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Seneca Village: The forgotten NYC Neighborhood

As New Yorkers, Tourists, or even people who have heard of the city of New York, besides the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the enchanting skyline, Central Park is the next thing we will always think of when you think of NYC. Central Park is one of the most famous Parks around the world and is widely considered a masterpiece in architecture and landscaping, and this iconic Park tucked inside Manhattan has a piece of its story that visitors will never hear about or see, that is Seneca Village.

This dives deep into what came before the Park, and the communities that were inevitably affected by the Parks completion, specifically one community which was wiped off the face of the map to make this ‘Masterpiece of a Park’, as it was called in the late 1800s. To understand, we have to look back into the 1820s, when a majority of people in Manhattan, live in the area of Lower Manhattan. Everything north of that area was hill-filled, unsettled, terrain. Hell's Kitchen, SoHo, The Lower East Side, and so much more of what is now classic New York were the countryside. And as time progressed and more Slaves were freed in New York and entered the workforce, they would enter neighborhoods but some began to build their own communities. Racial tensions were high in the city during the period of the early 1800s especially, so increasingly people would flock to these small communities. And in 1825, plots of land became available in a 5 Square Mile Zone, Uptown, and it was seen as a way to establish a community where minorities wouldn’t have to live in fear of persecution, so one by one, lots filled up, and a new neighborhood in New York was born the neighborhood of Seneca Village, specifically between 82nd & 89th street where this community especially flourished. Records show that in its hay-day, there were nearly 300 people in Seneca Village, with many having jobs such as shoemaker, tailor, shop owner, or grocer, as well as many others, which indicate this was a very self sufficient area, it also played host to 3 churches, and even a school for children in the area. Another specialty of the community in records and the people, as when German and Irish immigrants moved into the area, it became especially unique as one of the first integrated communities, if not the first, in the city of New York. But as always, history had a different turn of events in store, and by the 1850s, New York’s population had nearly quadrupled, and it was becoming the industrial and business capital of the United States we know today, and it wasn’t at all a gradual transformation. Lower Manhattan could no longer feasible hold everyone, and the Island’s elites were fearful of the idea that the Island could be so

Hilled with Development, and claimed it called for the necessity of Grand City Park, later changed to a Central Park, to, “Give Lungs To The City”. They called for a park that was comparable to those of Europe, and a large one at that. They were incredibly determined, no matter the effects, and they viewed it as something to make it so an industrial city, would have the elements of the ancient and fashionable cities of Europe. Finally, on July 21, 1853, the Supreme Court of New York State set aside 750 acres of land for this “Central Park'', which included Seneca Village. But there was so much more than Seneca even, with nearly 1600 people inhabiting the area set aside for Central Park.

The City didn’t plan to be painted badly for the development though and used Media connections to get Newspapers to downplay the residential areas and people, describing them as “Now it (Central Park) is occupied by miserable looking broke down shanties…”, or “Squatters’ Village”, and the New York Times even had an article referring to Seneca with a slur, all of which are completely inaccurate descriptions of what was seemingly a good area. Following some excavations, fine china, medical products, small decorative pieces, and even fanciful wood pieces and carvings were found, something indicating the area was much more affluent than it was portrayed. “When we compare the types of products used in Seneca Village with artifacts found in Greenwich Village, an elite upper-middle-class neighborhood, in some cases they were using the same kinds of ironstone plate in what was called the gothic pattern”, said Diana Wall of City College of New York, “There are even products like toothbrushes which wouldn’t be present in middle-class homes until the 1920s that were in Seneca”.

None of this mattered to the White Elites of New York at the time, however, with the dream of a Central Park for them being more important than these people’s lives and community. The people of Seneca were told to remove themselves from the area by the First of August by the city government, and despite any objections, the people were removed, the settlements erased, and forgotten for over a century, but now, Seneca is beginning to receive recognition and the Pre-Park history is beginning to be reckoned with, and is something really special and good thing to see, as well as a big step in remembering both the good and the bad of our history.

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