A Park is born – a community is swept away

The vision and resolution of those pushing for the creation of a centrally-located People’s Park in New York in the mid-1800s were instrumental in laying the foundations of Central Park.

Frederick Law Olmsted’s and Calvert Vaux’s 1856 Greensward Plan of the Park envisaged a scenic work of art, combining natural appearance and touches of the picturesque to create surroundings that people of all backgrounds could enjoy.

As well as their ongoing input the implementation of their vision depended on the skills and commitment of individuals such as: Jacob Wrey Mould (architect, who designed many of the park’s notable landmarks, including Belvedere Castle, a number of bridges, and the amazing carvings on Bethesda Terrace);  and Ignaz Anton Pilat (master gardener) whose knowledge and use of a wide variety of plants created the Park’s much admired landscaped vistas.

However, there’s a little-known dark side to the Park’s early development, which I discovered through the wonderful Secret New York – An Unusual Guide (JonGlez Guides), my bible for exploring New York. During the Park’s  construction (1857 – 73) what was possibly Manhattan’s first prominent and stable community of African American property owners was destroyed.

In 1855 the region above 59th Street was only sporadically developed and was semi-rural or rural in character. However,  the established middle-class, and predominantly African American community of Seneca Village, located between 81st and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues (an area now occupied by Central Park), numbered 264 residents.

Map of Seneca Village

African Americans owned more than half the village households, a high percentage of property ownership for any New York community, while there were also many Irish and German immigrant families. By then the village had three churches, with several affiliated large cemeteries, and Colored School No. 3, one of the few black schools in New York City.

In 1853, the state legislature authorised the use of “eminent domain,” the taking of private property for public purposes; and in 1856 public acquisition of private land to create Central Park began. Owners of property within the proposed Park boundaries were compensated for their property, though many owners filed protests in the State Supreme Court, to contest the amount of settlement.

In total 1,600 people who owned, lived, or worked on the acquired land had to move with the Park’s creation. Many were squatters living in shantytowns but Seneca, in contrast, was a cohesive community with proper housing.

The Seneca site has been the subject of various archeological studies over the years, including soil borings and remote sensing using ground-penetrating radar tests, which located traces of the Village. Digs were held in 2004, 2005 and 2011, revealing stone foundation walls and artifacts, including an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan, a stoneware beer bottle, fragments of Chinese export porcelain, and a small shoe with a leather sole and fabric upper.

Locating the Seneca site wasn’t totally straightforward for me.  There’s a plaque located in the Park just south and east of the Abraham and Joseph Spector Playground, which is located on the Park’s west side at West 86th Street. According to some particularly poignant text on the plaque recent research indicates that “residents and institutions of Seneca Village did not re-establish their community in another location”.  Today no one knows where its residents resettled; nor, to date, have any living descendants of Seneca Villagers been found.

Plaque presenting background information about Seneca Village
Landmarks in vicinity of the exposed Seneca foundations

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThe remaining visible foundations are actually in a grassy area a little to the south and west of the plaque.  I tracked them down by asking for directions from a maintenance worker hosing down the Spector Playground. He gave me spot on directions in a very familiar accent – though he’d lived in NYC for many years he’d grown up about 6 miles from where I did in London.

The foundations are pretty well hidden in the surrounding grass and easy to dismiss as a few natural stones set in the ground but if you wander slightly off the path they’re obvious.  Depending on  different sources the stones may be part of a foundation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church or the foundation of a later structure built on top of the church.

Exposed foundations of Seneca Village structure

Having located the site of the village, I incorporated in the walking tours I led. Out of all my customers, many of who were New Yorkers and regular visitors to the Park, only one was aware of Seneca’s existence. She’d requested I incorporated a visit to the site having read about in Linda Fairstein’s 2014 novel Death Angel!


