The lost neighborhood under New York’s Central Park

This is Central Park. It’s an iconic part of New York City. A piece of nature, tucked inside Manhattan. If you’ve lived in New York, or even visited, you’ve probably been here. But, there’s a part of this land’s story that visitors will never see. It’s the story of what was here before the park. And the community that was destroyed to make way for it. In the 1820s, New York City looked like this. Most people lived in this area — Lower Manhattan. Pretty much everything above it, was yet to be settled. In this map, you can see how different the
geography was. These little lines illustrate what used to be hills in Manhattan. This was the countryside. Downtown was the opposite. Lower Manhattan was dense and crowded. A few small neighborhoods were home to many of the city’s poor whites, and immigrants. and also, to much of its black population. This document shows the number of slaves in New York State. You can see how it went down gradually, from 20,000 in 1800, to 10,000 in 1820, and finally to just 75 in 1830. That’s because in New York, slavery wasn’t abolished all at once. Instead, it was ended gradually over about 30 years. And as more free black people joined the work force, racial tensions rose. The people who were enslaved were now in competition
with people coming over for jobs. That tension led to violence — and lower Manhattan became increasingly dangerous for free black people. Then, in 1825, plots of land started to go up for sale here, uptown. It was a way out. A black man named Andrew Williams decided to buy three lots. You know word gets out, black people, seeing other black people and say oh there’s a little bit of a community developing here, maybe we can just fold into this community, so they start to move in. After Williams, more lots filled up with black families and churches. And it was here, between 82nd and 89th Street, that the community of Seneca Village was born. Moving up to Seneca Village offered black families, an affordable, safe place. It also gave them the chance to vote. Black men could only vote in New York if they owned property. Over the course of the next three decades, the community grew to nearly 300 residents. Records from the census show that they were laborers, domestic workers, waiters, and shoemakers. And they built dozens of homes, three churches, and a school for black students. Later, when Irish and German immigrants started moving into Seneca Village, it became unique for another reason. It was an integrated community. It seems that people of all ethnicities were likely getting along based on the church records that were here. Among the documents, are evidence that some white and black families attended baptisms together, were buried next to each other in the same cemetery, and intermarried. The people who lived in this area were individuals who were trying to find a new way of life. Over the next three decades, the population of New York City nearly quadrupled. Lower Manhattan could no longer hold everyone. The city’s white elite were worried that the entire island would be consumed by development. They said it called for the necessity of a city park, to “give lungs to the city”. This came out of the elite being able to start to travel to Europe and they see the Champs Elysees and they see Kensington Park and they think that the city deserves to have a park of that stature. On July 21, 1853, New York set aside 750 acres of land to create America’s first major landscaped public park. “The Central Park.” But the proposed area for the park included Seneca Village — along with thousands of other lots of land, home to about 1600 people. In order to facilitate the park’s development, the city’s newspapers started to downplay who really lived there. They really describe these people as living in shanties and shacks, people of debased cultures were living off the land. But that wasn’t true. In 2011, Cynthia and a team of archaeologists excavated in the former Seneca Village site. They came away with 250 bags of objects to analyze, which now live here, in New York City’s Archaeological Repository. These objects suggest that Seneca Village was wealthier than many assumed. When we compared the objects from the homes of the people in the village with artifacts from Greenwich Village, an elite upper middle class neighborhood. In some cases, they were using the same kind of ironstone plate in what was called the Gothic pattern. Quite a few pieces of porcelain in Seneca Village and porcelain was an expensive ware. They also found other objects — like a comb, a smoking pipe, roasting pan, and part of a  toothbrush, that probably didn’t belong
to poor people. Toothbrushes were not common among the working class as well as the middle class until around 1920. And the artifacts themselves were only one part of their analysis. For example, from the census records from 1855, we know that there was a very high level of education. Getting a high school education was clearly an important factor in the community and that’s very much a part of middle class identity. The findings indicate that Seneca Village wasn’t a shantytown. It was a working and middle class community, a growing neighborhood of black property owners, and an experiment in integration. But to the white New York elite of 1856, it wasn’t worth saving. A July 1856 article in the New York Times referred to it with a slur. “The Ebon inhabitants, after whom the village is called…have been notified to remove by the first of August.” Many residents fought to keep their land by filing objections to their forced removal. But Seneca Village — along with the other
settlements on the land for Central Park — was seized and destroyed. In their place, the city made pathways,
built bridges and arches, and planted thousands of trees. Central Park was done, and Seneca Village was gone forever. We can’t imagine New York City without Central Park. But I’m finally grateful that the recognition of the pre-park history has emerged. Today, New York is starting to reckon with this part of its history. An exhibition with information about Seneca Village is temporarily up in the park. But the real legacy of Seneca Village is a story that’s repeated itself again and again, in cities everywhere. Land, property ownership, That’s how you get wealth and you pass wealth on from generation to generation. But you’re getting a bulldozer that comes
through because a new highway has to come through or a new hospital or development site
has to come in. Seneca Village was no different. It’s time that we own it and we come to recognize that there are these great stories that live beneath the surface of the park. It’s not just African-American history. It’s just American history.

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