Inner Ring Suburbs Pre-WWII by Emily Gebhardt
Yonkers, New York
_ The American Dream manifests itself most acutely in the American suburb. Over time, suburbia has evolved to become that imagined land of opportunity, the place where life is better and richer and fuller for everyone.
If you were to travel to Westchester County, New York in 1900, you may very well have experienced something close to the American Dream: prosperous industry, rolling valleys, and a close proximity to a city. Today, however, the notion of suburbia is effervescent, transient, and ever changing. It is not stable, grounded, and permanent. In this essay, I will explore and describe Yonkers in the very first part of the twentieth century as being an inner-ring suburb. In addition, I will compare and contrast Yonkers to the other inner-ring suburbs Hastings-on-Hudson, Bronxville, and Tuckahoe.
First, how many different types of suburbs are there and how do we define them? Suburbs are classified based on several factors, the main ones being race and class. Yonkers at the turn of the century, therefore, would most likely fit into the “…satellite city or mixed suburb…its distinction was not primarily economic. Satellite cities are more intensively urban and distinguished by their large size, congestion, mature business district, and a demographic profile that resembles other large cities.” Yonkers’ business district in the early twentieth century had a vast array of industry, ranging from the Otis Elevator Company to the Federal Sugar Refining Company.
Many of these factories had been in place since the late 1800s, products of blossoming growing farmers and landowners. During the early twentieth century they flourished to great heights, perhaps because of several “changing of the guards.” “At Alexander Smith and Sons, for example, one era ended and another began when Warren B. Smith died…in 1903. The bulk of his $40,000,000 estate went to…five nieces and nephews receiving $1,000,000 each.”
Yonkers also had a large population dedicated to working the city’s factories and other businesses. The Yonkers’ working class consisted of mainly English, Scottish, Irish, Polish, Slavic, and Ukrainian immigrants. Before the transfer of power and the revamping of Alexander Smith and Sons carpet company in the early 1900s, there was much unemployment and distress among workers.
Given the fact that most of the workers lived within walking distance of the mill, some of them in company housing, layoffs and strikes at the carpet company had a profound effect upon the city of Yonkers…The…adversarial relationship between labor and management was evident…on one extraordinary occasion in 1903 when labor leaders accepted an invitation from industrialist John C. Havemeyer to appear on the stage of the Yonkers Music Hall for a “discussion of the principles and methods of labor."
_ Yonkers industrial giants clearly relied heavily on their workers, and they made rather progressive efforts to better their experiences in the factories. This relationship between observant overseer and dutiful worker, whether superficial or not, demonstrates the integrity of industrial workers in mixed suburbs. With a population big enough for heavy industry and with wealthy business tycoons to control the flow of capital, Yonkers is a perfect example of the satellite suburb or city because it combines the luxury of suburban life with close access to New York City.
_ Yonkers in 1900 was also a perfect example of the middle-class inner-ring suburb because it was home to many middle-class workers. Today, the satellite city resembles more closely the “vulnerable inner-ring” model, with a lower household income than the average middle-class suburb. “Middle-class inner-ring suburbs evolved over a long period of time. Many, particularly in the Northeast…first developed as suburbs for the wealthy and then the middle class.” Yonkers is an interesting prototype for the middle-class inner-ring because the wealthy that brought the industrial economy to the city also brought the middle and lower classes; the wealthy owned the mills and the laborers worked in them. Up until the mid-1880s, Yonkers had relied mainly on farming. “In 1853, Elisha Otis invented the first safety elevator and the Otis Elevator Company…Around the same time, the Alexander Smith and Sons Carpet Company…expanded to 45 buildings, 800 looms, and over 4,000 workers…” In this instance, we see a small farm community being transformed into a microcosm of New York City life with a touch of country flair—landing quite close to being the American Dream suburb.
With a great influx of immigrant industrial workers in the early 1900s, Yonkers needed to have a good public transportation system both inside and outside the suburb. Trains needed to reach New York City where bankers, investors, and other professionals commuted every day. The transportation system of Yonkers definitely helped to define and to shape it as a middle-class satellite city: “…families seeking a better quality of life than what Manhattan, and even the outer boroughs offered, were increasingly drawn to Yonkers…Given its proximity to New York City and its varied topography, it was only natural that the City of Yonkers would attract families yearning for the type of suburban ambience real estate developers were only too willing to provide.” Yonkers was close enough to New York City to be able to commute every day, yet at the same time it was at a comfortable distance. It was perhaps one of the best places for young families with young children to acquire their first “starter home” before moving farther up the river into Westchester County. The “mighty progression” farther and farther away from the city was a dream of many New Yorkers beginning in the early 1900s. Yonkers was perhaps a temporary stop for many of them, but for others it was called home. The city saw much economic prosperity until about 1940 when the effects of the United States’ war efforts forced many inhabitants to sell their homes and numerous businesses to shut down. Yonkers in 2012 is completely different than the blooming industrial center of 1900. Through industry and population, wealth and middle-class, Yonkers emerged in the early 1900s as the little brother “country city” of Manhattan.
 Hanlon, Bernadette, Once the American Dream; Inner-Ring Suburbs of the Metropolitan United States (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010)
 Panetta, Roger, Westchester: the American Suburb, ed. Panetta, Roger (New York: Fordham University Press) 57.
 Alexander Smith and Sons Weaving Mills”. Drawing.
 Fallon, Bill, “Industrial Arts: Carpet Mills Become Studio Central.” Westchester County Business Journal, (March 3, 2008) 49.