Beauty in the Bronx A Look at Riverdale

Situated in the far northwest section of the Bronx, Riverdale is bounded on the west by the Hudson River and the north by the Westchester County line but to many it feels like a suburban enclave within the city.

Marked by a landscape of winding streets, hilly terrain, gentle (and not-so-gentle) slopes and rocky outcroppings along the river, a large portion of Riverdale is designated a greenbelt, with many open spaces, public facilities and outdoor recreational opportunities. The views of the high, rocky cliffs of the Palisades and the Hudson River are magnificent, and not much has changed in the landscape since The WPA Guide to New York City, published in 1939, described Riverdale this way:

"The homes are set along rambling lanes; on the crests of hills overlooking the Hudson; atop ravines that lead to the river; amid flower gardens and picturesque rock formations."

But to Barbara Jurist, a resident for 37 years and an associate broker with Sopher Real Estate, Riverdale, whose borders extend south to 224th Street and east to Van Cortlandt Park and the Henry Hudson Parkway, is more village-like than neighborhood. Thanks to strict zoning regulations, Riverdale has more or less maintained its look and character since the WPA Guide was published, but that's not to say the area hasn't borne witness to some interesting changes over the centuries.

Meadows and Mansions

In 1786, farmer William Hadley bought the wooded hilly tract to cultivate and raise livestock. His near neighbor Frederick Van Cortlandt was successfully farming wheat. The Van Cortlandt House, which was built in 1748, claims the title of the oldest surviving residence in the Bronx, and is now a museum. George Washington slept there - or at least made it his headquarters - several times during the Revolutionary War.

Though they struggled on their new land, the Hadley family did not succeed as farmers, and eventually sold the land to Major Joseph Delafield in 1829. Delafield had discovered the area as a member of the Army Corps of Engineers. He was supervising the building of forts on Staten Island and Brooklyn, and he needed a source of limestone. He found the source along what is now Palisades Avenue in Riverdale.

Delafield built his own vacation place on the tract he purchased from the Hadley family. Before the Civil War, Delafield started selling off portions of land to well-heeled New Yorkers for summer homes away from the oppressive heat and cholera epidemics of the crowded city, or as weekend retreats during the winter months. Many of the homes - many of them mansions - remain, and some are open to the public as museums and historic properties. The families who built in Riverdale during the Civil War era included the Colgates of soap and toothpaste fame, the Dodges of the copper mining dynasty, and famous actor Edwin Forrest, whose Fonthill Castle is now the administration building for the College of Mount Saint Vincent. Some famous Bronxites are actors Danny Aiello, Tony Curtis, and Hal Linden, actresses Anne Bancroft and June Allyson, singers Jennifer Lopez and Billy Joel, designers Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, and former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

The Building Boom Arrives

At the turn of the 20th century, Riverdale was still primarily a bucolic summer retreat with several dozen families living on large private properties overlooking the Hudson River, but as rail commuting to Manhattan became easier, Riverdale became ripe for the next wave of development. Charming, eclectic single-family homes were built by the score in the 1920s. The influential domestic architect of the time, Dwight James Baum (brother of Wizard of Oz creator Frank) left his legacy with homes of Tudor, Cotswold Cottage, Georgian, and Spanish Colonial design. When the Henry Hudson Bridge and Parkway were built in 1936, more people sought the small town ambience just across the Harlem River.

The post World War II building boom hit Riverdale with multi-family dwellings and large apartment buildings, many of which eventually became co-ops. Most Riverdalians then were young growing families whose breadwinners could easily commute down into Manhattan to work, and after work retreat to one of the most beautiful sections of New York City.

It's still a quick trip today. Transportation via the MTA's 1 and 9 subway lines, express buses, and the Metro North Railroad can take a Riverdale resident to the heart of Manhattan in about 20 to 40 minutes. By car, at the right time of the day, the trip can be even less than that. It's also an easy commute to northern New Jersey or Westchester as well.

The Housing Market

Generally speaking, co-ops are more prevalent in Riverdale than condos. On average, according to Jurist, one-bedroom prices run between $95,000 and $240,000, and two-bedroom co-ops sell from $200,000 to nearly $500,000 - quite a bit less than comparable Manhattan properties.

