Central Park, in the form we know it today, is just over a century and a half old. The New York State Legislature set aside land for a “public place” on July 21, 1853, but the pre-Park land has a rich and complex history that goes back far earlier. In the heart of Manhattan, from 59th Street to 110th Street between Fifth Avenue and Central Park West, this area contains centuries of stories centered around topography, events, and social issues, and was a place many people lived, worked, and fought.
Park visitors can still see some of this history today, but many of these stories are buried with time and some landmarks have completely disappeared. Until recently, forgotten historic events remained hidden within the crumbling and faded pages of little-known archives. I'm exploring how these stories unfolded over the span of more than 200 years in my upcoming book, Before Central Park, to be published in 2021. This seemingly random slice of Manhattan—what we now know as Central Park—is unique in both its terrain and history. Here are a few of its stories.
Gateway to Harlem
For centuries, if not millennia, Native Americans forged a trail in the pre-Park area that in part wound its way through the north end of today’s Central Park from about 92nd Street to 110th Street. Following the rocky and hilly surface of Manhattan—a Native-American word for “island of hills”—the trail broke through a gap in a wall of rock outcrops. This area was named McGowan’s Pass in the mid-18th century after a neighboring family. Today the Pass is approximately aligned with East 107th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem.
Harlem’s terrain north of 106th Street was as flat as a board—called “Muscoota” or “flatlands” by the local native tribes. Looming above these lowlands was a steep wall of rock outcrops that still run across Central Park at 106th Street, from the eastern Harlem Meer through to the western Great Hill. These promontories surrounded a public highway that took the place of the trail that already existed. This thoroughfare was first known as the (English) Kingsbridge Road and later called the (American) Post Road.
This area was a logical site for military outposts because the distant views gave elevated troops the advantage of being able to see the approaching enemy. Both the British army in the Revolutionary War and the American army in the War of 1812 erected forts in this landscape. The Blockhouse, nestled above 109th Street, in today’s North Woods, is the only remaining military structure in the Park from this time.
The area’s function as a major transportation hub—the confluence of this major thoroughfare, the old road to the village of Harlem, and a wide waterway to the East River—caused 17th-century Dutch and 18th-century English colonists to create nearby farms and roadside taverns. The Central Park North border of the Park is now known as the “Gateway to Harlem,” but at that time, the land north of 86th Street was almost entirely encompassed within the jurisdiction of Harlem, an incorporated town separate from the City of New York. Harlem was first populated and owned by a series of old Dutch families, followed by both local and immigrant families through the 19th century. In the 1860s, the Post Road was removed from the Park.
Early European settlers
Early settlement in the pre-Park and environs began in 1637 when the Walloon/Huguenot family from today’s Belgium and France arrived to create a tobacco farm just north of 110th Street. They probably had a dwelling and farm buildings on today’s Mount, the Park’s composting operation.
A few more Dutch families arrived by the 18th century, but most of the pre-Park land below 96th Street was unoccupied because the Dutch government considered it “waste” and “unproductive.” The Dutch government instead gave the land to both the City of New York and Harlem landowners. Today this land encompasses most of Central Park on the east side and mid-Park: the Reservoir, Great Lawn, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Ramble, the Lake, the Mall, Bethesda Terrace, East Green, Conservatory Water, Cedar Hill, the Dene, and Rumsey Playfield.
From the 17th century, the strip of west side land—from what would have been Seventh to Eighth Avenue—was first owned by Dutch investors and continuously bought and sold by private citizens until the City finally purchased the land for Central Park. It remained sparsely populated until the 19th century. Within this stretch of land, the most populated area, beginning in 1825, was the well-known Seneca Village, the largest property-owning African-American community in New York City (and possibly in urban America at the time). It was home to a school, three churches, and burial grounds.
Archival research for Seneca Village—as it is for the rest of the pre-Park—is often maddening. Data and records conflict. At this point, we can accurately say that the Village continued to be the most populated area of the pre-Park from the 1830s though 1855—with one other exception soon discussed—though many who owned the land in Seneca Village lived downtown, renting out their lots instead. Some of these landowners were members of the African-American elite, which can be further researched in the 2011 book Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City by Seneca Village descendant, Carla L. Peterson.
