First Teaneck, then Bergenfield

First Teaneck, then Bergenfield

Local author-historian writes both into the ‘Images of America’ series

Jay Levin holds up his new book as he welcomes people to Bergenfield.
Jay Levin holds up his new book as he welcomes people to Bergenfield.

Jay Levin has lived in Teaneck for a long time, and in Bergen County for even longer.

His home has been in Teaneck since 2000; before that, he lived in Bogota for 14 years and in Ridgefield Park for two. And he’s always been interested in local history.

During his time as a reporter at the Bergen Record — from 1996 to 2017 — Mr. Levin developed a sideline writing historical pieces on northern New Jersey. And he became the Record’s local obituary writer in 2006. “I did a lot of longer celebrations of life, and longer obituary stories about interesting people, famous people, not-so-famous people,” he said. Mr. Levin wrote about 1,300 obituaries and learned that they often contained an element of local history.

A few years ago, Jacqueline Kates, who then was Teaneck’s mayor, approached Mr. Levin about writing a book on Teaneck for Arcadia Publishing Co.’s “Images of America” pictorial history series. The series featured pictorial histories of communities all over the country; Ms. Kates hoped to get Teaneck included..

There are 70 municipalities in Bergen County and the series now covers about half of them, Mr. Levin said. “At the time, Teaneck was the most populous Bergen County municipality without an ‘Images of America’ book.”

Mr. Levin, now 66, wrote “Images of America: Teaneck”; it was published in January 2020. The book showcases pictures from the Teaneck Public Library’s archives and pictures he received from the community.

After the book came out, Arcadia asked Mr. Levin if he knew anything about Bergenfield, Teaneck’s neighbor to the north. Once Teaneck was featured in the series, Bergenfield, with about 28,000 residents, became the most populous Bergen County municipality that was not represented in the series, he said.

In fact, Mr. Levin knew a lot about Bergenfield.

His son, now 36, went to a babysitter in Bergenfield as a toddler, so Mr. Levin and his wife, Susan Edelman, were in Bergenfield every day, and got to know the area. “We’ve gone to movies in Bergenfield, we’ve gone out to dinner in Bergenfield — it’s a great dining destination,” he said.

Mr. Levin does most of his shopping in Bergenfield; he likes the Aldi supermarket at Foster Village and the New Bridge Farmers Market on New Bridge Road. “It was just a town that I just really gained an affection for,” he said.

And Mr. Levin and Ms. Edelman have discovered that the track at Bergenfield High School is a beautiful place to walk. “It’s not near any major roads, and you’re surrounded on two different sides by those old 1920s homes,” he said. The couple also enjoys walking at Cooper’s Pond, a Bergenfield landmark. “So I find myself in Bergenfield at least five or six days a week. We walk in Teaneck too, but we’ve just kind of expanded our world to include Bergenfield.”

Mr. Levin also writes profiles of different towns for the New York Times Sunday real estate section, and he profiled Bergenfield there a few years ago.

He decided to take on “Images of America: Bergenfield”; the book came out last week.

Most of the featured photographs come from the collections of the Bergenfield Museum Society and the Bergenfield Public Library. The book is arranged chronologically — pictures date as far back as the 1880s and run through the early 2000s. Each chapter begins with a snippet from a newspaper article from the corresponding time and a description of the event.

Bergenfield is famous for Cooper’s Pond and for the old South Church next to the pond, Mr. Levin said. The church building has been there for more than 200 years, and the congregation is celebrating its 300th anniversary this year. “When people think of Bergenfield, they think of Cooper’s Pond, which really is, in my view, one of the most beautiful municipal treasures I’ve seen in Bergen County,” he said.

Cooper’s Pond Park was created in the 1930s with money from the Works Progress Administration, Mr. Levin continued. “The pond was dredged, they created the park, and they just did a beautiful job. That place has been around now for 85 years, and it’s just a jewel next to that beautiful old church.”

When people think of Bergenfield, they also think of the high school’s marching band, Mr. Levin added. “The Bergenfield marching band is one of the most acclaimed high school marching bands in the United States. They’ve performed at the Super Bowl, at 20 or so Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades, at many, many events,” he said. “That band, which was formed in the 1950s, has really helped put Bergenfield on the map.”

Mr. Levin described the Florence Shop, at Main Street and Washington Avenue, as another local landmark. It started small, selling only women’s clothing, and grew into a large department store. “Before the malls started opening in the late 1950s in Paramus, that store, which opened at that corner in the early 1950s, was the largest retail store in Bergen County,” he said. “It survived into the 1990s, when, of course, the malls really helped put it and many other local stores out of business. That’s also something that Bergenfield is really famous for.”

