Why Westchester's Young Adult Population Is Diminishing

Seven years ago, after spending the summer months between college semesters and almost my entire childhood in the Town of Eastchester, I did what so many 20-something Westchester natives had done before me: I left. First, I moved to Buenos Aires, where I scraped by as an English-language teacher, and then Brooklyn, where I did the same as a copywriter at a fledgling publishing company. Westchester was only two subway transfers and a window-fogging nap on Metro-North from my Williamsburg walk-up, yet it might as well have been on another continent. But for the odd family get-together or impromptu Seder (such is life in a deeply Reformed Jewish household), I had little reason to return. To say nothing of New York’s accepted landmarks, all of the microbreweries, artisanal food shops, and twee oddities I could hope to explore were in a 15-block radius of my apartment, my friends and place of employment not much farther than that. If I didn’t dismiss the county as a viable place to live, it was only because I had never considered it in the first place.

Neither had Scarsdale native Laura Stein. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 2009, she moved to Jerusalem for a year before finally settling in Manhattan. Now 25, she plans to return to Israel for her first year of cantoral school. “As far as I’m concerned,” she says matter-of-factly, “there’s not really a place in Scarsdale I’d be able to afford.” And then there’s this: “I actually just got back with my parents five minutes ago from Chat,” she says, referring to the American grill in town. “It is literally the only place to eat around here.”

Dana Lamonaca, a graduate of The Ursuline School and a fellow Eastchesterite, made her Westchester exodus shortly after finishing her bachelor’s degree at Manhattanville College. Today, she lives in tony Chelsea—only a 10-minute commute from the office where she works, fittingly, in marketing for the beauty industry. “I think I always figured I’d move here,” she says. “Maybe I just had that big dream of making it in the City.”

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As it turns out, one 24-year-old woman’s dream is a business collective’s nightmare.

This past March, The Business Council of Westchester, which touts itself as the area’s “largest and most influential business membership organization” and doubles as a kind of databank for the local community and its government officials, released a study that found that the county was “viewed favorably” by college students and new professionals alike for its nightlife, public transportation, and abundance of park space, among other things. More revealing than the results of this study, however, are the reasons it was originally conducted. According to the US Census, the county’s population of 20- to 24-year-olds has decreased approximately 13 percent since 1990; its 25- to 34-year-olds, nearly 26 percent. That’s more than Rockland County in New York, Bergen County in New Jersey, and Fairfield County in Connecticut (14, 23, and 25 percent, respectively). In 2008, Westchester’s Department of Planning projected that the former figure will drop another 9 percent between 2010 and 2030. We all know that birth and marriage rates are down, and Baby Boomers are retiring later than ever. But lost in this morass of well-explored data is a youth-flight crisis that has been quietly simmering in New York’s suburbs and exurbs for the past half-century—and now may be coming to a boil.

Since the 1950s, when scores of wealthy, white families practically developed their own colonies in the lower Hudson Valley, Westchester has experienced what county Director of Economic Development Laurence Gottlieb calls a “boomerang economy”: Its children leave in their teens and early 20s to go to school, find a job and a life partner, and then double back in their late 20s and early 30s to raise a family and begin the cycle anew. But what if these boomerang kids delay their return—or worse, sail off into nearby Connecticut or New York City? The consequences of such an exodus are as dire as its threat is real. Without a pool of young professionals—entry-level employees with the intellectual capital to claw their way up the corporate food chain—Westchester risks losing the kind of companies that finance its infrastructure, and it seems that all the tax breaks and free services the government can offer won’t lure them back.

In a perverse way, the recession has offered a brief reprieve. The Pew Research Center, a think tank in Washington DC, reported earlier this year that 41 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds either live with, or have moved back in with, their parents. In addition, according to the nonprofit Project on Student Debt, two-thirds of  graduates carried an average of $25,250 in debt. Absent a job or an apartment they can afford on their own, they return to Mom and Dad. And because so many families in Westchester have the financial resources to support their children out of school, those sticking around make it more likely that the county is to produce the next Mark Zuckerberg (born in White Plains, raised in Dobbs Ferry)—although, even then, there’s no guarantee these baby-faced titans of industry will launch their new companies from their home towns. “Our wealth makes us one gigantic bank,” says Gottlieb. “There’s a far greater chance that someone will be able to start his or her own entrepreneurial venture in Westchester County than a lot of other parts of the country.”

Perhaps the more pressing question is what happens when the economy improves and people have the freedom to live and work where they want? Will they stay? Or once the doors of their parents’ picket fences have finally blown open, will they flee for something new—New York, New Orleans, New Delhi?

