Beloved since its 1957 debut, West Side Story is not just a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; it’s also a story of New York. In a city where nothing is more coveted than real estate, this is a story about turf, politics, and power. The choreographed “rumbles” depicted between the Polish Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks mirror a fight for control of that same Upper West Side neighborhood affected by the building of Lincoln Center. In Research Radio’s latest podcast, “A West Side Takeover,” cultural historian Julia Foulkes talks about the intersection between the performing arts and urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s.
“There’s a very rich and real connection between the two,” say Foulkes, an associate professor of history at The New School for Public Engagement. “When filming for the movie began in 1960, the opening credits were shot on the actual demolition site for Lincoln Center.” Beyond sharing a setting and time period, both the musical and the building of the performing arts center highlight changes taking place in the United States and New York City. “This was a time period when, after World War II, America was looking to remake itself,” Foulkes explains. “A new identity emerged of the United States as a world leader, and that included the arts, which traditionally had been dominated by the Europeans.”
Shortly after World War II, cities embarked on massive projects to draw affluent suburbanites back into the urban centers they had left during the Great Depression and the war. The development of Lincoln Center, a project of controversial New York urban planner and builder Robert Moses, displaced thousands of lower-income residents in the thirteen-block area designated for the arts center. The initiative uprooted neighborhoods like the historic San Juan Hill under the auspices of federal eminent domain. During this time, West Side Story was showing on Broadway just twenty blocks south, a case of art imitating life in the shifting of populations, cultures, and public space.
The establishment of the performing arts as a member of the high arts reflected a contention for space. A former dancer, Foulkes has developed a deep interest in how space, movement, and conflict come together in urban settings. The dances in West Side Story, she explains, are essentially battles—block by block along the Upper West Side—for control of the neighborhood. For Foulkes, movement is a way to embody a struggle for space that’s played out in the everyday. “We’ve all walked down the sidewalk and thought, ‘People are coming at me and I am not going to move for them! They’re going to be the ones to move out of my way.’” West Side Story depicts conflicts over space in dramatic, memorable terms.
For Foulkes, who is currently finishing a book on the subject, dance in the musical is the often overlooked component whose dynamism coincides with a coming-of-age story of America. “We are all familiar with the music of West Side Story and can probably sing along and snap our fingers,” said Foulkes. “But the story reminds us of past conflicts over identity and space—and the struggles that continue today.”
Read more about West Side Story 50 years after its making here.
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