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The Green, the White, and the Black

A personal essay about growing up in Pelham, New York. The great trees, the wealth, the good manners and the rich undercurrent of racism and bigotry.

 

1.

When I think of my hometown, trees often assume a vivid primacy. There’s the fiery orange sugar maple I studied in autumn classrooms from three ascending stories of my school. I fell out of a Japanese maple at the age of seven, catching my descent by clinging upside down to the trunk until my father could rescue me. The year before I’d gawked as my tow-headed neighbor slipped from the top of a pine tree, landing dazed but unhurt in the dense pachysandra, barely missing a clump of pink-blooming azalea bushes. In my best friend’s front yard, our outdoor games were forever complicated by the brown, spiky balls that dropped from a giant sweetgum tree and pricked our bare feet.

Most vividly I remember two huge oaks: one that crashed down from the slope behind my house and sheared off the side of my sister’s bedroom while she was sleeping, and another—from our property—that took out my neighbor’s garage and with it, her beloved vintage car. This neighbor, a White Russian whose last name meant “black,” died several months later, possibly from the shock of losing her car. My sisters and I rescued everything—paintings, vases, a samovar—that her relatives put out on the curb.

Pelham lies about 14 miles north of “the city,” as Manhattan is commonly known in the suburbs. The town measures only 2.5 square miles and is shaped like a tall pointy hat: its brim rests upon the northern border of the Bronx, and the cities of Mount Vernon and New Rochelle press in to form the western and eastern borders, respectively. The major selling point is the 28-minute commute to Grand Central Station on the Metro-North train. The power of the town’s trees—and of the verdant, almost tropical landscaping—lies mainly in the contrast they provide to the city’s concrete surfaces and looming skyscrapers.

When I went to look up the proper name for sweetgums (we just called them “prickerballs”), I discovered that “Trees” have their own tab on the municipal website, just below the Library, Schools, and Houses of Worship. Pelham Heights, the neighborhood where I lived from 1983 to 1996, was developed in the late nineteenth century by Benjamin Fairchild, a real estate lawyer turned Republican Congressman, and his brother John, a civil engineer. The foliage was a prized feature of the empty lots: trees, except when they’re a hazard, are good for property values, and the houses and roads were for the most part constructed around them.

Pelham lies about 14 miles north of “the city,” as Manhattan is commonly known in the suburbs. The town measures only 2.5 square miles and is shaped like a tall pointy hat.

Englishman Thomas Pell bought the land that makes up Pelham in 1654 from the Siwanoy Indians. The tribe’s name was later repurposed for one of the four elementary schools; mine was called “Colonial.” The Americans won an important Revolutionary War battle in the area by retreating and hiding from the British behind a series of stone property walls; this 1776 diversion allowed General Washington time to get his army out of Manhattan, where it would have been surrounded. In the 1890s, incorporation happened as part of a larger trend of towns separating themselves from New York City, which was expanding quickly in all directions. Once incorporated, a city could enforce its own laws, control development, and preserve the quality of its population.

Pelham’s developers, from the Fairchild brothers onward, aimed to create a genteel English-style village: a sensible grid combined with pockets of pleasingly curved streets, large mock Tudor houses (known not quite approvingly as “Stockbroker Tudor”), and a sprinkling of smaller design flourishes, such as the Pelhamwood Clocktower, complete with cobblestone base, arrow-slit windows, and half-timber upper portion. (A great disappointment of my childhood was discovering that the tower was full of landscaping equipment.)

The town’s homes are spacious, harmonious, and well maintained. Some of them, in the fancier parts of town like Pelham Manor, are big enough to be called mansions, though that word usually invokes acres of property, and this, after all, is still New York City, sort of. Like the homes built in the last few decades by immigrants in outer Queens and Brooklyn, their exterior walls push the limits of their property lines, yards sacrificed in the name of a little more private space.

Trees aren’t neutral—like so much else in America, they have their unspoken class connotations, and in Pelham’s case, they save the town’s houses from the suggestion of vulgarity. According to stereotypes, the working classes hate trees because they dirty the pavements with droppings and erode a sense of pristine newness that is often so hard earned. The upper classes, on the other hand, cherish trees for making their homes look as if they’ve been occupied for a long time. But perhaps, like Pinocchio, today’s suburban McMansions will become “real boys” when enough trees grow on their barren lots.

