Remembering Seneca Village

Remembering Seneca Village September 6, 2015 · 8 min. read

Seen as an urban oasis, Central Park has been featured in countless films, television shows, music videos and novels. It has been praised by thousands and is visited by millions every year. It has gone through several declines and revivals since it was created in 1857, but the park has nevertheless persevered, and is a personification of the determination and strength of New Yorkers.

The park has brought the city together in times of need, with the most memorable time being after the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001. With the city torn, an influx of sympathetic volunteers arrived from around the world to assist with the cleanup, forming a miniature community in Central Park. Families seeking lost loved ones came into this community and hung posters by the thousands, looking for the three thousand plus missing people that were victims of the terrorist attack. This community brought safety, unity and reassurance to a city that needed it.

However, Central Park hasn't always brought people together, and in the 1850s it was responsible for driving away thousands in what is considered one of the most tragic events in early New York City history.

It began in 1821 when New York City's population boomed exponentially. Within a few years, Manhattan was forced to grow north to make room for the newly arriving European immigrants. Wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of life, city council began looking towards parks as a way to silence the noise. In 1854, The New York Evening Post wrote that Britain's acres of parks were the "Lungs of London" and pro-park lobbyists that were largely merchants, bankers and landowners demanded a place for their families to spend time together. This, along with public pressure and the available hinterlands to the north, made the possibility of building a park that rivals those in Britain a possibility. However, there was one problem with the plan; several communities of over 1,600 people currently dwelled in the area.

(Hover your mouse over the below picture to see both maps.)

One of these communities was Seneca Village. Knowledge of the exact size of Seneca has been lost to time, but the 1855 census says it housed 264 people, and was populated by two thirds African Americans, and one third Irish and German immigrants, who were seen equally as outcasts by most New Yorkers. Over 50% of African Americans in Seneca owned property and paid taxes, which was much higher than the 3% that New York's African Americans held. Although these people paid taxes, and had several churches, schools and cemeteries, newspapers in New York referred to them as "squatters" that lived in "shanties", with the community being nothing more than a "nigger village". Other reports weren't so kind with their terms, and went as far as calling them "insects" and claimed their "simple minds" weren't capable of understanding why they had to relocate.

In 1854 New York City chose the area for the park, and by using "eminent domain" - the taking of private property for public purpose - the city claimed Seneca. New York then offered each citizen $2,335 ($60,600 adjusted for inflation) for their land but they refused, demanding more for the cost of relocation and the rebuilding of their homes. They then took New York City to court. After two long years they were defeated and were forced to leave, much like the dozens of communities before them. Newspapers said Seneca would be remembered for generations to come, but wasn't. Within two months the name that once dominated headlines had vanished, and so had Seneca.

Seneca Village was razed, the schools and churches burned down and flattened, the homes destroyed, and the cemeteries full of hundreds of bodies were forgotten. However, the people did not establish a new community. What happened to them is a mystery, with some believing the citizens of Seneca simply moved to New York City. Efforts have been made to track down any living relatives, but nobody can be found. In fact, for years many believed the story of Seneca was an urban legend, and that the community simply never even existed.

The story takes another turn after the park was completed. Political lack of interest, the dissolution of the Central Park Commission in 1870, and the change of the attitudes from people wanting a quiet place to stroll to a place to practice sports and recreational activities made the beautiful park undesirable, and it was abandoned and quickly reclaimed by nature. Had it been known the park would be seen as an initial failure, the people of Seneca might have been able to save their village. It wouldn't be until the 1930s, 80 years after the razing of Seneca, that the park became a success - again, only after the eviction of Hoover Valley, a community that had sprung up inside the park during the Great Depression.

Seventy years later, in 2001, a plaque was erected in Central Park by the Seneca Village Project. It was placed in honour of the village and its significance as a unique, middle-class black community during the 19th Century. In 2011 the Seneca Village Project was granted permission to perform an excavation in the park in an attempt to find any remains of the village. Several buildings were found, along with pottery, a roasting pan, a kettle, a toothbrush and some marbles.

Cynthia Copeland, an adjunct professor at New York University that was in charge of the excavation said, "The marbles really touched me. [They] reminded me that children were there. The leather shoe was another important moment," she adds, describing it as "small and narrow," found "embedded in the subterranean walls, covered in dirt, and strands of root".

"These material objects bring the community back," said Copeland, "and allow them the dignity that they probably didn't have when they left."

"People love Central Park," she continued. "We can't imagine the city without it. But it has a history that needs to be told. What happened before matters."

The involvement in African Americans in the growth of New York City has been a footnote for nearly a century, but after the discovery of the burial site near City Hall in 1993 containing between 15,000 to 20,000 bodies and the proven existence of Seneca in 2011, the history of New York City must be rewritten.

"History changes," says Copeland. "It transcends itself through time's passage and different interpretations."

Hopefully, in this interpretation, we remember Seneca.

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Remembering Seneca Village

And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.

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