Lincoln Center: A battle between Community and Culture by Aaron M

Aaron Miller 

 

My five-year old self, only recently having mastered my ABC’s, holds tight to my Grandma’s hand as we walk through a row of marble palaces. Amazed, yet intimidated by the mere size of these concert halls, I didn’t yet possess the words to inquire about what these buildings even were, let alone consider their historical connotations. However, for the next year, they became a part of my life, as I served as a helper to Grandma while she volunteered at the gift shop. During that four hour window every Sunday in the Philharmonic (now the David Geffen building) I studied its glass front. There were two layers of pillars, one set embedded in the glass windows and the other further outwards, which gave the illusion of the building reaching out. I wanted, so badly, to reach out and touch the enticing yet fragile marble-coated stairways, but I restrained myself, afraid I would get yelled at if I did. To me, the whole place was grand, untouchable, and unreal-building built for professionals, people who wore suits and carried large black briefcases, not the normal person. It called itself a higher arts institution, which to 5 year old me, just meant for  “fancy” people. Over the next few years, as I grew up walking through Lincoln Center, I barely noticed the stylistic choices and social connotations that the architects had baked into its design, intentionally and unintentionally. It is only in the past year that I have begun to look more deeply into the contrast between the opulence of Lincoln Center and the decay of the minority public housing it borders. 

I walk up the stairs on the Southwest corner of 65th and 10th, the sole entrance that connects Lincoln Center to the sidewalk from the west side of the building. Two buildings from the Amsterdam Housing Projects, located at 70 and 50 Amsterdam Avenue, stand one street south from this staircase, acting as an entryway to the thirteen other New York City Housing Authority buildings that sit dully below the bright skyline of luxury apartments and surround them from all sides. Currently covered in scaffolding and orange mesh fences, these buildings are almost inaccessible with only small alleyways to provide access to the street. I make a deliberate choice and follow the bright construction lights through these alleyways that feel like they are an endless corridor which repeats itself at every turn. Once I get to the end, I find that all the project buildings are the same; they are lifeless, huddled together in a way meant to create a sense of warmth and community, but in reality, only reinforces their sterility. Another cookie cutter city and negative representation of the Garden City movement, which intended to perfect the ratio between housing and open spaces.   

Parallel to these buildings on the opposite side of 10th Avenue lies a marble fortress, protected by a wall over 25 feet tall that runs continuously across the 300 meter backside of the center. The one entrance on the North side of the block is across the street from the renowned LaGuardia High School for performing arts. There is a straight line between the stairs and the exit doors of the school, which makes sense. Many students spend a lot of time learning from all the professional resources within Lincoln Center, as they have the opportunity to go to shows for free. Conversely, inhabitants of these projects are greeted every time they walk out of their complex with a towering white marble wall, dissuading them from entering.  

I continue to walk up the stairs from the empty street into Hearst Plaza, where I’m greeted with complete different type of calmness: still water fountains encompass abstract statues and artificial green pastures are integrated into the design of a building. Everything flows together seamlessly. However, as I am lured closer towards the Philharmonic, the looming size of the building and the figures dressed in suits, visible through the completely transparent walls, are intimidating. Immediately, I perceive an atmosphere of us vs them. They stand in an institution for the higher arts, literally towering over those below, creating an illusion that they are physically and intellectually above others. While all buildings are accessible to pedestrians, the grand pillars, white Travertine marble, and 300 meter long wall, completed with security guards, high ticket prices and predominantly white patrons, suggests that only a certain social class is fit to enjoy this sanctuary of arts.(1)

As I wander to the east side of Lincoln Center, I walk by evergreens and Japanese Emperor Maple trees, intentionally placed to the right and left sides of the main steps. At that moment I stand before what was intended to be a what The New York Times called a  “new artistic force” and an announcement of “America’s cultural maturity”.(2) For a minute, as I stare in awe at the beauty of the structures, oblivious to the 7,000 families displaced in the process of its creation.

John D. Rockefeller Jr., the youngest son of the financial power house Rockefeller family, and Robert Moses introduced this dream with the goal of reinforcing America as a world superpower on multiple fronts.  It came from the mind of Moses and was spurred on by the deep pockets of Rockefeller. For Rockefeller, Lincoln Square, a neighborhood running from 60th to 70th street between 10th Avenue and Broadway, was nothing more than a stagnant slum bringing down the image of New York City and America. He had his mind set on much larger things than the needs and well being of poor minorities, such as the America’s global influence of Higher Arts. Through spending an unprecedented amount of money on an arts center, Rockefeller would revolutionize the world’s perception of the common American. Rockefeller intended to show that Americans have achieved a quality of life that allows people to have enough leisure time to enjoy and spend capital on higher arts and other luxuries. And according to Zipp ,a historian in urban planning, this was a step to thrust glorious Capitalism against the perceived growing threat of Communism, one of the first examples of America using soft power to capture to minds of foreigners.(3)

