One of my favorite places to go in the city during the summer is Central Park. It’s our biggest landmark & my go-to attraction for my tourist friends and family. In our concrete jungle of a home, Central Park offers solace from the hustle-bustle of one of the busiest places in the world. And for all my fellow Pokémon trainers, it’s pretty much all you need to catch them all.
But our friendly neighborhood public park has been keeping some secrets we need to discuss.
Central Park as we know it was founded in 1857 by two landscape architects named Frederick Law Olmsted and and Calvert Vaux. After a four-fold population increase in the early 1800s, poet William Cullen Bryant for the New York Post (back then called the Evening Post) expressed his need for a park in New York City to appease the hustle-bustle of the city. The city established a Central Park Commission to host a design contest for the park, won by Olmsted and Vaux with the “Greensward Plan.” With governmental approval, they put their designs into action which became a 20 year project. In 1873, the park expanded to the 843 acre behemoth we know today.
What most people don’t know is the area in the middle of the city was home to many poor New York residents including Irish & German farmers, and held the most stable African-American settlement in NYC at the time: Seneca Village. Seneca Village was founded in 1825 (2 years before slavery was abolished in New York State) between 82nd and 89th Streets by Andrew Williams and Epiphany Davis, who bought the first acres of land there. Holding 264 residents and containing 70 homes, 3 churches, 2 schools, and a few cemeteries, Seneca Village was a self-sustaining middle class black community and the best of its kind. 50% of the village’s residents owned their own land. This was about 5 times the average ownership rate for all New Yorkers–white or black–during a time there were still black slaves in the country. Seneca Village was also the home of 10% of the African-American New Yorkers that met the land ownership requirements to vote.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end for minorities in 19th century America. Upon the landscaping and construction of Central Park receiving governmental clearance, in 1856, New York State Legislature took “eminent domain,” preserving the authority to buy private property for public use. The state bought off all the residents in Seneca Village and the villagers never returned to their former glory anywhere else.
Now this happened about 150 years ago, but it’s not unlike what we’re seeing today. The death of Seneca Village was likely one of the first instances of gentrification of an African American neighborhood. Now, we see the same things happening in areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg, Bushwick, Harlem, even parts of our home here in Flushing. Home owners being offered prices for their homes that they can’t refuse, and in its place comes a newer, refurbished and expensive living complex that no one in that neighborhood can afford. Upper class individuals can then make those neighborhoods their domain, halting and erasing the culture that was there before them.
So, why the history lesson from a guy that hates history class and will hopefully never need to take one again? Well whether it was for a date, a hang out with friends, or to run after virtual monsters with a mob of hundreds of people (I did this one), I’m sure everyone reading this was at or around Central Park at least once this summer. The next time you go, use the trip as an opportunity to reflect on what our city has been and what has or hasn’t changed. Maybe you can start up a conversation. We’re living in the most diverse area in the country, especially in Queens. Let’s live up to that prestige and indulge in each others’ experiences, past and present.