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Central Park highlights historic sites of erstwhile African American village

The residents of Seneca Village were booted in 1857 to create Central Park

The treetops Central Park looking north on a bright blue sky day. Buildings rise in jagged spurts along the park’s west and east boundaries.
Seneca Village covered the area roughly between 82nd and 89th streets and Seventh and Eighth avenues in a pre-Central Park New York.
Max Touhey

A mostly black community forced out by the creation of Central Park is getting the public recognition it deserves.

The Central Park Conservancy announced Thursday that it will honor the 19th century enclave of Seneca Village, the largely African American neighborhood that once spanned 82nd and 89th streets between Seventh and Eighth avenues, with new signage to educate park visitors about the history of the site and those who once lived there.

The signage builds off of years of research spearheaded by the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, and will explain the significance of some properties like individual homes and churches where they once stood. The signage will also serve to illuminate how housing, gardens, geology, and other aspects of the village featured into its everyday experience. The signage will be on display through October 2020.

Seneca Village began its formation around 1825 and, by the time the land was reacquired by the city through eminent domain for the construction of Central Park in 1857, represented the site of the largest known concentration of African American property owners at the time.

An image of a plaque erected in Central Park titled “Discover Seneca Village.” It includes a map and key to the important locales that once existed in the enclave.
The signs erected throughout the area are information dense and informative.
Courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

About half of the area’s African American residents owned their homes—that is, until the city bought the properties back for sums that were lambasted as below value in order to build Central Park. At its demise, the five-acre enclave was home to about 1,600 residents.

“Seneca Village was a thriving affluent community of achieving African Americans within the horrific context of racist oppression of 19th century America,” said Karen Horry, the chair of the Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation at Manhattan Community Board 10. “This exhibit helps tell their story, which exemplifies the resilience and fortitude of the human spirit when pitted against what appear to be insurmountable odds.”

The city is also moving to recognize the importance of Seneca Village with a new monument that will honor the Lyons family, African American property owners and abolitionists who lived and ran a boardinghouse for black sailors in the enclave that was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, the New York Times reports.

The monument, which has yet to be designed, is a part of the De Blasio administration’s effort to bring diversity to the city’s public sculptures, of which a vast majority honor white men. The monument to the Lyonses will be funded privately by the Ford Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.

It’s poised to stand at 106th Street near the west side of Central Park, outside the boundaries of the onetime Seneca Village. The city justified the placement to the Times, saying it’s a monument “not just to Seneca Village but the Lyons’ family’s broader experiences.”

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