Discover Teaneck '83: "THEN AND NOW"
Published for The Teaneck Housing Center by The Teaneck News
May 18, 1983
By Frank Burr
This is a trip down memory lane, undertaken without the benefit of research, It telescopes some of the most exciting experiences of my life,
I will use some names which pop into my mind as I write, knowing full well I will leave out many names of people whom I love,
This is about Teaneck, unique among towns in Bergen County, and perhaps in the country.
In the early Forties, when the winds of change began to blow, there was a stubborn effort to avoid it. First the influx of Jewish families, and then the arrival of blacks and other minorities was resisted, sometimes subtly and often bluntly.
During the 21 years--from 1953 to 1974--I served six years on the Board of Education, (two as president) six years on the Advisory Board on Community Relations, (as chairman) and six years on the Township Council, the last four as Mayor.
While I was on the School Board, two junior high schools were built and the Eugene Field Elementary School finally made its debut. It was less simple than it sounds. Architects, lawyers, taxpayers, people with better ideas, abounded. There were strikes during construction, criticism as to location and size. Many township children had been on part-time sessions and felt they were being short-changed. The many hours spent were justified as the school population grew to its peak of more than 8,300 students.
During the early Sixties, the battle was beginning to rage over integration.
The Mayor's Advisory Board on Community Relations was in disarray; beleaguered may be a better word. A majority of the council wanted to discontinue the board, but they were finally persuaded to reorganize, thanks to Mayor Matty Feldman's efforts. Only three of the new board were holdovers, and all new members had been carefully scrutinized by the council. I was one of the new group, and nominated Marion Cerf to chair the board because of her experience. She felt that one of the new members should take over, and nominated me. Little did I foresee that another six-year struggle was on its way. And yet, as I look back, I can say that the struggle was most satisfying.
I was perceived as a white Anglo-Saxon Republican banker by many in Teaneck -- obviously a hopeless conservative. All true, except for the conservatism. I had been a builder of schools; a supporter and, collaborator of a tough, liberal superintendent of schools, Harvey Scribner; an admirer of school board members like George Larsen, Ruth Henrikson, Seymour Herr, Ted Ley, Lamar Jones, Bernie Confer, Harold Weinberger, Anthony DeGenaro and Milton Bell. All these men and women stood firmly on good ground, through the days of the Coffee, Greenstone and Sather campaign, when a vote for an integrated school system gave us the deserved title, "A Town that Chose Progress."
As chairman of the Advisory Board of Community Relations, I persuaded the board not to publicize itself, but to work through other groups. We were an advisory board; our purpose was to prevent the community from destroying itself. through bitterness, prejudice and hate, yet as the same time to stay firmly pledged to support the rights of all citizens -- of all colors, of all religions, or of no religion.
Although we had a mandate, we were subject to council supervision, I would report to the council periodically, and face several Town Council members who opposed most of what we did. We encouraged the clergy to have human relations studies within their parishes. We talked with many groups throughout the township on a continuing basis during this entire period. We held weekend seminars at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Stokes State Forest and a motel in Nyack.
When blacks moved into all-white areas, hysteria or panic, often induced by outside tactics, had to be countered. Members of the Advisory Board would persuade a white homeowner to have a meeting, and invite an Advisory Board member to chair these meetings. This had a surprising record in calming neighborhoods.
Lamar Jones and I spoke to groups in other towns, as did other Advisory Board members; we invited mayors and councilmen from other communities to meetings at which we explained our views and methods, encouraging them to give thought to similar community projects.
The rewards'? Many! We broadened our own vision of the world around us, we met beautiful people, and we discovered qualities of decency and honor that made us proud of our town.
In January or February 1968, Jack Walsh resigned his post on the council. He had been a stalwart leader. I was asked by all members of the council to take his place by appointment, and run for election in the fall to complete his term, as required by law. Early on, I began to talk about large piece of township-owned property in the Glenwood Park area.
I persuaded Mayor Tom Costa to let me form a committee of exploration. On the committee were Township Engineer Milt Robbins, Councilman Frank Hall, Norman Schatton, of Alexander Summer Company, and Dick Lofberg, of Clarence Lofberg Insurance Company. One of the encouraging aspects was the introduction by Norman of Alvin Gershen, a professional planner who came up from Trenton several times and explained the process of redevelopment probabilities. He was enthusiastic, seeming to feel we hall a secret treasure in Glenwood. A large portion of the land was township-owned.