Lincoln Center, seeking new audiences, plans to remake its West Edge

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Lincoln Center, seeking new audiences, plans to remake its West Edge
Lincoln Center on Amsterdam Avenue in New York on June 5, 2023. The center hopes a major renovation along Amsterdam Avenue will help shed its elitist image and forge closer ties with Black and Latino residents. (Jeenah Moon/The New York Times)

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- Lincoln Center welcomes visitors at its main entrance facing Broadway with an elegant plaza, a majestic fountain and an array of travertine concert halls and theaters.

But the view from the center’s western edge, along Amsterdam Avenue, is far less convivial: An imposing wall stretches across several blocks, giving the feel of a fortress.

Now Lincoln Center, hoping to draw new audiences and promote closer ties with nearby public housing complexes, schools and community centers, is planning a major renovation of its western side, the organization’s leaders announced Tuesday. The project will likely entail tearing down parts of the wall, building an outdoor stage and renovating Damrosch Park, at the corner of Amsterdam and West 62nd Street.

“As welcoming as we are to the east, we should be to the west,” Henry Timms, the president and CEO of Lincoln Center, said in an interview.

“It’s unclear in some places what might be behind these walls,” he added of the center’s west side. “The message is one of a different world, and I think that’s a mistake.”

The renovation is the latest effort by Timms, whose tenure began in 2019, to shed Lincoln Center’s elitist image and to attract more diverse audiences, especially Black and Latino residents across the city. The center has in recent years worked to diversify its programming and expand access to its campus, including by experimenting with a choose-what-you-pay model for some events.

The project is partly a response to Lincoln Center’s complicated history on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A vibrant neighborhood known as San Juan Hill, which was home to many low-income Black and Latino residents, was razed to make way for the center’s construction, which began in 1959.

Lincoln Center’s leaders, invoking that history, said getting public input for the renovation, by organizing workshops, walking tours and surveys, would be crucial. The center is working with NADAAA, a Boston architecture firm, and Hester Street, a nonprofit that specializes in urban planning and community development.

In a statement, Katherine G. Farley, the departing chair of Lincoln Center’s board, said: “This process will engage the community on envisioning how we can create a beautiful and architectural welcome to our neighbors to the west, assuring that the campus beckons to everyone to come enjoy our offerings.”

Lincoln Center did not provide an estimated cost or timeline for the project. Timms said that it was a major effort that would help define the modern legacy of Lincoln Center and that it was a natural next step after the recent $550 million renovation of David Geffen Hall, the home of the New York Philharmonic, which was also aimed, in part, at deepening community ties and attracting new audiences.

“This is a very significant priority of the institution,” he said. “If we can get the idea right, I’m confident that we can work hard and get the necessary resources to create something amazing for New York City.”

The area surrounding the western campus includes the Amsterdam Houses, a public housing complex that first opened in 1947 for World War II veterans. Across the street is LaGuardia High School, known for its music and performing arts programs, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Complex, which houses six high schools.

Lincoln Center’s leaders said plans for the renovation would depend on public input, but they identified several broad aims. The area under exploration includes the stretch of Amsterdam Avenue from West 62nd to West 65th streets, as well as Damrosch Park and the northwest corner of campus, home to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

Timms said the spirit of the project was in line with the original mission of Lincoln Center: to make the arts accessible to all.

“It’s not a new woke idea,” he said. “That was an idea at the founding — that the point of Lincoln Center was actually not to be exclusive, but to be inclusive.”

Local officials praised the project, saying it was important for the city’s residents, especially those with a connection to the former San Juan Hill neighborhood, to be heard. Lincoln Center last year installed a mural on Amsterdam Avenue telling the story of the neighborhood, including its rich Afro-diasporic musical heritage.

“Their stories and experiences are critical to establishing a strong foundation to a more inclusive future within the community spaces that serve this neighborhood,” Gale Brewer, a member of the New York City Council, said in a statement.

Maria Guzman, a public housing resident who lives south of Lincoln Center, said she was hopeful the renovation would allow more low-income residents to experience the arts.

“We used to call that wall the great divide because it felt like Lincoln Center just wanted to divide the neighborhood,” she said in an interview. “The fact that they’re finally — hopefully — tearing this wall out, I think it’s wonderful. And I think the community will welcome it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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