History of the Community

Located between 82nd and 87th Streets, just east of Central Park West, Seneca Village was first settled in the 1820's, just on the eve of emancipation in New York State.   There some African Americans bought land to build their homes and institutions. Some think that one of their incentives was to acquire $250 worth of property, the amount of property that was needed for an African-American man to vote. Seneca Village was, in fact, the only community of African-American property-owners for the 19th-century city.

By the mid-1850's, the Village was a thriving community with a population of over 250 people. Approximately two thirds were of African descent, while the remainder were of European descent, mostly Irish. The Village was also the site of several institutions, including three churches, five cemeteries and a school. When the City government claimed the land under the right of eminent domain, evicted the residents, and razed their homes to create Central Park, Seneca Village disappeared for over a century.

New York City in the 1880s

Seneca Village existed during a period of turbulence in New York City and the country as a whole. This section introduces the context of life in New York City in the nineteenth century.

The Erie Canal had just opened, marking the beginning of a period of economic expansion for the city and the state. The enslaved population of the city was emancipated in 1827, even as slavery continued in other parts of the nation. Cries for the abolition of slavery were growing in New England and in pockets in other regions. At the same time, Native American territories in the West were being taken, reshaped, and resettled by settlers hungry for land.

The Great Fire of 1835 destroyed New York City's wooden downtown and nearly ruined the economy, but the wave of urban renewal that followed made it the country's number one port. New York quickly became the receiving point for travelers, opportunity seekers, opportunists, refugees, and the poor.

Often called a "city of contrasts," downtown New York was crowded with buildings and people, busy with trade and commerce. Elegant brownstone buildings stood next to houses made of wood and scrap metal. Some streets were built of cobblestone, while others were dirt. There was mud and manure everywhere. People moved about in horse-drawn carriages, omnibuses, trolleys, ferryboats, and on foot.

Uptown was different: it had farms as well as large uncultivated tracts. There were hills, trees, rocky outcroppings, streams and springs. There were scattered villages, and the people had a pioneering spirit. It was not mandatory for children to go to school...some did, some didn't. Very young children often worked beside adults--along the wharves and docks, as errand boys, as fruit, pie, and hot corn vendors. They sold their wares from baskets and carts along the street.

The poorer children worked as ragpickers. Outdoor games, such as hoops and marbles, were popular, as well as playing with crafted games and toys indoors. There were always chores to do. People uptown often had to travel long distances to a well or spring to get a bucket of water. Imagine what it must have been like in the dead of winter to carry a bucket of freezing water down a slippery mud path back home!

The Story of the Park

This drawing, done in about 1840, shows the artist's conception of what you would have seen if you had stood at the top of what is now Summit Rock (which used to be called Nanny Goat Hill), and looked west to the fashionable estates along Riverside Drive and then across the Hudson River to New Jersey.

Although the park area looks almost uninhabited in these images, there were several residential settlements in the area, including Seneca Village, Harsenville, the Piggery District, and the Convent of the Sisters of Charity. These settlements included schools, churches, cemeteries, shops, public hospitals, and other institutions, and their inhabitants had been the pioneering cultivators of the land that was soon to become a park.

Beginning in 1849, a small group of civic-minded New York visionaries began to agitate for the creation of a grand, artfully sculptured uptown park, modeled after the opulent public parks of Europe. They would eventually include James William Beekman, a State Senator; William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post; Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape gardener and writer; Robert Minturn, a wealthy merchant; and Fernando Wood, the Mayor.

By this point in the city's history, there were several kinds of parks for the inhabitants. There were small parks that were for private use only. Private parks were usually enclosed with elegant iron fencing and had locked gates. Only those who lived on the surrounding streets had a key.

The public had access to multi-purpose parks, also known as "squares" and "commons". These parks were used for military drills and executions as well as recreation. Cemeteries were also green spots, and it was not unusual to see New Yorkers strolling and picnicking near the graves of those who had passed on.

Here is an illustration of Union Square Park in the mid-1800s. Three areas were proposed for the new park. They were Battery Park, Jones's Wood, and an underdeveloped section in what was then considered upper Manhattan. You can see where they were on a map of the city if you click here. Since most New Yorkers still lived south of Fourteenth Street, some people wanted to enlarge Battery Park, a popular site at the southern tip of Manhattan Island with an elegant promenade along the water.

A plan to add about 300 feet of landfill was approved in 1853.This created a large and accessible space but was not as expensive as building a park from the ground up. But Battery Park did not satisfy the needs of the population that was expanding uptown, so city officials turned to two other sites, one of which would eventually become Central Park.