Since he was seven years old, Donavon Smallwood had lived in the same apartment in Harlem close to the northern tip of Central Park. As a teenager, he hung out there with his friends and, later, as he became interested in photography, he would often wander through the park with his camera looking for hidden places where the clamour of the city seemed a world away. “So many urban communities don’t have any nature spaces,” he says, “so I was lucky to have one close by.”
Throughout the spring and summer of 2020, while New York was in lockdown, he photographed in and around the wooded north-western corner of the park, where ravines, glades and manmade waterfalls give the impression of a natural wilderness. Often, on his way there and back, he encountered the same people, locals mainly, for whom the park was a place to escape the constrictions of the Covid pandemic.
Researching the park’s history, Smallwood happened upon a short online documentary, ‘The Lost Neighborhood. Under New York’s Central Park’. It tells the fascinating story of Seneca Village, a 19th-century African-American community, which existed for several decades in the rural outskirts of Manhattan, before it was demolished to make way for the park.
“It was strange for me to find out that part of the place I know and love and spend so much time in was built over what once was a black community”, the photographer says.
Smallwood’s images, though informed by his eclectic reading and research, present nature and humanity existing in a kind of blissful, Eden-like harmony. In Languor, as befits its title, Central Park is rendered as a contemporary source of tranquility, even sanctuary, for black people escaping the clamour of the city, the constrictions of the lockdown and the relentless political turbulence of an America riven by racial tensions.