The site of Seneca Village in Central Park resembles many other Park landscapes, with rolling hills, winding paths, trees, playgrounds, and rock outcrops. The area—between 82nd and 89th Streets and Seventh and Eighth Avenues—reveals no discernable clues that this was once a place where people lived, and that by 1856 it was a predominately African-American community with three churches, a school, and over 50 houses.
This absence of clear signs of Seneca Village’s existence has been noted by many who have studied its history, and is compounded by the lack of Black history in the physical and archival record. During a symposium in February 2020 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture focused on 19th-century Black communities in New York, the historian Leslie Harris spoke about the challenges of researching these places and how she had learned that it was important to “read the archive with informed imagination.”
As part of the ongoing study of Seneca Village, we've realized it’s also possible and valuable to read the existing landscape with informed imagination. Through this process, we can see that this place is, in fact, not totally lost. Natural features such as rocks, water, hills, and plants—many of which still exist in the Park today from the time of Seneca Village—can help us to imagine its residents’ lives as well as understand its history.
Rocks Throughout History
While rocks and hills are somewhat ubiquitous in Central Park, they are a particularly distinguishing feature of the Seneca Village site. There are many impressive outcrops in this area, including one of the largest in the Park, known as Summit Rock. It reaches 140 feet, making it the highest point in Central Park.
These rocks are remarkable because they have been around for a very long time, connecting us to not only a deeper sense of historical time but the much, much longer timescale of geologic forces. The rocks in Central Park originated around 500 million years ago, formed through volcanic activity and further shaped relatively recently (14,000 years ago) by glacial activity. They defined the land traversed and inhabited by the Lenape, who called the island Manahatta, meaning “island of many hills.” The rocks in the West 80s became prominent features in the Seneca Village landscape—even depicted on maps of the area—and part of the daily lives of its residents. It’s possible to imagine these rocks as landmarks, picnic spots, and places for children to play. Archaeological excavations have revealed the significance of these rocks in the community, uncovering the remains of buildings that showed that residents built houses on this rock and with this rock. It provided them with a foundation.
That these ancient rocks are present throughout the Park illustrates how its creation was complex. Building the Park involved a combination of destruction, construction, and preservation. In many cases, the rocks remain in Central Park because they were too difficult to remove, but the Park’s designers also endeavored to keep them. Co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted saw beauty in the rocks and value to the Park. He was concerned that New York would eventually be entirely built up, anticipating the time when the “picturesquely varied, rocky formation of the island will have been converted into foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of rectangular buildings.” As part of the vision of Central Park as an oasis of nature and landscape in the midst of the rapidly growing metropolis, the designers preserved some of Manhattan’s original rocks, hills, and streams—a natural history that was in danger of complete erasure. In the process, they inadvertently preserved some of Seneca Village.
A Remote Refuge
The landscape of Seneca Village gives us a glimpse of the island’s natural history, as well as the intentions of Park builders, and can also help us imagine the motivations and activities of the area’s residents. Historians speculate that Black New Yorkers living downtown began moving to Seneca Village in part to escape the racist climate and unhealthy conditions of Lower Manhattan. In the 1820s, when they first began settling in this area of the West 80s, the built-up part of the City ended at around Washington Square and the population was approximately 150,000. Although it’s hard to imagine now, the West 80s was far from downtown.
The area consisted of farmland, and its location and some of its features seemed to make it well-suited for the development of a small community. To the west was the Hudson River, a place for fishing and swimming. A more local and extremely vital feature was a natural spring that supplied residents with fresh water. (This is still present in the Park today, known as Tanner’s Spring, near the base of the south side of Summit Rock.) Open space was also likely a draw. Most houses in Seneca Village were small by today’s standards, but unlike the crowded conditions downtown, residents could have yards and gardens and access to the surrounding open spaces. Even though Seneca Village was remote, it wasn’t totally isolated. Other settlements were nearby, including Harsenville to the southwest and the larger Yorkville to the east, which was developing around a stop on the new railroad line and may have been a source of supplies and even employment.
