^ Be this The Winter of Our Discontent?
The Lost Village In New York City
by Daisy Alioto
Smack in the center of New York City — in the confines of Central Park — there are ghostly vestiges of a 19th century neighborhood that once was vibrant and thriving but now is largely forgotten: Seneca Village.
It is considered by historians to be one of Manhattan's earliest communities of African-American property owners.
This much is known: Between 1825 and the mid-1850s, it was alive. Seneca Village was home to a variety of Americans. Most were of African descent, but there were also Irish and German and maybe some Native Americans, as well. The 1855 state census noted that 264 people lived there. The area had a school, three churches and some cemeteries.
A couple of years later, everyone in the village was told to leave and the neighborhood buildings were razed to clear the way for Central Park. In recent times, historians have begun exploring the village's past.
But for all the present-day records-probing and sites-excavating, there are still many unknowns surrounding Seneca Village.
One of the greatest mysteries: Researchers have not been able to find a single living descendant of anyone who was a resident of Seneca Village.
The Village Today
You can stroll around the area that was once Seneca Village by entering Central Park through Mariners' Gate at 85th Street and Central Park West. The grounds are flanked by and, at this time of year, dotted with tulip beds.
The village lay between 82nd and 87th streets, just east of Central Park West.
To trace a path that runs up to Central Park's expansive is to tread among the pines where the frame house and barn of village resident George G. Root once stood — in his time a stone's throw from two more houses, known to belong to Epiphany Davis. Andrew Williams, a free black shoe shiner, purchased three lots of land near there on Sept. 27, 1825.
The area has been examined closely by researchers. Anthropology professors Diana Wall of and Nan Rothschild of and adjunct instructor Cynthia Copeland of New York University, are founding members of the , which spearheads the study of the village in an educational context and its commemoration. The project's website offers an and photos from the site.
Cynthia explains how a number of events in the 1990s colluded to bring the history of Seneca Village to light. In 1991, a 17th and 18th century site of thousands of African burials was uncovered in Lower Manhattan. Now the , the discovery at the time spurred peopletothink about early African presence in New York City's history.
She also credits Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, authors of a 1992 publication, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, for including Seneca Village in their section on pre-park history. The authors used material they found in the repository, where Cynthia was a curator. In 1997, the historical society mounted an exhibition, "Before Central Park: The Life and Death of Seneca Village," which was called a "piercingly emotional show" by .
In 2004, the historians began digging to see what they could find. They continued excavations when funding and time allowed. One focal point was the home of William Godfrey Wilson — a church sexton in the village — complete with vestigial signs of domestic life: pots and pans, a tea kettle and, particularly poignant in the imagining of the past, a child's shoe.
Looking For Descendants
Meanwhile, as the historians were hunting for inanimate representations of the lost village, the Seneca Village Project also began looking for living, breathing people who might have genealogical ties to those long-ago villagers. At the 1997 New York Historical Society exhibit, the names of Seneca Village residents were listed and visitors were asked if they or anyone they knew were related to those original denizens. The anthropologists made a similar query at a series of lectures about Seneca Village given around New York City in the early 2000s. They continue to make appeals whenever possible.
So far, not a single soul has come forward with true knowledge of any inhabitants.
Part of the problem, says Nan Rothschild, is not knowing where residents moved after the village was erased.
Diana Wall wonders if the contentious clearing of the area has shrouded its history in sadness and left a hole in family narratives: "Could it be," she asks, "that because people were evicted from Seneca Village, it was an unhappy part of their past that they chose to forget?"
Both researchers express a wish to dedicate more time to locating the residents, but with courses to teach and other projects, that's difficult. The excavation itself has served as a classroom for over 100 students, Nan estimates, and locating living descendants of the village would be meaningful to all of them.
"It would be nice to package it all up and tie it in a bow. But that's not history ... history is messy," says Cynthia. She remains hopeful about finding descendants of the villagers. "I believe they are out there."
LOL!We don’t want cats going crazy chasing the lasers.
Nearly 3,500 Years Old, an Egyptian Monument Gets a Laser Cleaning
JULY 9, 2014
By DAVID W. DUNLAP
Christopher Nolan of the Central Park Conservancy surveyed the tip of the Obelisk.
It was transported to New York City in 1880. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Thutmose III thought big.His Obelisk, however, is being treated at the level of atomic particles.
Since early May, conservators have been cleaning the Obelisk with hand-held lasers. Inch by inch, as if a magic wand were being passed over the hieroglyphs, the flecked pink granite of Aswan, Egypt, has emerged from under Manhattan’s gray pall.
The Obelisk was first erected about 3,460 years ago at Heliopolis, on the outskirts of modern Cairo, to glorify Thutmose III, a pharaoh who has been likened to Napoleon. The Romans moved it to Alexandria, from where it was transported in 1880 to New York City, as a gift from the khedives who then ruled Egypt. It was re-erected on Greywacke Knoll in Central Park in 1881.