2.

Pelham is the southernmost town in Westchester County, a place synonymous with privilege in the American lexicon, invoking afternoon-cocktail-swilling WASPs and the second-tier financial elite. The same reputation extends into Western Connecticut: after Pelham, each eastward stop on the Metro-North New Haven line contains a pearl of cloistered privilege, culminating in Yale University.

Westchester’s modern image is inextricably entwined with the fiction of mid- to late twentieth-century white male luminaries such as John Updike and John Cheever: writers whose worldviews have come in recent years to be considered clichéd or myopic by many—the overbearing father, the unfulfilled mother, abundant drinking, infidelity crawling out of the woodwork, the hollow core of it all. With the passing of this setting into the realm of middlebrow television—i.e., Don and Betty Draper’s white clapboard Westchester colonial—anyone today aspiring to write fiction (as I do myself) and who grew up in this kind of setting should think carefully before embarking on a suburban novel based on their own childhood experiences.

Which isn’t to say that the kind of privileged milieu evoked in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road or Updike’s Marry Me wasn’t a reality. The first time I brought my husband to visit Pelham, after we’d taken the train up from the city to stare at the large houses and thick greenery, he turned to me and said, “Stop saying you’re from the suburbs. This isn’t the suburbs.”

Having grown up in Atlanta, he has a very specific idea of what American suburbs mean—car dependency, strip malls, and unchecked development. But Pelham, built before the rise of the automobile and oriented around commuting, is supremely walkable. Our family did all our shopping at the local businesses on the town’s main street, most of which had been around for decades. When one of my friend’s parents sold off a corner of their property and someone built a new house on it, the town grumbling went on for actual years. Most residents may send their children to the local public schools rather than elite private schools, but the system is one of the best in the country, funded by 60% of the town’s massive property taxes—the house my best friend grew up in, for example, was assessed in 2014 with an annual property tax of $62,638.

Even in the eighties, Pelham’s gender politics often seemed to exist in some alternate, pre–Betty Friedan universe. On weekday mornings, fathers walked to the train station or were dropped off by their wives, calling out greetings on the platform, newspapers and briefcases in hand. They were mostly lawyers, stockbrokers, or upper management. Although there were mothers who worked, a few of them in extremely high-level positions, they felt like a minority. During the day, the Village of Pelham was a place for women, who inserted themselves heavily into their children’s lives. And in the evenings, there were PTA meetings and fundraisers and dances and clubs like the one that bussed us on winter Friday nights to the ice-skating rink several towns away.

 

 

As a City University professor, my father was an anomaly; a handful of journalists rounded out the town’s intellectual circles. Pelham’s lice epidemic of 1995, rumored to have been kept alive by a well-known Newsweek writer’s negligent delousing regimen for his children, received a full-page treatment in The New Yorker; that article was then itself covered in New York magazine. For a town of under 12,000 people, we punched above our weight in media mentions. Journalists who’d chosen to raise their families outside of the city perhaps felt compelled to prove to their urban coworkers that they had not lost their biting wit through repeated exposure to upwardly mobile moms or coaching their daughters’ softball teams.

Teenagers in Pelham in the 1990s spent their weekends drinking wine coolers or beer in one of the interstitial outdoor spaces that kids always manage to find—The Wood, The Hill, the abandoned and overgrown Toonerville Trolley tracks (these the inspiration for “Toonerville Folks,” a popular newspaper comic that ran through the first half of the twentieth century). Or they took the train into the city and saw a concert, afterward rushing to make the last train home before the Metro-North stopped running. Kids in my school had a surprising tendency to favor the classic rock of our parents’ generation: the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd. This was just before hip-hop became dominant for white kids, as it was for my sister’s class, only three years younger. Of course, by the time I first heard a group of white fifth-graders beat-boxing in 1990, rap was already well into its Golden Age, having taken almost two decades to travel ten miles.