For many of those African-American landowners, their property qualified them for suffrage rights. In 1821, the New York State Constitutional Convention restricted voting to every “man of colour,” 21 years or older, who had lived in New York State for three years and for the year preceding any election and owned land valued at $250 (equaled to approximately four years of annual wages for an unskilled laborer). Initially many of the landowners’ lots in Seneca Village were not deemed high enough in value to qualify. As land values rose in Manhattan—and they did quite quickly—Seneca Village landowners gained a voice in the political process. The restrictions would hold, despite years of protest, until the end of the Civil War.
The rule of eminent domain
The City took the land for the Park through eminent domain—detailed in Article V of the United States Constitution—which stipulated that pre-Park landowners were to be paid “just compensation” or the market value of the land in return for the government’s claim of private land for public purpose. My research will attempt to answer whether the market value for pre-Park land was justly or equitably compensated.
Many people are under the false impression that the coming of Central Park was the largest dislodgment of residents in New York City. But Manhattan’s rectilinear grid—created in 1811 from Houston Street to 155th Street—displaced many more families than had ever lived in the pre-Park. The Croton Reservoir system that stretched from the Croton River in Westchester 40 miles south to the reservoir on 42nd Street—the site of today’s New York Public Library and Bryant Park—may have displaced far more residents and farms than either of the other two projects. Eminent domain is still in place today for New York City’s vast Upstate watershed, and landowners are compensated financially for their land.
At the turn of the 19th century, the pre-Park land was still far from the density of the City, but farms began to spring up throughout the entire area. After the end of a financial depression in the mid-1840s, land values rose everywhere in Manhattan, just as the largest wave of Irish and German immigrants were moving into American cities.
One unique Irish community moved to the site of the former farm and home of the Walloon/de Montagne family. The land later housed a 17th-century Dutch tavern. In 1848, the Sisters of Charity of Mount St. Vincent bought the land for a convent and a school. The nuns, students, and their staff made up the other most populated area after Seneca Village. Sisters stayed in the pre-Park until 1859 when they moved to their present home in the Bronx, now the Academy of Mount St. Vincent, a coeducational college.
Many immigrants settled in hovels and crowded tenements downtown, but those who wanted more space settled throughout Manhattan on undesirable terrain. In the pre-Park, many first- or second-generation immigrant families rented or squatted onto the owned-but-unoccupied swampy and rocky parts of the “waste” land—today’s Pond, Hallett Nature Sanctuary, the Zoo, and along the 65th Street Transverse Road. Many of the residents had piggeries, or what the City called “nuisance industries,” that were environmentally damaging or unhealthy to its residents. There were also two bone-boiling factories in the Park, one on the site of Tavern on the Green and the other near Hernshead, a peninsula jutting into the Lake at West 75th Street. Many German immigrants settled in the north end of the Park on today’s North and East Meadows.
When the City bought the property for Central Park, it was this segment of the pre-Park population that also suffered. The City primarily compensated the landowners—not the mainly Irish and German squatters or lessees, who were also targets of virulent anti-immigrant laws and nativist sentiments. The homes of the poorest residents were not even depicted on contemporary maps or counted in contemporary documents. Therefore, we can never have a true count of how many people resided in the pre-Park—they have been forgotten and erased from history. To date, historians estimate approximately 1,600 people lived on the land that became Central Park.
To be continued
My ongoing research for Before Central Park will hopefully determine the compensation for landowners as well as other relevant financial and demographic information. And I will continue to discover—for it is the joy of detective work that keeps me going—the stories of many unknown or little-known fascinating New Yorkers, who led heroic and often complicated lives. With few exceptions, they were formerly just names that appeared on lists, otherwise forgotten, marginalized and lost to the Park’s history. As valuable, new additions, they will soon join the already recognized people, stories, and events that we have come to cherish in Central Park’s extraordinary history.
Sara Cedar Miller is the Conservancy’s historian emerita.