A flurry of subway builds, train brakes squeak and doors open
Jamie Bernstein: Take the number one train, and get off at the 66th street stop. As you walk to the stairs, you’ll see a tile mosaic on the walls with performers of all sorts. That’s how you know you’re at the right stop. Climbing the stairs will deposit you right to Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard School. Just around the corner, are the steps to Lincoln Center Plaza. We’re in a 16.3 acre campus that hosts some of the most iconic arts organizations in the world. As you walk to the fountain in the center of the plaza, the Metropolitan Opera is in front of you, the New York City Ballet is to your left, and to your right is David Geffen Hall–home to the New York Philharmonic.
And in fact today, you’d see a newly reimagined David Geffen Hall–with doors thrown open to greet the public.
This is the NY Phil Story: Made in New York. I’m Jamie Bernstein.
When they broke ground for the Lincoln Center for the Performing arts in May of 1959, expectations were high.
Leonard Bernstein: Ladies and gentlemen, with this playing of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” we have duly ushered in the first stage of a remarkable project, the culmination of three years of planning to give New York and the whole American nation a great center of the performing arts, the like of which the world has never seen. The Lincoln Center, as it is called, will today commence to rise from this site in mid-Manhattan.
Jamie Bernstein: And rise it did. Opening in 1962, the inaugural concert with the New York Philharmonic, from their own Philharmonic Hall, garnered the attention of the nation–even drawing Jacqueline Kennedy.
Conducted by Leonard Bernstein, the opening of their 121st season was broadcast live on nationwide television over the CBS network.
VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS SWELLS
Jamie Bernstein: But before 1962, the New York Philharmonic had a different home venue–the legendary Carnegie Hall. Why the change of scenery? The answer tells us a lot about the changes New York City was undergoing after World War II. It’s the 1950’s and America is in transformation.
Deborah Borda: The late fifties was a period when the United States felt they had won World War ii. There was a burgeoning middle class, and our economy was booming.
My name is Deborah Borda and I’m president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic.
Jamie Bernstein: In this new reality, New York was changing too:
Greg Young: There are many more things that are drawing people's attention like the Broadway stage, of course. Midtown Manhattan is booming.
I’m Greg Young—co-host of the Bowery Boys New York City history podcast.
Jamie Bernstein: During this boom, in 1955, Robert E. Simon, Jr. a real estate magnate, puts a family property up for sale—a little joint called Carnegie Hall.
Greg Young: So Carnegie Hall has essentially been in operation for five, six decades here.
Jamie Bernstein: And a year later, the Glickman Corporation announces its intent to buy the famous venue and turn it into, of all things, an office building. That’s right: the plan was to demolish Carnegie Hall and build an office tower in its footprint. It was as horrifying an idea back then as it is today. Who trades Carnegie Hall for a cubicle farm?
Greg Young: Carnegie Hall just seems like a piece of architecture that's outdated and can be cleared away. So unbelievable. To--to think that they would've actually knocked down Carnegie Hall. So that was floating in the air, right, for a really long time.
Jamie Bernstein: Luckily for us, the Committee to Save Carnegie Hall is formed, and in 1960, they vigorously lobby the city to purchase the hall.
Announcer: I’m here today to unveil and help the mayor and others dedicate this as a national historic landmark. And I want to say that anywhere in this country where you find a historic landmark that has been preserved, it is preserved because a few people cared, a few people fought to preserve it. And I would like to honor today, Issac Stern and the people that fought to save Carnagie Hall.
Greg Young: Thank goodness we still have Carnegie Hall today, but you know, that specter was looming here during the 1950s.
Jamie Bernstein: But with Carnegie’s future uncertain, the New York Philharmonic realized they might need to find a new home.
One idea was for the orchestra to move to a place called ‘the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts’ which at the time only existed in the imagination of one infamous New Yorker.
Deborah Borda: I think we all remember the man who was sort of the czar of New York at the time, Robert Moses.
Greg Young: And isn't it. Isn't it suck. You always have to, every subject you ever talk about in New York has to always have a Robert Moses section. He’s somehow got his hands in everything.
Robert Moses was one of the most powerful individuals in New York city in the 20th century.
