Interpretation: Yorktown From One Revolution to Another
1st In A Series
by Larry Saphire
The British raided Yorktown from the south in 1779, burning the old Presbyterian Church (the present one at 202 and 132 dates from 1839), and Colonel Green's detachment was massacred at the Davenport Inn in 1780 when Delancey, the Tory Sheriff of Westchester, surprised Croton Heights. In 1953, developers raided two Yorktown areas, grabbing land that had been naively zoned quarter acre in 1932 -- as weakly guarded as Pines Bridge had been against the Tories. The second Yorktown revolution was on.
As in all "wartime" economies, there has been the usual prosperity through inflation and demand. Land has zoomed, house values have escalated, and many businesses have flourished. On the other hand, casualties have also been high--countless children have suffered through double sessions and other bad effects of rapid growth on schools. The Yorktown landscape once renowned locally as beautiful, became sub-urbanized (that is, urbanized in a sub-standard fashion), with little heed paid to esthetics or historical heritage, as the rampaging armies of developers roamed through the area. Water, sewage and recreation problems built up to those of a war scarred town and builder's helicopters symbolically reconnoitered Yorktown searching for new targets.
Yorktown was settled in the early 1700's by families like the Strangs, Lees, Hortons, Whites, Fields and other French or English immigrant farmers who found the frontier here and cleared the fields. They built small farmhouses and when they prospered, they built large frequently elegant houses. Yorktown is rich in such old houses which still line the original roads of the town. Aside from being distinguished as the target of the Tories, Yorktown was the brief resting-place of the Rochambeau regiments, who marched to Yorktown, Virginia and back before returning to France. Their participation in the decisive battle of the Revolution provided the reason for the name of Yorktown, N.Y.
In 1892, a change occurred that had a profound effect on the town's development. The Putnam Railroad came through an eastern section of town that took on the name of Yorktown Heights. A granary was built (Creeds Lumber Yard) and a hotel, now destroyed. The railroad focused commercial ideas on this section of town, but they were carried out over the years with such lack of taste, pride and coherence that urban renewal finally was agreed on by both political parties as the only way to wipe the eyesore out.
If the railroad brought the hope of commerce to Yorktown, the Roaring Twenties with its get-rich quick frenzy brought land speculation and the hope of a new city. Lake Mohegan's shores were carved into 25-foot wide lots and so was the land on the Hanover Street rise overlooking Yorktown Heights. Everything was ready to go virtually by the square inch, but it was not to be, at least for another 25 years. Then the Depression left Yorktown with a legacy of land development and commercial dreams of glory that in reality translated into mean looking vacation colonies and commercial economy that took its profits in the summertime.
The Shape of Things to Come
But Yorktown was still a town with working farms and show farms. On the person-to-person level, there was no doubt the conflict that always exists between the land-oriented man and the commerce-oriented on. Depression times, however, don't leave much room for argument. Nevertheless, the town's first zoning ordinance was passed in 1932, making much of the farmlands half-acre. As farms went for summer colonies, this provided some protection against congestion. It provided no protection, however, against commercial development constructed on the basis of a two month summer season, the evidence of which even today pervades the town's shopping areas.
We talk about New York today as being the focus of the metropolitan region. It always was. Yorktown's produce went to New York, its new railroad came from New York, and its early strangers, like the opera signer Lydia Locke who in 1916 bought the farm that is now Loch Ledge, also came from New York. So did the summer people who rented bungalows in the 1920's, 30's and 40's. So far both farmer and merchant, there was a market coming from New York, shaping ideas in Yorktown. Not only was there a railroad but by 1929 a new parkway for cars; and in many quarters, with the depression, not much money. This was the backdrop against which a few people, with their special ideas and tastes, would win the battle for power in Yorktown and control the shape of things to come.
The Yorktowner, "Interpretation: From One Revolution To Another," by Larry Saphire, Vol. 5 No. 25, June 23, 1971, p. 5
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