New York – London via wintry Reykjavik

In December 2014 after four years in New York my wife and I were returning to my  native London. Taking an Icelandair flight with a generous luggage allowance let us shift enough possessions to get us through an English winter, and stop over in Reykjavik with a chance of seeing the Northern Lights (aurora borealis). Technically we saw them but……

Extreme weather had delayed our flight for several hours and all aurora viewing cruises were cancelled.  As an alternative we took a coach trip, which took us beyond the outskirts of Reykjavik to a small church. The next couple of hours saw us hanging around, alternatively sitting on the coach to stave off hypothermia and venturing outside peering at the sky for the aurora. During that time the best light show was provided by the crosses in the churchyard!As the coach started heading homewards  some wispy cloud appeared in the sky.  There were no visible colours but we piled off the coach for a closer look as our guide snapped it with a fancy camera. Et voilà, her image showed the wisp glowing green. So we had seen the aurora but the overall memory was of a cold and underwhelming experience. That’s the luck of the draw when trying to experience natural phenomena.

Despite the disappointing light show our stay in Reykjavik worked out really well.  Our hotel choice, the Icelandair Hotel, Reykjavik Marina, was excellent. It’s a renovated landmark building  with well-designed rooms, bright common areas bedecked with colorful wallpaper, antiques and fanciful odds and ends, including some very quirky sculptures. It was several steps up from the accommodation (a bivvy bag, village halls, and university halls of residence) I used backpacking in Iceland in 1990, when I mostly subsisted on hotdogs and hot chocolate!

One of the interesting characters you’ll find hanging around the hotel

The hotel’s location by a slipway in the old downtown harbour district  offers  great views across the bay and is an easy walk away from the capital’s attractions. There’s a number of restaurants and market in the area and a short walk takes you to Old Harbour Village where you can book Whalewatching Tours and visit Cinema No. 2. (www.thecinema.is)

The  self-styled Cinema of Fire, Ice and  Northern Lights, is housed in a loft that used to be a work and dwelling place for fishermen. It’s a cozy space with assorted furniture, a relaxed informal atmosphere, a rock collection and books to browse.

We visited it to prepare for our aurora watching. The films included one on watching and photographing the aurora – much, much more spectacular than our  live display – and a film on the then-active Bárdarbunga-Holuhraun eruption. We also grabbed some  refreshments and chatted with the friendly staff.

Walking around the city was interesting.  We visited Tjörnin (The Pond), a small lake in the centre of the city where we saw a young Whooper Swan essentially run right across the Pond’s surface to get to some bread thrown by a family from the shore; bird feeding on its shore is so popular that  the Pond is referred to as ‘the biggest bread soup in the world’.  For any birders out there I also saw  Black Guillemots and Eider Duck close-up in the harbour near the hotel.

Whooper Swans on the Pond
A big Top going up on the shore of the Pond

Another highlight was the amazing reflections of the city and the surrounding landscape in the glass façades of the Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre.

The Harpa – Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre.

We also visited Hallgrímskirkja church, Reykjavík’s main landmark. Its prominent tower can be seen from most parts of the city.  The church’s facade mirrors the shapes formed as lava cools into basalt rock, which can be found around the country. The image below is adapted from the www.icelandunlimited.is website. Check it out.

 In 1990 I had visited the top of the 73 metre ­high tower for great views over Reykjavik. This time round the lifts (elevators) to the top had closed for the day; probably a blessing since the wind was so strong we could hardly get the heavy front door open to exit.


The most notable feature of the church’s interior is a large pipe organ standing 15m and weighing 25 tons. We were lucky enough to get to listen to the organist rehearsing and experience the organ’s power and range of tones.

Interior of Hallgrímskirkja church showing the Pipe Organ.

The main memory I took from the trip was how friendly the locals were. I had the same experience when backpacking, when I took advantage of kind offers of lifts. Of course for those, like myself, with limited foreign language skills things are made easier because many Icelanders speak fantastic English. I’ll be looking out for cheap London-Reykjavik travel deals so that I can have another go at tracking down those elusive aurora.