“Seneca Village was an necessary neighborhood. It was 40 acres, two-thirds African American, and had church buildings and colleges,” defined Sara Zewde, ASLA, founding father of Studio Zewde and assistant professor on the Harvard Graduate Faculty of Design, throughout a session on the ASLA 2022 Convention on Panorama Structure in San Francisco.
The 225 residents of Seneca Village have been displaced by the New York Metropolis authorities within the mid 1800s to make approach for Central Park, which is taken into account one of many masterpieces of panorama architect Frederick Regulation Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux.
In the present day, the historical past of the neighborhood, which as soon as existed close to Tanner Springs on the west fringe of the park, is being reinterpreted. Efforts are underway by the Central Park Conservancy to commemorate the neighborhood and its evicted African American landowners.
Central Park takes up almost 800 acres within the midst of Manhattan. As Zewde and others have defined by way of the Conversations with Olmsted collection as a part of Olmsted 200, Olmsted noticed Central Park as a technique to understand his beliefs about democratic city parks.
The park was designed to offer broad entry to the therapeutic advantages of nature. It was additionally meant to point out what free Northern cities might accomplish by way of transformative public infrastructure, and the way slave-owning Southern communities, with their lack of shared areas, might evolve.
And whereas the choice to maneuver Seneca Village predated Olmsted’s involvement, “how will we sq. this along with his legacy? One has to surprise how Olmsted felt about Seneca,” Zewde mentioned.
In line with Christopher Nolan, FASLA, chief panorama architect on the Central Park Conservancy, a primarily Black neighborhood took root in Seneca Village within the early 1800s as a result of it was not solely an escape from the bustle of downtown but additionally subsequent to a reservoir.
There aren’t any remaining images of the neighborhood, however plans and birds-eye views present a “cohesive property,” with two-story wooden houses, an AME Zion Church, and different central buildings.
The neighborhood navigated an early Manhattan panorama stuffed with schist hills. The panorama they skilled largely stays, together with Summit Rock, which is without doubt one of the dominant panorama options within the park at 140 toes above sea stage. Outdoors Olmsted and Vaux’s designed panorama, Manhattan’s panorama was flattened to make approach for the relentless grid of the up to date metropolis.
Apparently Olmsted wasn’t overly keen on the location chosen for the park. The lengthy rectangle hemmed him in and “didn’t match along with his idealized panorama,” Nolan mentioned. His objectives have been later maybe higher realized by way of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, which supplied extra alternatives for a naturalistic panorama.
Whereas planning Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux examined the geological layers and “didn’t modify the present panorama that a lot,” Nolan argued, solely including roads, a reservoir, and lake.
However because the park advanced because the late 1800s, greater than 20 playgrounds have been added, together with one on the coronary heart of what was as soon as Seneca Village.
A restoration administration plan was created in 1995 that emphasised Olmsted’s unique imaginative and prescient. A couple of years later, the New York Historic Society held the primary exhibition on Seneca Village.
Since then, the Conservancy has grappled with tips on how to course of new details about Seneca Village and proceed its restoration program. The aim is for these efforts to converge in a brand new commemoration of Seneca Village rooted in deep neighborhood engagement and a restored pure panorama.
For John T. Reddick, director of neighborhood engagement initiatives on the Conservancy, there are a number of close by precedents for this commemoration work, together with a memorial to Ralph Ellison, writer of Invisible Man, in Riverside Park; a memorial to Duke Ellington on Riverside Drive; and the Frederick Douglass Circle in Harlem, on the northwestern fringe of Central Park.
Reddick additionally pointed to Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon, who was murdered outdoors the Dakota constructing alongside Central Park. The easy ground-level mosaic with the phrase “Think about,” referring to Lennon’s tune, turned the middle of a broader panorama restoration effort funded partially by Yoko Ono. “The panorama turned Strawberry Fields. Earlier than, it was a run-down place. It took a significant effort to remodel that into one thing particular.”
In 2001, the Conservancy added an indication about Seneca Village however that was actually “only the start of analysis.” Latest efforts have included inviting artists, historians, and musicians to “animate tales” of Seneca Village for the general public. “They’ve helped us perceive what life there might have been like.” Reddick mentioned the aim is to characterize the displaced neighborhood in Central Park not by way of a plaque or statue however an interpretation of the panorama. “We need to use the land to inform their tales.”
Nolan added that this mission to inform a extra holistic story in regards to the park and its historical past is line with “a broader definition of stewardship.” Olmsted was a social reformer, and this method is a part of the DNA of panorama structure.
Studying about Seneca Village has additionally opened Zewde’s eyes to the chances of reinterpretation. “Communities and their histories aren’t erased. They’re hiding in plain sight. Seneca Village will not be historical past.”
“We will use our narrative lens now. By means of engagement, we will educate and amplify.”
“Parks are automobiles. The existence of a park doesn’t imply we now have a functioning society and democracy. We have now to make use of the house, navigate it as folks.”