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Let's Stay as We Are, Teaneck Residents Say
By Dena Kleiman, Special in The New York Times
TEANECK, N. J. -- From the steps of Town hall, the skyscrapers of Manhattan in the distance are a daily reminder of what residents here say they do not want Teaneck to become.
Yet these days, it seems wherever people turn they see forerunners of the urban sprawl that threatens the essence of what a suburb like Teaneck is supposed to be.
"People moved to the suburbs for a little plot of ground around them, clean air and sunshine," said Loretta Weinberg. a community leader who has actively opposed new construction. "And that has been greatly threatened."
Teaneck, just eight miles northwest of midtown Manhattan, is one of scores of inner suburbs confronting the pressures of urban expansion. Faced with aging buildings and changing populations, it and its neighbors are grappling with problems that years before were reserved for cities.
These are uneasy times: beneath every municipal issue -- from the fate of a tennis complex to plans to erect a new synagogue -- bubbles the larger, troubling question of what kind of town Teaneck is going to become.
"Teaneck wants to stay the way it is," says Peter Bower, the town's Deputy Mayor. "But Teaneck is going to have to change. It's just a question of what the change will be."
What seems to set Teaneck apart is its fierce resistance to change in what its residents proudly defend as the status quo. In neighboring towns like Fort Lee and Hackensack, high-rise apartment buildings tower where single-family houses once stood, but Teaneck looks very much as it did some 30 years ago. Its stretch of Route 4, a major road off the George Washington Bridge, boasts not a single gas station, only trees.
When the Township Council approved plans for an eight-story office building on the site of abandoned tennis courts two years ago, residents brought town the entire government, electing Mr. Bower and six other new Council members last spring.
"People here don't want to look like Hackensack," said Paul Eisenman, a public information consultant for the town.
Teaneck -- derived from Dutch word for willow - has always marched to a different drummer. With a population of 37,000, it became in 1965 the first predominantly white community to voluntarily desegregate its school system with a busing plan. The town banded together and put up "not for sale signs" on the lawns of its homes to discourage steering, and today the tradition of ethnic diversity continues.
Surrounded by predominantly white suburbs, Teaneck is a racially integrated middle-class community where homes are priced from $250,000 to more than a million dollars. The school system is 47 percent white, 38 percent black and the balance Hispanic and Asian.
Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Italian restaurants dot the side streets. Synagogues, churches of various denominations and even a mosque find a home here. Although the northeast section of the town is predominantly black, the balance of the town includes black families as well as white, and neighbors appear to live and work with racial harmony and respect.
But what also sets Teaneck apart is its intense community involvement. Hundreds of its residents are unpaid volunteers on its nearly two dozen advisory boards and panels. In the midst of the controversy surrounding the eight-story office building, citizens banded together, got 5,000 signatures on a petition and changed the form of municipal government.
"It really was a referendum against the picture of Hackensack and Fort Lee," said Teaneck's Mayor, Francis E. Hall.
'Let the Sun Shine In'
Ellen Rand, a former Planning Board member who supported the new development, recalled that, "People said, 'Hey, we moved from the city to get away from the congestion: let's not bring the city to the suburbs.' "
The building would have stood in a mixed commercial and residential area downtown off Cedar Lane, the town's main commercial thoroughfare. Its opponents felt that although it was to be only eight stories tall, it was a bad precedent. Big buildings block the sun-light, and the opponents chose as their slogan, "Let the sun shine in."
It was extremely effective. Not only was the town's format for elections changed, but new elections were called for the entire Township Council and the town's manager, Werner H. Schmid, resigned. As of Jan. 1, for the first time in 30 years, Teaneck will have a new town manager.
"This is not utopia but it's a place that's certainly working at it," said Judy Distler, who sent her three children through Teaneck's public schools and now works for the school system. "It's a community of doers, a lot of vocal people."
There is no question that residents of Teaneck take pride in their town's active community spirit and its historic commitment to racial diversity and environmental conservation.
But whether Teaneck will be able to maintain its ethnic mix and racial balance at a time when its population is changing has become a pressing preoccupation.
Many residents, both Jews and gentiles, are concerned that an influx of Orthodox Jews in recent years may off-set the current racial balance in the school system because many Orthodox parents send their children to local yeshivas rather than to public schools.
About 3,300 families in Teaneck - a quarter of the population are Jewish, and the number of Orthodox families is estimated to be 700. They are attracted by the community's three Orthodox synagogues, its proximity to yeshivas and its mikvah or ritual bath.
"It's a cohesive group," said Linda Karasick, who moved to Teaneck with her family in 1979 and like so many Orthodox parents, sends her four boys, ages 4 through 14, to local yeshivas.
Many residents, though, feel the threat to the school's racial balance has been greatly exaggerated. "We always have had different populations coming and going," said Mayor Hall, who has lived in Teaneck for 39 years. "First, when many blacks began moving in, people were concerned. Before that it was the Jews. It wasn't taken over by the Jewish people. Now it is Orthodox. 1 can't foresee what the next wave will be. But looking at it over the long term, I don't see anyone group becoming dominant."
Despite the jitters, Teaneck remains a highly desirable place to live and continues to attract an unusually feisty residents, who adamant1y defend their town and, through active community participation, seek to preserve its charms.
Janice Koeppel and her husband, for example, moved from Teaneck to Monmouth County in 1984 because they found a house with more property. Two years later they returned - more deeply committed than ever to Teaneck.
Welcomed When House Hunting
"This is where we belong," said Mrs. Koeppel, who is determined to raise her two sons in an environment - unlike the Monmouth County town where they lived - where her children can be exposed to different cultures and religions.
"I feel most comfortable in a community where you know who your neighbors are," said Wilma Pruden, whose husband James is a physician in Paterson. A black family, the Prudens moved to Teaneck in 1982, not only because they found the surroundings attractive but because when looking of a home, they were made to feel welcome. Mrs. Pruden is an ardent Teaneck fan.
"It's a small-town community," she said. "If you want to get involved, people are not out of reach. You can talk to the Mayor; you can talk to the superintendent of schools. A community where everyone can feel this is home and where you are not a number. It is very homey. That's Teaneck. It's home."
"I've thought of leaving," said Lisa Ragen, who lives in Teaneck with her husband Mark, a dentist in Hackensack, and their three children. "But I can't think of anywhere to go."
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