MICHELLE DEPINHO AND SEAN SONNEMANN
EDITOR AND EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
During Manhattan College’s underdog NCAA tournament run last year, sports commentators loved to address a geographic fun fact about a school that is not normally featured on the national stage.
For those unfamiliar with the college, it is understandably confusing that an institution located in The Bronx actually shares its name with the island to its south.
While the history behind MC’s misnomer is interesting, these talking heads overlooked another facet of the college’s unique location in New York City.
Manhattan College is positioned at the border of two very different neighborhoods.
On one side of the campus gates sits Riverdale, which includes the wooded enclave of Fieldston. Complete with tony mini-mansions and its own security force, Fieldston also boasts three private schools whose tuitions rival that of the college.
On the other end lies Kingsbridge. Cabbies scout out fares beneath the gritty elevated train running down the length of Broadway. Shoppers hustle from store to store as music blares from passing cars and sirens approach from the distant hills.
The differences between these two communities go further than just real estate curb appeal.
Rather, the appearances reflect a deeper, neighborhood-level economic disparity that has become the subject of a wider debate within the five boroughs of New York City.
As an assistant professor of sociology and director of Manhattan College’s urban studies program, Cory Blad has a vibrant case study within walking distance of his office.
“New York has always been an economic fiction. It’s always been richer than everywhere else in the U.S.” Blad said. “That stratification has always existed here. However, it has gotten worse. And it’s gotten measurably worse.”
For Kingsbridge and Riverdale, key economic indicators demonstrate the extent of this issue on a local scale.
According to the latest available data from the US Census Bureau, Riverdale (roughly area code 10471) has 8.9 percent of its population living below the national poverty line.
Travel just a few blocks over to neighboring Kingsbridge (area code 10463) and that figure nearly doubles to 17.6 percent.
Similarly, the median household income for the Riverdale community is $71,798 annually. For a family in Kingsbridge that number drops to $54,258 a year.
For many neighborhoods in New York City, this widening wealth gap is tied to the hot-button issues of gentrification and the rising cost of living.
In his most recent state of the city address, Mayor Bill de Blasio warned about the potential consequences of a growing income gap and record-level real estate prices around the city.
“If we do not act—and act boldly—New York risks taking on the qualities of a gated community,” de Blasio said. “A place defined by exclusivity, rather than opportunity. And we cannot let that happen.”
But the wealth gap between Kingsbridge and Riverdale is one that has existed historically, unlike many of the economic tensions and rent hikes brought on by recent gentrification seen most visibly in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“I don’t think you can call Riverdale a gentrified community because it’s been affluent for a while,” Blad said.
Riverdale’s longtime reputation as a suburban getaway within city limits is the product of meticulous community planning that began over a century ago. The Fieldston section of Riverdale was first acquired and developed by the family of War of 1812 veteran Major Joseph Delafield.
Years later, its quaint charm, excellent schools and manicured appearance continue to draw in residents who can afford home prices well in the millions of dollars.
For many outsiders, this description would never seemingly be a paired with a section of The Bronx, a borough which has struggled to escape its reputation as a place of widespread poverty, violence and crime.
However, in recent years, the northernmost borough that has often been eyed by developers as one of the final frontiers of gentrification and renovation is undergoing several notable changes.
This past summer, a new 780,000 square foot enclosed mall in the Bay Plaza section of The Bronx opened to local residents and shoppers from around the city. Additional projects include the housing redevelopment of the South Bronx (which some have already tried to rebrand with the trendy SoBro abbreviation) and the long-debated repurposing of the Kingsbridge Armory as an ice skating rink.
“It’s called the gentrification-proof borough,” Blad said. “We’ll see if that stands.”
Locally, the Riverdale Crossing shopping center on Broadway and West 238th Street will begin to test that theory when it fully opens, offering a mix of retail and dining options such as BJ’s Wholesale Club and the borough’s first Chipotle Mexican Grill.
However, unlike the often satire-inducing artisanal and niche stores popping up in gentrified hotspots such as Williamsburg, more mainstream box and retail chain stores are opening their doors in The Bronx.
“The development you see all throughout lower Manhattan and into Brooklyn and even along the rivers is pedestrian, foot-traffic oriented development,” Blad said.
“These [the new retail locations] are kind of car-destination places. It’s almost suburban in that sense.”
Suburban also seems fitting to describe how the college markets its distinctive location within the city, boasting on the school website of its “bucolic campus” in the “community-minded neighborhood of Riverdale.”
Yet the school in fact resides at a junction of two contrasting neighborhoods—two communities representative of wider discussion about the future of the economic landscape in the ever-evolving five boroughs of New York City.