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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A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.