The Hudson Rivertowns of Lower Westchester County , New York, are very popular places to live and, increasingly, to work.
These three small hill towns nestled between the city of Yonkers to the south and Tarrytown to the north are Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry , and Irvington-on-Hudson. They ascend steeply uphill from the eastern shore of the Hudson River and look across to the dramatic craggy face of the Palisades, sheer cliffs formed when seismic activity thousands of years ago caused what is now the riverbed of the Hudson to shear off and sink.
Historically, the Hudson has been a working river. Indeed, you can still see tugboats pushing oil tankers and barges up and down the river, as well as yachts, sailing ships such as the environmental sloops Clearwater and Ferry Sloops, small pleasure craft like sailboats, rowboats, kayaks, and motorboats. For many years it was an industrial dump, because most river towns hosted heavy industries on their waterfronts, and these, including such famed polluters as General Electric and Anaconda Wire and Copper, freely poured their toxic waste products directly into the river, leaving subsequent generations -- i.e., ours -- to deal with measuring and cleaning up heavy metal contamination and PCBs.
As the result of long years of lobbying and activism by environmental groups and concerned individuals, the Hudson is much cleaner than before -- there is even a swimming beach at Croton Point Park again -- but each village must still deal with its own waterfront pollution problems before it can proceed with redeveloping its precious acreage along the shore. The trend now along the length of the Hudson is for recapturing waterfront land for recreational and mixed-uses such as residential, retail, restaurants, and boating.
Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, and Irvington are primarily commuter villages, whose residents take the MetroNorth railroad to jobs in New York City or drive to work in Westchester, Connecticut, or New Jersey destinations via easily accessible nearby highways.
The villages used to be much more evenly split between locally based factory workers -- mostly from immigrant families -- and professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, educators, administrators, etc., but since the demise of waterfront industries such as Anaconda in Hastings and the General Motors plant in North Tarrytown (now called Sleepy Hollow), the number of longtime locals still in residence has been steadily diminishing.
As former workers die or move away, newcomers taking their place mostly arrive from Manhattan or other parts of the country, attracted by the easy access to New York jobs and the excellent schools, abundant nature, and small-town life of the Rivertowns. This has driven up the cost of real estate to astronomical figures, further aggravated by the paucity of available houses and apartments to show prospective buyers and renters.
An attractive aspect of the Rivertowns is the stylistic diversity of their houses. Because buildable land has always been at a premium -- with a lot of "steep slope" conditions and because the villages are strictly bounded by north-south highways to the east and the Hudson River to the west -- development has historically occurred gradually. In recent years, several larger scale condo and townhouse complexes have appeared, but they do not dominate the landscape. Consequently, on an amble along residential streets, you might see a California Spanish style house next to a Colonial next to a very modern 1960s style house next to a Victorian or Cape Cod. The layered hillside terrain also keeps the mix interesting, so you never have the experience of acres of vacuous "little boxes" that make other suburbs so deadly boring.
The apartment stock is mostly old, especially in Hastings and Dobbs Ferry, although Irvington and the eastern edge of Dobbs Ferry have some newer condominium developments. Apartment buildings tend to be of the generic red brick variety, with traditional room layouts and not much in the way of terraces or decks. Cooperative apartment complexes abound, with all the attendant aggravation and uncertainty of one's expenditures and lifestyle regulated by the vagaries of coop boards. (And a word to the wise: Pet owners who can't afford to own their own home in the Rivertowns will find almost no rental or coop buildings available to them.)
The best things about the Rivertowns are how walkable and compact they are, how rich they are in parkland and other types of nature experiences, and how easy it is to access bigger shopping and other cities and places.
Let's take Hastings-on-Hudson, for example. When I lived there, my apartment was in the middle of the downtown, admittedly not where most people live, but everyone else was within a mile from town. I could walk to every type of daily shopping I needed. The three downtown shopping streets include supermarket, produce markets, natural foods store, delis, pizza parlors, Chinese takeout food, dry cleaners, stationery/toy/cards/gifts, bookstores (four of them), hair and nail salons, coffee/tea/sandwich cafes, banks, a flower shop, laundromat, hardware store, women's and children's clothing, toy shop, shoe store, diner, and several restaurants. The downtown also contains the municipal building, library, police station, a funeral parlor, and three churches. I may have left something out, but you get the idea.
Also within a few blocks of my apartment were the train station; the waterfront, with a park, tennis club, and restaurants; the Old Croton Aqueduct, a beautiful linear nature trail that traverses all the Rivertowns high up above Broadway and the Hudson River, crossing through backyards, forested lands, and estates; Hillside Woods, an old-growth forest with a fishing pond, nature trails, and a vernal pond; and, only a mile away, Dobbs Ferry, the next town upriver from Hastings. I could, and I did, walk regularly to all these places.
Hastings' waterfront is still an EPA Superfund site, and the acreage not used for recreational activities and dining -- that is, most of it -- is either vacant or covered with huge, decrepit industrial buildings waiting to be demolished for new uses. Even so, the ability to walk down to the water and sit next to the lapping waves, watch boats and ships passing by, and admire the looming Palisades cliffs on the opposite shore is a real treat and a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of town.
