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This is Helen Klein and I am speaking with Eleanor Kieliszek, the first woman mayor that Teaneck has had.
(I) Mrs. Kieliszek, can you tell me when you first came to Teaneck and what it was like at that time?
(N) I came in 1951 and it was as lovely a community then as it is now. I was very happy to come here. I was a bride practically, had been married two years and believe it or not, I had three children in two years. I had twins and a boy following.
(I) Mrs. Kieliszek, can you tell me why you first came to Teaneck and would you give me a little information about your background?
(N) It was almost an accident. We were living in Brooklyn, Bedford-Stuyvesant with three children. The only playgrounds in the area were cement covered and we were looking for a place to bring up babies in a pleasant atmosphere. We looked at two locations in NEW JERSEY. One was unsatisfactory out route 4 and the minute I came to Teaneck and saw the municipal complex where we are now, the library, the Paul Volker Green, I said, "This is the place."
(I) Tell me, how long were you living in Teaneck before you became involved in community affairs?
(N) It was very shortly affair I moved here. I was in a fabric store and met an officer of the League Of Women Voters, Gerry Huston, and she recruited me while we were purchasing fabrics and soon after I became a member, I became secretary to the league and that really involved me.
(I) What sort of questions were they involved with at that time?
(N) They had a national agenda, individual liberties, I was part of the league during the McCarthy Era and was part of the committee that studied the whole question of individual liberties. It was called the freedom agenda and it was very exciting. Sylvia Woods was the chairperson of that committee and, as you know, she recently ran for town council. She’s an attorney and I must say that the league was a tremendous source of education for me. Of course, very early on, they got involved in planning and zoning. They did a study and, Zelda Levere, you may know her, was the chairperson of that and we didn’t call it chairperson then, we called it chairman.
(I) I think they call it the chair now and that includes everything.
(N) Well I remember the title of the study, something to do with bringing light industry to Teaneck as a means of lightening the tax base. The planning board became a very, very strong interest. High-rise apartments in what is now the tennis court, the Path-mark project is still under controversy.
(I) Tell me, those were the years of course when there was the first large number of blacks came to Teaneck.
(N) No that occurred at a later period.
(I) What years was that, do you remember?
(N) I know that I was part of the Teaneck CIVIC conference; Kay Schick who started that group was one of my dearest friends and Marian Cerf who urged the town council to form the first community relations board was also part of the group of women that I was involved with in the league and I was a member of the First Community Relations board which was appointed by the town council.
(I) Well that was the beginning then of the effort to make Teaneck the diverse and happy community together, wasn’t it?
(N) Yes, well when blacks first started moving into Teaneck in numbers, the Teaneck Civic Conference was formed among neighbors in the Northeast. Although I didn’t live in the Northeast, I became a member and also was interested in creating an atmosphere that, in which all sorts of people could live in comfort and peace.
(I) Because there had been some unpleasantness before that. I mean it was a conscious effort to make it work, wasn’t it?
(N) Oh yes, definitely, the governing body at that time didn’t see the need for it but Marian Cerf who was Mrs. Democrat, who was part of the National Council Of Jewish Women, who was in the League of women voters, and Kay Schick who was in the League were part of that movement. There were others, of course, but those were the ones I knew best.
(I) And then it was somewhat later also that we had people like me, McNatt becoming involved in politics.
(N) Yes did because I came to council meetings, planning board meetings as a representative of the League. Often I was the only woman in the room. As a matter of fact, the planning board met in the Conference Room of the Municipal building and since I was the only member of the public then, they often said, Eleanor, pull up a chair when they were opening maps or repots and shared with me and in a way I often was almost a member of the board before I was appointed to the Planning Board and Matty Feldman, in practically his last act before he left public office and appointed me as the first women to the Planning Board and that took a bit of courage back in those days when
(I) What date was this?
