The Great Divide
The chasm between northern and southern Westchester is as wide as ever- but is that really so bad?
By: Lois Podoshen
North South, The Great Divide
Town vs. country. Traffic vs. ticks. A short commute vs. a long backyard.
I-287 is more than just the Yellow Brick Road to The Westchester—
it’s our very own Mason-Dixon line
By Lois Podoshen
Illustration by Peter Rutkowski
For many commuters, it is the bane of their daily existence. For shoppers, it is the Yellow Brick Road to The Westchester. But Interstate 287 is not just a crowded highway. It is Westchester’s very own Mason-Dixon line, not only dividing the North from the South, but separating those who are frequently squawked at by wild turkeys crossing dirt roads from those who are frequently squawked at by other motorists vying for parking spots at Fortunoff. Is it merely a geographic demarcation, or does our county have two distinct personas, some real reasons for partisanship and separate psyches?
According to Dr. Frank Salamone, “there’s a real schism in Westchester that centers around cultural differ-ences in a sociological context.” And Dr. Salamone should know; he is a professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Iona College and the chairman of its sociology department. “It’s Gemeinschaft vs. Gesellschaft,” Dr. Salamone says, explaining that, “in the North, you find Gemeinschaft, where people are trying to make relationships more family-like. It’s community-oriented; people say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ And people in stores actually look at you. In the South, you find Gesellschaft, which is based on secondary relationships. It is contract- and job-oriented—the atmosphere is colder because there is so much to get through. So many people are in a rush, there’s no time to smell the roses.”
Again, he should know; he’s Gesellschaft. “I’ve lived in White Plains for over 20 years, and I still don’t feel a sense of community,” the professor admits. “There’s a small-town feeling up North. When I drive up to Cortlandt to get my car serviced, I can go into a Dunkin’ Donuts, and people actually talk to me. It surprises me. I start to think, ‘What do they want?’”
Dr. Jerome Thaler, a retired optometrist, agrees—kind of. “Westchester definitely is a county with a split personality,” he says. But, unlike Professor Salamone, Dr. Thaler argues that it is up North where you find the colder atmosphere—and he says he’s got proof. Today, he runs a weather station for the U.S. government in Yorktown Heights. “I’ve been taking daily readings for almost 40 years,” Dr. Thaler says. What his research has shown is that the difference in average annual temperature between the North and the South can be as much as eight degrees, and the difference in snowfall, eight inches.
And what a difference eight inches can make! While ladies who lunch in Eastchester wear Ugg boots as a fashion statement, ladies in the North wear them because—ugh!—it is so much colder and snowier there. Margery Carty, a teacher who resides in Chappaqua, admits to having two pairs of the trendy boots. “My feet were the only part of my body that kept warm last winter,” she says.
Dr. Thaler believes he knows why. “There’s a dividing line that crosses around 287 that separates the North from the South, weather-wise,” he says. “People used to tell me that, just as they reached the Hawthorne interchange, rain turned to snow. Now, because of the greater urbanization over the past 30 years, that line has moved north of the interchange to Pleasantville.”
Nobody has to tell Katonah resident David Hochberg, who works in Rye, about that dividing line. “I can leave Rye when it’s raining and get back to Katonah when it is snowing,” he says. Hochberg, who is vice president of public affairs for Lillian Vernon Corporation and one of Lillian Vernon’s sons, lives in a cottage on 13 acres at the end of a three-mile-long dirt road.
“My preference now is def-initely rural, definitely northern Westchester,” says Hochberg, who was born in Mt. Vernon, grew up in Mamaroneck and has lived in New York City. “The South is so crowded. Your neighbor’s lifestyle becomes your lifestyle, including dealing with other people’s dogs and noisy lawn mowers. Up North we don’t see or hear our neighbors. There is so much less noise, except for the howling coyotes!” But living on that picturesque dirt road has its drawbacks, too. “You can’t keep your car clean. When I drive up to the office, my coworkers want to know where in the world I’ve been with my car.”
But all the open space and tranquility topped off with scenic dirt roads isn’t for everyone. Former Bedford residents and empty-nesters Fran and Allan Scheffler left Bedford for less green pastures down county in Bronxville three years ago. “It started out as an efficiency move,” says Scheffler, who is an assistant professor in the communication science department of Hunter College. “We had a 17-room house and were living in three of them, when we were home. We wanted to downsize anyway, and then I started to work in Manhattan.” The move has brought Dr. Scheffler and her husband, a White Plains attorney and recently retired prosecutor for the town of Bedford, closer to the city and their grown children.
