The crossroads of the world is a unique melting pot, consisting of over 154 distinct neighborhoods. Many view New York City as merely five boroughs (or, in the case of tourists, one borough: Manhattan), but it is much more than that. The neighborhoods of New York City are each unique identifiers representing every culture on Earth. Together, they form the core culture of the city, which is arguably not one specific culture, but rather, all cultures.
Even by the 21st century, New York is still not finished growing. New developments expanding the influence of previously-lesser areas of the city, such as Manhattan’s industrial west side, Downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City, have proved to be beneficial. Before Hudson Yards, the area was merely a wasteland consisting of old chop shops, mechanics and collision centers. Today, the area has transformed into a unique district inundated with glass skyscrapers, and luxury shops, offices and residences. While arguably a hub for the rich, the development has still created an entirely new neighborhood on land which was once not notable.
It is safe to assume that by this point, most of New York City is filled in, every square inch being part of at least one of the 154 plus neighbor-hoods. Rewind to the turn of the 20th century, however, and this simply was not the case. Many areas in the five boroughs, even Manhattan, were still undeveloped and consisted merely of natural grassland, offering a glimpse of the city’s pre-urban period. However, these areas were already served by the early subway system, which mostly consisted of elevated trains. Thus, they were ripe for development, and when the early 20th century saw an economic boom, specifically after World War I, development began.
While the majority of these new neighborhoods created upon empty parcels of land in the city remain today, a few of them were demolished due to future expansion projects and no longer exist today. Here, we will uncover and discuss these neighborhoods, which once existed but no longer exist, either for the good of the city, or the selfish desires of the developers.
The first of these neighborhoods was Radio Row.
The area, previously consisting of an abandoned warehouse district, quickly became a haven for telecommunications businesses. In 1921, the first radio shop, City Radio, opened on Cortlandt Street, leading to an influx of radio-related stores in the neighborhood, and Cortlandt Street became the cultural anchor of the area. The IRT Ninth Avenue Line served as Radio Row’s primary transit point, as the el trains rumbled through the area.
Radio Row became inundated with bright lights, billboards and nostalgic neon signs, amping up the iconic culture of the neighborhood. At one point, it was arguably more popular than Broadway, with The New York Times stating,
“Today…Cortlandt Street is ‘Radio Row,’ while Broadway is just a thoroughfare.”
The success of the Radio Row district, at this point, was unmatched. However, this did not last forever. The neighborhood declined over the next few decades due to the fading popularity of portable radios. In the early 1960s, the city proposed the creation of a new office complex in Lower Manhattan: the World Trade Center.
After the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey rejected the east side as a potential area, they set their sights on the west side. Radio Row was chosen as the land to build this new complex upon, and the city began evicting residents and shutting down local businesses by using eminent domain, which forcefully converted private property over to the city.
It is safe to assume the residents of Radio Row were unhappy with the city demolishing their neighborhood, a cultural staple of New York City during the early 20th century. However, it was not only the residents and business owners of the neighborhood, but also the majority of New Yorkers and the mass media. In 1962, WCBS Radio Program Director Sam Slate reported,
“Shaping up in New York City is a legal battle of overriding importance. Its outcome will conceivably affect us all. If the considerable power of the Port Authority is allowed to dispossess the merchants of Radio Row, then, it is our conviction, no home or business is safe from the caprice of government.”
Nonetheless, there was nothing the citizens could do to prevent this event, which was viewed as catastrophic, and Radio Row was razed in 1966. Seven years later, the World Trade Center opened upon the same land, and went on to become even more iconic than Radio Row ever was. It was the true demise of Radio Row, and the once-prominent neighborhood became erased in time.
Radio Row was not the only prominent New York City neighborhood of the 20th century to become erased, both literally and figuratively. A number of other neighborhoods, often the source of vibrant diversity and culture, were also demolished to make way for projects of greater grandeur, in the eyes of city officials. One such example is San Juan Hill.
Ever heard of San Juan Hill? No? Well, have you heard of Lincoln Center? If you have, you should be familiar with San Juan Hill. A vibrant melting pot of early African American and Latin culture, the neighborhood provided the foundation for early jazz, specifically Charleston and Bebop jazz — even prior to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In the late 1890s, a number of Baptist and Episcopal churches were erected in San Juan Hill, becoming a staple of African-American culture in New York City during this period.
Following World War II, the Puerto Rican population of the neighborhood grew rapidly following an influx of migration from the territory, leading to San Juan Hill becoming a melting pot of African-American and Latin cultures, as mentioned. However, the neighborhood was designated as a slum in the 1940s, and white city officials forwarded plans to demolish the neighborhood to build a new performing arts center, Lincoln Center, displacing thousands of lower-income families.
This master plan was led by none other than Robert Moses, who used Title I of the 1949 Housing Act — which gave federal backing for urban renewal projects — to evict the residents using eminent domain, a method already discussed. In the 1950s, San Juan Hill was no more, and a new complex of buildings, known as Lincoln Center, took its place.
The claim can certainly be made that San Juan Hill, a once thriving and diverse center for minority populations of the time, was demolished due to the racist and selfish desires of white city planners of the time. However, it can be said that the areas chosen for demolition were, in fact, areas of lower land value in the city, which were detracting the land value of neighborhoods around them and thus, were designated as slums and demolished. Both claims can stand, but it must be recognized that San Juan Hill is not the only example of this. Little Syria is another New York City neighborhood, once filled with thriving minority groups, but later demolished and redeveloped.
The life of Little Syria began in Lower Manhattan in the late 1880s, adjacent to Battery Park. Mostly consisting of Arabic Christian settlers fleeing persecution from the Eastern Mediterranean, which was then under control of the Ottoman Empire, the enclave became New York’s first Middle-Eastern immigrant community. Filled with a unique mix of social classes, the neighborhood is best described by Gregory Orfalea, who states of the neighborhood in his 2006 book The Arab Americans,
“[Little Syria] was an enclave in the New World where Arabs first peddled goods, worked in sweatshops, lived in tenements and hung their own signs on stores.”
Little Syria was the one neighborhood of New York City during this time where Arab and Muslim residents could prosper without facing persecution. However, the neighborhood declined over time, and as the residents moved out to other developing neighborhoods across the city, such as Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, the area was marked for demolition to make way for entrance ramps serving the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, a plan led by, once again, Robert Moses. Those residents who did decide to stay were, unfortunately, displaced.
Finally, one of the largest early neighborhoods of New York City that was demolished during its time was the one most have heard of, and that is Five Points. Five Points is an exception to the neighborhoods discussed in this article, as it was a crime-ridden slum despised by the rest of the city. Consisting of the area that now forms sections of Chinatown and the Civic Center, the disease-ridden area was demolished in the early 20th century, before most of the other neighborhoods discussed came to prominence.
It is undeniable that the cultural staple of the world that is New York City is filled with a rich history, with its diverse neighborhoods serving as an interlocking point of both glory and demise. While the majority of neighborhoods formed during the city’s history remain as prominent as ever today, the ones lost in time due to city incompetence shan’t be forgotten.
Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.