In writing “Westchester: History of an Iconic Suburb.” journalist Robert Marchant of Croton-on-Hudson sought to tell the story of American history in a particular place. “I’m continually fascinated by the way suburbs differentiate themselves from the city,” he wrote in an email to the Inquirer, “how the wealthy want to be perceived, and how the design and feel of suburbia has evolved over time.”
Every chapter of this richly detailed book contains some tidbit that challenges readers’ preconceptions about the county they call home. Bootleg beer flowing through the Yonkers sewer system? A woman’s auxiliary of the Ku Klux Klan in Peekskill? A plan to carve an international United Nations city out of Northern Westchester? Who knew?
Marchant has little to say about government or politics, focusing on social history, memorable events and characters. Subjects that interest him include “slavery, anti-Semitism, immigration, Jim Crow, silent film stars, suffragettes, gangland violence, political riots, eccentric millionaires, industry and aviation, manmade disaster and assassinations.”
Whatever happened in America in the last 400 years likely happened in Westchester, which was both a birthplace and a mirror of national trends.
The county derives much of its identity from proximity to Manhattan, which in turn was profoundly shaped by the Dutch. The Dutch were in it for the money, not religious freedom, which they already had in the Netherlands. They welcomed Quakers, Jews and French Protestants. Some settlers advocated peaceful coexistence with the natives, others tried to exterminate them, as did the English who took over in 1664. Westchester County came into being in 1683 when the northern borders were redrawn, encompassing Rye and Bedford, which had been considered part of Connecticut.
A desire for independence from Britain grew in the 1770s, but while the county was home to rabble-rouser Thomas Paine, the “fires of revolution never burned as brightly in Westchester as they did in other parts of the Northeast,” Marchant writes. A prosperous agricultural region, Westchester was “nestled comfortably in the embrace of the British Empire.”
An anonymous Westchester farmer compared anti-British rebels to “a venomous brood of scorpions.”
After the Declaration of Independence was read from the steps of White Plains Courthouse on July 11, the county became a battleground. Gen. George Washington clashed with British Gen. William Howe in October 1776 near Chatterton Hill in White Plains. Alexander Hamilton was among those fighting in the battle, which is commemorated with a stone marker near the Bronx River Parkway just north of Scarsdale. Both sides suffered heavy losses.
Raids, skirmishes and looting continued in Westchester throughout the war. “There were spies everywhere,” Marchant writes, inspiring James Fenimore Cooper’s novel “The Spy” written in 1820 while he was living on Mamaroneck Road in Scarsdale.
At the end of the war, the county lay in ruins, having lost two thirds of its population.
A new century
Westchester residents were as divided about the issue of slavery as they had been about the revolution. According to Marchant, the county’s dominant Democratic Party “was ill at ease with abolition and sought accommodation with southern states.”
Scarsdale, with its large population of Quakers, was an exception. Responding to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that made it a crime to aid runaway slaves, local Quakers helped usher fugitive slaves to Canada through the Underground Railroad. Joseph Carpenter’s house in New Rochelle was a station, the home of his son-in-law Moses Pierce in Pleasantville a second stop and Judge John Jay’s home in Bedford a third stop.
Carpenter created a black cemetery on Weaver Street near Stratton Road in New Rochelle, near the Scarsdale border. He and his wife are buried there.
In 1860, Westchester voted only 39 percent for Lincoln, but when war broke out, many local men, willingly or not, fought for the Union.
Draft riots shook the county in 1863, when a mob threatened the home of abolitionist newspaper editor Horace Greeley in Chappaqua.
After the Civil War, industry flourished on the banks of the Hudson and thousands of immigrants arrived from Europe to work in the factories. Orphanages, mental hospitals and homes for troubled youth moved out from the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Bloomingdale Asylum in White Plains in 1894, offering a “more enlightened approach” to treatment of the mentally ill.
Less enlightened approaches to a scourge of the age — opiate and alcohol addiction — included injections of gold at the Keely Institute in White Plains. Crusading reporter Nellie Bly checked into the Keely Institute in 1894 to take the “gold cure” and exposed the fraud for readers of The New York World.
Westchester became a magnet for the super rich, including Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller and railroad magnate Jay Gould, whose estates showcased hobbies like fine art and botany.
Rise of the middle class
In the early years of the 20th century the middle class was growing too and with it a rise in car ownership. The Bronx River Parkway, 15 miles long from Botanical Gardens in the Bronx to the Kensico Dam, opened in 1925. Mastermind William Ward, whose power and influence went far beyond chairmanship of the county Republican Party, saw the parkway as “a connective and collective byway for families and people of all classes, where stops for hikes, picnics and even ice skating were encouraged.”
In addition to the parkway, Ward also developed the county parks system, including Playland in 1928 and the county center in 1930 “adorned,” Marchant writes, “with art deco motifs that radiated the era’s stylized elegance.”
Ward saw the county as a place for the “right sort” of people — white middle class families living in single-family homes. He helped block the subways from expanding into Westchester and deliberately made Playland accessible only by car, to keep out “the hurdy-gurdy classes.” But he also supported a progressive social agenda.
In the 1920s, Marchant writes, “The trilogy of gunfire, booze and bribery … turned quiet towns into armed camps.”