For Moses the inhabitants were only a small obstacle to his stated goal of reshaping New York City to expand its accessibility to cars and capacity for people. New York and America by extension needed to be reinstated as a world superpower and a Lincoln Center was a key piece to the puzzle.(4) For that reason, no thought was given to the preexisting neighborhood, often called San Juan Hill, because of the similarity of the racial tensions and violence between Puerto Ricans and Blacks with the bloody battle of San Juan Hill (during the Spanish American War ).(5) Additionally, the ‘D’ rating granted by the Federal Home Owners Loan Corporation 20 years before ensured that banks would not loan money to any potential residents or businesses for new mortgages or infrastructure improvements there.(6) There was little profit flowing out of this community, and the 600 family stores only made enough to stay in business. For residents of the community, life was lived paycheck to paycheck yet  they enjoyed the immeasurable value of interpersonal relationships within the community brought to all inhabitants. Moses’ miscalculation of the power of community began a battle between the needs and enjoyment of the small community and the big picture vision for New York City and America. Moses’ belief, that higher powers have the best interest of everyone in mind would not go unchecked.(7)   

This was the beginning of a war between the residents of Lincoln Square, bound together by the threat to their livelihood and community, and the Lincoln Center Board created in 1956, which possessed the powerful triumvirate of economic, political, and military connections. The debate central to this power struggle was the contrast between community and culture.  In the eyes of the people, the upkeep of a community sustains the culture that exists within and adds to the mixing pot of New York City that makes it so unique. Harris L. Present, was the leader of the front against Moses, and Counsel for the Lincoln Square Chamber of Commerce. Present asserted that by going through with this destruction, Moses was ultimately weakening the culture of the city he desired to strengthen.(8) Harris argued, the new arts center would be the culmination of a fabricated sense of culture, of far less value than the authentic culture developed in Lincoln Square for more than half a decade. 

While this movement predated Jane Jacobs’ publishing  of “The Life and Death of Great American Cities,” the residents of Lincoln Square spoke of their community in similar language. In describing the humanistic aspect of this neighborhood, largely ignored by Moses and his colleagues, historian Sammuel Zipp stated that “This local public sphere was to be found, they claimed, in the multitudinous informal commercial connections between the neighborhood’s residents and business people. This mesh of relations was based in economic exchange, but the logic of commerce, of exchange between customer and proprietor, could not express the full extent of its reach into the life of the neighborhood.”(9)  Zipp describes the view of the community from the inhabitants perspective similarly to that of Jacobs. Both emphasize the importance of small family run businesses in creating an interdependent relationship between citizens and the proprietors that resonates in a sense of trust and connectivity throughout the neighborhood. Small businesses provide eyes to watch over the neighborhood, reinsuring safety, can serve as confidants, advisors, and even close friends. For Moses, stores only seemed to be centers for “economic exchange” opportune to be replaced by higher scale institutions. Their centrality to the neighborhood themselves did not reside with him as he intended to replace everything. This is evident in the paltry $2,500 reimbursement he gave out to support businesses’ move to new spaces.(10)       

While the residents eventually gave in to reality that their neighborhood would be destroyed, as Title I funds of over $200 million had been appropriated for the redevelopment of Lincoln Square in 1954, they had an issue with the lack of promising affordable housing opportunities being planned for residents. The plans to displace over twenty thousand residents, and leave them in the hands of New York City’s dysfunctional rehousing program, outraged the already infuriated residents, who assumed that new affordable high-rise housing would be provided in a nearby neighborhood or even the same place. Moses’ idea to push the residents back into the already overcrowded and impoverished slums in Harlem, was an abuse of his power as commissioner of the New York City Planning Commission. He had the means and support to build an unparalleled Arts Center and snatch the rightfully owned plots of land from Lincoln Square residents and push them into communities that are inherently impoverished and lacking opportunities for social mobility.  

Cries of injustice and the “vociferous resistance” of protesters “caught Moses off guard.” Under pressure, Moses made the addition of a singular 420 unit middle to low income co-op called Lincoln House which was built to quell the outcry of the protesters.(11) At the moment, it was enough to get his plan approved and construction on the road after three long years of planning. However, large questions about what all the money had gone too, loomed around Lincoln center during its years of construction. For The New York Times even claimed “ the remaining 20,000,000 dollars is required to support the educational program and to finance new artistic advances. This fund will continually renew the centers power to serve the public desire by presenting and developing arts of the highest quality.” (12) To this day people still ask what did “serve the public desire” mean as a promise and what strength did it hold for the remaining few who remained in their estates by the luck of the draw. As I walk out of Lincoln House today, I understand that the set of building that I assumed were a misplaced project, were only part of a much deeper strand of corruption embedded within New York City. 

 

1. Modern Landscape Architecture, Future Anterior Volume 2, Number 1 Summer 2005 a Forgotten Art: The Case of Lincoln Center, 2005.

2.“Lincoln Center Passes Fund Goal .” The New York Times , January 31, 1966.

3. Zipp, Samuel. “The Battle of Lincoln Square: Neighbourhood Culture and the Rise of Resistance to Urban Renewal.”

4. Planning Perspectives 24, no. 4 (2009): 409–33. https://doi.org/10.1080/02665430903145655

5.Zipp, 412

6.“Mapping Inequality.” Digital Scholarship Lab. Accessed November 1, 2019.

7.Zipp, 417

8.“Displaced Tenants To Picket City Hall .” The New York Times , June 15, 1956.

9. Zipp,426

10. Zipp, 427

11. Zipp, 421

12.“Descents To Picket City Hall .” The New York Times , June 15, 1956.

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