During the mid-19th century, a predominantly African-American community known as Seneca Village blossomed between New York’s West 83rd and 89th Streets. Many of its members owned their own property, set apart from the crowds—and discrimination—of the city’s more populated downtown area. But when local authorities began moving forward with plans to build Central Park, Seneca Village’s residents were forced to leave their homes.
A planned monument announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office earlier this month is set to honor a prominent African-American family that once lived in the bustling community. As Julia Jacobs reports for the New York Times, the monument will pay tribute to the Lyons family, a trio of abolitionists, educators and property owners made up of Albro, Mary Joseph and their daughter Maritcha.
According to Carla L. Peterson, a scholar at the University of Maryland who is related to the family, the Lyonses ran a boarding house for African-American sailors that doubled as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Maritcha, an esteemed educator and political activist, also co-founded the the Woman’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn, which advocated for women’s rights and racial justice.
Interested artists can submit design proposals for the new monument via an open-call portal. Per Jacobs, the memorial will be privately funded by the Ford Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.
The project, or more specifically its proposed location on 106th Street, some 20 blocks north of where Seneca Village was actually located, has attracted criticism: “It’s disrespectful and it’s insulting,” Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society, tells Hyperallergic’s Kate Gill. “The naming or honoring of a person or an organization should be connected to the life and work of the person. … Where is just an important as why or who.”
Some critics contend that the city has rushed efforts to shake up its selection of public monuments. In recent years, New York has been working to increase the diversity of its public statues—and manage ones that are seen as controversial. Last year, for instance, the city took down a statue of J. Marion Sims, a doctor who performed gynecological operations on enslaved black women, at times without anesthesia. Also in 2018, New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, announced the launch of She Built NYC, an initiative that seeks to bolster women’s representation among the city’s statuary.
Local officials have defended the planned Lyons memorial. In a statement quoted by the Times’ Jacobs, a city spokesperson said the monument is “not just to Seneca Village, but the Lyons’ family’s broader experiences.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Cultural Affairs echoed this sentiment, telling Gill, “A range of factors are considered when selecting sites for public monuments, including feasibility, cost, historical significance, contemporary context, and public prominence. The Lyons family’s contributions exemplified values that still resonate powerfully here and beyond.”
Seneca Village can trace its origins to 1825, when, according to the Central Park Conservancy, two landowners subdivided their property and began selling it off as lots. One Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoeshiner, was the first to purchase land in the new settlement. By 1855, around 225 people lived in the village: Two-thirds were African-American, and the remaining one-third were Irish immigrants.
The residents of Seneca Village appear to have been fairly prosperous, with many owning their own land and living in two-story homes. Isolated on the Upper West Side, the community was set apart from the unsanitary neighborhoods of the downtown core. Most importantly, the conservancy notes, “Seneca Village’s remote location likely provided a refuge” from the racism that continued to pervade the city even after slavery was abolished in New York in 1827.
The thriving enclave came to an end in the mid-19th century, when officials decided to create a nature expanse to offset the congested conditions of New York’s growing urban sprawl. The city legislature enacted a law that dedicated 775 acres of land in Manhattan to the project, and the government, acting under the power of eminent domain, requisitioned private land for public use. Landowners were compensated, but as the conservancy notes, many residents complained that their land had been undervalued.
Seneca Village’s residents weren’t the only ones who had to surrender their property to the new park; according to the conservancy, some 1,600 people were ultimately displaced. Still, Diana Wall, an anthropologist who spearheaded an excavation of the Seneca Village area in 2011, tells City Metric’s Barbara Speed that something unique was lost when Seneca Village disappeared.
“Many of the residents stayed relatively local to New York [after the village was demolished], but what they did not do was stay together,” Wall explains. “And that’s what’s so tragic: It was a community, and then the community was gone.”
A text-heavy commemorative plaque currently stands on the Seneca Village site. By spotlighting the Lyons family with a new memorial, Tom Finkelpearl, New York City’s cultural affairs commissioner, says to Jacobs, officials hope to better recognize “the kind of history that tends to get left out of our public monuments.”