Teaneck gets its day in print

Teaneck gets its day in print

Township history featured in ‘Images of America’ series

Jay Levin and Jaqueline Kates review a copy of “Images of America Teaneck” on a bench in front of Teaneck High School. Right, the cover of the book.
Jay Levin and Jaqueline Kates review a copy of “Images of America Teaneck” on a bench in front of Teaneck High School. Right, the cover of the book.

When former Teaneck mayor Jacqueline Kates came across the Arcadia Publishing Co.’s series “Images of America” and saw that it did not include Teaneck, she was — to say the least — disappointed.

But Ms. Kates didn’t leave it at that. Once she saw the problem, she worked to fix it. Now there is a book about Teaneck.

Ms. Kates had many reasons to care about Teaneck. Not only is “Teaneck in my DNA, I saw that there were books about many communities, including my new home town, Fort Lee,” Ms. Kates said. “Teaneck has Revolutionary War connections, as does Fort Lee, and while it doesn’t have ties to the early film industry” — Fort Lee does — “its history is just as fascinating.

“There were so many books. Why wasn’t there one for Teaneck?”

After all, Ms. Kates pointed out, the township, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary — it was founded in 1895 — is the seventh largest and second most populous municipality in Bergen County. It’s also the first U.S. town to have desegregated its schools voluntarily, as it did in the 1960s.

Ms. Kates, who now lives in Fort Lee with her husband, Michael, still considers Teaneck her home base. Her family moved there in 1957, when she was in sixth grade. “I think of myself as almost home-grown,” she said, noting that she attended elementary school, junior high, and high school in the town, and she moved back there as an adult to raise her family. Indeed, her husband and their son, daughter, and son-in-law all went to Teaneck High School.

“We moved to Fort Lee almost six years ago,” Ms. Kates said. “We never thought we’d leave Teaneck. We were so involved and committed to the town. But it got to the point where we didn’t need a four-bedroom house.” Her children, she said, were in their 40s.

Still, when she’s in her apartment, on a high floor in a high-rise, “when I’m sitting in my bedroom now I can see Holy Name Medical Center,” where she was working as community relations coordinator when they moved. “It’s kind of reassuring. Teaneck doesn’t seem that far away.” The couple attend Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom and buy their kosher food in town.

Ms. Kates is proud of Teaneck, not least because of its diversity and its nonpartisan government. She knows the Teaneck governing structure first-hand. A two-term mayor of the township, she served on the council for 12 years and the board of education for 10 years, including two terms as board president.

“I strongly support the nonpartisan approach,” she said. “There are elections every two years in May and people run without party affiliation. The council chooses the mayor and deputy mayor. When I was first elected, I didn’t even know the party affiliation of my colleagues. It’s a really good form of government. The local level doesn’t need to be subsumed by partisan issues on the ballot in November.”

The nonpartisan council-manager form of government, “developed at the time of Teddy Roosevelt as part of the progressive/reform movement, is not common in New Jersey,” she continued. “The council acts as a legislative body and appoints a professional manager to run the township. The manager is the chief executive, as opposed to the mayor, who leads the legislative body.” The council members have certain responsibilities, but the mayor has more. For example, “the mayor can perform weddings,” Ms. Kates said. “I performed almost 300 weddings.

“By state statute, the township manager has responsibilities that most borough administrators don’t have. It’s professional management of the community.”

The township’s first manager was Paul A. Volcker, senior, Ms. Kates said. His famous son — the recently deceased former chair of the Federal Reserve — grew up in Teaneck “and was a football star and great student.

“When I grew up, we belonged to the Teaneck Jewish Center,” Ms. Kates continued, calling the shul “the center of Jewish life in 1957. So many leaders came out of there, who went on to start many of the county’s Jewish institutions,” including the federation and the Solomon Schechter Day School.

Families who moved to Teaneck after World War II were particularly interested in building public schools, Ms. Kates said. As township schools grew crowded, the Jewish community worked with other groups to pass several referenda authorizing the building of new schools. One of those new schools was where Ms. Kates went to sixth grade. “There was a push among liberal Jewish residents and other progressive, public-education minded people to have a better school environment,” she said. As a result, Teaneck built middle schools (then usually called junior high schools), ending the practice of keeping children in one school from elementary school through sixth grade and then moving to Teaneck High School from seventh through twelfth grade.

Today, Ms. Kates said, “far fewer Jewish families are sending their children to public schools,” opting for private Jewish schools instead. In addition, “I went to school with far fewer African American students” than attend school now.