It should be an astonishing sight. But decades’ worth of sooty accumulation so darkened the Obelisk that it was becoming easy to overlook — if such a thing can be imagined of a 69-foot-high monolith behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
That is why Andrzej Dajnowski and several colleagues at the Conservation of Sculpture and Objects Studio were called in from Forest Park, Ill., by the Central Park Conservancy, which cares for 55 monuments in the park.
Cyclists passed the scaffolding encasing the Obelisk. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
On June 30, Mr. Dajnowski could be found more than halfway up the Obelisk, cleaning a hieroglyph for the “s” sound in a cartouche reading: “User-Maat-Re, beloved of Amun.” A few levels down, Robert Zarycki was passing a laser beam over a bowl-shaped hieroglyph representing a basket and the sound “nb,” or Lord. Together with a cartouche below, it read: “Lord of the two lands, User-Maat-Re, chosen of Re.”
User-Maat-Re is known today as Ramses II. He followed Thutmose III by about 200 years and added his own inscriptions to each face of the Obelisk, flanking those of his predecessor. A later pharaoh, Osorkon I, squeezed in short tributes to himself. (“Cleopatra’s Needle” is a misnomer for the Obelisk. She had nothing to do with it.)
Though the conservators wore bulky respirators and greenish goggles, the scene around the Obelisk did not look like something out of science fiction. The laser did not produce a ruby-red beam, but a white pinpoint. It did not hum eerily. It crackled.
The cleaning is to be finished in a week or so. After that, loose surfaces will be stabilized with a consolidating agent that binds stone particles at a molecular level. All the work should be finished in the fall, when the scaffolding will come down.
The $500,000 project is paid for by the private, nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, which manages the park under contract with the City of New York.
In a report to the city’s Public Design Commission, which reviewed and approved the Obelisk project, the conservancy said the goal was “promoting its long-term preservation and enhancing the public’s understanding and experience.”
Bartosz A. Dajnowski used a laser machine to clean the structure. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Diana Craig Patch, the head of the Egyptian art department at the Met, raised an intriguing possibility. “I think it unlikely that there will be more scholarship on the hieroglyphs as a result of the cleaning, but we may know more about how it was painted possibly,” she said. “Traces might be found.”
Conservancy officials considered using lasers, microabrasives or chemical cleaners on the Obelisk. Beginning in October 2012, each method was tested on a small patch of the monument’s south face. Experts were then convened.
“When everybody went up in a lift to see, by a great margin they said the laser had produced the greatest effect, with virtually no impact on the stone,” said Christopher Nolan, the conservancy’s vice president for planning, design and construction.
(In Athens, the ancient Caryatid statues of the Acropolis have recently returned to public view after a laser cleaning.)
Laser cleaning exploits the difference in materials’ absorption properties, said Bartosz A. Dajnowski, Andrzej’s son and the vice director of the conservation company. The blackened deposits of soot absorb radiation from the laser much better than the lighter-color granite, which tends to reflect it. It is not unlike wearing dark clothes rather than whites on a sunny day.
In nanoseconds, the soot particles are turned into white-hot plasma. As they expand, they expel themselves from the granite. Because the laser emerges in infinitesimally short pulses, the stone itself is protected from overheating, Mr. Dajnowski said.
Though the beams would be too dispersed to cause harm to passers-by, Mr. Dajnowski said, tarpaulins are required on the scaffolding as an extra layer of safety.
After an intensely technical discussion, Mr. Nolan offered a more pedestrian explanation. “We don’t want cats going crazy chasing the lasers,” he said.
Excavated in Central Park: Traces of Anti-Redcoat Fortifications, Never Needed
By DAVID W. DUNLAP
A landscaping project in Central Park uncovered traces of 200-year-old fortifications. Roughly at the
center of the photograph was the site of a gatehouse at McGowan's Pass.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
It was August 1814. Panic held New York in thrall.
After two years of incoherent fighting, the War of 1812 was being waged in deadly earnest. No longer preoccupied with the Emperor Napoleon, who had been forced to abdicate the French throne, Britain trained its full military might on the ill-prepared United States. British troops captured Washington, setting fire to the Capitol and the White House. Twilight’s last gleaming was fast approaching in Baltimore. And the enemy’s control of Lake Champlain made clear that its route to New York City would be from the poorly defended north.
Kingsbridge Road, a rudimentary highway that ran from the mainland down Manhattan Island to New York City, suddenly looked like an invasion route.
Pressed into wartime duty, civilians fashioned impromptu fortifications wherever redcoats might appear, including McGowan’s Pass in Harlem, through which anyone on the Kingsbridge Road would have to travel to reach New York.
On the north side of the pass, the citizens drilled a line of holes into a rock outcropping. Iron rods inserted in those holes could have been used to help build a defensive wall linking three small fortifications — Fort Clinton, Nutter’s Battery and Fort Fish — that guarded the pass and the surrounding countryside.
A drainage trench in which the foundation of the gatehouse (large stones)
and part of the Kingsbridge Road (small stones) were found.
Credit Central Park Conservancy
The British never came. And over time, the fortifications disappeared.