By acquiring and being appointed to various important governmental jobs, basically amassing all of this power that he could use to shape the city in his own image.
Jamie Bernstein: The urban planner, Robert Moses, was considered by many to be the most powerful man in the city for nearly 40 years. Moses worked his way up the ranks of local government until, in 1933, he was appointed head of the New York City Parks Department. And while his earlier projects included new playgrounds and city parks, as he became more focused on his vision for the future, he set his sights on more ambitious, uh, “improvements.”
Deborah Borda: And he had a vision for New York. The car was the new future.
Jamie Bernstein: Which led him to begin one of his more famously calamitous projects: the Cross-Bronx Expressway–a giant freeway that would rip the Bronx in half.
By building a major highway down the middle of a prodigiously populous borough, Robert Moses destroyed neighborhoods and created greater economic disparities between communities.
But Robert Moses wouldn’t stop there.
Greg Young: One of Robert Moses' core projects here, in the fifties and the sixties, was “slum clearance.” The idea of removing neighborhoods that were considered slums, full of tenements, clearing them out for new types of development. And in particular, a neighborhood that he disliked very much was on the upper west side, called San Juan Hill.
Deborah Borda: The idea of displacing a vibrant Black and Latino community was part of what happened in those days.
Jamie Bernstein: Robert Moses would level the vibrant, diverse San Juan Hill neighborhood -- destroying the community to make way for Lincoln Center.
Jamie Bernstein: Incidentally, some of the last images of this neighborhood were captured in the 1961 film of “West Side Story.” It was shot amid the condemned tenements of San Juan Hill, with one scene taking place on a pile of rubble from recent demolition. And, in Spielberg’s 2021 remake, we even see a sign at a construction site announcing Robert Moses’s very own “Slum Clearance.”
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: You can look at this Lincoln Square, San Juan Hill relocation project as a microcosm of what was happening in New York during that time. I am Dr. Virginia Sanchez-Korrol. I am Professor Emerita at Brooklyn College. The author of “From Colonia to Community: The History of Puerto Ricans in New York City.” When you start to look at the history of Puerto Ricans in New York City and you realize that they'd been here since the mid 19th century, at least.
Jamie Bernstein: But because this old, tightly knit neighborhood was destroyed, a lot of its history isn’t widely known.
Nina Garland: I think the name really came about After the Spanish American War in 1898, many of the veterans came to San Juan Hill and lived here, but particularly the Henry Phipps houses on West 63rd Street between West End and Amsterdam, and on West 64th Street because they were the first houses built exclusively for black people in the city of New York with reasonable rents.
Jamie Bernstein: That’s Nina Garland—a choreographer, dance teacher, and member of the Thelonious Monk Foundation speaking about San Juan Hill in 1985.
Nina Garland: There were many Blacks, many Italians, and many Irish living in the neighborhood.
Etienne Charles: San Juan Hill as a neighborhood started to get popular among Afro-descendant migrants, mainly from the Caribbean, a lot from the English speaking Caribbean, you had all these Western Indian migrants around the turn of the century.
Jamie Bernstein: That’s Trinidad born composer and performer Etienne Charles, who created a multimedia work honoring San Juan Hill for the reopening of David Geffen Hall.
Etienne Charles: And it evolved into a huge melting pot and one of the main cultural locations at a really pivotal time in New York's history.
Jamie Bernstein: And those early years in San Juan Hill saw violence directed at the Black community in an all-too-familiar pattern.
Etienne Charles: There were numerous fights and numerous riots and uprisings that happened due to racial tensions, police brutality, the early stages of police corruption and all of these different things were happening there that created this tension, but also created beautiful art. It was thriving even when it was tough.
Jamie Bernstein: During the Great Migration in the 1910’s, members of the Puerto Rican community started moving to New York with some notable individuals settling in the San Juan Hill neighborhood. It’s a story professor of Puerto Rican studies, Virginia Sanchez-Korrol, knows intimately.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: I was born here. I grew up in the South Bronx, but where I grew up was not so different. My parents came at the beginning of the depression years to live in New York.
