Discover Teaneck '83: "THEN AND NOW"

Published for The Teaneck Housing Center by The Teaneck News
May 18, 1983

Teaneck Toots Its Own Horn

by Ruth Rejnis

Teaneck is still congratulating itself.  Its fifth annual "Discover Teaneck" weekend celebration, held in May, drew some 5,000 revelers.

That success is more than a weekend phenomenon.  If Atlantic City could be considered the state's most talked about Shore setting these days, and if Hoboken is perhaps the attention-getting urban locale, why not Teaneck as the trendy suburb?

The ingredients are there: energetic boosterism and heave promotion; a population mix of just about every ethnic, racial, and religious persuasion; new shops, including the posh Glenpointe spa/hotel/condominium/shopping complex, plus more than one hundred special-interest groups in town to keep residents busy and involved.  And now other communities are seeking Teaneck's advice, elevating it to role model.

Few would disagree that the townspeople, and particularly the Teaneck Housing Center--the volunteer, nonprofit information office that is the source of most of the promotion activity--have worked hard for the recognition.  Last year, for example, the Housing Center, in just one aspect of its work, assisted more than 500 potential residents with phone, mail, and in-person inquires, tours around the community, and visits to local schools.

New from the center this year is a magazine, Discover Teaneck '84, and a four-and one-half minute movie about the town, which has been shown in a local theater and on dozens of cable television channels in the state.

All of this is accomplished with the cooperation of town officials and support from local businesses and real estate agents.  (indeed, many of those offices sponsor promotions of their own.) Funding for the center comes from a variety of public sources -- federal Community Development Agency monies, for example -- and private contribution.  There is never enough money.

The center's office is situated above a bank on Cedar Lane.  Rori Kanter, executive director, and Jeanie Cole, office coordinator, are the only two paid staffers.  They are supported by dozens of volunteers, appropriately representative of nearly every segment of the community.

"People don't perceive this town as a place of beauty," says Cole, referring to some outside impressions of the town the housing center had to overcome.  "Then, when they see it they say, 'I didn't know it was so pretty here.'"

"Here," to be exact, is an other wise typical bedroom suburb in eastern Bergen County, four miles west of the George Washington Bridge.  The population is about 39,000.  Single-family homes comprise 80% of the housing stock.

All of the tub-thumping began six years ago.  The township of Teaneck, as it is more accurately know, had seen a growing of minorities, with the result that more and more real estate agents began "steering" white prospective buyers away and black buyers in.  The Teaneck Housing Center was formed to see that "white flight" did not occur, and to, frankly, promote the blazes out of the town with the aim of developing a popular and racially mixed community.  Local realty agents were educated to the fact that black and white residents were wanted.  Prospective renters and homeowners were apprised of Teaneck's many virtues -- handsome and affordable homes, many parks, a lively cultural scene, east access shopping, and a very close eye kept on local schools.

Tons of printed material extolling the marvels of those six square miles were distributed.  special promotions were planned.  Advertisements for the town appeared in New Jersey and New York City publications.  The active transferee market was tapped.  And the annual "Discover Teaneck" festival was instituted, featuring house tours, exhibits, ethnic foods and entertainment.

The energy expended appears to have worked. There are no later statistics available, but according to the 1980 census, Teaneck is 67% white, 24% black, 5% Hispanic, and 4% Oriental.  The high school takes to boast that twenty-four languages are spoken by its varied student body.

Directing its sales pitch to the large New York market of would-be home buyers has been a particularly successful strategy.

"We were anti-suburbs," says Bob Rogers, conductor for the musical "A Chorus Line" who moved to the town with him family four years ago.  "We had lived in New York City for a long time and wanted a community almost like the Upper West Side.  We liked Teaneck because of the mix of people, the schools, and the easy commute."

Rogers adds that he was "responsible for four or five other people moving out here."  Positive feelings affect realty people too.

"Teaneck is really unique," remarked a white real estate agent based elsewhere in Bergen County.  "I've noticed the town seems more comfortable with being integrated than other communities around here."

The agent added with a smile that "the only resistance I've seen in suggesting Teaneck hasn't come from whites but from blacks.  Sometimes they look at me suspiciously, as if I were steering them to a mixed community."

The housing center has gladly shared its knowledge and tactics.  Tenafly, Fort Lee, Clifton, Bloomfield, Connecticut, and towns farther afield have all sought the center's advice on areas of concern to them.

"Our board decided that is the community is diverse, we may share our time and energy without charging them any fee," Kanter said.

The center is also on the advisory board of the Oak Park Exchange Congress, a group of seventy or so communities dedicated to long-term racial diversity and economic development in their towns. It was formed some ten years ago when Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, joined with Shaker Heights, a Cleveland suburb, to advance their respective communities, which at the time were considered increasingly undesirable.

Willingboro is also on the advisory board.  Area communities that have attended the congress's annual meetings, held each fall, have included Irvington and Freeport, Central Islip, and Hempstead in Long Island.

Teaneck experiences any community's squabbles from time to time at council and planning board meetings and the like.  And with all those special-interest groups there is usually something -- or several things -- to be said about any issue.  Three schools have closed recently because of a declining students population over the years and parents want  to be sure that the reshuffling of students and teachers does not affect what they consider a good quality of education.

There is concern that the "Greenbelt" -- the two strips of park-like land bordering each side of Route 4 that runs through the town -- will give way to state plans to widen that highway to accommodate increasingly heavy traffic.  And on a day-to-day basis, Teaneck must continue to attract a good percentage of white homebuyers to retain both white and black interest in the town.

Still, its charges have been less volatile and certainly less visible than what has been occurring in Atlantic City and Hoboken, to take those two examples, for several reasons:  The population has been for many years a multi-ethnic and multi-racial one, with few, if any "elements" left to be introduced (and in this context even New Yorkers can be considered an "element"); it is basically a middle-income community of single-family homes with little rental housing suitable for condominium or cooperative conversion.  That means little opportunity for the cry of "displacement" by tenants.  Outside speculators and rehabilitators also find slim pickings in Teaneck.  The change in the town has been more in the positive spirit of the people than the outward appearance of building.

Will the Teaneck appeal last?  It should, according to George Sternlieb, director of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University.

"Teaneck is a well-balanced, reasonably healthy housing environment," acknowledges Sternlieb, who has conducted studies on racially mixed suburbs, including Teaneck.  He adds that the town has two special points in its favor:

--That needed steady interest from white homebuyers, due in great measure to its proximity to Manhattan.  "The real action in Manhattan suburbs is across the Hudson," Sternlieb explains.  "Towns starting in Jersey City, going up in Hoboken, Englewood, Teaneck, and, to a certain extent, Montclair, have all been revitalized by the spillover from Manhattan."

--A relatively inexpensive housing stock.  In 1983 the average sale price of a home in Teaneck was $87,187, compared to $122,303 in 1983 for Bergen County as a whole.

Furthermore, Sternlieb says that "the vigor of North Jersey is such that Teaneck could probably survive now without much promotion."

It's not likely to try, though.  "We want to keep growing," Kanter says with no little enthusiasm.  "Promotion is almost limitless."

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