|All interviews were taped and documented. They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library. The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.|
Audio recording of the interview with Oscar Epstein
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:||April 2, 1984|
|TRANSCRIBER:||Jackie Kinney (5/1/1984)|
This is an interview with Oscar Epstein at his home on April 2, 1984 by June Kapell.
(I) Mr. Epstein, or Ozzie as you are known to everyone, you have been in town for about 27 years. How did you choose Teaneck for your home?
(N) Well actually I was living in Brooklyn at the time but my business was in Guttenberg and I was looking for a place to move into New Jersey and several people who came to see me came from this area and those who came from Teaneck raved the most about the town. They were the most excited about a town and therefore I went to look at it and it seemed like a very nice town and I decided to locate here.
Early on, I looked on Van Buskirk Road where I saw a very nice home. I think at that time the price was, it was very expensive, about $27,000, which was certainly laughable by today's prices but it was more than I thought I could afford and it was being built, as I tried to get the price a little bit lower but, in the end, he wouldn't balk and I looked elsewhere.
What was interesting about my wanting to move there was although the entire block was white at the time, I don't think there is a single black family living on the street, there was already panic in the area because Van Buskirk was in the heart of the northeast section of town and many of the people who lived there, seemingly against their own interest because if they wanted to sell their homes, they certainly wouldn't want to discourage people from coming there but they said, you don't want to move to this block because the whole area is going to become black and this block included and therefore you don't want to live there. That don't dissuade me at all because I was pretty much a thinker in terms of integration but the fact that Kunsevitch wouldn't come down with his price, did dissuade me and I looked elsewhere and finally come to this area where I am now which I didn't even think was in Teaneck and, in fact, most of the people today who come here don't think it is in Teaneck because the main street in front of my street, the street that everyone thinks is New Bridge Road which is the dividing line between Teaneck and other towns, and is in fact not New Bridge Road. It is Roemer Avenue. New Bridge is a little street that swings behind us and so it is Teaneck, very fortunately because I am very happy I live in Teaneck although I am trying to persuade the town that it is not Teaneck for purposed of taxes.
(I) What was the area like when you looked here?
(N) When I came here, this entire area was a form and woods. There were no streets here. There were no houses here. There was a house that was almost completed, that was built for speculation, right at the corner of what is not Lilbet Road and Roemer Avenue but there was no street into Lilbet Road. There was no Lilbet Road at that time. I bought the property and that was very fortunate that I was able to buy property because I could get a larger piece than I probably would be able to get even a year or tow later and I put the road in up to the end of my property which really comes to the point where the street turns and I designed the house myself. They had a funny ordinance, at least it seemed funny to me, that you had to have a registered architect before you could register your house with the town, the plans for your house with the town, so even though I drew all the plans up myself, I went to an architect in town and he charged me $50 just to put his name on my plan and there fore I registered it with the town.
(I) You and your family have lived here. Would you tell us a little bit about your family please.
(N) Well my family is my wife Evelyn who is also my buddy, my two children who were quite small at that time. I guess my daughter was about two years old and my son about five years old. When we first come here, my wife thought I was crazy wanting to build here because she said the children won't have anyone to play with, we have no neighbors, it is the country. You are way out in the sticks someplace and I tried to persuade her that it wouldn't take too long before other people came here and built homes and we would have neighbors. We also had an additional factor that we were about as far from neighborhood school as you could get and it was over two miles to the nearest school and there was no transportation but I said somehow we would solve the problem and we did go there and it took a few years before anyone else built on this street but eventually the street was built and was permeated with children. It is interesting, when we first come here, we came from Caton Avenue in Brooklyn which was a mail thoroughfare with trucks and cars and it was really very, very noisy but we never heard the noise. We were so used to it. But when we came here, my wife couldn't sleep. She complained about the noise. The crickets making noise. It is so quite that the cricket sounded thunderous.
(I) And your children attended the Whittier School?
(N) Yes, my children attended the Whittier School.
(I) You have been active in so many organizations. Before we get started on some of your activities, would you just tell us a little bit about some of the organizations and committees in which you are a part or have been in the past.
