• This website includes dozens of videos, hundreds of essays, and thousands of drawings created over the past twenty years. Search to learn more about the history of buildings, places, prisons, Newark, New York City, and my PhD research on spatial inequality.

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Envisioning Seneca Village

A project by Gergely Baics, Meredith Linn, Leah Meisterlin, Myles Zhang

In collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy and the Institute for the Exploration of Seneca Village History

 

Email project authors here if you have questions.

 

Envisioning Seneca Village is a project depicting what this significant nineteenth-century village might have looked like in the summer of 1855, about two years before it was destroyed by the City of New York to build Central Park. It features an interactive 3D model, a non-interactive tour through the 3D model (A Tour through Seneca Village), and supplementary materials. The project is anchored in extensive scholarship and aims to make the village’s history visible to a wide audience. The project is also a work in progress with updates, additions, and new features planned soon.
Seneca Village was a community established by African Americans in 1825, two years before emancipation was completed in New York State. By the mid-nineteenth century, the village was the home of at least 50 families—about ⅔ Black and ⅓ white, mostly Irish. It was situated on an approximately four-block area east of present-day Central Park West between 82nd and 86th Streets, which was then a few miles north of the city’s urban core and between the villages of Bloomingdale to the west and Yorkville to the east. This location offered a safer, freer environment to live than downtown. Villagers built a thriving, complex, and heterogeneous community with core institutions including three churches and a school. Seneca Village’s destruction by the City in 1857 abruptly ended 30 years of successful efforts to nurture families, sustain livelihoods, and create community. It was also the first instance in a long history of the City’s abuse of eminent domain to sacrifice Black neighborhoods for urban development projects—in this case, to build a world-famous park.

 

3D Model References and Methodology. See also: Tips for Navigating the Model.

As residents scattered to different parts of New York and the Northeast, the Park construction crew buried building debris, covering it with landscaped lawns, hills, and paths. The community’s memory faded for a century and a half. Yet the lives the villagers made there left both an archival paper trail and extensive material traces underground. Since the 1990s historians, archeologists, educators, descendants, and artists have mined the fragmentary sources, excavated the site, and sought new ways to recover the village’s history and memory.
Despite all of the information that researchers have unearthed, there is a lot that is still unknown about the village and its community members. It is hard to imagine what it was like to live there. No photos or drawings survive, the present-day Central Park site is devoid of above-ground traces of Seneca Village’s built environment, and this region of New York City was quite different in the nineteenth century than today. Envisioning Seneca Village addresses these blindspots by creating a visual interpretation of the village that integrates social historical, archival, and archeological evidence into digital cartographic and architectural reconstruction. Through this model we seek to amplify existing scholarship, help visitors to learn more about the village’s history, catalyze new research with the questions the model raises, and above all, keep the memory and spirit of this past community alive in the present.
Further Reading on Seneca Village
Envisioning Seneca Village is a collaborative project between Gergely Baics, Meredith Linn, Leah Meisterlin, and Myles Zhang that integrates our expertise in archaeology, social history, historical geographic information systems (GIS), and digital architectural reconstruction. The project has been aided by research assistants, additional support from the Central Park Conservancy, and generous guidance from a diverse group of Seneca Village advisors and stakeholders. Learn more about the project and team.
Project Table of Contents (site map)

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Homeownership and the Racial Wealth Gap

Presented March 5, 2024 at the Newark Public Library

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The world’s largest concentration of wealth is in the New York City metropolitan area, yet the region contains many under-resourced cities, including Newark. What historical factors created this division between low-income Newark and its wealthy neighbors along lines of race, housing, income and social class?
The agents of change are more complex and nuanced than a simple narrative of redlining and white flight following the 1967 uprising. From discriminatory actions by the Federal Housing Administration and highways that carved through the urban fabric, to suburbs that pulled middle-class families away from Newark and factories that relocated outside of the city, contemporary poverty in Newark was more than a century in the making.
Drawing from the archives of the Newark Public Library, this presentation examines the range of challenges Newark faces and how the city overcomes. This is a Newark History Society program, co-sponsored by NJPAC and the Newark Public Library. Light refreshments will be served.
The presenter is Myles Zhang, urban historian and doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
This presentation will evolve into my dissertation entitled:
“An island of poverty in a vast ocean of material prosperity”:
Homeownerhip and the Racial Wealth Gap in Newark

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1959 Map of “Blighted” Areas by Newark Central Planning Board

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View event on NJPAC website

Jersey City: Urban Planning in Historical Perspective

This project in two parts is a brief history of city planning in Jersey City
and a building-level interactive map of the entire city in 1873, 1919, and today.

