|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 Janet Johnston
|DATE OF INTERVIEW:||January 31, 1984|
|TRANSCRIBER:||Jackie Kinney (4/24/1984)|
This is Helen Klein and I am interviewing Miss Janet Johnston of 470 Ogden Avenue.
( I ) Mrs. Johnston, when did your family first come to Teaneck?
( N ) We arrived October 29, 1916. I was 2-1/2 and I remember a lot from what I’ve heard at that time. We arrived from New York City. I was born in New York City right where the George Washington Bridge is. And my dad decided that he wasn’t going to pay any rentals any longer in New York City because they went from $24 to $36 a month. And he decided that, that was silly to repeat so out he came, looked in Bogota and looked in West Englewood and at that time, there was a very wealthy real estate man by the name of Nelson Ayers. He had bought up much of this land which was farmland. From the West Shore Railroad Tracks to the River Road to the West Englewood Avenue, to Warwick. He lived here in his rather modest home for a millionaire, which he was and he was kind of a one man committee deciding to whom he would sell. And it seemed to be mostly WASP’s. In fact as far as I can remember, it was all WASPs. And my mother was a charming wonderful person who had a magnificent talent, singing, and he took to my mother and my father, particularly my mother, very fast, and they found a lot near the old Rekow farm, caddy-corner to our present home and they decided that that would be very nice and so we were allowed to move.
( I ) The lord of the manor sort of stuff.
( N ) Yes, exactly.
( I ) So that you have always lived in this house.
( N ) Always lived right in this house. Dad built it and used to come in and sit on a keg of nails in front of the fireplace and say, well, mom, mother, I am here for the rest of my life till they carry me out in a pine box and he watched and supervised. Dad was an engineer so he watched and supervised the whole thing. And they made some basic changes and we moved in on October 29th and my third year birthday was in November so I was just about three.
( I ) What do you remember of your childhood around there? There must have been a lot of young families who lived around here.
( N ) There were. I still see the friends that I made because we were not a mobile society. We were here. We had no car, most of us, and the only egress we had was (is egress out or in) well anyway the only way out or in was the West Shore Railroad. The old public service 78 Jitney which is still the only one we have in this part of town and the Fort Lee Trolley. That went down Fort Lee Road to the ferry. And we could go either across on the Yonkers Ferry or we could take the 42nd Street. There was 125th Street ferry too but I think this was the Yonkers ferry. So we didn’t wander very much. And as I look back as an adult, I think my mother must have been fairly unhappy because she was a city person. City bred, from Minneapolis originally and loved New York, lived in New York, studied music in New York with her sisters and suddenly was brought hither by my father and plunked in this farm community of about whatever we were – 1,000 or 2,000 at the most. And not too much in the way of getting out. Not too stimulating a community at that time. As a child it was, a lovely community.
( I )For children, yes.
( N) Oh indeed yes. I probably wandered all over the place. I can remember walking over to Rekow’s Farm to get the milk and I made friends with the Rekow’s so I would wander over and feed the animals and play with the animals and they would give me cookies. It was a very friendly, easy-going rural atmosphere and the daisy fields were right in back of us. There was nothing on the other side of West Englewood Avenue. We had picnics. I came home screaming one day when I was about five or six to my mother because I had seen a man walking across the daisy field, rather disreputable looking, with a big bag over his shoulder and I swore it wiggled and that he had a little girl in it. It was some kind of a community, strange people would come to the door and ask for a sandwich or you would see rogues or whatever they were, they were probably nice men but I was scared of that. But my mother said, no I don’t think he has a little girl in there and assured me it was all right. But I didn’t wander too far from my own environment because I wasn’t too sure of the strangeness.
( I ) What was where Whittier School is now?
( N ) Well there was nothing there. There was nothing here at all. There were a couple of houses. The house next door was built four years ago. There were one or two or three houses on the block, the streets were mud, red clay mud, pretty horrible, and we went to school at Washington Irving when I started in Kindergarten by taxi. And the taxi picked three or four of us up and then we went over there to school I think it was through the second grade and then they had an auction. My father was part of this auction. It was on a very blow March day. They stood on the hill on West Englewood Hill and looked around and decided that was a very nice place. For a school. So they bought the property and thereupon built a four-room school which they called Whittier and then I went to that school.
