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Thread: A Bronx Cheer (Riverdale)

  1. #1

    Default A Bronx Cheer (Riverdale)

    January 23, 2005


    A Bronx Cheer


    WHEN I moved to Riverdale, a friend with deep New York roots asked, with a knowing smile that betrayed an itch to have a bit of socioeconomic sport: "So, when people ask you where you live, what are you going to say? Riverdale or the Bronx?"

    You don't have to live in Riverdale very long before you realize that you need an official policy on how to answer that question. Will you identify yourself primarily with Riverdale, a name that to many New Yorkers evokes country lanes, pillared mansions and golden retrievers romping in the yard? Or will you be a mensch and declare to the world that you live in the Bronx, a place associated in the popular imagination, however unfairly, with the Cross-Bronx Expressway, burned-out buildings and illegal cockfights?

    Actually, this is not so great a matter for people who live in the neighborhood that gives Riverdale its wealthy repute - upstairs Riverdale, if you will. It is possible that the woodsiest, grassiest, most uncitified neighborhoods in the whole city are in Riverdale. There are also a couple of colleges, some private schools and the soothing, sanctuarial public gardens of Wave Hill, on whose riverfront grounds Toscanini, Twain and a young Teddy Roosevelt once lived.

    The circumstances of these Riverdalians are so uncharacteristic of the larger Bronx, you can hardly hold it against them if they barely concede that they live there. If you're looking at the world from baronial digs overlooking the Hudson, with a Mercedes in the driveway, a child at Princeton and a second home in the Hamptons, the Bronx east of the Major Deegan must seem as far away as Bangladesh.

    But most Riverdalians do not live in beautiful stone houses with high-maintenance landscaping and surveillance warnings posted on the trees. They live in apartment buildings, many as uninspired as parking garages, and in old neighborhoods of modest houses built almost wall to wall, little patches of garden out back and only the sidewalk - with maybe a few impatiens and a swatch of hedge - out front. In my neighborhood, the rumble and squeal of the elevated No. 1 and 9 trains is perpetual, and Broadway traces the western edge of Van Cortlandt Park, on summer weekends one of the most extravagantly multicultural places on Earth. As Bronx as the Bronx gets.

    The identification issue arises mainly among those of us who live in downstairs Riverdale. Residents who emphasize their Riverdale connection to the near exclusion of their Bronx one arouse the suspicion that they do not wish to be associated with the Bronx. It is not necessarily that they are ashamed of the borough they live in (though they could be); they would simply prefer not to draw attention to it. As the Web site notes in its description of the Bronx: "Some residents of Riverdale are reluctant to be associated with the Bronx, and use 'Riverdale, New York' as an address."

    Let's face it: The Bronx, though many of us love it and are happy to live in it, though it has a greatness and even a grandeur evident to all but the unseeing, is Nowheresville to those who care about address and appearances. There is not an arriviste alive who aspires to have "Bronx, N.Y." as an official address. The folks back home in Harrisburg would not be impressed.

    The Bronx is, in fact, a place that many thousands of people have aspired only to escape. It shows up in the "humble beginnings" part of the American success story, never in the "glorious arrival" part (baseball excluded). What is an essential fact that celebrity fandom knows about people like Ralph Lauren, J. Lo and Colin Powell? Sure, they started in the Bronx, but they made it out.

    Riverdale is different. Among affluent, accomplished New Yorkers, Riverdale counts for something. Your Upper East Side friends don't look down on you for living in Riverdale. People can contentedly live in Riverdale who would not for a second consider living anywhere else in the Bronx, or even visiting.

    This sociology can be traced back to a real estate venture in the 1850's, when what is now Riverdale was a remote part of Westchester, and wealthy industrialists built lavish homes on land overlooking the Hudson. One "development" was called the Park, Riverdale; another was called Riverdale Park. Clearly the snootiness factor, real or perceived, was present at the creation.

    Today, most people agree that Riverdale is bounded on three sides by the Hudson, Broadway and the Yonkers line, but opinions differ on how far south it goes. Some say it lies entirely within the 10471 ZIP code, which is served by the Riverdale post office, while others say it includes large parts of the 10463 ZIP code, which is served by the Kingsbridge post office.

