In the mid-1950s, the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance in New York City authorized the demolition of a working-class Black and Hispanic neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side—a culturally rich community that included among its residents Thelonious Monk, Benny Carter, and Zora Neale Hurston. The clearance, part of Robert Moses’s widespread campaign of urban renewal in the city, saw homes, schools, and about 800 businesses razed to make way for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Throughout the 1960s, the fortresslike arts campus arose on 18 city blocks, its buildings designed by such architects as Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen, and Pietro Belluschi. Philharmonic Hall (later renamed Avery Fisher Hall and now called David Geffen Hall) opened in 1962 as the new home of the New York Philharmonic. The Metropolitan Opera House, the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater), Alice Tully Hall, and the Juilliard School were completed soon afterward. Meanwhile, the 7,000 families that had been displaced during construction were forced to relocate to already overcrowded areas in Harlem and the Bronx. Segregation worsened on Manhattan’s West Side, as the gleaming new complex seemed to turn its back on the Black neighborhoods to the west of Amsterdam Avenue.
Lincoln Center’s origin story had been glossed over or ignored entirely in the decades since. But a recently completed $550 million renovation of the Philharmonic’s concert hall, meant to address its dreary acoustics and décor, has also spurred some much-needed introspection. Increasing diversity at Lincoln Center was one of three urgent priorities for the organization’s chief executive officer, Henry Timms, when he began his appointment in the spring of 2019—a process that took on greater urgency during the pandemic, after the murder of George Floyd. “What we’re trying to do,” Timms told me, “is bake in a greater commitment to inclusion in everything we do, from who’s on our stage to how we spend our money to how we think about space.” Forty-two percent of the construction contracts for the hall’s renovation, for example, were awarded to minority- and women-owned businesses.
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