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The Rich History of Our New Neighborhood

On a tree-lined street just blocks from Central Park one can see the future home of Manhattan Country School. It most recently served as the location of Mannes College, The New School of Music. Mannes purchased 150 West 85th Street from the United Order of True Sisters in 1984. The True Sisters, the nation’s oldest women’s charitable organization (founded in 1846) constructed the building as its national headquarters in 1924. Just down the block at 140 West 85th Street, a dawn redwood (metasequoia glyptostroboides), an endangered coniferous tree, can be seen.

A History of Diversity

Our new home is in close proximity to a section of Central Park particularly rich in history. Seneca Village, located from 81st to 89th streets between Seventh and Eighth avenues, is believed to have been Manhattan’s first stable community of African-American property owners. Beginning in 1825, parcels of land were sold to individuals and members of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The settlement developed into a community of 250 working-class families with African Americans owning more than half the households in the community, an unusually high percentage for the time. Several churches were established within the community, including All Angels’ Church built in 1849. By the 1850s, Seneca Village was home to African Americans as well as many Irish and German immigrant families. All Angels’ had a racially integrated congregation that reflected the diversity of the community.

In 1856, the acquisition of land to create Central Park began. It is estimated that 1,600 people who owned property, lived or worked within the community had to move. The people and institutions of Seneca Village were unable to re-establish themselves in another location. Today, a plaque commemorating Seneca Village can be found at 85th Street and Central Park West.

Vibrant Neighborhood Details

The Southwest Reservoir Bridge, at 85th Street in Central Park, was designed by British-American architect and landscape designer Calvert Vaux and is decorated with elegant iron floral scroll ornamentation along its 38 feet of railings and spandrels. Calvert worked closely with his junior partner and protégé Frederick Law Olmstead to design Central Park and many other public spaces in the city.

Mariners’ Gate is at Central Park and West 85th Street, at an entrance to the park. The name for the gate reflects one of the types of people expected to enjoy the park.  Today the gate is the entryway to two neighborhood playgrounds. The first, and one of the largest playgrounds in Central Park, is the Abraham and Joseph Spector Playground at West 86th Street, which features a wooden treehouse, slides, a sandbox and tire and rope swings. The second is the Mariner’s Playground north of Summit Rock at 85th Street. This nautically themed playground features three play structures with steering wheels, decks, slides and ladders. There are also seahorse spring rockers, a large enclosed sandbox and a wooden boat platform that sways.

Within easy walking distance one can find Riverside Park, the American Museum of Natural History, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, Ballet Hispanico and the New York Historical Society.

One block away from Central Park and just next door to MCS’ new home is the Brandeis High School Campus. The original Louis D. Brandeis High School closed in 2012 and the building has become the home of four smaller schools. The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers aims to prepare students for careers focused on solving the challenges of environmental injustice and ensuring equitable access to quality living and resources for all citizens. The Innovation Diploma Plus High School is a small, community-based school that offers students a second chance to earn a high school diploma. The Global Learning Collaborative offers an international approach to learning and college preparation. In addition, the building serves as the K-4 Upper West location of Success Academy Charter School.

As MCS begins its next half-century on West 85th Street, we will find ways to remember how East 96th Street shaped our first 50 years, from our mission to curriculum to community events. There will undoubtedly be a lot more to learn about the evolving history of 150 West 85th Street, the block, the west side of Central Park, the connections with the Upper West Side and Harlem and MCS, the destination school that has and will continue to serve us well.   

—Written by Tom Hastings, MCS Parent