The Lost Neighborhood Buried Under New York City’s Central Park

New York City is in a constant state of flux.

For every Nets fan cheering their team on in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and every tourist gamboling about the post-punk, upscale East Village, there are dozens of local residents who remember what—and who—was displaced to pave the way for this progress.

It’s no great leap to assume that something had to be plowed under to make way for the city’s myriad gleaming skyscrapers, but harder to conceive of Central Park, the 840-acre oasis in the middle of Manhattan, as a symbol of ruthless gentrification.




Plans for a peaceful green expanse to rival the great parks of Great Britain and Europe began taking shape in the 1850s, driven by well-to-do white merchants, bankers, and landowners looking for temporary escape from the urban pressures of densely populated Lower Manhattan.

It took 20,000 workers—none black, none female—over three years to realize architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux's sweeping pastoral design.

A hundred and fifty years later, Central Park is still a vital part of daily life for visitors and residents alike.

But what of the vibrant neighborhood that was doomed by the park’s construction?

As historian Cynthia R. Copeland, co-director of the Seneca Village Project, points out above, several communities were given the heave ho in order to clear the way for the park’s creation.

The best established of these was Seneca Village, which ran from approximately 82nd to 89th Street, along what is known today as Central Park West. 260-some residents were evicted under eminent domain and their homes, churches, and school were razed.

This physical erasure quickly translated to mass public amnesia, abetted, no doubt, by the way Seneca Village was framed in the press, not as a community of predominantly African-American middle class and working class homeowners, but rather a squalid shantytown inhabited by squatters.

As Brent Staples recalls in a New York Times op-ed, in the summer of 1871, when park workers dislodged two coffins in the vicinity of the West 85th Street entrance, The New York Herald treated the discovery as a baffling mystery, despite the presence of an engraved plate on one of the coffins identifying its occupant, an Irish teenager, who’d been a parishioner of Seneca Village’s All Angels Episcopal Church.

According to historian Leslie Alexander’s African or American? Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861, All Angels’ congregation was unique in that it was integrated, a reflection of Seneca Village’s population, 2/3 of whom were African American and 1/3 of European descent, mostly Irish and German.

Copeland and her colleagues kept Alexander’s work in mind when they began excavating Seneca Village in 2011, focusing on the households of two African-American residents, Nancy Moore and William G. Wilson, a father of eight who served as sexton at All Angels and lived in a three-story wood-frame house. The dig yielded 250 bags of material, including a piece of a bone-handled toothbrush, an iron tea kettle, and fragments of clay pipes and blue-and-white Chinese porcelain:

Archaeologists have begun to consider the lives of middle class African Americans, focusing on the ways their consumption of material culture expressed class and racial identities. Historian Leslie Alexander believes that Seneca Village not only provided a respite from discrimination in the city, but also embodied ideas about African pride and racial consciousness.

Owning a home in Seneca Village also bestowed voting rights on African American male heads of household.

Two years before it was torn down, the community was home to 20 percent of the city’s African American property owners and 15 percent of its African American voters.

Thanks to the efforts of historians like Copeland and Alexander, Seneca Village is once again on the public’s radar, though unlike Pigtown, a smaller, predominantly agricultural community toward the southern end of the park, the origins of its name remain mysterious.

Was the village named in tribute to the Seneca people of Western New York or might it, as Alexander suggests, have been a nod to the Roman philosopher, whose thoughts on individual liberty would have been taught as part of Seneca Village’s African Free Schools’ curriculum?

For now, there is little more than a sign to hip Park visitors to the existence of Seneca Village, but that should change in the near future, after the city erects a planned monument to abolitionists and former Seneca Village residents Albro and Mary Joseph Lyons and their daughter Maritcha.

Learn more about this bygone community in Copeland’s interview with the New York Preservation Archive Project the New York Historical Society’s Teacher’s Guide to Seneca Village.

