Saturday, June 7, 2014

No Going Home Again

Today was a day for me to take a spin around the two Westchester County (NY) cities where I spent the first two decades of my life:Yonkers, my birthplace, and Mount Vernon, the adjoining community where I spent all my public school years through high school.  I was in the area for a 70th birthday party at Saxon Woods, probably the premier public golf links in a county with six or so public (and many, many private) courses. So that afternoon, on my way to the gathering, I drove around the two towns which lie directly north of The Bronx.

Part of the reason I decided to check these places out was spurred by my meeting a woman on the trans-Canada train last week who related how her physician daughter was living right on the river in Yonkers by the pier where the Day-Liners used to stop in the summer. True enough, that area, once known as the destination of all the Yonkers trolley cars--"Foot of Main St."--has been revived and there are a few smart-looking restaurants and shops near the classic N.Y. Central-designed rail station, also by the Hudson. The old car barn is now a luxury apartment building and there are even streets that did not exist down by the river to provide upscale housing with fabulous views of the Hudson and the Palisades across the way on the New Jersey side. 
But I drove up the street by the old car barn where my dad grew up, Buena Vista Ave., always pronounced "Buna Vista" by locals, and most of the housing stock was in bad shape or torn down. On the river side the old sugar factory was being turned into upscale housing. The rest--including my father's old place, looked pretty bad. His old home had a "For Sale" sign slapped on it and it didn't look like one aimed at attracting anyone interested in doing anything but tearing it down and starting over.

So it was with almost all of the rest of downtown Yonkers. The kind of stores that you find in neighborhoods that are going nowhere. The old newspaper building for The Herald Statesman was there but was occupied by others as there now is a county-wide paper so neither Yonkers, the fifth-largest city in the state, nor Mount Vernon has its own daily paper anymore. South Broadway, once a bustling commercial avenue, was mostly forlorn and had some down-market enterprises.

Nor had Mount Vernon yet participated in the great revival lifting all of New York City's outer boroughs--Brooklyn has gone the farthest but the others are close in pursuit. The old Sears is a community college branch and the commercial streets again have discount clothing and cosmetic and other shabby emporia. The old YMHA in Mt. Vernon is boarded up, along with the Elks, and the Masonic Temple in Yonkers where my dad's lodge met. In contrast, the Yonkers YMCA, where my dad became a swimming champion, looked fine and much the same as it always had (it replaced my grandfather's fruit and vegetable store in 1915) although its environs were spare of much active enterprise. Perhaps it is close enough to the magical riverfront to benefit from patronage by the young successful types in that housing.

My 50th high school reunion was held at a White Plains hotel because there's no place in Mount Vernon to have such an event. White Plains isn't an unalloyed success story but Mamaroneck Ave., the main drag, has lots of prosperous-looking shops and snazzy restaurants and modern-looking bars as well. The county seat has always managed to keep itself alive as a going community, even if the new county courthouse was badly designed because of the traditional low-grade political corruption endemic to the county.

I found little to object to in the current White Plains, even if they had torn down the storefronts on Main St. next to where the courthouse once stood--the spot how houses a concrete-walled but at least functioning Macy's. Our old family friend's liquor store, aptly named Main Court Liquors, has been replaced by a small park. These are minor carping as White Plains comes off as almost entirely a success story, likely aided by both its status as county seat and its central location amid the major portion of the county that remains a high-status suburb or exurb.

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