( I ) Tell me how did your mother do marketing?
( N ) We went to Englewood. Let me tell you about this. We were looking at a folder that was a concert my mother gave. My mother’s name was Mrs. E.A. Smith and she gave this concert in 1927 in the auditorium of Whittier School which was a dedication of the school. They were dedicating it and opening it up and that was the date – February 1, 1927. So mother and two of her sisters were on the program. Adelaide Paterson was her older sister and Mrs. Rollins was her youngest sister. And these two people were married from New York and they came and gave a concert. And that was the beginning of Whittier School and that’s when we all started to go and the friends that I made in Whittier School are acquaintances that I still see and I am now 67.
( I ) That’s marvelous. Tell me. I’ve wanted to ask you about this. How did you do marketing if you were in this little community here with no stores nearby?
( N ) We had Cutler’s Drug Store. On the corner of West Englewood Avenue and Railroad Avenue where the barber shop is now and it had a dirt floor. Eventually it had a tile floor. It was a real cute little soda fountain kind of thing. And then there was Etton’s Meat Market. That was all there was.
( I ) West Englewood wasn’t there then.
( N ) It was later. We did use it but it was expensive, and Etton’s was expensive. So we tended to go to Englewood.
( I ) How did you get there?
( N ) By the 78 Public Service Jitney.
( I ) And how often did you have to go marketing?
( N ) Well probably no more then once a week, once every two weeks.
( I ) Did they deliver?
( N ) No. We brought it home. Etton’s delivered but Etton’s didn’t have everything. It was a meat market basically with a few fine gourmet type of things but it wasn’t satisfactory for the functions of the home. We used to make a list of things that we needed for Christmas Shopping, for clothing, that kind of thing. And we would make a list and when the list was long enough, we would go in on the train to New York with our dad. We’d go in on the early morning train and we’d stay until he came home at five. Come home on the five o’clock train. And all the neighbors were on the train. So it was a very friendly thing to do. But we didn’t do it more than once every two months because this list didn’t grow that quickly. It was hard to get there so you tried to make the most of the trip.
( I ) That left you off then at the Pennsylvania Station?
( N ) No, it left us off at Weehawken. Then we took the 42nd Street Ferry and then we took the Trolley.
( I ) Now what I want to ask you is when things started to change. When did more building start? When did Teaneck get more populated?
( N ) Probably ten years. 1916-1926. By the time the George Washington Bridge was contemplated and they started to build the bridge and then they built the highway and it was at that time that my father said, “This is going to make the change.” And of course it did because it was accessible now. Cars coming in. We had our first car in 1927 and as soon as cars began to become more usual, more people had them, then it started to change. And after the war, there was more money, the big boom before the bus business, people were buying up property and they were beginning to build here and Nelson Ayers sold the whole quadrant and it became, it didn’t change it didn’t change in types of people to much. We were all under the same church. We all did the same things. But then it possibly began to change around World War II.
( I ) So you weren’t very aware of class differences in Teaneck because you lived in your own little corner of Teaneck.
( N ) We lived in our own little world.
( I ) And you went to a church that was nearby.
( N ) I was married in that church.
( I ) Not the one that’s there now but the wooden one, right?