Among the Bergenfield Library’s artifacts, Mr. Levin found original letters that GIs wrote back home during World War II; one of the letters is included in the book. He also canvassed the community for old photographs.

“One thing I did not want this book to be was a book of old buildings — that’s boring,” Mr. Levin said. “There are pictures obviously of old buildings, but the book is also filled with people, with action. People may recognize themselves or people they know in the book.”

He especially likes pictures with children, because pictures of children from the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and later are likely to include images of people who are still alive, and of people who might be recognized.

The cover of the Teaneck book is a photograph from the early 1960s. It shows a class sitting on the lawn of Teaneck High School, with the building’s gothic structure visible in the background. Ms. Kates, as it turned out, graduated around that time, and knew the kids in the picture. And one of the students who is pictured on the cover emailed Mr. Levin to say that he recognized himself and his friends.

The Bergenfield book cover showcases a 1967 photograph of the Bergenfield High School marching band performing on Washington Avenue in the town’s Memorial Day parade. Band members can be seen clearly, and Washington Avenue stores are recognizable in the background. Mr. Levin received the picture from Eva Gallione, a Bergenfield resident who grew up in the town.

The last picture in each of the books is a real action photo. The picture in the Teaneck book showcases a diverse group of children engaged in what appears to be a heated game of tug of war. The Bergenfield photo is of kids playing ice hockey on a frozen Cooper’s Pond. Mr. Levin found the hockey picture in the archives of the Bergenfield Museum, but other pictures in the book came from community members. Two of the pictures show police officers helping children, probably in the 1950s. One was taken at a bicycle clinic where cops would check the soundness of kids’ bicycles. The other shows an officer with a volunteer dressed as Santa Claus bringing gifts to a little boy on crutches. Another photo features costumed children lining up to buy tickets for a Halloween movie playing at the Bergenfield theater, which just closed a few months ago.

The book includes some of the town’s Jewish history as well. Mr. Levin was able to get old photographs from the family of Rabbi Jerome Blass, the longtime rabbi of the first synagogue in Bergenfield, the Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Center. The congregation later changed its name to Congregation Beth Israel of the Northern Valley. In 2008, it merged with Congregation Beth Shalom in Teaneck.

One aspect of the project Mr. Levin found particularly interesting was learning just how dissimilar Bergenfield and Teaneck are. “These are two towns that kind of exist side by side, but they are very different, and they have such very different histories,” he said. “They developed in different ways.

“Teaneck had the advantage of being at the juncture of three major highways — Routes 4 and 80 and Interstate 95 — and that helped influence the way the town developed. Teaneck gained a major hospital, Holy Name; Teaneck gained a university, Fairleigh Dickinson; Teaneck gained a huge office complex and hotel in the Glenpointe.

“Bergenfield never gained any of those things. It was always just more of a quiet bedroom community that boasted landmarks such as, in my view, one of the most beautiful church buildings in New Jersey, South Church, which has been there since 1799, and its neighbor, what I believe is one of the most beautiful municipal spaces in Bergen County, Cooper’s Pond. At the northern edge of the pond is the old house where the chairmaker Tunis Cooper used to live, and that house now is the home of the Bergenfield Museum.

“So you have this wonderful historic region in Bergenfield, with the church, and the museum, and the pond. And it’s a town with traditions. It’s a very civic-minded town. Residents rally around their traditions. They love their marching band, which is probably one of the most eminent in New Jersey.”

Mr. Levin found that the book was a very meaningful project. “I just love local history,” he said. “I think most people do. If you live in a town, if you’re always on Cedar Lane in Teaneck, or if you’re always on Washington Avenue in Bergenfield, I think there’s a natural interest in what did this place look like 70 years ago. One of the opportunities of these books is to show what these towns looked like and how they evolved.

“These are the towns we live in,” he continued. “We’re members of these communities. Why shouldn’t we know the history of our communities?

“People love looking at photographs. You can learn a lot from these books by looking at the old photographs, by reading the captions, and by getting a sense of how these towns have developed over more than 100 years. It’s just fascinating to see how these towns have started out.”

As for Bergenfield, “it’s a tough town not to like,” Mr. Levin concluded. “It’s good food, it’s friendly people, it’s an interesting history, and I really felt a kinship with this town. And, of course, it’s been part of my life for more than 30 years.”

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