Appreciating the History of Sheep Meadow and Seneca Village

August 26, 2020

Photo: Sophia Ortega

For those of you who have never visited Central Park, let me paint you a picture of what it looked like last year, pre-pandemic.

A couple relaxes as they chat on the grass. A group of friends laughs as they stroll on the sidewalk. A tourist snaps a typical shot of the skyline. A horse and carriage clunk across the path while bikers zip by. Birds fly high overhead as dogs on leashes sniff the ground. A gathering of people; a celebration of creation.

Last year, I would visit Central Park and find myself wondering what other New Yorkers’ lives were like, surrounded by a crowd of strangers that could be my neighbors. For a moment, I could forget about the stress of the city, and wander into Sheep Meadow.

View from Sheep’s Meadow (Photo: Sophia Ortega)

Between West 66th and 69th Street, Sheep Meadow is 15-acres of luscious green grass, usually densely covered by people. On a warm day with a gentle breeze, visitors can barely see the grass. People spread out over the whole meadow to tan, read, and picnic (my personal favorite). But back in the late 1800s, the meadow was full of grazing sheep, hence the name.

Sheep Meadow, NYC, late 1800s (Photo: Public Domain)

Central Park architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux originally cleared the area to create a place for military practice. They later decided this would interrupt the calm park environment they had envisioned. Instead, they placed 200 sheep in the meadow, paid for by the city as a way to mow the grass while adding to the picturesque atmosphere.

Although Sheep Meadow was a harmless endeavor, there was injustice happening between West 82nd and 89th Street, known as Seneca Village. In 1857, Olmsted and Vaux bulldozed over Seneca Village, using legal action to evict them. Seneca Village was home to hundreds of African Americans and Irish immigrants, an established community displaced during the economic downfall known as the Panic of 1857. Over 200 Blacks no longer owned land, having their right to vote, as well as their beloved homes, stripped away.

The people of Seneca Village were nomads who survived violent uprootings. Today, we are people who are surviving a pandemic. But even in 2020, the people of New York City share one thing: an appreciation for nature. With Lyft at our fingertips and the subway a swipe away, New Yorkers need to make intentional time to get outside. Especially with quarantine becoming a new norm, fresh air is a rare privilege. So we go out to experience nature, for a break of bliss in the midst of the bustle.

That’s why I love New York City. Yes, the city is aesthetically stunning. But the reasons behind the beauty are questionable. The people are the heart of the city. People chasing a goal or dream, as small as running to catch the next D train or as big as becoming a Rockette. Next time I picnic in Sheep Meadow, I will soak in the sun and remember Seneca Village, realizing how I am a nomad just like them. Being a New Yorker goes much deeper than an appreciation for nature, but instead stems from an appreciation for its people.

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