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November 24th, 2003, 03:33 AM
November 24, 2003

Mount Vernon's Time of Trouble: A Divided City, Shocked by Crime


MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. This fall will not be remembered as a high point in this community, which seems a world apart from the wealthy Westchester that is etched in the popular imagination.

In a city noticeably poorer, blacker and more needy than the rest of the county, the season has been marked by a series of crimes, all of them involving young people, that have rocked its schools and shaken residents here to their core.

But while Mount Vernon is sometimes caricatured as a place that stands in contrast to the prosperous swards of Westchester (itself a caricature), the city is, in fact, a complicated community. The city's demarcations of race and class in many ways mirror those of the county as a whole.

Mount Vernon stretches from the Bronx border to the ultrarich village of Bronxville, and its many neighborhoods encompass both socioeconomic extremes. With Mount Vernon's population more than half black, the traditional division between north and south now has less to do with race than class. And school officials talk about the problem of "bright flight," the tendency of wealthier residents, white and black, to send their children to private schools.

"What you see in Mount Vernon is what you see in a lot of Westchester," said John Coppola, a lifelong resident and a professor of art history at Mercy College in nearby Dobbs Ferry. "There are some towns like Rye, Bronxville, Scarsdale and Larchmont that are pretty much white and upper class. But in Mount Vernon and most of Westchester it's a variety of different people from different places and the challenge there is for people to get along with each other."

The recent spate of violence began in early October, when four shootings occurred within three days. One victim was a 12-year-old boy who was shot in the back while playing basketball in a schoolyard.

Then came a disturbing case of sexual misconduct in a high school bathroom that involved a 15-year-old girl who, the police said, had oral sex with several football players. That was followed this month by two arrests at one middle school on the same day: a 19-year-old teacher's aide was charged with soliciting sex from a 14-year-old girl, and an 18-year-old man was arrested and charged with second-degree rape after the police said he signed out another 14-year-old girl on false pretenses and then had sex with her.

In some respects, Mount Vernon seems to share more with New York City than with suburban Westchester. Students at the sprawling high school must pass through metal detectors, and a day care center is available for the babies of students, not teachers. Though crime here fell through the 1990's, there were still 10 homicides last year.

In a county that is overwhelmingly white, Mount Vernon's minority community now represents the majority, with 60 percent of the city's 68,000 residents identifying themselves as black or African-American. Mount Vernon stands out all the more for its shared border with Bronxville, among the wealthiest communities in one of the richest counties in the United States. Bronxville's black population is 1.2 percent.

But the image of Mount Vernon as merely a troubled city within Westchester is too simplistic. Traditionally called the "City of Homes," for its many fine Tudors and colonials, Mount Vernon was the birthplace or childhood stomping ground of E. B. White, Dick Clark and Art Carney and, more recently, Denzel Washington and P. Diddy.

There are integrated neighborhoods in northern Mount Vernon, near the Bronxville border, where million-dollar, slate-roofed houses sit upon meticulously landscaped properties. Belonging to a mix of black and white professionals, the houses are indistinguishable from those in Bronxville, except that they command half the price, real estate agents say.

In many ways, Mount Vernon, which measures 4.2 square miles, is two cities in one. The median household income in the city's wealthiest census tract, in the north, is $89,746; in the poorest tract, located in the south end, it is $21,724.

The vibrant commercial and residential district of Fleetwood in northern Mount Vernon seems to have carved out its own identity, as illustrated by its residents' preference for the neighborhood's name over the city's. "Fleetwood has always tried to be a separate enclave," said Brian J. Nickerson, director of the Michaelian Institute for Public Policy and Management at Pace University in White Plains.

Even its own residents often see Mount Vernon as two separate communities.

Some homeowners in the stately residential neighborhoods, as well as those in the co-op buildings and neat two-family houses in Fleetwood, rarely venture south of the Metro-North train tracks.

Similarly, in the southern part of the city an urban patchwork of public housing, storefront churches and 99-cent stores some residents seemed only vaguely familiar with Fleetwood. "I don't have occasion to go there," said Yvonne Quashie, 42, a secretary who moved from the Bronx two years ago. "Is it a part of Mount Vernon? I wasn't sure."

Complicating matters for the public schools is the fact that many residents in the north end send their children to private schools, particularly after sixth grade. While the city is 28.6 percent white, the 10,200-student school district is only 9 percent white, school officials say. That skewed demographic means that students in the public schools have greater needs and problems, those officials say.

