Guest Post: Seneca Village Memory: The Problem of Forgetting

Today’s guest post comes from Alexander Manevitz (@historicities), a Ph.D. candidate in History at New York University.

Detail from Egbert Viele’s 1856 topographical survey of the area to become Central Park, which shows some of the buildings and gardens of Seneca Village just before its destruction. When I started my doctoral program, “memory studies” struck me as more of a trend than a field. Something everyone talked about doing but couldn’t really define. After all, isn’t all history sort of a study of memories and how they’re made and used? Well, as with all things trendy, I was late to the party.[1] My first year of graduate school, I read Michele-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past and David Blight’s Race and Reunion within a few weeks of one another, and I realized how wrong I’d been, and my interest has only grown from there.[2] I have since turned to questions of memory and amnesia in my own scholarship.

My work focuses on Seneca Village, a once-vibrant community in upper Manhattan where community activism and urban development collided when the city evicted the residents to clear land for Central Park in 1857. Despite its significant role in the development of African-American social activism in the early republic and its place in relation to one of the young nation’s largest urban development projects, Seneca Village has been almost entirely forgotten in popular and scholarly memory.[3]

A lot of that forgetting has to do with a dearth of readily available source materials, a problem I’ve faced continuously throughout my research. Even when puzzle pieces appear here or there, it is often unclear how they fit together. As I dug deeper into the seemingly vanished community, however, frustration turned into new questions and new opportunities. The frustrated grumbles of “why can’t I find anything?” that floated down quiet hallways in the New York County Clerk’s office—sorry if I disturbed your peaceful research environment circa 2012—turned into genuine questions about source creation, archival preservation, and the formation of historical narratives. The way these processes shaped our memory, or rather amnesia, of Seneca Village, and what the forgotten community can teach us about how we think of New York’s urban development have become central components of my work.[4]

These questions are important to understanding the role Seneca Village played in its time and in our historical imaginations, but they also lead to deeper questions that can shed light on the way we grapple with the present in our history writing as well as the history of our present. How has the history of New York City, Central Park, and Seneca Village been marshaled, by whom, and to what end? Furthermore, how was it shaping the way scholars and the general public related to our history and our present?

These new lines of inquiry, especially those that concern how we tell stories about the past, have pushed me out of my comfort zone. We’ve all said things like “I don’t do anything after [insert major event here],” and despite the breadth of our reading for teaching and our comprehensive exams, we’re still only kind of joking.[5] Wrestling with questions about how we remember and represent the past contains the seeds of that discomfort by forcing us to keep two eras in our head at once and creating a sort of periodic dissonance.

Nothing typified this dissonance more than the time a knowledgeable archivist at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center showed me letters written in 1997 from then-borough president of Manhattan, Ruth Messinger, to Jennifer Raab, the chairperson of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and the NYC Parks and Recreation commissioner, Harry Stern. These letters were part of a larger effort led by scholars at Columbia, CUNY, and the N-YHS, and they advocated the designation of Seneca Village as a historic site and its commemoration as such.[6]

Messinger urged the Parks department to “honor the presence of Seneca Village archeological site within Central Park with an appropriate memorial marker,” and asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to protect it as such. Both letters stressed the importance of these commemorations for the sake of “public acknowledgment” and “public recognition.”[7] Seneca Village was once belittled as a nuisance to public health and safety. Now, it was fit for public acknowledgment and recognition?

For all the political, economic, and social opportunities Seneca Village provided its residents over three decades, elite urban reformers and government officials treated it as an obstacle to the progress of their new urban vision, at the core of which was Central Park. This new urbanism left no room for alternative spaces for social and urban organization, least of all those that provided land, wealth, safety, suffrage, and autonomy to working black and immigrant New Yorkers at higher levels than their peers elsewhere in the city.

Reading the letters, it struck me that the city municipal structure asking and being asked to publicly recognize the historical importance of Seneca Village was the most recent incarnation of those responsible for the community’s physical destruction and historical marginalization in the first place. And now that the scope of my project included the creation of historical memory, these letters were equally important primary sources as the baptism records of Seneca Village’s churches. I was used to reading about nineteenth-century officials but being confronted with someone I knew was still walking around the city somewhere was jarring. It was also instructive of the stakes at hand.