Looking to create a more integrated school system — most black students at the time attended the public school in the town’s northeastern section, where they lived — in 1964 the township voters elected school board candidates “who promised to adopt the modified Princeton plan,” creating a central sixth grade that all students attended. “Every child in Teaneck was affected by the integration pattern.”

The plan, too complex to describe here, “made news throughout the country,” she said. “No town in the U.S. had voluntarily integrated their schools. Teaneck voters elected board of education candidates who wanted to provide an opportunity for students of all races to attend school together.” The turnover from white residents to black residents in the northeast section of the township had happened fairly quickly, Ms. Kates recalled. “Realtors used block-busting tactics to frighten residents into selling their homes.” But, she said, the township banded together to prevent those practices and maintain an integrated community.

Ms. Kates thinks the integration plan was “tremendously beneficial. My sister, 12 years younger, had the opportunity to interact with many more black kids than I had, and my children certainly feel comfortable with people of all backgrounds.”

Jackie and Michael Kates got married in 1967, and they moved to Hackensack. But then they read about the integration decision and knew that they had to move to Teaneck. “How could we think of moving to any other place?” she asked.

Despite realtors’ dire warnings, the street the Kates lived on “didn’t become all black. We had Orthodox neighbors as well. We’re used to it being a mix.”

But back to the book — and Ms. Kates’ determination to include Teaneck in the Arcadia archives.

After she retired from her position at Holy Name, “I took a post-retirement position as project coordinator of Age-Friendly Teaneck,” Ms. Kates said. In Bergen County, the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation has provided the group with a 3 l/2-year grant “to try to find ways to help older adults as they age, particularly those who want to age in place in their communities or their homes.” So far, five nonprofit initiatives have been funded in Bergen County. Ms. Kates paid tribute to clinical social worker Elizabeth Davis, who has spearheaded much of this work in Teaneck.

“I had just gotten involved in founding the Teaneck Historical Society,” Ms. Kates said.” I called a friend, former Teaneck Fire Chief Bob Montgomery, to ask about the Fire Department’s good morning call program,” which checks each day on seniors who register for the program. “He suggested that one way to engage isolated older adults is through a historical society.” This made sense to Ms. Kates, who already had joined the Fort Lee Historical Society.

One thing led to another, and the society took shape. The idea of creating the book emerged from that group. “It’s a good project for the historical society,” Ms. Kates said. “I called Arcadia Publishing in North Carolina and asked why there was no book about Teaneck. They knew about Teaneck and said they would love to publish a Teaneck book, but we would have to find someone to write it.”

But who could that be?

Fortunately, Ms. Kates thought to approach former Record writer Colleen Diskin, whom she knew from her work on the aging. Ms. Diskin, in turn, suggested writer Jay Levin, who lives in Teaneck, wrote for the Record, “and is able to present a positive perspective on every community he writes about.”

Mr. Levin, who is interested in history, said he’d like to give back to his community. Six months later, he produced the finished piece. “People submitted postcards and old photos,” Ms. Kates said. “That’s what the book is basically, photographs with heavy captions. The Teaneck Public Library was immensely helpful with scanning and research.”

Publicity for the book describes it as the newest in Arcadia’s series of local history books “chronicling, in words and rarely seen pictures, the story of Teaneck — starting from its original Lenni-Lenape Indian inhabitants through a century and a quarter’s worth of events, people, and decisions that have shaped the Teaneck of today.”

In addition to highlighting many of the Teaneck’s milestones, the book also includes background about many of Teaneck High School’s prominent alumni, including General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush; former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali; film critic Leonard Maltin; and singer-songwriter Phoebe Snow. It also mentions the contributions of David Stern, former commissioner of the NBA.

Mr. Levin describes Teaneck as a “community of myriad distinctions; exemplar of successful municipal management, ‘model town’ deemed worthy of emulation, college town, and in the 1960s the first majority-white community in the United States to voluntarily integrate its school system.”

Ms. Kates said she is delighted with the book and would love to see a more updated version as well, reflecting the diversity that is now more characteristic of the town. The book, she said, has been ordered for the township’s school libraries and will be presented to dignitaries who visit the town.

The 128-page book is for sale at the Township Clerk’s office in the Municipal Building, in the Teaneck Public Library, and at Brier Rose Books, at a special discounted Teaneck price of $20. Profits from those local sales of the book will go to the Teaneck Historical Society. The book’s cover price at Barnes & Noble Bookstore or online through Arcadia Press is $23.99.

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