Related Content: 

New York Public Library Puts 20,000 Hi-Res Maps Online & Makes Them Free to Download and Use

See New York City in the 1930s and Now: A Side-by-Side Comparison of the Same Streets & Landmarks

Immaculately Restored Film Lets You Revisit Life in New York City in 1911

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, February 3 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York: The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Monty Python’s Terry Jones (RIP) Was a Comedian, But Also a Medieval Historian: Get to Know His Other Side

Monty Python’s surreal, slapstick parodies of history, religion, medicine, philosophy, and law depended on a competent grasp of these subjects, and most of the troupe’s members, four of whom met at Oxford and Cambridge, went on to demonstrate their scholarly acumen outside of comedy, with books, guest lectures, professorships, and serious television shows.

Michael Palin even became president of the Royal Geographical Society for a few years. And Palin’s onetime Oxford pal and early writing partner Terry Jones—who passed away at 77 on January 21 after a long struggle with degenerative aphasia—didn’t do so badly for himself either, becoming a respected scholar of Medieval history and an authoritative popular writer on dozens of other subjects.




Indeed, as the Pythons did throughout their academic and comedic careers, Jones combined his interests as often as he could, either bringing historical knowledge to absurdist comedy or bringing humor to the study of history. Jones wrote and directed the pseudo-historical spoofs Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, and in 2004 he won an Emmy for his television program Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives, an entertaining, informative series that incorporates sketch comedy-style reenactments and Terry Gilliam-like animations.

In the program, Jones debunks popular ideas about several stock medieval European characters familiar to us all, while he visits historical sites and sits down to chat with experts. These characters include The Peasant, The Damsel, The Minstrel, The Monk, and The Knights. The series became a popular book in 2007, itself a culmination of decades of work. Jones first book, Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary came out in 1980. There, notes Matthew Rozsa at Salon:

[Jones] argued that the concept of Geoffrey Chaucer’s knight as the epitome of Christian chivalry ignored an uglier truth: That the Knight was a mercenary who worked for authoritarians that brutally oppressed ordinary people (an argument not dissimilar to the scene in which a peasant argues for democracy in The Holy Grail).

In 2003, Jones collaborated with several historians on Who Murdered Chaucer? A speculative study of the period in which many of the figures he later surveyed in his show and book emerged as distinctive types. As in his work with Monty Python, he didn’t only apply his contrarianism to medieval history. He also called the Renaissance “overrated” and “conservative,” and in his 2006 BBC One series Terry Jones’ Barbarians, he described the period we think of as the fall of Rome in positive terms, calling the city’s so-called “Sack” in 410 an invention of propaganda.

Jones’ work as a popular historian, political writer, and comedian “is not the full extent of [his] oeuvre,” writes Rozsa, “but it is enough to help us fathom the magnitude of the loss suffered on Tuesday night.” His legacy “was to try to make us more intelligent, more well-educated, more thoughtful. He also strove, of course, to make us have fun.” Python fans know this side of Jones well. Get to know him as a passionate interpreter of history in Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives, which you can watch on YouTube here.

For an academic study of Jones' medieval work, see the collection: The Medieval Python The Purposive and Provocative Work of Terry Jones.

Related Content:

The History & Legacy of Magna Carta Explained in Animated Videos by Monty Python’s Terry Jones

John Cleese Revisits His 20 Years as an Ivy League Professor in His New Book, Professor at Large: The Cornell Years

Monty Python’s Eric Idle Breaks Down His Most Iconic Characters

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Optical Poems by Oskar Fischinger, the Avant-Garde Animator Despised by Hitler, Dissed by Disney

At a time when much of animation was consumed with little anthropomorphized animals sporting white gloves, Oskar Fischinger went in a completely different direction. His work is all about dancing geometric shapes and abstract forms spinning around a flat featureless background. Think of a Mondrian or Malevich painting that moves, often in time to the music. Fischinger’s movies have a mesmerizing elegance to them. Check out his 1938 short An Optical Poem above. Circles pop, sway and dart across the screen, all in time to Franz Liszt’s 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody. This is, of course, well before the days of digital. While it might be relatively simple to manipulate a shape in a computer, Fischinger’s technique was decidedly more low tech. Using bits of paper and fishing line, he individually photographed each frame, somehow doing it all in sync with Liszt’s composition. Think of the hours of mind-numbing work that must have entailed.

