So, it appears our small community was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month in a most unexpected way.
A little-known Congressional candidate pulled off a major upset in her Democratic primary and became an overnight celebrity. Before this, our biggest claim to fame was that we had a funny police department that liked to make jokes on Facebook.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whether she wants to be or not, is now forever linked to Yorktown Heights. You see, she grew up here, which is apparently a controversial statement to make. Records show that her family bought a house here in 1991 when she was 2 years old and she graduated from Yorktown High School in 2007. Her family continued to live here until 2016.
I don’t know how long she has been living in the Bronx, the place she was born and will likely represent in Congress, but she went on TV and loudly proclaimed that she was “a girl from the Bronx.” The other side was quick to say, “Not so fast.”
I’m still unsure why this is so scandalous. I had someone tell me that it’s because she portrayed herself as a downtrodden “street urchin” who pulled herself up from her bootstraps. Conservative blogs, of course, were quick to point out that she grew up in a house rather than in a trash can. And not just any house, mind you, but a house in the very posh suburban community of Yorktown Heights, where she grew up with a silver spoon in her mouth, thus disqualifying her from representing a low-income area like the 14th Congressional District. You follow?
For any hip-hop fans out there, this is akin to when it was revealed that popular rapper Rick Ross was once—gasp—a corrections officer. His street cred took a hit, and that’s what’s happening to Ocasio-Cortez.
Some have pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign website used some interesting wordplay to describe her time in Yorktown: “The state of Bronx public schools in the late ’80s and early ’90s sent her parents on a search for a solution. She ended up attending public school 40 minutes north in Yorktown, and much of her life was defined by the 40-minute commute between school and her family in the Bronx.”
The phrase “public school” should be a dead giveaway that she lived in Yorktown, but people took issue with the word “commute,” which seemed to imply that she still lived in the Bronx and only went to school here. She later updated her website and removed the word “commute” and clarified that it was her “extended family” who lived in the Bronx.
Honestly, who knows what she meant? The last thing I want to do is to assign motivations to somebody. That’s tricky territory, and something we do far too often. What I do know is that her time in Yorktown is now being weaponized against her. A quick look at the comments on our Facebook page will tell you some people are proud she’s from Yorktown and others are disgraced that our schools produced a “communist.” People are making memes about our town and claiming we’re all 1 percenters.
As the 28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez continues to advance in the political world, her upbringing in suburban Yorktown Heights will keep coming up, and we’ll be known by her enemies as the town she tried to hide. Her dirty little secret. I mean, geez, are we that bad? At this point in her career, we appear to be her Monica Lewinsky or Watergate.
I reached out to her and her communications director multiple times for an interview request. I thought there would be no better forum to talk about her Yorktown past than in Yorktown News. I have questions and I think we deserve answers. Thus far I haven’t heard back, but I’ll keep trying.
This wouldn’t have been an issue if I just listened to my wife six months ago when she told me a former classmate of hers at Yorktown High School was running for Congress and that I should consider interviewing her in Yorktown News.
Regardless, since the spotlight is on our community, I’d like to say hello to the people Googling “Yorktown Heights” for the first time trying to dig up dirt on Ocasio-Cortez. Let me tell you a little about the community in which I was born and raised.
First off, Yorktown Heights is a hamlet in the town of Yorktown, the others being Crompond, Jefferson Valley, Mohegan Lake and Shrub Oak. That’s an important distinction. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’m not going to bore you with population figures and anything else you can read on Wikipedia.
We are governed by a five-member Town Board that has made headlines with its hours-long argumentative meetings. We have some amazing artists, scientists, athletes and educators in our midst. We’re pretty good at lacrosse. We have a fantastic outdoor scene with many hiking trails and farms. We have a lot of pizza places, banks and nail salons (too many, some would say). We desperately want a Trader Joe’s to fill the vacant supermarket we’ve had in town for what feels like a decade. Yes, we are located in the northern-most part of Westchester, which has a well-deserved pompous reputation, but Chappaqua and Scarsdale, we are not.
We have a lot of cyclists on the road. There are a lot of trees and sometimes when we have nasty storms that’s a bad thing. We have some fun community events like the five-day Feast of San Gennaro, the Holiday Electric Lights Parade, and the Grange Fair, a century-old celebration of farming. Did I mention that our sports teams are called the Cornhuskers?
We have a Panera and a long-neglected mall (but it’s being redeveloped!). We’re extremely proud of our history and our town motto is “Progress with Preservation,” though nobody can really seem to agree what that means. We have a new Lowe’s being built and half our town is currently being ripped up because of gas pipeline replacement projects. We also have an award-winning weekly newspaper (sorry, I had to).
One time I was downtown and an out-of-towner pulled over next to me and said, “I’m looking for downtown,” and I said, “You’re in it,” and they looked very disappointed. Dave Matthews went to school here for a little bit and I think Ben Stiller lives here. So, yeah, we’re practically Hollywood East.
You may have heard that we’re also all rich! How awesome for us! Actually, we don’t all have lakefront properties and mansions. I mean, some of us do, but they don’t invite the rest of us over. I, myself, had an above-ground pool growing up and we used an air mattress as a flotation device. My dad fixed buses and my mom drove them. They moved us into an apartment on the outskirts of town because having grown up here themselves, they knew how valuable that education was. I think my story is probably similar to a lot of other people who live in Yorktown.
Some in the media have said growing up here runs contradictory to Ocasio-Cortez’s claim of being “a girl from the Bronx.” Sure. But, you have to admit, it’s not that cool to go on national television and challenge the president and tell him to be afraid of “a girl from Yorktown.” It doesn’t quite have the same oomph. She’s selling a message and she found the best way to package it. I personally don’t begrudge her for that. Some do, and that’s their prerogative.
But, for the many people who are just learning about us, know that there are many blue-collar workers who live here paycheck to paycheck. A median income is just that. Don’t forget to consider the many families below that number who don’t drive BMWs and have never seen the inside of a country club.
Like Ocasio-Cortez, my dad died when I was 17. In addition to working for the MTA, my dad was a bartender and a landscaper and my mom worked at a piercing studio, a video rental store, and as a school bus driver, all to make sure we could keep living here. It’s possible to grow up here and still know the struggle of the working class.
According to reports, her family’s Longvue Street home sold for $355,000 in 2016, which is about $50,000 less than the median price of a home in the Bronx, and about $70,000 above the New York State average, according to Zillow.
The purpose of this column is neither to endorse nor condemn Ocasio-Cortez. I don’t know what she thinks of Yorktown. Whether she intentionally misrepresented her past, I can’t say. That’s something she’ll have to answer for herself, and she seems more than capable of doing so.
However, in people’s quest to take down Ocasio-Cortez by linking her to Yorktown, they are effectively shaming and stereotyping the thousands of hard-working people who live here. I’ve lived here for nearly three decades, so perhaps I get a bit defensive when I see people who never heard of our town until five seconds ago presume to know who we are and how we live. If you’re actually interested in the place where Ocasio-Cortez grew up, I invite you to come by and take a look around. But, I politely ask that you stop posting pictures of people’s homes on social media. It’s a very creepy thing to do.
Brian Marschhauser is the editor of Yorktown News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.