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Wed, 01.01.1890

San Juan Hill (New York City), a story

*On this date in 1880, San Juan Hill is celebrated on the Registry.  This was an African American, Afro-Caribbean, and Puerto Rican community in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of the Upper West Side in Manhattan, New York City.

It was one of the largest Black communities in New York City before World War I.  59th Street bound San Juan Hill to the south, West End Avenue to the west, 65th Street to the north, and Amsterdam Avenue to the east, 11th Avenue.  African Americans moved into the area around the climax of American Reconstruction from Greenwich Village, where an earlier black community existed.  

The culture of jazz and art thrived in this area as its popularity grew. The neighborhood had a jazz club called "Jungle Cafe," nicknamed the jungle by the members of the neighborhood.  Though unproven, San Juan Hill was known as the birthplace of the Charleston and Bebop.  Pianist James P. Johnson, one of the pioneers of the Stride (music) style of piano playing family, moved to San Juan Hill in 1908. Johnson composed the Roaring Twenties popular song "Charleston." Many of Johnson's compositions have been used as film scores and movies dating from 1929 to 2007.   

The area's musical history continues today at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Historian Marcy S. Sacks quotes in her book, Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City Before World War I (Politics and Culture in Modern America), that San Juan Hill had many tenement basement clubs ranging from dives to higher-level clubs. And that there were also poolrooms, saloons, dance halls, and bordellos.  

San Juan Hill had many black churches that moved into the area around the 1880s and 1890s. Among them are St. Mark's Methodist Episcopal, Mt. Olivet Baptist, and St. Benedict the Moor Church.  The area had numerous community and fraternal organizations, such as the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, Negro Elks, and the Colored Freemasons.  Thelonious Monk, the jazz pianist, grew up in San Juan Hill, raised in the Phipps houses on West 63rd street. A portion of a street in the old San Juan Hill neighborhood was named after Thelonious Monk. After his death, Monk's family created the Thelonious Monk Foundation to help improve music education throughout the United States.  Jazz pianist Herbie Nichols was born in the neighborhood and became friends with Monk later in life.  

There are different opinions on why the area was called San Juan Hill. Some critics say it refers to the Spanish American War of 1898, fought in Cuba. It is also said that it was because African American veterans from the war lived in the area. Others say the name was given to the area due to the racial fights between African Americans and Irish American gangs.  The 1961 film West Side Story was filmed in parts of San Juan Hill after condemning the neighborhood's buildings; piles of debris from recently demolished buildings feature in many video/film shots. 

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