Yonkers, Hoboken Lure Tourists with Location

Yonkers and Hoboken aren't the butt of jokes anymore. The former industrial towns are on the comeback trail, evolving into destination spots and booming with potential.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Yonkers and Hoboken, kind of like Brooklyn, were once the sort of places that comics used to get laughs from New York audiences. Manhattan was considered glamorous and bustling; Yonkers and Hoboken were river berks(ph), often dismissed as dowdy, grimy(ph) and dull. Both towns got even worse reputations about a generation ago as industry left, unemployment rose and crime increased. Hoboken was known as Frank Sinatra's birthplace. The joke was he got out as soon he could.

Neil Simon titled his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1991 play about two small boys sent to live with their aunt "Lost in Yonkers." The implication was that Yonkers wasn't the place people would happily choose to be.

But Yonkers Mayor Philip Amicone says.

Mayor PHILIP AMICONE (Republican, Yonkers, New York): It's easy for me to laugh at it now because it's nice to say that they probably used to say that and they don't anymore. And that is the case.

SIMON: Over the last decade or so, Hoboken battled back from ridicule, and has gone from being economically healthy to even being considered hip among New Yorkers who might not be able to afford the formerly bohemian Greenwich Village.

And now, Yonkers is following. Both cities are booming.

(Soundbite of construction equipment)

SIMON: Brimming with construction cranes and developments funded by major banks, both cities have assets that were left to languish for years, or like having a beautiful sister often overlooked out of familiarity. You might rank those assets as location, location and waterfront location right across from or upriver from Manhattan.

Eric Kaiser who has projects under construction in both cities says that when he first saw the rusted and abandoned buildings along the Yonkers waterfront, he said to himself…

Mr. ERIC KAISER (Founder, REMI Companies): Being anywhere outside the city within a half an hour and 25 minutes, in this case, was a jewel, literally, for me. And I looked at it and I said, here's a place where opportunity is ripe. And I saw a future there.

SIMON: Hoboken, population a bit shy of 40,000, is just a 10-minute ferry ride due west of Midtown Manhattan. The passengers carry briefcases and backpacks with their workout gear; most seem to work in Manhattan.

But Wiley Publishing has made the commute in the opposite direction. Chief Executive Officer William Pesce explained that after almost two centuries in Manhattan, the publisher decided to build a new world headquarters.

Mr. WILLIAM PESCE (President; CEO, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.): We narrowed it down to two sites: one in New York on Hudson Street and then this particular location and this one won out.

And it won out for, really, several reasons. One is it's a beautiful site. The best views of New York are here in New Jersey. I think…

SIMON: We're sitting right across from the view of the Empire State.

Mr. PESCE: Right across from…

SIMON: And you actually don't get a view like that from anywhere near the Empire State Building.

Mr. PESCE: Nowhere else.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. PESCE: This was actually a undeveloped lot owned by the Port of Authority of New York and New Jersey. The economics were very attractive. If we were to renegotiate a lease in New York, we probably would have been paying somewhere in the vicinity of $55 to $60 a square foot. It's in the low 30s here. And there were certain tax incentives at the state of New Jersey available.

SIMON: I was going to ask you.

Mr. PESCE: Yeah.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. And you're in business after all, so…

Mr. PESCE: That's right. Another important consideration: We did look at some suburban locations in the New York metropolitan area. It was very clear to us as we were looking at various options that we wanted and needed to be in an urban environment.

And that may sound like a strange reason for selecting this particular site, but our colleagues at Wiley are very well educated. They're very active in many causes: social causes, community causes. They have many interests. I think it's the very nature of the publishing industry and the kind of publishing we do. And we wanted to be a part of a community. And Hoboken represented a chance for us to do that as well.

SIMON: A lot of those same appealing features can also be found in Yonkers where we took the Metro-North Railroad. Hoboken is built almost as another New York neighborhood across from Lower Manhattan with brownstone apartment buildings with stoops. But Yonkers is a city, the largest in Westchester County and with a population of 200,000 - the fourth largest in New York.

