A LOST MIDDLE CLASS VILLAGE EMERGES FROM UNDER CENTRAL PARK

By Harriet Flehinger

Seneca Village was an African American and Irish community firmly established in the area from the 1820’s until the 1850’s when it was taken by eminent domain and the residents evicted to make room for the development of Central Park.

The Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, in conjunction with students from 5 NYC colleges, has spent three months digging at the site and learning about the people who occupied the early 19th Century settlement.

At an open house (not quite literally) hosted Wednesday at the archeological dig in Central Park near 85th Street and Central Park West, researchers discussed the rights of eminent domain and rediscovering lost history.

At the time of the development of Central Park, this site was noted in the records as a “shantytown” occupied by vagrants. The dig, along with other historic documents, has uncovered a middle class village of over 260 people, a thriving community with a school and three churches. Records indicate that two churches were black and one was integrated.

Remains of animal bones excavated indicate that cattle and sheep predominated in this area.   These animals generally were kept by a middle class population as they required feed purchased from a granary, rather than pigs, which were kept by the lowers classes as they lived off food scraps.   In this way, the students working this summer have begun to piece together a clearer picture of a previously forgotten population.

Shards of pottery found at the site indicate a middle class community which utilized Chinese Export pottery and Blue Willow pottery (England) as well has several traceable and well-known American pottery works.

Comparisons of language unearthed by The Institute illustrate the similarity between the reasons and rationalizations for evicting Seneca Village in 1850  and the language used in the 21st Century battles for Atlantic Yards.

However, The Institute has been careful not to take a position on eminent domain, pointing out the displacement of 260 people provided for Central Park, which serves millions of visitors of all economic classes and ethnicities.

The dig is finished for the summer and all excavations have been filled in.

The Institute hopes to continue its dig in future years and will continue to analyze and categorize the items found. It also plans to propose a plaque honoring these long-forgotten residents.

Photos by Harriet Flehinger.