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Read / download book as PDF

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Jersey City: Urban Planning in Historical Perspective
A booklet about the history of the master plan

Over its four-century history, the evolution of Jersey City mirrors the larger history of the New York region. Each generation of Jersey City residents and political leaders have faced different urban challenges, from affordable housing, to clean water, to air pollution, and income inequality. Each generation has responded through the tools of city planning and the master plan.
Jersey City’s six master plans – dated 1912, 1920, 1951, 1966, 1982, and 2000 – capture the city at six historical moments. Reading these plans and comparing them to each other is a lens to understand urban history, and American history more broadly.

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Classroom Discussion Questions

1. How has the built environment of Jersey City evolved in the past century?
2. Who has the right to plan a city?
3. Who has the right to shape a city’s future?
4. Do you feel you have power over the plan of your city?

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Time-lapse History of the United States

This animation visualizes 272,000 data points spanning 220+ years of the U.S. census since 1790. With data from the National Historical Geographic Information System (NHGIS) at the University of Minnesota, I geo-referenced racial dot maps for all ten year intervals since 1790. Overlaying and fading time-lapse cartographies into each other reveals the scale of environmental and urban change.
● Each dot represents 10,000 people.
Top ten largest cities for each decade are labeled in orange.

Musical accompaniment by Philip Glass from the 1982 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi. In the Hopi language of the indigenous peoples of Arizona, the word koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance.”
As you watch the map, ask:
1. How is the transformation of Indigenous lands into ranches and farmlands made visible in this film?
2. How do immigration and state policies change the built environment? In what ways are immigration and the law visible from the bird’s eye view of this film?
3. How has slavery influenced the demographic landscape and sequential racial dot maps shown in this film?
4. How do changes in transportation technology – in the sequential eras of the canal, the railroad, the highway, the airport, and now the internet – impact how people settle and distribute themselves across the built environment?

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Sources:

1. Steven Manson, Jonathan Schroeder, David Van Riper, Tracy Kugler, and Steven Ruggles. IPUMS National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 17.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS. 2022. http://doi.org/10.18128/D050.V17.0

2. Social Explorer. https://www.socialexplorer.com/

3. U.S. population over time

4. Top ten largest U.S. cities over time

Newark Changing: Mapping neighborhood demolition, 1950s to today


Click to launch interactive mapping experience.

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Newark Changing is a first-of-its-kind visual encyclopedia of 2,400 photo comparisons of almost every street corner​​​, home, and building ​​demolished by urban renewal and the social forces behind urban decay.​ Through an interactive and text-searchable historic map, any visitor can travel in time to explore their street and their building as it appeared in the period 1959-68 vs. today. Thousands of old street photos are brought to life with contemporary 360-degree panoramic photos of the same street scenes today, taken from identical camera angles to the old photos. This is the most extensive collection of photo comparisons past and present ever assembled for any American city.
Newark Changing reveals the scale and devastation of urban renewal, not from the aerial perspective of the city planner’s map but from the human perspective of the street corner and neighborhood. Tens of thousands of individual streets, homes, apartments, churches, and Jewish, Black, and Italian-owned businesses in Newark were “redlined” in the 1930s and deprived of investment. Most of these neighborhoods today have been bulldozed for interstate highways, universities, hospitals, and corporate investments in real estate. Billions in taxpayer money (adjusted for today’s value with inflation) was spent in the period 1945 to 1967 to demolish at least 10,000 buildings, displacing 50,000 people, 65-77% of whom were Black. At the same time, the migration of people and jobs away from urban centers deprived cities like Newark of the industrial employment base they once had. Decades after the 1967 rebellion, Newark still struggles to confront and overcome decades of harm inflicted on the city by de-industrialization and population loss to the suburbs.
Street scenes can be browsed by interactive map, by neighborhood, by subject, by street, or by the public institution responsible for demolition. Visitors can thus travel in time to explore today’s empty fields, parking lots, and desolate streetscapes for the vibrant neighborhoods they were before the automobile age.

