WEEKEND HISTORY: THREE UWS COMMUNITIES THAT WERE BULLDOZED LONG AGO

99th
A man stands in front of the neighborhood on West 98th and 99th that was bulldozed to make way for Park West Village. Image from Jim Epstein’s “The Tragedy of Urban Renewal”.

Three mostly black Upper West Side communities have been bulldozed over the years, to make way for other major projects, from Central Park, to Lincoln Center to Park West Village.

Starting in the 1820’s, people began buying land in a neighborhood called Seneca Village, located from 81st to 89th street between 7th and 8th avenues. But in 1853, the state legislature voted to use eminent domain to take control of the neighborhood and bulldoze it to make way for Central Park.

Beginning in 1825 parcels of land were sold to individuals and to members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church possibly the largest church of black people in the New York City. Within a few years the community developed into a stable settlement of over 250 working-class people, with African Americans owning more than half the households in the village – an unusually high percentage of property ownership for any New York community. The presence of an abundant natural spring near 82nd Street would have provided the fresh drinking water necessary for the maintenance and stability of a large community. Two African Methodist churches, the African Union Methodist and the AME Zion (today, known as Mother AME Zion) were constructed in the village near 85th Street. Their congregations were composed entirely of African Americans. Colored School No. 3, one of the few black schools in New York City, had been established in the 1840s and was housed in the basement of the African Union Methodist Church. All Angels’ Church, an affiliate of St. Michael’s on Broadway at 99th Street, was built in 1849. It had a racially integrated congregation of African Americans from Seneca Village and Irish and German parishioners living in the village and within a mile of the church.

Today the Central Park Conservancy offers periodic tours of Seneca Village for $15 (they had briefly offered free tours a few years ago).

Another mini-neighborhood was the area now occupied by Park West Village Village. The Times wrote about it here.

From about 1905 until the 1950s, West 98th and 99th Streets constituted a vibrant, predominantly African-American community that was something of a miniature Harlem, with its own Renaissance.

Philip A. Payton Jr., a real estate entrepreneur who wanted to end housing segregation, owned or managed most of the buildings on those blocks. The singer Billie Holiday lived there for a time, as did Arthur A. Schomburg, the historian and writer whose collection of art, manuscripts and photographs became the foundation for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Other residents included the author Rosa Guy and the actor Robert Earl Jones, the father of James Earl Jones. The actress Butterfly McQueen lived there for a time, and later in Park West Village.

Robert Moses had the neighborhood razed in the 1950’s and Park West Village was built in the 1960’s. Jim Epstein produced a documentary about the area, which you can view below.

An area known as San Juan Hill from West 60th to 66th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue was also once a bustling neighborhood, now known for the site of gang fights in the musical “West Side Story.” But Untapped Cities notes the area had a rich cultural history.

San Juan Hill was home to much more than violence, however. A densely packed district–more than 5,000 people occupied each block of low-rise tenements–it was also home to some of New York’s jivest jazz joints, including The Jungle’s Casino. This is the club where, in 1913, the pianist James P. Johnson wrote a tune to accompany the “wild and comical dance” of off-duty dock workers. The result was the Charleston, perhaps the biggest dance-craze of the 20th Century. Decades later, San Juan Hill was home to Thelonious Monk. Residents remember him as an eccentric man who walked around beneath their windows singing to himself–no doubt composing some of jazz’s most memorable melodies.

Fordham, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic were looking for new sites, and got the ear of Robert Moses. In the 50’s the city had it designated as a slum. In 1958, almost 17,000 residents were forced to leave. Construction began on Lincoln Center in 1959. The video below explains more:

For more in our Weekend History series, click here.

HISTORY, REAL ESTATE | 10 comments | permalink
    1. 21D says:

      What a fascinating and heart wrenching story. The Rag is becoming my “paper” of choice!

    2. ursus arctos says:

      I echo 21D.

      An extremely interesting and well presented story that makes me want to do more research about these communities.

    3. aw says:

      Note the common thread: Robert Moses. He was a terrible racist–not enough space here for details but read the Robert Caro biography. But you can’t blame just him. Pretty much all the elected officials went along with his plans.

      • Pedestrian says:

        God bless Jane Jacobs! She finally took the air out of Robert Moses’s tires.

        We need a new Jane Jacobs to save our City frim REBNY and DeBlassio!

      • naro says:

        God bless Robert Moses who had the guts to build magnificant public structure out of hell on earth areas. NYC would be a hellhole today without his work. PS. Harlem was largely built as a Jewish neighborhood until they fled to the suburbs out of fear.

    4. Lorri Cramer, says:

      Thank you for a very interesting and informative article.

    5. Jean Ballard Terepka says:

      As archivist and historian at St. Michael’s Church, I have been examining and documenting the practical and spiritual presence of St. Michael’s Church in particular and the Episcopal Diocese of New York in all three of these remarkable, now-lost communities.

      As the article correctly notes, All Angels Church was a mixed-race, predominantly African-American mission church run and administered by St. Michael’s Church. The current All Angels Church at 251 West 80th Street is the original’s descendant church.

      Like Seneca Village, the Old Community around 98th and 99th Streets was a stable residential community featuring small shops, together with three major institutions. These were the vibrant St. Luke’s Baptist Church, Reconstruction Hospital, a surgery clinic serving the African-American community for “care and aftercare of industrial disabilities and diseases” and traumatic reconstructive surgery located at 100th St and Central Park West, and St. Jude’s Chapel, an African-American mission chapel administered by St. Michael’s Church. St. Jude’s was a major spiritual and social anchor in the neighborhood. St. Jude’s was located at 19 West 99th St.; it was open seven days a week for community activities, had daily prayer services and 2-4 full, formal liturgical services every Sunday.

      One of the major institutions in the San Juan neighborhood was St. Cyprian’s Chapel, an African-American mission chapel administered by the Episcopal Mission Society of the Episcopal Diocese of NY. Like St. Jude’s 35 blocks north of it, St. Cyprian’s provided spiritual stability and social and cultural inspiration for both its hundreds of members and thousands of neighbors. For most of their histories, St. Jude’s and St. Cyprian’s were led by Vicars Floarda Howard and John Johnson, brothers-in-law; the two men were major leaders in the community of African-American Episcopalians in NY and the Northeast. St. Jude’s and St. Cyprian’s had a close collaborative relationship, sharing, among other things, cultural resources, especially extensive intellectual enrichment programs and concerts of both sacred and secular classical music.

      In all three of these communities, Seneca Village in the 19th century and the Old Community of 98th and 99th Streets and San Juan Hill in the 20th century, there was elegant and eloquent resistance to the city’s ruthless development plans, both from within these communities and from a wide variety of advocacy groups outside the neighborhoods. However, none of these attempts to stop the city’s community demolition plans had the financial resources necessary to effectively stand up to the political and economic clout that supported the city’s powers of eminent domain.

      The tenement buildings and rooftops of the San Juan Hill neighborhood can still be seen in many of the outdoors sequences of “West Side Story,” (1961) filmed just a few years before the neighborhood was razed.

      The cohesion and sturdiness of the community destroyed in order to build what is now Park West Village are demonstrated in the large, lively annual reunions of the 98th and 99th Streets Old Community.

      Please share any comments or questions here at the West Side Rag or contact me directly at jterepka@saintmichaelschurch.org.

    6. Natassa says:

      This is such a great post. Thank you.

    7. fraudclosure Vic says:

      I love this painful story.
      It was very touching that despite the upheaval of their lives the members of this community stayed in touch with each other.
      NY real estate $$ can be so cruel to it’s people, almost inhumane.