Kingsbridge still a way station for immigrants


What makes Riverdale Riverdale?

Third in a series

By Kate Pastor, Maria Clark and Aliza Appelbaum

The Kingsbridge of 79-year-old Manfred Segal’s bygone years is no more.

Gone are the RKO and Dale movie theaters, the Woolworth’s and the Horn and Hardart retail store. Gone are the old-fashioned ice cream parlor, the knitting shop and Walbaum’s. Now the area has a McDonald’s, a Staples, nail salons, bodegas.

“Every store that I know of is gone, and there’s something else there,” said Mr. Segal.

Kingsbridge, always conceived of as a crossroads, has changed. But by beckoning families and entrepreneurs from around the world, it has remained true to its roots.

An ancient newspaper, now encased behind glass at the Church of the Mediator and likely written a century ago, carried a story entitled: “Around old Kingsbridge: Graced by nature, famed in story, an hour from City Hall.” The article reads like an advertisement for the neighborhood (which it may well have been), boasting its many enticements and blaming its lack of development on overcharging landowners.

Proximity to City Hall, the benefits of a new Harlem River ship canal — then under construction — beautiful scenery and rich history were the four reasons it would boom, the article said. “On the map Kingsbridge looks like a spiderweb. It resembles Rome and all roads seem to lead to it.”

When the No. 1 train was completed in the 1910s, Manhattanites spread outward and upward to the Bronx, the city’s corner of the U.S. mainland. Bronx Borough Historian Lloyd Ultan said the iron foundry and the railroad had — in previous decades — brought people looking for work, and businesses sprouted up to serve them. The subway accelerated the process.

“Urbanization hit just before the subway along Broadway,” said Mr. Ultan. “Where the subway went, that’s where the developers went as soon as the subway was announced, to attract people to the borough.”

Jewish delis opened near Broadway and West 231st Street, alongside Irish pubs and Italian pizzerias that migrated from Arthur Avenue. Loeser’s on West 231st Street and The Punch Bowl on West 238th Street — two of the holdovers from that period — still cater to the aging Jewish and Irish populations, while attracting the area’s newest residents, too.

In recent years, changes in the neighborhood’s demographics have been dramatic, but Kingsbridge remains a place of immigrants. Some travel from overseas and make Kingsbridge their first stop on the path to the American Dream. Others make stopovers in places like Inwood or Washington Heights before streaming across the Broadway Bridge. Older waves of immigrants have shifted to the suburbs, making room for the new crop.

Rev. Diego Delgado-Miller of the Church of the Mediator on West 231st Street said the majority of his congregants were white as recently as seven years ago. Now he can count the number of whites on two hands and most of his parishioners are Spanish speakers from a variety of countries. The church estimates the neighborhood is about 15 percent white, 16 percent African-American, 60 percent Hispanic/Latino, four percent Asian and four percent “other.”

“It’s become like the United Nations,” said Charlie Shayne, executive director of the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, where he has worked for 25 years.

He estimated that more than 53 countries are represented in the neighborhood, from a large community of Dominicans to smaller numbers of residents from all over the world.

“No one feels that this is just their neighborhood ... You might have a Vietnamese family next to a family from Senegal, next to one from Bulgaria,” he said.

As the area diversifies racially, it is also getting younger, and many of the newest residents are families just starting out, said Katherine Broihier, district manager of the Kingsbridge Business Improvement District and a Kingsbridge resident. Keith Mitchell, owner of a new hand-dipped chocolate shop on West 231st Street near Broadway, said most customers are under age 35.

Though increased diversity has not brought strife to Kingsbridge, once you move away from the commercial hub near West 231st Street and Broadway — with its bus stops, diners and coffee shops — topographical boundaries split the area into distinct sections that sometimes fall along racial and class lines that not everyone crosses.

“The socioeconomic thing, I think, is really about Broadway,” said Neill Bogan director of development at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, noting that the street runs between middle class and low-income neighborhoods.

For Mr. Segal, it also marks the division between different groups of immigrants.

