“What was your yearbook quote, Judd?” Rippy Philipps is saying. ” ‘I’ve got some beer and the highway’s free’?”
It’s a Monday night, and on a porch in Scarsdale littered with empty pizza boxes, bowls of popcorn, and cans of Budweiser, Philipps, a barrel-chested 35-year-old, is in the midst of his biweekly low-stakes poker game with five other guys his age – three of whom were his teammates on the Scarsdale High football team, class of 1981. Ignoring Philipps’s inquiry, Judd Marmon puffs at his cigar and deals the next hand onto the green felt table. So Steve Friedlander joins in the guessing game: ” ‘It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win’?”
“I think everybody at this table quoted Springsteen,” says Paul Bauersfeld.
“Mine was Dan Fogelberg,” counters the bearded Friedlander. ” ‘Lessons learned are like bridges burned – you only need to cross them but once.’ “
Actually, that’s a principle Friedlander’s three classmates seem not to have heeded. In the past few years, Philipps, Marmon, and Bauersfeld have fled Manhattan (or, in Bauersfeld’s case, San Carlos, California) and crossed back over the burned bridge of teenagerhood to buy houses in the fabled suburban utopia of their youth. Bauersfeld, a software designer at Nickelodeon, even married his high-school girlfriend, and now lives across the street from Philipps.
The guys reunite frequently. For instance, last summer, down by the Bronx River, they reenacted the night twenty years ago when each had chugged a six-pack and scribbled down where he thought he’d end up.
If their drunken scrawls could be deciphered, it’s unlikely that in 1978 any of them would have predicted “Back in Scarsdale” – except Philipps, a senior VP at a major Wall Street firm, who’s such a Scarsdale booster that his brother Michael, who also moved back, jokes, “Rippy wears maroon-and-white the school colors underwear.” Marmon swore up and down he wouldn’t be back. But he ended up in the family vitamin business in Queens, and when he’d had enough of city life, he realized that “the traffic in Westchester is so much better than Long Island or New Jersey” – and that he’d be among friends.
Even Friedlander hasn’t strayed that far – only to Greenwich, to his stepmother’s jewelry-manufacturing business – and tonight’s poker game is being hosted by the guy who married Friedlander’s prom date, Lorie Stewart (then Piro).
While the boys play cards, Stewart’s out with two of her female Scarsdale High friends, attending a Marshall Tucker Band concert at a dinner theater in Elmsford. (“You can’t make that up!” Philipps remarks.)
Sometimes it all seems a little Twilight Zone. During one of their first poker get-togethers, Philipps recalls, “we were in the backyard drinking beers and smoking cigars, and we all kind of looked at each other at the same time and said, ‘Is this really going on, seventeen years after the fact? We don’t have to worry about our parents anymore?’ “
If you grew up in Scarsdale in the past several decades (as I did, graduating in the class of 1979) and someone asked you where you were from, you’d probably mumble “Westchester” and avoid eye contact. The town’s name is saddled with the baggage of surreal wealth (kids who get a BMW or a nose job on their 16th birthday), academic hegemony (a public high school whose college placement rivals that of private schools), and racial imbalance (the 1990 census tallied 2 percent of the 17,000 residents as black – a figure probably inflated by live-in help; the high school has since the sixties participated in a scholarship-like program that imports a few black students a year from the South.)
Yet a generational shift is under way: A growing number of Scarsdale alumni in their thirties are not only acknowledging their roots but replanting themselves in the same soil. (It’s not just Scarsdale – anecdotal evidence suggests the same is happening all over the tri-state area; products of Tenafly, Darien, and Great Neck are all going back to their hometowns.) After delaying marriage and children, they’ve also come around on the suburbia question, retracing the sidewalks to their own success, hoping to ensure the same for their children.
“I spent the first half of my life trying to get out of Scarsdale,” says Michael Iver, 38, a derivatives marketer at another Wall Street firm, “and the second half trying to get back in.”
Some admit feeling conflicted – are they throwing in the towel, shunning culture and diversity, making the safe, retrograde choice? – but many seem to have simply concluded that their parents were right.
Rippy Philipps is decidedly one of the latter; four years ago, he purchased a $645,000 split-level ranch house with a pool, and volunteered to coach football – as a childless bachelor. In fact, he held off proposing to his wife, he says, because he first “wanted to make sure she was comfortable with Scarsdale.”
Less zealous ex-residents who’ve circled back to the nest are surprised, and comforted, to learn how many others have done the same. Recently, Kim Schlesinger Meyers (’80) reports, she was shopping with a friend in the Scarsdale branch of Hay Day – a picture-perfect, pricey grocery boutique – and she bumped into four fellow returnees in five minutes. Her friend, who grew up on Long Island, finally asked, “What is it, do you all come back here?”
When Jeff Perry (’78), a principal at a hedge fund, moved back two years ago from York and 72nd, he discovered that “the train platform was a mini high-school reunion every day.” Then, planning his twentieth reunion, he found that of his 400 classmates, 25 had moved back. When I called the local real-estate-brokerage firm, Julia B. Fee, for further evidence, the agent who answered the phone, Sheila Stone, volunteered that a colleague had just sold two houses to returnees – “She said she’s driving around showing houses to kids she used to carpool” – and that Stone’s own two sons had moved back. “Where do you live?” she inquired, somewhat accusatorially.
In the course of reporting, I amassed the names of 150 people who’d graduated between the late sixties and the mid-eighties and who’d returned, including numerous intra-Scarsdale marriages and several instances of people who’d bought their parents’ house. Returnees are coaching and teaching at the high school, running the train-station coffee shop and the limo service, hawking wine at Zachys, brokering local real estate, installing security systems, editing the town newspaper, and supervising a firm that specializes in teardowns of local houses to build so-called McMansions.
Staying put may be the norm in rural areas, company towns, and the city, but New York suburbia has not traditionally inspired that kind of brand loyalty. It’s too close to Manhattan to develop its own culture; instead it functions as a large playpen that shields commuters’ progeny from the larger world (not from drugs, alcohol, or sex, of course, but at least from getting into real trouble for them). The suburb is analogous to a convenience store: Everything you’d want is in one overpriced place, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to hang out there.
Still, Scarsdale reigns as the Über-burb – for better and for worse. Founded in 1701, it didn’t begin attracting urbanites until the New York Central railroad line was electrified around 1910. In the decades after World War II, the town came to represent a particular baby-boom ideal: You could work in the city but live like a country squire amid tree-lined streets, stately homes, very little crime, and schools that siphon students directly to the Ivy League. By the sixties, it was renowned as an enclave dominated by educated upper-middle-class commuters.
But it also came to be used as shorthand for nouveau riche insularity, snobbishness, materialism, provincialism, and conservatism, the Jewish counterpart of the Waspy New Canaan depicted in Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm. In the fifties, Guys and Dolls’ Sky Masterson sneered about a “Scarsdale Galahad, a breakfast-eating, Brooks Brothers type”; in the nineties, Jonathan Larson (who grew up in White Plains) made it the hometown of Mark the filmmaker and his nagging Jewish mother in Rent. Native daughter Gish Jen lightly lampooned it (as “Scarshill”) in her novel Mona in the Promised Land.
The town is notoriously sheltered. Its biggest political strife concerns leaf-blower noise and property zoning; change is so abhorred that plans for downtown commercial development have remained stymied for decades. “People want to keep things here the same, keep it a bulwark of safety and peace,” notes the editor of the Scarsdale Inquirer, Linda Leavitt, 52, herself a returnee following a divorce. “You read the police blotter – all these reports of ‘suspicious people.’ People seem nervous about outsiders and threats to their security.”
Meanwhile, Scarsdale keeps getting ritzier. In 1996, Worth magazine estimated Scarsdale’s average household income at $222,200, the highest in Westchester (and more than double the county’s average). Houses that cost the previous generation $100,000 are selling for $1.5 million; the median is now around $650,000. In the small downtown, froufrou boutiques are replacing homey and service establishments, and in the high-school parking lot, shiny sport-utility vehicles far outnumber used rattle-heaps. At the annual sidewalk sale, I overheard two separate conversations about hair color.
Whereas 25 years ago doctors and lawyers could afford the nice homes, in recent years it’s mostly people from Wall Street or with inherited wealth (or Japanese and Indian businessmen temporarily stationed in New York). This demographic holds less true for the returnees, who want in no matter how much it might stretch the budget. When software designers Paul and Penny Bauersfeld told their parents they wanted to move back, “if anything, our parents were trying to talk us out of it,” says Bauersfeld. “They thought it was going to be too expensive.”
For the previous generation, Scarsdale represented the upper rung of a climb that in many cases began on Ellis Island and the Lower East Side. This unwittingly created a conundrum for their kids: Though they were being groomed for even further success, where could they go that was “better”?
John McCann, 36, who sells ads for CNBC, first lived on 108th and Amsterdam, then in Tuckahoe; he looked at Chappaqua, Rye, and elsewhere, but, he says, “in terms of house prices, taxes, and everything offered – all the reasons my parents moved here from Eastchester – there wasn’t a place that could compare.” He bought a small house in Scarsdale’s less expensive Edgewood neighborhood. A few years later he bought out his parents, and now he sleeps in their former bedroom. (“We made some changes in how it looks,” he stresses.) He enjoys being recognized by teachers and store owners, though, he admits, “my wife says she doesn’t want to hear anymore what store that was twenty years ago.” And at his tenth reunion, she asked him, “What’s the big deal? You see these people every day.”
Once they learn to live with the cost and the déja vù, former residents returning to this rarefied environment – even if their experience was positive – must accept or ignore many of its aspects that may have rankled when they were kids. Israeli-born real-estate developer Sarit Rozycki (’78) says that when she and her husband decided to leave the city, “we thought, We can’t move to Scarsdale – it’s against our religion!” Even after several years there, she still gets queasy when she hears women competing about their kitchens. A classmate of Rozycki’s, the Manhattan writer Eric Alterman, remains adamant that he’d never move back, recalling all too vividly seeing a fellow eighth-grader “cry over a B on an algebra exam, worrying that it would hurt his ability to get into Princeton.”
There’s a large number to whom going back still seems unthinkable – especially if their parents haven’t left (despite the free baby-sitting). It would be the ultimate co-opting – becoming your parents. When Bingham Ray (’72), a co-president of October Films, moved back East from L.A. in 1992, he opted for the less expensive, more northern Westchester town of Chappaqua (as have many other ex-Scarsdalians). “You have to forge your own path,” Ray explains. Even though it was in a Scarsdale High classroom that he first became enamored of art movies after seeing Breathless, and even though he vividly recalls watching Ali MacGraw film scenes for Goodbye Columbus in town, “it didn’t seem attractive to me to go back,” Ray says. “It didn’t make any sense, emotionally or intellectually. I’m not my parents, and I don’t have the same ideas and beliefs.” (Ray also had hoped to protect his children from Scarsdale’s academic pressure cooker – yet Chappaqua now boasts an even higher average combined SAT score, 1,277 to Scarsdale’s 1,233.)
Dan Biederman (’71), the head of several New York City redevelopment districts, also moved to Chappaqua; Biederman says, “It’s a nicer prospect to be in a town where you don’t constantly encounter people who remember you as a 14-year-old.”
Some of those farther removed from the sixties, however, are finding that familiarity comforting. Asked “Why Scarsdale?,” they all mention the schools, the public facilities (municipal pool complex, ball fields, and tennis courts), and the short (35-minute) commute. And though most concede Scarsdale’s limitations – unrealistic affluence, warped values, peer pressures – all have concluded that its known evils are preferable to unknown ones elsewhere. One returnee says his wife, who grew up in a more rural area, “sometimes feels that Scarsdale people are mean or rich or whatever, and I have to tell her that would be true of any suburb. I’m sure if we were in Roslyn or Upper Saddle River, we’d also have professionals who are intense about their children, and bad drivers with expensive cars.” All of them (except Philipps) looked at other communities and found them lacking: One woman lived briefly in Montclair but says she “heard about knives and guns at schools”; another contends that Mamaroneck “had racial issues.” Pressed for details, both admit they didn’t research it that deeply.