(N) Well before we even moved in, I met someone and started talking to them and they talked me into becoming active in the Cub Scouts when I did move in and that was really the first organization in which I became active. Not too long after we moved into town, I heard some rumblings, how come we don't have a swimming pool and I became involved with various people in starting a movement towards building a swimming pool here and that was a struggle that carried over many years because somehow, some people thought that was going to be a terrible thing to build a pool where there were black people in town and I proposed what I thought was a unique idea knowing that white people didn't mind being with black people as long as they were standing. They were going to stand next to a black person on a bus down south for instance, but they wouldn't sit next to them I proposed that we build a pool, in fact I proposed this to the council, that we built a pool and not allow any swimming - only treading water and that might solve the problem but they didn't buy it.
(I) What was you next suggestion for the swimming pool?
(N) And I was quite involved in the education of the town. I was very much involved with trying to improve the school system which was already quite good and getting better and we had a group in town called the 'good government' group in which some of the people still active in the town, for instance the deputy mayor today, Brad Menkes, was a member of the good government group and it was headed by an old navy captain, Dr. Clarence Lee, and I was surprised because number one I never thought of navy captains or any military personnel as being very conservative when it came to developing a good school system and I was also surprised because Clarence was an older man and had no children in the school system but nevertheless wanted to have the very best school system possible.
So I became involved in that and later they were talking about replanning Teaneck and I became involved in that and I guess to get me out of their hair, they appointed me to the Planning Board of Teaneck and just before that, I started a group called FACT, the Fine Arts Committee of Teaneck, and this was to bring all the various arts whether it was performing art or visual art or musical art, a varied program to Teaneck and I'll talk about it later but this was imminently successful and it was just a wonderful, wonderful thing in Teaneck although the work was killing. And then from the good government group, the broadened base that became the Teaneck Public Assembly which ultimately, due to some struggle for power, again became a little bit narrower, that some of the people who originally came in to broaden the base left because they couldn't gain the power over the group and then I became involved with the County Planning Board and I was and am still the Chairman of the Hackensack River Coordinating Committee which was to develop Lake Hackensack, a recreation lake not only for Teaneck but for five other towns and presently I am very active with the Bergen Museum of Art and Science. I am sure there are other things but at the moment, I can't think of them.
(I) Well, it's hard to know where to begin with all of this. Why don't we start with the swimming pool. Let's go back to the swimming pool for a moment. After your treading water suggestion failed, what was the next step?
(N) Well there were a lot of interesting developments. We petitioned the Planning Board to approve or recommend to the council that we have a swimming pool and we wrote a very, very good brief. In fact I got a letter from the Planning Board saying that that was the finest brief they every received but that the motion was denied and there was the fact of black people starting to move into town or continuing to move into town which hung like sort of Damocles over the people of Teaneck and it was a panicky fear. I wish to say at this point that in every activity in which I every took place in Teaneck or elsewhere that the fear of change has always been the greatest fear. Any kind of change. I always said that if we offered everyone in town a hundred dollar bill, they'd refuse it because of fear.
(I) Who were part of this original group associated with the swimming pool?
(N) Well part of the original group, Dr. Arthur Goldfarb who is still in town, a very eminent allergist; Wallace Cowan was still in town many years later. Wally is quite an eminent attorney with an important New York law firm; Charles Nobel who has died; Gene Sheppard who still lives in town. It is very interesting to me that although many, many people left Teaneck, the members of the Teaneck Swim Club in fact did not, with one exception and that was Rod Parnell who has since died also but all the other people who were deeply involved with the Teaneck Swim club still live in Teaneck to this day.
(I) Well eventually the swimming pool did become a reality.
(N) Yes. But it didn't, it was a struggle over many years. I would like to point out that originally I proposed a township swimming pool. I really felt that everybody should have a right to sue it. But when I was very greatly discouraged by many of the people including some of the council people. I proposed a private pool but non-profit, that anybody could join on a first-come, first-served basis. At that time we have a five man council and the vote was against us. Three to two and I won't mention at this time who voted which way other than the fact that our deputy mayor, Brad Menkes, was one of the people who did support it at that time. And I've always felt very well about Brad. In addition to being a friend of mine, I felt that he did what was good for the town and Tom Costa who later became the Mayor also voted for us.
