Opening Up a Discourse About Displacement and Gentrification in Historic and Modern Day New York
By Simon Chen
“We are standing together in a rising water of truth, a generational story that implicates us all. And I’m overwhelmed by it.” Tomashi Jackson commented after the slew of presentations done by artists, historians, journalists, and archeologists regarding the historic and current state of displacement of in New York City.
On Sunday September 15th, 2019, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted a discussion moderated by Tomashi Jackson, a woman of color and multimedia artist, as part of the museum’s biennial event. She brought together ten professionals, including herself, to discuss one of the oldest displaced communities of New York City and how this displacement has been affecting the city every day since then.
At around four in the afternoon, people filed into the Susan and John Hess Family Gallery and Theater on the third floor of the Whitney Museum in the West Village/Meatpacking District of Lower Manhattan. There was a giant white screen with black text that read “FROM SENECA VILLAGE TO BROOKLYN / A CONVERSATION WITH TOMASHI JACKSON”. As time went on, more and more people were entering the space, filling chair after chair in the theater.
As the lights began to dim, the Whitney’s events coordinator, Andrew Hopps, spoke into the microphone. Hopps said the people involved with the event produced “vibrant and energetic works”, such as filmmaker Tourmaline’s surreal movie about historic displacement of marginalized groups or the journalistic work surrounding modern day displacement done by Kelly Mena and Stephen Witt. Regardless of medium, these works would come together to visualize and create discussions about displacement of the black and brown communities of New York City’s past, all in “hopes to surface parallels of today”. As his introductions came to a close, the first presenter took to the podium.
Marie Warsh, a landscape historian and writer, introduced the audience to a place called Seneca Village that was formed in 1825 and displaced in 1857. She explained to the crowd that prior to Central Park being zoned, there was a five acre village that spanned from 82nd Street to 89th Street between 7th Avenue and 8th Avenue. Seneca Village became a place where African Americans purchased land to settle in. Warsh said that from the census records of 1855, it is found that ⅔ of the village population were black and the rest were Irish immigrants. At the time, the greater part of New York City looked at Seneca Village as a sore spot on the map of Manhattan. The papers would refer to Seneca Village with derogatory terms, calling it names and often labeling it as a shanty town. But Warsh explained that based off photos of the surrounding areas of the village there were fully constructed, two story, wood houses with chimneys. Warsh said “While the creation of Central Park did result in the destruction of this place, we should look at it now as another source of information about Seneca Village.”
Using Central Park as a source were three archeologists. Diana Wall, Meredith Linn, and Nan Rothschild. These three women described to the audience what type of community Seneca Village was and how it got lost in history. Wall said “ I grew up in New York City and I never heard of Seneca Village”. Wall, Linn, and Rothschild found evidence of the Wilsons, an African American family of 10 who lived in Seneca Village . Their house was 20 feet by 21 feet and stood three stories tall. They found evidence that “the foundation was built of local schist” — the rocks that are still found in Central Park today. Linn continued to say that it was “suggested that the family made a big investment in this house” because they had a tin roof that would protect them from the weather and a strong foundation that would keep the structure of the house stable for many years. These women explained all of this to show that Seneca Village was an actual settlement, but the government didn’t think so. To build Central Park, the New York City government displaced the people who lived there, disrupting and scattering a community that had been growing and strengthening itself for years.
Displacement is not a sign of the old days, people are displaced every day in 2019 as well. Two reporters, Kelly Mena and Stephen Witt, presented their work regarding gentrification in modern-day New York City. The two of them have been covering the housing crisis that is affecting black and brown communities of the City. 1857 was over 100 years ago, yet communities of color are still feeling the wrath of the system. Mena and Witt are working hard to bring untold stories into the light. The discussion was cut short by the closing of the museum, but one thing that was taken away was said by the filmmaker and activist, Tourmaline. She said “the system is not broken. It was built this way, it is doing exactly what it was designed to do.” Displacement is not new to New York. Part of the issue is rooted deep within the history of Central Park in the buried lots of Seneca Village.
Simon Chen covers the city for This New York