bubbles up out of the sidewalk even as you approach.
It is as if the trees and lawns and plantings can’t contain themselves. It’s all such a dream, especially when we are all in the throes of spring fever, that it’s easy to forget the Park was not always as it is now, grand and gracious and teeming. It may seem 100 percent natural, but it is as manmade as any skyscraper in Manhattan.
The prolific landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted described Central Park, which he had just then brought into being, as “the lungs of the city.” His voice rang with empathy toward the poor working folk, the hoi polloi who he hoped would share the green, landscaped precincts with the uppertens (referred to today as the one percent). Back then the monied classes liked to race their expensive carriages around the winding park roads. The Park was officially opened to the public in 1873, when green spaces were at a premium. The city had created a grid plan in 1811 that made right angle streets and 100 by 25 foot lots out of most of Manhattan. In the process, planners eliminated the forest that had shaded the island for time immemorial. Today’s residents would not recognize the city of the mid-19th century. Even as the new streets were carved out, there were still the remains of the streams, ponds, marshlands and hills and valleys that were the rich natural contours of the landscape. From early on, Manhattan was so thickly forested with oaks, walnut, hemlock, birches and chestnut among others that settling in took work. Visitors such as the English pamphleteer Daniel Denton praised the “sweetness of the air.”
A parcel of eight hundred acres was purchased by the city in 1853 and Olmsted along with his partner Calvert Vaux, was called in to work his pastoral magic and develop what was then called the Greensward Plan.
Between 1865 and 1873, one hundred sixty six tons of gunpowder blasted out rocky ridges and twenty thousand men armed with hammers, pickaxes and shovels dug up the existing soil, replanting 270,000 trees and shrubs. The designers eradicated swamps, fields, rocks and replaced them with lush lawns and winding pathways. Olmsted had lofty ideas for what his design would achieve. Rolling meadows, the Mall, Bethesda Terrace, the Ramble – what’s not to like? Olmsted created something that millions every year take pleasure in.
And yet…invisible and overlooked today are the people who had to go to make Central Park the charming place it is now.
Central Park pre-Olmsted, as it had evolved over time, was home to sixteen hundred renters and squatters, mainly African American, some Irish. Seneca Village, as it was known, had three churches, a school, gardens and burial grounds. Residents’ homes, churches and farms were plowed under along with the natural features of the land. The residents themselves, finally subject to eminent domain, made themselves scarce in 1857. Some journalists at the time insulted their living circumstances. One observer wrote that residents “lived off the refuse of the city, which they daily conveyed in small carts, chiefly drawn by dogs.” That wasn’t true.
They were working people, and free, since slavery in New York ended in 1827. Seneca Village had grown into the most established black community in the city, and probably in the state, or perhaps anywhere else in the country, the “Tulsa” of Manhattan. You can visit Olmsted’s beautifully cultivated landscape today at 85th Street and Central Park West and see placards put up by historians working for the park. Archaeologists fought to dig up a scrap of Chinese porcelain, an iron tea kettle, a roasting pan. You can walk along a path that scholars think to be the settlement’s’ main drag.
You can visit Tanner’s Spring, where there was potable water. It still flows, or, rather seeps. You can see the rock that rises to the highest point of anywhere on Manhattan Island, that was impossible to blast away in the construction of the Park, and that served as a protective landmark for the community.
When I was a child, I visited my grandparents who lived a few blocks from here and we walked past this outcropping every time we visited the Park’s playground. The history was around us, as it always is, but I knew nothing of it. Now I can’t unknow it.
The Park is filled with placques and statuary.
There is even a bronze statue of a sled dog named Balto that brought diptheria serum to Alaska. As of 2020 we have likenesses of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
But no monument to the vanished souls of Seneca Village. Why is that?