People who I would have thought would have supported it, did not support it and others that I thought would not support it also did not support it but it was three to two against it and then we made another effort a few years later, and asked for deposits and in a very short time, we had more than enough deposits to support a pool but councilman Max Hasse, who purported to be a friend of recreation, who purported to be a friend of swimming pools and so on and so forth, and was put on the committee to study it against my advice but because Eleanor Kieliszek insisted up it, we put him on the committee and he was a member of that committee for about six, seven months during which time he studied the question of the pool and we recommended the pool with no dissenters, Max Hasse did not dissent, and when it came the time to vote for the pool, he mode a big speech for about thirty minutes lauding swimming pools and lauding the idea that Teaneck should have a pool but then he voted against it saying he didn't have enough information. Max Hasse, I might say, is not one of the people who live in town anymore.
(I) Another area that you've been most active in is the Planning Board and Glenpointe and some other areas. The Teaneck Road Task Force. How about giving us some of the background history of Glenpointe?
(N) Well maybe before I speak about Glenpointe, I would like to speak about my involvement in the Planning Board. although at that time I had some discord with the then Mayor, Matty Feldman, Matty was the first person to appointed by four different mayors and I suspect I had disagreement with every one of the four mayors but I am happy and proud to say that despite the disagreements, they still reappointed me.
In the thirteen years in which I was on the Planning Board, none of those years I served as the chairman and three of those years, I served as the vice chairman. There are a number of important things that were done and the very first task I was caught up with was the replanning of the township of Teaneck I thought then, and I think now, that by any large the character of Teaneck should not be impaired.
At that time, and of course it would be even greater today, there was a lot of pressure to do building along Route 4. Every town was doing building along Route 4. Englewood didn't do too much but nevertheless, they allowed gasoline stations and so forth. Fort Lee was doing all kinds of building. Paramus we all know became probably the biggest group of shopping centers in the world and there was tremendous pressure to build along Route 4 but I was a very, very strong advocate that that should be sacrosanct. I felt that the need for having trees lining Route 4 was important so that when people came from New York or from any other town and came through Teaneck, they should know the character of Teaneck which was exemplified by and large by its suburban character and these threes and this park-like atmosphere which is still here to this day was maintained and I was always thankful for that.
We did have one problem area in Teaneck and that was an area that some people called disdainfelly Frog Hollow. Officially it was called the Glenwood section of Teaneck and the reason it was a problem was the entire area was in the meadowlands. It was in an area running from one foot to three feet above sea level and any time we had any amount of rain or snow, all the people who lived there, and the development there was not intensive, it was probably, without doubt it was the sparsest in Teaneck, but they all had problems, they all had flooded basements and were constantly complaining to the town. Also the, I'd like to go back a second and say that originally the homes in Glenwood were built not at permanent homes but as summer homes and therefore some of them were not built as well as they should have built. Later on some of them were very nice homes and very well built but some of them, many of them were not and that added to the problem and also there was a very old sewage system there which was breaking down and the cost of replacing the sewage system would have been very high. Nevertheless I helped develop a plan called the Glenwood study which was going to rebuild the area basically on the same lines That were there but to upgrade everything. Upgrade the sewage system, upgrade the streets and try to eliminate some of the problems and the beautiful plan, and I still remember what happened at some of the meetings, because I was a very strong advocate that we should not do anything without the input of not only the entire town but specifically the area involved and I urged the Planning Board to hold meetings in the Glenwood area which they agreed to do. Now I must say, for those who don't know, Teaneck has always been one of the most honest towns you could find anyplace and , at that time, it was impeachable to say that.