Born in 1900 near Frankfurt, Fischinger trained as a musician and an architect before discovering film. In the 1930s, he moved to Berlin and started producing more and more abstract animations that ran before feature films. They proved to be popular too, at least until the National Socialists came to power. The Nazis were some of the most fanatical art critics of the 20th Century, and they hated anything non representational. The likes of Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Wassily Kandinsky among others were written off as “degenerate.” (By stark contrast, the CIA reportedly loved Abstract Expressionism, but that’s a different story.) Fischinger fled Germany in 1936 for the sun and glamour of Hollywood.




The problem was that Hollywood was really not ready for Fischinger. Producers saw the obvious talent in his work, and they feared that it was too ahead of its time for broad audiences. "[Fischinger] was going in a completely different direction than any other animator at the time," said famed graphic designer Chip Kidd in an interview with NPR. "He was really exploring abstract patterns, but with a purpose to them — pioneering what technically is the music video."

Fischinger’s most widely seen American work was the section in Walt Disney’s Fantasia set to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Disney turned his geometric forms into mountain peaks and violin bows. Fischinger was apoplectic. “The film is not really my work,” Fischinger later reflected. “Rather, it is the most inartistic product of a factory. …One thing I definitely found out: that no true work of art can be made with that procedure used in the Disney studio.” Fischinger didn’t work with Disney again and instead retreated into the art world.

There he found admirers who were receptive to his vision. John Cage, for one, considers the German animator’s experiments to be a major influence on his own work. Cage recalls his first meeting with Fischinger in an interview with Daniel Charles in 1968.

One day I was introduced to Oscar Fischinger who made abstract films quite precisely articulated on pieces of traditional music. When I was introduced to him, he began to talk with me about the spirit, which is inside each of the objects of this world. So, he told me, all we need to do to liberate that spirit is to brush past the object, and to draw forth its sound. That’s the idea which led me to percussion.

You can find excerpts of other Fischinger films over at Vimeo.

Optical Poems will be added to our list of Animations, part of our collection: 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in September, 2014.

Related Content: 

The Nazi’s Philistine Grudge Against Abstract Art and The “Degenerate Art Exhibition” of 1937

How the CIA Secretly Funded Abstract Expressionism During the Cold War

Watch Dziga Vertov’s Unsettling Soviet Toys: The First Soviet Animated Movie Ever (1924)

Watch The Amazing 1912 Animation of Stop-Motion Pioneer Ladislas Starevich, Starring Dead Bugs

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrowAnd check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring one new drawing of a vice president with an octopus on his head daily.  The Veeptopus store is here.

The Flute of Shame: Discover the Instrument/Device Used to Publicly Humiliate Bad Musicians During the Medieval Period

Since humanity has had music, we've also had bad music. And bad music can come from only one source: bad musicians. Despite such personal technologies of relatively recent invention as noise-canceling headphones, bad music remains nigh unavoidable in the modern world, issuing as it constantly does from the sound systems installed in grocery stores, gyms, passing automobiles, and so on. And against the bad musicians responsible we have less recourse than ever, or at least less than medieval Europeans did, as shown by the Ripley's Believe It or Not video above on the "shame flute," a non-musical instrument used to punish crimes against the art.

"The contraption, which is essentially a heavy iron flute – although you probably wouldn’t want play it – was shackled to the musician’s neck," writes Maddy Shaw Roberts at Classic FM. "The musician’s fingers were then clamped to the keys, to give the impression they were playing the instrument. Finally, just to further their humiliation, they were forced to wear the flute while being paraded around town, so the public could throw rotten food and vegetables at them." Surely the mere prospect of such a fate made many music-minded children of the olden days think twice about slacking on their practice sessions.




