November 2, 2003
Renewal and Resistance
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
YONKERS--On a recent Thursday afternoon, a handful of diners lingered over elegant dishes of poached salmon and shaved fennel in an airy exposed-brick restaurant called Zuppa. Nearby, the Hudson River lapped serenely at the edge of a new apartment building with a 24-hour health club and a swimming pool.
A few blocks away, in the heart of southwest Yonkers, shoppers picked through children's coats in C. H. Martin's, a discount department store. Sale signs papered the display windows of Easy Pickins and 99 Cent Dreams. Up the hill is Mulford Gardens, a housing project built in 1939, where a fifth of all families live below the poverty level, more than triple the rate in Westchester County.
In many ways, Yonkers, the fourth-largest city in New York State, is a city that time forgot. As development boomed across Westchester in the 1990's, Yonkers languished, stained by corrupt politics and stinging accusations of racism. Downtown storefronts remained boarded up. Dollar stores did the bulk of the business in the impoverished area.
But gradually, over the last year, Yonkers, Westchester County's largest city, has begun to re-emerge on the development map. Two new luxury apartment buildings have been built on the waterfront, just two blocks from Getty Square, the poorest Yonkers neighborhood. Zuppa, the city's first new white linen table-cloth restaurant in a long while, opened nearby. The city's long-traveling library was given a permanent home in a new glass building.
"We're doing it," said Mayor John D. Spencer of Yonkers. "We're trying to take an area that for 30 years stagnated. It has never been done before. This is not the politics of old."
But as the mayor's office, fresh with success, prepares for more downtown projects, including a minor league baseball stadium, some locals are eyeing the plans nervously. Residents say they fear rising rents. They do not want local discount stores to be replaced by pricier national chains. And they do not want traffic from a stadium clogging their streets. A local property owner is even trying to block plans for the stadium in court, with a suit filed in State Supreme Court that challenges how the city is handling the stadium development.
"I think they are trying to get rid of the poor people," said Margaret Jessamy, 80, a cashier at C. H. Martin's, the discount department store, who has lived in the area since 1941. "They're trying to tell us to just go away. They want us to disappear."
In the economic logic of development, more businesses in an area means an improvement in the life of people there. Mayor Spencer argues that increased business activity from the ballpark, and higher wage earners in the new apartments, will ultimately boost tax revenues and improve the school system. Southwest Yonkers, depressed for years, would benefit from an infusion of higher-wage earners, he argues, and the stadium, which will include 110,000 square feet of retail space, will draw crowds of new spenders to the neighborhood. Development is a big issue in the current mayoral race, with the Republican candidate, Deputy Mayor Phil Amicone, a Spencer protégé, pressing to continue the projects in his race against Joe L. Farmer, the former Yonkers school superintendent and a Democrat.
"We're looking to elevate people who live there, not move them out," Mayor Spencer said.
But as development collides with the economics of poverty, maintaining that balance can be tricky. Development has swept across American cities over the last 20 years with a very mixed record of integration of poor and rich. Rising prices and rents often leave many longtime residents behind.
"I don't care whether you're in Harlem or Westchester, if your area has been targeted by a developer, you're going to have these same things happening," said Nellie Bailey, head of the Harlem Tenants' Council. "The whole intent is to generate money, and you can't do that off of poor people."
Yonkers had a grand and prosperous past. It was a shopping hub in the 1940's, when traffic flowed on railroads and rivers instead of highways. The Broadway musical "Hello Dolly" tells the story of a prominent Yonkers businessman. A 19th-century artists' colony is now a leafy enclave on the city's eastern edge.
But in the 1960's, the demographics began to change, in part because of urban renewal programs in nearby areas that drove the poor to housing projects in Yonkers. According to the 1980 census, the mile-square area around Mulford Gardens contained 97.7 percent of the city's public housing and 80.7 percent of the city's minority population. Those families would later clash with the city's predominantly white local government.
"Yonkers was stagnant, a political mess for 20 or 30 years, while other cities were developing," said Mayor Spencer. "It had such a failed, failed record."
In the mid-1980's, the city of Yonkers announced an ambitious plan to revitalize its Hudson River waterfront. Six luxury apartment high-rises were expected to bring life back to the depressed area. An abandoned power station would be transformed into condominiums.
The plans quickly unraveled several years later, when an emotional and public battle over school desegregation turned Yonkers into a poster child for dysfunctional local government.