Jamie Bernstein: And in New York, her family became part of a thriving Puerto Rican community and culture.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol Culture means keeping close family ties. It means feasting, it means celebrating the holidays. It means making music in the home.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: Every Friday night, every Saturday night in my house there was music and food and dancing and get-togethers. It's a whole different set of what it is that you do, you know, to make, to make life meaningful.
Jamie Bernstein: Puerto Ricans shaped the culture of New York, as they had for decades. Take this one man whom you might have heard of:
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: Schomburg, he shows up living on 61st Street in the census of 1915.
Jamie Bernstein: Arturo Schomburg was a towering figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He dedicated his life to preserving Black History.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: And of course, Schomburg is a Black man.
Jamie Bernstein: Together with his wife and children, Schomburg lived in the neighborhood of San Juan Hill.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: When we talk about San Juan Hill being a, a Black community--and it is during this time—a thriving community, a a creative culturally vibrant community. We really don't have the breakdown of how many among that black community were Afro-Cuban or Afro-Puerto Rican. We don't, we don't know that.
Jamie Bernstein: We do know that by 1915, Arturo Schomburg, along with John Edward Bruce, had founded a society for Black historical research.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: So the Schomburg Collection has its beginnings with, with Schomburg living in San Juan Hill.
Jamie Bernstein: That collection, held today by the New York Public Library, was and continues to be the archive for the history of people of African descent around the world. And that history includes the performing arts, so for example, you’ll find incredible still photographs from the iconic show: Shuffle Along.
Nina Garland: Shuffle Along was the first all-black show to go to Broadway in 1921. It went to the 63rd Street Music Hall right here where the Lincoln Center is located now. It was considered the first all-black show to go to Broadway, only because it was the first show to get the same price that the American European Broadway shows got for the tickets. It was a Bonanza. They created a new style of dance.
Jamie Bernstein: Shuffle Along radically transformed the performing arts in America. And it was where some pretty big names got their start.
Nina Garland: Many of the top stars like Josephine Baker came outta Shuffle Along. Paul Robeson came outta Shuffle along, William Grant Still played in the Shuffle Along orchestra. And it's very interesting to know that Thelonious Monk's family moved from Rocky Mountain, North Carolina in 1922 to this neighborhood one year after that. If you listen to certain pieces of the music. You can hear that Ragtime Rhythm or Stride piano as it's called in Thelonious' music. And I think that maybe that's part of the influence of it.
Jamie Bernstein: Here is Thelonious Monk’s son, speaking in 1985 about his memories of San Juan Hill.
Thelonious Monk Jr.: when I was a kid, which wasn't that long ago, I'm talking about the fifties, we were living in 243 the Phipps houses down there.
Jamie Bernstein: And even though Monk’s home wasn’t destroyed, he was part of the community that was displaced.
Thelonious Monk Jr.: In New York at that time, they had some sort of urban programs to bring entertainment into, into the community. And there's a, there's a park, a playground down there And that playground served as like a, a community meeting place for a lot of things. There's a flagpole in the housing project. They used to come in the middle of the summer. This truck would come and string up this gigantic movie screen on summer nights and show movies and everyone would be out there. It was, it was such a community. It was just a, I thought it was a wonderful place.
Etienne Charles: In 1949 when the housing act was passed, it started this whole concept of what we call “slum clearance” or an urban renewal, and this was happening all over the US at this time. They decided that they were gonna break up the neighborhood.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: You have, Robert Moses and the stirrings of urban renewal, because there's a housing shortage and you've got to relocate people in in order to do what? To, to provide housing, rather than fixing what's there.
Jamie Bernstein: The Housing Act of 1949 was supposed to help solve a national housing shortage by building better housing for residents. But instead, neighborhoods were leveled and communities torn apart, all in the name of what was deemed “progress”. The so-called Lincoln Square Renewal project called for a sprawling 52.8 acres in the middle of Manhattan–much more than what would become the 16 acre campus of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: By the early fifties, there's already an indication that yes, we can, through eminent domain, we can clear 50 acres in Manhattan to make Lincoln Center.
