Tag Archives: Seneca Village

Before Harlem: The Stories of New York’s Forgotten Black Communities

PODCAST The history of African-American settlements and neighborhoods which once existed in New York City

Today we sometimes define New York City’s African-American culture by place – Harlem, of course, and also Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, neighborhoods that developed for groups of black residents in the 20th century.

But by no means were these the first in New York City. Other centers of black and African-American life existed long before then. In many cases, they were obliterated by the growth of the city, sometimes built over without a single marker, without recognition.

This is the story of a few of those places.  From the ‘land of the blacks‘ — the home to New Amsterdam and British New York’s early black population — to Seneca Village, a haven for black lives that was wiped away by a park. From Little Africa — the Greenwich Village sector for the black working class in the late 19th century — to Sandy Ground, a rural escape in Staten Island with deep roots in the neighborhood today.

And then there’s Weeksville, Brooklyn, the visionary village built to bond a community and to develop a political foothold.

Greg welcomes Kamau Ware (of the Black Gotham Experience) and Tia Powell Harris of the Weeksville Heritage Center to the show.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #230: BEFORE HARLEM: New York’s Forgotten Black Communities

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Three boys from Sandy Ground, Staten Island, circa 1912.

Staten Island Historical Society

More information about the Black Gotham Experience here, including a list of walking tours.  Check out the websites for Weeksville Heritage Center and the Sandy Ground Historical Society for more information about visiting hours and tours.

Have plans tomorrow (Saturday, June 10)? Both the Black Gotham Experience and Weeksville Heritage Center have daytime events. Stop by and see both of them!

 

 

This map of Seneca Village was made by Andy Proehl illustrating what the settlement looked like in the years before its destruction.

Courtesy Andy Proehl/Flickr

The approximate area via Google Maps. The Great Lawn now sits on the spot where the reservoir is.

The approximate area of Little Africa. The map is from 1889.

NYPL via Greenwich Village Society of Historical Perseveration

Richard Hoe Lawrence and Jacob Riis’s images of a “Black and Tan” dive bar on Broome Street near Wooster Street, 1890.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

Minetta Lane, circa 1900.

MCNY

The approximate location of Weeksville, Brooklyn

Wikipedia

 

Brooklyn Public Library

The three surviving houses today

 

 

The picture at top features an African-American family posed in front of the John Brown Homestead in Torrington, Connecticut, circa 1890s-1900. I particularly love this picture (despite it not being in New York City) because the house is reminiscent of the Weeksville houses and those that were in Sandy Ground.

 

Connecticut Historical Society

 

Regrettably there are not a huge trove of photographs of any of the places mentioned in the podcast. If you know of any photography websites or resources, please leave the information in the comments so others may check them out. Thanks!

Where was Manhattan Square? The Gilded Age remaking of a neglected park

Theodore Roosevelt Park (77th and 81st Streets, between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue), which contains the beloved American Museum of Natural History, is the oldest developed section of the Upper West Side, purchased by the city in 1839 as a possible strolling park to be called Manhattan Square.

Museum of the City of New York

Central Park was but a gleam in the eye back in 1839! The Grid Plan of 1811 had divvied up upper Manhattan into organized blocks but not much was properly developed in the early 19th century. There were few suitable transportation options and thus upper Manhattan was only sparsely populated.

Near this spot on the grid was the old African-American settlement of Seneca Village, which was later wiped away with the development of Central Park.

Below: A sketch by Egbert Viele from 1857 showing the remains of the small village of Seneca Village. Manhattan Square would have been off to the upper left portion of this image.

The original grid plan had no significant parks built into it so later city planners had to carve some out themselves. Unfortunately, the city almost literally forgot all about Manhattan Square — it’s even included in an 1860 New York Times article headlined NEWLY-DISCOVERED CITY PROPERTY

To be fair, the land had been granted to the Central Park Commission which was rather busy developing the park proper. As a result, Manhattan Square’s rugged and unpleasant terrain became an eye sore and rather dangerous for any actual visitors.

Samuel Ruggles, developer of both Union Square and Gramercy Park, once squawked, “It is a disgrace to the city. It is in some places forty feet below the grade and well characterized as ‘a pestilential hole of stagnant water.’”

Below: From the late 1870s, the solitary American Museum of Natural History building sits on the spot of Manhattan Square, now leveled out for public enjoyment, even if the lots surrounding it are quite barren.

In the early 1860s, the city proposed selling off this sorely underused area of land. At one point, during the Civil War, some suggested it be turned into a proper military parade ground. “Manhattan-square [has] been proposed for the parade-ground; over Manhattan-square the Commissioners have control and it is understood that they are willing to assign it, but, just now, they have not the funds which its preparation would require.” [source]

The next plan was to make a zoo! Animals had accumulated near the Central Park Arsenal as a make-shift ‘menagerie‘ — abandoned pets, former circus animals, far-flung beasts brought over on ships. At one point it was determined to move those animals to a more formal Zoological Garden, to be built on the much abused area of Manhattan Square.

From 1865: “The Zoological Gardens are about to be commenced at Manhattan-square, and the commissioners fully expect to have this valuable garden completed before the Summer wanes.”

Below: The chaos of the Central Park menagerie, depicted in an 1866 illustration

Harpers Weekly

Those planned fell through of course. Today the Central Park Zoo marks to location of that former menagerie.

By 1872, the Central Park Commission would utilize Manhattan Square for another mission, designating it the home for the American Museum of Natural History. The first structure would be completed in 1877. (For more information on the institution’s development, check out our podcast on the subject.)

Apartment developers later flocked to the park’s edges, drawn to its proximity to other fashionable apartment houses in the neighborhood like the Dakota Apartments (at 72nd Street, built in 1884). Luxury apartment living soon transformed the Upper West Side, and the fate of Manhattan Square — renamed Theodore Roosevelt Park in 1958 — changed with it.

Below: 44 West 77th Street. Manhattan Square Studio Apartment, photographed in 1910

MCNY

Of course, you may not know it by that name today either. From the New York Department of Parks and Recreation: “Neighborhood residents have traditionally referred to the parkland as Museum Park or Dinosaur Park.”

Below: The fully expanded museum as it looked in 1913

MCNY
The above is an expanded excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.