Seneca Village wasn’t just a part of the history of the city’s construction; it was a part of the way the city constructed its history. Remembering Seneca Village disrupts our memories of New York’s early nineteenth century urban development by dispelling notions that the city expanded northward into empty space and forces us to confront the social and physical violence of displacement. That not only reorders a historical interpretation of the past but also allows us to take a fresh look at the power of memory, and the way history shapes our present.

I started down this road with questions, and now I just have more questions, but they might be more important ones. What does it mean to omit a vibrant community of politically and socially engaged working New Yorkers who tried to resist the steady march of urban expansion? Who stands to gain from the absence of that historical tradition? Who suffers from its marginalization? How do recent efforts to commemorate and study Seneca Village and its forgetting help us better understand New York’s present in a time changing ideas of public space, widespread displacement, and rapid gentrification?

Image: Detail from Egbert Viele’s 1856 topographical survey of the area to become Central Park, which shows some of the buildings and gardens of Seneca Village just before its destruction. ​​

 ____________________

[1] Have you heard of that show, Breaking Bad? You should probably check it out.

[2] Neither Trouillot nor Blight invented memory studies, but in my own personal journey to the field they were my shepherds. So twinned are they in my scholarly development that I even paired them for a unit on memory last time I taught. It worked out well enough but I didn’t feel like I had enough time to dig into the context and arguments of one without shortchanging the other. Each do a wonderful job looking at why certain understandings of major historical events took shape, how people perpetuated those understandings, and the work they continue to do in history and culture. In the broadest sense, they served as mediations on our entire discipline.

[3] Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar’s The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (1992) is largely responsible for the historical survival of Seneca Village. Their work features a short section on the community based primarily on documents created during the city’s seizure of land for Central Park. The few places Seneca Village appeared in scholarly sources since then, like Leslie Harris’ wonderful In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863 (2003), all cite the same few pages of Rosenzweig and Blackmar, with two notable exceptions based on new and extensive primary source research: first, Leslie Alexander’s African or American: Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784-1861(2008), which uses Seneca Village as a case study to illustrate larger arguments about black identity and political activism in New York City; second, Diana diZerga Wall, Nan Rothschild, and Cynthia Copeland, “Seneca Village and Little Africa: Two African American Communities in Antebellum New York,” Historical Archaeology (Vol. 42, No. 1, 2008) who helmed an archeological dig in Central Park. They are also the founders of the Seneca Village Project, and the organizers of an exhibit at the New York Historical Society in 2000.

[4] In April, I presented some thoughts on the physical and historical destruction of Seneca Village at the Radical Archives Conference at NYU’s Asian Pacific American Institute. A recording of my panel, named “Inside the Black Boxes: Archives and Erasure,” can be found here.

[5] Sometimes people find out I’m a historian and then ask me about World War 2, always World War 2. I occasionally plead ignorance by explaining that I do antebellum history, but not ante that bellum. This has the peculiar benefit of being equally unfunny whether or not the person I’m talking to knows the etymology of “antebellum.”

[6] The research and commemoration efforts of these scholars coalesced into The Seneca Village Project. More information can be found here.

[7] Ruth Messinger to Jennifer Raab, June 30, 1997; Ruth Messinger to Henry Stern, June 30, 1997.

13 comments on “Guest Post: Seneca Village Memory: The Problem of Forgetting

  1. Brad Lewin says:

    Coincidentally, there’s an article in today’s New York Times about the pending destruction of a 152-year old Baptist Church in Atlanta to make way for a new football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/28/sports/football/in-path-of-falcons-new-stadium-atlanta-church-awaits-demolition.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=Moth&module=inside-nyt-region&region=inside-nyt-region&WT.nav=inside-nyt-region&_r=0

  2. It is perhaps not without interest that, as the Great Depression reached its deepest points, a ‘town’ was set up in Central Park in the Spring of 1932 by homeless.New Yorkers. It had a Main Street with about a dozen one room ‘houses'; a ‘radio shack’ built out of packing cases and a ‘tower’ serving as soup kitchen and ‘town government/ hall’. Inhabitants washed and used toilets at park facilities. The settlement grew steadily over the summer, but, after an unsuccessful attempt to disband the settlers as a sanitation hazard, it was dismantled by the police as the presidential elections came closer. Its settlers called it ‘Hooverville’ and so were for Roosevelt…… I don’t know the exact positioning of the settlement; it might be interesting to learn where it stood in relation to the village you are studying (and what the composition of inhabitants was).

