For decades, the City of Yonkers was typecast as a municipal buffoon. To hardened cynics, the city was a punchline for corruption, an object of derision, a place to avoid — or, in the tragic case of Death of a Salesman’s Willie Loman, a place to get lost when driving home from a dead-end job.
Yonkers is often called “The City of Hills” (insert joke here: “where nothing is on the level”), but I live in Yonkers, so I think of it as a city with broad shoulders and a big heart. It can take a punch — and a punchline.
The author Lisa Belkin once noted that Yonkers has a kind of “feel” all its own, summing it up perfectly as a “working-class bridge between the towers of Manhattan to the south and the pampered hills of Westchester to the north.” During the Great Depression, a long-forgotten politician scanned the geographic anomaly and proposed making Yonkers the sixth borough of New York City, an idea that went nowhere. Perhaps this failure was due to the city’s stubborn capacity to resist, what Belkin termed its “defiant nostalgia.” That can be good and bad.
No one has captured that nostalgia better than the legendary songwriter Chip Taylor, who grew up in Yonkers and in 2007 released an entire record album dedicated to it. Here’s a sample lyric:
Born and raised in Yonkers, New York. Don’t matter if you’re tall or you’re short.
Sooner or later, you’ll be down on your luck. Take some chances just to make a buck.
They don’t write songs like that about Larchmont. No, they don’t.
But if working-class defiance and grit are Yonkers hallmarks, they are not traits confined to the city’s past. In the best sense of their meaning, they are renewable, modern, and certified by the results of the 2020 U.S. Census. For the first time in a half-century, Yonkers is actually burgeoning. New people are coming in — thousands of them.
Confirmation came in a celebratory tweet last summer from Mayor Mike Spano: “Breaking News! The @ City of Yonkers is now officially New York’s third largest city.”
Yonkers grew by 15,593 people over the past decade (a solid rate of 8%), which edged the city of Rochester by 241 souls, to become the third-most-populous burg in the state, behind New York City and Buffalo. The city’s population officially stands at 211,569, surpassing the 200,000 mark for the first time since 1970, when it reached an all-time high of 204,297.
I live in Yonkers, so I think of it as a city with broad shoulders and a big heart. It can take a punch — and a punchline.
At first blush, this may seem like a dubious accomplishment. “We’re Number Three!” is hardly a winning slogan. Indeed, the trolls had their say on social media, answering Spano’s announcement with the usual snark, e.g., “…and a third world country.” But if placing third seems trivial, then consider the reaction of Rochesterites, who were accustomed to being Number Three. The Rochester City News said the demotion “represents a psychological blow” to the city, whose reputation has been tarnished by a host of problems, including criminal charges brought against its mayor, Lovely Warren.
All things considered, Spano may be forgiven for claiming bragging rights. Needless to say, Warren didn’t send him a note of congratulations.
“We knew we were growing,” the Yonkers mayor told me. “Don’t forget, we had 4,000 units of housing built on the water’s edge during my time here, so we knew our numbers were going up.”
He also wasn’t surprised that the Census would reveal a dramatic shift in Yonkers’ demographics. For the first time, the number of Hispanic residents, which grew 31.1%, has exceeded that of the White population, which saw a 27.9% drop — a trend that mirrored county and statewide Census findings. (Side note: The number of people identifying as American Indian inexplicably exploded by 88.3% in Westchester, to 7,466, among whom 2,588 live in Yonkers.)
“Yeah, the city has changed,” Spano said. “We are wonderfully diverse, and there’s a lot of good things happening in Yonkers.”
It’s not quite the city that Chip Taylor knew back in the day. But the spirit is the same — pugnacious, defiant, irrepressible, and loud. People are coming to Yonkers.
And they’re still taking chances, just to make a buck.