By Jessica Easthope
Forty million people visit Central Park every year, but how many of them know about its past? Buried beneath the park’s enormity and fame is the history of Seneca Village.
“We have historical records of different churches and schools and small plots of land used for agriculture and livestock, a whole thriving community that often gets lost when we talk about the historical narrative of New York City as a whole,” said Urban Park Ranger Jeffrey Vandervennet.
Back when uptown Manhattan was made up of rural farmlands, an area spanning what we know now as 83rd to 89th Streets was home to a thriving community on the fringe of 19th century society.
“Seneca Village provided the true opportunity to make a chance in what you wanted and give your family stability and to pursue the American Dream that was portrayed at that time,” said Ranger Ashley Whited.
In 1845 when there were 13,000 Black Americans living in New York City, owning a certain amount of land meant you could vote, and for many Black Americans Seneca Village presented that opportunity.
“As people bought land that was a deliberate political experiment to gain power and have a voting block of people that could help to implement policy on a societal level,” said Ranger Jeff.
Seneca Village was made up of mostly free Black Americans, but was also a sanctuary for immigrants from Germany and Ireland. Over the years excavations have told the story of what life was like in Seneca Village — a story often skewed by racism.
“This area was labeled as squatters, vagrants, shanty towns, houses that are barely standing up, but as we look at work done by the Central Park Conservancy and New York Historical Society excavations and digs and seeing the foundations of these buildings, it was a stable and thriving community,” said Ranger Ashley.
In the late 1850s the residents of Seneca Village were kicked out so the city could build Central Park. Many were fairly paid for the land they owned.
The rich history of Seneca Village can tell us a lot about the world we live in today.
“Seneca Village can be used as a lens we use to view our current surroundings and what it took to get there, as well as a lens of how we want to see our community and our environment change for the better,” Ranger Ashley said.
Education allows history to be rediscovered and beneath Central Park, more is waiting to be found.