End of Moultrie Avenue, Yonkers
At the northern end of Moultrie Avenue in the Runyon Heights neighborhood is a seemingly innocuous sight: a thin strip of land between two neighborhoods which effectively cuts them off from one another. For some years after Runyon Heights was first established, there was a fence at the end of Moultrie Avenue and at the end of three nearby streets as well, providing a barrier that separated Runyon Heights from its neighbors to the north. This strip of land is no planning mistake, but rather a vestige of racial segregation in Yonkers. However, beyond this geographical divide is a story of community perseverance.
In the late 1800s, most major employers in Yonkers refused to hire Black people. At the same time, white workers restricted their solidarity to people of European descent, thus limiting Black prospects to domestic and service work or to jobs perceived as dirty or otherwise undesirable. These jobs tended to be less stable and low paying, making upward economic mobility extremely difficult. Despite this, some Black people found ways to make a decent living with careers in the ministry, or as coachmen or artisans.
Even as a Black middle class emerged in Yonkers in the early 20th century, Black residents of the city found it nearly impossible to purchase homes. Racially restrictive covenants legally prohibited people of color from buying property in nearly every neighborhood. As a result, most Black Yonkers residents ended up living in the southwestern part of the city, a largely low-income area characterized by a lot of high-density housing. Middle-class Black home buyers were limited to properties within this area.
In the face of this ghettoization, the neighborhood of Nepperhan, now known as Runyon Heights, provided a rare opportunity for middle-class Black Yonkerites. It allowed them to do what many of their white counterparts had long been doing – to escape the city’s industrial and low-income areas in favor of a suburban neighborhood.
Formerly a private estate, Nepperhan is in the northeast section of Yonkers, a generally wealthier part of the city. When developers transformed Nepperhan into a residential area in the 1910s, they chose not to include racially restrictive covenants, becoming the only neighborhood outside of Southwest Yonkers to do so. Developers targeted Black home buyers by running advertisements in Black newspapers in Harlem. It is unknown whether this decision was due to some value of equity or simply a marketing tactic.
Runyon Heights is bounded by barriers on almost all sides—a cemetery to the east, the Saw Mill River Parkway to the west, and Tuckahoe Road to the south. This effectively isolates the neighborhood.
When developers at the Homeland Company decided to build an adjacent neighborhood to the north of Runyon Heights in the 1920s (a neighborhood that would include racial covenants), they purchased a strip of land between the two neighborhoods, preventing the construction of streets that would connect them. This decision was made presumably out of the fear that Black residents would pass through the white neighborhood, and it resulted in an unusual prevalence of dead-end streets in Runyon Heights. In 1947, an association of Homefield residents purchased the “reserve strip” on which the group built and maintained variation of a fence for some years.
Despite such racist adversity, residents of Runyon Heights managed to build a thriving community. A haven for the Black middle class, the neighborhood was full of active community members. Parents in the neighborhood, for example, played a central role in bringing about the desegregation of the Yonkers public school system.
Residents of the neighborhood found solidarity in Black institutions. Key among them was the local AME Zion Church. Another was the Runyon Heights Improvement Association, founded in 1924, which to this day does mutual aid and community event work in the neighborhood. And yet another was the Nepperhan Community Center, which was established in 1938 to offer activities for neighborhood youth. Today, the organization has a variety of activities, ranging from after-school STEAM programs and drug and relationship counseling to programs on reentry and fatherhood. Over the years, Runyon Heights also has been home to, among many other groups, a Junior League, a social club, and a baseball team.
Today, Runyon Heights is a fairly diverse neighborhood, both racially and socioeconomically. Nonetheless, the strip of land along much of its northern boundary–such as the one at the end of Moultrie Avenue–continues to symbolize the lasting effects of the history of residential segregation in Yonkers. Equally enduring is the legacy of the neighborhood’s activism.
From Yonkers (Metro North) train station, take a Bee-Line bus ride to Tuckahoe Road and Rockne Road. From there, it is a 0.4-mile (7-minute) walk.
To learn more:
Sylke Froechtenigt and Bill Kavanagh (directors), Brick by Brick: A Civil Rights Story, San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2008.
Bruce D. Haynes, Red Lines, Black Spaces: The Politics of Race and Space in a Black Middle-Class Suburb, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.