New York’s lost neighborhoods

Lincoln Center was built on what was once San Juan Hill, a neighborhood that provided the setting for West Side Story. 
Max Touhey

The old cliche about New York—that the only constant is change—is a cliche for a reason; as the city’s population has grown and shifted, neighborhoods have evolved along with it.

But real estate reigns supreme, and throughout the five boroughs, there are whole areas that are the result of sudden and unnatural development brought on by large sums of cash, eminent domain, and the like.

In some cases, neighborhoods were almost instantaneously uprooted, often in the name of massive wealth or some greater good. Lower-class New Yorkers and minority communities were declared slums by the government and sentenced to demolition in the name of urban renewal. (Notorious power broker Robert Moses was frequently involved in those.) In others, private powers forced longtime residents to abandon their homes.

And in all of these cases—save for Willets Point, which has yet to completely disappear—few remnants, if any, of these communities survive.

Seneca Village

Many of New York’s lost neighborhoods were, perhaps unsurprisingly, once home to low-income communities that were replaced by comparative luxury, sometimes of a private and sometimes of a public nature. In the case of Seneca Village, located in what is now the west side of Central Park, the replacement was public, but the park’s creation still uprooted some 1,600 residents.

Even before the park’s creation, the community of African-American homes and churches were described in editorials as squats, and their owners as thieves, Ephemeral New Yorkdetails. Briefly, before the eviction order came in 1856, the residents of Seneca Village were ordered to begin paying rent to the city. In 1857, those remaining were kicked out, and two years later, Central Park opened. Today, the corner of a foundation on 85th Street serves as one, if not the, final remnant of Seneca Village. A plaque commemorates its existence.

Five Points

Mulberry Bend in the Five Points area, sometime in the early 20th century. 
Photo by Eugene L. Armbruster/The New York Historical Socity/Getty Images

In the 19th century, Five Points—where the current-day Lower East Side, Chinatown, and Civic Center districts converge—was known as one of the world’s most notorious slums. The corner of lower Manhattan, built upon a drained pond, was crime-ridden, filled with gang violence and rundown tenements.

In 1850, local bulletin “Monthly Echo” griped, “Will the Mission [in reference to the Five Points Mission, formerly known as the New York Ladies’ Home Missionary Society] property be ‘wiped out’ by the new Civic Center which the papers are talking about?” going on to ask simply “If ‘Wiped Out,’ Where?”

The answer is now obvious: the area is simply gone. As Ephemeral New York puts it, Five Points was “wiped off the map thanks to late Gilded Age progressive ideals that fostered slum clearance and new development.” Today the neighborhood is, indeed, dominated by the municipal and federal buildings of Civic Center, along with the residential density of Chinatown.

For those looking to find Five Points’ remnants today, there is Mosco Street, which used to contain Five Points’ Old Brewery and the over 200-year-old Edward Mooney House (PDF), considered to be the oldest row house in New York City.

Corcoran’s Roost/Prospect Hill

The iconic “Tudor City” sign that looms over the neighborhood in Midtown. 
Max Touhey

Tudor City, the 15-building waterfront complex on Manhattan’s east side, was constructed in the late 1920s. It replaced a strip of tenements and slaughterhouses that had seen many iterations. There was Goat Hill, the area’s first urban existence, named for the goats that lorded over the land with their owners. Goat Hill then became Prospect Hill, and then came the Irish and the title Corcoran’s Roost, for local personality James “Paddy” Corcoran, a working-class hero and gang leader.

Tudor City itself came into being in the 1920s, when developer Fred French began buying up parcels of land between East 40th and 43rd streets, between First and Second avenues. He sought to create “[a] city within a city, a garden spot in the center of New York,” as one brochure from the time put it—and the venture was a success, with apartments in the complex luring middle-class New Yorkers.

Tudor City became a historic district in 1988, and several buildings from its past as Prospect Hill—including the Church of the Covenant on East 42nd Street—remain to this day.

Manhattantown

Philip Payton Jr. may not be household name, but he should be; as one of the most successful black real estate moguls of the early 20th century, he’s known as “the father of Harlem”—and he also created the small enclave of Manhattantown, between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West on 99th and 98th streets. Payton bought a number of buildings on those blocks and rented the apartments within to black New Yorkers, creating a tiny haven in an area otherwise open only to white residents.