Our Planning Board was headed by Clarence Brett who was a former mayor of Teaneck but one of the finest and most honorable people I've ever met. He was an elderly man at that time and maybe not as strong as she should have been but, in any case, the feeling of people all over is that they don't trust the political people and in may places, it is justified but in Teaneck it was not justified and one of the few times I ever became very angry at a Planning Board meeting was when someone jumped up at that meeting and pointed to Mr. Brett and said, 'Mr. Brett. What's in it for you?' Here we were coming with a plan to greatly improve the area, with a plan to make everything better for the people, but they were so distrustful. At least some of them were so distrustful, that they accused Mr. Brett, who was one of the most honest and one of the most dedicated servants Teaneck ever had, hey wanted to know what was in it for him.
The plan did not go forth because the cost of implementing the plan was so great that Teaneck felt it could not afford to do it and so the plan, it was never abandoned, but it was never acted upon. To try to do something to upgrade the area, I racked my brain and came up with a plan which I proposed at Fairleigh Dickinson University in a symposium on urban planning and that was to build taller, thin buildings so as not to block out the background but to make it worthwhile, to make it feasible to have enough money to improve the area. And the plan was one that I presented to the Planning Board several months later and the Planning Board seemed quite enthusiastic about it but I didn't feel that we should go ahead with it until I found out whether it was feasible. To me it seemed it couldn't fail because it was right where 80 and 95 met and this was one of the finest points you could find anyplace in the United States. Nevertheless, to test it out, I invited a number of developers to find out if they would be willing to undertake to build it and every developer who came thought it was a wonderful, wonderful plan and encouraged us to go ahead and this was the beginning of the thinking that ultimately lead to Glenpointe. It didn't come east because there was a lot of distrust in town about making anything high and I explained to the people that this wouldn't disturb the town in the least and I was the almost champion of not disturbing the town but this wouldn't disturb the town because the land was so low, for instance, it was some fifty feet lower than Queen Anne Road and, no fifty feet lower than Teaneck Road and a hundred feet lower than Queen Anne Road and that from Queen Anne Road you'd only be able to see the top of the building and furthermore it was not in the heart of the town. It very easily could have been Leonia or Ridgefield Park.
(END OF SIDE A, TAPE 1) (NOTHING ON SIDE BE, TAPE 1)
(BEGIN SIDE A, TAPE 2)
(I) another area of interest to you has been the library.
(N) Yes. The Library has been a strong area of interest to me because all my life I've had a particularly great love for the English language and for libraries. Many years before I even came to Teaneck there was a report that we needed a new library or the library had to be expanded. It was already becoming inadequate. Along the way, the then director of the Teaneck Library, Olive Tamborelle, came to me advocating that the library either be expanded or that a new library be built. I took it up with the Planning Board and the Planning board concurred that it was a necessity and that the town should build a library.
A Proposal for a library was made but the town felt that it didn't have the money to build it so we undertook to develop a plan and to try to raise the money privately to build it for the town and possible through some government grants. A plan was developed that seemed life a very nice plan. In our quarter of what is now the parking lot of the municipal greens, and again as in everything else, controversy was raised. Eleanor Kieliszek objected very strongly to doing this, making some claims that it was not in keeping with the general contours of the landscape even though most of the members of the Planning Board felt that it wasn't in conformance and that it would not be very obvious and our architect felt that way and Sam Zywotow who was a member of the Planning Board and quite a good architect very strongly supported the building. Nevertheless Eleanor made a bit political fight of the matter and induced her friend Henry Updegrove, who was a member of our Planning Board for some years, to join her in a fight against the library.
I never could figure out what the real motive for opposing it but a lot of problems happened and a lot of damage was done. Nevertheless they were going to go ahead and build the library and a fundraising drive was started. I was very instrumental in the fundraising drive even though fundraising is not one of my strong points but because I am very fortunate to have many friends who are very supportive with their money in various enterprises in which I have been engaged. I don't mean private. I mean public enterprises. I was able to get pretty fair sums of money. We asked for the library board certain minimal things such as if someone gave a pretty fair amount of money, to dedicate maybe a book stack in their name which only meant putting a little plaque down there or some such thing and some of my friends were, as I say, very generous.
