Central Park’s Predecessor

Last Saturday as I walked down West 83rd into Central Park I had no idea what to expect from the 6pm congregation to “Remember Seneca Village.”

Seven women: Lise Brenner choreographer and writer, Emily Gallagher public educator, Imani Uzuri composer, Sarah Lohman curator, Sunny Corrao park ranger, Sheridan Roberts national park ranger, and Leda Meredith medical plant specialist reenacted for the fifty guests what it would have been like to live in Seneca Village.

Leda Meredith (left) and Emily Gallagher (right) give the group a lesson on natural food sources Seneca villagers may have eaten.

Established in 1825, Seneca Village consisted of approximately 264 Irish, Germans, and African Americans that lived between 82nd and 89th street. In 1875, the villagers were evicted; some forcefully for the creation of Central Park. As time passed and focus on the vision of a pristine park took precedence, the history of the villagers was neglected. It was not until 1997 that the tribe was ever written about. The book “The Park and the People” and The New York Times Article both touched on important aspects of the forgotten village.

“We often don’t consider what we’re walking on top of!” said Brenner.

The people of Seneca Village created the most self-sustaining community to withhold from far foot travel to most of the buildings and businesses located in downtown Soho.

During the tour, we closed our eyes and imagined what it would have been like to clearly see the river down West 83rd, rummaged through potential natural food sources (dandelions, acorns, pokeberry plants), and sang negro spirituals by Tanner Spring; Central Park’s only natural water body.

Composer, Uzrui took charge during the spiritual ceremony by eagerly guiding the group towards Tanner Spring. She whipped out her tambourine to keep the beat as she eloquently sang “We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” As she sung, her colorful, ethnic stitched dress flowed in the wind and the sun began to set on her dark skin and tall frame.

Though the singing was initially my favorite part of the tour, I was quick to change my mind when walking out from the spring and spotting two trays filled with traditional pork belly and corn bread.

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