What makes Riverdale Riverdale?
Second in a series
By Kate Pastor, Maria Clark and Aliza Appelbaum
Riverdale — a green oasis atop a hill in the Bronx — has always stood apart.
The earliest settlers in Riverdale — part of Westchester until the west Bronx was annexed to the city in 1874 — created a Romantic-era suburban enclave they fought hard to maintain against the thrust of modernity.
When the city began remapping streets, the wealthy Delafield family avoided having them cut through Riverdale by developing the land themselves to maintain the neighborhood’s distinct characteristics.
Even today, some Riverdalians set themselves apart by writing Riverdale, N.Y., when penning their addresses on letters — a quiet protest that began in the 1960s when the Post Office decided only the 10471 zip code could be considered Riverdale. Others, who are proud to acknowledge they live in the Bronx, are dismissed because the neighborhood doesn’t “count” toward perceptions of poverty and crime.
“There’s a status associated with living in Riverdale and the status is that it’s not really part of the Bronx,” said Betty Begley, who considers herself a mid-central-north Riverdale resident.
An outsider in its borough in many ways, Riverdale has cradled the famous and nurtured the wealthy. But the view from afar — of an elite enclave with little inner strife — is only a half-truth, a perception that lags behind a more diverse reality.
Much has changed since it was home only to Gilded Age robber barons. It’s now a place made up of North Riverdale, South Riverdale, Fieldston and Spuyten Duyvil, and has Mason- Dixon lines of its own.
Take North and South. Everybody has a different idea of where the boundary should be drawn, whether it’s the Monument on West 239th Street and Henry Hudson Parkway or West 246th Street or West 254th Street. But there’s no question that there’s an invisible divide, especially among the young.
“South Riverdale crew always hung out together and if you bumped into the North Riverdale crew there was bound to be some kind of fight going on,” said Rosanna Shkreli, 23, a proud “South Riverdale girl” who grew up on West 238th Street and Greystone Avenue and now lives in Yonkers.
Kids from the two sides of town would duel with eggs on Halloween and mark up each other’s graffiti on mailboxes when she was growing up, she said. When students who graduated from PS 81 in North Riverdale met up with kids from PS 24 in South Riverdale in junior high, at The David A. Stein Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, MS/HS 141, they rarely spoke. When they did it was often to taunt each other, Ms. Shkreli said. The same thing is still going on today.
Child’s play? Maybe. But adults also draw lines within the three-square-mile area most refer to as Riverdale.
With two commercial hearts that beat along Mosholu and Riverdale avenues, parts of North Riverdale were downzoned in 1953, limiting construction. Irish Catholics once dominated the area and many residents still refer to it as “St. Margaret’s Parish.” Except for the Estate Area along Palisade Avenue and Fieldston — both arguably located in North Riverdale, but which exist separately in many people’s minds — North Riverdale consists of less expensive, smaller homes than its counterpart in the south, and tends to be home to generations of working- and middle-class families, known for its rowdier Little League and lively games of stickball.
It doesn’t get more neighborly than this: Three regulars ate breakfast one recent morning at Noni’s on Riverdale Avenue, while Pete, the cook and opener, prepared for the crowd. Kathleen Rivera, who has lived in Skyview for 15 years, came in to eat and help at the break of dawn, as she does every morning with a “gang” of regulars.
“It’s like that in the neighborhood. Everybody looks out for each other. We all know each other,” she said.
South Riverdale, perceived as North Riverdale’s wealthier, more Jewish counterpart, flourished when Robert Moses’ much-contested Henry Hudson Parkway and Henry Hudson Bridge were completed in 1936 (a move that provoked fierce opposition from local environmentalists). Today, it still serves as more of an upperclass bedroom commuter town than its northern neighbor. Some come to South Riverdale for myriad synagogues and old-age homes, some come for the schools, others for a good night’s rest at the end of a long day working in “the City.”
And it’s not just North and South that claim different identities. There is no limit to the ways this three-square mile neighborhood can be sliced.
Spuyten Duyvil — with homes and buildings down near what was once the Spuyten Duyvil Creek — is home to some residents who take great pride in their neighborhood’s namesake. Then there’s Fieldston, a private area that encompasses a landmarked historic district. Private streets are left open for everyday amblers, but the area, dotted with large homes and mansions, is seen by many as a world unto itself. In addition to the signs asserting its private nature, as well as historical perceptions that snow removal is slow-to-come and potholes can take a long time to be fixed can seem to some as intentional attempts at exclusion — a way to keep the riffraff out. Some of the residents, said Ruth Friendly, widow of news broadcast legend Fred Friendly, might like to gate the whole thing off, but fixing potholes doesn't come cheap and since Fieldston's residents have to pay to have the work done, it has occasionally taken more time than it should.
While there are those who look at Fieldston as Riverdale’s bourgeois heart, there are people who live there who believe that the money is greener on the other side of the parkway.
When Andy Meyers, a teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and lifelong Fieldston resident, was growing up there in the 1970s, the area was a mix of predominantly upwardly mobile white families from immigrant backgrounds, he said. They saw the Estate Area, down by the water, as many see Fieldston, a bastion of old money and a last hangeron from 19th century Riverdale. The Estate Area earns its name with many true mansions that sit on beautiful grounds. Wave Hill, now a public garden, was a private home until 1960.
Perceptions of exclusion, however, have not only been about class. The effort to make the entire Fieldston area a landmark, which began in the late 1990s and came to fruition in 2006, was seen by some Orthodox Jews as a way to keep them out by making it harder to enlarge homes to accommodate growing families.
“The sense that I got was that at least, in part, if I supported landmarking that I was a self-hating Jew or that it called into question my support for my people,” Mr. Meyers said, unveiling yet another point of tension within Riverdale.
Many of the Jews who settled in Riverdale in the 1950s were less religious, more secular humanist, he said, than the many Orthodox who have come more recently. The erection of an “eruv” — a wire circling a broad area from Yonkers to South Riverdale making the entire area into a “home” so Orthodox Jews within its boundaries can perform tasks otherwise forbidden on Saturdays, such as carrying umbrellas — was proof that more Orthodox had started making their homes in the area.
The New York Times noted in 2007 that since the Salanter Akiba Academy of Riverdale’s Orthodox high school was started in 2003, new kosher eateries, including a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts signaled a shift in the neighborhood’s previously Irish demographics. Young Israel Ohab Zedek was the only Orthodox synagogue in North Riverdale when it came in 1991.
Close observers, however, note that there is more of, well, everybody in the area now. And greater diversity can sometimes mean sharper divisions.
“I think we feel much more as a set of distinct communities within Riverdale, whether it’s geographic or religious or ethnic,” Mr. Meyers said. “I don’t know that it feels quite as unified, and maybe that’s a product of greater diversity.”
But while differences are real, there seems to be a limit on how seriously people take them.
“I think it was all fun and games,” said Ms. Shkreli of her childhood wars. “It wasn’t really fighting each other. I think the only people everybody really fought was Kingsbridge.”
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