Remembering Neighborhood Voices, Part I

In 1985, New York City’s municipal broadcast television station WNYC-TV produced Neighborhood Voices, a limited series on unique and changing city neighborhoods.  Comprised mostly of interviews with longtime residents and prominent local figures, this series provided a vivid and personal window into the ever-changing City, its residents, and the communities they created.

One such neighborhood was San Juan Hill. Located in Manhattan from 59th to 65th Streets, between Amsterdam and West End Avenues, it had been site of the first affordable housing units in the country, the childhood home of jazz legend Thelonious Sphere Monk, and the inspiration for the musical West Side Story.

Beginning in the 1890s, Afro-Caribbean emigres and African-Americans migrating from the American South began populating the neighborhood along with churches and community organizations. The community also attracted veterans returning from the Spanish-American War of 1898, possibly giving the area its nickname—from the Battle of San Juan Hill. In the 1910s, philanthropist Henry Phipps, Jr. constructed the Phipps Houses on 63rd Street. These buildings constitute the country’s oldest affordable housing units and provided a quality of living that working-class people of color rarely had access to at the time. In 1940, Robert Moses, Chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance declared the neighborhood a slum, displaced its inhabitants, demolished the buildings and constructed what stands there today—Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Roseanna Weston, one of the last living residents of the Phipps Houses, remembered the neighborhood before Lincoln Center. She recalled that prior to moving into the Phipps Houses in 1917, her family had been living in a tenement with wooden stairs and toilets shared by the entire building. Roseanna’s family was vetted and approved for the Phipps Houses after her father’s boss, a wealthy businessman, personally vouched for him as a reliable worker and good man. Rent was set at $6 a week, making it equivalent to roughly $475 a month in 2019 dollars—less than a quarter of even the cheapest rents in the area today.

Roseanna Weston sits in the same Phipps Houses apartment she grew up in, the last of her family to live there.

Thelonious Sphere Monk, jazz legend and New York City icon grew up in the Phipps houses alongside the Weston family. Monk passed away in 1983 following years of ill health. Neighborhood Voices interviewed Monk’s son, Thelonious Monk Jr. about his father, his relationship to San Juan Hill and how it had changed since his childhood. Monk Jr. recounted how personally involved his father was in the San Juan Hill area and how the character of the neighborhood informed his musical development. Following his death, Monk’s family established the Thelonious Monk Foundation to improve music education across the country. One of their first projects was starting a jazz dance and music class for students in Martin Luther King Jr. High School at 122 Amsterdam Avenue. Students in this class learned how to play and breakdance to Monk’s music.

Thelonious Monk Jr. weighs the impact of urban renewal (or urban removal) on his childhood neighborhood. Neighborhood Voices, WNYC Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Nina Garland, a member of the Thelonious Monk Foundation as well as a long-time choreographer and dance instructor assisted Monk Jr. in this effort. Garland, still a dance educator today, admired how teenagers in 1985 adapted modern break dancing techniques to the unfamiliar beat of Monk’s jazz. Classes like these were part of a larger push to make the lessons taught in City schools reflect the lives and experiences of their students. In another interview, school Principal Nellie Jordan explained how the class was originally planned as an after-school activity, but thanks to its popularity, became part of the regular school schedule.

Nina Garland marvels at the impact many famous African American artists and performers who first rose to prominence in San Juan Hill made on American culture. Neighborhood Voices, WNYC Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the 1980s, Neighborhood Voices was meant to empower members of rapidly changing and sometimes disappearing neighborhoods. In addition to the artists in San Juan Hill, the series also highlighted the departure of the fur and shipping industries from Chelsea, socialist cooperatives based in the Allerton Coops, community gardens in the South Bronx and much more. These programs are now being digitized. Recorded on ¾” u-matic tapes, these videos were some of the most degraded in the WNYC-TV collection. Many required special treatments prior to digitization. The tapes themselves will continue to degrade, but the personal oral histories of New Yorkers contained within them have been preserved for future generations.