Mr. Rogers might not find it welcoming
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FIRST PERSON

Mr. Rogers might not find it welcoming

The town has its good neighbor policy. And I have mine.

Jonathan E. Lazarus — the tall young man with the luxuriant hair in the center of the photo — covers a tenants’ strike in East Paterson in 1964. He was a reporter for the Record of Hackensack.
Jonathan E. Lazarus — the tall young man with the luxuriant hair in the center of the photo — covers a tenants’ strike in East Paterson in 1964. He was a reporter for the Record of Hackensack.

My first earnest encounter with newspapering occurred when I became a municipal reporter in the mid-1960s covering towns in Bergen and Union counties for the Record and the long-defunct Newark News.

After chronicling the proceedings of dozens of boards of education, council meetings, municipal courts, and zoning and planning commissions, I can still hear reverberations of prolonged debates, outraged citizenry, and political posturing echoing across the decades.

When I joined the Star-Ledger in 1967 and moved to the editing side of the operation, I discovered that I didn’t much miss the municipal mayhem. My focus shifted to events at the state, national, and international levels, but I did realize that in doing so I was edging away from the purest form of grassroots citizen interaction with government.

Gone were the days when I could report on the deeds and misdeeds of forever mayors like F. Edward Biertuempfel of Union Township (his name was harder to spell than Khrushchev’s) and Tail Gunner Tommy Dunn of Elizabeth; the studied buffoonery of Alexander Wrigley of Linden, who my predecessor on the beat described uncharitably but accurately in print as ham-fisted and bombastic after Hizzoner kept pounding the dais at council meetings to accompany his frequent harangues; and Gene Molnar of East Paterson (now the more upscale-sounding Elmwood Park), whose conservatism prefigured the Tea Party’s by decades.

Just as often, members of the audience generated copy that proved as colorful as the elected officials with their excesses. These were the regulars and habitual gadflies who tried to dominate the public portion of meetings with a stream of complaints and political vituperation, frequently joined by the NIMBYs (Not In My BackYarders) who showed up to oppose a specific project and then vanished. Local government in those days played out as rowdy and messy, and probably would have frightened the founders. It seemed more petty than progressive, and I vowed to steer clear of all municipal entanglements in my hometown of West Orange during my non-newsroom hours.

For the next nearly 60 years, this arrangement worked nicely. I played model citizen by quietly paying ever-increasing taxes and consistently mowing the lawn. Neither of my stepsons burdened the local school system because they both attended the Newark Academy. During that span, I believe I called the Department of Public Works twice to patch potholes in front of the house (it still looks terrible) and animal control once to deal with a rabid racoon. The building inspector came out when we were putting on an addition and we twice obtained permits for garage sales. We also joined the municipal pool and, oh yes, probably of greater importance, I patronized the public library regularly.

I had transitioned into a bonafide townie.

Looking back, my condescending attitude toward municipal government undoubtedly stemmed from being a cocky novice reporter influenced by such potboilers as “Five Star Final”; “The Front Page”; its hilarious gender-flipped sequel, “His Girl Friday”; “Northside 777,” and “Deadline USA.” Like the heroic reporters of filmdom, I vowed to deal skeptically with those in authority and be ready to go to any lengths to ferret out wrongdoing and bring reform and ethics to the body politic through my blockbuster stories. The only reward for these efforts would be a front-page byline and a round of libations bought by envious colleagues as I basked in the glow of their
grudging praise.

Four years of journalism school at Rutgers failed to cure me of these fantasies. I imagined living the exciting life of a reporter and enjoying a career that brought both respectability and notoriety.

What I failed to recognize back then as I furiously scribbled the latest pronouncement from a local politician was that I was in the thick of the action and didn’t realize it. I both profited from and was co-opted by the dynamics of local reporting, The pols benefitted from my stories by getting their names into print (good coverage or critical) and I honed my chops by gaining their trust and being tipped off to more news or exclusives. Back then we had competing dailies. When I wrote for the Record and covered East Paterson it was the Paterson News. When I worked at the Newark News in Union County it was the Elizabeth Journal.  (Carl Bernstein, one half of the famous Woodward-Bernstein duo, was a local reporter at the time.)

But none of these experiences prepared me for what to expect recently, when a matter of concern to my neighbors and my wife and me came before the West Orange Zoning Board of Adjustment. Now I was just a civilian, a retiree, a supplicant before this body, without the status of the fourth estate. I became involved as a resident, not observing as a scribe. And I was a bit flustered by the process.

The case involves a couple who purchased a large home across the street from us to be within walking distance of the Orthodox shul at the bottom of the Second Orange Mountain. The structure, which they began to enlarge and remodel more than a year ago, has morphed into a hulking, towering edifice out of scale, sync, and character with a neighborhood of more modest splits, ranches, and colonials.

The architectural style, after a complete gutting and remodeling, can best be described as suburban self-indulgent. The foundation’s footprint has been expanded twice (once by the previous owner), while the lot, wedged into the slope of the mountain on porous, fragile shale rock, has been significantly bulldozed and reconfigured to accommodate a sports deck in the backyard and a relocated driveway at the entrance.