( N ) The one that has become a Jewish Temple. It was a very sweet little country church. And I just was not aware. It didn’t even occur to me to question or to ask, we didn’t have any radio and television. My family was a very educated family and a very cultured family and I learned about the world but it was through their eyes and my friends were all pretty much the same type so we just compared notes with each other. That’s all there was. When I went to college in ’35, ’34 I guess, it was a real eye opener to find out that there were lots of other types of people. One of the things, however, about Teaneck – there are lots of things about Teaneck of which I am very proud and very happy – it was a good place to grow up. It had I suppose some disadvantages in a sense that it was pretty parochial but if your family was not parochial and mine was far from it, it didn’t seem to ever cause a problem. And yet on the other hand, there was not much culture in Teaneck. There was practically nothing. And my beautifully talented mother I am sure felt very deprived. She tried to start some organizations like a choir, a local choir. A community choir, of which she could have directed and been the soloist but (inaudible) and dad was very active in town. As park commissioner, he helped establish the Windsor Park at the bottom of our hill along the railroad track there. It had lovely flower beds and we had a summer house, a gazebo I guess you could call it, and my mom used to go down and give concerts every now and then on Sunday afternoons in the park and it was something that we used to do. We used to go up and watch the tennis matches up on Warwick, I guess that is, Warwick and Essex Road. We had a big grandstand and we had a Tennis Club. So we played tennis from when we were tiny and we played all our lives.
That was the thing to do on a Sunday. We tried to be home and read the papers and chat with the neighbors. We didn’t even go for rides in the car because we didn’t have one. Finally we did. So when the changes in ’42 started coming and the folks from the city came out, there was a big leap forward culturally. When the bridge opened up ’29 and people began to migrate out here, until the crash, then people began to really build quickly and nice homes. As a matter of fact the Boulevard opened up which is known today as Winthrop Road and it was a status, a social status thing to do, was to sell your other house and move to the Boulevard and if you had made it, then you did this. And my father decided, I don’t know that he had enough money to do it to be very honest with you, but he and my mother did talk about it and decided they would stay here. Which must have been a very wise move because many people lost their homes over on the boulevard because they stretched further than they had right to. And dad through the desperation was able to hang in there, it was a tough time, but we hung in our home. But the cultural level just took over when these folks from the city began to move out.
( I ) What ethnic group were they?
( N ) Mostly Jewish. Mostly the Jewish folks began to come in and then we began to have many more things. Well our library has always been the source of great cultural advantages for Teaneck and one of my very closest friend’s mother was very highly responsible for the library, Mrs. Jordan. We had better library facilities, we began to have more musical things, we had lectures, we had the opening of the Bergen Junior College which is now Fairleigh Dickinson and it brought people here that had never dreamed of living out here in the so-called country. And from there on, Teaneck was well you might almost say invaded by wonderful new people and of court at first it rocked, the community, because it is not easy to just immediately absorb a whole new ethnic change. But Teaneck has a way of always riding well with these changes and it didn’t seem to rock it too much for too long and as it settled down, the high school became one of the best high schools in the whole darn country. I graduated from Teaneck High School in ’34 and my brother was graduated in ’42 and we’ve often said that we felt that we had received a Junior College education from the high school. A point of interest that some people may or may not know, in 1933/34 Teaneck High School owned its own plane. It was a little Aronca and we had Link Trainer at the high school and anyone who wanted to could sign up to learn to fly and so some of us did. We took the ground courses and the study courses during the school year, school week, and on Saturday morning, Captain Norwood took us to Teterboro where we had our Aronca and we went off into the air. And if you could afford to take the lessons, I could not, nor was I vitally interested, but you could get your license and some of the folks did. That had not continued in any high school and I didn’t know why. It seems too bad because certainly we were beginning in 1933 to be part of the age of air.
( I ) After that, they went to teaching you how to drive automobiles.
( N ) That may well be part of it. But the high school never taught us to drive a car.
( I ) At one time the high school had courses.
( N ) Not when I was there. But they dropped the airplane thing. I am sure it was economics but it was a shame. Because we were entering the age of air and no other high school has picked it up which is very interesting. I don’t think any place in the whole country but it was the kind of thing that Teaneck did. It was way ahead, it was a super, super educational.
( I ) You are talking academically, of course.
( N ) I am talking academically and socially. And we had a fine orchestra, student orchestra, band, choir, drama, the airplane advantage, we had many, many advantages. My group of friends were on every champion sports team in the high school that year because we just went all out for this kind of thing. Probably because our community was our life.
( I ) What about clubs, various clubs, aside from sports. You know, academically. French, Latin, Chess, anything like that?
