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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Free public transport won’t work – unless we get rid of the drivers

Gissa lift mate. Image: Fraser Elliott/creative commons.

The idea of free public transport has clear appeal. Cities in France; and Germany; are already considering such proposals, to reduce traffic and air pollution. And in the UK, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that he would introduce free bus travel for under-25s, to complement the passes already available to senior citizens.

But the evidence suggests that offering free public transport causes headaches for local authorities – and may not be an effective way of getting commuters to stop driving cars. Tallinn, capital of Estonia, introduced free public transport for residents in 2013. But a 2014 survey showed that most of the people who switched to public transport had previously walked or cycled, rather than driven. A further survey in 2017 showed that patronage had increased by only 20 per cent over four years.

The April 2018 edition of German trade publication Stadtverkehr claims that the only cost effective way to get car drivers to switch to public transport is to couple reasonably priced transit with severe traffic restraints. For example, in the English city of Sheffield, attractive bus fares and timetables used to keep cars out of the city centre. From the 1970s, until the service was deregulated in 1986, there was simply no need for residents to drive into Sheffield.

Finding the funds

The biggest drawback to free public transport schemes is the lack of funds from fares to cover maintenance and upgrades. In Tallinn, for example, the city’s inadequate tram system will eventually require capital for a complete renewal – or face closure. Hasselt, a Belgian town with a population of 70,000, offered free bus travel for 16 years until 2013, but eventually scrapped it when costs became unsustainable.

Paris, meanwhile, has already banned the most polluting vehicles and offered free public transport for a few days each year when pollution has reached dangerous levels due to atmospheric conditions. But according to an article in the June 2018 edition of Today’s Railways EU, traffic is rarely reduced more than 10 per cent on these days, and the long term shift to other forms of transport is minimal.

In the UK, free bus travel for senior citizens has hastened the demise of many rural and intercity services. Many local authorities have diverted support away from rural, evening and weekend services, to the concessionary fares budget. During interviews with BBC Radio 4, younger people – who rely on buses to get to work or go out on the evenings and weekends – complained that services had been axed to offer senior citizens free travel during daytime on weekdays.

But irrespective of your age, health or prosperity, there is no point in having a free bus pass if there are no buses to use it on. As bus services are further deregulated in the UK, there will continue to be pointless oversupply on some corridors, while other areas struggle to see more than a few buses per week – if any at all.


Driverless minibuses

The development of autonomous electric minibuses could be a game changer, especially if a manufacturer is prepared to lease them on favourable terms. Local authorities could pilot a scheme whereby the bus is “hailed” by smart phone 15 to 30 minutes before departure. Indeed, tests for autonomous on-demand services are already underway in cities across the US, UK; and Europe;.

Once the expensive and restrictive labour element is removed from the operating costs, there is no reason why such services could not be offered free of charge to all users. In the urban core – within a 10km radius of a city centre – these services could run 24/7. Further afield, in the suburbs, a daily service from 6am until midnight would probably be sufficient to compete with the private car.

Autonomous minibuses could automatically connect with city buses and trains, which would continue to be staffed and paid for by fares. The minibuses would provide a “last mile” service, taking people within easy walking distance of their destination. In urban areas, all residential and business premises would be within 200m of a minibus stop, extending to 500m in suburban areas and 1km in rural areas.

At off peak times, the minibuses could replace some conventional bus services to avoid the inefficiencies created when a 70 passenger bus is used to transport only ten people on an evening or Sunday service.

To prevent abuse of the minibuses, passengers would scan their phones on boarding to confirm the booking. If they didn’t, a penalty could be collected automatically from their phone. CCTV could identify any disruptive passengers and refuse further bookings. Meanwhile, taxis would continue to prosper from those people willing to pay for a personal door-to-door service.

Public transit systems, as we know them today, would struggle to deliver a sustainable free service. But there’s a real possibility that the autonomous vehicles of tomorrow could do just that.

John Disney, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University.

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