Too much truck traffic passes through downtown Hastings, due partly to delivery trucks that service the commercial district -- a fact of life in any town -- but also to the huge semi tractor trailers that wind their way down the narrow downtown streets, on their way to a trucking company that leases space on the waterfront. County buses also drive through the downtown, as well as commuters and shoppers, with the result that it's more fume-laden than aromatic during the morning and evening busy periods.
In recent years, more local residents have decided to move their businesses from Manhattan to the Rivertowns, so they can live and work in the same place, with more time to spend with their families and recreation. Dobbs Ferry and Irvington each have former industrial buildings on their waterfronts that have been retrofitted into offices, design studios, and other facilities for yoga, dance, and light assembly and manufacturing. In Hastings, businesses such as a music studio, dance and exercise studios, graphic design company, architects, and law firms have found space in existing downtown commercial buildings or apartments located over stores. Due to the demand, these types of alternative work spaces are in tight supply.
Each of the three rivertowns has its own unique character, due partly to the idiosyncrasies of geography and partly to historic ethnic and economic features. Long ago, Irvington-on-Hudson was parceled out into large tracts of land owned by wealthy families and institutions For instance, Columbia University's Nevis Laboratories are located there, as is Sunnyside, the historic home of Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The streets on either side of Main Street, which runs from Broadway (Rte. 9) to the river, are only one block deep each, with densely packed houses originally inhabited by people who serviced the mansions and estate properties there. Irvington has a quiet, sort of buttoned-up feeling to it compared to the other nearby villages. Its waterfront features a large, beautiful park -- unfortunately strictly limited to Irvington residents only, who must show I.D. to use it -- as well as industrial buildings converted to office and studio spaces.
Dobbs Ferry has a very long commercial street, Main Street, which turns the corner into Cedar Street, a shorter commercial street. There are numerous restaurants, pizzerias, specialty shops such as picture framers, art galleries, cafes, recording studios, wedding apparel, cafes, women's clothing boutique, liquor store, gift shops, along with the usual hardware store, municipal building, post office, police station, supermarket, produce shop, and so on. There's an Italian flavor to this village, both in the "hill town" architectural style of many downtown buildings, and in some of the restaurants and cafes. Historically, Dobbs had a significant Italian population, mirroring that of Westchester County as a whole. At night Dobbs Ferry's downtown has some life to it, with restaurants and cafes open into the evening hours. There is a chronic overabundance of unoccupied storefronts, however, and the village hasn't yet figured out how to attract enough viable retailers.
Dobbs Ferry's waterfront is now entirely devoted to recreation, with sweeping views of the New York skyline and George Washington Bridge to the south and the Tappan Zee bridge to the north. A restaurant, two waterfront parks, and the commuter parking lot and train station share the site.
Dobbs Ferry has been struggling in recent years with deciding what to do with its "gateway," a rather unsightly multi-corner intersection at the intersection of Cedar Street and Broadway. Not a very attractive way to greet people arriving via Broadway, which up to that point is quite lovely and historic both to the south and to the north.
Even though Dobbs Ferry has more art galleries and a waterfront industrial building that is home to numerous artists' studios, Hastings-on-Hudson has a reputation as the "artsy" village, with a fair number of artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types in residence. (At last count, there were 82 published authors living in Hastings, approximately 1% of the village's entire population of 7,648.)
Hastings offers an art supply store, picture framer, a couple of galleries, a health food store, and several architecture offices.
Irvington and Dobbs Ferry built new libraries several years ago, and Hastings expanded and renovated its library.
The entire area faces the same problem that challenges other very popular and upscaling towns, which is how to provide affordable housing for longtime locals, such as seniors, who want to stay in their communities in the face of rapidly escalating property taxes and maintenance costs; emergency and school personnel; and young adults not yet in their peak earning years. These towns become more and more unbalanced economically, since only the very-highly-paid or multiple-income-couples can even consider biting off huge mortgage, tax, and maintenance payments.
In years past, the villages' tax base was a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial property taxes. Now, with the demise of local industry, there is too much reliance on residential property taxes, which must cover traditional municipal services as well as a growing school population drawn to the area by very high educational system ratings.
Like numerous other interesting former Rivertowns residents that I've known, I can't afford to live there anymore. And even if I could, the prices (and taxes) currently being paid for housing there are stratospherically out of kilter with the long-term value of those properties. I say this with the perspective of having lived in the Rivertowns for over twenty years, seeing values vacillate with recession and boom cycles.
Nevertheless, the Rivertowns are a naturally beautiful, walkable, relatively peaceful place to live, with easy access -- via the MetroNorth train that runs alongside the Hudson River -- to New York City, to the south; and via car to New Jersey to the west, to upstate New York and New England to the north, and to Long Island to the east.
As the real estate people say, it's all a matter of "location, location, location."