( N ) We had millions of them. You could have any indulgence or any hobby you had. I belonged to the drama group, the choir, all the sports, French Club, that kind of thing. My friends were pretty much in the same things.
( I ) You kept pretty busy.
( N ) We were very busy. We had roller skating clubs, had roller skating parties. We had ice-skating. We just had a very, very good time and this all was among our own age, in our homes or at the high school, and a privilege for anybody who moved here.
( I ) Let’s go back to when you were much younger and tell me about your walk to the Pine Forest.
( N ) Well we would walk along what we called Essex Road near Whittier School, cross the daisy field which is now West Englewood and we would start early in the morning with a box lunch and walk all the way through the daisy field and enter the big pine forest.
( I ) Where was that exactly?
( N ) Well it was all the way from Essex Road to the railroad tracks and as far as Cedar Lane. It was just a vast tract and it was perfectly beautiful. You can see some of the pines today as you drive down Garrison or Sussex Road and there was a lovely brook there and a great big huge rock right in the middle of the brook and that would be our goal for lunch. Then we’d go and play in the brook and have our lunch on the rock and then keep wandering and we would wander until we hit the railroad tracks and that would be about time to come home for supper. We’d be gone all day long and I suppose that of you look at some trees along Sussex Road, you will see a lot of carved trees where we put out our hearts and flowers.
( I ) We have to go look for that. You don’t remember anything about the politics of the town, do you? At the time when were beginning to grow up, do you remember hearing your father talk about it.
( N ) I do because dad was reasonably active as park commissioner and he was never on the town council or that kind of thing because he was busy in New York working and he didn’t have the time but I can remember mother being very active in a new party that had grown up. Carl Van Wagner was the mayor at the time and my family seemed to have thought that the Taxpayers League was not one of the people we should be supporting and they were getting pretty strong. I don’t honestly know whether they were right or wrong. I don’t even really know what the Taxpayers League was out to do but I can remember much literature, much phoning and much meetings in the house where mama, mother was very active in this. And it was just before the government was changed from mayor/council and Paul Volker came. Incidentally, I have a pamphlet here that I want you to see and maybe you can make a copy for your memorabilia, and when Paul Volker finally was hired as city manager, I think that was what mom and dad were out to do, was see that we became a city manager form of government, not they alone, from the mayor/council, they felt that it would be less political and less favoritism would be shown. And so in 19 whatever it was, Volker changed or turned the government around and as a city manager, he was one of the finest men, probably the best city manager. A town like Teaneck at the time could have had. And it grew and developed magnificently and this form of government made certain that all codes that were good codes, all the rules and regulations that go with running a good town, that they were maintained, that they were kept, and that nobody was going to break in and upset housing codes, zoning and everything you have in a town. I don’t know a great deal about the details of that but I do know that if you drive along route 4, for example, today one of the wonderful things that people today in Teaneck are enjoying is no commercial things on route 4 and that was part of that whole era where they made certain that you didn’t suddenly find a gas station next to your home or a lot of commercial people coming in and making a quick kill and ruining what was a beautiful town and they’ve maintained the town enough so we have a lovely system. Kids have loads of places to play.
( I ) Of course the parks weren’t there. I mean those were all developed later under the
( N ) That was Mr. Brett. Mr. Botit, and those were all people that were working at the time with Mr. Volker.
( I ) In other words, what you are saying is there was no difference between republic and democrats as far city politics was concerned. People voted.
( N ) Everybody was republican. Until the influx. But really we were. I didn’t know there was anything else, really. I can remember when I was in sixth grade, I had pencils in my school drawer with the head of Hoover and the head of Smith and I wasn’t supposed to bring the Smith one home. There weren’t many people for Mr. Smith around here. It was Hoover’s Town. But then when people began to come in from the other parts, we had more variety.
( I ) What was the reaction when Roosevelt was elected in this town?