Pelham’s walkability was important to my mother, who anomalously didn’t drive, and to my father, who could just make it to the station from our house if he sprinted when he heard the train horn approaching. My family always left our front door unlocked and usually didn’t know where the key was. Twice upon returning from vacation and realizing they had accidentally locked the front door, my mother had to stand on my father’s shoulders and pull herself up the side of our house to the second-floor balcony door. I walked or biked by myself to my friends’ houses from the age of five onward. In elementary school, my friends and I went home together for lunch almost every day, alternating houses, where our mothers, or occasionally an au pair, were waiting to feed us sandwiches, soup, and juice.

There was a white girl in my elementary school class whose mother worked for the district and because of this she was able to go to school in Pelham, rather than in the Bronx where they lived. She had permed, mulleted hair and wore huge plastic glasses. Her clothes looked cheap and out of place, but this feeling was exacerbated by her strong Bronx accent. Everyone in the class knew where she lived—the boys sang it at her on the playground: Co-op Shitty!

The day-to-day policing of boundaries wasn’t limited to children. I had a friend from Mount Vernon who was a preternaturally talented musician, already playing on a near professional level. His father rented a tiny apartment in Pelham so that he could go to high school there. It wasn’t long before a concerned parent—whose own child’s position in the school orchestra was suffering from the competition—called the superintendent to report that this kid was cheating the system and should be kicked out of the school.

Although there were mothers who worked, a few of them in extremely high-level positions, they felt like a minority. During the day, the Village of Pelham was a place for women, who inserted themselves heavily into their children’s lives.

Pelham was privileged, but it wasn’t quite as exclusive as upstate Scarsdale or Greenwich, Connecticut, places our WASPs often moved on to once they made more money. Manhattanites who confused Pelham with Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx or the movie The Taking of Pelham 123 were forever being admonished that, no, this was a different Pelham—in Westchester. Bronx, Long Island, and New Jersey accents were a source of amusement, for parents and children—both for those who were “accentless” and for those who had an accent but thought other New Yorkers’ accents were funny. It took moving away from Pelham and coming back to visit to be able to hear that many people I knew actually had an accent—“duh” rather than “the,” nasal vowels, and so on.

My mother and her friends had a story they liked to tell about a meeting for the skating club. One of them suggested opening the invitation-only group up to all the town’s middle school students, and was immediately shot down by one of the Italian-American mothers that the WASPs never mingled with. “Ladies,” she protested. “This is a proyvit. Und excloosif. Club.” We mocked these women because they wanted things, because they were unguarded about their need for social status. “Being open about your desire for something,” a writer I admire once told me, “can’t be forgiven by the upper classes.”

“Mrs. Mooney likes Pelham for its ‘diversity and village atmosphere,’” a 1987 New York Times article explained. “The town has a broad mix of ethnic groups, with Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans well represented.” My high school saw a lot of good-natured teasing between the Irish and the Italians, and there were two Catholic churches—one for each group. A few kids’ parents were known to be in the Mafia (and were in prison for serious crimes), while others were under perpetual suspicion. The decision to have Meadow Soprano planning to study law on The Sopranos was supposedly inspired by a girl in my grade, who became a lawyer to (successfully) save her mob boss father from the death penalty.

There were plenty of WASPs as well, though not as many as you’d find a few towns further north. And there were Jews, though most of my Jewish friends had Gentile mothers. (In the show Broad City, Ilana tries to explain her friend Abbi’s social class to her thrifty Long Islander mother. Raised in the wealthy Westchester-like suburbs of Philadelphia, Abbi is “a high-class WASPy Jew. A Philadelphia queen from down the Main Line, King of Prussia Mall!”)

In 2000, according to census data, Pelham was 87% white and 5% black or African American. Scarsdale, ten miles farther north and the apogee of Westchester exclusivity, has a black population of 1.5%. (Scarsdale also happens to be the hometown of Rick Vigorous in David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System.) Slightly further north in Chappaqua, where the Clintons chose to settle after Bill’s presidency, the population is 91% white and 1% African American. This is a strikingly different spread from that of the areas that surround Pelham: neighboring Mount Vernon, for example, was 60% African American, and the Bronx, just to the south, has a current White Non-Hispanic population of 11%.

