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!


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