Jamie Bernstein: Title One of the Housing Act was focused on what was called “slum clearance”—defined as the “destruction of overpopulated, unsanitary housing areas in which the structures are deteriorated beyond hope of reclamation.” That little phrase meant developers could justify the destruction of any neighborhood, which they did, in vile ways.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: It was a very anti Puerto Rican virulent, absolutely hateful, racist campaign. That was carried on by mass media, by the government of the City of New York and the government of Puerto Rico, who began to use the term, “the Puerto Rican problem.” To us kids who had grown up here. We didn't understand why we suddenly became a problem. But it was an atmosphere of discrimination that really affected us. It affected how we went to school. It affected our jobs. It affected us in every way. The smear campaigns in the press were what would allow Robert Moses to say, this is a Puerto Rican slum.
Robert Moses: Why Lincoln Square? I can give you the explanation in one long sentence. Cause these 60 odd central disease and rapidly deteriorating acres can be rebuilt and made healthy only by condemning land and selling it to sponsors in the main speculated builders, but including a college campus and an opera, music and art center worthy of New York.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: You know, these people are diseased.
James Lannigan: The amounting cost of each slums to our nation in terms of disease, crime, delinquency, broken homes,
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: They're used to living in old, law tenements. So let them have them.
ames Lannigan: Has since the war, brought many of our cities to an urgent financial and social and a moral crisis.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol:That's what allows Robert Moses to say, Hey, you know what? Yeah. Clear it. It's full of Puerto Ricans anyway. It was that kind of an atmosphere that we were in, that the city was in, that really allowed people with grandiose ideas about clearing slums rather than using empty lots, clearing working class families, so that they could build beautiful structures like Lincoln Center.
Thelonious Monk Jr.: I remember before Lincoln Center, you know, I remember the neighborhood. I remember what Amsterdam Avenue opposite the projects looked like back then with little shops in a drug store and an ice cream parlor.
It seemed very crowded, but absolutely full of life and colors and all kinds of people going about doing their daily business. Then of course, and you know, it was urban renewal and we, in the inner community who were being removed, we called it “urban removal.”
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: Housing didn't seem to be a major issue before. Now it was an issue to be contented with because now you could actually be taken out of your house without, you know, just cause.
Jamie Bernstein: But where there is injustice—there is also resistance. And that resistance was mighty. The Save our Homes campaign, the Manhattan Tenants Council, the Lincoln Square Residents’ Committee–so many people came together to try and save their neighborhood.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: Harris Present who has this great, background as an activist and lawyer, who helps to create committees, to fight housing discrimination and relocation issues. There are a number of, of Puerto Ricans who are working with these larger groups, and are part of these strikes and, letter writing and the petitions everything that was possible to be done was done to try to save the community in which they lived.
Jamie Bernstein: A photograph from the time shows a pickett line with people holding signs that read, “Shelter before culture,” and “You don’t tear down homes in a housing shortage.”
The resistance mounted by the community threatened to block Robert Moses’s plans. So he leveraged the idea of using the space not just for new housing for the burgeoning, mostly white middle class … but also to create a home for the arts on par with Europe’s finest venues. To New York city planners, the idea proved too seductive. And so the city of New York and Robert Moses would claim that San Juan Hill was a slum and therefore fit for clearance.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: Up until the point where they knew that they weren't getting a fair, fair hearing, and they just said, let's knock it down, let's just try to stop it all together.
Jamie Bernstein: So they sued the city—with the lawyer Harris L. Present representing upwards of 8,000 people who were being displaced by Lincoln Center.
Etienne Charles: And it went all the way up to the Supreme Court where the appeal was denied and that's when the ball started rolling for Lincoln Center to be built. And from that, you know, Lincoln Center was born when they broke ground in 1959.
Jamie Bernstein: The loss of that lawsuit led to thousands of families being displaced.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: 1100 fam Puerto Rican families, where do they go to after San Juan Hill is demolished? For Puerto Ricans, there are only certain places in the city that they could go. There is this miasma of, of discrimination and it infects all of the institutions that serve the population. So that you can ry to move to an area where you can afford an apartment, but they may not rent to you. Because you're Puerto Rican.
Thelonious Monk Jr.: I mean I really saw the systematic change of the neighborhood they moved everyone out and they told everyone that they're gonna refurbish your neighborhood and everyone's gonna move back. Of course, everyone never moved back and the rents went sky high and Lincoln Center came in.