    "They're all wrong," said Lloyd Ultan, the Bronx borough historian, explaining that Riverdale has no official boundaries. If you think you live there, you probably do.

    I'm a 10463 Riverdalian, but when people ask me where I live, I say the Bronx. Why would I want to conceal my association with a place that has the Grand Concourse, City Island, the botanical garden, the world's most famous zoo, Fordham University, the real Little Italy, Yankee Stadium and more park space than any other borough?

    When I have time to kill, what am I supposed to do? Ogle the opulence on upper Independence Avenue? I'd rather take the bus to Arthur Avenue and ogle the olive oils and cheeses. You can buy an excellent cigar in the market there that they make right in front of you. Or maybe I'll stroll down to 231st Street and Broadway in Kingsbridge for a pastrami sandwich or a slice.

    I'll read the sports pages in the Gold Mine Donut Shop, directly under the ancient, rattling el. I'll go to Van Cortlandt Park and watch Manhattan College play baseball, or the handball and one-wall racquetball games that local kids and old-timers alike play with great passion all day long and into the night. When the breeze is right, the air is fragrant with the scent from the Stella D'Oro factory just a few blocks away.

    OCCASIONALLY, in conversation with New Yorkers who know the city well and to avoid sounding disingenuous, I do say I live in Riverdale. But most of the time it's simply "the Bronx." That is also the address I give when I travel, when I'm talking to people in a roadhouse down South or checking in at some rural motel out West. In those places the words "Bronx, New York" almost always elicit a double take, for there is not an American alive who does not recognize them and, thanks mainly to movies and television, have a strong idea of the place they stand for. Inevitably there is a remark like: "Wow. The Bronx, huh?"

    I try to be on my best behavior with these people - friendly, generous, attentive. I have found that saying I'm from the Bronx gives me a sense of almost emissarial responsibility. People from "New York" are everywhere, and people everywhere are used to them. It doesn't mean much.

    But the Bronx - that is a statement. That's a friendly poke in the jaw. That snaps Wyoming moteliers wide awake late at night. That makes me a representative of two separate places I like a great deal, New York City and the underappreciated, often ridiculed borough I live in. It seems important to behave accordingly.

    Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

  2. #2


    I would love to visit Riverdale when I come up. Sounds like an interesting neighborhood.

  3. #3
    Forum Veteran
    Join Date
    Jan 2003
    Garden City, LI


    Quote Originally Posted by ILUVNYC
    I would love to visit Riverdale when I come up. Sounds like an interesting neighborhood.
    The parts of Riverdale people know as "Riverdale" are very nice. Beautiful estate-type houses. Windy roads with no sidewalks. Views of the Hudson. It's like Westchester, only in the city. Very nice, really. Wave Hill is pretty damn special. Even the sections with the higher-end co-ops is pretty nice.

  4. #4


    January 30, 2005


    Riverdale, or the Bronx? (8 Letters)

    To the Editor:

    As a native of the Bronx, born in the University Heights section of the borough (West 183rd Street), raised in the Kingsbridge Heights section (Webb Avenue), a graduate of a high school in the Mosholu section (DeWitt Clinton), and for the past 45 years a resident of the Riverdale section, I take exception to reviling what we call where we live and applaud Mitch Keller for defending my native borough ("A Bronx Cheer," New York Observed, Jan. 23).

    Lest we decry Riverdalian vanity, however, we should note how in the classified real estate columns houses and even colleges (Sarah Lawrence) in Yonkers are advertised as possessing a tonier Bronxville P.O. (post office address), in New Rochelle many boast a Scarsdale P.O. and in Mamaroneck many are proud of a Larchmont P.O.

    Vanity of vanities is not restricted to Riverdale.

    Avrum Hyman
    Riverdale, the Bronx

    To the Editor:

    "A Bronx Cheer" captures well the dual identity of many Riverdale residents. We, too, find ourselves choosing the Bronx or Riverdale identities in different contexts. But the article missed the other facet of identity: the local response.

    If we say we're from the Bronx to former or current residents of the borough, and we answer their question "Where in the Bronx?," they invariably respond, "Oh, you're not from the Bronx; you're from Riverdale."

    Bette Kirschstein
    Jonathan Gellman
    Riverdale, the Bronx

    To the Editor:

    Now that I've lived here some 20 years, my response to questions of where I live has become: "People in Riverdale would rather die than say that they live in the Bronx." Keeps me honest and yet sets me apart.

    Will Turner
    Riverdale, the Bronx

    To the Editor:

    The question, knowing smile and all, "So, when people ask you where you live, what are you going to say? Riverdale or the Bronx?" reminded me of how that simple question could have changed my life.

    Some 40-odd years ago, when I was a student at Queens College (a Bronxite's version of an out-of-town school), my husband and I first met. His opening question to me was a slight variation, substituting Parkchester for Riverdale. My answer, then and now, a resounding "the Bronx," but I felt so strongly about it that the question alone almost negated the possibility of any future relationship.

    Stephanie Brecher Sloane
    Sutton Place

    To the Editor:

    Having grown up in Beverly Hills, Calif., I couldn't dream of telling people I live anywhere else but Riverdale.

    Leda Goldsmith
    Riverdale, the Bronx

    To the Editor:

    I have resided in the Riverdale section of the Bronx for 31 years, and have always marveled upon hearing friends' and neighbors' varying responses as to where they live. My reaction has been uniform: As a criminal defense attorney who has spent many a day in the courts of this hugely diverse borough, I suggest that those who say "Riverdale" and have not yet experienced the joy of receiving a juror subpoena might get themselves arrested and note where they are taken for arraignment.

    It ain't Wave Hill.

    Rather they would all go to 161st Street and Grand Concourse - just like our co-inhabitants from Parkchester, Norwood, Morris Park, Mott Haven, Woodlawn and even City Island.

    Mark M. Baker
    Riverdale, the Bronx

    To the Editor:

    As a Riverdale resident, I am perplexed at the increasing amount of times when I am out walking my dog that a car will pull over, the driver will lower the window and say, "Excuse me, can you tell me how I get to the Bronx?"

    David Smelin
    Riverdale, the Bronx

    To the Editor:

    For goodness' sake, can we once and for all abandon the no longer applicable quarter-century-old stereotypes of the Bronx? We're not "escaping"; census numbers show the Bronx population is rising steadily. We live here because we like it!

    Gary Axelbank
    Van Cortlandt Village, the Bronx

    Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

  5. #5


    Wow this article was amazing.

  6. #6


    A Private Landmark Agenda

    December 30, 2005

    When the old Penn Station was torn down to make way for the new Madison Square Garden forty years ago, New Yorkers were justifiably outraged. A fine, historic public space was lost. Determined that buildings and even neighborhoods of historic architectural significance should not be casually destroyed, the city fathers set up legal protections to preserve our heritage. At the center of this is the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

    Like many initially good ideas administered by government, our preservation strategy has grown into a powerful bureaucracy, administered by individuals who often seem to want to protect every thing and any thing - and often for the wrong reasons.

    In a few days, the city's Landmark Preservation Commission is slated to declare that the private community of Fieldston in Riverdale is a historic district, in effect landmarking all but the most recently built structures there. From that point on, homeowners will need government approval for any change they make to the exterior of their own homes, even if they want to change the color that the front door is painted.

    Fieldston is a privileged private community of about 250 homes. Riverdale is the middle class enclave in the northwest Bronx that has managed to avoid the urban decay that besets much of the rest of the borough. But Fieldston, with its multi-million dollar homes and tree lined streets, is changing. In recent years, many of its homes have purchased by members of Riverdale's growing Orthodox Jewish community. Typically, they renovate these 80-year-old homes to allow for larger kitchens and more bedrooms and bathrooms.

    You can walk or drive through Fieldston at any time of day or night and rarely see another human being. It is almost as if it is a back lot of a movie studio. The houses could be empty shells. You almost never see children playing, or a barbecue, or residents sunning themselves in their yards.

    The arrival of the Orthodox community has begun to change this. It is now common to see families strolling through the community on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. This, I fear, does not sit well with the old guard.

    There is an uneasy feeling here that the rush to landmark this nice but historically insignificant collection of homes has more to do with putting a lid on the future growth of the Orthodox community than saving our city's precious architectural legacy. Certainly Fieldston does not fit the Commission's own description: "An historic district is an area of the city designated by the Landmarks Commission that represents at least one period or style of architecture typical of one or more areas in the city's history."

    Fieldston was conceived and many of its houses designed by an architect named Dwight James Baum, a favorite of rich persons who would hire him to design a house that was the exact copy of some other house. Baum, a distant relative of the author of "The Wizard of Oz," was pleased to comply. Give Baum a picture of a house clipped from a magazine, and he was off to the races. No Frank Lloyd Wright he.

    This copy-cat style of architecture reached its pinnacle in Baum's Ca' d'Zan, an ersatz Venetian palazzo in Sarasota, Florida built for circus magnate John Ringling. Imagine all of the buildings along Venice's Grand Canal distilled into one huge structure of poor taste and nauseating excess. This is Baum's masterpiece.

    The Italian author Umberto Eco described the interior as stolen from the posh Danieli Hotel in Venice - except that Baum made it even more ostentatious. So exercised is Mr. Eco over the deliberate excess in Baum's plagiaristic style that he noted in his 1991 book "Travels in Hyper reality" that "the architect Dwight James Baum deserves (in the sense that Eichmann does) to go down in history."

    Charles Moerdler, who lives in a house designed by Baum, puts it more succinctly: "Baum was a hack." Mr. Moerdler knows his architecture, having once served as the city's Buildings Commissioner.

    So why the rush to landmark? The answer may be found in the experience of a previous Riverdale landmark, another Baum building, the Italianate villa he designed in the 1920s for construction magnate Anthony Campagna. No one was interested in designating this as a landmark until the building was purchased by the Telshe Yeshiva as a dormitory for its students a decade ago. Then the powers-that-be decided to have this building landmarked at light speed, before the Yeshiva could embark on a planned expansion.

    A couple of blocks to the north is the home that President Kennedy lived in as a child, never considered "historic" enough for landmark status. Nobody cared that this structure was sliced and diced, no one ever thought to protect it. Yet I have this nagging feeling that if the black-hatted Yeshiva boys were installed in the Kennedy House instead of the Campagna Mansion, there would have been enormous new interest in the late president's boyhood home, while the villa would have been ignored.

    What makes the designation of Fieldston as a historic district particularly objectionable is the fact that the streets there are private property, and can be closed at will. If you were to drive up, park your car and walk on what will be publicly designated "historic" streets, your car will be towed away in minutes. I suspect that bus tours are similarly banned as Fieldston has prohibited school buses from the adjacent Horace Mann School from passing through its private streets.

    It seems to me that if this is truly an important historical area, the Landmarks Preservation Commission must insist that the streets be opened to bus tours and parking permitted so that all New Yorkers can study and enjoy this "landmark" area. Otherwise, this is nothing more than the city misusing the landmarks law to benefit the private, perhaps sinister, interests of a privileged few.

  7. #7


    May 28, 2006
    Streetscapes | Fieldston, the Bronx
    A Leafy, Scenic Enclave, and Now a Landmark

    This Norman Revival house — after its completion in 1927 — was built for George F. Wagner at Fieldston Road and 246th Street.

    Norman Revival house today.

    THE angry red "Stop Landmarking" signs have mostly disappeared from the lush green lawns in Fieldston, the romantic 1920's suburban enclave in the northwest Bronx, very roughly bounded by the Henry Hudson Parkway, Broadway and 244th and 250th Streets.

    Although the landmark district will preserve the unusual architecture of Fieldston's 250 houses, some owners were opposed because the landmark designation restricts what they can do with their property. Despite the protests, the Landmarks Preservation Commission's proposal for a Fieldston Historic District was ratified by the City Council on April 26.

    A map of the district and the commission's 449-page designation report are posted on its Web site at

    Fieldston's landscape is so rocky and scenic that it is hard to imagine it is part of New York City.

    Only a few houses had gone up in Fieldston by 1914 when Carleton van Valkenburg critiqued it in American Homes and Gardens magazine. He especially praised the preservation of the craggy, romantic character of the place, which was "level in spots, then rolling and pitching down into ravines, baring rocks and boulders in fantastic masses, and everywhere trees, trees that Nature seems to have arranged in groups that incomparably enhance the landscape."

