act of 1949. The mural ends with a vivid technicolor rendition of Lincoln Center as it stands today, which is hauntingly life-like.
Originally hand-painted on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, it was digitally reproduced to make its way to the Lincoln Center campus. The family of jazz great Thelonious Monk, who is also featured in the mural, was on hand for its unveiling.
The mural, which will be on display through 2023, was featured in San Juan Hill: A New York Story. Charles partnered with the NY Philharmonic for an inaugural joint presentation inside Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall last month. The famed theater just completed a $550 million dollar renovation.