You know the neighborhoods of Harrisburg. South Allison Hill. Midtown. Olde Uptown. Bellevue Park. Downtown. Riverside.
Back up there. What the heck is Riverside?
For those of us who live here, Riverside is our little secret. But since September marks the centennial of Riverside’s annexation into the city of Harrisburg, maybe it’s time to stake our claim as a distinct neighborhood with a unique quality of life. No, it’s not “walkable” to coffee shops and cinemas, but there are trees and backyards, parking and birdsong, quick commutes to downtown and quick getaways to highways.
First, to answer your question, Riverside is the last chunk of city land along the 2nd Street corridor. Imagine holding a Hershey chocolate bar in your hand and breaking off the far left squares. That’s Riverside, from Division Street to just north of Vaughn Street (call it Italian Lake to the Jewish Community Center) and from Front Street to 7th Street (Susquehanna River to the railroad tracks).
“Riverside, before it was annexed, was known as a hamlet,” Howard Parker told me. “I’ve always wanted to live in a hamlet.”
We were meeting at the Olde Uptown Little Amps (like I said, we got no coffee shops). Parker, a New Jersey native who moved east and has lived in Riverside since 1980, is a history buff and president of the Riverside United Neighbors community group.
Archival records of that 1917 annexation, the year America entered the “Great War,” show that change never happens in Harrisburg without controversy and the occasional threat of fisticuffs. Riverside was still its hamlet self, home to 500 or 600 people who’d been attracted to the Susquehanna Township development since its launch in 1905 with promises of “sewer, water, light and river view.”
“One car-fare takes you from Riverside to any part of city, Steelton, Paxtang, Reservoir, Progress, Penbrook and Rockville,” pledged an ad from developer Lewis M. Neiffer.
Harrisburg had “briefly flirted with an industrial period in the 1890s,” said Historical Society of Dauphin County Librarian Ken Frew, but the ornate Beaux Arts Capitol built in 1906 ushered in a new age.
“Once the (original) Capitol burned down, and they built a new one, the whole tenor of Harrisburg changed,” said Frew. “It became a white-collar city.”
Those government workers found a bucolic escape in their Riverside homes.
“They were people who didn’t want to be down in the city,” said Frew. “They were a little more independent. They liked living up there, but they missed the city services.”
Parker confirmed that Riverside’s street paving was “not really fantastic,” and some residents were dissatisfied with schools that one resident of the day called “miserable.”
In September 1916, about 60 percent of Riverside homeowners petitioned for annexation by Harrisburg. This would be the city’s 12th annexation of adjoining lands, but money concerns intervened. Would annexation mean that “outlay on the part of the city will be far greater than the revenues derived from the Riverside section,” as the Harrisburg Daily Independent speculated? Sewer, lighting and fire hydrant upgrades would all cost money.
Despite the costs, the Harrisburg Telegraph considered the deal’s apparent collapse ill-advised.
“It was assumed that at no distant day the suburb would be taken over by the city and now, when it comes knocking at our doors, having fulfilled the requirements of the municipality and being one of the most desirable residential districts in all the country roundabout, we turn our neighbor away,” the Telegraph editorialized.
“One of the most desirable residential districts in all the country roundabout”? My Riverside? Sweet.
Back to 1917.
The Telegraph accurately predicted eventual annexation. This being Harrisburg, a backroom deal or two might have given this creature life. The plan’s sudden revival prompted a letter to the Telegraph editor signed “ONE OF THE EXPLOITED,” insisting that the so-called majority clamoring for annexation was actually a minority poised to gain, possibly through the city’s purchase of the hamlet’s sewers.
“There always has been, and never so violently as at present, a strongly voiced antagonism to annexation . . .,” complained “Exploited.” “It is a question of searching for the individuals who aim to profit at the community’s expense.”
By now, annexation was big news. City Council’s 3-1 vote to approve annexation shared banner headline space with news from the Great War in the Aug. 27, 1917, Evening News: “Riverside is Added to Harrisburg; Italians Capture 90 Square Miles.”