Burglars and bank robbers flourished in the lawless atmosphere. Marchant writes of “Boston Billy” Williams and Arthur Barry, who climbed ladders to the second stories of wealthy homes and forced owners to open their safes. Sometimes they allowed victims to keep items of sentimental value but the thieves were armed and dangerous.
Barry was linked to the shooting of Scarsdale cop John Harrison in July 1923 on Fenimore Road. Harrison was pursuing thieves who fit the description of the notorious “ladder burglars.”
Eventually the two were apprehended and turned on each other, each claiming the other had shot Harrison. There wasn’t enough evidence to try them for the murder but both men were imprisoned for the burglaries. The Scarsdale Foundation was established to provide for Harrison’s widow and orphans.
As the county’s immigrant and minority population increased, so did the influence of the Ku Klux Klan. Rallies attracted tens of thousands to Peekskill in the 1920s, targeting Catholics, African-Americans and Jews. But bigotry was not confined to the KKK. When Rye Playland opened in 1928, blacks were routinely denied admission.
In addition to bootleg booze, marijuana use was widespread in the ’20s, associated in the public mind with African-Americans, jazz and gambling. Westchester police began cracking down on gambling dens and pinball parlors, where it was feared youth were being corrupted.
One such place was the Sugar Bowl in Hartsdale, where kids placed bets and played pinball. Raiding the joint in 1939, cops smashed the machines and confiscated “obscene material” and “contraceptive devices.”
In the 1930s, shorts were considered by some to be “risqué” attire for both men and women. Rye, Yonkers and Yorktown Heights had regulations limiting or banning the wearing of shorts and halter tops.
World War II and beyond
In 1938, 2,500 members of the German American Bund held a pro-Nazi rally at the Westchester County Center. But support for the Bund disappeared from view when the United States entered the war in 1941.
Westchester residents became accustomed to rationing, scrap metal drives and victory gardens.
After Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito were defeated, a new enemy gave locals cause for alarm: communism. “Westchester was ground zero for Cold War tensions, more so than any other part of the country,” Marchant notes. Violent riots greeted Paul Robeson’s concerts in Peekskill and anti-communist zealots led by Otto Dohrenwend tried to ban books from school libraries in Scarsdale. His Committee of Ten probed the school reading lists and libraries in search of “subversive materials,” singling out works of Langston Hughes and Howard Fast.
But the Scarsdale Board of Education found no evidence of communist infiltration in the schools and took a stand against censorship. Eighty-one citizens signed a letter to the school board declaring that censorship “defeats the very purpose of the Bill of Rights.”
The controversy erupted again in 1962 when the Committee of Ten tried to prevent Pete Seeger, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis from performing at Scarsdale High School to raise money for the Freedom Riders who were protesting segregated buses in the South. The 500 protesters outside the high school were vastly outnumbered by the 1,300 concertgoers who raised $4,000 for the cause.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 sparked riots in Greenburgh; ecumenical services in Dr. King’s honor were held in Scarsdale.
The Vietnam War brought new conflict. When the Scarsdale Town Club honored former resident Dean Rusk, secretary of state during the war, protestors objected to, but did not halt, the event. Scarsdale also made headlines when, in 1969, Stephen Kling, a teacher at the high school, armed summer school students with water pistols, unloaded air rifles and water balloons and set them loose in Butler Woods to find out how a rebel force might take Scarsdale as part of a half-credit course in “Revolution and Guerrilla Warfare in the 20th Century.” Frightened neighbors called police and a media circus ensued. It was, Marchant writes, “as if “Che Guevara had crashed the country club.”
In its usual calm and deliberative manner, the school board reviewed the course and concluded there was no intention to instruct students in guerilla warfare.
The next crisis for the guardians of tradition was a proposal to end discrimination against gays in employment, housing and public accommodations in New York City.
In 1977, Adam Walinsky, a Democratic Party organizer who had been an aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy, came out against the measure in an op-ed in the New York Daily News. Walinsky wrote that approval of a gay rights law “amounts to a formal declaration that homosexuality is morally and socially equal to heterosexuality” which he said was wrong.
The Gay Activist Alliance sent a bus and a fleet of cars to protest outside Walinsky’s home on Griffen Avenue in Scarsdale, pelting his house with eggs, setting off firecrackers and spraypainting his driveway. They cut phone lines, chanted “2,4,6,8, gay is just as good as straight!” and left leaflets on the property calling Walinsky a bigot.
Scarsdale police arrived and the demonstrators left. Police chief Terrance Shames said, “It was deemed advisable to have people dispersed rather than mass arrests.” Walinsky was angry that no arrests were made and filed suit against the GAA. The New York State Supreme Court placed an injunction on any further protest at Walinsky’s home. A settlement was reached with the GAA but not made public.
Though not mentioned in the book, Scarsdale was the scene of another epic clash of values when a group of Christian residents battled the village government over placing a nativity scene on village land. The group took the case to court in 1985 and won. The village, seeing it as a separation of church and state issue, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the lower court’s decision to allow the crèche with a sign identifying it as placed by a private group was upheld.
“Beneath Westchester’s well-planned suburban and natural façade lies a place where civic and moral values clashed and evolved,” writes Marchant. Nowhere was this more true than in Scarsdale.
“Westchester: History of an Iconic Suburb” may be ordered for $39.95 from McFarlandBooks.com.