Yet sunshine brightens after rain,
The darkness comes and goes again,
So solace follows bitter pain,
As seasons wax and wane.
~Elizabeth Chase Akers Allen
The year, 1858. Entry #33, The Greensward Plan, by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, had been chosen in a design competition to build a great park in the middle of Manhattan. A park aimed to give respite to the city's residents, whose access to the riverfront had been cut-off by shipyards and docks, and whose city, thanks to the grid system, and a population explosion, had been turned into congested wasteland of factories, wharehouses, noise and social disorder, free of anything green.
775 acres of land in Manhattan — from 59th to 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues — had been allocated to create the country’s first major landscaped public park. Billed as a 'people's park, and open to all', in reality, the pro-park lobby were largely affluent merchants, bankers and landowners, who wanted a fashionable and safe public place where they and their families could mingle and promenade, according to Louise Chipley Slavicek, author of 'New York’s Central Park'.
However, this land was not empty. It was home to Seneca Village, founded 30 plus years earlier by 'free blacks', the first such African American community in the city.
In a move eerily similar to that of the Apartheid government 120 years later in my native South Africa, the land, which included three churches, a school, and two cemeteries, was aquired by forced evictions and through eminent domain (a law that allows the government seize private land for public use with
compensation paid to the landowner). Residents repeatedly protested to the courts, against both the order and the level of compensation offered.
Those that refused to leave were forcibly and violently evicted. There are no records of where Seneca's residents went. It's is thought they mostly left Manhattan and scattered accross Brookyln and beyond. And so the giant public works program had begun.
Built by the poorest of the poor, mainly Irish day labourers (African Americans were not allowed to work on it), 15 years and $14 million later, the Central Park, was finally completed in 1876. Aethetically it was a triumph and has been hailed as 19th century America's greatest work af art.
Landscapers Olmsted and Vaux had hoped the mingling of classes would have a "civilizing effect" on the city. But "the people's park" proved more popular with wealthier New Yorkers than with the city's working poor, who found it too difficult and expensive to reach from lower Manhattan. A long list of rules designating appropriate code of behaviour also prevented the working class from using it: no group picnics, no walking on the grass or streniuos activity of any kind.
None Seneca's residents probably ever did get to stroll through Central Park's beautiful meandering walkwaysm, which is today the most visited urban park in the United States and one of the most filmed locations in the world. With around 38 million annual visitors the park averages around 80 cents per visitor to maintain.
This data sculpture depicts rain, snow and temperature, picking up 12 years after Seneca Village was destroyed until present day. An ebb and flow of memories of another 150 years, eroding all traces of Seneca and the Lenape Native American tribe who inhabited the land before that.
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