As many as 1,600 people lived in a series of rural settlements in the area, the most notable being Seneca Village comprised of some 264 residents, approximately two-thirds African American and one-third Irish. Their evictions were an unfortunate necessity that destroyed a unique settlement in nineteenth century Manhattan. But few would question the result as the city would forever be blessed with the most spectacular urban park in America.
When a special commission formed to lay out Manhattan’s famous grid street pattern published their master plan in 1811, they set aside less than one percent of the island’s land for parks. The land that eventually became Central Park was originally crisscrossed by avenues and streets and divided into thousands of housing lots.
“It may, to many, be a matter of surprise,” wrote the 1811 planners in anticipation of some criticism, “that so few vacant spaces have been left … for the benefit of fresh air, and consequent preservation of health.”
There was no need to, they explained, for “those two large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island [i.e., the Hudson and East Rivers] render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure … peculiarly felicitous.”
Forty years later, the folly of this analysis was overwhelmingly clear. Recognizing that Manhattan had become one of the most unhealthy spots in America, the city fathers decided to take bold action. In 1851 they initiated the process to take by eminent domain a vast tract of land in upper Manhattan for a giant “central park.”
In 1853 the state legislature approved the taking of 778 acres of land (later increased to 843) for the park. Over the next two years a commission assessed the land’s 34,000 individual lots and appropriated $5 million to compensate the 561 owners. The final step prior to commencing the park’s construction was to see to it that the 1,600 residents vacated the land.
Unfortunately for the park planners, many of those people refused to leave without a fight. This was especially true of the residents of Seneca Village, a settlement of African Americans and Irish immigrants on land between 82nd and 86th streets and 7th and 8th avenues.
African Americans began settling the area in the 1810s and in 1825 they began buying former farmland owned by John Whitehead. At the time, 90 percent pf New Yorkers lived below Canal Street and most of upper Manhattan was wilderness. But New York’s small free black population recognized that the land presented great opportunities.
To begin with, they could establish their own community in a relatively healthy environment, separate from the disease and racist violence of lower Manhattan. Land ownership also guaranteed them the right to vote (property-less whites could vote, blacks had to own $250 in property). By 1840 some 100 people, mostly African Americans, lived in what came to be called Seneca Village (the source of the name is unknown), by all accounts a tidy settlement comprised of dozens of houses and three churches.
It was about this time that Irish immigrants began moving into Seneca Village and other settlements within the boundaries of the future park. They, too, saw the advantages of living far beyond the city’s settled wards. The rural lifestyle-many tended small farms and raised hogs and chickens-was quite similar to the life they left behind in Ireland. And it was far safer, healthier, and peaceful than the tumultuous tenement districts downtown like Five Points. By 1855, the year the evictions began, 21 of Seneca Village’s 60 households were Irish. The rest were African American, with a few Germans.
Hundreds more Irish lived in nearby settlements throughout the land eventually transformed into the park, not to mention in other remote areas of upper Manhattan like Turtle Bay (site of the UN), Hell’s Kitchen, and Harlem. Most of these residents were squatters living in ramshackle houses constructed of wood scraps and other recycled refuse.
They lived a catch as catch can lifestyle, farming small plots of land, raising chickens and hogs, working odd construction jobs, fishing in nearby rivers and ponds, scavenging for rags and bones for resale (the 19th century equivalent of collecting returnable cans), and gathering free firewood. Even in these rough peasant conditions, their lives were arguably more comfortable than those of their brethren downtown. Yet these settlements contributed to stereotypes about the Irish as a lazy, dirty, uncivilized people. The fact that they shared these settlements with equally despised African Americans only added to the prejudice.
While most of these people were anonymous Irish immigrants, we do know of two Irishmen who grew up in the Central Park area and went on to become prominent politicians. George Washington Plunkitt (profiled two weeks ago in this space) was born in “Nanny Goat Village” that bordered Seneca Village in 1842 to Irish immigrant parents. He later became the Tammany leader of the Hell’s Kitchen district. Four years later in 1846 a family of famine refugees named Croker settled in the same area. Richard Croker, three years old at the time, went on to become the boss of Tammany Hall from 1886-1901.
One final Irish settlement in the northeast corner of the park bears mentioning. In 1847 the Sisters of Charity purchased a tract of land with several buildings, including a run-down tavern. Over then next few years as the population in the area grew rapidly, they built a successful religious community called Mount St. Vincent that included a convent, chapel, hospital, and two schools. By 1855 there were seventy sisters in residence, half of them Irish-born, assisted by 20 Irish men and women workers.
All of these settlements were dismantled between 1855 and 1857. Despite lawsuits by property owners demanding better compensation prices for their land and the refusal of many squatters to abandon their settlements, the police removed them all by October 1, 1857. The Mount St. Vincent community was allowed to stay until 1859. Several years later when landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had transformed the rough land into beautiful Central Park, the original residents were but a distant memory. Recent historical scholarship and an ongoing archaeology project, however, promise to shed more light on them and the communities they built.
Sources: Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (1992) and http://projects.ilt.columbia.edu/seneca/03park1.html. Learn more: www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK:
Sept 29, 1925: Col. Billy Mitchell of US Army testifies before Congress and advocates separate aviation branch. He is later courtmartialed for these and other remarks made to the press critical of the Army handling of aviation.
Sep 30, 1900: Arthur Griffin establishes the Cumann na nGaedheal, or “Party of the Irish.”
Oct 1, 1910: A bomb explodes at the Los Angeles Times, killing 21. Labor radicals James and Joseph McNamara are later convicted of the crime.
Sep 27, 1837: Labor priest, Father Edward McGlynn, in New York City.
Sep 28, 1901: Television show host, Ed Sullivan, in New York City.
Sep 29, 1908: Actress, Greer Garson, in Co. Down.