Downtown is reborn
Tucked between the urban Bronx to the south and leafy Westchester suburbs to the north and east is New York state's fourth-largest city: Yonkers, the county's biggest and most ethnically diverse municipality.
Located along the Hudson River, Yonkers features more than 18 square miles and dozens of neighborhoods, from the gritty downtown of Getty Square to stately old homes in Park Hill. City officials hope to add to its housing stock through ambitious plans to replace long-departed industry with new residences and shopping.
Indeed, economic development is the primary focus of Mayor Phil Amicone, a Republican in his second year in office after serving eight years as deputy mayor. Under his predecessor, John Spencer, the city began rebuilding its waterfront, a process that now is slowly creeping inland.
A burgeoning night life on Main Street downtown now accompanies two waterfront apartment towers completed in 2003. Collins Enterprises of Greenwich, Conn., constructed those buildings, which include restaurant space on the first floor, and has two more in the works just to the north. Nearby, a new office building is close to opening, and construction has begun on another rental building up the street.
While the scene on Main Street today may have been unimaginable just a few years ago, the city's ambitions go much further.
Baltimore developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse's $1.2 billion plan to revitalize downtown — including new housing, retail space, a minor-league ballpark and opening up stretches of the Saw Mill River, which has long run underneath parts of the city — is in the planning stages.
And Brooklyn developer Forest City Ratner Cos. has proposed a $600 million complex that includes 1,000 apartments, more than 1 million square feet of retail, and a hotel, conference center and movie theater for an underdeveloped site off the New York State Thruway.
Both projects face opposition — the ballpark from a nearby merchant, not convinced it will help downtown, and Ratner from neighboring communities in Yonkers and the town of Greenburgh, which fear overwhelming traffic and congestion in the area.
City officials, however, argue that Yonkers desperately needs to increase its tax base to help fund its public schools, which have endured massive budget cuts that have resulted in lost teachers and programs. The city blames the state for the cuts and is suing, claiming that the state has failed to provide adequate funding for the city's schools. Yonkers schools lag behind similar-sized districts in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse in state assistance.
Yonkers is a diverse city, boasting everything from a large Spanish-speaking population to Irish immigrants who are still arriving to settle along McLean Avenue in the city's southeast quadrant.
The first non-Native American settler of the area arrived in 1646, when the Dutch West India Co. granted Adriaen van der Donck, a young Dutch lawyer, the right to buy from its native inhabitants the land that later would become the city. His nickname, "De Jonkeer," meaning "the young gentleman," is the root of the city's name.
Yonkers remained a private manor through much of the 18th century, under the control of the Philipse family, whose manor house still stands on the northeast corner of Larkin Plaza. The city was incorporated as a town in 1788, as it evolved into an industrial community spawning saw and grist mills.
Industry in the city made its mark in innovation, evidenced by the invention of the modern elevator at Otis Elevator. The company remained in Yonkers until 1983, when it shuttered its plant in Larkin Plaza. The building now is the city's main public library and Board of Education headquarters.
As the 20th century rolled around, the pattern of immigration to Yonkers changed, bringing more people from southern and eastern Europe, including Russia, Greece and Italy.
African-Americans, in search of better housing and a more suburban lifestyle, began moving to the city in large numbers after World War II, followed by a large influx of Latinos. Today, more than a quarter of the city's residents are of Hispanic origin, making Latinos the city's largest minority group.

By MICHAEL GANNON
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: October 30, 2005)
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