Location: Manhattan, New York City, NY
Present-day Manhattan is located in New York City one of the world’s most populous and densely populated cities. Home to multiple iconic skyscrapers, Manhattan’s real estate values are some of the highest in America and amongst the highest in the world. Most of the city’s real estate was only built within the last 140 years.
In the early 1800s, most of Manhattan’s population lived and worked in Lower Manhattan. The area now considered Midtown was primarily farmland and much of undeveloped Upper Manhattan was rural or wilderness. New York City experienced a population and economic boom in the early 1800s.
Tens of thousands of enslaved Black people had escaped to New York City beginning with the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775 and through the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827. They first escaped to New York City to seek protection behind British lines where they were promised freedom for fleeing the colonists. In the years following the war, some Black people were still held in bondage but the city’s free Black population continued to grow.
New York was one of the states that abolished slavery in the decades before the American Civil War. But in the years prior to and after abolition, many wealthy White New Yorkers invested and profited from the slave economies of the South and Caribbean. Thus unsurprisingly, racist attitudes still existed within the state and Black people had to contend with discrimination.
As would later occur in other parts of the country, Black people would be limited to living in a particular area. That is until that land became desired by White would-be residents. At that point, they would then be forced to relocate to a new area in search of decent affordable housing.
Thus as Manhattan’s population grew and the city expanded northward, Black people were continuously pushed to the edges and outskirts of the city. In the early 1900s, this would lead to Black people flocking to Harlem after having similarly populated neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin District, San Juan Hill, etc. But this was also the case with the less well-known Seneca Village in the 1800s.
John and Elizabeth Whitehead owned a relatively large plot of land on the Upper West Side. In 1825, they divided the land into 200 lots located along what is now Central Park West from roughly West 82nd to West 89th Street. The first three purchasers were Andrew Williams, Epiphany Davis, and the AME Zion Church. Williams, a shoe shiner purchased three lots for $125. Davis a store clerk purchased 12 lots for $578. And the AME Church bought six lots.
These purchases were significant for multiple reasons. Black people were not outright barred from voting in New York City. Although they were free, most Black people in New York City had very limited job prospects as they were shut out of many lucrative professions and industries. Earning meager wages put land ownership out of reach for many Black people. But voting rights were only extended to males who owned at least $250 in property. Purchasing and developing lots gave more Black men a pathway to qualifying to vote.
Another benefit was that purchasing lots outside of Lower Manhattan created a buffer zone. New York City’s population was growing but housing was not expanding at the same rate. Thus Lower Manhattan was becoming very crowded and poor-quality housing was creating an unhealthy environment. In contrast, the lots uptown were spacious and weren’t yet tainted by overcrowding or industrialization. The land was used by some to grow crops and livestock, fresh spring water was readily available, and residents could go fishing in what was likely still a clean Hudson River.
Seneca Village was eventually home to about 225 residents. About two-thirds of the population was Black, a third was Irish, and a few were German. Living outside of Lower Manhattan granted the Black population some independence and relief from much of the racial discrimination and hostility present elsewhere in Manhattan. Eventually, the village grew to include more than 50 homes, three churches, and one of the few schools in New York City that accepted Black students.
Its believed that there might have been some people living in or near the area in shanties. But by the 1850s, Seneca Village was thriving and its Black residents were relatively comfortable. The area’s success pointed to a bright future made possible by its stability.
Unfortunately, Lower Manhattan’s overcrowding continued and the wealthy continued to make their way North. People went for walks in parks, squares, and even cemeteries around the city. But in the 1850s it was decided that a large park should be created to combat the ill effects of congested city living.
A New York State law was created to carve out 775 acres stretching from 59th to 106th Street and across from 5th to 8th Avenue for the park. The state used the practice of eminent domain to take ownership of the land. There were court cases to block the forced acquisition but the state eventually won out.
While landowners were compensated, they had no real choice but to accept the amounts offered which some felt (and still feel) undervalued the properties. All of the residents in the area were forced to move by 1857. The residents mostly scattered rather than relocating en masse to recreate their village elsewhere.
Seneca Village was demolished a year later when work began on Central Park. At present, some of Manhattan’s most valuable real estate is located around the perimeter of Central Park including what was once Seneca Village. Variations of the loss of this successful predominantly Black community would also occur elsewhere in the country. In time Seneca Village would come to be portrayed as a shantytown whose destruction was no great loss. This later occurred in the 1950s to 1970s when Black communities were destroyed to create highways and other new developments under the banner of “urban renewal”.
- “Before Central Park: The Story of Seneca Village.” 2018. Central Park Conservancy. January 18, 2018. https://www.centralparknyc.org/articles/seneca-village.
- “Central Park.” n.d. NYC Parks. New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/central-park/highlights/13602.
- Mystal, Elie. 2022. “Let’s Talk about the Taking of Black Land.” The Nation. February 28, 2022. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/black-land-seneca-village/.
- Neubauer, Sam. 2021. “Seneca Village: A Forgotten Settlement Buried under Central Park.” ILovetheUpperWestSide.com. November 24, 2021. https://ilovetheupperwestside.com/seneca-village-forgotten-settlement-central-park/.
- “Seneca Village Landscape.” n.d. Central Park Conservancy. Accessed May 3, 2023. https://www.centralparknyc.org/locations/seneca-village-site.
- Sims, Chantel. 2022. “Seneca Village: A Forgotten Story.” The Observer. October 27, 2022. https://fordhamobserver.com/70735/recent/news/city/seneca-village-a-forgotten-story/.
- Staples, Brent. 2019. “The Death of the Black Utopia.” The New York Times. The New York Times. November 28, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/28/opinion/seneca-central-park-nyc.html.
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