3.

Almost all the non-white people I knew in Pelham lived in two areas of the town: either next to the busy Hutchinson River Parkway or in a tiny triangle north of Lincoln Avenue, close to the borders of Mount Vernon and New Rochelle. Even though these neighborhoods were technically farther from the Bronx than the rest of the town, they looked more like it: smaller houses, fewer trees, even the occasional apartment building.

Needless to say, this wasn’t an accident: following decades of segregationist policies, Westchester County was redlined to the gills. (In his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates builds his case in part on the continuing fallout from redlining.) The way that trees are deployed in Westchester could be seen as the flipside—or an aesthetic extension—of these racist housing practices: green-lining, if you will. Dense foliage to make clear which areas of the county were for rich white people, concrete for everyone else. Both red-lining and the building of these quaint villages were planned and deeply unnatural; both served to make existing practices seem like an uncontestable part of the landscape.

Today these discriminatory practices continue through less official channels. A woman from my high school class recently told me that her upper-middle-class African American family could not get any real estate agents to show them houses that were not in the non-white area of Pelham. This was in the 1980s.

An exception to the streets’ predominant whiteness was when it snowed, and men from Mount Vernon would walk door to door advertising their shoveling services.

There were only a few dozen black students in the school system, and because the town was so small, I could recognize virtually all of them by sight. This meant that anyone of color on the streets I didn’t know was probably from somewhere else. An exception to the streets’ predominant whiteness was when it snowed, and men from Mount Vernon would walk door to door advertising their shoveling services. My sister recalls her friend’s mother’s terror at a black man ringing the doorbell: she pulled her children onto the floor, where they lay in silence until the man went away. Her friend told her that this is what her mother always did in these situations.

This reaction seems, if not quite representative, not atypical. I can imagine that same mother defending this kind of racist insanity today. Don’t you remember? she might say. This was the peak of big bad New York City! Of dirty old Times Square, of squeegee men who jumped on your car with their filthy rags when you were at a stoplight, of car-jackings and home invasions, gangs, homelessness, violence, drug abuse, of “wilding.” And then there were the Central Park Five, a group of teens accused and convicted of raping, beating, and sodomizing a white woman jogging in the park.

After serving six to thirteen years in prison, in 2014 the teens were proven to have been wrongfully accused and given a $41 million settlement by the city. As Donald Trump’s presidential campaign gathered steam last year, a 1989 full-page ad he had taken out in the Daily News resurfaced. In the ad, he called for the death penalty for the five teens—four of whom were black, one Hispanic: “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”

(As an interesting footnote, an academic recently uncovered songs written in 1950 by Woody Guthrie about his landlord, Donald Trump’s father, Fred, who had excluded black people from the apartment complex where Guthrie lived. “I suppose / Old Man Trump knows / just how much Racial Hate / he stirred up / in the bloodpot of human hearts / when he drawed / that color line.”)

4.

Growing up, I knew a lot of old-fashioned slurs for Italians, but no one I knew used the N-word, which was what it was called. The sole ornament next to the oak doors of the high school’s main entrance was a plaque dedicated to Michael Schwerner, an alumnus killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi while trying to register black voters during the Freedom Summer of 1964. Pelham may have been 35% Republican, compared to NYC’s 13%, but its parents preached equality and celebrated diversity—even those who hid on the floor from black people or gossiped like mad when my best friend dated a black classmate.

I’m sure they had a very different experience of Pelham than the one I’m describing, but from my vantage point—i.e., the way white people talked to other white people—the black students at my school were generally popular and well-liked. At the same time, close friend groups were somewhat racially segregated; they were based on grade-school alliances and the area of town in which most of the non-white people lived had its own school.

 

 

Parents took care to stay up to date with the latest politically correct terminology. I remember someone admonishing me when I said “black” rather than “African American.” But even as a child I could sometimes feel that there was something more complicated than good intentions at play. A young boy in one of my sisters’ classes stood up at a special school-wide assembly—instituted by a hippyish principal to make sure that the children felt their voices were being heard—to share that African Americans from Mount Vernon had smashed his Halloween pumpkin. The uncomfortable principal asked how he knew this. He replied that his parents had told him.

