The “squatters” who called Central Park home

Centralparksquatters1855Before 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.

Centralparksquatters1880Their 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]

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

12 Responses to “The “squatters” who called Central Park home”

  1. Pontifikate Says:

    So if “some owned the land beneath their homes”, were they compensated when the park was cleared? Under eminent domain, would they have been entitled to something?

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Yes. According to one source, the city set aside $5 million to pay off the residents for their land.

    Another source specifies that residents of Seneca Village got $700 each:

  3. Jeff Theis Says:

    I became interested in Seneca Village years ago after I noticed the remnants of a stone foundation in the park near the 85th St./CPW entrance. Shortly after my discovery the New York Historical Society held an exhibition on Seneca Village showing maps of known buildings that existed there and also mentioned that the village had at least one (possibly more than one) cemetery. In preparation for the creation of the CP these villages were razed and then just covered over with land fill, so what do you think happened to the cemetery/s of Seneca Village?

  4. Bob_in_MA Says:

    That’s a great post, as are the earlier ones on shanty towns, which I hadn’t seen before.

    This definitely one of the best blogs on the Web. Even if you were to stop posting tomorrow (please don’t) it would still be one of the best blogs ten years from now… thanks!

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoy it.

  6. Lautaro Pelayez Says:

    excelent research, congratulations.

  7. chickstar Says:

    Who were the real thieves..hmm..

  8. An Adirondack forest hiding in mid-Manhattan | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] bulldozing shantytowns and draining swamps, they spent the next several years fabricating pastoral lawns, sloping hills, […]

  9. Alexandra Hilton Says:

    ^^Link to an image of an 1855 topographical survey map hanging in the NYC Department of Records Visitor Center that marks each structure that stood in Central Park prior to its construction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: