We’ve come a long way, baby. Just a decade ago, George W. Bush was being sworn in to his first term as president, tweeting was something that only birds did, Taylor Swift was just 12 years old (and Justin Bieber, 7), and Westchester Magazine was launching its first issue with cover girl Meredith Vieira, who was still five years away from hosting her gig on the Today show. (We were so prescient.) What else has happened in the past 10 years—right here? We look at 10 ways Westchester County has changed from a decade ago.
We’re all Westchesterites. But we weren’t all born Westchesterites. According to the most recent U.S. Census stats, 24 percent of county residents are foreign-born, up from 22.2 percent in 2000.
And that’s not the only demographic shift we’ve seen in the past decade. At the beginning of the decade, only 15.6 percent of residents identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino in the Census—and, by 2009, that number bumped up to 19.8 percent. The Asian population also grew quickly during that time, going from 4.5 percent to 6.1 percent of the population. (Interestingly, the African American population stayed roughly the same, going from 14.2 percent to 14.4 percent.)
Thankfully, the county—or at least some of it—tries to be prepared for the influx of new residents. Says Carola Otero Bracco, executive director of the Mount Kisco-based nonprofit organization Neighbors Link, “Integration of recent immigrants into our community has been the mission of Neighbors Link for almost a decade, and the story of our country since its beginnings.”
There are quite a few more Democrats around today than there were a decade ago. In fact, Democrats have had a hold on the county for some time. (Even by 1996—the earliest year for which the New York State Board of Elections made enrollment totals available—Democrats made up 39 percent of Westchester’s total registered voters, compared to Republicans’ 31 percent.) The last year Westchester County favored a Republican for president was 1988, when 53 percent of voters supported George H.W. Bush.
We’re still creeping more and more to the left—at least registered voters are. In March 2000, Democrats made up 40 percent of registered voters, and Republicans made up just 30 percent. By November 2010, it changed to 47 percent Democrat and 25 percent Republican.
“The growth in Democratic enrollment can’t be traced to any single source but rather to a combination of trends,” Democrat Noam Bramson, the mayor of New Rochelle, says. “This includes, first, an ideological shift to the right in the national Republican Party, which has pushed many moderate ‘Rockefeller’ Republicans into the Democratic column; second, an influx of new residents from New York City, who have brought with them the progressive political orientation of the Big Apple; third, the success and popularity of local Democratic officeholders like Nita Lowey; and, fourth, increasingly diverse demographics, which tend to correlate with Democratic support.”
“Nonetheless,” Bramson adds, “Westchester remains a competitive two-party region in which local elections are shaped less by party loyalty and more by practical quality-of-life and pocketbook issues.” John Hall—the Democratic congressman ousted in November in favor of Republican Nan Hayworth—can attest to that. So can, for that matter, our County Executive, Republican Rob Astorino.
Despite what some may think when looking at any Westchester Metro-North station at 8 am, there are actually more people coming here for work than leaving, reports Purchase College Associate Professor of History Lisa Keller.
“Westchester has shifted to a service industry profile, and the service industry brings a lot of people in,” she explains. Keller says that, by 2006, it was apparent that more people came to Westchester for work than commuted out. “The numbers are tipped in that favor, and the bulk of people who work in Westchester also eventually lived in Westchester, and that’s the big change.” In addition, says Keller, “commuting has become very expensive, and people go to where the jobs are. And as long as housing in Westchester is cheaper than in New York City, this trend will likely continue.”
The housing market carried on as usual through the first half of this decade—until the market started tanking. Then, our houses and lots, like our budgets, started shrinking.
In 2001, residential real estate sales totaled nearly 9,000, two-thirds of which were condos, co-ops, and two- to five-family homes, according to the Westchester Putnam Association of Realtors. By 2009, sales dropped to fewer than 6,000, half of which were single-family homes. (There is reason to be optimistic, however, as the report projected a rebound in sales for 2010 to around 7,000.)
According to Patrick Natarelli of the Westchester County Department of Planning, there has been a growing interest in development centered on mass transit, shifting towards smaller, multi-family homes. “Empty-nesters are moving out of their homes into apartments or condos and downsizing, which leaves room for new families to come into the county,” says Land Use Planner Ted Leimbach, also of the Department of Planning (who noted that much real estate activity has moved towards re-development in Southern Westchester). “There are new families moving in,” says Natarelli, “including immigrant families, which contributes to the population change.”
So let’s cozy up to our neighbors—there will be more of them, and we’ll all be living closer together.
Yes, we Westchesterites have a reputation for moving to the county for more breathing room, green spaces, and picturesque, bucolic villages. But we don’t want to enter into some kind of Green Acres bargain, where gaining space and fresh air means giving up any semblance of a metropolitan lifestyle.
In fact, it’s our cities and our larger towns that are growing. According to the Westchester County Department of Planning, between April 2000 and July 2009, North Castle’s population grew by 12 percent, Harrison’s and Rye Brook’s by 11 percent, Peekskill’s by 10 percent, and White Plains’ by 8 percent. (Ardsley had the biggest growth of all with 13 percent, but since the village is so small, that really only amounted to a change of fewer than 600 people, while White Plains added more than 4,000 new residents.)
In comparison, our smaller towns and villages are actually losing people. In that same period, Mamaroneck shrunk by 1.53 percent, Scarsdale by .38 percent, Ossining by .27 percent, Pleasantville by .18 percent, Bronxville by .14 percent, and Pelham Manor by .04 percent. Sure, those percentages are far tinier by comparison, but those were the only municipalities that—in an ever-growing county—saw their populations decrease.
The change could be chalked up to the expense of living in a tony village like Bronxville or Scarsdale. Or, it could be a testament to how, for lack of a better word, cool our cities are becoming. Last decade, White Plains didn’t even have its own movie theater. Now, in the same building, it not only has a multiplex (with, sometimes, a piano player in the lobby) but a venue for live theater in development, too—along with a hot nightlife scene along Mamaroneck Avenue so we can grab dinner or drinks afterwards. Peekskill is also a destination in its own right, especially for beer fans, who can enjoy a Paramount Pale Ale at the Peekskill Brewery or one of the 20 craft beers on tap at Birdsall House.
When it comes to our cities, we suspect even Eva Gabor would approve.
In the 10 years since Westchester Magazine debuted, our dining scene has exploded with Manhattan-based restaurateurs like Dan Barber blazing suburban frontiers. In 2004, his Blue Hill at Stone Barns dared to offer on-trend cuisine to knowing palates, and Barber’s Pocantico Hills restaurant became a pilgrimage site for that new breed we call “Foodies.” The success of BHSB is legendary—six years since its opening, its 90 seats still require a two-month wait.
More daring food frontiers were broken in Yonkers, on a crumbling Hudson pier that once housed a defunct steamboat line. With a Rockefeller estate not at hand, Chef Peter Kelly turned his eye to the rebirth of Yonkers. Yonkers-born Kelly was hoping to take the snicker out of the Hello Dolly line that claims the inner-ring suburb is “the most beautiful town in the world.” With help from the City of Yonkers (eager to repopulate its stunning waterfront), Kelly re-vamped the Yonkers Pier to house his flagship, X2O. Kelly’s Zagat top-rated restaurant now sits docked against the Hudson, gazing from three sides on the Hudson’s once-forgotten beauty.
Across the county, on the Port Chester shores of the Byram, Greenwich resident and multiple James Beard Award winner Joseph Bastianich had a vision. He bought multiple derelict buildings on Mill Street—including a burnt-out restaurant called Tarry Lodge. With his business partner, Mario Batali, Bastianich launched his suburban empire with the help of partners Nancy Selzer and Chef Andy Nusser. The re-vamped Tarry Lodge debuted in 2008 and drew record crowds, packing its 200 seats from lunch until midnight. Two years later, Batali and Bastianich expanded their footprint with next door’s Tarry Market and Tarry Wines, creating a diversified Italophilic food Mecca on a once-sleepy suburban corner.
More Manhattan restaurateurs followed, seeking endless opportunity and reasonable rents. Stephen Paul Mancini fled North with partner Chef Eric Gabrynowicz, who landed in Armonk after formative years with Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe. According to Mancini, the move was a no-brainer. “There is a client base of well-traveled, well-educated people who have dined out all over New York City or even the world. There are people here who know how to dine well.” In 2007, BLT Steak parked at the base of the Ritz-Carlton with its first suburban venture, while just this year, Godfrey Polistina of NYC’s Ouest, Carmines, and ‘Cesca set up shop in Port Chester with Arrosto.
According to Chef Peter Kelly (who has cooked in the region since before the Manhattan diaspora), the county’s dining habits have changed with its new wave of great restaurants. Where once, lavish meals out were reserved for anniversaries and birthdays, Westchester’s new dining populace eats out all week long. “Our culinary landscape has improved primarily because of two changes: the first is an emphasis on ingredient-driven menus, and the second is a move away from strictly event-based reservations.” Now, with more and better reasons, Westchester is dining out all week long.
In the past decade, we have recognized the importance of open space and have worked hard to preserve it—or what was left of it. Tom Andersen, the deputy executive director of the Westchester Land Trust, notes that, in the late 1990s, the Department of Planning reported 55,400 acres of recreational and open space. By 2010, the acreage was up to 69,868—and growing. That’s an increase of 26 percent in just 10 years.
“Before the 1990s, county government and municipalities weren’t adding any open spaces or parkland,” Andersen says. “At the same time, the county was experiencing a construction boom. People saw that their favorite woods, fields, farms, and access points to the Hudson River and the Sound were being built on. That started a strong movement of local residents and elected officials to start preserving open space, and it really took off after 2000.”
So, next time you take a lazy stroll along one of our trails or parks—remember, someone worked pretty hard to make sure that didn’t become a condo.
When standing in Westchester’s most metropolitan area in 2001, what did you see when you trained your eyes skyward or looked for the horizon? Chances are, not much.
Back then, our tallest building was the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains, standing at a mere 271 feet tall. That’s hardly what anyone could call a skyline.
Pretty early in the decade, for better or for worse, our buildings started growing—mostly thanks to mega-developer Louis Cappelli. In 2001, he proposed a building a mere 49 feet higher than the courthouse: New Roc Tower. He beat his own record again with the 35-story Trump Tower in White Plains—and then again with Trump Plaza in New Rochelle, which stands 40 stories. But the jewel in the crown of our city skyline is the Ritz-Carlton, Westchester, which celebrated its “topping off” in October 2006. Standing at 44 stories, the ultra-swank hotel is still the county’s tallest building—and it lets you know it, emanating a cool blue light for everyone along 287 to marvel at.
Okay, so our “skyline” is really two: one in New Rochelle and another in White Plains. You can’t capture it all on one postcard like New York City can, but, like the Empire State Building, these towers are a symbol of Westchester’s growth and desire to be noticed.
And we aren’t the only ones who have taken note. “Before moving to Westchester County,” says Mark R. LePage, partner architect with Fivecat Studio in Pleasantville, “I often traveled the 287 corridor through White Plains en route to my New Jersey hometown. Although the city was certainly a landmark, I always considered the bulky skyline dull and uninteresting. The city’s skyline was not much different than the city itself—outdated and depressed.”
A lot has changed in the past decade. “In the midst of a modern urban renaissance, White Plains has built a recognizable visual identity,” Le Page says. “The emerging glass and steel skyline speaks of the energy and vibrancy of today’s White Plains.”
Best of all, what stands at our tallest point isn’t some tourist-choked observation deck—it’s the Best-of-the-Decade-winning restaurant, 42. Say what you will about our skyline—we really know how to enjoy the view.
Taxes have been the bulk of our county’s troubles for as long as most of us can remember. School taxes are no exception. Rising steadily over the course of the decade, the average school tax has increased more than 39 percent since 2001. The leader in Westchester school tax rates in 2010 is the Briarcliff Manor Union Free School District, at $1,507.5 per $1,000 of assessed value. Just 10 years ago, Briarcliff Manor’s rate was $846.3 per $1,000, which, at the time, was the highest rate. That’s nearly a 100-percent increase in the highest tax rate of schools in the county.
Quick: Where do you go when, on a warm and breezy day, you want to have a drink or a bite to eat along the Hudson River? X2O? Half Moon? Red Hat on the River? The Day Boat Café? The Boathouse?
A decade ago, none of these summertime staples would have been an option. The Hudson was not where we went to have fun. The river wasn’t for recreation—it was for work. (Not glamorous work, either—Riverkeeper called it the “region’s sewer.”) The water was polluted, the sites were choked off from the rest of the county, and it still had the workhorse vibe of lingering manufacturing industries, many of which had already taken flight, leaving chemical-filled messes in their wake. A county report in 1998—two years after the big GM plant in Sleepy Hollow closed its doors—found that of the 49 miles of Westchester’s Hudson waterfront, 12 miles were blocked by train tracks, seven miles were still being used for current and former industry, and nine miles were undeveloped altogether.
This decade, we reclaimed our waterfront from the grip of old industry. The Red Hat, for example, was once the site of a company that manufactured greenhouses and conservatories. Now, its rooftop bar makes it a prime destination for riverside drinks. Yonkers’s former Otis Elevator factory is now the public library. The parking lot adjacent to that GM factory is now Ichabod’s Landing, a community of 44 townhomes and a smattering of retail space.
And today, we can take boats, kayak, and, yes, even fish in the Hudson (although the jury’s still out on eating what we catch). As a result, we’ve added some prime Hudson-side parkland—some with kayak launches—such as the Irvington Waterfront Park (once 12 acres of contaminated soil), and the newest section of the county RiverWalk, which opened in Croton-on-Hudson in 2009.
Hopefully, next decade we’ll be saying the same things about the similarly scrappy Byram River. Revitalization is already underway, with funky restaurants like bartaco along its shores.