Before Central Park

It’s hard to imagine, but the area around Central Park in New York City used to be very rural. It was sparsely populated, with enough trees that the residents could gather their own firewood. They also obtained fish from the river.

One settlement, called Pigtown, had to relocate up there because their pigs were stinky enough to cause the residents in town (which was all below 14th street at the time) to complain. There were also a few bone-boiling plants around the area that is now home to Tavern on the Green, as well as a Hessian encampment from the revolutionary war, and an old fortification from the War of 1812 that still stands.

But by far the largest settlement, all but forgotten until recently, was Seneca Village. This was not some transient squatters camp full of criminals, or some shantytown full of illegal bars, as the media in the 1850’s would have you believe. This place fell victim to the propaganda perpetuated by those who really, really wanted that park.

No, this was a middle class, mostly African American community of long-established homes. The settlement had been founded in 1825, and most of the residents had lived there that entire time. There were 3 churches. There were schools. Of the 91 African American males with enough property to be allowed to vote in New York State at the time, 10 of them lived in Seneca Village. According to the 1855 census, this village had 264 residents.

Make no mistake: these people did not want to leave their village to make way for Central Park. They were forced out, along with about 1400 other people in the area. The park was originally set for a different site, but that location was owned by rich white people, and their lawsuits caused the city to look elsewhere.

The residents of Seneca Village also had lawsuits, but they lacked influence. Some of these residents stayed on until the bitter end, and were removed rather violently in 1857. Many of them weren’t adequately compensated when eminent domain made way for the park. The village was razed, leaving almost no trace that people once lived and loved and made a home there.

What must it have been like to watch your village, the place where you worshipped and shopped and helped your neighbor, get destroyed? How heartbreaking to realize just how powerless you are. How outrageous to have your legacy ripped from you, only to have it so quickly forgotten by the wider world.

Now, all that remains of Seneca Village is a plaque and a few archeological dig sites. Even the descendants of these people have been lost to time. I find this all rather sad.

Things fall apart. The center does not hold.

Seneca Village

7 thoughts on “Before Central Park

  1. Pingback: Seattle’s Volunteer Park – The View from a Drawbridge

  2. I hear ya Barb. But consider this. I once worked helping to build a hydro dam that when filled flooded villages and farms. I don’t think those people were properly compensated either. It’s an ongoing issue

  3. Lyn

    Things don’t always just fall apart. Sometimes they’re forced apart by those in power. Eminent Domain is overused and poorly defined leaving far too much room for abuse. It should only be used when all other options are explored and found impossible, not inconvenient. At the very least, if you’re going to tear a person’s world apart, you should overcompensate them and honor their sacrifice, not erase their existence.

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