The Plant Life of Seneca Village
A map shows that Seneca Village residents used some of this open space to create gardens, which was a common use of land in this area. Many contemporary commentators characterized the approximately 750 acres slated for the Park as a barren wasteland, while others mentioned gardens and orchards scattered throughout the relatively undeveloped site, with some residents in the southern part of the land growing vegetables to sell at markets downtown. The known accounts do not contain specific references to Seneca Village’s gardens, but in addition to the map, census records indicate that a few residents identified themselves as gardeners. One of them, John P. Haff, a man of German descent, was a noted horticulturalist. One map also shows a tantalizing detail: on property owned by the African Episcopal Zion Church was a small greenhouse. Although information about the gardens and greenhouse is scarce, it does appear that raising vegetables for consumption and perhaps even for sale was a significant use of land in Seneca Village.
The same map that shows the gardens also shows some trees scattered throughout the site. Although the representation of trees appears generalized, it suggests that trees and other vegetation were also present in the landscape. Analysis of pollen samples found during an archaeological excavation organized by the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History in 2011 provides some indication of the types of vegetation in the area, helping us to further envision this landscape. (Because the pollen remains were not all that well-preserved, this analysis is not definitive and often plants could only be identified to the genus level.) Researchers identified pollen from trees such as maples, chestnut, birch, hickory, oak, and beech, all common to the regional forest community. Pollen from mosses and ferns suggests the presence of a moist wetland nearby, and maps show that just to the north was a low-lying swampy area. (This area became the site of the current Reservoir in the Park.) Pollen was also identified from common weeds that are typical in human-disturbed areas, such as ragweed, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, and plants from the mustard family. (Many of these are currently in the Park.) Although the lack of specificity of these samples makes it difficult to speculate how residents used these plants, they were probably an important source of food and medicine—just as the Hudson River was a source of fish and the nearby spring a source of water.
A Vantage Point
A natural spring was located at the base of Summit Rock. Maps show that no one lived on the hill—likely because of its rocky irregularity—but it’s easy to imagine it as destination for residents, a place to survey the scene and look out for visitors. The ever-fixed vantage point provided perspective on the forces of urban growth and the daily life of the community. Looking south from Summit Rock was evidence of the City’s march northward: by the 1850s, its built-up sections reached streets in the 40s, with its population at over half a million. Looking east, one could observe the multi-year construction and then hulking presence of the receiving reservoir, a massive public works project. To the north was 86th Street, a major throughfare, which was constructed in the 1830s. It’s possible to imagine, like a time-lapse movie, the progression of signs that this refuge was becoming less and less remote. Looking out to the north and west was an expansive view of the houses, churches, and gardens, which continued to grow—until plans for the Park, itself a response to unrelenting urban growth, changed everything. Then, from this high point the scene shifted: residents moving out, a church being relocated, and ultimately the destruction of all the buildings.
After the community was gone and the Park constructed, some of this landscape remained. It’s remarkable that in one of the most intensely developed places in the world, features like Summit Rock and Tanner’s Spring still exist, the last vestiges of the over 500 hills and 300 natural springs that once defined the island’s landscape. The other villages in the area were almost completely erased by urban growth, but archaeological excavations show that the ground surface of Seneca Village is only about one foot below the surface of the Park in some places. And while the original gardens and vegetations are long gone, the Park remains a place that is focused on plants and includes some of the same species that were likely in Seneca Village—creating a connection to the past.
From Summit Rock the views of the surrounding landscape are impressive, particularly in the winter. The City still looms, with the wall of skyscrapers at the Park’s south end that continues to grow. The Hudson River is still visible, albeit now just a sliver at the end of the canyon of 83rd Street. To the north and east are still mostly open views, showing the Park with its rocks, playgrounds, and trees—where a community once lived.
In social historian Dolores Hayden’s well-known book about public history, The Power of Place, she writes about how “identity is tied to memory,” both personal and collective or social memories, and how these can be discovered and revealed in our urban landscapes and other public spaces. She writes, “Urban landscapes are storehouses for these social memories, because natural features such as hills or harbors, as well as streets, buildings and patterns of settlement, frame the lives of many people and often outlast many lifetimes.” As we continue to research the history of Seneca Village and begin to consider its permanent commemoration in the Park, analysis of the landscape shows that Seneca Village is still present, and this can help inform an approach to honoring its history and memory.
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