Westchester’s Communist Past: Croton-On-Hudson’s Red Hill
Dan Robbins dives into the history of communists in the county.
John Reed (above) was one of many journalists, artists, and activists who lived and worked in Croton-on-Hudson's Red Hill.
Nearly 10 years ago, a bag fell from the ceiling of a tree-covered home in the elevated Mount Airy section of Croton-on-Hudson. While working on a home renovation, construction workers inadvertently uncovered a stockpile of century-old communist propaganda, project blueprints, family photos, and uncashed checks.
The grainy pictures of tsarist Russia and annotated leftist pamphlets belonged to the home's previous owner, Russian immigrant Joseph Helfand. A civil engineer, Helfand is thought to have hidden the trove sometime in the 1930s after moving from New York City’s Lower East Side to Croton-on-Hudson. However, Helfand’s summer-cottage-turned-full-time-residence wasn’t just a quiet weekend colony. It stood in Mount Airy—then considered the heart of Westchester’s Red Hill.
Today, Croton is known for quiet sidewalks, the Clearwater Festival, and its position as one of the Rivertowns’ northern bookends. However, the village’s legacy as an artistic enclave dates back to the early 1900s, soon after it was officially incorporated as a village in the Town of Cortlandt and began attracting artists, actors, and writers from Greenwich Village. European commerce sprouted there when settlers William and Sarah Teller opened shop on Croton Point in the 17th century. In 1677, King William III of England granted the region to Stephanus Van Cortlandt. Before becoming the first native mayor of New York City, Van Cortlandt built Cortlandt Manor along the Hudson River.
The area grew rapidly following the construction of the Hudson Line railroad and Croton Dam in the 19th century. As artists looked for an alternative to crowded Manhattan streets, their gaze settled 30 miles north. During the 1920s, old Westchester farms transformed into ideal collectives for writers and artists. Croton, in particular, became known as “Greenwich Village on the Hudson.” Developer Clifford Harmon, whose last name would later grace the local train station, built a playhouse with patrons including actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Opera singer Lillian Nordica, socialite Mabel Dodge, and dancer Elizabeth Duncan all moved to Mount Airy Road. By the 1930s, intellectuals and left-wing activists with socialist leanings headed to the hip hamlet.
Personal photos (like this one of an unidentified couple) and socialist publications were among the trove of papers found hidden in the ceiling of a Croton home, giving a glimpse inside Red Hill and its rich history.
It wasn’t long before old-stock Crotonites started referring to Mount Airy Road as “Red Hill.” The immigrants there were different from the Northern Europeans who had long lived downtown. In his memoir, Being Red, prominent novelist and communist Howard Fast called the Hill, “a rich mixture of communists, socialists, people who were neither but loved the beauty of the place, and even here and there an anti-communist who had long since surrendered his beliefs but would not surrender his home on Mount Airy.”
Many from this rich mixture worked on The Masses, a popular monthly journal of socialist art and commentary. Its writers and artists together shared the publication’s management and editorial direction, living and working together in close proximity. As readership grew, top talent like critic George Bernard Shaw, Catholic activist Dorothy Day, and future Pulitzer Prize winners Amy Lowell and Carl Sandberg joined the masthead. Contributors journalist John Reed and his wife, feminist Louise Bryant (their story was told in the 1981 movie Reds), moved to the area. Everything from creative writing and journalism to book reviews and philosophical treatises packed the pages. They homed in on topics like workers’ rights, capitalist business, civil liberties, and modernist international politics.
It’s unclear whether Joseph Helfand contributed to The Masses. Even still, his hidden collection of highlighted pamphlets included “The Twenty-One Conditions of Admission Into The Communist International,” “Glimpses of the Soviet Republic,” and “Hands off Cuba.” Also nestled in the ceiling boards was the 1930 edition of the Hagstrom Map of Westchester County.
When Joseph Helfand died in the 1950s, he had no direct descendants and the composition of Westchester’s population had changed considerably. By then, suburbia and McCarthyism had set the county’s communist movements on their heels, and Croton had become associated with another historic first—the area’s first drive-in movie theater, the Starlight.
Today, the Rivertowns, including Croton, have become a magnet for a new creative exodus from Brooklyn to “Hipsturbia,” (a moniker coined by the New York Times). Croton’s current mayor, Leo Wiegman, is a Democrat, and Croton is also represented by Democrats in the State Assembly, House of Representatives, and Senate. Last year, author and Brandeis University professor Erica Harth released a mystery novel, Red Hill Blues, set on Mount Airy in Harth’s hometown. Clearly, underneath the ceiling boards, there are still stories to tell.