Between W82nd and W89th St., was the site of a little-known community of property-owning black folks – Seneca Village. There is no visible indication or remnant of this village which came into existence in 1825 and thrived for 32 years until 1857, when the residents were forced out by the City through the enforcement of the rule of Eminent Domain (which allowed New York City to seize land for its own purposes while reimbursing the previous owners at what the City decided to be a fair rate, although the sums offered were often well below true market value), so that Central Park could be constructed on a planned 775 acres of land.
Yes, readers; gentrification is nothing new. But this was a little more brutal than the changes that are happening in Williamsburg or Harlem in our present day and age.
An entire town of people – homes, farms, shops, churches and schools was literally wiped off the face of the Earth, as completely as if they had never existed!
So, what actually happened? Well, it all started in 1824, when a white couple – John and Elizabeth Whitehead – decided to subdivide some of their land and sell off 200 plots. Andrew Williams, who was a 25yr old African-American shoeshiner, bought the first 3 lots for the sum of $125, on September 27th, 1825 (approx. $3,100, in today’s money). Also purchasing lots of this newly available land were trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, who bought 6 lots of land near what is today 86th Street, which they intended to be used as a ‘colored’ cemetery. Another buyer was Epiphany Davis, a Black store clerk and trustee of the church bought 12 lots for the sum of $578. Between 1825 to 1832, the Whiteheads sold around half of their available land parcels to other Black buyers. Seneca Village , as this new community came to be known, grew in size when Blacks from nearby York Hill joined the population after their own town was torn down to create room for the original Croton Reservoir.
By the late 1820s, there were 9 houses in Seneca Village – a umber which would steadily increase ton through the 1830s. Evidence has been found through excavations and public records that residents had gardens, raised livestock, probably fished in the Hudson River, and had a nearby source of fresh water in Tanner’s Spring.
In the mid-1850’s, Seneca Vilage had grown to include 50 homes, 3 churches, burial grounds, and a school for the local children.
Unlike other African-Americans living in New York City at the time, the residents of Seneca Village were overall more prosperous – owning property and businesses, and along with property ownership came the right to vote – at least, you could vote if, after the law was passed in 1821, you owned at least $250 worth of property, held residency for a minimum of 3 years, and were male. In 1845, 10 of the 100 male Black New Yorkers who were eligible to vote, lived in Seneca Village.
By 1855, half of the people of Seneca Village owned their own homes, which is quite remarkable for the time they were living in, which still held onto racist ideals and practices. Although some people in the community lived in crowded shanties, most lived in 2, and even 3-storied homes. Adults in the village were mostly employed in menial or service jobs, although a few were able to own their own businesses. Children of the village attended school, and all of this information is supported by census data and other documents from the time.
In fact, in the 1855 census, 264 men women, and children were living in Seneca Village at that time – mostly Blacs, but also some Irish, and Germans. It is known that the groups lived peacefully with each other – attending integrated churches and marrying between each ethnic community.
It is easy to believe that a place like Seneca Village would have been a a natural choice to be associated with the Underground Railroad, and it is known that the well-known abolitionists, Albro and Mary Joseph Lyons owned land and were residents in Seneca Village. Make of this what you will…
So, anyway, the well-to-do residents of New York City were clamoring for relief from the relative squalor and stink of the City, which at that time was mostly built up and centered on the area that is today’s Greenwich Village. They wanted some open land to take in fresh air, and, perhaps, compete with the parks and promenades of Europe.
At first plans were drawn up to construct such a park in the area of Battery Park, but that didn’t pan out because the city’s population was expanding ever northwards, and Battery Park would then be an undesirable distance to travel downtown. So, the City cast its gaze northwards, where there was farmland, forests, and open land aplenty and – unfortunately – Seneca Village.
In 1855, New York City government authorized the seizing of 775 acres of land between (present-day) 59th and 106th Streets between 5th and 8th Avenues. They gave the residents of Seneca Village 2 years to vacate the land and while land/property-owners were compensated, many felt that they had been ripped off, with the City paying them below-market rates. Seneca Village was one of several settlements that were razed to make way for the park, but the only one that was predominantly occupied by African Americans. In all, approximately 7,500 parcels of land – which were home to several thriving communities and around 1600 people – was taken by New York City to become the foundation of the new Central Park.
The creation of the Central Park Lake required the land to be excavated and flooded, which removed all trace of the community and agriculture that had previously thrived there.
It is believed that the residents of Seneca Village were forced to move to other parts of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, further upstate, and maybe New Jersey. This is not confirmed by any records, however, but it seems most likely.
Any knowledge of Seneca Village was lost after it was destroyed for more than a century. Nobody has any idea of who the descendants of the original villagers were, are, or where they ended up.
The search for these descendants is still coming up empty, even as we are going into the 21st century.
Recovered artifacts and structural foundations have been dug up and studied, but nobody knows what happened to the occupants of Seneca Village. It is as if they were simply erased.
So that a park could be built.