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“If the jobs are here,” says Marsha Gordon, The Business Council’s president and chief executive officer, “many of Westchester’s communities are ideal for young people.” The US Bureau of Labor Statistics, meanwhile, suggests these jobs have been there all along. Since April of 2010, the unemployment rates in Westchester have never risen higher than 7.6 percent, which is well below state and national averages. In the decade prior to the recession, the county fared better still as these numbers hovered around 4 percent. While these statistics fail to account for the number of Westchester residents who commute to other areas of the tri-state area and vice versa, they nonetheless expose a fault line in Gordon’s basic thesis.
“In the grand scheme of things, Westchester’s probably more competitive than people realize,” Gottlieb maintains. “To me, it’s more a youth ‘fight’ issue than it is a youth ‘flight’ issue. We’re fighting for the hearts and minds of young professionals, and a lot of our energy needs to be devoted to selling our youth on the benefits of living and working in Westchester.”

The Business Council agrees. As an addendum to its findings, it has devised a multifaceted plan to help retain their youth population that includes—deep breath—building more mixed-use developments where housing, retail, and mass transit are available together; enacting a tax rebate to make the county more affordable (more on this in a bit); improving cellphone service along its northern border; forging a consortium of local colleges that helps young professionals find jobs and internships; developing a website and phone app that would alert residents to new events around Westchester; and utilizing park land for more dog runs and bike paths.

However skeptical one may feel about the latter being characterized as a “popular socialization venue” (who socializes on a bicycle?), or whether an unpaid internship would enable someone to live in the county anywhere beyond his or her childhood bedroom, Gordon and her colleagues can’t be faulted for a lack of creative thinking. Among other initiatives, they plan to use the Village of Ossining—famous for its public library, scenic waterfront, and maximum-security prison—as a pilot community to attract people in their 20s and early 30s. Notes Ingrid Richards, the village’s manager of downtown and economic development, “Ossining has a very affordable housing stock, and it’s a great community, ethnically and financially. We think we’re in the best position to [speak to] these young professionals.”

Yet if the county’s prolonged settlement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development has taught us anything, it’s that creating affordable housing opportunities in Westchester is easier said than done. Based in Washington, DC, the Tax Foundation, which calls itself a nonpartisan tax research group, reports that from 2005 to 2009, the median residential property tax was approximately $8,100—again, more than Bergen ($7,925), Rockland ($7,676), or Fairfield Counties ($5,908). This makes it not only one of the priciest places to live in the state but in the country as a whole. (Only Long Island’s Nassau County and Hunterdon County in New Jersey had higher property taxes).

Michael Snyder knows this all too well. As a broker for Houlihan Lawrence, one of the leading real estate agencies in Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties, he’s carved out a niche business among first-time homebuyers. “I do an exercise with all of my clients when we go and look at homes,” he says. Even during our phone interview, Snyder maintains a kind of salesman’s patois, his assessment of Westchester toeing the line between earnest appraisal and thinly veiled promotion. “I tell ’em to take a piece of paper, write pros on one side, cons on the other, and put a line down the middle. Usually, there’s a whole list of pros, and only one con: the taxes.” Despite the albatross of Westchester’s rates, he insists that the housing market is as lively as it’s been in years, for renters as well as buyers. “People are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel,” he says, before adding, “It’s not that Westchester is recession-proof, but I think there are more opportunities now.”

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After skipping around from Pelham to Eastchester and finally to Tuckahoe, Crestwood-native Will Maldarelli simply can’t imagine leaving the county for the incandescence of Manhattan or the Edison-bulb glow of hipster Brooklyn. “It’s weird,” says the 28-year-old teacher and Manhattanville grad student. “It’s relatively dead here, but I think I like that.” So does Jessica Malone-Atkinson, founder and creative director of design management and production company the Spark Group, who owns a home in Mohegan Lake. “I met my husband when I was nineteen,” she says. “Most people are partying in their early 20s, and I felt like I had found what I was looking for. I’m not the norm.” Statistically speaking, Malone-Atkinson is correct. The 2010 US Census reveals that Yorktown’s population of 45- to 49-year-olds (3,337) was nearly triple that of its 25- to 29-year-olds (1,239).

Other Westchester-born residents, like New Rochelle’s Amanda Miller, follow a more familiar trajectory. After graduating from Skidmore College in 2008, she moved back in with her parents until June of 2011, when she found in Mamaroneck the kind of one-bedroom apartment that can cause a virtual riot among the City’s more devoted Craigslist users ($1,400 a month/1,000 square feet!). But while Miller prefers the verdant, low-key life of the suburbs, she concedes that circumstances might one day force her to move to one of the five boroughs. “I know it’s a time in my life that’s more conducive to living in the City,” she admits, almost apologetically. “I also know that when I have kids, I’ll probably move back to the suburbs, like my parents did.”

Few villages appear as well positioned to avoid this brand of boomerang drift as the City of White Plains, whose downtown was identified by The Business Council’s study as one of the most desirable places to live in the county. In part, Mayor Tom Roach credits his predecessor, as well as the city’s Common Council, for its transformation. “Mayor [Joseph] Delfino made an aggressive push to get people here,” he says. “Instead of spending our money on an aquarium or a merry-go-round, we invested in sidewalks, streetlights, and garbage cans. Uniformity sends a message of control and creates a subtle feeling of safety.”