Deciding to move back East with their three kids, Paul and Penny Bauersfeld stayed at Paul’s parents’ while they shopped for a house. “We were looking for something better,” says Penny, “and when we couldn’t find that, we felt, why leave?” Scarsdale, she says, “just feels like home.” Penny’s younger sister Kimberly, who lives in Pennsylvania, is only ten years out of high school but says that she and her friends “all talk about moving back to Westchester.”
Picking Scarsdale “was a no-brainer,” says Lyndon Tretter (’78), a litigator who works near Grand Central. Since arriving two and a half years ago, Tretter has occasionally brought his daughters by the house where he grew up. “I showed them where Susie Hodas stole my ray gun and threw it down the sewer, and talked about how upset I was,” Tretter says. “And for them, that’s an amazing story, because it’s what they’re going through nowadays. The pink cement turtle at Heathcote School is still there, and my daughter says, ‘I want to play on Daddy’s turtle.’ It gives you some warmth, because there’s a connection.”
Tretter’s classmate Stephen Nicholas is part of a huge contingent of returnees from the high-school football team. Their fondness for the town is logical: Back in the seventies, they were the local heroes, though football has since been eclipsed by soccer. Nicholas went into his father James’s business; he’s the team physician for the Jets and Islanders.
“I never missed a step moving in,” he says, pointing out that despite years away attending Harvard and medical school and living in the city, he never bothered to change his driver’s license from his parents’ address until he moved back: “I’ve always considered Scarsdale home.” He adds, “I was exposed to good things; there’s no reason to run away from them.” Nicholas jokes that the real reason he returned is that “the football team was so bad, we had to move back and repopulate the team, bring it back up.”
Parenthood made others see the world – and Scarsdale – differently. “When I left for college, there was no way in my mind I was gonna move back here – I was gonna take on the world,” says Tom Reno, 36, who works in public relations and married a fellow Scarsdale graduate he met during a summer break from college. Before returning, they lived in Ohio, Manhattan, and Florida. “But when I had children,” Reno says, “it started to affect my thought process. On visits home to my parents, you start to make comparisons. I was a suburbanite, and have suburban attitudes about raising kids. Like after coming home, the kid can go back to school and play with his friends. It captures a bit of the fifties lifestyle. Scarsdale’s not Mayberry, but it’s still a small town; you get to know your neighbors.” Some nights, Reno walks by his old house and hallucinates: “I’m almost like a kid again, like my mom’ll be there, she’ll have some food, I’ll go watch television – that whole Leave It to Beaver thing.”
Mayberry, Beaver – these are the touchstones of the Nick at Nite generation. Instead of rebelling against their parents, they’re feeling a Wonder Years nostalgia for their carefree youth, trying to re-create a safe haven in less-safe times.
And though times are prosperous, their families’ upward mobility may have peaked with their parents. “Having grown up in Scarsdale, a lot of these people can never top what their parents did,” says Audrey Pierot (’80), who moved back with twin daughters after a divorce, with the help of money inherited after her father died. “The ones who succeeded came back and are more appreciative of what they had growing up. We thought everyone lived the way we did. I got a Mercedes when I graduated from high school; it’s hard for me to top that.”
Even though Lyndon Tretter became a lawyer like his father, he says he has found that “you have to work that much harder to keep in place – not even in place, because I don’t have as nice a house as my parents did. I am very jealous of the people who bought my parents’ house. I could never afford to buy the house I grew up in, and that kills me.”
The lingering question is whether the Scarsdale they’ve bought back into is still the place they remember – and whether it’s possible, with all the changes in society of the last several decades, to experience it the same way.
Physically, it hasn’t changed that much, though the houses are getting bigger and closer together, and the schools are that much older. Academically, the quality remains high, even though most of the teachers who taught these returnees will have retired by the time the returnees’ kids reach the same grades. Demographically, the biggest change is the influx of international businessmen and diplomats.
