Jersey Towns

New Jersey is a strange place. Sandwiched in between New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey doesn’t have its own culture or personality. In the North, we know more about the traffic patterns of Cross Bronx expressway than what’s going on around the Meadowlands; South Jersey cheers for the Phillies. People here self-identify based on their towns, not the state. People will say that they’re from Secaucus or Paterson, not from Jersey.

If all politics are local, Jersey takes it a step further. All life is local here. People grow up in their towns and never leave. They coach their kid’s little league games on the same fields that they played on as kids. They gradually will open up to new people who land in their towns and will be friendly enough, but their loyalties always remain with the long standing locals and their relatives who all live about ten minutes away. Sundays mean huge extended families and a large pasta dinner.

We moved to our first home in a New Jersey town, when Jonah was five. We needed a backyard and nearby schools. We embraced our new lives and planned on staying for the long haul. But then, things started falling apart. Our youngest son didn’t attend school in the town, because of his disability, so we only had one kid involved in the town life, which centered around the kids’ sports leagues. Our property value kept dropping, because new zoning laws put our home just a few yards from a commercial district. The test scores for the school put the town on a NCLB watchlist, and nobody seemed to care.

We put the house – a home that we had lovingly restored – on the market and moved six years ago to a new town. It  was a big deal. Some of our old friends stopped talking to us. Jonah was in middle school at the time and he had a rough transition. We went from a 15-year to a 30-year mortgage. But we were desperate. We needed a change.

It was a gamble. We didn’t really know that the new town would provide our kids with a better education. We didn’t really know if the house would be a good investment. We didn’t really know if we would fit into this new community.

This town has more people who have lived elsewhere, more professionals, higher school test scores, sports teams that win everything, and is much, much bigger. But that’s just stats on a wikipedia page. What about the intangibles?

Friends asked me last week, if we did the right thing. I had a few glasses of wine in me at the time, and didn’t have a great answer ready. I’ve been thinking about this question all week.

This town is different from a lot of other Jersey towns, because it is so atypically Jersey. It’s not based on tribal family ties, but on a tradition of social capital. There are a million different clubs and activities. I’ve been at meetings for the school or politics every night this week. People volunteer like crazy. And they have super high skill levels. The presidents of the PTA have MBA’s from Harvard or ran the publicity department of a Fortune 500 company before becoming a stay at home mother.

The Newcomers club has hundreds of members. There are genealogy societies at the library. The Presbyterian church hosted the West Point marching band. The Catholic church runs a food kitchen. There’s the League of Women Voters, a historical society, tech classes, cooking classes, amateur birding clubs, dozens of book groups, free movies.

Since I spend so many hours in front of a computer during the day, it’s nice to have those social outlets in the evening. With only one kid in the local public school, I’m much less plugged in than others, but I get by.

With all the intensity in town, I can’t say for certain that the move was great for our kids. Somethings they do get lost in shuffle. There have been pros and cons, for sure. Steve and myself benefitted in more obvious ways though we still bat around the idea of moving back to Manhattan when Ian finishes school.

I suppose I still don’t have a great answer about whether or not our gamble paid off. For the present, it did.

22 thoughts on “Jersey Towns

  1. I see certain parallels and also differences compared to our experience of moving back to Vancouver in 2011. We had been in Toronto for 11 years for paid work and loved it. Gritty, scrappy, & artsy with a big city buzz in a small size (about 4 million if you include all the ‘burbs but really about 2.5 million).

    My FIL had passed away a few years before and my MIL was on her own. She really needed us around so we moved back. It was a relatively smooth transition – the girl was going into grade 1 and my guy works for an international firm.

    I moved here initially after university (grew up on the prairies) while my husband was born and raised here. You’d think it’d be easy moving back but it’s an odd town in many ways. It’s gorgeous and scenic and lots of outdoor activity access. It’s also, like NJ, very “tribal” in that pretty much all who are born & raised here stick to their born & raised here friends. It’s rare for them to mix with transplants. I’m rare to have married someone from here!

    Virtually all of our local friends are from “away” as well. It’s not an easy city to break into despite it’s aura of being a laid-back west coast place. Having it be a “land bank” for overseas investors doesn’t help either.

    Overall it’s been a good move for our daughter – she has a great group of friends and loves her school. If either of those changed, we’d move. We will end up back east again once she graduates from high school but it’s definitely a bird in the hand situation. It’s not worth the risk.

    Luckily we can travel often to get our big city/arts fix (we were in NYC last month to see Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen and do our annual museum/gallery trek).


  2. Some areas of MA and New England in general are much like the first town you lived in. We moved to one. I sat at my son’s soccer practice the other night, working, because everyone else was gossiping about the current lives of people they all went to high school with. We’ve lived here for over 12 years now and have been actively volunteering in our community the entire time. On the face of it, we have tons of social capital. But underneath it all, we’ll never quite belong as we’ll never be “townies” (for lack of a better word). Of course, we used to live in the middle of nowhere Michigan – 2.5 hours to Detroit or Ann Arbor, the nearest major towns. Given we’re an hour from Boston and 40 minutes from Providence, I’ll take it any day. And I’ll also take that over the bland Chicago suburbs where my husband and I both grew up. But it can be hard (I know – boo hoo, cry me a #firstworldproblems river, I get it). For us, given the comparison, I would easily say that we made the right choice to move here. But this sense of not quite belonging means that my husband and I often talk about what the plans are after the kids move – and lots of those plans don’t necessarily feature us staying here.


