Before Central Park

All that’s left is a plaque and a few archeological dig sites.

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


Signs and Portents

One day a friend of mine was doing some gardening and a foot long mullet fell out of the sky with a thud, missing him by mere feet. Apparently the neighborhood osprey had butter fingers. You don’t expect fish to fall out of the sky. It sort of challenges your sense of reality.

Coyotes have been seen in Central Park in New York City. Kind of makes you not want to walk your Yorkie without a body guard. Speaking of which, when I lived in South Florida, a neighbor told me that she was walking her little dog and a bobcat jumped out of the bushes and carried it off, never to be seen again.

And another friend was sitting at a red light in stormy weather when all of a sudden all the lights in the area went out, and a tornado crossed through the intersection right in front of her. She said it was as if a car were crossing through. A big, loud, scary, dangerous, windy car. But my friend’s vehicle wasn’t moved at all.

And I’ve already told you about my strange encounter with a dolphin that does bird calls.

About a decade ago, a hurricane picked up thousands of frog eggs from the tropics and gently deposited them all on a gentleman’s front porch in Connecticut. None of them landed anywhere else.

A couple years ago scientists were studying a dust cloud in outer space and discovered it contained the same chemical that gives raspberries their flavor. I don’t know why, but that makes me happy.

Back in November, 2012 I read a National Geographic article which stated that scientists have tested the microbial contents of the human belly button, and discovered some strange stuff. One guy had bacteria that had previously been found only in soil in Japan, but he’d never been to Japan. Another guy had some bacteria that usually only thrives in ice caps and thermal vents.

And in a book by my favorite author, Bill Bryson, called A Short History of Nearly Everything, he discusses, among other fascinating things, a slug that turns into a plant. This is not a fictional book. I’ve been unable to forget that fun fact.

We like to think we are privy to the laws of nature, but I’m beginning to think there are none.


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Shovel Friends

My mother used to say that you can’t pick your relatives, but you can pick your friends. And among your many friends, there are always a few who stand head and shoulders above the rest. I call these “shovel friends” because they are the kind you can call up at three in the morning and say, “Meet me in Central Park, and bring a shovel,” and they’d be there, because they’re that loyal, and they know you so well that they’d be confident that you aren’t involved in something that will send them to the state penitentiary. I can’t take credit for originating this concept. I think I heard it on some reality show. But, hey, it resonates with me, and I’m not above stealing a really good idea.

I’m actually lucky enough to have several shovel friends, and they’re worth their weight in gold. They have been there for me through my highs and lows, and I have no doubt that they will be there for all my future emotional topography. But make no mistake: shovel friends aren’t, and shouldn’t be, blindly loyal. In fact, a true friend is one who will call you on your stuff. He or she won’t let you get away with silliness or stupidity, and will expect mutual respect. These friends can always be counted upon to give you the reality check that you so desperately need. The best friends are the ones who question you and challenge you.

So take a moment to tell your shovel friends how much they mean to you, because they will most likely be the most valuable relationships you’ll ever have.


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