Situated on the southern edge of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the Lincoln Center performing arts complex is one of the most famous products of midcentury urban renewal. The process of bulldozing the neighborhood began in the 1940s, when the New York City Housing Authority razed one section, the heavily African American “San Juan Hill,” to build the Amsterdam Houses public apartment complex. A decade later, the city used its eminent domain powers to purchase several blocks of the Lincoln Square area east of San Juan Hill. The tenements of the new renewal site contained a largely poor and working-class population, including longtime Jewish, Italian American, and Irish American residents and newly-arrived blacks and Puerto Ricans.
The area is famous today not only for Lincoln Center but also because it was the fictional setting for “West Side Story,” the popular musical that features two youth gangs, the Puerto Rican “Sharks” and the Italian American “Jets.” But few New Yorkers remember that until the 1950s, these same blocks also contained an array of other residents who traced their ancestry to the Middle East, South Asia, the Philippines, South America, and Japan, among other places.
A noticeable Japanese American enclave coalesced in Lincoln Square between the late 1910s and 1930, anchored by a string of boarding houses on West 65th Street. During the prewar years, Japanese and Japanese Americans in New York enjoyed far more employment opportunities than their West Coast counterparts; the city counted many Japanese American professionals, clerks, artists, and students . But like other Lincoln Square residents, most of the Japanese and Japanese Americans who lived in the West 60s were working-class people. A large number were cooks and waiters at restaurants, perhaps even the nearby Miyako–one of the few Japanese restaurants in the city at that time.
The West 65th Street boarding houses were hardly islands of calm in a troubled area. Japanese men living in the boarding houses committed two separate murders in the 1920s, while police twice raided a Japanese-run gambling business there in the 1930s. Indeed, such goings-on hardly raised an eyebrow in this tough and gritty neighborhood.
Still, by 1940, working-class Japanese and Japanese American tenants not only flocked to the Ichiriki and Taiyo boarding houses at 146 and 148 W 65th but also found rooms at adjacent buildings and in surrounding blocks. A few Japanese American businesses and organizations followed, including K. Tanaka’s Japan Products food shop and the city’s Japanese Association.
The war likely upended the lives of many of the Japanese-born residents of the West 60s. Potential employers often shunned them, while the federal government shut down all Japanese-owned businesses after December 7, 1941. When Japanese American resettlers from internment camps began arriving in New York City in 1943, the Nisei (second generation Japanese American citizens) among them seem to have shown little interest in the area, which had a reputation for crime. Most Nisei rettlers sought apartments farther uptown, including near existing Japanese American concentrations in Morningside Heights, Washington Heights, and Inwood.
The boarding houses survived, however, perhaps by attracting newly-arrived Issei (first generation Japanese immigrant) resettlers in addition to their longtime Japanese working-class clientele. Postwar business seemed promising enough for Uzaemon Tahara, the longtime manager of the Ichiriki, to buy both it and the Taiyo between 1946 and 1952. But just a few years later, the wrecking ball wiped out the last traces of the old Japanese American enclave of the West 60s.
Sources for this post include Greg Robinson, After Camp; the New York Japanese Address Book; the manuscript census sheets for the 1920, 1930, and 1940 US census; the New York Times; and the WPA Guide to New York City.