Beyond the image of harmony, inequities in Montclair remain

Before Montclair became known as modern mecca of racial and social harmony, there was segregation and 1960s busing to desegregate schools. Kids from the wealthy and white world of Upper Montclair were bused to the mostly black Nishuane Elementary in the south end, and vice versa. Kevin Allen recalls the first day.

“All the white kids were at the top of this hill and the black kids were at the bottom. And I remember all of sudden everybody ran into each other, and I guess we wrestled around a little bit, but then the bell rang and we all just got up, went in to the school and we were all in the same classes, because there was some tension,” Allen, a Montclair resident, said.

Decades later, some feel that not much has changed.

“I go in to certain stores in Upper Montclair, I’m followed. People are watching me and it’s different, so racism is alive,” said Dr. Renee Baskerville.

Dr. Baskerville is a pediatrician and the 4th Ward’s council member. Her family was among those demanding equality and in 1967 sued the Montclair Board of Education.

“To make sure that they would move hastily to desegregate the schools, because while we were separate we were in no way equal,” Dr. Baskerville replied.

Three years later, there was an integrated class. The result of busing to also raise curriculum standards and improve learning.

Newark native Terry Trigg-Scales, who is now an educational consultant, learned about forced busing in her job interview and was warned there could be protests at Nishuane. Her fourth grade class included whites from Upper Montclair. She recalls no protest and no trouble.

“We were required to walk the students downstairs and out, and there were parents there waiting. Kids were happy. It was my intention to make those kids not be able to sleep that night because they wanted to be so eager to come back on day two, and so it was a wonderful experience,” recalled Trigg-Scales, who eventually became principal.

Frustrations over busing led to Montclair’s magnet school system. Today, there’s no forced busing, but buses accommodate students crossing town to keep the magnet schools integrated. Nevertheless, some critics still complain about an achievement gap between black and white students. Not Christa Rapoport, who says many of parents of color opt for private schools.

“They want to make sure their kids are not ignored, being of color,” said Rapoport, who chairs the Montclair Civil Rights Commission. “So you have that population, the ‘bright flight’ as some people call it.”

Rapoport has two sons; one is on the honors track in high school, and the other is in middle school. She came to town two decades ago and symbolizes what Montclair, a town ranked tops in the nation for interracial couples and families, has become a magnet for. Things like residents socializing, congregating and volunteering civically across multiethnic, cultural and religious lines. Real estate executive Richard Stanton’s family has deep Montclair roots.

“Fundamentally, it’s a nice place to live. And, again, as long as everyone has that in common, as long as they can send their kids to school, or have a safe place to walk around the streets, or they can have cultural experiences in town, then you’re rooted here and your incentive is to make it work,” Stanton said.

That sentiment seemed alive in 1980 when Allen, the popular fire prevention director, became Montclair’s first black fire chief. Did the town see it as a sign of making progress?

“That’s a good question. I don’t know if there was that concern. I know there was a concern that we had never had an African-American fire chief. I know that because it sort of flew in the face of the reputation that we had as a township. But, fire service is not known for diversity at all,” Allen said.

Residents say Montclair has undergone major change since a 2002 New York Magazine article ranked it a top ten affordable suburb, calling it a “cultural oasis” and labeled it the Park Slope of the metro area. Locals say New Yorkers began escaping their expensive city living, bringing their big salaries, savings and savvy and buying houses here in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and investing in redevelopment. Stanton Company Realtors says housing prices have climbed back to pre-recession heights averaging in the low $500,000s and the average tax bill is $16,000 a year. But that’s unaffordable to some longtime owners who must sell.

“I think it’s actually harder on renters because the rents in Brooklyn and Jersey City have been going up very rapidly, so we have people coming here to rent from there and Montclair is a relative bargain,” said June Raegner, an associate broker at Stanton Company Realtors.

Perhaps to newcomers. William Scott is both a landlord and chairs the Montclair Housing Commission.

“That is a major, major issue in the township. The market rates are driving the prices so high that you just can’t find anything reasonable at this point in time,” Scott said.

And the Stanton Company says options have allowed builders to circumvent mandates to construct affordable housing.

“I’d also say the zoning commission is not holding them to their requirements,” Raegner said.

Advocates launched the township-supported Career Development Institute to prepare youngsters for jobs and careers and put the town within financial reach one day. And, they’ve begun to push for rent stabilization and rent control, but that’s garnered very little interest.

“Without controls like rent controls, eventually, the ‘haves’ will have it and the ‘have nots’ will be moved,” President of the Montclair NAACP Albert Pelham said.

Census numbers reflect black-white population going in opposite directions since 2000 — increasing for whites in Montclair and declining for African-Americans by an even bigger percentage. That, combined with other economic factors, offer a sense that one developer may be right in saying Montclair is for the “young and rich.”

“When he said that I thought, ‘whoa!’ But, I think that’s right,” said Rapoport. “There’s a widening gulf and I do think this is going to be an upper-middle class to a wealthy town exclusively over time.”

Stanton says he sees that movement, too, and what it could mean for Montclair’s socio-economic diversity.

“I think it’s in danger and I think it’s kind of a shame because I think that’s a core piece of what makes Montclair what it is,” Stanton said.

Pelham is more frank. He doesn’t fault newcomers for wanting to take advantage of Montclair’s well-performing schools, arts and affordability to outsiders.

“The town is changing and I think the racial identity of the town we’re going to lose,” Pelham said. “I think it’s going to become more and more white, unfortunately.”