“Seneca Village was an important community. It was 40 acres, two-thirds African American, and had a church and school,” explained Sara Zewde, ASLA, founder of Studio Zewde and assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, during a session at the ASLA 2022 Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Francisco.
The 225 residents of Seneca Village were displaced by the New York City government in the mid 1800s to make way for Central Park, which is considered one of the masterpieces of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux.
Today, the history of the community, which once existed near Tanner Spring on the west edge of the park, is being reinterpreted. Efforts are underway by the Central Park Conservancy to commemorate the community and its evicted African American landowners.
Central Park takes up more than 800 acres in the midst of Manhattan. As Zewde and others have explained through the Conversations with Olmsted series as part of Olmsted 200, Olmsted saw Central Park as a way to realize his ideals about democratic urban parks.
The park was designed to provide broad access to the healing benefits of nature. It was also meant to show what free Northern cities could accomplish through transformative public infrastructure, and how slave-owning Southern communities, with their lack of shared spaces, could evolve.
And while the decision to move Seneca Village predated Olmsted’s involvement, “how do we square this with his legacy? One has to wonder how Olmsted felt about Seneca,” Zewde said.
According to Christopher Nolan, FASLA, chief landscape architect at the Central Park Conservancy, a primarily Black community took root in Seneca Village in the early 1800s because it was not only an escape from the bustle of downtown but also next to a reservoir.
There are no remaining photos of the community, but plans and birds-eye views show a “cohesive property,” with two-story wood homes, an AME Zion Church, and other central buildings.
The community navigated an early Manhattan landscape filled with schist hills. The landscape they experienced largely remains, including Summit Rock, which is one of the dominant features in the park at 140 feet above sea level.
While planning Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux examined the geological layers and “didn’t modify the existing landscape that much,” Nolan argued, only adding roads, a reservoir, and lake. Outside of their park, Manhattan’s landscape had been flattened to make way for the relentless grid of the contemporary city.
Apparently Olmsted wasn’t overly fond of the site chosen by NYC government for the park. The long rectangle hemmed him in and “didn’t fit with his idealized landscape,” Nolan said. His goals were later perhaps better realized through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which provided more opportunities for a naturalistic landscape.
As Central Park evolved since the late 1800s, more than 20 playgrounds were added, including one at the heart of what was once Seneca Village.
A restoration management plan was created in 1995 that emphasized Olmsted’s original vision. A few years later, the New York Historical Society held the first exhibition on Seneca Village.
Since then, the Conservancy has grappled with how to process new information about Seneca Village and continue its restoration program. The goal is for these efforts to converge in a new commemoration of Seneca Village rooted in deep community engagement and a restored natural landscape.
For John T. Reddick, director of community engagement projects at the Conservancy, there are a range of nearby precedents for this commemoration work, including a memorial to Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, in Riverside Park; a memorial to Duke Ellington on Riverside Drive; and the Frederick Douglass Circle in Harlem, at the northwestern edge of Central Park.
Reddick also pointed to Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon, who was murdered outside the Dakota building along Central Park. The simple ground-level mosaic with the word “Imagine,” referring to Lennon’s song, became the center of a broader landscape restoration effort funded in part by Yoko Ono. “The landscape became Strawberry Fields. Before, it was a run-down place. It took a major effort to transform that into something special.”
In 2001, the Conservancy added a sign about Seneca Village but that was really “just the beginning of research.” Recent efforts have included inviting artists, historians, and musicians to “animate stories” of Seneca Village for the public. “They have helped us understand what life there may have been like.”
Reddick said the goal for the future is to represent the displaced community in Central Park not through a plaque or statue but an interpretation of the landscape. “We want to use the land to tell their stories.”
This mission to tell a more holistic story about the park and its history is line with “a broader definition of stewardship,” Nolan added. Olmsted was a social reformer, and this approach is part of the DNA of landscape architecture.
Learning about Seneca Village has also opened Zewde’s eyes to the possibilities of reinterpretation. “Communities and their histories aren’t erased; they are hiding in plain sight. Seneca Village is not history. We can use our narrative lens now. Through engagement, we can educate and amplify.”
“Parks are vehicles. The existence of a park doesn’t mean we have a functioning society and democracy. We have to use the space, navigate it as people.”
I remember learning that Olmsted was wise in his choice of the current location, many thought it was too remote from the heart of the city at the time. Did NYC make any preparations for the people they moved out of Seneca Village, or were they just left to fend for themselves?