Before Central Park became a park, the 843 rocky, hilly acres in the middle of Manhattan were not empty of human life.
About 1,600 residents clustered there in tiny settlements. Seneca Village was one, an African-American and Irish enclave of tiny houses and churches near Seventh Avenues in the 80s.
Pigtown, near the southeastern end, “was home to about 14 households, roughly three-quarters of them Irish,” wrote Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar in The Park and Its People.
Small groups of Irish as well as Germans dotted other parts. These residents were poor, but they worked in the service trades or ran businesses, kept animals, and some owned the land beneath their homes.
Still, when the idea of a city park was taking shape in the 1850s, they were described in newspaper editorials as squatters and thieves who plundered natural resources.
Their days were numbered, of course.
“First came the orders in the late spring of 1856 that they would henceforth have to pay rent to the city if they wanted to remain even temporarily in the houses and on the lots they long occupied,” stated Rosenzweig and Blackmar.
Next, the new Central Park police hassled them about the businesses they ran, the firewood they chopped, even a dance hall at the northern end.
Piggery owners were given eviction orders in summer 1856. In October 1857, two years before Central Park opened, all residents were kicked out for good (though some simply went to shantytowns just outside the park).
In the 1930s, Central Park became home to another group of squatters: the residents of a Depression-era Hooverville.
[First and third images: from the NYPL Digital Collection]