IT was not the city's first false start. The earliest plans for redevelopment date to 1953. One attempt at waterfront renewal was heralded by setting white Roman-style colonnades into the façade of a downtown building. The columns were later assailed as tacky and were ripped out. The development never began. The stately Carnegie Library was torn down to widen a road, and the books were stashed, for 18 years, in a building that was once a department store.
In those years of stagnation, the quality of life for residents steadily declined. Neighborhoods in the area became infested with drugs. In Nodine Hill, a hilly neighborhood of old two-family homes, frequent fires left empty, burned out lots, giving the area a look of a jaw with knocked-out teeth. Street violence in the area tormented parents, who feared for their children's lives.
Random gunfire last year claimed the life of the daughter of Julio and Alba Guzman, immigrants from El Salvador. Late one afternoon, as the toddler lay on her parents' bed watching a Winnie the Pooh video, the crack of an explosion and shattered glass shook the room. A neighbor with a high-power rifle had been shooting target practice from his window and missed, hitting the toddler in the head. She died on the way to the hospital.
"It's dangerous here," said Mr. Guzman, who last month moved his family into a small, new home in a different neighborhood, built by Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit group. "It was an accident, but that kind of accident should never have happened. We can never feel safe here."
Downtown development can help heal those social ills, argues Edward A. Sheeran, head of the city's Industrial Development Agency. The agency estimates that about $600 million in new investment has been added to the economy since the development began, along with a substantial number of new jobs. Graffiti has been scrubbed from the sides of buildings. Small banners fly from lamp posts and a colorful mural has been painted across the side of formerly forlorn downtown walls.
"In 1997, we couldn't even get the developers to stop in Yonkers for a cup of coffee," he said. "It used to be you couldn't give away waterfront property. Now it's worth $1.1 million an acre."
For Mr. Sheeran, rising rents, at least in commercial spaces, mean progress. But for the area's residents, it is a frightening new fact of life. For decades, southwest Yonkers was a last-resort area in an otherwise pricey county. Housing prices in Westchester have more than doubled since 1997, with the median home price at $530,000 from about $175,000.
Peter Smith, director of municipal housing in Yonkers, called the situation in the county a "housing crisis." A 1997 home ownership program for residents of public housing never got off the ground because of climbing prices, he said. In all the city has 2,609 apartments for low-income people and another 1,700 apartments are currently accepting Section 8 certificates, federal housing subsidies paid to landlords. The waiting list for public housing is between 1,000 and 1,200 families. Another 70 to 80 families a year receive rent and mortgage subsidies. The waiting list for those subsidies is about 1,500 families.
"In Westchester, there's a large population in need of affordable housing," said Mr. Smith. "Incomes here just have not gone up in any way, shape or form, commensurate with rents."
Valerie Perez, 39, and her mother and sister moved to Yonkers last year, after their landlord in Sleepy Hollow sold their $900-a-month two-bedroom apartment. Their search led them to several different towns. They even saw apartments without bathrooms. Many landlords would not consider their application because Ms. Perez, who formerly worked entering data in the county clerk's office, is unemployed. Her sister, Salome, cleans apartments and baby-sits. Their apartment is on the edge of the proposed baseball stadium site.
"We don't know where to go," said Ms. Perez, standing with a mug of instant coffee in her small kitchen. "Rents are changing so dramatically. We have found them astronomical. It's a very scary thing."
But it would be hard to argue that in southwest Yonkers, nothing should change. Jonathan Rose, chairman of board of the Greyston Foundation, which has financed the construction of about 150 low-rent apartments in Yonkers, argued that drawing bigger wage-earners to the area was the best hope for progress among longtime residents. Mr. Rose, who is also president of Jonathan Rose Companies, a developer based in Katonah, has bid for a large site on the Yonkers waterfront, just north of the new luxury apartments.
"It's not the gentrification that's bad, it's the lack of income diversity," he said. "When rents are low, building values are low and taxes are low. Communities find it hard to dig out. Having only low rents is condemning people who live in those communities to having low services and underfunded schools. It doesn't help their kids move forward."
The stadium has raised a great deal of opposition from people who say it is a good idea in the wrong place, that it would be too hard to get to, and that the project too much a mix of goals. In all, the stadium would displace families in about 16 apartments, a relatively small number as development goes. The site spans four city blocks, and will stand on land that is now occupied by about 20 small businesses. Some want to sell out, Mr. Sheeran said. Others, including a women's clothing store, Suzy's Fashions, a photo developing service and C. H. Martin's, the discount department store that opened in 1979, have dug in to fight the development.
