Why West Side Story leaves African Americans behind
But the conflict mechanisms were complicated. Ethnic battlefields did not exist in the neighborhoods, as all versions of West Side Story, with jets and sharks crammed into the same shrinking territory and sharing Doc’s candy store. On the contrary, the battlefields lie between the neighborhoods of what Schneider calls the “border areas”. Whites defended their territory, African Americans defended theirs and Puerto Ricans theirs. Candy stores, according to Schneider, were actually quite important to gangs as hangouts and safe havens from cops. But they were held by one gang or another, never by two, because neutral territory did not exist. If your territory grew, the inhabitants were absorbed by your gang. The result was white gangs with black or Puerto Rican members, or vice versa. Ethnic identity mattered, but sod mattered more, and sod was considered the common property of all who lived there.
The idea that West Side Story takes place on San Juan Hill expresses the irresistible irony that Leonard Bernstein sympathetically evoked this neighborhood to move a few years later with his New York Philharmonic into the concrete cultural juggernaut that moved it. But this vanity is false. The staging of the play was never stated, and was deliberately no less stylized than the ballet song and dance it contained. Robbins staged the dance numbers in the 1961 film and was a co-director (with Robert Wise) until the producers fired him for spending too much money. According to Foulkes’ book, Robbins was very concerned that the setting for the film would be too literal and specific. Ultimately, the 1961 filmmakers made extensive use of the San Juan Hill neighborhood not because the story was supposed to take place there, but because there were a lot of buildings that were emptied and awaiting demolition. of Moses, which makes for a perfect movie. together. But just because scenes from the 1961 film were shot there doesn’t mean it’s set there, or in Spanish Harlem, where other scenes were filmed, nor does the 2021 film take place. in Washington Heights, where much of it was filmed. filmed (although there is a scene which is both filmed and located in the Cloître).
San Juan Hill was a black neighborhood for a very long time. African Americans moved there from Greenwich Village after the Civil War, and the name is believed to refer not to the capital of Puerto Rico but to the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba, where the African American Buffalo Soldiers played a largely unrecognized and possibly more important role than that of Teddy Roosevelt (but that’s a whole different story). James P. Johnson, the black pianist who invented the Charleston, moved to San Juan Hill in New York in 1908. The great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was born there in 1917. On 2021 West Side Story would you like to believe that there were white ethnic teenagers living there in the 1950s who thought San Juan Hill was their home territory, but the great wave of Italian and East European immigration to the States -Unis occurred long after San Juan Hill became a black neighborhood. A slideshow from the Museum of the City of New York which studies the history of the West Side observes that while Puerto Ricans migrated there in the 1950s, a person walking in the neighborhood “was then more likely to hear the rhythms of jazz than the music. de la bomba de Puerto Rico and plena.
Maybe in half a century someone will film another remake of West Side Story. If they do, and if they want to move it to New York City, they should consider making black youth gangs history. Alternatively, they can leave the story almost intact, rename it Western history, and move the setting to Los Angeles. I heard that there were movie studios there.