"There is a serious `bright flight' in Mount Vernon," said Larry H. Spruill, the principal of Mount Vernon High School and the city's historian. "And I can tell you point blank that this is a middle-class issue, not a race issue."

Dr. Spruill's assessment is reflected in the city's two most wealthy census tracts, where blacks make up, respectively, a quarter and a half of the population, but where black households earn more than the white households by a comfortable margin.

After taking the helm of the high school last year, Dr. Spruill discovered that almost a third of the school's 2,500 students were failing three or more courses after the first marking period. In addition, 42 percent of seniors were at risk of not graduating.

He immediately created a 10-week program, called the Saturday Learning Academy, in which students were able to work extra hours to receive passing grades in two courses. Eighty percent of the seniors went on to graduate. "It was a way to salvage the marking period," Dr. Spruill said. "It was almost like an amnesty: here's a chance to get it right."

Mount Vernon's superintendent of schools, Brenda L. Smith, said the publicity surrounding the recent episodes detracted from the district's achievements. Sitting behind a desk piled with papers, Mrs. Smith rattled off a list of the district's assets and accomplishments. The high school, which offers 13 Advanced Placement courses, has an expanded Reserve Officers Training Corps program, a new college center, a new digital photo lab, two new art galleries and a revamped music department.

State officials have singled out the district for its marked improvement on the statewide standardized tests. Across the 11 elementary schools, 85 percent of fourth graders now meet the standards in math, up from 51 percent in 1999. On the English Language Arts test, 83 percent of students meet the state standards, up from 35 percent.

But if Mount Vernon has struggled with a set of psychological and economic fissures, it has faced a veritable chasm with some neighbors. Officials here bristled when the well-to-do villages of Pelham and Pelham Manor opposed a proposed retail complex on Sandford Boulevard, which Mount Vernon had long sought.

The 285,000-square-foot center with a Best Buy, Target, T. J. Maxx and Bed, Bath and Beyond is now rising on 15 acres a few blocks from the Pelham border, where the Pelham public schools and athletic fields are situated.

Through angry letters and continuing litigation, the villages have registered their concern about traffic so close to their schools. At the same time, Mount Vernon's mayor, Ernest D. Davis, accused the opponents of arrogance and insensitivity and called Pelham a "closed community."

With the project scheduled for completion in the spring, Mount Vernon is looking forward to $5 million a year in new sales tax revenues. "It gives us a new lease on life, a new ability to address some of the problems we have," Mayor Davis said.

Mayor Davis said he hoped, too, to entice his own residents in the north to a hard-bitten patch in the city's south end, through a planned hip-hop museum and artists' studios. "Fleetwood is sending a message, and that is, `Look, we are happy where we are, and you have to bring everything up to our standards,' " he said. "I think that's a healthy challenge."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

November 25th, 2003, 09:54 PM
Here in Nassau county we have a very similar situation with the communities of Hempstead and Garden City. Hempstead is a poor, inner city community. 99 cent stores and low income housing dominate the community. It is also ridden with crime. But there is a very defined border to the north, with the village of Garden City. Unlike Hempstead, Garden City has superior police protection and low crime, as well as very upscale homes and manicured lawns and streets.
The ghetto areas in suburbs often stand out very strongly. In suburban areas poorer communities are more isolated socially also, which often makes them difficult to improve.

August 19th, 2004, 10:53 AM
That article was dead on.

August 19th, 2004, 11:24 AM
Agreed. I used to live in Fleetwood, after graduating from college in Bronxville. It's probably the most truly diverse neighborhood I've ever seen.

August 19th, 2004, 11:47 AM
Agreed, though kind of segregated. Concordia huh?

August 19th, 2004, 12:03 PM
I actually didn't find it to be segregated at all. It was a very small area, though.

I attended Sarah Lawrence. Concordia is in Tuckahoe.

August 19th, 2004, 12:04 PM
Sorry, technically Concordia is in Bronxville. I'm not sure the city would claim it, though.

August 9th, 2007, 11:04 AM
Actually Concordia is of course 100% in the village of Bronxville. Sarah Lawrence is actually in Yonkers. Wishful thinking SL graduate.

August 9th, 2007, 02:10 PM
Isn't Sarah Lawrence in "Bronkers" -- ie. Yonkers location with a Bronxville post office?