Monday, June 22, 2020

What Happened To Seneca Village

In 1821, future Vice President and 8th President Martin Van Buren led New York Democrats in a Constitutional Convention to amend the State Constitution. The outcome was the Second Constitution of New York. Among the amendments adopted was the abolition of the land-owning restrictions for white men to vote. Also adopted was a tightening of requirements for Black men to vote - holding property with a value of $250. They also had to prove they lived in New York State, and paid taxes, for three years prior to the election.

1821 also saw the founding of "the largest and wealthiest church of colored people in (New York City), perhaps in the country." The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church rose out of Lower Manhattan's John Street Methodist Church, (est. 1766), which engaged in discrimination and segregation against Blacks, forcing several families to meet and consider their next steps. Keeping in mind that the potter's field where the AMEZ Church buried their dead was about to get repurposed into Washington Square Park, moving was becoming a necessity.

Two of the AMEZ founders were William Hamilton and James Varick. Hamilton was one of the first abolitionists in the United States, a fine orator, and suspected to be the illegitimate son of Alexander Hamilton (his mother was a freed woman of color). Varick, a Methodist minister, had been with John Street and encouraged a split in 1796, and in 1822 became AMEZ's first bishop as a debate raged within the Methodist Church over the acceptance of Black ministers. By the end of the Civil War AMEZ had over 46,000 members and was sending missionaries to the South to help the newly-freed enslaved and establish churches. Total membership in AMEZ and its satellite congregations across the country numbered over 200,000.

As AMEZ grew, so did this neighborhood near the Upper West Side, between what would have been Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 82nd and 89th Streets. Fleeing the crowded streets of Lower Manhattan, and the racism that came with it (Manhattan was a central location of the colonial slave trade), combined with the promise of land ownership, a Black shoeshiner named Andrew Williams bought three lots. Others followed suit, and in 1825 the five-acre Seneca Village was established by a group of Free Blacks, the first community of its kind in New York City. The name is rumored to have referred to anything from "Senegal" to the Roman philosopher Seneca (who advocated for individual liberty) to an Underground Railroad code word. At the time, most of New York City's residents lived in lower Manhattan, below 14th Street, so the remote north side of Manhattan had affordable land prices which were attractive to aspiring African-American landowners. There was a natural spring at Summit Rock - the highest point in what would become Central Park - that provided fresh water. There were over 250 residents of Seneca Village, over half of them property-owning Black residents. Thanks to the 1821 Constitutional Convention and the increased restrictions on how Black men could vote, Seneca Village was politically and culturally important. On July 4, 1827 New York became the first state to pass a law totally abolishing legal slavery. Seneca Village was growing. While Seneca Village contained just 1% of New York City's Black population, by 1855 it held 20% of its Black property owners and 15% of New York City's Black voters. Among these families was the Lyons family, educators and abolitionists who ran a boarding house for Black sailors that doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Lyons' daughter, Maritcha, worked in Brooklyn schools for almost 50 years and fought alongside Ida B. Wells in anti-lynching activism.

When the potato famine hit Ireland in the 1840s as political unrest in Germany unfolded, many immigrants settled in the area. Seneca Village added another AME church as well as a Catholic church. Colored School No. 3 was one of the few integrated schools in New York City. Some of the homes in Seneca Village were two-story frame houses. There was room for gardening, sometimes even a barn. At its height Seneca Village boasted 264 residents and three churches, two cemeteries, and a school. Almost a third of Seneca Village was Irish - one of the three churches was All Angels, a racially integrated congregation in which Irish immigrants worshiped alongside Free Blacks - a picture of racial harmony often unseen.

Frederick Law Olmsted was getting ready to head to Yale when he got sumac poisoning, weakening his eyesight. He went to sea for a while, became a merchant, and then turned to journalism while he settled on the family farm on the south side of Staten Island. It was as a journalist in 1850 that Olmsted traveled to England with the expressed purpose of looking at gardens, specifically Birkenhead Park near Liverpool, which had opened three years earlier and was thought to be the first publicly-funded civic park in the world. That same year, 1850, Andrew Jackson Downing, publisher of The Horticulturist, brought English architect Calvert Vaux to help him design Matthew Vassar's "Springside" estate. Olmsted would visit Downing, who had published Olmsted's essay on his visit to Birkenhead, at his estate in Newburgh, New York - 60 miles north of Manhattan, on the Hudson River. It was there that Olmsted met Vaux. Downing died in 1852 in the sinking of the steamship Henry Clay at Riverdale in The Bronx. He was in the process of designing the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution when he died. Olmsted and Vaux carried Downing's influence with them for the rest of their careers.