Virginia Sanchez Korrol: And so you have this great monument, this beautiful center for the arts, and it was built on the backs of these people. We talk about how do you make up for that in the history? you don't, you make up for it by telling it.
Shanta Thake: The story matters to us. Our history matters to us, and we are not going to, you know, plaster over our history in order to get to our future. That's not, that's not what we're in the business of doing.
I’m Shanta Thake. I’m the Chief Artistic Officer at Lincoln Center.
Shanta Thake: I think it's very easy to err on the side of we have one narrative and it's all good news and, and I think the more interesting narrative and the more true narrative is one that we have to grapple with and we're always gonna be grappling with. These same things are happening all over the country right now. You know, where people are being displaced, neighborhoods are shifting. And it's important for us, especially for us—Lincoln Center, with our stature, to be brave and to step into this space and say, “We have to reckon with who we have been in order to really step into who we are and want to be.”
Jamie Bernstein: As one of the arts organization on the Lincoln Center campus, the New York Philharmonic had to wrestle with who they wanted to be–how they wanted to contend with this history and how they would continue to serve the people of New York. And in March of 2020, they unexpectedly got the time to consider what a new era would like for them.
We’ll be back in a moment, stay with us.
Jamie Bernstein: This is the NY Phil Story: Made in New York, I’m Jamie Bernstein.
NOISES OF NYC IN THE PANDEMIC SHUTDOWN
Richard Hake: This is WNYC in New York. Good morning, i’m Richard Hake. Mayor DeBlasio has rolled-out strategies for the ongoing spread of Covid-19…
Deborah Borda: It was the night of March the 10th, 2020, and we looked out and we knew we had a sold out house and it was half empty and that concert was our final concert. The Philharmonic has of course survived, you know, Civil War, Two World Wars, Spanish flu epidemic. But there was a moment for all of us in our hearts, we had a fear. Is this a different time? It was very clear to me by the spring of 2020, by May or June, that there would be no way we would be giving our regular concerts in the next season.
Jamie Bernstein: The concert season might have been shut down due to the Covid pandemic, but the Philharmonic kept performing. They released free video concerts. They created new digital performances honoring healthcare workers. They even sent out Philharmonic musicians on flatbed trucks into the boroughs of the city for pop-up concerts. The orchestra found so many ways to reach out to New York and the world in a time of great need.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the leadership of the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center were moving forward on a plan they’d been hatching for a while -- to renovate their concert space at Lincoln Center, a venue originally dubbed Philharmonic Hall.
Paul Goldberger: Philharmonic Hall was the first building at Lincoln Center to open, and in 1962 it was really seen not just as a new home for the New York Philharmonic, but as the sort of harbinger of the new, 20th century New York–which was increasingly a world cultural capital.
I’m Paul Goldberger, a former architecture critic for the New York Times and the New Yorker.
Expectations were incredibly high, and then unfortunately, it’s like the air went out of the balloon.
The very night it opened it was pretty good looking, but the sound was not good at all.
Deborah Borda: For years after the Philharmonic left Carnegie Hall, there was sort of a, a dark cloud or a curse hanging over Philharmonic Hall.
Ryan Roberts: I remember playing there for the first time and thinking, oh my gosh, it's really difficult to make enough sound in this hall. It's very difficult for nuances to be heard. For really subtle shades of piano and pianissimo to have the amount of clarity that they really need.
Ryan Roberts: My name is Ryan Roberts. I play English horn and oboe with the New York Philharmonic.
Sharon Yamada: The phrase shoebox design comes to mind. A rectangular shoebox with the stage at one end of it. I'm Sharon Yamada violinist in the New York Philharmonic.
Deborah Borda: It simply never worked for the musicians. They couldn't hear each other. They couldn't see each other or the audience. When George Szell first conducted in the new hall, they said, “Maestro, what should we do?” He said, “Burn it down and start again.”
Paul Goldberger: And that was the beginning of what really turned out to be a 60 year long quest to fix this building.