The sight of this flute of shame, which you can take in at either the equally stimulating-sounding Medieval Crime Museum in Rothenburg or the Torture Museum in Amsterdam, would get any of us moderns thinking about considering which musicians of our own day deserve to be shackled to it. The Guardian's Dave Simpson suggests, among others, "all bands with silly names," "any musician called Sir who is over 60," and "anyone who has ever appeared on The X Factor, ever." In this day and age they would all probably complain of cruel and unusual punishment, but as music-related torture devices go, the shame flute certainly seems preferable to ancient Greece's "brazen bull."

Though still a little-known historical artifact, the shame flute has regained some cultural currency in recent years. It even inspired the name of a Finnish rock group, Flute of Shame. As the band members put it in an interview with Vice's Josh Schneider, "We were having a night out in Amsterdam and found ourselves in a torture museum whilst looking for the Banana Bar," a well-known spot in the city's red-light district. "We saw the device and the rest is history." Of course, any rock group that names itself after a torture device will draw comparisons to Iron Maiden, and journalistic diligence compels Schneider to ask Flute of Shame which band would win in a shredding contest. "Probably Iron Maiden," the Finns respond, "but are they happy?"

via Classic FM

Related Content:

The Musical Instruments in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights Get Brought to Life, and It Turns Out That They Sound “Painful” and “Horrible”

Meet the Hurdy Gurdy, the Hand-Cranked Medieval Instrument with 80 Moving Parts

Nick Cave Narrates an Animated Film about the Cat Piano, the Twisted 18th Century Musical Instrument Designed to Treat Mental Illness

Discover the “Brazen Bull,” the Ancient Greek Torture Machine That Doubled as a Musical Instrument

Hear the World’s Oldest Instrument, the “Neanderthal Flute,” Dating Back Over 43,000 Years

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Drunk History Takes on the Father of Prohibition: The Ban on Alcohol in the U.S. Started 100 Years Ago This Month

There may be plenty of good reasons to restrict sales and limit promotion of alcohol. You can search the stats on traffic fatalities, liver disease, alcohol-related violence, etc. and you’ll find the term “epidemic” come up more than once. Yet even with all the dangers alcohol poses to public health and safety, its total prohibition has seemed “so hostile to Americans’ contemporary sensibilities of personal freedom,” writes Mark Lawrence Schrad at The New York Times, “that we struggle to comprehend how our ancestors could have possibly supported it.” Prohibition in the United States began 1oo years ago--on January 17, 1920--and lasted through 1933.

How did this happen? Demand, of course, persisted, but public support seemed widespread. Despite stories of thousands rushing bars and liquor stores on the evening of January 16, 1920 before the 18th Amendment banning alcohol nationwide went into effect, “the final triumph of prohibition was met with shrugs…. The United States had already been ‘dry’ for the previous half-year thanks to the Wartime Prohibition Act. And even before that, 32 of the 48 states had already enacted their own statewide prohibitions.”

We tend to think of prohibition now as a wild overreaction and a political miscalculation, and frankly, it’s no wonder, given how bonkers some of its most prominent advocates were. Who better to profile one of the most fanatical than the irresponsibly drunk comedians of Comedy Central’s Drunk History? See John Levenstein and friends take on the leader of the Anti-Saloon League, Wayne Wheeler, above,

Wheeler indirectly killed tens of thousands of people when his ASL pushed to have poison added to industrial alcohol to deter bootlegging in the 20s. His pre-prohibition tactics (he coined the term “pressure group”) recall those of the Moral Majority campaigns that took over local and state legislatures nationwide in the U.S. in recent decades, and it is largely due to the ASL that prohibition gained such significant political ground.