But you can still see the holes that were drilled in fearful haste 200 years ago.
They are just some of the surprising physical traces of the War of 1812, including a short stretch of the Kingsbridge Road itself, found by the Central Park Conservancy during a recently completed reconstruction of the Fort Landscape in the north end of the park. Within the landscape, McGowan’s Pass is in the hillocks south of the Harlem Meer.
The $2 million project was not driven by a desire to uncover the past. But because it involved digging up paths and installing new utilities in an area known to be rich in history, conservancy officials wanted to avoid any excavation missteps.
A rendering of the gatehouse at McGowan's Pass, over the Kingsbridge Road.
They hired Hunter Research to examine plans of the proposed work, identify any potential areas of conflict and then physically explore any area where historical fabric might remain. The work was led by Richard W. Hunter, the president and principal archaeologist of Hunter Research, and Jim Lee, the principal investigator. They dug exploratory holes and trenches in 2013.
One trench revealed the foundations for the southeast side of a gatehouse that had been constructed, almost like a bridge, across McGowan’s Pass and over the Kingsbridge Road.
The investigation also revealed secrets hidden in plain sight. On a rock outcropping about 20 feet northwest of a stairway leading to the pass were several sharply delineated cylindrical scars, an inch or more in diameter. These are remnants of a stone splitting technique known as plug-and-feather, Dr. Hunter said. The Harlem fortifications were built atop the very rock from which they were composed. It was a convenient quarry when time was of the essence.
Another set of quarry scars can be seen on an outcropping at the opposite side of the pathway. About 40 feet due west, across this large rock outcropping, are eight holes in a line. (Dr. Hunter said there were nine, but the ninth was hard to spot.)
On the north side of McGowan's Pass, citizens drilled a line of holes into a rock outcropping.
Iron rods inserted in those holes could have been used to help build a defensive wall.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
The holes may not have had a role in building the redoubt. They may simply have been started for a quarrying operation that was never finished. Or they may have been made at another time altogether and for a different purpose. However, Dr. Hunter said, “When you superimpose them on the historical maps, they are exactly where the defenses would be.”
Easily the most thrilling discovery occurred during the excavation of a 70-foot-long trench for a new drain pipe. There, a couple of feet under the soil, were the foundations for the northwest side of the gatehouse and a section of the bed of the Kingsbridge Road, made of smaller stones.
To conserve this find in place, a membrane of permeable geotextile was laid atop the historical stonework. The drainage pipe was set down over that, and the whole area was paved over. No visible evidence remains.
“We have learned so much more about this area of the park, particularly what was going on before the park was built,” said Marie R. Warsh, director of preservation planning for the conversancy, a nonprofit organization that manages Central Park under contract with the city.
“This wasn’t an archaeology project for the sake of archaeology,” she said. “It was an archaeology project for the sake of stewardship. Not that we weren’t excited by what we found.”
...amazing, 150 years still looking good...
There's a gallery at Gothamist with 23 before and after comparisons. As noted in some of the comments, several comparisons are winter - summer; but the overall impression is stark. Those that think the only difference is a little landscaping have never experienced the park in the 1980s, or have short memories.
It was truly a mess. Penn Station was in much the same state. The difference is that Penn Station didn't get saved, and Central Park did. It seems absurd now, but it's not hard to imagine that if the deterioration continued, chunks of the park could have been sold off for real estate development.
^ Amazing transformation after those gritty times of urban decay. Central Park wasn't alone back then.
OMG, hard to believe looking at CP now.
Just how bad was Central Park in the 1970s?
The opening paragraph from a New York Times story published on May 26, 1977 sums it up well.
“In Central Park, the once-green lawn of the Sheep Meadow is wearing away, gradually becoming a dust bowl with overuse,” wrote the Times.
(click photos for larger versions)
“At the Bethesda Fountain, drugs are sold routinely, and the Duck Pond at night becomes a receptacle for beer and soda cans.”
Crime, graffiti, and decay are the buzzwords of 1970s New York City. And just because Central Park was the city’s jewel didn’t mean park structures and landscapes were immune.Just look at this image of Belvedere castle. In the 1970s, meteorologists who read data from the weather instruments there (it was the highest point in the park and a prime spot to measure temperature) were planning to move because thieves kept stealing or destroying the equipment.
The park had deteriorated before, just after the turn of the century, and was brought back to life by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in the 1930s. But the 1970s level of decay is hard to fathom today.
The ancient Egyptian obelisk was spray-painted in white with the words “do it.” The fountain statue of the flutist in the Conservatory Garden was missing its flute.
Above, a boathouse from the 1940s was falling apart and defaced by graffiti. The statues of the monument at Columbus Circle were missing fingers, and the base was also graffiti-covered, at left.
One of the park’s lovely 19th century bridges is closed in this photo, a danger sign posted before it.
[Photos: the Central Park Conservatory; New York Times]
Finally in 1980, after studies were funded to help figure out how to save the park, an administrator was appointed. And two park advocacy groups combined to become the Central Park Conservatory, a “board of guardians” to help restore the park to its former glory.