The construction of Central Park first began in 1858, but before that, the area between West 82nd to West 89th Street was home to a once prosperous community known as Seneca Village.
Consisting of primarily African Americans (two-thirds of the total population), Seneca Village had around 255 residents by 1855, according to Central Park Conservancy. The village allowed tenants to escape some of the racial discrimination and poorer conditions in the more populated areas of Manhattan.
It all started with John and Elizabeth Whitehead, landowners who divided up their property and sold it as separate lots. 25-year-old African American shoeshiner Andrew Williams purchased the first three plots from the Whiteheads for $125. Then, a store clerk by the name of Epiphany Davis bought 12 of the lots for $578.
As more citizens purchased lots, Seneca Village was eventually established. Half of the lot purchases were from African Americans.
Some evidence indicates the residents had raised livestock and cultivated gardens.
By early 1830s, 10 homes were established in the community. In 20 years time, Seneca Village had 50 homes. This was in addition to three churches, schools and burial grounds.
“For African-Americans, Seneca Village offered the opportunity to live in an autonomous community far from the densely populated downtown,” writes Central Park Conservancy. Even though slavery had been abolished in 1827, racial discrimination was still very prevalent in society. “Seneca Village’s remote location likely provided a refuge from this climate.”
Seneca Village provided more accessibility for African Americans to own property in NYC. And at that time in history, property ownership was a prerequisite for the right to vote. A NYC law was put in place requiring an African American man must own a minimum of $250 of property, plus they had to have residency for at least three years. 10% of Black New Yorkers who were eligible to vote under such a ruling in 1845 were residents of Seneca Village.
It wasn’t until the early 1850s that Seneca Village became threatened due to talk of construction of a large municipal park.
Just a few years later, 775 acres of land (between 59th to 106th Streets and Fifth and Eighth Avenues in Manhattan) were allocated for the nation’s first major landscaped park that would be open to the public.
The city was able to come into the land due to eminent domain, a law granting the right for government to seize private property with compensation to the landowner.
This displaced more than 1,500 residents who lived around the allotted area, pushing out all residents by 1857. “Although landowners were compensated, many argued that their land was undervalued,” shared Central Park Conservancy.
Seneca Village was only around for about three decades, yet archaeological digs led by Columbia University and The City University of New York in 2011 uncovered artifacts noting the thriving community that once was.
You can do a deeper dive into the history of Seneca Village on the Central Park Conservancy’s website here.