  3. Alexander Manevitz says:

    Brad and Loretta,
    Thanks for sharing these two stories. They definitely have their parallels to Seneca Village and encapsulate some of the continued relevance of my project (or at least that’s what I tell myself from within the bowels of the library!). These kinds of destruction and displacement seem so common place now, but I think the creation of Central Park can help us figure out how this became the norm.

    • Unfortunately, unlike Boston and Philadelphia, the ultra-capitalist ethos of NYC’s subsequent development (and attendant real estate scarcity) has seen much of its early American history paved over. The few most prominent 18th-century historical “sites” that we have–Fraunces Tavern and Hamilton’s home–either aren’t the original building (e.g. the former) and/or aren’t in their original locations (e.g., both). I recently gave a talk at the Morris-Jumel Mansion uptown, which remains one of the more interesting 18th-century NYC historical sites.

      • Alexander Manevitz says:

        New York does often feel like a city that eats itself and though it’s a historian’s lament, many take that as a point of pride. Have you read Max Page’s /Creative Destruction of Manhattan/? It’s an interesting book but celebrates the city’s “creative destruction” more than I would. I’m not advocating a city frozen in time, but losing so much history in the name of a few people’s profit margins is a real shame. I blame the 1811 Grid plan!

    • Dear Alexander, It occurs to me that you may not have seen – but might find interesting- what may be Blight’s first formulation of his approach. He gave a paper at the Milan Group’s 1992 symposium in Milan. It subsequently appeared in the Groups’ Quaderno 4 with the title: “‘What Will Peace Among the Whites Bring?': Reunion and Race in the Struggle Over the Memory of the Civil War in American Culture,” Quaderno 4, entitled WHEN THE SHOOTING IS OVER. THE ORDER AND THE MEMORY, may be found at: http://www.library.vanderbilt.edu/Quaderno/Quaderno4/Q4.C15.Blight.pdf. The volume also has papers by Edward Countryman and Leon Litwack.

      • Alexander Manevitz says:

        Dear Loretta,
        I have not seen that early Blight talk but very much look forward to checking it out. Thanks so much for passing it along.

  4. sandvick says:

    Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Jonathan Wilson has a blog post at The Junto on Seneca Village, an African American village of free blacks and immigrants that was destroyed to create Central Park in 1857. Wilson’s post describes the difficulty in investigating the village. Like Seneca Village itself, Wilson states that the evidence of its existence in the historical record was difficult to find. Seneca Village had been essentially forgotten. Wilson’s article is an interesting post on historical amnesia and its implications.

  5. Thanks for the interesting guest post, Alexander. I, too, work on memory, particularly the historical memories of 17th-century Britain in 18th-century colonial America. Memory studies certainly had its 15 minutes of fame in terms of methodological trends, but I think, now that that’s no longer the case, we can perhaps re-assess its utility and remaining potential. In those terms, I think that fresh opportunities present themselves in terms of periods/events that went uncovered in the initial “memory boom.” Similarly (and this is just my own perception) the end of the “boom” also means that there is less invested in the high-theoretical aspects of memory studies (which are important in the early days of any “new” methodology). Lesser focus on cultural theory may actually open up the subfield to new approaches by historians who are not very theoretically inclined, thereby allowing memory to become more genuinely integrated into other important early American history subfields like political culture, gender, etc. rather than standing alone by itself off to the side. That development might also allow for more studies in which memory is not focused around single, specific events so much as of larger periods (i.e., a more longue duree approach to memory studies). Anyway, that’s just two cents from a non-theoretically inclined historian working on a memory-based project.

  6. Alexander Manevitz says:

    Update! Keith Joseph Adkins has written a play named “The People Before the Park” about Seneca Village and its destruction. Tomorrow (8/7) at 4:30 and 7pm. at Pace in downtown Manhattan. I’m really interested to see how theater, and art more broadly, can commemorate this part of history. http://www.epictheatreensemble.org/event/the-people-before-the-park-2/

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