(N) That was around 1965 and it gave me a great opportunity to learn Government. Of course I didn’t come in cold because of my involvement with the League, we had been studying local issues year after year.
(I) And when did you first run for Council?
(N) I ran for Council in 1970.
(I) And what were the issues that you were running on?
(N) The issues in 1970 had to do with redevelopment and the Planning Board that I had served on had had some thought about redeveloping the Glenwood area. I had there was a farm right out in front of our house. It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.
(I) A fruit farm, a vegetable farm?
(N) No, an ordinary little working farm. Small. Practically one of the last ones in Teaneck. After we moved in, I was there perhaps six months, and looked out the window one morning and the bulldozers were there. It was just where we look into the Overpeck now. Where the golf course is now.
(I) And they were just knocking the house and the barns and everything down for the park or what was it for?
(N) No, no. It was being developed for homes.
(I) Oh, I see. I don’t know that area very well.
(N) Very few people do.
(I) Well that came a little later, didn’t it, the issues about developing the Glenwood area. That started in the early 70s. Is that right?
(N) It started before the 70s. There were studies done in the four year period before 1970 and it came, it sort of started to come to a head in 1970 when the council, at that time, ran on a redevelopment program and there was a great deal of opposition, of course, in the Glenwood area.
(I) They didn’t originally have an idea of bringing Hartz Mountain in but Hartz Mountain offered to come in after they knew about the redevelopment, is that right?
(N) Well, when the program was offered to developers, Hartz Mountain was one of those that bid on it. But prior to that, there was a great deal of controversy in the community as to whether to go into redevelopment or not. Because we were doing it without Federal Funding, without state funding. It was being done all by the municipality so it was a gamble. And not only that, it was very unpopular because of the displacement of many long time, old time residents of Teaneck. That area was one that had been a summer area, modest homes, almost bungalows, and many of the people who lived in the area had been born there generations of Teaneck people came from that area.
(I) What happened to the people who left their homes because of redevelopment. Do they still live in Teaneck or are they gone, do you know?
(N) Almost none live here. The original plan was that people would be located in to other areas in town. In 1970, there was, Teaneck was so bold in 1970, that we were not only speaking about one redevelopment area, but two, and fortunately sense took over and when the redevelopment agency was appointed, they decided to concentrate on one area and to limit that. When we first talked about redevelopment, and those were the days when planning was in its ascendancy, the idea that government could take over areas and redevelop them for the benefit of the whole community rather than for
(I) It was a matter of ratables, was it not?
(N) It was a matter of ratables. Teaneck’s taxes were high as they are now and the thought was that this was such a marvelous intersection. And it was, route 80 and 95. That it one did not take advantage of it, it would perhaps be developed in a way that would not bring in its best return to the entire municipality. Of course it was a tragedy for the people who lived in the area and it was originally proposed from Fyke Lane all the way down to Ridgefield Park which was much more ambitious than anyone ever imagined could be accomplished to day and of course it was cut down to what we see today.
(I) Well that’s when I came to Teaneck, when there was a controversy about the Hartz Mountain plan because it was a very tall building, weren’t they? Was that the main point of opposition?
(N) Well that happened four years later.
(I) You were running for Mayor then?
(N) Well, no. I wasn’t running for Mayor because we don’t run for Mayor. We run for council and the council then selects you. But what happened in that first four year period, the first four years I was on the council is that we examined every possible redevelopment plan and tried to come to some agreement on it, on the town council, but most of the community really was not aware of the controversy. Only those people who lived in the redevelopment area were deeply opposed to it. You can imagine.
(I) Who wouldn’t be, I mean if you lived there.
(N) So that went on for that four year period. There was no, the Governing body I was part of then could not come to a compromise and the election in 1974 was perhaps one of the most active and even the most bitter in my memory. I did not run with the colleagues that I had served with because I had some disagreement with the idea that we couldn’t compromise and come up with some plan that met most of the objections of the community. There were those people who ran at that time who wanted to stop the entire redevelopment were able to compromise and come with what we have today which is a modified version of the first redevelopment plan which included high rise housing and at that time that was an anathema to people in Teaneck - high rise housing. They looked out at Fort Lee, they looked out Hackensack and they said they didn’t want it. And that was eliminated from the plan and the height of the buildings were limited somewhat.