( N ) In the family and in the town, there was an uproar. And I almost got disowned because I was in college by that time and I suddenly realized there was another world, and I voted for Mr. Roosevelt the first time I was able to vote and I thought, poor dad and mother would have apoplexy. They could just not see this. This I have turned and my brother has turned into a Democrat and I am sure the folks are turning over their grave. But on the other hand, they were not parochial folks. It was just, this is what they knew, this is what they came from. My mother was a mid-westerner. My Father was an upstate New Yorker. And this what we knew this is what we lived.
( I ) Tell me, do you remember anything about the depression whether there were any WPA funds used in Teaneck or for what purpose or whether there was much unemployment. People did lose their houses here.
( N ) I am sure they did. I don’t know. We had a tough time. Everyone I knew was aware. We all were under the NYA, the youth administration, I had two jobs under that in order to stay in college. And that I was in college. We didn’t even come home weekends too often from college. We sometimes didn’t even come home Thanksgiving because we couldn’t afford to. But being aware of losing homes and tragedies I can’t say that was part of the picture I had anything to do with. But we all did work and we all knew that once we got out of college, we were not going to do anything else but get a job. Our family needed our help and we did. I can’t honestly say that I remember I am sure Teaneck must have had some of that. I remember more things like tramps coming to the door, poor people coming to the door and mother asking (inaudible) and we always opened the door. It is quite different from today when you scream through the door, “Who’s there” before you open it. But even so, Teaneck even now with all of these changes, some of them very bad, some of them not bad but nonetheless changes, Teaneck is still not rocked but it, not thrown by it. We still maintain a good community, a viable community, very different, sure, but it is viable and it is a good community and it maintains its viability, I think magnificently with some really very shocking changes.
( I ) What do you call shocking changes?
( N ) Well, the fact that there is more crime, the fact that I don’t feel free to walk everywhere I used to, virtually not to walk anywhere, at any time of the night. I would have walked at 2:00 am. But I’ve been told to be a little cautious about walking certain places and not to do some of the things I used to. I never used to lock the door. I never heard of locking the door. I haven’t had a doorbell in this house since we’ve lived here. Because you never locked the door. And now I have a knocker because I never got around to getting a bell but we have to lock things and we have to warn our children not to leave their bikes loose and there are changes. And I think the high school has had a tough time the last eight years being fair to the new groups and yet not losing its standards. And I’m afraid that some of the standards have been lost but I am sure not all of them.
( I ) Well for example I understand that they have the honors program at the high school.
( N ) The high school isn’t the problem, it’s the elementary school. By the time I started in high school, Teaneck High School. In 1938, it hadn’t changed then at all. It was the way I remembered it. Then when the changes did come about in the more recent years and you got your honors courses, those are fine in the high school for the good students. And a good student is having no trouble getting into the college he wants to get into I understand. The elementary school can’t be so segregated. You are all of one type really unless you can’t read, you are put into the bluebirds or the robins or whatever, but basically the elementary school is having more of a struggle than the high school. As I understand it. Now I am not an expert anymore. I have been out of the whole business for four years.
( I ) Well I was wondering in what way, you mean as far as reading scores are concerned.
( N ) The reading scores, maintaining a certain kind of discipline, taking care that the balance is right, challenging, giving leadership qualities, because you have got so many extremes. Children that don’t even know the language. The Hispanics that come in know Spanish. Then what does the youngster over here whom has a working vocabulary that is incredible do while you are teaching the little girl the plain basics of
( I ) You mean these heterogeneous classes, you think that is very difficult.
( N )> I think it is impossible. I don’t believe in heterogeneous. I don’t believe in segregation as such I do not believe you can teach all people, all the time, at the same rate and get anywhere if you are going to have talented people, leadership people. So I understand mostly from neighbors, young neighbors, that they find the elementary school unsatisfactory. Once they get to high school, then they can go off on the various roads and directions and if this youngster wants one thing, like carpentry, and this one wants to become a doctor, there are places for these children to go without saying they are being segregated. They are simply seeking their own level and getting a good response and that’s good so that a student going into the high school can usually maintaining himself pretty well.