(Soundbite of racing)

(Soundbite of trumpet)

Unidentified Man (Announcer): And we're off. Good evening…

SIMON: Trotters at Yonkers Raceway have been running there since 1899, but the economic center of the operation has shifted in the past year after the Raceway received permission to install slot machines and opened a shining, new gaming center called Empire City.

Most of the factories along the city's waterfront have long been closed. This meant a loss of manufacturing jobs over the past generation, but also a new opportunity to restore four and a half miles of Hudson River waterfront: The spires of Manhattan are visible down river, the leafy cliffs on New Jersey's palisades are just across the river. The town has magnificent vistas for housing.

Yonkers is reportedly the second hilliest city in the country - just after San Francisco. Upscale apartments have already been built along the riverfront. And soon, Yonkers will also have a whole new river because the Saw Mill River that was covered over in the early 20th century to discourage flooding is now being uncovered to be a kind of river walk.

All kinds of developments are in the works: mixed income housing, an art museum, a Minor League ballpark. But for more many, the symbol of Yonkers' future is already visible on the town's pier where Peter X. Kelly has opened his latest restaurant X20.

Mr. Kelly is the kind of chef who has his name embroidered on his white coat. He writes cookbooks, operates his own vineyard, and bested Bobby Flay on "Iron Chef America." Cowboy ribeye, by the way, was the secret ingredient. Peter Xaviar Kelly is the 10th of 12 children - all born in Yonkers. And though he's become famous for his restaurants in New York's Hudson Valley, he decided to open his fourth - his signature restaurant - in Yonkers and persuaded the city to let him put it on an old pier.

Mr. PETER XAVIAR KELLY (Owner, X20 Restaurant): Having the opportunity to be involved in the renaissance of Yonkers - that was the motivating factor for me. It wasn't that I particularly needed another restaurant or, for that matter, really wanted - I'm not looking to open a string of restaurants - but this was something kind of dear to our hearts.

I remember bringing my brother, Ned, who's kind of responsible for all the service at the restaurants and he's our director of, I guess, hospitality, and we stood here - this is six years ago, I guess - outside on a very cold day. And he just looked and said, are you crazy? I mean, you know, why do you want to do this?

SIMON: But opening a five-star restaurant on a pier is arduous. Trash, for example, has to be removed through the roof so as not to risk contamination of the Hudson River. There was also some opposition in Yonkers. The pier, after all, was a municipal space. Some people wondered why a popularly-prized fish shack or doughnut shop shouldn't be put there instead of a five-star restaurant.

After negotiations, regulations, rezoning, planning and building, X20 opened just five months ago. Now it's become a kind of signature of Yonkers' resurgence. People come in from Scarsdale, Bronxville, Riverdale and, yes, Manhattan.

Mr. KELLY: What is maybe the most surprising to me is the number of Yonkers residents that are coming in, that they really want to, you know, be part of this restaurant and are so excited and supportive of it. And there's nothing better than taking a walk around and seeing all these tables of school teachers in, you know, having lunch in, you know, this bustling place. And they've - I've been teaching in the city for 30 years, and, this is awesome, and blah, blah, blah. Maybe they're not coming for dinner and they're not ordering (unintelligible), but they're coming and they're having the price-fixed lunch or they're coming for Sunday brunch. And, they're, you know…

SIMON: It's special place for them.

Mr. KELLY: Yeah. It's special.

SIMON: The day we visited X20, a meeting of women in politics was going on, and State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers came out to tell us how the restaurant assists Yonkers' future.

State Senator ANDREA STEWART-COUSINS (Democrat, Yonkers, New York): When I walk into this restaurant, I see my neighbors. I see young people were getting a break, were having an opportunity of a lifetime to work in a five-star restaurant that will be on their resume and carry them places that they never could have dreamt they'd go.

