Walking around in Central Park feels timeless, with winding paths and bucolic bridges. The park was designed in 1858, a distinct departure from the gridded 1811 plan for Manhattan. And while many of the photographs of pre-park Manhattan may seem to imply a space consisting only of vast sheep grazing fields and occasional buildings, the area north of Midtown was in fact home to several thriving black communities.
There was Harsenville with its schools, churches, and shops, the Piggery District, and a large convent. But these areas were not the only part of parkland egregiously cleared out to build the city’s green dream.
Seneca Village, though largely brushed over in history textbooks, was a refuge for African Americans when most white landowners refused to sell them land. The rate of property ownership by black citizens was 5 times higher than NYC’s average.
The land now constituting Central Park was occupied by shanties, bone-boiling establishments, piggeries, and pools of offensive stagnant water which rendered the neighborhood anything but park-like. The first full year’s report […] contains the following description: […] “A suburb more filthy, squalid and disgusting can hardly be imagined. A considerable number of its inhabitants were engaged in occupations which are nuisances in the eyes of the law and forbidden to be carried on so near the city. They were accordingly followed at night in wretched hovels half-hidden among the rocks. […] 300 dwellings were removed or demolished […] together with several factories and numerous ‘swill milk and hog-feeding establishments.’” […] This description helps one to appreciate the vast amount of work and artistic planning which has been necessary to bring the park to its present state of beauty. -Encyclopedia Americana Volume 4
The caricaturistic portrayal of Seneca Village as “squalid” and a “nuisance” were labels that helped to garner support for the construction of Central Park by any means necessary. At the time the conditions of Seneca were certainly better for African Americans than those of the Lower East Side and downtown New York City.
Seneca Village had existed since before the state’s emancipation in the 1820s, and was a place where freemen and ex-slaves could buy the $250 worth of property that would qualify the men of the community for voting rights. Ten of the 91 enfranchized black New Yorkers lived in the village.
It was the only community of black property owners in the city during the 19th century and had grown, Columbia University reports, to a population of over 250 by the mid-1850s. Most inhabitants were “of African descent” with some Native Americans and German and Irish immigrants as well. The town had its own churches, cemeteries, and two schools. It became a refuge for those kicked out from other areas, such as the government-evicted community of York Hill.
The 264 residents were offered $2,335 to leave. By 1855, remaining residents and the 1,600 people living elsewhere on park grounds were violently evicted. It is unknown where they resettled and where their descendants now live. All that remains is a simple sign marking the place where the thriving, independent community once stood, which most New Yorker’s stroll by today without a second thought as to on whose backs their privilege was built.
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