Seneca Village

Last fall, I wrote a very short and somewhat glib blog post on Seneca Village. It’s a topic that deserves better treatment, so here we go.

Seneca Village was a small community, from the 1830s to the 1850s, located on Manhattan island well to the north of the built-up portion of New York City. It was founded by and mostly populated by black people, who had established a refuge there. It’s important to note that slavery in New York State was abolished gradually after the end of the American Revolution, finally ending in 1827. The establishment of Seneca Village a few years later is probably not a coincidence.

The people who lived there were home-owners and built all of the infrastructure of a community, including churches and a school. They were cut off from the municipal water supply and had to rely on wells, but until the completion of the Croton water system in the mid-1840s that was probably to their benefit. They kept animals and did some garden farming, although many were also employed in the city proper. There were other small unincorporated villages of this type north of the built-up city.

There was an extended debate in the 1840s and 50s about where (and even if) New York should build a large park. The two man schemes were one in the center of Manhattan island and one on the East River; the first scheme was eventually chosen. The site was originally Fifth to Eight Avenue, 59th to 106th Street and was later extended to 110th Street. The site included the first Croton reservoir and the planned expansion reservoir. The 1856 map above, by the indefatigable Egbert Viele, is not Central Park, it is the land that would become the park. (Using the definite article – “The Central Park” – emphasizes that central is meant as a literal adjective.) The double rectangle in the middle is the reservoir constructed in the 1840s, and Seneca Village is the collection of small buildings just west (up on the page) from there.

The village was completely destroyed for the park, as were several other homesteads. The process by which the lands were acquired meant that the owners should have been compensated with condemnation awards, but those were likely inadequate. The buildings were described in the press, inaccurately, as shanties, and the land was too far from the city to be considered valuable.

The map above is misleading in one way: it shows the street grid surrounding the park as if it were already built, which was not true. The streets had been mapped, but were not constructed for another ten years or so. The only thing on the Upper West Side that was remotely like a real street was the Bloomingdale Road, later renamed as an extension of Broadway. The map above shows that the builders of Seneca Village followed the lines of several of the mapped streets in their layout, as proper land-owners would.

Here is the other half of Viele’s map, showing the plan for the park as announced in 1856:

This is not the park as built. The following year, Olmsted and Vaux won the design competition for the park and greatly improved on this design. One personal item of note is that the hill that Belvedere Castle sits on is visible just south of the old reservoir and labelled as Vista Rock. More importantly, the site of Seneca Village has been swept clean of its inhabitants.

The only remaining physical evidence of the village has been found through archaeology. That does not mean that it has been forgotten.

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