My parents considered themselves liberals and rarely displayed any sort of explicit prejudice. We were scornful of people who acted in the ways that I’ve just described—but this doesn’t mean that we were outsiders to it, though we felt like we were. My mother had grown up in Pelham, and while we shouldn’t have been able to afford to live where we did—my father made a city university professor’s salary and my mother raised four children—we rented her childhood home at a cheap rate from my grandparents.

The notion that we were outsiders, however—distant from the hysterias and affectations of our neighbors—was still our most strongly held belief. The literature we turned to for guidance, the narratives we constructed about our social class, the extent to which we saw ourselves as world citizens rather than Americans: all these could fill another essay and are part of what fuel my writing on a daily basis. But there was nothing in Pelham that we were truly excluded from. I still like to go back and walk around from time to time; I point out to my husband the various saplings my father planted, which now are tall and thriving.

5.

Writing fiction requires the sustainment of a contradiction: on one hand, a writer must possess an objective, critical distance from her subject matter, on the other, a simultaneous belief that this subject is immensely, all-consumingly important. Most fiction writers, awkward people, feel that they’ve been an outsider to their upbringing and thus have some special powers of perception regarding it. But feeling this way doesn’t necessarily make it true.

How could I or anyone who grew up in a place where the very landscape was designed to make it seem like exclusion was a naturally occurring thing be aware of the full extent of their prejudices? Who sat in the backseat and watched as parents locked the car doors when driving through certain neighborhoods? Who saw her white best friend’s relationship with a black classmate become the talk of the town? Whose entire elementary school had no more than one or two non-white students per grade? Who never had a single non-white teacher? That these experiences could coexist with the adults’ loud, public embrace of tolerance and diversity only made them more insidious.

By now it’s well established to call out the person who says “I don’t see race,” but even the person who says “I understand the ways in which I am prejudiced, and the important thing is to treat others fairly and keep an open mind” has a much cloudier lens than they can perceive. Pelham’s architecture and its lush greenery—its very plannedness—made me feel carefree as a child, safe and inspired. And yet, with time and distance, I’ve come to understand what I couldn’t quite see as a child: that the very source of my inspiration was both an artifice and a site of prejudice landscaped in from the beginning. That everyone reckons with the social story they missed as a child doesn’t make the recognition less troubling: how does one handle a source of inspiration when that source turns out to be so deeply tainted?

How could I or anyone who grew up in a place where the very landscape was designed to make it seem like exclusion was a naturally occurring thing be aware of the full extent of their prejudices?

This isn’t to say that wealthy suburbs should be off limits to fiction writers, even if that fiction was canonized fifty years ago, and even if its great contemporary exemplars, which to a certain extent complicated and deconstructed the genre—Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, A.M. Homes’ Music for Torching—are two decades old. Colson Whitehead’s 2009 Sag Harbor, an almost suburban novel about a privileged town on Long Island, succeeded in part because of its non-whiteness: an old story of privilege persuasively retold. And there are important, early antecedents, like Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow’s politically engaged, racially diverse, outward-looking novel about a wealthy white Westchester family.

The best conclusion to draw from a belated encounter with one’s hometown is one of application: Pelham’s origins and barely latent inequalities can serve as a lesson. It wasn’t until I read about redlining that I quite grasped why my culturally, linguistically diverse neighborhood in Queens—sometimes touted as the most diverse area in the world—has almost no black people. The stories don’t change: Queens, particularly upscale areas like Forest Hills, has a long history of redlining and Neighborhood Covenants designed to keep out people of color. A friend, interviewing for a teaching job in Forest Hills a few years ago, asked the school administrator about diversity. “Oh, don’t worry,” the administrator said, misunderstanding. “The school is very not diverse.”

It seems wise, then, to keep Pelham out of my own fiction until some later date, as yet unspecified. The clarity with which I can recall my feelings as I walked by the clock tower or sat staring at the autumn sugar maple should, perhaps, be matched by an equal clarity about the way the landscape took shape. I’m learning, but there’s still more to know. Those trees continue to loom large in my imagination, but these days, I can’t avoid thinking about everything they hid.