Images of sign courtesy of Central Park Conservancy
Our blog posts most often focus on current eminent domain news, but the truth is that the process been around for a very long time. Even during the mid-19th century, the power of eminent domain was used to requisition private land for public use.
We recently read about an announcement from the office of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio about plans to build a monument in honor a prominent African-American family. The family once lived in the bustling community called Seneca Village which was located between New York’s West 83rd and 89th Streets.
The community can trace its roots to 1825, to two landowners subdivided their property and began selling it off as lots. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoe shiner, was the first to purchase land in the new settlement. By 1855, around 225 people lived in the village. (Approximately one-third of the population were Irish immigrants.) Many members of the African-American community that lived there owned their own property. Because it was a distance from the crowds of lower Manhattan, they avoided some of the city’s discrimination.
Things took a dramatic change when local authorities began moving forward with plans to build Central Park. Through the process of eminent domain, Seneca Village residents were forced to leave their homes. It is estimated that over 1,600 people were displaced in order to make room for the development of Central Park.
Similar to today, residents felt that while they were compensated, it wasn’t what they deserved. Also similar is the effect on the community. “Many of the residents stayed relatively local to New York [after the village was demolished], but what they did not do was stay together,” explains Diana Wall, an anthropologist. “And that’s what’s so tragic: It was a community, and then the community was gone.”
The monument planned will honor the Lyons family: Albro, Mary Joseph and their daughter Maritcha. Each played an important role in NYC’s history as abolitionists, educators and property owners. Maritcha founded the Woman’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn, which advocated for women’s rights and racial justice.
There has been criticism about the monument, as the proposed location is on 106th Street, approximately 20 blocks north of where Seneca Village was actually located. Many people feel that where the monument is located is just as important as to whom it honors.
A spokesperson for the Department of Cultural Affairs responded to the criticism, saying that “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.”
Just in case you are wondering, 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.