As you take your last weekend strolls through Central Park over the next couple of weeks to gaze at the changing colors of Fall, consider the fact that back in 1825, you could buy a few lots of land in Central Park for $125.
By 1855, the residents of Seneca Village had been forced to leave the community that they built from scratch, vacating the sparsely populated rural area above 59th St for the construction of a new park. Even before the Civil War, Eminent Domain was still a threat to some New Yorkers and ownership of Manhattan land was hotly contested. Hundreds of people were thought to have lived and worked in the West 80’s between 7th and 8th Avenues, forming a thriving settlement of primarily African-American landowners. History seems to have lost the reasoning behind why this village was referred to as “Seneca Village,” as it was mostly inhabited by African-American landowners, as well as other minorities at the time…including English, Irish and German settlers.
Altogether, Seneca Village covered about 5 acres of what eventually became the 843-acre National Historic Landmark that we know and love today. The community of outcasts boasted a school and three churches to serve the needs of the isolated families. There is little to be known about the inter-workings of the village, but we do know that it served as one of New York’s first melting pots. People of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds found refuge in Seneca Village, with residents escaping hard situations like famine and slavery. This place let people start fresh with their own property, the right to vote, and a sense of community.
Seneca Village was finally swallowed up by the city in October 1857, one hundred and fifty-five years ago this month. It is said that there are not any known descendants of the original Seneca Villagers, but their history lives on through the churches they founded. The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was one of the three churches in Seneca Village. Today the “AME Zion Church” has 1.4 million members.
All Angels Episcopal Church was started by nearby St. Michael’s Church as a mission to cater to the unique and often rejected population of Seneca Village. At the time, there was segregation even in many New York Churches. All Angels was said to be attended by Europeans and African-Americans worshiping side by side. After a century and a half of eviction, construction, and demolition, that same All Angels Church is still open in it’s former parish house on 80th and Broadway. Keeping with their initial mission that dates back to Seneca Village, All Angels has special services and community support and for today’s downtrodden and homeless New Yorkers.
Next time you’re walking around Central Park in the West 80’s imagine yourself back in the days of Seneca Village, one of New York’s first true melting pots!