Jamie Bernstein: My father, Leonard Bernstein, was music director of the Philharmonic when they transitioned from Carnegie Hall to their glamorous new home in Lincoln Center. The fact that the acoustics were poor was something my dad didn’t talk about too much; he tried to put the best face on things, given all the trouble and expense everyone had gone to. But it was an ongoing disappointment for all concerned – a disappointment that persisted even after two attempts to fix the problems.
Paul Goldberger: It involved several redesigns, one complete gut renovation and nothing fully solved the problem. Almost every acoustician in the world came and tinkered with it.
Jamie Bernstein: Experts were stumped about how to fix Philharmonic Hall. But in the early 1970s, a radical idea from the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez showed what the venue could be.
Paul Goldberger: The rug concerts were an invention of Pierre Boulez when was music director. And he took out seats and had people just sit on the floor and wanted to create an informal environment. They were a big success, they showed that the hall maybe did have a little bit of flexibility in it somewhere because the sound was better.
Jamie Bernstein: In the mid-seventies, the hall would be completely gutted and renamed for the donor that funded the renovation: Avery Fisher Hall. But even then, the improvements were marginal at best.
Paul Goldberger: I have to say that I and a number of people sort of liked it then, but that might have been just the triumph of hope over experience.
Jamie Bernstein: As the decades passed, Avery Fisher Hall became more and more dated visually and audiences became frustrated with its less-than-ideal sound.
Paul Goldberger: if you’re gonna get people to go to a live concert, there needs to be a level of experience that you can’t get sitting at home with headphones. because remember, concert halls began when that was the only way anybody could ever hear music. There is a power to hearing great music in great space.
Jamie Bernstein: And so the New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center would try to give New York that great space. the Phil put together a power-duo of architectural firms that seemed full-of-promise for the future–until they saw they saw the plans. They were too expensive, too complicated, and wouldn’t function as the sort of venue that the Philharmonic envisioned.
Paul Goldberger: Deborah not only knows this orchestra, she knows concert halls really, really well. And she said, “We just cannot do this. She knew the difference a great hall can make.
Jamie Bernstein: In 2019, the Philharmonic announced that over the course of five years, they would completely rebuild the interior of a reimagined David Geffen Hall. The schedule for the construction was awkward at best, requiring opening and closing the hall multiple times. But then, the Covid-19 Pandemic hit. Amidst the uncertainty and turmoil, an audience required to “shelter in place” presented an unanticipated opportunity: the Philharmonic might be able to accomplish their monumental renovations in a much shorter time frame.
Deborah Borda: We came together and we recommended to both of our boards: This is a time to be bold. This is a time to be courageous. This will be important to New York City and to Lincoln Center. And we made a decision to go for it.
Carter Brey: They went right to work and they just gutted the place right to the walls.
Deborah Borda: I mean, it was pure concrete.
Ryan Roberts: I could tell that it was gonna be more than just a construction project. It really kind of marked a new era for the orchestra.
Sharon Yamada: I've been serving on the musician's renovation committee. It was really interesting to talk to the architects about how we prepare to perform, for example, What does it take to warm up? Where do we warm up? What it is, we do day to day? And they were an eager audience to find out what goes on behind the scenes and to help us do our jobs.
Jaap van Zweden: One of the most exciting things is that it's very intimate. My name is Jaap van Zweden. I'm the music director of the New York Philharmonic. We all pushed to have the orchestra more in the middle of the hall and be surrounded by our audience.
Deborah Borda: We took out 500 seats. We put in a new kind of seating system. We call it vineyard seating, where the orchestra is actually surrounded by the audience.
Carter Brey: It feels like it's the same size as a chamber music hall because they've moved the stage into the hall itself. It's sort of thrust forward with audience seating now behind the stage, as well as in front.
Carter Brey: My name is Carter Brey and I'm the principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic.
Deborah Borda: You can look into the eyes of the conductor. You can see the trumpet part. And the basic design for this idea comes from the Berlin Philharmonie, designed by the famous architect, Scharoun, who said in the 20th century we need to bring people closer to the music.
Jaap van Zweden: And because of that, the sound is improved tremendously. We are going to have a different contact with our audience. We are going to have a different contact with each other, and we are going to marry as an orchestra, with a new acoustic.