But the lifestyles are definitely in flux. The divorce rate seems lower than during their parents’ swinging seventies – though it might just be too soon to tell. Most of the men say they work longer hours than their fathers did; many more women are working, at least part-time, to pay the bills. This has led to a shortage of volunteers for village organizations, sports, and after-school activities, which are the backbone of the community.
“If you’re an at-home mom, there’s a lot more pressure to do volunteering,” says one returnee, Andrea McDonald (’80), who works as a Realtor. “I’m into the PTA up to my eyeballs.” And her den of Cub Scouts recently disbanded because the fourth-graders were already burdened with so many other responsibilities – sports, religious school, after-school programs (not unlike their peers in the city).
“It’s sort of a split population,” says Penny Bauersfeld. “There are a lot of dual careers, nannies, juggling and shuffling; it seems a lot more tense and stressful. Then there are still that group of women who play tennis, have their nails done, hang out at Hay Day and the Coffee Tree.” She adds that it’s difficult “if you teach your kids money isn’t everything, but they see everybody going to Bermuda every year. There are people who judge other people by their level of affluence – do you belong to a country club, have live-in help? But not a lot of the people who grew up here are like that.”
Penny and Paul represent one big change from their parents’ generation: They’re a mixed marriage (Penny, née Feinberg, is Jewish; Paul is Catholic). The aspect of Scarsdale they hadn’t anticipated, despite having grown up there, is how much of the community still defines itself by houses of worship.
“Temple and spirituality are very much on the increase – there’s a deep longing to connect, even by interfaith couples,” says Rabbi Richard Jacobs of the Westchester Reform Temple, who estimates that 10 percent of the younger families are interfaith. “But usually by the time they come to temple, they’ve worked it out – the ones who have the problems with it are their parents’ generation.”
“If anything blindsided us,” Paul Bauersfeld says, “it was coming from the West Coast, where people are more open-minded. Our kids are Jewish, and we’ll probably join a temple, but we don’t know if we want a serious temple environment. There’s definitely a clear division between Jews and non-Jews. We thought it had to have gotten better, but it hadn’t. It made it harder for us to socialize and fit in.” Yet ultimately, he says, “I feel very motivated being here. It’s always been a very inspiring place for me, and I owe a lot to it.”
For Mary Evans (’77), returning was “therapeutic. It’s not our childhood, and never will be. I’m not reliving my youth. I’m middle-aged, okay? I’m changing diapers, doing shopping. Not pool-hopping and keg parties. If anyone’s trying to relive it, that’s pathetic.”
Most say that experiencing the town through their children’s eyes makes it new. That doesn’t stop the occasional flashback: Penny Bauersfeld’s troop of Brownies marches up the same street she did. Sarit Rozycki says, “At times I catch myself laughing. Someone was mentioning a house: I thought, ‘That’s where I had my first make-out party, listening to Elton John.’ ” She adds, “In a lot of ways, I feel we never grew up. I feel like I’m still in high school, but with a lot more responsibility.”
For some, it was returning that made them finally come to terms with the realities of adulthood. Bruce Blum (’78), president of Doral Hotels & Resorts, says the fact that he comes home to Scarsdale reminds him every day to aspire to be different from his father, who Blum feels wasn’t involved enough in his children’s activities. “I want to be my children’s hero,” Blum says. As a kid, he says, “I was always embarrassed about living there; there was this stigma. Whereas today, I’m proud to live in Scarsdale. So we all grow up, I guess.”
Rippy Philipps’s poker game is winding down. It used to go till 11 o’clock, but with jobs and kids, everybody calls it quits by 10:30.
Lorie Stewart gets back from the Marshall Tucker concert, reporting it was less than thrilling. “The sound was terrible,” she says. “And they were old.”
As Philipps heads outside, I ask him if there’s any downside to living in his hometown. He thinks for a while and finally says, “I guess occasionally seeing my parents in a Chinese restaurant when I don’t want to.”
He heads for his silver BMW and calls over to his neighbor Bauersfeld, who’s getting into his Ford Explorer. “Hey, Paul!” Philipps says. “I’ll beat you home!” But he’s joking: As they headoff into the night, they’re obeying the speed limit.