And that's what makes something worthwhile. When I give a tax rebate, I want to make sure that everybody can benefit and certainly those who but for that industry coming or but for that business coming would never have had a chance.

SIMON: Dorothy Flory(ph) was also in the restaurant having lunch with her husband, Don(ph).

Ms. DOROTHY FLORY (Resident, Yonkers, New York): And we left here many years ago and never really wanted to come back because this area in particular was an area that, at one time, you didn't want to come down to. Very pleasantly surprise at how beautiful it's turned out, and we now feel that we are proud to say we're from Yonkers.

SIMON: And Chef Kelly has made Yonkers the old town into what she was born and the revived place he's helping it become: a kind of sixth-star of his restaurant. He has created a Yonkers' chowder.

Mr. KELLY: Manhattan's got its own chowder and New England's got their own chowder, and we kind of blended the two. And it is a, you know, it's the Yonkers Shellfish Chowder. So, yeah, that's the one; taste that says Yonkers.

SIMON: Red or white?

Mr. KELLY: Ah-ha.

SIMON: Or is it pink…

Mr. KELLY: It's both.

SIMON: …because you say it's a combination, yeah.

Mr. KELLY: It's bronze.

SIMON: It's bronze.

Mr. KELLY: Because it is a - it's done with tomato, but it's not as - it has a touch of cream in it, but not a lot of cream. We actually do it with a bouillabaisse broth with a touch of saffron. So it has a little tomato, it has a little cream, and it has my own take on what a seafood chowder should be. It makes it unique to Yonkers.

SIMON: Mayor Philip Amicone who was reelected this week by a landslide - he's a Republican in a city where voter registration is 2-1 Democratic - says he's waiting for something else to appear in town that will signify achievement to him.

Mayor AMICONE: First thing that will say we finally achieved the success that I was looking for is we'd be able to walk outside city hall and go and by a book. There are no bookstores in downtown. In the fourth largest city in the state there are no bookstores. There's no Barnes & Noble, no Borders books, no Waldenbooks, no other bookstores. If we get that, that means we've gotten a confidence at that level of a major retail chain.

SIMON: Whatever lessons there were generations of Yonkers and Hoboken may hold for other medium-sized cities may be limited but the fact that both are so close to the magnet of Manhattan. But other cities across the country may be close to regional magnets and have natural assets of their own, like waterfronts. And Yonkers and Hoboken have, so far, largely avoided the kind of redevelopment disputes that can wound a community. Old housing is not being leveled to bring in prosperous, new residents. New housing is being built along and on just abandoned waterfronts. Developer Eric Kaiser says…

Mr. KAISER: We've basically had to coach people in saying, listen, it's not about bringing rich and poor. And I've had to help introduce the concept that it is important that new development takes place in these places, and it's not about bringing in rich people and they're going to take over the place; it's about providing housing, not only for people who want to be here and have lived here, but also for new people who want to be here because, otherwise, you'll have upward pressure on pricing because you'll have limited supply.

SIMON: We stroll outside with Peter X. Kelly under the iron porch of the pier that is his restaurant. The towers of Manhattan pierce through a foggy day just south of us, the tawny, golden, scarlet leaves of the palisades flutter and rustle just across the way. The setting is glorious and glamorous and the sign just above that says in proud, bold, iron letters, Yonkers.

This must be very satisfying to stand out here.

Mr. KELLY: It's, you know…

SIMON: A little cold but…

Mr. KELLY: …it's sort of my Titanic moment when I stand out there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: King of the world.

SIMON: Oh.

Mr. KELLY: Only I'm in Yonkers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KELLY: You know, who thought anybody would ever be saying that?

(Soundbite of song, "Manhattan")

Ms. ELLA FITZGERALD (Singer): (Singing) We'll go to Yonkers where true love conquers in the whiles.

SIMON: Ella Fitzgerald, and you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Manhattan")

Ms. FITZGERALD: (Singing) …in Chiles. We'll go to Coney and eat baloney on a roll. In Central Park we'll stroll where our first kiss we stole.

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