    In 1924, The New York Times reported that Fieldston had become "a colony of peculiarly congenial families."

    By 1930, most of the lots had houses on them, usually in Tudor, medieval, Norman and Mediterranean styles.

    No architect was more active than Dwight James Baum, who had practiced in the area since about 1915. A walk up Fieldston Road, the main boulevard in this neighborhood of privately owned streets, provides a showcase of Fieldston architecture, particularly the abilities of this agile and talented designer.

    Just above Manhattan College Parkway, the 1925 house at 4421 Fieldston Road, a dignified white stucco palazzo capped by a tiled roof in mottled orange and red, is characteristic of Mr. Baum's deft use of the Mediterranean style.

    Elements like the chunky door surround and the quoining — the raised blocks at the corners of the house — have been picked out in black paint. Old photographs indicate that this is a later change, but it gives an urbane touch to an already sophisticated work.

    Julius Gregory's 1930 house at 4530 Fieldston Road is an example of how Fieldston's terrain is as much the designer as the actual architect. In this case Mr. Gregory designed a mildly medieval-style house, but it's made magnificent by its perch on a rocky bluff that tumbles down to the sidewalk.

    On the northwest corner of 246th Street and Fieldston, Mr. Baum's handsome neo-Georgian house of 1928 has some enviable little Gothic tracery in the arched windows on the main floor, although its red brick is not in the usual Fieldston palette of stucco and stone.

    On the northeast corner, Mr. Baum's 1927 Norman Revival house for George F. Wagner, a butter and eggs dealer, is one of the most unusual in New York.

    Writing in The New York Herald Tribune in 1930, Mr. Baum said that the intersection was the most important in Fieldston, and he built the Wagner house with two wings facing their flanking streets and bending slightly around the axis of a corner tower.

    The house is in near original condition: it still has the annunciator system, steel casement windows, double-door compartment for milk deliveries in the kitchen and a special curved radiator in the circular front hall.

    The secret of the house is its service wing, which wraps around the back and creates an intimate courtyard in the rear, quite civilized and different from the usual suburban backyard.

    Mr. Baum was able to give the main rooms flow-through ventilation. The living room, to the right of the main door, has four doors to the outside, and the sunroom beyond it has five.

    The architect lavished attention on the Wagner house, with a sundial perched on the turret, thin bricks set on edge to form arches over the windows, and rough terra-cotta roof tile laid with studied irregularity.

    In fact, the roof, often a throwaway element in house design, is one of the sights of Fieldston. At first glance it looks as if it is in poor repair, with numerous patches and disturbed sections. But Mr. Baum was a connoisseur of the antique, and the supposed "patches" are evenly spaced. He subtly shaded the colors of the tile, from burnt toast at the gutter line up through red, orange and almost yellow at the ridge line, as if shade were giving way to sunlight.

    Mr. Baum played with roofing on other houses in Fieldston, many of which have shingles that get smaller and smaller as the roof recedes, a trick of perspective. The house next door, 4614 Fieldston Road, is a perfect example of this artistic touch.

    Across the street at No. 4625, Mr. Baum worked in the Mediterranean style for Michael Campagna, whose family real estate firm built major apartment houses like 834, 960 and 1115 Fifth Avenue. The 1930 census reported the value of the 1927 Campagna house at $200,000; the figure for the Wagner house was $50,000.

    Mr. Baum's giant, formal neo-Classical house at 4650 Fieldston Road, built for the stockbroker William P. Hoffman and his family of five, is not so successful, a red brick aircraft carrier of a thing. In Fieldston it's like wearing a dinner jacket on an Adirondack hike.

    At 4731 Fieldston Road, Mr. Baum created a no-holds-barred Tudor design, an asymmetrical castle of pegged half-timbering, contrasting brick and stone, leaded glass and a steep roof.

    Compare this with the 1922 Tudor at 5000 Fieldston Road by W. Stanwood Phillips, a house made stunning by its high, rocky perch, as if it were a fortified keep.


    Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

  8. #8

    Default Great Piece!

    "A Bronx Cheer": great piece, great writing!

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