Rediscovering Seneca Village

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Central Park is an iconic landmark in New York City, but it displaced some of the first African-American property owners


  • Image via wikicommons">

    A map of Seneca Village fomerly located in today’s Central Park in Manhattan. Image via wikicommons

If you go

WHAT: Black History Month: Seneca Village

WHERE: 81st Street and Central Park West in Central Park

WHEN: 1:00 p.m.–2:30 p.m., February 17

As part of Black History Month celebrations, Urban Park Tours is offering a free tour on Saturday, Feb. 17 of the historic site of Seneca Village. The community was predominately made up of freed African-American property owners in the early 19th century. The city claimed the area via eminent domain to allow the creation of Central Park in 1857. The village was located between 82nd and 89th Streets between what was then Seventh and Eighth Avenues. During that time in New York history, most of the population lived below 14th Street, so the area above 59th Street was sparsely populated.

On Saturday, February 17, on West 81st St. at Central Park, visitors will be guided through the location and history of the village, viewing artifacts and letters that were recovered from residents during the eminent domain process.

Jill Anne Lim, an urban park ranger who will guide the tour, says that Seneca Village is an important part of Manhattan history.

“Of about 1700 people who were residing on the property in Central Park, Seneca Village had 300 residents and they were really a community,” Lim says. “They had three churches, a school and several cemeteries, so more than just people residing on the property, they were an entire community of people.”

Although Seneca Village was notable for its population of African-American property owners, immigrants from Europe moved in as well.

“There were also German and Irish immigrants living there and one of the churches was integrated, which makes it unique,” Lim says. “Life was not as nice in lower Manhattan where most people were living, so living further out of the city where there [weren’t] as many people provided them with their own community.

“They were more accepted, they had their own property and weren’t being harassed on a day-to-day basis.”

The land that became Seneca Village was originally owned by a white couple, John and Elizabeth Whitehead. They parceled out the land and sold it, says Lim.

The last African-American slaves in New York were freed in 1827 and were able to purchase property in the state.

“In 1825, two residents and a board of trustees from one of the churches bought property from the Whiteheads,” Lim says. “The freed African-American slaves gained the right to vote by owning property, if their property was valued at least $250.”

In 1853, there was a public post regarding taking of public land by use of eminent domain, which the city of New York based on market value.

“Some residents argued and wrote letters saying their property was worth more. We have some of those letters where they respectively wrote asking their property be valued higher,” Lim says. “There were a couple of years fighting over it, but by 1856 most residents were moved, and construction started in 1857.”

Not much is known about what happened to the displaced residents, or if they have any living descendants. It was believed that none of the residents formed a new community, but instead left for different places.

“There’s always a call to find where the Seneca Village residents ended up, and there’s not a lot of information available to find out where people dispersed to,” Lim says. “Some of the names of people we have from letters or trustees in the church, we don’t know where they ended up living.”

However, one landmark survived the move. “One of the churches was dismantled and rebuilt elsewhere,” says Lim. “I’m going to be showing people a photo of the church.”

Archaeological digs have been done on the site, and the most recent in 2011 uncovered significant discoveries. Archaeologists found over 250 bags of artifacts, including a bone handle of a toothbrush and leather of a child’s shoe.

“Some time has passed since they’ve been able to get in,” says Lim, citing “challenges with being able to do digs in the public parks.”

“You have to work with New York City Parks and keep it safe for people using the parks during the day or at night.”

For the tour, Lim says she has “access to information past rangers have collected, from the historical society, the archives, and [a] Columbia University archaeological dig.”

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