Lives Displaced By Central Park Take Center Stage In New Play

Sep 4, 2015
Originally published on October 20, 2015 6:24 am

Editor's Note: This report contains a racial slur.

A new play reveals some little-known history about the land that became New York City's Central Park: People used to live there.

Beginning in 1825, about 300 people — mainly free African-Americans — lived in a village that spanned a portion of the park's 843 acres in Manhattan, between 82nd and 89th streets, east of Central Park West. It was called Seneca Village.

Cynthia Copeland, one of the lead researchers of the site with the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History, says its residents, which also included Irish and German immigrants, were targeted in newspapers with insults, including racial slurs.

"They literally called them tramps, squatters, thieves, lowlifes. They referred to Seneca Village as 'Nigger Village,' " she says.

The New York Times once described them, along with the animals living on the land, as "stubborn 'insects.' "

Copeland says it was part of a smear campaign to help justify destroying people's homes and cemeteries, using eminent domain to make way for what would become the most visited city park in the country.

The village was leveled in 1857, the same year construction began on Central Park. But there's still evidence of Seneca Village under the park's west side. In 2011, guided by old maps, title deeds and census records and with the city's permission, Copeland and some archaeologists carefully excavated areas where the buildings of Seneca Village once stood. They uncovered shards of porcelain, a small leather shoe and a stone foundation.

"There were churches here. There were schools here. There were two- and three-story framed houses. That's why this is an incredible story," she says. "This is a story of early landownership by African-Americans."

Copeland helped push for a historical sign now standing near a playground and drinking fountain in Central Park. It commemorates the village as the first-known community of African-American property owners in Manhattan.

Now, actors at Premiere Stages at New Jersey's Kean University, located just outside New York City, are retelling the story of Seneca Village in a new play called The People Before the Park, set to premiere Friday night. It takes place a few years after New York state lawmakers approved taking over the private property in 1853.

Keith Josef Adkins, who wrote the play, says that Seneca Village was an important refuge for many black residents from the racism of 19th century life in New York.

"It meant that they would be free to go about life the way they wanted. Wake up. Do whatever they want. Go to sleep. You know, just to have a simple, peaceful life," Adkins says.

He created fictional characters based on his research on the community. The play's main character, Stephen Van Cleef, is a 42-year-old oysterman and a sixth-generation New Yorker. He lives with his son, Jonas, in a one-story house with a porch.

Van Cleef's wife has gone missing. He's worried she'll never find them again if they leave Seneca Village, and he vows to stay. Later, in the play's last scene, he is confronted outside his home by a police officer with a billy club.

Actor Billy Eugene Jones, who plays the role of Stephen Van Cleef, says audiences can assume his character does eventually leave because, after all — spoiler alert — Central Park is there.

"So there is no kind of waiting mystery like, 'Hmm, I wonder if they're going to build a park?' " Jones says.

Still, the play offers moments of tension between neighbors, lovers, parents and their children. Jones says it's a chance to meet people whose stories have been forgotten.

"Somehow, somebody found a piece of paper. Somehow, somebody found patterns of stone in Central Park, and they said, 'Oh, wow! What was this?' And then people started to have these people live again," he says.

This time the lost village of Central Park will live again onstage.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A new play reveals something a lot of people may not know about New York City's Central Park - people used to live there. And in the 1850s, a predominantly black community was forced to move from the land. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on that history and the story it's inspired on stage. And we should note, too, that there's some offensive language here.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It was called Seneca Village, though no one knows for sure if it was named after the Roman philosopher or the Native American nation. We do know about 300 people called it home beginning in the 1820s. There were some Irish and German immigrants but mainly free African-Americans. Cynthia Copeland is one of the lead researchers of the site with the Seneca Village Project. She says its residents were targeted with insults and newspapers including racial slurs.

CYNTHIA COPELAND: They literally called them tramps, squatters, thieves, lowlifes. They referred to Seneca Village as [expletive] village.

WANG: The New York Times described them as stubborn insects. Copeland says it was part of a smear campaign to help justify destroying people's property using eminent domain to make way for what would become the most visited city park in the country. She found evidence of Seneca Village on the park's west side.

COPELAND: And let's see if we can still see one of our surveyor marks on the tree.

WANG: Copeland scans a pine tree on a dusty field. A few years ago, this is where she and some archaeologists carefully excavated - guided by old maps, title deeds and census records. They found shards of porcelain, a small leather shoe and a stone foundation.

COPELAND: There were churches here. There were schools here. There were two and three-story framed houses. That's why this is an incredible story. This is a story of early land ownership by African-Americans.

KEITH JOSEF ADKINS: All right. So why don't we just start at the top again and just keep working through it?

WANG: Actors at Premiere Stages at New Jerseys' Kean University are now retelling the story of Seneca Village, in a new play called "The People Before The Park." It's set a few years after New York lawmakers approved taking over the private property. In one scene, a shoe merchant tries to convince a young neighbor to pressure the city to pay them more to leave their homes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE PEOPLE BEFORE THE PARK")

KIM DAVIS: (As Jonas Van Cleef) When Papa returns, I'll tell him you paid a visit.

TAYLOR: (As Marion Lewis) Jonas, this is urgent. This is our home, a safe place.

WANG: Keith Josef Adkins wrote the play. He says that Seneca Village was an important refuge for many black residents from the racism of 19th-century life in New York.

ADKINS: It meant that they would be free to go about life the way they wanted -wake up, do whatever they want, go to sleep, you know? Just to have a simple, peaceful life.

WANG: Adkins created fictional characters based on his research on the community. The play's main character is a 42-year-old oysterman and a New Yorker going back six generations. His name is Stephen Van Cleef, and he lives with his son Jonas in a one-story house with a porch. His wife has gone missing and he's worried she'll never find them again if they leave Seneca Village.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE PEOPLE BEFORE THE PARK")

BILLY EUGENE JONES: (As Stephen Van Cleef) I'm not going anywhere, all right? Not selling, not going - full value or not.

WANG: Later in the play's last scene, he's confronted outside his home by a police officer with a billy club. Actor Billy Eugene Jones plays the role of Stephen Van Cleef. He says audiences can assume his character does eventually leave because after all - spoiler alert -

JONES: You know, Central Park is there. And so there is no kind of waiting mystery, like, I wonder if they're going to build a park.

WANG: Still, the play offers moments of tension between neighbors, lovers, parents and their children. Jones says it's a chance to meet people whose stories have been forgotten.

JONES: Somehow, somebody found a piece of paper. Somehow, somebody found patterns of stone in Central Park, and they said oh, wow, what was this? And then people started to have these people live again.

WANG: This time on stage. "The People Before The Park" is premiering tonight. I'm Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.