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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“The council destroyed more than the Blitz”: For the third time in a century, they're rebuilding Coventry

Coventry's Millennium Square, and the Whittle Arch. Image: mintchocicecream/Wikimedia Commons.

I was hovering gormlessly outside Coventry station, waiting for Google Maps to load, when I suddenly realised I didn't need to bother. Some kind soul had installed large and obvious signs to point out the best way to reach the city centre on foot.

More than that, they'd made the correct route all but unmissable. A wide pedestrianised path wound its way passed a half-finished new office development, across a buried ring road, and through a small park, Greyfriars Green. After that, it continued down a tree-lined avenue passed a venerable-looking parade of shops and bars. It reminded me of bits of Oxford or Cambridge. It was rather nice.

Which, if I'm honest, was a bit of a surprise. The standard narrative about Coventry goes like this: once a beautiful walled medieval town, the Nazis levelled the place in the Blitz, in an attempt to wipe out Britain's manufacturing base. What remained was finished off by the post-war planners who thought that old buildings were passé, and we'd all be much happier in concrete-themed pedestrian precincts surrounded by big roads. Coventry's reputation is as one of Britain's biggest planning blunders.

Today, though, the city is pulling out all the stops to turn that around. That route into the city that so impressed me is brand new: at the start of this decade, reaching the city centre from the station involved traversing a dingy subway under a six-lane ring road, then walking besides an under-used dual carriageway. Those trees, which now divide the pedestrian route from the road, once stood on the central reservation.

The pedestrian gateway: the far side of those trees used to be the southbound carriageway. Image: Google.

This route was originally marked by a blue line painted on the pavement. The fact that line was even necessary, says executive director of place Martin Yardley, was a mark of quite how badly the planners had failed Coventry. Now, as a sort of tribute, the gateway route is lined with blue street lights.

Shades of grey

Yardley is delighted when I tell him I'd been pleasantly surprised by the new pedestrian route: the whole point of the exercise was to change new visitors' first impression of the city, and my reaction is exactly what he'd been looking for. He's a Brummie by birth, but today he also heads the Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership, and he has an infectious enthusiasm for his adopted home town. It used to be almost unnavigable on foot he tells me. “It's a bit embarrassing, but when I first worked here, I took a suit into a dry cleaners, and then didn't pick it up for weeks. I just couldn't find the place.”

Our tour of the city lasted only an hour, but we moved so fast, and covered so much ground, that it felt much longer, so determined was he to show me all that changes his team were making to the place. Before we get to that, though, let's talk a bit more about history.

The familiar narrative is, if anything, a bit too flattering, Yardley argues. The real problem for 20th century Coventry was that the medieval city had survived too well: the centre was a maze of narrow streets, without any of the wide Victorian boulevards that could be re-purposed for the motor age in other cities.

This, in a place with such strong connections to the car industry, was thought a bit of an embarrassment. So in the 1930s, the city started demolishing chunks of itself to give it space to install some decent roads. “The council destroyed more than the Germans ever did,” Yardley tells me. The Blitz was just a convenient alibi.

At any rate, one of England's most historic cities was almost entirely levelled to be replaced with what looked like a planned new town. Trunk roads crisscrossed the centre; an enormous multi-lane ring road cut it off from the surrounding districts.

And, in a sop to the fact that human beings still had feet, the central shopping area was re-developed as the pedestrianised Precinct: a sort of outdoor shopping mall, with lower and upper levels linked by stairs and slopes. In 1960, this looked like the future. 

The Precinct in 1962. Image: Ben Brooksbank/Wikimedia Commons.

Today though, such post-modern visions seem more tightly tethered to the time they were built than older architecture ever does. Much of the Precinct still remains: that tree-lined walk from the city centre runs out somewhere on Hertford Street, when you suddenly find yourself in something that looks a lot like a multi-storey car park.

I found this part of the city familiar, even comforting, despite the fact it's objectively horrible, and it took me a minute to work out why: it looks a lot my home town Romford did during my childhood. As it turns out, medieval market towns that got trashed by the 20th century are my happy place.

Rebuilding Coventry

My reaction, though, is almost certainly a bit weird, so Yardley and his team are doing much to remake the place. And the heart of their reforms is changing the city's relationship to cars: taking space away from motor vehicles and giving it back to pedestrians.

During the 2012 Olympics, the city's Ricoh Arena played host to the football. So the council used the games as an excuse to extend the pedestrianised part of the city centre to the Broadgate area, creating a new public square. That in turn has encouraged a private property developer Guy Shearer to redevelop the neighbouring Cathedral Lanes shopping centre. As Yardley says, gesturing to an expanse of plaza no longer covered in traffic, “He spent £22m doing that, because we spent £5m doing this.”

Where this building stands there used to be a road.

Elsewhere in the city, the council has reclaimed part of an unnecessarily vast road junction, and allowed developers to build on top of it. It's buried sections of the ring road to make it easier to get in and out of the city centre (a trick it borrowed from Birmingham). It's replaced access roads with pedestrian boulevards, to make the route from the student quarter to the city centre more walkable.

Part of Coventry University. This used to be a road, too.

The biggest change, though, is that it's simply narrowed the roads. At one point, Yardley stops outside an old cinema, now occupied by Coventry University. “The pavement used to come out as far as that canopy,” he tells me – a width of just a few feet. Now it's nearly three that. The forbidding dual carriageway has been replaced by a single lane road. Wherever possible, within the inner ring road, pavements have been made wider than roads, and all traffic is restricted to a 20 mile per hour speed limit.

The line down the middle of this photograph marks the boundary of the old pavement.

There's one more change the city has made to its roads: it's removed most of its pedestrian crossings. Particular crossing points are suggested by changes in the texture of the road surface, and marked with boulders – but there are no lights to force traffic to stop. There are no traffic lights either: to pass a junction now, drivers simply have to move slowly and wait their turn.

This, Yardley admits, has been by far the most controversial part of his programme. Some locals expected carnage, and the local media all but admitted that the first accident on the new roads would make the front page. “One taxi driver told me he hated it - 'because now when I approach a junction I'll need to think'.” (Not quite as strong an argument as the driver clearly thought.)

A new style pedestrian crossing. 

So far, though, everything's gone well: people simply driver more slowly. (One proper zebra crossing remains, on the request of the University of Coventry.)

Two big developments are still underway. The first is Friargate - that shiny new office development I noticed next to the station.  The other is City Centre South, a redevelopment of the other end of the gateway into the city.

The obvious question is - how on earth has the city funded all this? Thanks to the post-war development, and some strategic buying down the years, the council already owned much of the land in the city centre, which has helped. Close relationships with the two local universities (Coventry and Warwick, which confusingly is not in Warwick at all, but on the outskirts of Coventry) have helped, too.

The council is also rennovating buildings, in an attempt to hint at the city's medieval heritage.

But much of the money required has come from two big sources, Yardley says: Heritage Lottery Funding, and the European Union. So does Brexit throw a spanner in the works? ”I'd prefer it if we weren't leaving the EU,” Yardley admits. “But we've already done the big stuff. We don't need to do it again.”

So for the third time in a century, Coventry has comprehensively remade itself. With luck, there won't be a fourth.

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

This is the final part of a series on the West Midlands. You can read part one on the region as a whole here; part two, on Wolverhampton, here; and part three, on Birmingham, here.

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