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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Patently obvious: Which European cities are the most inventive?

Regensburg, Germany – Pretty, inventive, and pretty inventive. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data to crunch some of the numbers on Europe’s cities.

Europe is quite a nice place. Though Nigel Farage, the Conservative Party, and anyone who’s noticed that the second syllable of Remain sounds a bit like moan will tell you otherwise, there’s some pretty nice stuff there.

The continent is host to three of the world’s richest countries in absolute terms – France, Germany, and Italy. And if you look at the top twenty countries in terms of national wealth per person – aka GDP per capita – then Europe fills more than half the spots, with twelve entries from Luxembourg in pole position to Belgium in 20th place.  Poland was one of the fastest-growing countries in the world last year. Good for you, Poland.

Croissants are tasty, Belgian beer is part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (apparently), and obscenely beautiful cathedrals are dotted around all over the place. In the extremely dubious language of good old-fashioned colonialism, Europe is the Old World – cultural crucible of the planet, Michelangelo, 1066 and all that.

But you probably don't think of Europe as the great 21st century hive of ingenuity, invention, and world-leading technology. Your mind might instead wander to the sprawling Californian campuses of Facebook and Google; the crammed and jostling skyscraper-shrunken streets of Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Shanghai; the ghostly-white-walled robot laboratories of Japan.

While you’re not wrong on that, you’re not necessarily right either – and looking at the numbers of patent applications to the European Patent Office will tell you that Europe remains a hub of inventive activity.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, is really really really inventive.

Eindhoven in Bavaria wait no that's a café the Netherlands. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The data comes rom 2011, when there were roughly 250 patent applications per 100,000 people. That might not sound like a lot, so imagine that number differently. If you were at a very hypothetically statistically perfect school in Eindhoven with 1,000 people (discounting obvious contributory factors like post-education migration), there would be at least two people with EPO patents. Or perhaps just one very inventive person. Either way – think back to your real secondary school. How many patents have its alumni been granted? Yeah. Didn’t think so.

Eindhoven is so far out of the other cities’ league that it’s actually worth discounting it from the data to make the other figures easier to see.

Regensburg, a city with a similar population to Oxford just down the road from Nuremburg in Germany’s Bavaria, comes in second, with 83.8 applications per 100,000 people. Aachen, up near Germany’s northwestern border with the Netherlands and Belgium, follows close behind, and the prestigious university town of Heidelberg – just south of Frankfurt – narrowly takes fourth place.

This is mostly an excuse for pictures of pretty cities like Aachen. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Grenoble is the first non-Germanic entrant. The city in France’s south-east clocks 80 applications per 100,000, before the Germanic cities storm back in with Darmstadt, Zurich, and Basel in quick succession.

Grenoble, land of flying globules and mountains. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

To take a generalisation further, what’s extraordinary is that of the top 20 of these most inventive cities, only four are in countries or areas that do not speak a Germanic language. For our purposes here, I’m excluding the UK (and the English language) from that definition; Grenoble, Cambridge, Lausanne, and St Quentin en Yvelines are the only cities in the top 20 that aren’t in German, Dutch, or Swedish-speaking places.

And if you do include English as a Germanic language – which you probably should – then you’re down to Lausanne and St Quentin en Yvelines as lonely French outposts in the Germanic land of invention. Nobody wants to veer into linguistic-group stereotyping, but there’s something very Vorsprung Durch Technik going on here.

Get rid of all the Germanic-language-speaking nations included in the data (by my count: Great Britain, Germany, Germanic Switzerland, Flemish Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands) and it’s a very different picture.

France entirely dominates, taking up the first 12 entries prior to a guest appearance from Parma in Italy. Geneva slips in behind, and the Italians romp through with Bologna, Modena, and Ferrara all in the non-Germanic top ten. Weird, huh?

And for the cruel-spirited amongst you, the least inventive cities included in the data were Almería and Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain, Taranto, Reggio di Calabria, and Palermo in southern Italy, and Czestochowa in southern Poland. Pesky southerners.

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