What makes Riverdale Riverdale? How a community divided remains standing


First in a series

By Kate Pastor, Maria Clark and Aliza Appelbaum

Community is what you make it.

From its beginning, The Riverdale Press has helped to define the “community” that makes up the northwest Bronx.

When the paper first published six decades ago, it brought together otherwise separate neighborhoods under the name Riverdale. Speaking at the funeral for the paper’s founder, David A. Stein, in 1982, Fred Friendly, a broadcast journalism pioneer and Fieldston resident recalled, “Riverdale is a ... blessed habitat without a government of its own, part of a crazy quilt pattern of county, city, state and federal voting constituencies.

“What makes Riverdale more than just a fancy mailing address is a weekly ‘country’ newspaper that David and Celia Stein conceived three decades ago... Riverdale, Fieldston, Marble Hill, Spuyten Duyvil, often with diverse interests, were stitched together not by some kind of political force, but by a newspaper, The Riverdale Press,” he said.

From the beginning, the paper also covered most of Kingsbridge. And while The Press helped create the notion of a greater Riverdale/Kingsbridge area, reporters here have long noted deeply rooted divisions and distinctions within the “community.”

Apart from Fieldston — a privately owned development founded by the wealthy Delafield family — neighborhoods in The Press’ coverage area don’t exist on maps, just in the certainties of the people who live in them. They are bounded by fuzzy lines, and divided by topography, demographics, zoning and residents’ perceptions.

North and South

When Riverdalians talk about “North” or “South,” they’re not simply referring to points on a map, they’re discussing separate, sometimes even rival, neighborhoods with different demographics and “vibes.”

Among other differences, South Riverdale is thought to be more Jewish, and the Irish can seem more prominent in the North. The South is more developed, while tighter zoning rules have helped the North keep its character, with mostly smaller homes.

“It’s not like there’s sort of this hateful divide ... but if you’re a North Riverdale person, you’re not a South Riverdale person,” said Nina Velazquez, a North Riverdale resident who considers hers the tighter-knit community, with a more laidback elementary school and a more carefree Little League.

“It’s not like it’s gang territory or something, but you don’t have the need to go there,” she said of South Riverdale.

Within Riverdale is Fieldston, with signs on stone pillars informing visitors that the streets beyond are private — owned and maintained by the Fieldston Property Owners Association. The signs, sitting in front of grand houses, seem like symbols of snobbery to many fellow Riverdalians. Still, people who stroll or jog along Fieldston’s winding byways or sit by Indian Pond seem to appreciate the landscaped beauty its owners have fought hard to preserve, and that there are no gates to keep neighbors at bay.

“Do I want to keep people out? No, I don’t,” said Ruth Friendly, Fred Friendly’s widow, who has been living in Fieldston for 42 years. “But I do like that there are no cars parked on the street. I love being here. I love the environment,” she said, highlighting both an urge to share with the rest of the neighborhood, and to keep separate from it.

'Up the hill' vs. 'down the hill'

Then there are the steeper divides.

The hills that separate Kingsbridge from most of Riverdale, and Kingsbridge from Kingsbridge Heights, are topographical boundaries and symbolic ones.

When Riverdalians sometimes refer to Kingsbridge as “down the hill,” they’re not just talking about geography. The same goes for Kingsbridge residents referring to the place “up the hill.”

“Up” and “down” have become a kind of shorthand for race and class divisions between two neighborhoods that today share little but some history, a train stop, a newspaper and a hill.

“Where I am, by [West] 238th Street, once you hit the bottom of the stairs, east of Broadway, it becomes a different world,” said Joe Stanton, a Riverdale resident who grew up in Kingsbridge but said he rarely goes there now.

Kingsbridge was once home largely to the most recently arrived Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants. But when Coop City opened in 1970, thousands moved there from the West Bronx and newer waves of Hispanic immigrants took their places. Streets once lined with Jewish delis now offer cuisine from Latin America and the Caribbean alongside African hair braiding.

While there are those who love the diversity, there are plenty of Riverdalians for whom Kingsbridge now seems a foreign land.

“The people down there are more suspicious-appearing to me,” Mr. Stanton said, adding, “It wasn’t always that way. I grew up in Kingsbridge, but it’s changed a lot. There’s more crime.”

On a recent April evening, Pat Hennessy, a 77-year-old Irish immigrant who moved to the U.S. in May 1961, savored a beer at The Punch Bowl in Kingsbridge.

“Riverdale is for the rich and famous,” he said. “In Kingsbridge we’re just hearty working folk.”

The many faces of Kingsbridge

What’s often labeled Kingsbridge by people “up the hill” is hardly of a piece, either.

The area is really three distinct neighborhoods with ill-defined boundaries: Kingsbridge proper, Kingsbridge Heights and Van Cortlandt Village.

Kingsbridge, the commercial center of the northwest Bronx, is abutted by largely residential Kingsbridge Heights to the east, with its maze of narrow, twisting one-way streets and steep hills. It is mostly a working-class, residential area, comprised of older residents from Jewish, Irish and Italian communities, as well as younger immigrant families from all over the world. In the last 25 years, the neighborhood has become more diverse and more of a melting pot, said Charlie Shayne, executive director of the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center.

Van Cortlandt Village, hemmed in by the park, the reservoir and a highway, is perhaps best-known for its extremely vocal community activists. They follow in the footsteps of those who founded housing cooperatives in that neighborhood, like the Amagamated and the Shalom Aleichem Houses, built in the 1920s and ‘30s on a foundation of socialist ideals.

“The people in the Giles/ Cannon area consider themselves a separate community,” said Robin Nagy, a 57-year-old Kingsbridge resident of 12 years who lives on Bailey Avenue, on the border with Kingsbridge Heights and Van Cortlandt Village. Though Giles Place is only two blocks over from his street, it can feel much further, he said.

Neither here nor there

Likewise, two people who share a house in Marble Hill can claim to live in different boroughs.

Connected to the Bronx in 1914 when the canal that separated it was filled in, it used to look like an exclamation point on Manhattan, according to the Rev. Dr. William Tieck. Now, it seems to float between the island and the Bronx mainland, as do its people. While residents receive many Bronx services, they are called to jury duty in Manhattan.

Manhattan/Bronx confusion within Marble Hill Houses came up at a recent Community Board 8 Housing Committee meeting when someone asked which local pol should they turn to with a problem if they live on Exterior Street? What about a block away, on Broadway?

In recent months, a fight broke out on West 225th Street in front of the Target — 52nd Precinct territory. It continued in the Marble Hill Houses courtyard — 50th Precinct territory, careening across invisible lines created by a canal that is no longer there.

So, with whom should residents follow up?

What is Riverdale?

So much has changed since The Press started printing 60 years ago, but the question of what defines the Riverdale/ Kingsbridge “community” remains.

In the coming weeks we’ll explore the divides between North Riverdale, South Riverdale and Fieldston, the distinct neighborhoods that make up Kingsbridge, the incline that separates people who live “up the hill” from those “down the hill,” and which borough Marble Hill is really in.

We hope you will visit our blog, Riverdale Ramblings, at www.riverdalepress.blogspot.com, to share your views on your neighborhood and how it relates to those around it, and e-mail newsroom@riverdalepress.com if you would like to be interviewed for the series.