New York destroyed a village full of African-American landowners to create Central Park

Image: Seneca Village Project; Google Earth.

In the mid 19th century, New York City decided it needed a park. The city was growing fast, and everyone was conscious that this was one metric on which its rivals in Europe had the upper hand. In 1845, the editor of the New York Evening Post wrote a special Independence Day editorial, enviously praising Britain’s acres of parks, noting: "These parks have been called the lungs of London."

Beyond Brit-envy, there was also the problem of the changing downtown area. Once the spot where fashionable ladies perambulated, it was becoming crowded with a new immigrant population, as well as noise and the smoke produced by industry. According to the Louise Chipley Slavicek, author of New York’s Central Park, the pro-park lobby were largely “affluent merchants, bankers and landowners”, who wanted a “fashionable and safe public place where they and their families could mingle and promenade”. 

And so in 1851, Ambrose Kingsland, the city’s mayor, agreed to create one. By 1854, the city had chosen generous chunk of land in the centre of the island between what is now 59th and 106th streets, and construction on the park began. (It was later extended four blocks further north). The park is still there today, and everyone loves it: despite centuries of urban development, the park has remained an anchoring chunk of green space among the ever-denser Manhattan streets.

But there’s another side to the story. By the time the decision to create a park was made, there wasn’t enough empty space left in Manhattan. So the city chose a stretch of land where the largest settlement was Seneca Village, population 264, and seized the land under the law of eminent domain, through which the government can take private land for public purposes. Residents protested to the courts many times, against both the order and the level of compensation being offered for their land; eventually, though, all were forced to leave.

Two thirds of the population was black; the rest Irish. There were three churches and a school. And 50 per cent of the heads of households owned the land they lived on, a fact conveniently ignored by the media of the time, who described the population as “squatters” and the settlement as “n***er village”.

If you visited the park during its first 150 years of existence, you’d have no idea this village ever existed. It was only in 2001 that a small group called the Seneca Village Project pressured the city to install a small plaque; it describes the village as a “unique community”, which may well have been “Manhattan’s first prominent community of African American property owners”.

Since then the group, formed in the late nineties by a group of archaeologists and historians, has gone much further in bringing the village back into the cultural consciousness. In 2011, it managed to get permission to carry out an archaeological dig in Central Park, in order to find out more about the village and its residents.

Anthropologist Diana Wall was a founding member of the project. She told me that the excavation helped solidify information about the settlement, which even she herself had thought might be an “urban myth” when she first heard about it:

What I really like about historical archaeology is that you end up talking about families who have names; you can find out about aspects of their lives.

Fragments of crockery found during the Seneca Village dig. Image: the Media Center for Art History, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University.

In fact, there’s actually quite a lot recorded about Seneca Viillage: the simple fact that many of the residents owned their land meant that the settlement generated a lot of paperwork. In future, Wall and her colleagues hope to make a film and book about the settlement and its residents. Every few years, the project gets a grant, usually from the National Science Foundation, which moves it a little closer to these goals.

So why does the demolition of a tiny village, razed in the 19th century to create a park that’s since been enjoyed by millions, matter? Wall places it in a much wider narrative, in which African Americans’ role in the nation's early public life has been erased: “There’s been a denial that there were African Americans in New York City," she says. In 1991, a slave burial ground was discovered during excavations to build a new office block north of City Hall – a reminder that nearly a quarter of the city’s population was black by the time of the American Revolution.

A 19th century map of part of the settlement, marked with names of some residents.

Then there’s the question of what might have been. At the end of the Central Park plaque, there’s an apparently innocuous line, noting: “The residents and institutions of Seneca village did not re-establish their long-standing community in another location”.

For Wall, this is key to the tragedy of Seneca Village. In an article on African-American communities in New York, she explains that, in the years after the 1827 slave emancipation, the safest way to live as an African American was in a separate, “enclave” community. As the village was destroyed, so was this safe haven for what she believes based on census records was a “black middle class”. She tells me now:

Many of the residents stayed relatively local to New York [after the village was demolished], but what they did not do was stay together. And that’s what’s so tragic: it was a community, and then the community was gone.

Another key part of the Seneca Village Project is an attempt to trace the genealogies of those who lived there, and find any living descendents. So far, unfortunately, this has been unsuccessful.

The continuance of a community made up of African-American landowners, bang in the middle of Manhattan, could have made for a very different New York – or even a very different United States – today. It’s a reminder that seemingly small decisions, like uprooting a certain community, or bulldozing a council estate, can change a city for good. You have to wonder whether all the mingling and promenading was worth it.

You can find out more about the Seneca Village Project here

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Literally just 27 city metro stations with really cool names

Pueurta del Sol square, Madrid. Image: Santiago Díaz/Wikimedia Commons.

Sol, Madrid Metro

Literally “sun”. Named after the Pueurta del Sol square. For several years it was known as “Vodafone Sol”, which was rather less attractive. 

Étangs Noirs/Zwarte Vijvers, Brussels Metro

“Black ponds”. This being Brussels, we get it in two languages.