They allied with progressives in the North and racists in the South; with suffragists and with the Klan, whom Wheeler secretly employed to smash up bars. As Daniel Okrent writes at Smithsonian:

Wheeler’s devotion to the dream of a dry America accommodated any number of unlikely allies. Billy Sunday, meet pioneering social worker Jane Addams: you’re working together now. The evangelical clergy of the age were motivated to support Prohibition because of their faith; reformers like Addams signed on because of the devastating effect that drunkenness had on the urban poor. Ku Klux Klan, shake hands with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW): you’re on the same team. The Klan’s anti-liquor sentiment was rooted in its hatred of the immigrant masses in liquor-soaked cities; the IWW believed that liquor was a capitalist weapon used to keep the working classes in a stupor.

Dogged, uncompromising, shrewd, and seemingly amoral, Wheeler was once described by the Cincinnati Enquirer as a crusader who “made great men his puppets.” Prohibition may be impossible to imagine one hundred years later, but we surely recognize Wayne Wheeler as a perennial figure in American politics. Don’t trust a drunk comedian to give you the straight story? Get a sober history above in the excerpt from the Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition.

Related Content:  

A Whiskey-Fueled Lin-Manuel Miranda Reimagines Hamilton as a Girl on Drunk History

Drunk History: An Intoxicated Look at the Famous Alexander Hamilton – Aaron Burr Duel

Ben Franklin’s List of 200 Synonyms for “Drunk”: “Moon-Ey’d,” “Hammerish,” “Stew’d” & More (1737)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

When People Gave Anti-Valentine’s Day Cards: Revisit the “Vinegar Valentines” That Spread Ridicule and Contempt

Krampus—the Christmas “half goat, half demon” of Germanic folklore—has become a figure of some fascination in popular culture recently. We might call the appetite for this “anti-St. Nicholas… who literally beats people into being nice and not naughty,” National Geographic writes, a testament to a widespread sentiment: Hang the forced cheer, Christmas can be dreadful.

How much more so can Valentine’s Day feel like a big con, cooked up by marketers and chocolatiers? Though established 200 years after the saint’s 3rd century A.D. martyrdom, and linked with romantic love by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, its status as a day to overspend has more modern origins. Even some of us who dutifully buy jewelry, flowers, and cards each year may wish for a Valentine’s Day Krampus.

If you count yourself among those humbugs, you’ll be happy to learn about a once-rich anti-Valentine’s Day tradition “during the Victorian era and the early 20th century,” as Becky Little writes at Smithsonian, “February 14 was also a day in which unlucky victims could receive ‘vinegar valentines’ from their secret haters.” Like the choices of Santa or Krampus, tricks or treats, one could make the holiday about love or hate.

One scholar, Annebella Pollen, who has written on the subject “says that people often ask her whether these cards were an early form of ‘trolling.’” Perhaps that’s not an entirely accurate comparison. Trolls like hoaxes, and mostly like to witness the reactions to their provocations. But Valentines cynics proceeded with the same cruel glee. As Atlas Obscura notes, anti-Valentines were meant to wound and shame, Krampus-like. Their appeal proved profitable:

Vinegar valentines were commercially bought postcards that were less beautiful than their love-filled counterparts, and contained an insulting poem and illustration. They were sent anonymously, so the receiver had to guess who hated him or her; as if this weren’t bruising enough, the recipient paid the postage on delivery. In Civil War Humor, Cameron C. Nickels wrote that vinegar valentines were “tasteless, even vulgar,” and were sent to “drunks, shrews, bachelors, old maids, dandies, flirts, and penny pinchers, and the like.” He added that in 1847, sales between love-minded valentines and these sour notes were split at a major New York valentine publisher.

Some vinegar valentines publishers had another thing in common with modern-day trolls: they capitalized on a hatred of feminism. “The women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th century brought another class of vinegar valentines, targeting women who fought for the right to vote.” These portrayed suffragists as ugly, abusive, and undesirable, a stereotype found in the world of sincere valentines as well. One such card “depicted a pretty woman surrounded by hearts, with a plain appeal: 'In these wild days of suffragette drays, I’m sure you’d ne’er overlook a girl who can’t be militant, but simply loves to cook.'”

