My family goes back to the turn of the 20th century in Yonkers. My mother’s father, Harry Nelson, was born here. His father owned quite a bit of property along Cottage Place, including a butcher shop, barber shop, ice cream parlor, and rental properties. The properties were razed to make way for Cottage Place Gardens, public housing built in the early 1940s. My mother’s mother, Freddie-Mae Nelson, was born in Alabama and came here when she was 13.
My paternal grandfather, John Smyer, was an attorney in New York City. His father was pastor of the Institutional AME Zion Church in Cottage Gardens.
I was the second generation in Cottage Gardens. My maternal grandparents were one of the first families to move in. After my grandfather died on the job, drowning in the Hudson while working on the barges, my grandmother moved to Woodworth Avenue. As a child, I loved to watch the boats go up and down the river. I didn’t realize that a river view commanded a premium, until I started working for a developer.
On Woodworth, both sides of my family lived in close proximity. I lived in the same building as my cousin, my grandmother and my aunt shared a three-family house, and my aunt’s husband owned a grocery store next door. With my father working for the municipal housing authority and my mother finishing her college studies in fine arts, my cousins and I checked in with my grandmother at lunch time and after school. That helped us growing up; it knit us together. I wanted that for my kids.
I like that in Yonkers you can be as urban or as suburban as you like. It’s like being in Manhattan: Just turn a corner and you’re in a different world. I can get anywhere rather quickly. If my car is not cooperating, I can jump on a bus or catch a train.
There’s been a lot of change in west Yonkers. Cottage Gardens will be torn down in stages and replaced with mixed-use housing. My mother and her four sisters graduated from Commerce High School, though it’s now called Palisade Prep. My son and daughter go there. When my mother and my aunt attend their school functions, they share the history of the building with them. My aunt Audrey remembers being in music class and hearing the sirens at the waterfront the day my grandfather died, not realizing it was her father who needed saving.
In the summers, we’d go to Tibbetts Brook Park for family picnics. My great uncle Steve and anyone else who could drive would take the whole family there in shifts, more than two dozen of us. We put the watermelon in the brook to keep it chilled. Tibbetts has a new water park that’s great for the kids. I miss the old pool; I used to swim laps there.
Cities are like families: They evolve and change. People and buildings fall away, but maybe the façade is kept to retain that sense of history and continuity. I sometimes think about retiring and moving with my family someplace warm where my retirement money can stretch. As long as we can come back, we’ll be fine.