( I ) You spoke once about the band and a concert that your mother gave for band uniforms. Can you tell me something about it now?
( N ) I think it was in the early 30s when the band had just become organized and it was a good band, quite a good size band, and they needed uniforms. So Mr. Wilflake talked to my mother and wondered if there was some way they could raise the money and she said, “Yes, I’ll give a concert.” Of course at that time when we were known all over town, now it is a bigger town and more diverse, we don’t all know each other quite as well, but in those days it was a community in the full sense of the word and so as soon as they heard mom was going to give a concert, they knew they would sell the house out which they did, and she gave a magnificent concert with two or three other soloists and it was a very musical experience, absolutely magnificent. And they raised enough money through the concert for the band uniforms and then some, I suppose. Who knows. But I was very proud of her.
( I ) Let’s talk about through the war years and what you know about them.
( N ) I didn’t live in Teaneck during the war years because I was in Florida with my husband who was a flyer, a pilot in the air force and so I was mostly in Florida with him and then I came back to Teaneck about 1943, I think it was, or ’44 and there was a period of six or seven or eight years of the men coming back, the women stopping working and becoming housewives again and a period of adjustment of maybe five or six or seven years. And then around the 1950’s when there was some more social changes because of the mobility of the whole country. People were living in the south that never lived there before and southerners were coming north and so there were some changes. And there were Blockbuster stories and I became somewhat active. I can’t say I was real active but I did become somewhat active in the fairness of open housing. I did it two ways: I was moderately active in the neighborhood schools which I belonged to until I found out it was backed by the birchers, a lot of the birchers were using it as a tool which upset me so I left; then my church was the First Presbyterian Church in Englewood was working on Fair Housing in many of the areas around here and so I was interested in Teaneck. So we proceeded to help open up fair housing to anybody by stopping as much as we could the blockbusting and it must have been somewhat successful because it certainly did stop. And we did it though literature, we did it through signs, we did it through the churches, talking in the various churches and I wasn’t wildly active. I don’t mean to take any credit for this but I was enough aware of it so that I became involved with it.
But I was busy getting a new job and getting back to living a normal life after the war so I was very busy and I had my mother and father here and I was taking care of them so I wasn’t right in the center of it. But Teaneck, once again, bounced on the right side of the fence beautifully on the fair housing and opened up the whole town. And we have been absorbing more than our due in a way we did open it up to it. The real estate people have played I think very unfairly. I think they have taken advantage. I think they have looked for the quick buck and I think they have misused Teaneck’s decency to the detriment of, I hope, the real estate lobby and I think to a certain extent Teaneck has been asked to absorb more than it really had a right to have to. If all of the communities, of which there are so many in Bergen County, had each one done his share, it would have been a very graceful, easy, slipping into the new era of all kinds of people having a fair share and a fair right to live where they want. I don’t think we needed any busing, I don’t think we needed any of these things if it had been done fairly and squarely but it ended up that we have had to pay what I think was an absolutely ridiculous amount. Because there were so many communities that did not become involved.
( I )Tell me, do you know anything about how the real estate people did this sort of thing to Teaneck.
( N ) I surely do. I can only account for one or two stories that I personally know about so I don’t have statistics to prove my story but I do have a friend who had been selling real estate in Bergen County, Northern Valley, and a friend of mine wanted to sell her house and I won’t tell you her name because I don’t want to get her involved but anyway, I said well let me refer you to this friend of mine who is a representative of one of the good real estate agencies. So that was all right. She did that and she took on her house and sold it. And I thought she sold it for a terribly small price but my friend didn’t seem to care. She just wanted to get rid of it and leave. And I told her somewhat later, I said, I think you took advantage of my friend. You didn’t give her a terribly good price. And she said, well you know the real estate people are sending all the blacks to Teaneck and all the whites elsewhere and so your prices aren’t as high in Teaneck. And I’ve heard the story once or twice from other people so I am sure it is true. And I noticed too that Teaneck now, the Teaneck council is taking the real estate people to court.
( I ) Yes. I read that.
(END OF TAPE)