By Alan Caruba
When I was age five back in 1942 my parents moved to the town of Maplewood, New Jersey, leaving behind a two-family dwelling in the Roseville section of Newark that was home to many Italian immigrants and Jews. Those who could do so during the perilous years of World War II left the city and this exodus accelerated in the go-go Fifties.
It was the birth of suburbs all over the nation. Maplewood, however, had a history stretching back to the days of the Revolution. By the time my family arrived, it was filled with many beautiful single family homes with expansive lawns, famous for its many tree-lined streets, and an excellent school system.
Maplewood had always been an upscale address, aided greatly by the fact that a commuter train, then known as the Erie-Lackawanna, could take executives into New York or at least to Hoboken where they grabbed a subway for the rest of the trip. These days, it is a quick half-hour direct into Penn Station.
I grew up on Brookside Road, as picturesque as its name, with just nine houses on a tiny street that had at one end an elementary school with a large playground area where the local kids could play ball games. It took its name from a brook that ran behind the homes across the street from mine. With time out for college and the Army, I would live there for sixty-two years.
I sold the house in 2004 after property taxes had virtually doubled and sensing that the market was peaking. I moved one town over to a new, luxury apartment complex. It allows me to shop in Maplewood’s “village” area and even get a haircut in the same chair I sat in as a child.
Living close by allows me to pay an occasional nostalgic visit; a slow drive on the short street to enjoy seeing my former home and to remember many happy years spent there.
Today on that street of nine homes there are three houses for sale, one of which has been up for sale verging on what I think is close to a year or more. Another for sale again has turned over several times since the new millennium and one on the corner of the street that shares its lawn with Brookside has also been waiting for a new owner for many months. My former home changed hands twice in the last four years.
Anthropologists, sociologists, and economists could surely draw some deep lessons from this rapid change and the stagnation of the housing market. No doubt it speaks to a larger picture of life in America, but in the sixty-plus years I lived there practically the only reason a house went up for sale was because the owners died. Those that replaced them also stayed for long stretches of time.
In addition to rapidly rising property taxes, what changed in recent years as homes gained new owners was the installation of fences. The tiny backyard in which I had played as a youngster became tinier as first one new neighbor planted a row of trees and then a newer one removed them and put in a fence. Then a new neighbor on the other side put one up as well.
In fairness, both had young children and keeping them safe was the reason. Still, it saddened me that three adjoining backyards that had never had any obstruction were now small impenetrable bastions. A number of the homes sprouted signs announcing they had burglar alarm systems.
It saddens me today to see three of those houses remain empty, waiting for families to breathe new life into them. The for-sale signs bespeak harsher times, less amendable to people seeking a better life on a tiny suburban street in a picture postcard town.
Those earlier times were different. Children were in and out of everyone’s home on the street and the grownups kept a watchful eye on all of them. The nearby schoolyard was filled with their laughter as we gathered on the swings, the metal slide, and the teeter-totters. All have been removed as a threat to life and limb, but no one ever got hurt.
Those of us who were kids growing up during World War II and the Cold War were aware of the threat of atomic bombs and, later, nuclear missiles, but we knew that nothing would ever harm little Brookside Road. We were safe. Our neighbors would live forever. Our doors would always be open.
Neither my parents, nor my original neighbors lived forever, but my memories of them remain. I like my new digs, but I miss Brookside Road.
Note: The illustration is one of several murals in the city hall depicting the history of Maplewood. This one depicts the Fourth of July celebration with races for the kids in the morning, baking contests, a circus, a concert and fireworks in the evening. Click on the image to see a larger one.