Perhaps more than any other town in Westchester, White Plains has committed to making itself more accessible to a younger generation of residents, both present and prospective. In addition to the myriad bars and restaurants that line Mamaroneck Avenue, the city has opened new bike lanes that run from Post Road to Water Street, and then back out onto Lexington Avenue. (Developers, as you may have noticed, are big on biking.) Roach also forged a partnership in June with Zipcar, which will have its own rental hub downtown. “It sends a signal to young people in Manhattan, who are maybe tired of their circumstances, that ‘Wow, I can live right near the City, and I don’t need a car,’” he gushes. “White Plains is more than a clean, safe community. It also has a little bit of Portland.”

Just don’t expect IFC to film a television show there anytime soon. For all the strides that White Plains has taken, and the rest of Westchester plans to take, its cultural offerings inevitably pale in comparison with its neighbor to the south, and all of the bike lanes, Zipcars, and outdoor dining in the world won’t change that. As Laurence Gottlieb tells it, losing its youth population to New York and other cities is one of the county’s major concerns. “Our children are exposed to a much wider view of the world than several generations ago,” he says. “When kids go to college, it’s becoming more the norm for them to spend a whole year overseas. It’s like that old expression: ‘How do you keep them down on the farm when they’ve seen the lights of Paris?’”

Chris Lanza, now 27, moved to the City shortly after completing his bachelor’s degree at Fordham and hasn’t looked back since. Growing up in Mahopac, New York, along the border separating Westchester and Putnam Counties, he felt almost resentful of his suburban surroundings. “I was very bored,” he notes with a sigh. “I’ve been in the City for nine years now and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Sam Cochran, a 29-year-old journalist from Hastings-on-Hudson, has a more nuanced but no less damning opinion of his native county. After graduating from Brown University in 2005, he spent eight trying months in his childhood home before eventually migrating to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn. For him, the choice to move was simple. “I don’t think Westchester appeals to people with certain professional ambitions,” he says. “I work for a magazine, and that industry is centered in the City. My professional success depends on being plugged into what’s going on.” While Cochran acknowledges Hastings’s Cheeveresque charms and can even imagine returning with his future partner to raise a family of his own, he suggests the county is missing something vital for people in their 20s. “I can’t imagine being single in Westchester, particularly being gay and single. If you belong to a sub-culture or a counterculture, you don’t want to be in the suburbs. The City might be fifteen miles away, but culturally and spiritually, things are dramatically different.”

It’s a chilly morning in April and my friend, Jeremy, a petite man of 29 with designer glasses and closely cropped blond hair, is trying (and failing) to bargain with a group of Haitian cab drivers. “Soixante,” he murmurs. “Cinquante-cinq, cinquante.” His college buddy, Chris, and I roll our eyes, but the men just laugh and clap their hands. Minutes before, we had missed the 12:11 back to Grand Central, and the prospect of kicking around the White Plains train station for another hour felt a little too grim to bear. Finally, after more haranguing, one of the drivers takes pity on our sad troika and agrees to bring us back to the City for $65 plus toll.

That Saturday night, we’d decided to check out White Plains’s burgeoning youth scene, or whatever the more responsible adults are calling it these days. I had spurned the county after college and was prepared to hear its latest pitch. If nothing else, I figured the reverse commute would offer a refreshing break from the pretension of our regular City hangouts. What I found instead were a half dozen sports bars with at least 30 television screens between them—16 alone in the Brazen Fox, whose down-and dirty-décor and framed photos of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne appeared to have been purchased in some kind of “Instant Americana” restaurant kit. (Although it bears mentioning that its burgers and wings were excellent.)

White Plains itself felt less like a small city than it did a computer-generated SimCity, each corner virtually identical to the one that preceded it. As we made the slow march down Mamaroneck Avenue, I thought about my interview with its mayor, Tom Roach. Uniformity might instill a feeling of security, yes, but it can also be kind of a bore.

My complaint is one of aesthetics only in so much as they serve as an expression of demographics. For all of its city’s diversity, White Plains’s downtown strip appeals to a very narrow segment of the population: white, male, upwardly mobile, straight. The neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn may not be any less uniform, but taken together, there’s a heterogeneous quality to their homogeneity; Williamsburg will never be a signifier for its city the way that White Plains (or Scarsdale or New Rochelle) is for its county. In this respect, youth flight is not the provenance of Westchester but the suburbs themselves, and whether they ultimately settle there or not, it is the county’s unique misfortune that its residents will grow up with their noses pressed to the glass of a metropolis as diverse and rife with possibility as New York.

Shortly before midnight, we slinked out the back of Hudson Grille (into the parking lot of my childhood dentist’s office), and Chris, who hails from Buffalo and is no stranger to some of the state’s less vaunted cities, declared to no one in particular, “Maybe a helicopter can take us back to civilization.” He’d have to settle instead for a taxi.

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