Is Riverdale Really “Away From It All”?

A day trip around Riverdale for city folk. Credit: WSJ and John S. Dykes.

This morning I opened up to the New York section of the Wall Street Journal, as I do on many mornings, and found, in the top news, an article entitled “Away From It All, in Riverdale.”  The author describes his day in Riverdale as a “day in the suburbs,” part of a city mouse’s need to get away from it all.  How ironic, I thought, since just last week I had written how urban Riverdale is compared to my previous home communities.

Not having lived in the city myself quite yet, I can’t comment on how suburban Riverdale feels to a typical city-dweller.  But I can say that the author appears to have rather deliberately avoided or overlooked the most urban parts of Riverdale.  Even the author’s starting point, at 242nd St alongside Van Cortlandt Park, may have been a large factor in his perception of the community.  Most Riverdalians I know take the subway from 231st St, a much busier intersection, after picking up the Bx7 or Bx10 bus.

Next, he chose to walk through Fieldston and North Riverdale to get to Wave Hill.  I would agree that these neighborhoods, solidly north of central Riverdale’s “urban” core, resemble the suburbs more than they resemble the city.  Rolling through Fieldston on a bike, even my daughter remarked on how quiet it is.  I concede that this piece of Riverdale acted as our own suburban getaway at times.  Nevertheless, the private houses built here sit on some extremely valuable land, and cost far more than the sprawling estates built out in the real suburbs.

After an extended visit to Wave Hill, a marvelous gem far more intricate and better maintained than the kinds of public gardens one can generally find in most true suburbs, the author seems to have hiked through Riverdale Park roughly parallel to Palisade Ave.  While the author’s assertion that you don’t have “other walkers surround[ing] you at every turn, at every hour” is true, it is also the case that you will almost always run into someone else at some point.  Maybe in Central Park you are always surrounded, but there are plenty of points along the Hudson River Greenway, particularly in Upper Manhattan, that are equally quiet.  One thing for sure is that Riverdale Park is no “country trail in the Appalachians.”  I think this is good, by the way, because frankly I’m not interested in living in Appalachia.

Finally the author emerged from Riverdale Park onto central Riverdale.  So what did he think?  Apparently this jaded city mouse sees 7-story apartment buildings as more “village” than urban, although really only the shortest of the buildings along Henry Hudson Parkway are 7 stories.  Granted my building, at 20 stories, is one of the tallest, but the Whitehall is also about 20 stories, and most others are in the 8-12 range.  Perhaps it was the low-slung buildings along 235th Street and Riverdale Avenue, where you can find the Corner Cafe, his chosen lunch spot, that deceived him.

More than anything else, I believe this article points out the folly of deducing the character of a neighborhood by walking its streets.  It reminds me of the common fallacy of deducing the average attendance at a sporting event by polling fans.  The average fan is more likely to have attended a crowded game than a lightly attended game, and so asking the average fan about typical attendance leads to an upwards biased estimate.

Likewise, walking the streets of Riverdale one can easily get the impression that the neighborhood is largely suburban, as most of one’s time will be spent traversing quiet tree-lined streets with private houses.  Yet this is not where the vast majority of Riverdalians live.  In fact, there are probably more people living in one building, the Whitehall (440 apartments), than in all of Fieldston (260 houses).  A poll of the residents of Riverdale would probably reveal significantly more urban-dwellers than suburbanites.

When I first started reading the article, I was scared that perhaps Riverdale really is fairly suburban, and actually I have no idea what it’s like to live in a truly urban setting.  After further thought, though, I think I have not been wrong in my conclusion regarding Riverdale as a mostly urban compromise location.

But now I have a new fear.  Have I been wrong regarding my perceptions of living on the Upper West Side gleaned from merely walking around the neighborhood?  Most times we’ve gone, we’ve either been going to a park, a museum, or a restaurant.  What is it like to have to do your everyday food shopping there?  What is it like to commute?  What is it like to always be surrounded, at every turn, at every hour, by walkers, joggers, cyclists, cars, trucks, and all manner of city life?

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