“There were things I loved about Bedford. I would come home to find my own personal hawk circling our four-car garage,” Scheffler says. But what she didn’t love was the long ride into Manhattan. “We are now two blocks from the train and 23 minutes to Grand Central.”
The Schefflers move had other pluses as well. “Shopping is a little more convenient,” she says. “In Bedford, everything was a long ride and you had to plan and shop differently. I had two large refrigerators with large freezers and shopped in bulk.”
While the Schefflers are pleased with their North to South defection, according to Pound Ridge real estate agent Kathy Gursel, moves up the Hudson and Harlem lines are more common. “Only once did I have a family, who complained about the commute, move back to Bronxville,” says the Houlihan Lawrence agent. Most of her clients are people who are looking for a bigger house, good schools and land, land, land. According to Gursel, there is plenty of land to be found up North. In Pound Ridge, the median price of a home is $920,000, but it has two- to three-acre zoning, and you will get a 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot house with four bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths. And in Lewisboro, which includes Waccabuc (does anybody down county even know where Waccabuc is?), South Salem, Goldens Bridge, Cross River and Vista (heard of Vista, Yonkers?), the median house price is $575,00, which will buy you an 1,800- to 2,400-square-foot house on one acre with three to four bedrooms and two baths.
But farther south, in Scarsdale, according to Ben Borenstein of ERA Premier Realty, you may be able to get an approximately 3,000-square-foot home on half an acre for $1.3 million.
“Often, people who buy in Scarsdale make a conscious value decision to give up land for ease of commutation to New York City and more time with their family,” says George M. Stone, managing principal for Julia B. Fee in Scarsdale and six other locations in
When Tuckahoe residents Donna Toth and her husband, Zsolt, were looking for a house 13 years ago, there was one stipulation: “We wanted to be in a little downtown area so we didn’t need two cars,” Donna says. “We wanted to be able to walk to the train station, and the fact that I can walk to get milk is worth its weight in gold to me. If we had to get in a car for this, it would put us over the edge.
“There are country mice and city mice, and we’re definitely city mice,” she continues. “We want to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle, and, in our minds, we’re living in the country because we’re not in New York City!”
But if you’re really a city mouse and still want to live in Westchester, maybe you need to go all the way down South to Yonkers, y’all. With a population of more than 196,000, it is New York’s fourth largest city. Compare that to the village of Buchanan, with a little more than 2,000 people, Ossining with 24,000, or Port Chester with 27,000. According to realtor Margot Bennett, people come to Yonkers looking for an easy commute and affordable homes. “We have a good mix of old and new,” says southerner Bennett, who has lived in Yonkers for 37 years. But one of the things that most sets it apart from the rest of the county is the public transportation system. “It’s so accessible. Our high schoolers can use it to get to school. There are no parents needed!” This is in sharp contrast to the North, where parents and their children are permanently tied together by a set of Pirellis.
To be sure, there are inner-city issues like congestion and population density, just as in any big city. And while Yonkers has 38 schools, there is no guarantee that your child will go to his neighborhood school; there’s a lottery system. In the northern village of Croton-on-Hudson on the other hand, there is no need for a lottery and no choices either since there are only three schools in the district: an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. And, unlike in many southern municipalities—and as in many Northern towns—there is not much diversity there, either. Croton has a minority population of about 12 percent; Yorktown’s minority population is 13 percent. And, while Peekskill and Ossining (both north of 287, of course), have higher numbers (both over 50 percent), the South has four cities that have large minority populations: 46 percent in White Plains, 76 percent in Mt. Vernon, 44 percent in New Rochelle and more than 49 percent in Yonkers.
Margot Bennett is proud of Yonkers, its diversity, and its culture, and she’s optimistic about its future. “We’re going in a positive direction,” she says. “They’re doing a lot of movies here and set designs for plays. There are new jazz clubs, and ethnic restaurants and Shakespeare in the Park. And a lot of young people are getting involved and restoring old buildings.”
So, whether you’re a country mouse looking for land, or a city mouse willing to restore an inner-city building; whether you are a northerner who would rather deal with invasive plants than invasive neighbors; whether you are a Gemeinschaft person or a Gesellschaft person, we can all agree that Westchester is a great place to live. The only things that really separate us are Interstate 287 and eight inches of snow. Ugh!
Lois Podoshen and her husband, Michael, have lived in Yorktown Heights for more than 30 years. Theirs is a mixed marriage. A northerner, Michael was raised in Croton-on-Hudson. Lois is a southerner, born and raised in Brooklyn.