Vinegar valentines (a later name—they were called “comic valentines” at the time) prompted all the sorts of concerns we’re used to seeing. Teachers worried about the effect of such commercialized emotional cruelty on their students. One magazine enjoined teachers to make Valentine’s Day “a day for kind remembrance than a day for wrecking revenge.” But where’s the fun in that? Vinegar valentines, says Pollen, “were designed to expand this holiday into something that could include a whole range of different people and a whole range of different emotions,” including some very un-Valentine's Day-like contempt.

Find a big collection of Vinegar Valentines at Collector's Weekly.

via 41 Strange

Related Content:

Celebrate Valentine’s Day with a Charming Stop Motion Animation of an E.E. Cummings’ Love Poem

Tom Waits Shows Us How Not to Get a Date on Valentine’s Day

Franz Kafka’s Kafkaesque Love Letters

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

How Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring Incited a Riot? An Animated Introduction

There was a time when a ballet could start a riot — specifically, the night of May 29th, 1913. The place was Paris' Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and the ballet was The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky for the Ballets Ruses company. Popular history has remembered this debut performance as too bold, too daring, too avant-garde for its genteel audience to handle — and so, with the bourgeois duly épaté, we can freely appreciate Stravinsky's radical work from our position of 21st-century sophistication. But whether The Rite of Spring incited a riot, a "near-riot" (as some source describe it), or merely a wave of dissatisfaction, what aspects of its art were responsible?

May 29th, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées comes alive again in the animated TED-Ed lesson above, which examines all the ways The Rite of Spring broke violently with the ballet form as it had established itself in the 19th century. Lesson creator Iseult Gillespie (previously featured here on Open Culture for her explanatory work on everything from Shakespeare and Guernica to Frida Kahlo and Haruki Murakami) writes of its "harsh music, jerky dancing, and uncanny staging," all in service of a highly un-genteel Pagan premise that "set audiences on edge and shattered the conventions of classical music."




Among Stravinsky's musical provocations — or rather, "formal experiments," — Gillespie names "syncopation, or irregular rhythm," "atonality, or the lack of a single key," and "the presence of multiple time signatures," as well as the inclusion of aspects of the Russian folk music that was Stravinsky's cultural inheritance. Along with the music, already startling enough, came visual design by Nicholas Roerich, a painter-philosopher "obsessed with prehistoric times" and professionally concerned with human sacrifice and ancient tomb excavation.

Wearing Roerich's awkwardly-hanging peasant garments in front of his "vivid backdrops of primeval nature full of jagged rocks, looming trees, and nightmarish colors," the ballet's dancers performed steps by Vaslav Nijinsky, whose sense of rigor brought him to create dances "to rethink the roots of movement itself." His choreography "contorted traditional ballet, to both the awe and horror of his audience" — but then, that possibly overdetermined awe and horror could have arisen from several number of artistic sources at once. The Rite of Spring's tension and urgency still today reflects the historical moment of its composition, "the cusp of both the first world war and the Russian revolution," and we could also take the early reaction to its innovations as a reflection of its creators' genius — or perhaps those first viewers, as Stravinsky himself put it, were simply "naïve and stupid people."

Related Content:

Igor Stravinsky Remembers the “Riotous” Premiere of His Rite of Spring in 1913: “They Were Very Shocked. They Were Naive and Stupid People”

Hear The Rite of Spring Conducted by Igor Stravinsky Himself: A Vintage Recording from 1929

Hear 46 Versions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 3 Minutes: A Classic Mashup

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visualized in a Computer Animation

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravinsky Conduct the Firebird, the Ballet Masterpiece that First Made Him Famous (1965)

The Night When Charlie Parker Played for Igor Stravinsky (1951)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

More in this category... »
Quantcast