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.

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