Central Park, New York City: a massive swath of green in the middle of the most populous city in America. If encompasses 843 acres and sees about 42 million visitors a year, but how many of them know the tragic, brutal tale of how it came to be? To build the park, the city razed countless farms and villages in the area. The most famous is Seneca Village, the first major community of African-Americans in New York. All that is left of that village is the cornerstone of a church. The rest is gone, buried under “progress.”
Note: The main resources for this article are: Columbia.edu (Columbia University), Gotham: A History of NYC to 1898, by Burrows and Wallace, and Forgotten New York, by Kevin Walsh.
Establishing Seneca Village
Seneca Village was formed in 1825, when a man named Andrew Williams bought three lots of farm land, later joined by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The land was between 83rd and 88th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues, about 5 acres.
Slavery was still legal in New York at the time (most people don’t realize how involved NYC was in the slave trade), and after Emancipation Day, July 4th, 1827, more African-Americans settled the area. They established churches and a school, and eventually became a thriving community of over 300 people.
As poor immigrants came over from Germany and Ireland, they joined the community, making it one of the diverse areas of New York. From all accounts, the different races lived harmoniously as opposed the the tensions in the populated areas below 14th Street (where most New Yorkers still lived). By 1855, a third of the Seneca Village population was German or Irish. In fact, Richard Croker, future Boss of Tammany Hall, was raised there.
Central Park and Eminent Domain
Unfortunately, Seneca Village soon fell under the crushing heel of New York. As its population grew, the wealthy decided that they wanted a refuge from the crowded streets and chaos. They wanted something along the lines of London’s Hyde Park, and after years of debate, they found it. They claimed from 59th St. to 110th, and from 5th Ave. to 8th. Seneca Village was in its way.
The Village was already boxed in on the East by the Croton Receiving Reservoir, and the government decided to take the rest in 1855. At first Mayor Fernando Wood offered to buy the land from the villagers, but they fought back in court. Frustrated, Wood sent in the Municipal Police to enforce eminent domain by any means necessary. by 1857, the last villagers were “removed” by the police.
As one newspaper put it, the raid upon Seneca Village would “not be forgotten…[as] many a brilliant and stirring fight was had during the campaign. But the supremacy of the law was upheld by the policeman’s bludgeons.”
What is Left of Seneca Village?
No one knows what became of the villagers, or how many survived Mayor Wood’s razing. They may have moved to other African-American communities in Manhattan such as around Minetta Lane, or outside of the city in Brooklyn and Queens (neither were park of NYC until much later). So far, there are no known descendants of the villagers.
Because the area of Central Park needed extensive landscape work (leveling of hills, removal of large stones, draining ponds, etc) what was left of the village was buried under and scattered. As mentioned above, the cornerstone of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was discovered around 85th Street. There is a plaque commemorating Seneca Village there.
In 2011, archaeologists began excavating the area, looking for remains of the village. They have had moderate success, and the work continues today.
A Personal Note and Shameless Plug
I am a history enthusiast and I have lived in or around NYC for all of my life. I’ve been to Central Park countless times, and never once did I think about what was there before. I always assumed that it was empty land, and that everyone was happy about such a beautiful place (although less so when I grew up in the 80s). I was wrong.
In my novel The Watchmage of Old New York and its forthcoming sequel, several scenes take place in Seneca Village during the forced removal. By the third book, Seneca Village will be gone. Even in fiction, nothing lasts. New York paves over its history, one story at a time.
Hey, like history? Like fantasy? Like Mystery? Like ME? Check out my latest novel,The Watchmage of Old New York, based on the award-winning serial of the same name. Click on the graphic below or here for the Amazon buy site, or buy on Barnes & Noble, iBooks, or Kobo. Don’t miss out on this, old fans and new will love what I’ve done with the story.