Before Central Park was created, the landscape along what is now the Park’s perimeter from West 82nd to West 89th Street was the site of Seneca Village, a community of predominantly African-Americans, many of whom owned property. By 1855, the village consisted of approximately 225 residents, made up of roughly two-thirds African-Americans, one-third Irish immigrants, and a small number of individuals of German descent. One of few African-American enclaves at the time, Seneca Village allowed residents to live away from the more built-up sections of downtown Manhattan and escape the unhealthy conditions and racism they faced there.
The formation of Seneca Village
Seneca Village began in 1825, when landowners in the area, John and Elizabeth Whitehead, subdivided their land and sold it as 200 lots. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoeshiner, bought the first three lots for $125. Epiphany Davis, a store clerk, bought 12 lots for $578, and the AME Zion Church purchased another six lots. From there a community was born. From 1825 to 1832, the Whiteheads sold about half of their land parcels to other African-Americans. By the early 1830s, there were approximately 10 homes in the Village.
Detail of map of the pre-Central Park landscape showing the area of Seneca Village. Courtesy of New York City Municipal Archives.
There is some evidence that residents had gardens and raised livestock in Seneca Village, and the nearby Hudson River was a likely source of fishing for the community. A nearby spring, known as Tanner’s Spring, provided a water source. By the mid-1850s, Seneca Village comprised 50 homes and three churches, as well as burial grounds, and a school for African-American students.
A thriving African-American community
For African-Americans, Seneca Village offered the opportunity to live in an autonomous community far from the densely populated downtown. Despite New York State’s abolition of slavery in 1827, discrimination was still prevalent throughout New York City, and severely limited the lives of African-Americans. Seneca Village’s remote location likely provided a refuge from this climate. It also would have provided an escape from the unhealthy and crowded conditions of the City, and access to more space both inside and outside the home.
Compared to other African-Americans living in New York, residents of Seneca Village seem to have been more stable and prosperous — by 1855, approximately half of them owned their own homes. With property ownership came other rights not commonly held by African-Americans in the City — namely, the right to vote. In 1821, New York State required African-American men to own at least $250 in property and hold residency for at least three years to be able to vote. Of the 100 black New Yorkers eligible to vote in 1845, 10 lived in Seneca Village.
The fact that many residents were property owners contradicts some common misperceptions during the mid-19th century that the people living on the land slated for the Park were poor squatters living in shanties. While some residents lived in shanties and in crowded conditions, most lived in two-story homes. Census records show that residents were employed, with African-Americans typically employed as laborers and in service jobs, the main options for them at the time. Records also show that most children who lived in Seneca Village attended school.
The creation of Central Park
During the early 1850s, the City began planning for a large municipal park to counter unhealthful urban conditions and provide space for recreation. In 1853, the New York State Legislature enacted a law that set aside 775 acres of land in Manhattan — from 59th to 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues — to create the country’s first major landscaped public park.
The City acquired the land through eminent domain, the law that allows the government to take private land for public use with compensation paid to the landowner. This was a common practice in the 19th century, and had been used to build Manhattan’s grid of streets decades earlier. There were roughly 1,600 inhabitants displaced throughout the area. Although landowners were compensated, many argued that their land was undervalued. Ultimately, all residents had to leave by the end of 1857. Research is underway to determine where Seneca Village residents relocated — some may have gone to other African-American communities in the region, such as Sandy Ground in Staten Island and Skunk Hollow in New Jersey.
Seneca Village extended as far east as Seventh Avenue, and would have bordered the present-day Arthur Ross Pinetum (mid-Park between 84th and 86th Streets).
Discovering more about Seneca Village
Although we have limited knowledge of what life was like in Seneca Village, there has been ongoing work to learn more about its residents and their lives. In 2011, archaeologists from Columbia University and The City University of New York conducted a dig of the site. They uncovered artifacts such as an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan, a stoneware beer bottle, fragments of Chinese export porcelain, and a small shoe with a leather sole and fabric upper. These items have helped us piece together what life was like for the village’s residents.
Despite its short history of only 32 years, Seneca Village is understood as a tight-knit community that served as a stabilizing and empowering force in uncertain times.