Saturday, January 31, 2009

My Little Street

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.


libertyforusa said...

Thanks for sharing these memories and a story of a special place, and a special time.
The mural is great too, as it depicts a better time -that seems lost to our children today.
Even though it appears segregation of the races was in force at the time, the overall harmony of the scene is beautifully captured. It reminds me of my own childhood when parents did not worry about strangers and people considered circus animals at a public place thrilling(instead of criminal). The dress of the people was also very charming with women wearing dresses and men in slacks and shirts.

Rich Kozlovich said...


Even with all of the problems going on in the world in those days, they were truly golden years. I may be mistaken, but I think it was Thomas Sowell who once said; "Happy memories never wear out their welcome in our lives"

Thank you for the article. Rich

Guy said...

Interesting timing for your story Alan. Last night, I was discussing the same topic with a friend of mine at my local watering hole. My story is pretty much the same, but sadly, it has a much more tragic ending....

I grew up in a nice, quiet neighborhood in north Columbus, Ohio. My Mom continued to live there after we all married and bought homes of our own. It was a beautiful community, with all the same qualities you enjoyed in your neighborhood.

That's until when, in the late 80's, things began to change. As the surrounding neighborhoods were invaded by a huge influx of illegal aliens and international refugees (which our Democratic city leaders welcomed with open arms), a developer came in and built a new community directly south of her neighborhood. Those homes were sold almost entirely to underfunded buyers with no money down Fannie and Freddie financing. Many of them were sold by rolling the down payment into the loan, so the mortgages were upside down right from the start. Since most of the new residents were first time home owners, with little experince in home ownership, and no cash or extra income available for things like maintenance and repairs, it didn't take long for the neighborhood to begin deteriorating. Lawns went un-mowed, repairs went undone, and little by little, it began to look like a war zone.

Within five years, the crime rates in the area began to skyrocket. All the surrounding businesses began pulling out and relocating to safer neighborhoods, and the surrounding property values began to decline. When the first forclosure signs began appearing in the windows, I convinced my Mother to act quickly. She sold her home and got out just in time to save most of the equity she had in her house, and we built her a new house several miles north of Columbus. She settled in there, sat back, and watched as the neighborhood we had all loved for so many years disintegrated. Unfortunately, one of her best friends took a couple years longer to see the writing on the wall, and wound up losing over 25% of the equity she had in her home before she could sell it. The "mortgage crisis" had yet to rear it's ugly head, and already the warning signs were presenting themselves....

Meanwhile, after relocating my Mom, we built a new home of our own, and prepared to sell our home before our neighborhood met the same fate. Unfortunately, we were just a bit too late. We got the new house built just as the mortgage crisis hit, and now we are sitting on a wonderful old home in one of the remaining good neighborhoods in Columbus, unable to sell it for anywhere near what it's worth.

Now, with the mortgage crisis in full swing, 40 to 50% of those new homes south of my Mom's north Columbus neighborhood have fallen into foreclosure, dragging the entire area down with them. Homes in her neighborhood, which were built in the early 1900's, and used to be worth 200K plus, are now falling into disrepair. Prices for those that can be sold are now in the low 100's. The local business district, which used to be home to a wonderful array of restaurants, offices and stores is now a string of international mini marts, check cashers, and run down strip malls, and gunfire is a nightly occurrence.

If this is what re-distributing the wealth is all about, you can have it...

Alan Caruba said...

Your experience, Guy, was one reason for my writing about my former home and the little street on which it is located. Maplewood is pretty much immune to the fate your Mom's former home suffered. No new homes can be built there because no space exists and the houses that are there are well maintained and prized. One of my old friends, a realtor in Maplewood, when asked how business was, simply said, "It's Maplewood", meaning that business would always be good. He might want to revise his comment at this point.