Besses o’the Barn, Manchester Metrolink

Named for the area of Bury, north of Manchester, in which it stands. No one’s entirely sure why it’s called that but it might be to do with a pub.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Paris Metro

The Paris metro is a particularly great one for names. This one opened as Rond-Point des Champs-Élysées – literally, “roundabout of the Elysian Fields”, which is lovely enough in itself, really.

But its name was changed in 1946, when the nearby Avenue Victor-Emmanuel III (named after the king of Italy, which had just fought against France in World War II) was renamed Franklin D. Roosevelt Avenue (in honour of the US president who helped win the thing).

Délices, Lausanne

Named for a neighbouring street. Means “delights”. The Swiss have a station called “Delights”.

Clot, Barcelone Metro

The name means hole/cove/hollow. Basically, it’s a hole in the ground. Called Clot.

Onkel Toms Hütte, Berlin U-Bahn

You’re thinking this can’t possibly be what it looks like, but, yes, it genuinely is. It translates as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, like the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel about slavery.

Image: DXR/Wikimedia Commons. 

The area seems to have taken its name from a pub run by a bloke called Thomas, whose beer garden was full of huts. There’s no pub there now, anyway, but the name remains.

Bonne Nouvelle, Paris Metro

This one’s named for the district above it, which took its name from the Notre-Dame de Bonne-Nouvelle church. Which is all very sensible – but it does mean there are on-board announcements which literally translate as, “The next stop is good news.”


Admiralty, Hong Kong MRT

Takes its name from the area which once housed Admiralty Dock. While looking it up we also found...

Адмиралте́йская, St Petersburg Metro

...and decided it sounds so much better in Russian, where it’s “Admiralteyskaya”. Say it out loud. Pleasing, isn’t it?

While we’re at it:

Комендантский проспект, St Petersburg Metro

This one means “Commandant Avenue.” But that doesn’t sound as cool as “Kommandansky Prospekt”.

Keeping with the Russian theme:

Stalingrad, Paris metro

Located in the Place de la Bataille-de-Stalingrad, which was named for the battle.

Brockley Whins, Tyne & Wear Metro

Named for the area it’s in, though where that got its name is anyone’s guess.

Dudley Street Guns Village, Midlands Metro

Named after a street in West Bromwich, and the neighbourhood it’s a part of. That in turn took its name from the area’s once dominant industry.

The local Guns Village Prime School is currently debating a name change on the grounds that guns are bad.

Image: Clicsouris/Wikimedia Commons.

Les Gobelins, Paris Metro

Avenue des Gobelins disappointingly takes its name from a family of medieval dye manufacturers, rather than some actual goblins. But still.

Crossmyloof, Glasgow commuter rail

This one’s technically a mainline station, not a metro, but nonetheless: what a name. It might come from the Gaelic Crois MoLiubha – “Saint (Ma)lieu’s Cross”. Then again, it might not.

In October 2012, Wikipedia tells us, “a highland cow escaped the nearby Pollok Park and walked the rail line to this station, where it was captured and returned”. Wikipedia has one of those “citation needed” notes there, but it’s kept the line in anyway. And little wonder: this is one of those stories that’s just too good to check.

One stop further out of Glasgow on the same line you’ll find:

Pollokshaws West, Glasgow commuter rail

Pollokshaws. Another one that it’s genuinely worth saying out loud, just to hear yourself.

The city’s subway also has a Cowcaddens and a Cessnock, both named for the districts they sit in.

I seriously need to visit Glasgow sometime, that place sounds amazing.

Barbès – Rochechouart, Paris Metro

“A sneeze of a station,” says one correspondent. “Makes you sound like the sausages dog from That’s Life,” says another.

Anyway, it’s named for two streets, which take their names from a revolutionary and an abbess respectively. There’s a rom-com for you right there.

Foggy Bottom-GWU, Washington Metro

Named for a low-lying suburb next to the Potomac River prone to filling up with mist, and also George Washington University. Anyway, it’s where you get off the train if you want to visit the State Department.

Wedding, Berlin U-bahn & S-bahn

During the Cold War, some of the lines this station sits on were closed, to prevent travel between East and West Berlin. They re-opened in 2002, in an event known – inevitably – as “Wedding Day”.

It’s actually pronounced “veding”, but there we are.

The winning bike. Image: David Edgar/Wikimedia Commons.

Eddy Merckx, Brussels Metro

Okay, the name’s hard to pronounce, but the guy won the Tour de France five times. How many cycling tournaments have you won recently?

Luchtbal, Antwerp commuter rail

Means “air ball”. Of course it does.

Burpengary, Brisbane commuter rail network

A suburb whose name is derived from the aboriginal word “burpengar”, meaning the “place of the green wattle”. But which, joyously, has both “burp” and “Gary” in it.

Kunst-Wet/Arts-Loi, Brussels metro

Sitting at the corner of Art and Law streets, the station takes its name from both, and the result is, well, yes.

Picpus, Paris Metro

“Picpus on the Paris metro is adorable,” writes Tom Forth, “and sounds like a type of Pokémon.” Yes. Yes, it does.

It’s not, though. Nearby there’s a Picpus Cemetary.

Thanks to the readers of the CityMetric Twitter feed for doing all the hard work on this one. If you have suggestions for ones we’ve missed, get in touch.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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