Seneca Village in Central Park was once a small town.
But Seneca Village is no more; it’s wiped off the map.
I’m a native New Yorker and grew up on the Upper East Side: 96th and Madison. As an adult, I lived not four blocks from what was Seneca Village, an area about seven blocks long, a couple of blocks wide, and 300 lives strong. I often stood at a foundation stone that is visible today, across the sidewalk from the Spector Playground at 85th street. I would throw a football with one of my sons on the hill right there, making sure not to back up and fall onto that stone. Thankfully, it’s there as a hazard and a low-profile ebenezer.
If you read no further and in honor of Independence Day, which I’ll explain below, and in recognition of all that’s going on in America on Independence Day 2020, please watch the video below. It’s under 7 minutes.
Like many large urban areas, New York City often has little enclaves, small “towns” almost. The Upper West Side felt like that at times. Bumping into neighbors. Getting to know the shopkeepers, even becoming kind of friendly with the aggressive homeless guy who slept in front of Victoria’s Secret on 85th and Broadway for years.
Central Park’s “small town” of Seneca Village
Established early in the 19th century, Seneca Village was like that. Irish. German. But mostly, far and away mostly, African-American. Freed black slaves who were landowners and small business owners.
When the city exercised eminent domain to build the park, it affected everyone — the rich landowners and the poor ones as well. The Irish ones, the German ones, and the African-American ones. I’m not a historian, so I have no data to back this up, but I can’t imagine that the African-American owners didn’t get the worst deal. This was pre-Civil War.
As the video explains, landowner Andrew Williams (pictured above) bought a plot for $120 and valued it later at $4,000 when the city announced its plan. The city offered $2,335, and he tried to negotiate at $3,500. It sold for $2,335.
Apparently undaunted, Williams bought land in Newtown (in present-day Queens) and continued life there. The video describes his patriarchy of a full family tree right down to this day.
Independence Day 2020 and Seneca Village
The landowners and other residents of Seneca Village were free.
Eminent domain affected everyone, yes.
But this particular deployment of it erased an entire community, an entire small town. Granted, this type of event isn’t unique to the African-American community. After all, where are the Lenape Indians who once inhabited “Mannahatta” until the Dutch sailed in? And among whites: one of my best friends grew up in Hobart, Tasmania, his father working for a mining town that is nowhere on a map. The company that owned the town went broke.
The property comprising Seneca Village was essentially taken. Bought at prices considerably below market value. (That’s the great thing about eminent domain, which is particularly effective in poor communities.)
John Locke wrote that governments were instituted to secure our rights to, “life, liberty, and property.” Thomas Jefferson changed “property” to “happiness.”
If one already owns property, and it’s not likely to be taken, happiness is quite a nice accessory.