The land on which the city is built was once part of a 24,000 acre land grant that ran from the current Manhattan/Bronx border at Marble Hillnorthwards for 12 miles, and from the Hudson River eastwards to the Bronx River. This grant was given in July 1645 by New Netherland Director-General Willem Kieft to Adriaen van der Donck, originally named Colen Donck. Van der Donck was known locally as the Jonkheer or Jonker (etymologically, “young gentleman”; in effect, “Esquire”), a word from which the name “Yonkers” is directly derived. Van der Donck built a saw mill near where the Nepperhan Creek met the Hudson; the Nepperhan is now also known as the Saw Mill River.
Near the site of van der Donck’s mill is Philipse Manor Hall, a Colonial-era manor house which today serves as a museum and archive, offering many glimpses into life before the American Revolution. The original structure (later enlarged) was built around 1682 by Frederick Philipse and his wife Margaret Hardenbroeck. Frederick (wealthy Dutchman) who, by the time of his death, had amassed an enormous estate which encompassed the entire modern City of Yonkers, as well as several other Hudson River towns. Philipse’s great-grandson,Frederick Philipse III, was a prominent Loyalist during the American Revolution, who, because of his political leanings, was forced to flee to England. All the lands that belonged to the Philipse family were confiscated and sold.
For its first two hundred years, Yonkers was a small farming town with an active industrial waterfront. Yonkers’s later growth rested largely on developing industry. In 1853, Elisha Otis invented the first safety elevator and the Otis Elevator Company, opened the first elevator factory in the world on the banks of the Hudson near what is now Vark Street. It relocated to larger quarters (now the Yonkers Public Library) in the 1880s. Around the same time, the Alexander Smith and Sons Carpet Company(in the Saw Mill River Valley) expanded to 45 buildings, 800 looms, and over 4,000 workers and was known as one of the premier carpet producing centers in the world. In 1892, Smith carpets were sent to Moscow for the tsar’s coronation. Bakelite, the first completely synthetic plastic, was invented in Yonkers circa 1906 by Leo Baekeland, and manufactured there until the late 1920s.
Early in the 20th Century, Yonkers also hosted a brass era automobile maker, Colt Runabout Company; despite the car’s seemingly glowing performance, the company went under.
Yonkers was also the headquarters of the Waring Hat Company, at the time the nation’s largest hat manufacturer. World War II saw the city’s factories manufacture such items as tents and blankets in the Alexander Smith and Sons Carpet Factory and tanks in the Otis Elevator factory.
After World War II, however, with increased competition from less expensive imports, Yonkers lost much of its manufacturing activity. The Alexander Smith Carpet mill fell on hard times and ceased operation on June 24, 1954. In 1983, the Otis Elevator Factory finally closed its doors. With the loss of jobs in the city itself, Yonkers (predominantly the east side) became primarily a residential city and some neighborhoods of the city, such as Crestwood, became popular with wealthy New Yorkers wishing to live outside the city but not in an entirely suburban environment. Yonkers’ excellent transportation infrastructure, including three commuter railroad lines (now two, the Harlem and Hudson Lines) and five parkways and thruways, as well as its 15-minute drive from Manhattan and picturesque “period” homes and apartments, made it a desirable city in which to live. Yonkers’ manufacturing sector has recently shown a resurgence. A Kawasaki railroad cars assembly plant opened in 1986 in the former Otis plant, producing the new R142A, R143 and R160B cars for the New York City Subway, and the PA4 and upcoming PA5 series for PATH.
Aside from being a manufacturing center, Yonkers also played a key role in the development of entertainment in the United States. In 1888, Scottish immigrant John Reid founded the first golf course in the United States, St. Andrew’s Golf Club, in Yonkers. On January 4, 1940, Yonkers resident Edwin Howard Armstrong transmitted the first FM radio broadcast (on station W2XCR) from the Yonkers home of C.R. Runyon, a co-experimenter. Yonkers also had the longest running pirate radio station, owned by Allan Weiner during the 1970s through the 1980s.
The city’s struggles with racial discrimination and segregation were highlighted in a decades-long federal lawsuit. After a 1985 decision and an unsuccessful appeal, Yonkers’ schools were integrated in 1988. The federal judge, Leonard B. Sand, ruled that Yonkers had engaged in institutional segregation in housing and school policies for over 40 years and tied the illegal concentration of public housing and private housing discrimination to the city’s resistance to ending racial isolation in its public schools.
Yonkers moved to the center of national/international attention during the summer of 1988, when the city was found in contempt of the federal courts, after it refused to build promised municipal public housing in the eastern portions of the city. It had earlier agreed to do so in a consent decree, after losing the appeal in 1987. Being fined one dollar, doubling every day until the council passed the ordinance set out in the consent decree, Yonkers remained in contempt of the courts until September 9, 1988. On that date, the City Council relented, in the wake of library closures, sanitation cutbacks, while looking at massive city layoffs, which would have been required to continue its resistance to desegregation.
Mayor Nicholas Wasicsko, in his first term, fought to save the city from financial disaster and bring about unity. He was a lonely figure in city politics at the time, which was scarred with the stigma of the “Balkanization of Yonkers.” He succeeded in helping to end the city’s contempt of the courts, but was voted out of office as a result. Yonkers still suffers the stigma of having bitterly opposed desegregation.
The Irish-American community is prominent in Yonkers, and the city hosts one of the nation’s oldest St. Patrick’s Day parades. There is also home to a large Italian-Americancommunity, and the city hosts a large Columbus Day festival with a Miss Italian-American pageant.Yonkers also has a significant Portuguese population.
Another large community is the Slavic community. In the early and mid 20th Century a large amount of people emigrated from Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Russia, and Croatia. Recently a large number of immigrants from the former Yugoslavia have called Yonkers home. The Slavic community is centered around St. Casimir’s Roman Catholic Church, Most Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, and St. Michael’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. Yonkers still has a large Slavic community. The city also has a “stanytsia” (branch) of Plast.
There also once was a significant Jewish population (the Broadway plays Hello Dolly! and Lost in Yonkers both take place within the Yonkers Jewish community). However, it has dwindled. In the 2000s, some areas bordering similar neighborhoods in Riverdale began seeing an influx of Orthodox Jews. Subsequently, Riverdale Hatzalah Volunteer Ambulance Service began serving some neighborhoods in the southwest section of the city.