And those lower prices definitely attract buyers. Robert Wachsman, a real estate broker with Riverdale Homes, LLC, says his firm sold-out a condo project - Promenade West - in record time. The 18-unit development had one-bedrooms that went for approximately $220,000 and two-bedroom condos that sold for $340,000. In the smaller condo market, Wachsman feels that when condos do come on the market, "prices are very negotiable" but, as in Manhattan, are usually a bit higher than an equivalent-sized co-op. The rental market, Wachsman notes, is also quite healthy and extensive in Riverdale. One-bedrooms usually start at $1,000 a month and two-bedroom apartments can rent as low as $1,500.

Wachsman, whose family moved to Riverdale in the 1960s from another part of the Bronx, remembers his mother telling of taking delightful family outings to the countryside of Riverdale to picnic when she was a child. Riverdalians tend to stay in the neighborhood - even staying within buildings for generations. The population - about 25,000 - has been stable for the last few decades, with people who moved into a one-bedroom 35 years ago moving to larger places with more bedrooms as their families grew and then downsizing back to smaller spaces as the children grow and leave.

In recent years, there has been an increase in singles moving into Riverdale and many retirees as well are opting to stay rather than move to warmer climates. The retirees that are exiting Manhattan and taking advantage of equity from their homes, discover they can get more space for less money in Riverdale. Even a number of out-of-staters are choosing to retire there. Jurist believes the lure of the village is that, while Riverdale itself offers quiet and a friendly neighborhood feel, "the entertainment and excitement of Manhattan is just 20 easy minutes away."

That appeal applies to families also. The tree-lined streets are characterized as "serene and calm" by many newcomers, and "safe" is another description used by residents. The crime rate in Riverdale is low compared to many other parts of the New York City.

The schools in Riverdale are also highly regarded and include a variety of choices: public, religious, and private. There are two notable colleges as well - Manhattan College and the College of Mount Saint Vincent.

For convenience and entertainment, shopping areas can be found at the Skyview Mall or in small-town traditional storefront shops on Johnson Avenue between 235th and 236th Streets, and along Riverdale Avenue for several blocks around 235th and 238th Streets.

The restaurants in the neighborhood offer a wide selection of culinary choices, ranging from Chinese, Indian, Italian, and Japanese fare, as well as several types of Kosher restaurants. There is even a Kosher pizza place. Riverdale is home to a traditional steakhouse and many cafes and bakeries. One local favorite eatery is Blue Bay, a classic diner, on Johnson Avenue.

Green Jewels in the Crown

One of Riverdale's most outstanding features are the area's parks and museums. Wave Hill is a 28-acre park devoted to the connection between humans and nature. Providing the neighborhood with an oasis of natural beauty and serenity, it has internationally-acclaimed gardens, horticultural collections, and two historical house museums. Wave Hill House, built in 1834 in the Greek Revival style by noted lawyer William Lewis Morris, was enlarged in 1866 and 1890 by succeeding owners. Wave Hill House was host to many famous guests, including Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, and Theodore Roosevelt. Also on the property is Glyndor, built in the 1860s and a fine example of the Georgian Revival style. Wave Hill is open year round and offers many different programs about horticulture, as well as concerts in the summer.

The Judaica Museum of the Hebrew Home of the Aged features an extraordinary collection of textiles, art objects, and paintings derived from the Jewish religion. The museum is an educational resource with changing exhibits, and - like almost every place in Riverdale - the grounds command impressive views of the Hudson River and the Palisades.

Outdoor activities abound as hiking trails and paths are numerous. The Riverdale Ramble is an annual 10K race sponsored by the Van Cortlandt Track Club. The race is advertised as "running through one of the most unique neighborhoods in the whole metropolitan area. You might find it hard to believe that you're still in New York City as you weave through lush parklands, fabulous estates, magnificent mansions and high rise co-ops." This year's race, the 26th annual, will take place on June 6, 2004.

Riverdale has two newspapers serving the interests of the residents of the neighborhood. The Riverdale Review, publishes weekly and has an online community news Web site. The Riverdale Press, a traditional newsprint-and-ink weekly, has a circulation of 10,000 and garnered a prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Riverdalians agree their "village-like neighborhood" is unique to New York City. Wachsman calls the community "a supply-and-demand neighborhood." But, unfortunately, "the demand for properties is always greater than the supply available on the market."

Despite the recent upsurge in interest in Riverdale, area residents have painstakingly preserved and maintained their neighborhood's personality, charm, green spaces, and historical and cultural attractions. And that says Jurist is why she wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

Annette Hall is a freelance writer living in Framingham, Massachusetts and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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