Newspapers rallied around the idea of a large, centrally-located municipal park within the limits of New York City, gardens similar to what you would find in London and Paris. In 1853 New York City officials began planning. The unofficial boundary of metropolitan New York City by the mid-1850s was 23rd Street, well south of Seneca Village, though New York City's population had quadrupled between 1821, the founding of AMEZ, and 1855. Initially, officials picked a spot known as Jones Wood, on the water on the Upper East Side, but white landowners had enough political pull to dissuade city officials from choosing it, asking for a further inland location. While this area of Manhattan was kinda-sorta vacant, there were over 1,600 New Yorkers living there, including the nuns of the Academy of St. Vincent, and Seneca Village. That Seneca Village was a growing Black community (and a chorus of thinly-veiled racist views that Seneca Village was on its way to becoming the next Five Points), and that the residents of Seneca Village didn't have the same political pull as the Upper East Siders, didn't help their cause. Seneca Village was cast as a "wasteland" inhabited by "squatters" who lived in "shanties." It was far enough away from metropolitan New York City that most New Yorkers didn't bother to run uptown and see for themselves.

The New York Commercial-Advertiser wrote:
Give us a park, be it central, or sidelong, here, there, anywhere...a real park, a large park.

City officials settled on a site  On July 21, 1853 - 51 weeks after Andrew Jackson Downing's death - the Central Park Act was passed, in which the New York State Legislature set aside 778 acres of land between Fifth and Eighth Avenues and 59th and 106th Streets in central Manhattan to create the nation's first major landscaped public space (it would be extended four blocks north to 110th Street a few years later), which would be known as Central Park. The "socially-conscious" types figured that a massive park such as this would contribute to the well-being of New York society, in public health and in a progressive civil society. 17,000 potential building sites were removed from the real estate market.

Most New York City newspapers cheered the removal of "the insects" from Seneca Village. The N-Word was used. Not all were in favor, though. Social reformer Hal Guernsey wrote:
Will anyone pretend the park is not a scheme to enhance the value of uptown land, and create a splendid center for fashionable life, without regard to, and even in dereliction of, the happiness of the multitude upon whose hears and hands the expenses will fall?

Still, the City had to obtain that land legally, or at least something approaching legality. Enter Eminent Domain. The Just Compensation Clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides, "Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." And "Just Compensation" indicates fair market value should be paid to the landowners. This was the justification used by New York City officials in razing Seneca Village (and other, smaller neighborhoods) to build Central Park. It didn't hurt that popular opinion had been swayed by newspaper owners and editors dead set on "modernizing" New York City, even if it meant tearing down a more modern version of America: that of a successful Black neighborhood featuring landowning freemen before the Civil War.

In June 1856, New York City mayor Fernando Wood (a Tammany Hall man who was a central figure in the Gangs of New York-famous Dead Rabbits/Bowery Boys Election Day fight) initiated a contest judged by a board headed by Washington Irving. Olmsted, already the superintendent of the Park's work force, and Vaux worked together on their plan, submitted it to the board, and won, beating out 32 other proposals.. Olmsted and Vaux called it Greensward, "for their preferred landscapes of sweeping meadows and vast water bodies designed to appear limitless, while brilliantly belying the Park's long and narrow rectangle within New York City's rigid grid."

The residents of New York City that found themselves firmly within the boundary of Central Park petitioned the courts for two years to save their homes, churches, and schools. Ultimately in 1857 the 1600 residents, including all of Seneca Village, were paid (evicted) from their homes to build Central Park. One newspaper wrote that the Seneca Village police raid would "not be many a brilliant and stirring fight was had during the campaign. But the supremacy of the law was upheld by the policeman's bludgeons."

Olmsted wrote that Central Park was "of great importance as the first real Park made in this country - a democratic development of the highest significance." It was one of the first examples of Urban Renewal, "reinvigorating" a Black neighborhood targeted for destruction for the purpose of the betterment of the elite. There are no known records of what happened to the eternal residents of Seneca Village's two cemeteries.

Click here for an interactive map of Seneca Village.