"Show me a plan," said Martin D. Goldman, owner of C. H. Martin Company, a New Jersey-based chain of discount stores. "They're not telling us anything."
He added: "I employ 35 people year round and 50 people during Christmas. I pay taxes."
Mr. Martin said the city has yet to tell the businesses their new location or the rent they will have to pay. Others criticized the city for offering economic incentives and tax breaks to the new developers. The waterfront apartments, for example, are owned by Collins Enterprises, based in Stamford, Conn., which bought the land at about a fifth of the market rate, and made a one-time payment that exempted the project from up to 12 years of property taxes, said Arthur Collins, president of the company.
Debra Cohen, a lawyer representing the small businesses opposed to the project, said: "People who live and work in southwest Yonkers feel like they're disposable, like they're yesterday's garbage. Do you really think the best philosophy of economic development is clearing the city out block by block or are you better trying to blend the old and the new?"
The administration said it was working hard to accommodate current business owners. Mr. Sheeran acknowledged that no specific locations or rents had been discussed, but that is because the developer has not yet been chosen.
"We're not coming in with bulldozers and disrespecting the life of the people," said Mayor Spencer. "We want all the businesses in the area."
Many see the stadium as the city's last hope to draw big retail to downtown. In an emotional debate about the stadium at a recent City Council meeting, a council member, Gordon A. Burrows, compared Yonkers with White Plains, its neighbor and Westchester's capital. White Plains is experiencing a boom in its downtown in an aggressive development push led by the city's mayor. Downtown Yonkers, far from the highway, and bound on one side by the Hudson River, should instead fasten its hopes for economic progress on the stadium, he said.
YONKERS housing advocates, however, do not have fond memories of past development in White Plains. An urban renewal program there in the 1960's and 70's, drove many of the lower income residents out of the city into Yonkers, said Mr. Smith. It was the exodus from White Plains, many argue, that helped make the early problems for Yonkers.
"I'm afraid of a repeat of White Plains," said Lisa Best, a community advocate and resident of Mulford Gardens. "If you don't have the economics to keep up with the pace of the city, you'll be forced out."
Blending the old with the new will indeed be the biggest challenge for planners in Yonkers. Kennedy Smith, director of the National Main Street Center, a Washington-based nonprofit group that helps communities revitalize, said planning by city administrations is the key to success. While the vast majority of development in the last several decades has pushed out longtime residents, more recently, preserving the present has become part of the planning process.
"Ten years ago, no one recognized that it was a problem," said Ms. Smith. "It just seemed like, 'Great, new investment is coming in.' "
Ms. Smith cited neighborhoods in Washington and Hollywood, where urban renewal has been inclusive, with loan and grant funds available to help existing businesses stay where they are.
"The most common mistake is dealing with these problems too late," Ms. Smith said, "after market forces have already transformed the district."
Harlem, where urban renewal has been booming for several years, is a case in point. Ms. Bailey, of the Harlem Tenants' Council, said development in Harlem raced ahead so fast that it left the poorest - those it had initially been intended to help - worse off. Local leaders, she said, put little thought or preparation into how to help the poor.
"More landlords in newly gentrified neighborhoods are getting rid of people who can't afford to pay the rising rents," said Ms. Bailey. "It's almost politically incorrect to talk about them. The black leadership in Harlem simply takes the view that you are holding up progress."
It remains to be seen how development in Yonkers will proceed. As the neighborhood waits and watches, the process marches forward. On a recent Thursday at 5 p.m., a band of residents, property owners and journalists sat on wooden benches in the City Council viewing galley. Ms. Perez sat with her sister. Mr. Goldman, dressed in a gray suit and gold-colored tie, reclined slightly, his left arm slung over the bench's high back. Council members were meeting to vote on whether to allow the mayor to begin the eminent domain process for the stadium. Of the six members present, two voted "no" - those from the districts that would be directly affected by the building of the stadium.
"I live with the people who live and shop here," said Symra D. Brandon, one of the representatives who opposed the stadium, in a passionate address to fellow council members. "They don't frequent the Gap or high-end stores. There has to be some sort of a mix. Think about the people who live here."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company