Excavating Central Park’s forgotten village

Central ParkCentral Park is sometimes called the “lungs of New York City”. Locals and visitors alike come here to enjoy a bit of fresh air and greenery. The park was approved in 1853 in order to leave a green patch in the rapidly expanding metropolis. The city government took the land between 59th and 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, by eminent domain. About 1,600 residents were paid for their property and forced to move by the summer of 1856.

While a beautiful park was born, its birth was the death of Seneca Village, a prosperous community of almost 300 people. Two-thirds of the population was black and it may have been the first community of middle-class black landowners is New York. The rest were white, many of them Irish immigrants. Of the village’s three churches, at least one was integrated.

Seneca Village was founded in 1825, two years before New York freed most of its slaves, and expanded quickly in the following few years. Living conditions downtown were unhealthy and property prices high (some things never change) so blacks with enough money were eager to move up to this area. The map, Columbia University, shows Seneca Village. Eighth Avenue is at the top of the picture. Seventh Avenue is at the bottom, with 82nd St. on the left and 86th St. is on the right.

Today archaeologists from the Seneca Village Project have finished the first-ever excavation of this historic community. After painstaking research through city records, they were able to locate the precise spots where many of the houses stood. They decided to excavate the property of two black residents: the yard of Nancy Moore, and the home of William G. Wilson. They found a wealth of nineteenth-century artifacts, including some porcelain imported from China, showing that some residents were quite well off. They even found a shoe that may have belonged to one of Mr. Wilson’s children.

If you’re heading to Central Park, check the project’s interactive map to see the history under your feet.