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 hear Diana Wall talk about her work on Skylines, the CityMetric podcast. And you can find out more about the Seneca Village Project here

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What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.