Central Park, a top New York City tourist attraction and the most filmed location in the world, has a disturbing origin story — one that showcases how power is wielded by individuals, the government, and the media to create racial injustice.
The idea for Central Park dates back to the mid-1800s, but the landmark only exists today because wealthy, powerful New Yorkers used the press to smear and destroy Seneca Village, a peaceful settlement of African American, Irish, and German property owners.
Established in 1825, Seneca Village was a thriving, pre-Civil War, predominately African American community located in Upper Manhattan’s west side between what are now 82nd and 89th streets. It was originally formed as an oasis from Lower Manhattan’s discrimination against and violence towards African Americans after the emancipation of slaves in New York. The area became a community of approximately 260 residents, and one of the few places where African Americans and immigrants could afford to own property. In 1821, the state of New York held a constitutional convention that eliminated property ownership as a requirement for white male voters, but introduced a new requirement that “persons of colour” own at least $250 worth of property, “over and above all debts,” in order to vote. At one point, about 10% of all eligible African American voters lived in Seneca Village. The community was progressive beyond its time, being home to interracial couples and children, an almost unheard-of occurrence in the mid-1800s.
Unfortunately, Seneca Village was never given the opportunity to further develop, as growing desire among NYC’s upper crust for a large landscaped park, one that would rival the elegant city parks of Europe, caused them to view Seneca Village’s residents as a nuisance who were standing in the way of a public good simply by virtue of living on the proposed land for the park. Soon after, journalists launched a smear campaign that portrayed the community as a violent and dangerous place filled with unsavory people. Eventually, the government stepped in and used its powers of eminent domain to evict residents and raze their community to make way for Central Park.
It was not easy to persuade 1,600 people, 260 of whom resided in Seneca Village, to leave their homes in favor of a city park. By the time city officials tried to obtain their land, the residents of Seneca Village had established a stable and tight-knit community. The majority of residents had been living there between 15 and 25 years. Seneca Village had its own school and three churches. These strong ties meant that residents could not easily uproot their lives and everything they had built to make way for the park. Recognizing that the community wouldn’t go quietly, proponents of Central Park initially pretended that Seneca Village didn’t even exist before moving on to slandering the people who lived there in order to justify passing the necessary legislation to forcefully remove the residents and obtain their land.
The defamation began before the Park’s plan had been finalized, beginning with the Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux plan for Central Park. The plan included before-and-after photos and illustrations: one “before” picture showed an abandoned farm with divided land and an old stone wall, while the corresponding “after” rendering of the proposed Central Park landscape depicted a lake that was lined with trees and a gazebo at the water’s edge. Olmsted and Vaux purposefully used photographs that showed barren, unoccupied land in order to make it look like the impact of building a park wouldn’t affect any people. If the land was abandoned — as the photographs made it seem — there would be no problem obtaining it once the plans were finalized.
The idea that no one lived on the land was further avowed by the mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood, when he claimed that the area was an “almost uninhabited part of the island.” The mayor went along with the lie because he wanted to please the elites and give them the park they wanted. The minimization was used as a means of persuading the general public that the impact of building a large park would be small, obscuring the fact that about 1,600 people lived on the land.
When ignoring Seneca Village’s very existence didn’t work, the media began degrading everyone who lived there. Multiple newspapers, including The New-York Daily Times, referred to Seneca Village by the hateful term “N*gger Village” and labeled its residents simpleminded. Using this language made the village and its inhabitants seem less important and more disposable. This shaped public opinion, causing many to think that few people lived on the land, that in any case they didn’t deserve to be there, and that the benefits of establishing a beautiful public park greatly outweighed any inconvenience caused by forcing some undesirable people to move.
Though journalists attempted to marginalize Seneca Village, it was difficult to portray the well-established, working-class village as anything other than what it was. Thus, some supporters of the proposed park simply tried to avoid discussion of Seneca Village and focused instead on poorer communities in the path of the park. As historian Catherine McNeur explained in her book Taming Manhattan, “Less attention was paid to Seneca Village, probably because destroying their more established working- and middle-class neighborhood would not have fit so neatly into the clearance literature as did the hodgepodge, illegal wooden shanties filled with animals and barefoot Irishmen.” Finding evidence that depicted Seneca Village in a negative light was hard to come by, but that didn’t stop the media from trying.
The public’s general disdain for the area, driven largely by the city’s powerful and wealthy residents and members of the press, facilitated the government’s acquisition by eminent domain of all the land within Central Park. It was presented as an easy decision. In 1857, Seneca Village befell the same fate as the unorganized settlements of squatters that were located nearby, and all reminders of the progressive interracial community that once called it home were destroyed. Every person, home, school, and church vanished from the area, and quickly thereafter the memory of Seneca Village began to fade.
Fortunately, modern historians have rediscovered Seneca Village and its role as a unique progressive community in the heart of Manhattan that was ahead of its time. Acquainting ourselves with the ways in which powerful groups can steamroll over the interests of marginalized communities to achieve their goals is an important step toward preventing history from repeating itself.
Lucy Fitzpatrick ’22 is majoring in history and minoring in psychology at Barnard College.