After enduring months of heavy construction equipment, contractors’ pickups, and nine dumpster exchanges clogging our double cul-de-sac street, several of the neighbors received letters from the couple’s lawyer informing us of a zoning board hearing where their request for variances to sharply exceed slope requirements and retaining wall heights would be heard. This quickly galvanized opposition by neighbors to a project that to date they had largely met with silent skepticism, despite extended periods of dust, debris, noise, and workers violating construction hours. My wife and I agreed to host a meeting to vent the concerns. So much for staying above the fray.

Ten people from the block attended, some saying hello for the first time. Anxiety over more flooding from the digging to date and the backfilling to come dominated the discussions. Our properties were prone to runoff before the project, and with mountain’s shale rock channels further aggravated by construction, recent storms overwhelmed my French drain system and sent water lapping against the front door. Our neighbors, who live directly alongside the building site and have stoically borne the brunt of disruption, had to deal with runoff cascading through their garage. We also felt the applicant’s plans for two drywells were woefully inadequate to counteract the heightened risk.

(A brief back story: Several years ago, the township acknowledged the threat by purchasing a buffer tract behind the homes on the west side of the block, thereby foiling a condo development on land owned by a country club. The state also recognized the fragility of the terrain by recently “shaving” and netting the sheer shale rock cliff walls on both sides of Route 280 at the cuts in the First and Second Mountains. Even more disturbing was the collapse a few years ago of a shale rock escarpment at the site of Seton Hall Prep’s enlarged athletic complex on the First Mountain, with debris from the avalanche battering an apartment complex and forcing its evacuation and closing.)

Traffic safety was another of our group’s pressing concerns. The applicant’s proposal to shift his driveway to the opposite side of the house would put it nearer both his neighbor’s driveway and the only entrance to our street, a hazardous crest-of-the mountain intersection with limited visibility.

Our group discussed these and other talking points in preparation for the virtual zoning board hearing in August. We thought we were on solid ground. I wish I could write that the zoners came to our support or at least heeded what we considered to be legitimate concerns. Sorry to say, just like 50 years ago, these bodies still seem weighted in favor of engineers, lawyers, and largeness. And the virtual meeting setting only makes the process more distant and opaque.

On the appointed night, my wife and I dialed in and listened to an hour’s wrangling about a sign for a new retailer at the remodeled mall on the First Mountain. (It was rejected.) When our case reached the docket, the engineer for the applicants faced grilling by the zoners. Then a recess was called before objectors were to be heard in the narrow time frame allotted. During the open-mic intermission, the chair seemed to suggest the application be bound over to the September meeting because the board had larger concerns with a proposal by Daughters of Israel to expand its campus into a continuing care community, and his colleagues concurred. At this point my wife and I signed off, thinking our business was done for the evening.  The following day, we were chagrined to learn that the hearing on the application did indeed continue, with conditional approvals granted for variances permitting a new driveway and retaining walls for the sides and backyard.

Matters grew even more frustrating when Gail and I tried to join the September meeting from Long Beach Island, where we were vacationing. We didn’t learn until afterward that the Zoom code we previously used had been provided in a letter from the applicant’s lawyer’s and that the zoning board supplied new codes from its website every month. All my alleged familiarity with the municipal process counted for naught. A print journalist to the core, I hadn’t even thought of browsing their home page. Shame on me.

As of this writing, the applicant’s variances, including a landscaping proposal, have been cleared by the township’s planner and are poised for final greenlighting. The landscaping blueprint is fascinating. To summarize: A total of 17 trees are to be removed. These include five trees in the front yard to enable construction of the proposed driveway, as well as 12 trees in the rear yard. Eight trees are to remain on the property. A total of 20 Leland Cypress trees with a height of 9 to 10 feet are now proposed for planting. Additional trees include: one Northern Catalpa, five Red Sunset Maples in the rear yard on the regraded slope to the north of the sport court; and three Northern Red Oaks also in the rear yard on the regraded slope to the north of the sport court. A total of 226 other shrubs and grasses are proposed throughout the property. Of these, 88 are in the front yard, 15 are along the south side wall of the dwelling, and the remainder are throughout the rear yard. The plan also provides approximately 3,600 feet of slope stabilization fabric to address erosion concerns.

I ’m presently gazing across the street at the unfinished tract, trying to visualize how it will look in final form, and with landscaping. I also have been wrestling with what mindset to put into play when the family moves in. I’ve learned he’s a cardiologist, that their three children will be attending day schools, and the parents of one of the couple will live with them. Sounds like a nice extended household of three generations; they’ll undoubtedly fit comfortably into our block of Orthodox and secular Jews, non-Jews, Blacks, and Hispanics. I must always remember, especially as first generation American Jew, how Jews have been treated historically, from expulsion, to shtetl to ghetto to either extinction or safe harbor, whether in America (when they were allowed entrance) or the State of Israel (always their golden door). It’s been an unending history of uprooting and disruption.

Maybe that’s why home, hearth, and haimish hold such special resonance in Jewish households. While I’m not going to bring bread and salt over to the new family, my instincts tell me that tribalism within the tribe being what it is, these folks and I will probably stay in our own lanes and rarely cross paths. If we do, I’m prepared to extend one hand in friendship while clutching a bucket and mop in the other, in case it’s raining and the dry wells are really all wet.

Jonathan E. Lazarus is a retired editor of the Star-Ledger and a copyreader for the Jewish Standard/NJJN. He has lived in the same house in West  Orange since 1957 and has enjoyed only the friendliest relations with his neighbors.

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