But then a Sept. 1 banner headline proclaimed “Riverside Citizens Oppose Annexation” (above a photo captioned “Uncle Sam Cocks His Big Guns for the Boches”). The fight to block codification of a City Council vote seen as “railroaded” seemed to be on, until the city solicitor announced that the ordinance had been signed into law, making it irreversible. With the painful news, some argued for withdrawing their opposition. Others wanted to keep up the fight.
And then things got heated. Professor George Hill, a teacher and annexation supporter, argued that “bugaboos” like the higher taxes feared by opponents might never materialize. A certain W.H. Bishop seemed to think that Professor Hill was calling Mr. Bishop and his fellow opponents “bugaboos.” A “wordy battle” ensued.
“Come out here in the hall and settle it,” Professor Hill suggested to Mr. Bishop. Mr. Bishop declined the offer but “politely went on with his criticism.”
Howard Parker shook his head as he shared news accounts of the near-altercation. “This is so frickin’ Harrisburg,” he said. “It just is.”
In September 1917, the hamlet of Riverside joined the city of Harrisburg, and life went on.
A school that started as a one-room schoolhouse in 1905 grew into a modern school “heated by a furnace in the basement!” recalled one student. A fire company formed in 1915 and built its firehouse, long a community center, in 1923.
“It is situated in a northern part of the city in a district in which there are fine homes, hence they are always willing to do all they can for the welfare of the community,” the company boasted.
Corner drug stores served cherry cokes. There were barbershops and salons, churches and markets. The Riverside Baseball Team gathered for a team picture in 1921.
The “wild, wild waste” known as Italian Park, where gypsies encamped every year, became Italian Lake in 1919, beginning a string of up-and-down years for a park where residents today walk their dogs, admire azalea blooms in the spring, and jog up and down the hillside. By 2013, Riverside School had come down, making way for Chisuk Emuna’s beautiful synagogue, now a polling place and R.U.N. meeting spot.
The city’s northward march culminated in completion of the imposing, now vacant William Penn High School in 1926. The last anyone heard of plans for the school, a developer was considering its use for senior-living apartments. In the eyes of developers, classrooms make perfect apartments, said Harrisburg School Board Vice President James Thompson. But they found no uses for the auditorium, gym and the campus’ separate career school building.
“People will come in and look at it and try to make the numbers work,” Thompson said. “I’m always the optimist. Somebody will find the right use for it, but the building needs work.”
Plus, developers hungrily eye the acreage and sports fields on the William Penn campus, but the district “would like to preserve the land,” Thompson said. “I think we owe it to the community and to the neighborhood to preserve the land for current and future recreational needs.”
Keeping pace with the rest of the city, Riverside’s 2017 home sales have been brisk, said RE/MAX realtor Ray Davis. “Riverside” isn’t a name that prospective homebuyers instantly recognize, but just as in 1905, the neighborhood offers “a natural progression” in city dwelling, he said.
“You have buyers in Midtown who eventually want a yard, want the parking,” said Davis. “That causes them to move up because their needs change. The parking and the yard for the dog or the kids become a little more important than the walkability of downtown. Life changes.”
Another thought struck Davis, a realtor for 20-plus years. In many other city neighborhoods, houses are similar, and so, for instance, a young adult or middle-ager with durable knees can manage Midtown’s three-story rowhomes. Riverside, though, is “one of the few neighborhoods where you have some single-level homes. You have Cape Cods. You have two stories and three stories. You have some large homes. You have smaller homes.”
Diversity is a hallmark of all city neighborhoods, he continued, but Riverside’s is “a different kind of diversity.”
“The housing inventory there is really diverse, which I think adds to the diversity of the people who live there,” he said. “You have price, size, style. It’s as assorted as the people.”
That’s my Riverside. Curious? Cross Division Street and come explore for yourself. Just be sure to bring your own coffee.
To learn more about the Riverside neighborhood, visit the Riverside United Neighbors website at www.riversideunitedneighbors.com.
Author: M. Diane McCormick