(I) Were the numbers of people involved, the density, was that changed?
(N) The density was changed considerably so there was - what we see there today is what was compromised and agreed upon and then put out for bid and Hartz Mountain was not interested in that type of development and another developer came in. It was a very controversial time.
(I) What was the League’s position on the redevelopment?
(N) In 1974, they had questions about extensity and the environmental impact that it would have on the area and they felt it should be restudied. Which, in effect, it was and then in the following election, it was refought all over again after it was completed. The plan had been sold to another developer, the Cinthari people and then the people who came in after that promised that they would, or they indicated, let’s not say promised, that they would and they even sued, the present Mayor was part of a group of people who sued the prior council because they said that we sold the land for too small a price and what they did not take into account is what the judge in the case took in account and that for good planning reasons, we compromised the plan and therefore had to accept much less than it was originally expected to bring in in terms of payment for the land.
(I) Who was the judge in that case?
(N) You got me now. I don’t think it was Smith. No.
(I) There have been other, well I guess I can call them controversies in Teaneck. There was one about a swimming pool at one point.
(N) Oh there were so many swimming pool controversies that it is hard to recall them. I think that the league took a position on one. One was proposed for Votee park. It would have taken up a good part of the central area of what are now the soccer areas in Votee park. That went down. There was another one proposed for the river area.
(I) Where the present pool is?
(N) Yeah. Somewhere in that neighborhood. And that was lost. So that when I became Mayor, I felt very strongly that we should work out some sort of there again a compromise that would allow people to get a pool built and make it available, as available as we possibly could make it, to all of the people in the community and at the same time not cost the taxpayers anything because there were many people who felt that Teaneck could not afford a swimming pool. So the present pool we have a location that is open to every Teaneck resident. Of course the cost of belonging to that pool is considerable. There is a waiting list. What the recreation department does have hours that permit it to use it to teach young people to swim. So in effect when I first joined the league. I said I would never support anything but a completely public pool. One that was funded by the township, one that was open to everyone, but when I lived through and I supported those other pool proposals. When it got to the point where we couldn’t pass a referendum for a pool, I felt that if we turned to the private group and they were all Teaneck residents.
(I) There is some agreement about the pool, the possibility of the town buying the pool from the club, isn’t there?
(N) The contract permits that and I am so proud that while I was Mayor, many of the things that we see happing now occurred in that four year period. There had been a great stalemate, I felt in Government before that period. During the four years I was Mayor, we came to an agreement on senior citizens housing. You see that now overlooking the golf course. As a matter of fact, when I ran after that four year period, I lost many of the voters who formerly supported me in the senior citizen area around Columbus Drive because we had worked very hard with private group that brought senior citizen housing to Teaneck. That occurred. The basketball building was approved during that period. The redevelopment was compromised then and the, we went through all those court cases.
(I) Was there a court case about the basketball building?
(N) No, but there was one about the senior citizens housing. I broke with a member of the planning board over that and he lived in the area and had been my, one of my campaign managers from a prior campaign, he felt that was the wrong place to put senior citizens housing right next to his neighborhood.
(I) Well it is on the edge of town.
(N) It is on the edge of town but it is the most beautiful location. It looks out on the golf course. I mean it is like luxury housing. In terms of
(I) It is a very pretty place. I was just thinking of convenience of getting to shopping.
