From the Editors

Eminence Domains

 

Detail from the Taylor Map of New York showing Central Park, 1879

In 1825, on approximately five acres of land just north of what is now 82nd Street in New York City, a group of freed black slaves founded a settlement that came be to known as Seneca Village. What grew into a self-sustaining community of working-class landowners was, by the 1850s, home to more than two hundred residents who built and maintained their own infrastructure, including schools, churches, and even cemeteries. In 1855, the city of New York invoked the power of eminent domain in order to accommodate plans for a central park.  The settlement’s inhabitants were deemed squatters.  Homes were razed and residents displaced.

“The rich and the poor, the cultivated and well bred and the sturdy and self-made shall be attracted together and encouraged to assimilate,” wrote Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in their proposed plans for Central Park.  The photograph on the front page of this issue provides an illustration of a darker legacy that is also attached to the park.  The displacement that began with communities like Seneca Village has been renewed in a current phase characterized by the luxury “Billionaire’s Row” developments that have grown up along the park’s borders.  A similar trend has extended across the five boroughs, and across the country, as middle-class and low-income residents are pushed from their homes to make way for developments that price them out of their neighborhoods.

Contemporaneously with Olmsted and Vaux, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of “something so massive, stable, and almost irresistibly imposing in the exterior presentment of established rank and great possessions that their very existence seems to give them a right to exist.” One57 and 432 Park, along with the luxury condos being erected as gleaming redoubts in otherwise blighted neighborhoods, obtrusively evince what Hawthorne, elsewhere in The House of the Seven Gables, described as “so excellent a counterfeit of right.”

Less tangible are the rights, counterfeit or otherwise, of the city’s homeless, poor, and middle class—all of whom continue to struggle to find a place within its limits.