Deborah Borda: So the first week, the very first concert we did, we called it the Hard Hat concert. It was for the workers and families who had built the hall. 6,000 different people worked on this hall at different times. All sorts of trades because putting a hall together like this, you can imagine how complex it is from the people who installed the wood to the people who installed the seats to the HVAC.
Jamie Bernstein: Those were jobs desperately needed in the middle of the pandemic. And of those 6,000 jobs, 40 percent were contracted with minority and women owned businesses.
Deborah Borda: All sorts of trades because putting a hall together like this, you can imagine how complex it is from the people who installed the wood to the people who installed the seats to the HVAC.
Ryan Roberts: I was very moved when I found out that the first notes we’re gonna play in the hall will be for the people that spent so many months building the hall. I thought that was a really beautiful message and a really thoughtful way to invite the community into the hall.
Deborah Borda: I think it was one of the greatest audiences we have ever had. The love, the excitement, the feeling of accomplishment. And you could also see the workers taking their families around saying “I put this wooden wall in. I did this.”
Deborah Borda: For the opening week, Lincoln Center commissioned a work called San Juan Hill with Etienne Charles.
Etienne Charles: I'm originally from Trinidad and Tobago, and my musical background starts in my family. Many people played music going all the way back to my great grandfather as well as my grandfather's father. My earliest introductions to music [were] folk music, steel pan, calypso, choral music, the hymns in church. And then of course my father was a dj, so everything that he was playing on his record player at home.
Jamie Bernstein: Those early musical experiences eventually took Etienne all the way to Juilliard, where he first learned about the neighborhood of San Juan Hill.
Etienne Charles: We were getting ready for our first concert and it was the music of Herbie Nichols who was one of the icons of San Juan Hill. So we are just listening to this Herbie Nichols’ music and we're picking up on some similarities between Herbie Nichols’ music and Monk's music. And I was just like, man, there's something similar here.
Jamie Bernstein: The San Juan Hill connection was confirmed when the musical coach for the concert, pianist and composer Frank Kimbrough, pointed out the geographic link between Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk.
Etienne Charles: He said Herbie Nichols grew up right here and he pointed to Amsterdam Avenue. He was from San Juan Hill. And that was the first time I learned about [this neighborhood].
Jamie Bernstein: The story stayed with him until, during the Covid Pandemic, Lincoln Center approached him with a question.
Etienne Charles: When Lincoln Center approached me asking about what do I think would be a good way to open the new Geffen Hall? I said, well, I think it would be fitting and overdue to do a piece acknowledging the history of San Juan Hill.
SOUNDS OF A CROWD GATHERING AT GEFFEN HALL
Jamie Bernstein: The day of the sold-out opening performance, hopeful concert-goers lined up at the box office hours before, in case any seats opened up.
People on the street: Why am I here standing in line? It's the Philharmonic. They've not been here for a long time. I live in the neighborhood. What was here before this was here is an important story to be told. The composer sounds like an incredibly vibrant, beautiful guy. And so that's worth standing in a line for, you know, bring my kids.
People on the street: I'm 82 and I, San Juan Hill is a place we know San Juan. I've been trying to get tickets for over a month coming down here and at 82, it's hard. It's sold out but I would love to get in. I've been to the free concerts in the summer outside. But I could never get tickets or nothing. So maybe today I'll break a record.
Jamie Bernstein: Spoiler alert–she did get her ticket.
Jamie Bernstein: Crowds gathered for a sold-out performance. And the first thing many of them saw on the way to the concert, was a David Geffen Hall bedecked in public art.
Deborah Borda: As we opened the hall. If you look at the 65th Street side which was just a sort of blank portion of the hall, there's a massive mural, and it's a depiction of life of San Juan Hill.
Jamie Bernstein: The work, created by artist Nina Chanel Abney, is called San Juan Heal and it pays tribute to many of the luminaries from the neighborhood. It stretches the entirety of the West 65th street facade of David Geffen Hall.
And while the audience entered and took their seats, they were greeted by another work honoring San Juan Hill–that multimedia piece by composer Etienne Charles.