(N) They have a bus that takes them, what is it, ten blocks into do their shopping. But the most important thing that most people didn’t want to consider is that the funding had to come from the New Jersey housing finance agency and the New Jersey financing agency made it quite clear to me as Mayor and to those people who the Teaneck senior citizens housing association who wanted to build that project, that they would not agree to the location that everyone said would be so central. That is, the present that they would not agree in Teaneck to put senior citizens on top of a railroad, right next to a railroad track. They would have to do that in a city like Newark. They would have to do that in a city like Jersey city because that’s the only land they could get. But in Teaneck where other land was available, they would not approve senior citizens housing in a place that was environmentally unpleasant. So I am rather proud of the fact that we found, not only we found that location, we went through all that controversy. And we had to stand up to that. And while it meant the loss of votes for me, as I look at it now, I am very pleased about it.
(I) That’s nice. There was another problem which had to do with St. Anastasia and I thought that was a marvelous place for senior citizens housing.
(N) There was no possibility that that would ever be approved. The New Jersey housing financing agency made that quite clear.
(I) What was their reason for that? I thought it was terribly good.
(N) Because of the ramps, the highway ramps, and it wouldn’t, I mean you may not be aware of it now because the shrubbery sort of hides the fact that that is right on route 4. And they would have had to build in such sound barriers that it would have made it much more expensive housing. So there was no change of it and while they continued to plan and plan and plan, the people who were in a position to know, New Jersey housing finance made that quite clear.
(I) The reason that I thought of that was that it seemed to me it was a good place because there is a lot of activity going on around there. You know, people aren’t isolated and I thought that might be rather important for people. Now there was also a great deal of business about the library which came to a head I think when you were Mayor, didn’t it?
(N) No, it came to a head just a week or two after I left. I was reelected as a council woman but Frank Hall was elected as Mayor and the library fund raising activities, while we all thought the fund raising was going along beautifully and we worked very hard to get federal funding and had a very good package of federal funding to join with some voluntary fund raising, as it turned out, those funds were not coming in the way it was expected and the people who were involved in that fund raising were surprised and chagrined and upset to say the least when they discovered that the library director had misled us as to how those funds were coming in and it was one of the, it was a personal tragedy to her and it was a case of trying to do good and finding that the funds were not coming in, people were not making the contributions that we traditionally expected that Teaneck folk would and she hid that from the committee. I was a member of the library board at that time and even to the extent of providing us with what we thought was an audited report of the fund raising. So it was terrible tragedy that that was discovered right after the end of my term but there was a bright side and that was that the funding was still there, the federal funding that we worked so hard to get. As a matter of fact, Olive Tamburelle who was the director I speak of, and I went down to Philadelphia and we were the first people to sign, to file an application for that particular federal funding project and she worked very hard to get that money and it eventually wound up that we rebuilt the present library and frankly I think it is beautiful. It is a beautiful result. It is too bad we didn’t, well we did think of it first but Olive felt very strongly and the library people felt very strongly at that time that they wanted an entirely new building and the governing body went along with them. And I, as I look at it now. It brings back terrible, terrible feelings of the personal loss that she suffered but it was someone who had her heart set on doing a, you know, conducting a beautiful program and a beautiful new library. But as it turned out, the circulation figures were also false so we really didn’t need a new library and we are getting along beautifully with this present renovated library.
(I) And I think more people are coming in all the time. I work there from time to time. Let’s go back to Teaneck as a very diverse community and I think maybe should pursue that a little further. Do you remember what it was like when you first came and how the changes have occurred?
(N) When I first came, Teaneck was largely a white community. There was a significant Jewish population that had started to build a Jewish community center and but there were people who, when they became conscious of the growth of the Jewish community, felt that it wasn’t the community for them any longer. As a matter of fact, when I first took my children out for a walk in the neighborhood where I first lived in Teaneck. I met someone who had just put her house up for sale and she told me, she was walking her dog and she told me that, no, she was leaving Teaneck because there was too many unusual types of people moving here. And of course she didn’t realize that she was insulting me since I had just moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant and had grown up in the Bronx and I think she referred to New Yorkers.
(I) That’s a code word.
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