A park usually improves a neighborhood. But what happens when your neighborhood is destroyed to build a park?
About 1600 people lived on the land that would become Central Park. The largest settlement was the well-established community of Seneca Village.
Seneca Village was first established in 1825 when African-Americans acquired property in the area. By the 1850s, about two-thirds of the village’s residents were of African descent, with most of the others being Irish-Americans. An 1855 state census reported approximately 264 people living in the community, which also contained churches, cemeteries, and a school.
The village was near what is now the 85th Street entrance on the western side of the park.
Before the park was built, 85th Street continued another block eastward. This was one of the streets of Seneca Village. The Columbia University website has a map and directions that are very helpful in understanding the location of the village grounds.
Up the hill, part of a stone foundation can be seen sticking out of the ground.
Looking southeast from this point in 1855, you would have seen a number of homes. Today a park road winds through trees and grassy rolling hills .
Often denigrated as “shanties” by contemporary commentators, houses in the village were typically permanent structures that offered better living conditions than could be found in many downtown tenements. They included cabins with multiple rooms and floors. Many residents also had gardens and barns.
Seneca village was bordered to the east by the Croton Receiving Reservoir, a rectangular structure with walls that rose high above the ground. The reservoir was drained in 1930 and the Great Lawn was established on the land soon afterward.
The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir was constructed with the park and sits below ground. The southwest corner of the reservoir covers what was the northeast corner of Seneca Village.
The idea for a large Manhattan park emerged in wealthy New York social circles in the late 1840s. Inspired by large parks in European cities, they hoped the park would improve the lives of all city residents by providing a healthy space for moral recreation, but they also wanted a place to accommodate elegant carriage drives and to reflect the cultural greatness of the city.
In their history of Central Park, Rosenzweig and Blackmar argue that a desire to displace poor uptown residents was a major influence on the decision of where to locate the park. In the 1840s one observer described the area as a “waste” filled with “poor and wretched people of every race and color and nationality” who “had no regular occupation,” and described alleged sexual contact between blacks and whites in terms of outrage.
Maybe the park designers just didn’t see the settlements as worth obstructing the creation of a grand, idealized, and perfectly rectangular reflection of American culture and its ability to tame nature but still benefit from natural surroundings.
After a series of political battles, mostly among factions of the wealthy with various interests, construction began in Central Park, a project that was seen as creating numerous jobs that were needed in the economic downturn. Through the power of eminent domain, the city removed Seneca village in 1857.
Although Seneca Village landowners did receive more money for their property than they had purchased it for, the community life they had built was gone as the residents scattered.
In 2011 the Seneca Village Project made its first archeological excavations of the village grounds. The stories of the Seneca Village residents still have much to teach us about life in New York in the mid-nineteenth century.
Disputes over how to use the land continued long after Seneca village was gone. The park is not only government land intended for the recreational benefit of the public in a densely-populated city, but is also a symbol of prestige. Numerous issues were bound to come up as the park was managed through the years and became a social space. Central Park can also be used to understand how the city was made and how the public – numerous people with divergent interests – have been served.
Population: Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. 60, 64-65.
Buildings: The Park and the People, 68-70.
Croton Receiving Reservoir (Lower Reservoir): The Park and the People, 439.
Motivations to build park: The Park and the People, 30,54.
Negative views of residents: The Park and the People, 63, 67.
Job creation in construction: The Park and the People, 57.
Location: Interactive Map, Seneca Village Project.
Eminent domain and removal: The Park and the People, 59. Index, Seneca Village Project.
Compensation of Seneca Village landowners: The Park and the People, 89.
Archeological Excavation: The Excavations, Seneca Village Project.