Etienne Charles: It tells a story of people who were moved unnecessarily and it lets the world know that these people were there.
Shanta Thake: He's really thinking about the music that was birthed on San Juan Hill with its African and Afro-Caribbean roots.
Etienne Charles: It has been a study of resilience and a study of how art evolves when different peoples gather and they bring all of their cultures together and new hybrid cultural elements and gems become staples.
Shanta Thake: What could have been, what was there that wasn't able to flourish in the way it could have been.
Etienne Charles: It celebrates the brilliance of what they were able to contribute to not just New York City, but to the whole world.
Shanta Thake: And then …what if it had stayed? How would that music look today if it had been not displaced, over time?
Etienne Charles: I'm working specifically with what I think of as sounds of San Juan Hill So in the early parts of the 20th century, I'm thinking piano music. Ragtime. Stride.
As Etienne speaks, music followings with a medley of examples of the genres
That's also the Antillian Waltz, which is a very popular Caribbean dance form. And then of course, the experimental sounds that came onto that neighborhood, Benny Carter's experimentations in swing, Thelonious Monk’s Experimentations with bebop, and of course with swing. There's Mambo and Bamba from Puerto Rico. And then at the end, I kind of mash it all up together in this movement called House Rent Party. You take a gathering of people at an apartment in a tenement building there's a piano playing and there's band playing and people are dancing. It’s kind of a mash up of sounds–and then we kind of go modern.
Music ends and audience erupts into applause
Jamie Bernstein: The final notes rang out and the audience rose to their feet. The concert might have been successful, as was the opening of David Geffen Hall, but was telling the story enough? Could it be enough?
Shanta Thake: To have this black Afro-Caribbean artist opening David Geffen Hall, I think is a massive statement in terms of what forms are we really saying belong at David Geffen Hall alongside and in collaboration with classical music.
Concert-goer: I think it’s a one off, It needs more explanation.
Concert-goer: No seriously. Because if the whole idea of this event was to commemorate the destruction of an existing neighborhood and putting up Lincoln Center, this really doesn't explain it.
Shanta Thake: This isn't about putting a period on it and saying, let's put that on the shelf. We've done our part.
Concert-goer: I would hope that in the program for the rest of the season, they at least talk about what they're trying to commemorate here today.
Shanta Thake: This is about an ongoing conversation.
Concert-goer: But I think that it needs to be more that a one off, really more than a one off.
Shanta Thake: What we're saying is that we're really committed to this story and, and to the lives and the artistry, that could be forgotten or wiped away if we don't hold onto it in the same way that we hold onto Beethoven and Mozart and all of the rest. Those things have to be held in the same regard if we wanna continue to build on culture and American culture specifically.
Deborah Borda: As America changes, it's wonderful that we can have a vision of an America that strives towards greater equity and thinks about community and music in a different way.
Deborah Borda: We threw open the doors for the opening month, but today the doors are still thrown open.
We want people to come here and hang out. In the lobby we have a 50 foot video wall and we livestream every Philharmonic concert.
And if you go down there now, they’ll be oh, a hundred people sitting out watching the concert, listening, drinking coffee, eating sandwiches, bringing in Chinese food, and it’s just a great feeling.
Jaap van Zweden: This is much more a center for the community than it was before. This hall is for everybody. And we hope that with this hall we are saying to the different neighborhoods in New York, this is also your home.
CANDIDE PLAYS AND THE SERIES ENDS
Jamie Bernstein: This is the NY Phil Story: Made in New York, produced by WQXR in partnership with The New York Philharmonic … and hosted by me, Jamie Bernstein! For more information about the history of the San Juan Hill neighborhood, you can visit Lincoln Center’s Legacies of San Juan Hill project online. Find the link on our website.
Our production team includes: Lauren Purcell-Joiner, Helena de Groot, Sapir Rosenblatt, Laura Boyman, Elizabeth Nonemaker, Eileen Delahunty, Christine Herskovits, Natalia Ramirez, and Ed Yim.
Our engineering team includes: George Wellington and Ed Haber.
Special thanks to Monica Parks, Adam Crane, Gabe Smith, and the New York Public Radio Archives, the NYC municipal archives.
Thank you for listening!
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.