My friend Mr. Zimmer who never lived in Teaneck but who had some properties in Teaneck and he was really a remarkable man because he was an owner of industrial property and even though he was renting them to other people, when he came to town if he saw a piece of paper, anything that was perfect on the property, he would personally clean it up. Buy anyway Mr. Zimmer gave me $5,000 toward the building of the new library which I thought was a wonderful gesture and as a side thing, the very next week I mentioned to him that the Senior Citizens in the townhouse did not have air conditioning and the next week he gave me an air conditioner for the senior citizens. But in any case, I promised him that in return we would dedicate something in his honor.
And Dr. Rosalie Weiss give I believe it was $8,000 in memory of her daughter and we were doing to do something to memorialize her daughter and other people, various other people, gave - the Otten Foundation of Mr. and Mrs. Otten who lived North Umberland Road and I might say Mr. Otten today is 98 years old. Not that his birthday is today but he is 98 years old and they gave us, I think it was $5,000 and we raised a fair amount of money but were, all of which were being kept by Miss Tamborelle, who really was completely dedicated to this project. Olive Tamborelle, in addition to keeping records, pushed that we should go to Trenton and try and get some money from Trenton and ultimately we did get funding of close to a million dollars from Trenton towards the building of the library.
The, and Olive kept report how successful our fundraising drive was and that we were nearing the two million dollar mark that we had set out to raise to build a library. When we reached the two million dollar mark, she suggested we try to raise the ante to three million dollars and so something even more glorious. I objected to this saying, you know, I felt it was time, you know, we had the money of our goal, we ought to go ahead and build it.
During this time, I asked where the money was and was told that a good part of the money had not been received yet but was pledged and I asked Olive to give me the records so that I could go after some of the people to pay the pledges so we would get the money and could start construction and Olive never said no. She always side, 'Oh yes, I'll take care of it. Give me a couple of weeks to get everything together and after a few weeks, I would ask her again and she postponed it another few weeks and again and she postponed it another few weeks and finally I told Olive that I was resigning from the committee because I felt that this was not a businesslike way of doing business and I couldn't be part of something like that. And I left.
Several weeks later, Olive called me and told me I had to come back. That she had cancer and she was going to die and she had to see the library before she died and, of course, she was such a nice lady that I came back and started working again but after a few months, the same thing happened again. You know, I just couldn't get any records and I just couldn't get anything to go after the people with the money and Olive kept saying, 'Oh, we had a good part of money now.' And we finally decided to go ahead with construction. We started excavation on the municipal land. When it came time for paying bills, I received a call from Matty Feldman who by this time was no longer the mayor of Teaneck. He was the State Senator. To a meeting and when I walked into the room, everyone there was looking very glum. They had told me that there was something wrong pertaining to the library and I said, 'Well don't worry about it, whatever it is, I am sure we can straighten it out. Let's hear what the problem is and we will see what we can do.' And then the bubble burst.
They told me that Olive Tamborelle, in her tremendous desire to have a library built, started to fantasize and was only fantasizing that money was pledged when in fact most of the money had not been pledged and that in fact we didn't have most of the money. We couldn't pay our bills and couldn't go ahead with the building of the library. We investigated very carefully what happened and there was absolutely no sign that anyone had dipped into the pot, anyone had used any of the money.
As a matter of fact, along the line Olive told me that she had a pledge from an Italian person of $50,000 if the Italian community would match it with another $50,000 and sadly I found out later that what she intended to do was to sell her home and the money from the sale of her home, $50,000, in other words she was the Italian person who was going to do this. With no thought to where she would live and how she would live and so on. Just sometimes people in their tremendous desire to see this happen, think it is happening when in fact it is not. Well of course we were all distraught and it was embarrassing but the embarrassment was nothing compared to the fact that the tragedy that she had done to her life. There was pressure on her to resign as the head of the library, which she did.
Actually, ultimately, through a different plan to take the present library into, develop it into the same number of square feet that we were going to have with the new library and I must say that without the $971,000 that we got from the state, this never would have been possible but fortunately the state did not take back their funds. It allowed us to make the necessary changes and the library was eventually improved to the point that we wanted it to be improved. So the goal was accomplished but not without a lot of unhappy tragedies that took place.