“The old-time residents are on the east of Broadway and the farther east you go is kind of the new wave of immigrants,” he said.

To the west, on Corlear, Tibbett and Irwin avenues, are small homes along tree-lined streets. The area has been called Kingsdale by shop owners either hoping to cash in Riverdale’s allure or contesting its boundaries. Residents, too, can go either way, considering themselves proud residents of Kingsbridge, or outliers to Riverdale, according to Brad Trebach of Trebach Realty. Mr. Trebach is also the vice chairman of Community Board 8.

East of Broadway, alongside Bailey Avenue, is the Major Deegan Expressway, which would have more distinctly split the neighborhood were it not built beneath streets that now flow across it. It did, however, displace the Church of the Visitation and it brought more residents and taller buildings in order to accommodate them. Some of the new apartments were built with public money — Housing Authority projects and Mitchell Lama middle income towers among them. The buildings created an urban feel not found in much of Kingsbridge, apart from its commercial center.

“Not many people know we’re there,” said Richie Bedus, who recently opened a bar called the Bottom Line on West 238th Street and Bailey Avenue. “We never thought there was anything else beyond the Ale House,” he said he hears customers say, referring to a new bar on West 238th and Broadway that has brought in customers from Riverdale and around the Bronx. Other patrons, he said, are wary of the public housing on Bailey Avenue, though he hasn’t had any problems.

Beyond Bailey, a looming bluff separates Kingsbridge and its neighbor to the east, Kingsbridge Heights.

“Up the hill, down the hill is real here, too,” Mr. Bogan said.

The area bounded by Reservoir Avenue, West Kingsbridge Road and Sedgwick Avenue makes up only three percent of the 50th Precinct’s coverage area but accounted for 17 percent of crime in the area last year, prompting special attention from police, and creating another distinction from its down-the-hill neighbor.

“Kingsbridge is nicer. It’s cleaner, better than around here,” said Teresa Velasquez, 44, as she stood on Kingsbridge Terrace near the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center on a recent afternoon. “Over there, there are no people just hanging around, like teenagers on steps.”

The area straight up the hill from Kingsbridge is only one side of the Heights, though. In 1926, Abraham Kazan, then president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, founded the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative on Van Cortlandt Avenue South, and other housing co-ops like the Shalom Aleichem Houses sprouted up. Founded on socialist ideals by union workers who had fought for labor rights, the area around the co-ops was generally known as The Amalgamated, Mr. Ultan said.

But in the 1970s, resident Phil Snyder felt it was worthy of its own name. A sign announcing the area as Van Cortlandt Village Square was put up at Sedgwick Avenue and Van Cortlandt Avenue West in 1975, Mr. Ultan said.

Here too, the predominantly Jewish garment workers have been replaced by a more diverse group of workers and their families, many of whom stick around for generations. Though the people have changed, the values have not. The Amalgamated, which has a waiting list for new residents, still attracts union members, and those who make too much money don’t qualify to live there.

“It’s a very close-knit community,” said Gary Axelbank, the host of BronxTalk whose family has lived in Van Cortlandt Village for four generations. “We are pretty stable and neighbors stay a long time.”

Fort Independence Park, another slice within Van Cortlandt Village, also maintains a unique identity.

“I think it was always a separate place,” said Karen Argenti, co-president of the Fort Independence Park Neighborhood Association, noting the familial feel. “This is a place where there are more houses, there are more homeowners here. Kingsbridge Heights is more apartment buildings.”

Made up of many parts — some constantly in flux — Kingsbridge is defined by change: people coming and going to improve their lives.

“The older people stayed, the younger people moved out to the suburbs or up to Westchester,” said Dorothy Smith, 80, who is Irish/ Scottish-American and has lived in the neighborhood for 67 years.

While she has seen friends and relatives move on, she said the neighborhood’s strength is its stability of character.

“The people moving in have been hard working people,” she said. “They try to stay, they try to become part of the neighborhood, and they are.”