Launch interactive mapping experience >

Detroit Redlining Map in 1940

A data visualization of urban history and racializing space
Created with urban historian Robert Fishman

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This map illustrates in three layers some of the impacts of a racist government policy called redlining:
  1. The base map shows the extent of street network development, as well as the locations of important industries, institutions, and urban features in 1940.
  2. The population dot map shows the areas where Black and Whites lived in the segregated city.
  3. The redlining map shows the areas where government and banks chose not to invest, and to therefore deprive people living there of homes.
All three features – the physical city, the urban residents, and the urban policy of redlining – are interlinked. By displaying these three features together, previously invisible aspects of urban history become visible in plain site to the public.

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View project full screen

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Data sources:

Topoview from USGS for street network maps
Mapping Inequality Projecct for redlining data
IPUMS at the University of Minnesota for population and race by census tract

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Created with help from:

Robert Fishman academic mentor
Karl Longstreth from the Clark Map Library at the University of Michigan
Gergely Baics and Wright Kennedy from Columbia History Department
whose project about racializing space in New York City inspired this proposal

Branch Brook Park Interactive History Map

As featured by the Branch Brook Park Alliance as the official park map

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Navigate this interactive history map of Newark’s Branch Brook Park. Click on map features to learn about park amenities, recreational spaces, and historic features. Map annotations are paired with explanatory texts and comparative photos of past and present. Beneath each annotation is the Google Maps link that will display directions to that point in the park from wherever you are standing.
All historic images are from the archives of the Essex County Parks Department and Newark Public Library. Browse their digital collections or contact the agency to visit their archives. All descriptions are sourced from the Cultural Landscape Report that documented the park’s history and renovation.
Map created by Myles Zhang
Map texts by Linda Morgan, Curtis Kline, Myles Zhang, Maeher Khosla, and Jack Barron
Contemporary photos by Curtis Kline with Mouli Luo

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Read More

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Street Grid Development vs. Population Density

Adapted from Shlomo Angel and Patrick Lamson-Hall’s NYU Stern Urbanization Project,
here and here.

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The animation at left shows street grid development from 1801 to 2011, mapping Manhattan’s gradual expansion north. The animation at right shows the population density over time of each census tract in Manhattan. Notice how Manhattan’s population density rises and peaks around 1900 before falling to present levels. Despite Manhattan’s appearance of being denser and more built up with skyscrapers than ever before, the island actually has a lower population density than a century ago.

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Before the introduction of subways in the early twentieth century, the difficulties of commuting distances over land and water drove a denser form of urbanism than today. By 1900, the island of Manhattan had over 2.3 million residents in comparison to only 1.6 million in 2020. These people were crowded into dense blocks with upward of half a million people per square mile. The subways had not yet opened, suburban sprawl had not yet arrived, there were no rail connections under the Hudson River, and Manhattan had few or no road connections with the other boroughs and the mainland. This produced an island of remarkable density with the Lower East Side the densest place on earth, while only a few miles north, Harlem remained almost rural.
In 1903, the Williamsburg Bridge over the East River linked the Lower East Side with undeveloped Brooklyn. The trolley lines, subways, and roadway that stretched over the Williamsburg accelerated the development of Brooklyn, first in the higher density parts of Brooklyn closest to Manhattan and later to the distant parts of Brooklyn and Queens with suburban population densities. Suburban growth started earlier than the 1950s image of Levittown, and with the movement of people outwards from Manhattan, the centers of immigrant cultural life shifted, too. In every following year, the Lower East Side lost people, arriving at a density in 2020 only a sixth of what it was in 1900.
Over the following decades, improvements in public transportation and the introduction of the car “smoothed” out the population density. At the same time, Manhattan’s street network expanded to cover the whole of the island from end to end. As the subways made commuting easier, people no longer need to live within walking distance of where they worked. As a result, many industries remained in Manhattan while their workers moved to other boroughs, and later still to the more distant suburbs. As a result, the population densities of Manhattan today are more consistent from one end of the island to the other. Unlike in 1900, Harlem today is about as dense of the Lower East Side because transportation has made one part of the island almost as accessible to work as any other part of the island.
This animation illustrates Manhattan specifically, but Manhattan’s growth and population densities were influenced by larger population and technology changes in the New York region.