According to a seven-minute documentary by Jim Epstein on the area, the tight-knit, two-block neighborhood was reduced to rubble thanks to eminent domain and the idea that a planned community would be better than the “slum” Manhattantown was declared to be. Everyone in the neighborhood was forced to move in 1951 (although five years later, the buildings were only partially demolished) and Robert Moses was able to pick companies, as favors to his allies, who then built private housing where Manhattantown had recently thrived.

Today, the streets are the site of three-building apartment complex Park West Village, a market-rate residential development built in a park-style model.

San Juan Hill

In a scene from West Side Story, rival gangs battle in the rubble of San Juan Hill. 
Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins’s star-crossed love story West Side Story is a classic piece of New York pop culture that depicts a long-lost neighborhood: San Juan Hill, on the southern end of the Upper West Side, which was razed to make way for Lincoln Center.

San Juan Hill was, as West Side Story depicts, an enclave for black and Hispanic New Yorkers; the gang violence and overcrowded tenement life that are prominent in the musical were part of that, but it was also, as the New York Times notes, a place where culture thrived. (Thelonious Monk lived there, and the Charleston supposedly was invented in the area.)

But San Juan Hill’s fate was rendered suddenly and fatally due to its prime Manhattan location. It was part of Robert Moses’s midcentury “slum clearance” plans, and in 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower arrived to break ground on the new neighborhood—Lincoln Square—that was to come. Lincoln Center’s myriad buildings now occupy the land where San Juan Hill once stood, but before the complex was finished, Robbins filmed part of West Side Story on a portion of West 68th Street that no longer exists. (Demo work was apparently halted until filming finished.)

Pigtown

Past the seemingly endless strip of Flatbush that separates one side of Prospect Park from the other towers the Ebbets Apartments, a sprawling, mostly subsidized apartment complex built where Ebbets Field once stood. But before the Brooklyn Dodgers played there, the area was known as Pigtown.

Named for its pig farms, the neighborhood—today, Prospect Lefferts Gardens—was a shantytown on the edge of the city, its derogatory name worn with pride by the largely poor Irish and Italian immigrants who called it home. Pigtown’s boundaries, according to Brownstoner, were Albany Avenue to the east, Nostrand Avenue to the west, Midwood Street to the south, and Malbone Street (now Empire Boulevard, its name changed following a horrific subway crash) to the north, although the perimeters were somewhat flexible.

Like Five Points and Seneca Village before, Pigtown did not stand a chance against the more powerful forces that sought its land for their own uses. Charles Ebbets began purchasing the property in the early 1900s and had transformed it into a baseball field by 1913. In 1957, then-owner Walter O’Malley famously shuttled the team from New York City to Los Angeles after a spat with Robert Moses—yes, him again—over a new stadium.

Radio Row/Little Syria

Syrian food vendors in Little Syria, before it was demolished in the 1950s. 
Library of Congress

Another example of eminent domain uprooting established communities occurred in lower Manhattan, and once again, Robert Moses had a hand in the changes. Before the World Trade Center was built in the 1970s, that part of the borough was home to a bustling commercial strip known as Radio Row, as well as a thriving residential community known as Little Syria, a neighborhood composed largely of Arab immigrants.

Little Syria went first: Though the enclave had thrived along Washington Street for many years, the majority of the community was forced out by 1950 for the creation of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel’s entrance ramp.

Radio Row’s existence was wiped out not long after. The commercial area covered 13 blocks that had upwards of 300 businesses, serving “amateur tinkerers and customers who needed to purchase or buy retail radios,” according to James Nevius. But the advent of television gave the area a death sentence. By the 1960s, most tenants had been evicted or bought out, and the Supreme Court refused to hear some merchants’ case against the use of eminent domain. The World Trade Center had its groundbreaking in 1966, a few years after Radio Row was dismantled.

Willets Point

Willets Point, located in the shadow of Citi Field in Flushing, Queens. 
Max Touhey

Willets Point in Flushing, Queens has been a home to small industrial businesses since the 1930s, and “at odds with City Hall for almost as long,” according to a recent photo essay by Nathan Kensinger. “Cleaning up or clearing out Willets Point has been a goal of nearly every mayor since the 1950s,” according to the New York Times.

The neighborhood was once home to many thriving auto body shops, welding shops, and cement silos, but many have now closed, both through the city’s machinations and industry changes. For years, politicians and developers have eagerly been trying to make a $3 billion Willets Point megamall happen, and after some false starts, the de Blasio administration recently restarted the stalled development with a pivoted focus on affordable housing, no mall plans in sight.

As this point, it seems more a question of when than if for Willets Point going the way of so many neighborhoods before it, fading into the annals of history as bigger and flashier development replaces it.

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