Before it became known as Lincoln Square in 1940, this area of Manhattan was known as San Juan Hill, the home for most of New York City’s Black population before Harlem and the Bronx.
The name of both San Juan Hill—and Lincoln Square—come from unknown origins. It is believed that it was named after President Theodore Roosevelt’s 10th Cavalry which fought at the Battle of San Juan Hill. Although this would be the obvious origins of the name, it has never been confirmed or denied.
The neighborhood was home to the bulk of the city’s Blacks during the late-19th century into the early 20th. It also had a significant Afro-Caribbean community. A number of jazz musicians grew up in the area or resided there during the 1920s such as Thelonious Monk who moved to San Juan Hill in 1922, creator of the “Charleston,” James P. Johnson, and Denzil Best, who grew up there.
The neighborhood was also known for his crime and fights between Blacks and Irish in the area.
The End for San Juan Hill
By the late 1930s, San Juan Hill had a reputation as one of the worst places in New York City. As a matter of fact, it was called “the worst slum” in the city. While this is a result of a lack of city involvement, it was also a hit job to the area’s reputation, one that made it all the easier to mark it as a site for “urban renewal.”
As it often happens in these initiatives, San Juan Hill was put on the chopping block. When World War II ended, the city began tearing down sections of the neighbor to make way for Lincoln Center. As a result, about 7,700 residents moved to Harlem and the Bronx in new housing projects. By the 1950s, there was no San Juan Hill and building on Lincoln Center began.