Posts Tagged ‘African-American New York’

The “squatters” who called Central Park home

June 10, 2013

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]

A 19th century cemetery on Chrystie Street

June 15, 2011

If you ever find yourself at Sara D. Roosevelt Park below Houston Street, take some time to consider the New Yorkers who were once interred beneath your feet.

This was the site of the Second African Burial Ground—replacing the original cemetery for black New Yorkers located near City Hall that had been closed in the 1790s.

Back then, residents of African descent made up almost 20 percent of the city’s population. Since they were restricted from white cemeteries, another one had to be built.

So in 1794, a group of black residents petitioned the city to purchase land for a new burial ground. City officials granted four lots “near the dilapidated ruin of James Delancey’s mansion,” explains the Parks Department:

“The land purchase was bounded to the east by First Street (now Chrystie) and to the north and south by Stanton and Rivington Streets. By the late 1700s, the growing population of the city forced northern expansion. The burial ground began to deteriorate, and in 1853, it closed forever. The human remains were disinterred, and the site was soon built over.”

Sara D. Roosevelt Park (above) opened in 1934, 80 years after the burial ground had been closed and mostly forgotten.

In the 2000s, when the New Museum on nearby Bowery was under construction, some human remains were found, according to the website of the M’Funga Kalunga Community Garden in the park, which hopes to build a prominent marker on the site.