Above: a superb video and conversation between archeologist Dr. Diana Wall and art historian Dr. Steven Zucker about Seneca Village, the predominantly Black community that was razed in the process of creating Central Park.

Alex Martin

Seneca Village, Central Park, and Considering the Consequences of Community Expropriation in the Creation of Parks

By Alexander Martin, Board Certified Master Arborist, Tree Care Industry Association Certified Treecare Safety Professional, Director of Ironwood Urban Forestry Consulting Inc, Co-Chair of the Canadian TREE Fund

What do you think of when you think of a city park? You may conjure up ideas of grassy hills for picnicking or flat stretches ideal for soccer or football. You may envision large stately trees, protected within the boundaries of the public park. For many, if asked to name a large city park, they will draw from New York: the noteworthy, world-renowned Central Park.

To many urban planners and urban foresters, Central Park is the epitome of urban greenspace design objectives. The fields and woods of Central Park may suggest a natural landscape; however, Central Park is anything but. Some may be familiar with the extensive work involved in creating the park, including bringing in four million trees, shrubs, and other plants (Beck, 2013). However, an underacknowledged impact of the creation of Central Park was the dislocation of a predominantly Black community called Seneca Village that was expropriated in the making of Central Park. The Seneca Village story, while largely unknown amongst urban planners and urban foresters, provides important insights for ongoing conversations around environmental justice.

Gradual Abolition of Slavery

In contrast to the emancipation of slaves in the southern states, slavery in New York ended gradually across several decades. In 1781, in recognition of time served with the rebels during the Revolution, the New York Legislature freed enslaved peoples who participated in the Revolution for at least three years or who were regularly discharged from service (Elsenstadt, 2005). The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery of 1799 emancipated the children of enslaved mothers born after July 4, 1799 (New York State, 1799); however, the freed children were still indentured servants for up to 28 years.

At the turn of the 19th century, white supremacy ideology began to rise. A citizen wrote an article in the New York Gazette and General Advertiser in 1803, voicing upset with the “whole host of Africans that now deluge our city” (New York Gazette and General Advertiser, January 3, 1803 as cited in White, 1991). Historic documents indicated that free Black people were frequently accused of crimes by a white judicial system (White, 1991). Death records and coroner reports allude to residential instability among free Black people (see Coroner’s Report for John Richards, a Black Man, 1804, January 20; as cited in White, 1991). In 1817, a law passed that would emancipate enslaved peoples; however, it was only to be effective in 1827 (White, 1991).

Seneca Village

During and following the emancipation of enslaved peoples in New York City, racial tensions rose (Vox, 2020, January 20). Free Black residents of New York began to purchase plots of land in Uptown, between 82nd and 89th streets along Eight Avenue. This became known as the community of Seneca Village, growing to around 300 members and including three churches, schools, and a cemetery (Jaynes, 2005; Wall & Rothschild, 2011). Seneca Village offered both an affordable place to live and an area that was considered to be safer from racial tensions than other parts of New York City. Through land ownership, Black men, who under voting laws of the time were only able to vote if they were property owners.

Later, German and Irish immigrants moved into Seneca Village (Vox, 2020, January 20; Wall & Rothschild, 2011). Records from the time period highlight coexistence of different demographics within the region, apparently absent of racial confrontation.

Seneca Village was considered a middle class neighborhood (Wall & Rothschild, 2011).

Creation of Central Park

In 1853, when land was zoned for Central Park, it included Seneca Village and additional areas of residential properties. This presented an issue: New York City would have to seize domain of the land for the creation of the park. Newspapers, which we know to be a driving force in citizen perception of urban forestry and topics of city planning, began to weigh in on the issue of Seneca Village (Jaynes, 2005). The papers attempted to underscore the necessity of the removal of these residential areas on the premise that they were low-income areas with derelict conditions, despite evidence that the residents of Seneca Village were middle class and well educated. According to Jaynes (2005), Seneca Village’s residents were described by the newspapers as “squatters” and “bloodsuckers” living in a “shantytown” (para. 5).

When New York City seized the land in and around Seneca Village through the right of eminent domain, landowners were compensated for their loses, albeit many felt the compensation was inadequate relative to the actual prices of the properties (Wall & Rothschild, 2011). Despite some compensation for their lost land, it can be argued that New York City did not properly address the needs of the citizens of Seneca Village. Black people living in New York at the time, according to Jaynes (2005), “were the worst-housed segment of the New York population, and most [Black people] lived in appalling conditions” (par. 3). Seneca Village offered affordable opportunities for land ownership and positive multiethnicity relations, as well as an opportunity to live in a healthy community. Through land seizure, the support structure within Seneca Village became disconnected.

Since the creation of Central Park, archaeological excavations have discovered items from the families who lived in Seneca Village (Wall & Rothschild, 2011). While the history of Seneca Village remained largely unknown during the 1900s, in 2001, the Central Park Conservancy commemorated Seneca Village with a plaque within the park (Jaynes, 2005), and the Conservancy has in more recent years developed programs, exhibits, events, and digital content related to Seneca Village.


While we tend to herald large parks as places of refuge and comfort, planning and management must recognize the impacts that historic development has had on underrepresented and vulnerable communities. It can be easy to push urban forestry and urban planning objectives without due consultation with the affected communities. With the increased dependency on technology-heavy consultation processes, such as Zoom or Twitter polls, the voice of some community members can be lost to technological illiteracy or inaccessible platforms.

A reoccurring issue in urban forest management that has made headlines during the COVID-19 pandemic is the forceful eviction of homeless congregate encampments in public parks. While the latter was under a different governance structure with different legal theory than Seneca Village, both evictions share the theme, or narrative, of how public parks fit into the concept of “for the good of the people.” While it is well established both societally and academically that parks benefit people who visit them, the parks displace what I argue is a greater benefit: housing for a smaller, yet more vulnerable, community.

How do we approach planning and management decisions when we are pitting minor benefits for many against major benefits for few? This question is best addressed when we recognize the vulnerability and underrepresentation of these groups in the planning process. Yet, this process is seldom taught. We approach ecosystem service analyses without recognizing how some can be mutually exclusive. When such situations arise, it is important to mindfully and respectfully engage all stakeholders to understand the human costs that the decisions will have if undertaken.

In acknowledging and recognizing these impacts, we can work to better recognize, acknowledge, and address systemic inequalities in urban social frameworks. By incorporating this learned knowledge into education, we can help to ensure that the future generations of urban foresters and urban planners have the skills to work collaboratively and respectfully with a diversity of stakeholders.


Beck, T. (2013). Principles of Ecological Landscape Design. Island Press.

Coroner’s Report for John Richards, a Black Man. (1804, January 20). Historical Documents Collection, Queens College, City University of New York

Elsenstadt, P. (2005). African Americans. In P. Elsenstadt (Ed.), The Encyclopedia of New York State (pp. 18-25): Syracuse University Press.

Jaynes, G. D. (2005). Seneca Village. In G. D. Jaynes (Ed.), Encyclopedia of African American Society: SAGE Publications.

Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, (1799).

Vox. (2020, January 20). The lost neighborhood under New York’s Central Park [Video file]. In Vox, The lost neighborhood under New York’s Central Park [Video file].

Wall, D. D., & Rothschild, N. A. (2011). The Seneca Village Archaeological Excavations, summer 2011. African Diaspora Archaeology Network Newsletter, September 2011

White, S. (1991). Somewhat More Independent: The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810. University of Georgia Press.