Seneca Village

Sunday, February 24th, 2008 | All Things, NYC History

On a walking tour organized by the Central Park Conservancy this clear and chilly Sunday afternoon.

Our group of about a dozen met a pair of guides inside the Park at the Mariner’s Gate entrance at 85th Street. From there, we set off to tour the lands that once made up Seneca Village, Manhattan’s first known community of African American property owners. The village, founded in 1825, once occupied the land between what is now the Great Lawn to Central Park West and from 82nd to 89th Streets — an area of about five acres. Within a few years, the community developed into a stable settlement of over 250 working-class residents, with its own churches, school and cemetery. African Americans owned more than half the households in the village — an unusually high percentage of property ownership for any New York community. By the 1840s, Irish and German immigrants, and perhaps Native Americans, owned several land plots as well; in total, during its over three decades in existence, approximately 1,600 people owned property, lived and/or worked in Seneca Village.

Up the trail to Summit Rock — at 141.8 feet, the highest elevation in Central Park (but not the highest point in Manhattan.)

Summit Rock

The guides explained the challenges of this particular park tour, as nothing of note remains of the original community, save for the trickling remnants of an abundant natural spring near 82nd Street which would have served as the village’s main source of fresh drinking water. Instead, we were given photocopies of historic maps, and shown artists’ renderings of the structures that would have existed in the mid-19th century. This view overlooks what would have been the heart of Seneca Village.

Seneca Village

In 1855, the New York State Census reported approximately 264 residents in the semi-rural village, at a time when most of the city’s immigrant population was concentrated in slums below 14th Street. Two years later, after the state legislature authorized the use of eminent domain to publicly acquire private land for the purpose of creating Central Park, the entire village was razed without a trace. Landowners living within the boundaries of the proposed park were compensated financially for their property, though several filed claims in New York State Supreme Court, protesting the city’s valuations of their land. Little is known of the outcome of those lawsuits, or where the hundreds of residents may have relocated. What is known is that once scattered, the community of Seneca Village was not re-established.

This spot of red is a cardinal, hidden among the trees:


Winterdale Arch at 82d Street, a pedestrian underpass and bridle path. The 1994 restoration included the award-winning recreation of the original cast-iron fencing along the top of the arch:

Winterdale Arch

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There are 2 Comments ... Seneca Village

March 13, 2008

Why am I thinking Seneca Village had something to do with women’s suffrage?

March 13, 2008

That would be the Seneca Falls Convention (1848). Get thee to the Brooklyn Museum’s new “Votes for Women” exhibition for a refresher.

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