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Over July 4th weekend, I was lucky enough to spend some time at a family friend’s country house out in eastern Long Island. The town we stayed in was described to me as having two main groups of people–the wealthy professionals from New York City that have country houses out there on the one hand and the “townies” on the other.
Riverdale, for much of its history, seems to have had the same dynamic. There have been many prominent individuals, from Mark Twain to JFK to Lou Gehrig to Ella Fitzgerald to U Thant, to live in Riverdale. I could be wrong but it seems these folks were here to get away from people, not to be active members of the community.
Even in colonial times, the Riverdale area was a place for prominent New Yorkers to have their “country seats.” But if you look at the common folk of our area in those years, they were related by marriage to their neighbors. It was actually a very tight knit community. Whereas the wealthy Manhattanites married into other wealthy New York families and had little to do with their neighbors. I have never read anything about tensions between these groups but they seemed to operate in different spheres. That phenomenon might explain the neighborhood’s lack of connection to U Thant.
U Thant lived here for about 10 years on a 5 acre estate and sent his kids to one of our elite private schools. I sort of doubt he went to community board meetings and got involved in Riverdale politics/activism. Plus Riverdale is home to a large Jewish community that would be sympathetic to Wallenburg, who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. I am sure that has something to do with the naming. Additionally the forest was named during the Cold War. As Peter mentioned, Wallenburg was believed to be alive in Russia. Remember, Riverdale is home to Natan Sharansky Square at Mosholu Ave and W. 255th Street. I’m sure that street naming had similar roots–a way to honor a person who was working on behalf of Jewish people while at the same time sticking it to the Soviets.
Still, I see your point Stephanie. It is not like Wallenburg really had a connection to Riverdale. It would be interesting to hear what Tom Bird has to say about the name.
Here is a video of U Thant at his home in Riverdale: https://www.unmultimedia.org/avlibrary/asset/2602/2602271/