    1. Yep, I live in one of those MA towns. Everyone knows each other–except us. Between 1999 and 2003 we lived in 5 different places, and it was really difficult to make friends, and that was really stressful considering I gave birth twice. We missed our friends in Brooklyn for years afterward. But we’ve been here in MA for almost 14 years now, and I have been involved in school stuff a bit (volunteering in the elementary school library, president of the Band Parents in middle school, and now I’m on School Council because it doesn’t involve begging parents to help out or donate $$). I do that to give back to the community, and because I need to keep busy, but I mainly do it to network in the schools so I can build alliances I need to help my Aspergers kid when necessary. Meanwhile, I’m also getting involved in the town next door because of the genealogical/historical society I’m involved in. Actually, my town used to be part of their town until 200 years ago when we broke free. 😉 But it’s funny to me how many of S’s friends’ parents went to HS here. We have at least 7 more years here, but I long to live in a city. Providence isn’t that exciting, but still I might be tempted.


  3. LOL – love how auto-fill adds my last name to the comment where I out my town as close minded. Whoops. You don’t have friends and readers in my hometown Laura!


  4. Someone cited a stat to me about our hometown, the other day — that 40% of the kids living here were not born here. That struck me as high, but then, I realized that *my* kids were born here, and had lived nowhere else. My older kid was born here, has lived in two houses, and now gone to three schools (including her preschool). At their age, I’d attended a few preschools (in a different country), three elementary schools, a junior high school, and a high school.

    The person citing the statistic was, she said, the 6th generation of her family to live here (which meant that her family was here when the state became a state). I’m guessing of the adults I know, that something like 10-20% are from here.

    I can’t imagine feeling a part of the tribal culture in any place I have lived or plan to live (and I have lived here for longer now, than I’ve lived anywhere else), though, and imagine that what exists of it here is something I am completely unaware of.

    Good or bad decision? It’s really hard to tell. I know my kids are growing with a great more stability and wealth and material goods than I even knew existed. I worry that this make my children less flexible, close opportunities to them, because sleeping on the floor is not part of their lives. On the other hand, their world seems more stressful than mine was, with expectations so high.


  5. Ours is a mostly transient town, and it’s pretty usual to ask where someone is from. Most of our County Board members are not from here. In my neighborhood, among the parents of my kids’ friends, people tend to move here and not leave. My kids are still in the bedrooms to which they were brought home from the hospital. I was on a County committee with a fellow who is the ninth generation of his family to live here. No feeling of exclusion from not being local.


  6. As someone who grew up in a New Jersey town that sounds a great deal like the first one you lived in, I take polite exception to the claim that the state doesn’t have its own personality. It’s just hard to put into words and even hard to see when you grow up in it, unless you later move and gets some perspective on it. That sense of place, that feeling at home, and staying put for generations, is a big part of its personality, even if it may now be one of several subcultures rather than the dominant culture. In my family, we’ve had four generations attending, and now teaching in, the same school system; we’ve had relatives on the same suburban street for nearly a century. There’s a pleasure, even a certain pride, in that stability, that sameness, that reliance on family and close friends, when the rest of the world seems nuts, and real satisfaction when your kid manages to stay employed and not screw up, get into legal trouble, or get hooked on drugs. To expect more is to gamble with fate. (One of the few works of literature I’ve seen that really gets this culture clash is “Joe College” by Tom Perrotta.)

    What I think you nailed, though, is the different attitude toward social capital. Yale, Trenton State, what’s the difference? College is college! That was the attitude I grew up with. We didn’t know from social capital. I had no idea that wanting to be, say, a professor or a writer required so much early planning…because hey, as long as you could get a job that let you sit down, ideally in air conditioning, you were doin’ pretty good in life. The culture of my New Jersey youth does a pretty good job at replicating itself, even if it’s compulsively inward-looking. The longer I’m away from it, the more I understand what the tradeoffs bring: less status anxiety and fewer resources tossed unrewardingly into the bottomless pit of cultural competition.


    1. Living in the opposite world, people who are collected together because of elite educations, jobs, or opportunities that paid off (and, in its own way, I lived in that world as a child, as well, though through the immigrant experience), I also see the tradeoffs. There are a lot of resources tossed into the bottomless pit of cultural competition (for the children, most — though not all — have “won” the status/cultural competition game in various ways.)

      I see several categories — there are the immigrants (and, in this group I include both the immigrants from outside the country, and those coming from “Trenton State”). There are the newly elite, who went to elite colleges, have succeeded in status games, but come from middle class backgrounds. There are the even more successful who came from families that were successful (Bill Gates, for example). And, there are the old money families (Nordstroms).

      Now, the Jersey towns must have the old money families, too. Are they just segregated from the general population, in private schools and country clubs?


  7. Thank god for rural college towns. I moved here knowing no one in a 200-mile radius, but fortunately many people moved here knowing no one in a 1000-mile radius. I have a couple of friends who grew up here, though in both cases they are professors, and one other who spent the summers here with his hometown grandparents. Most of my other friends moved here between 10-15 years ago, around the same time I did.

    One of my friends likes to say, when asked if she has family who are from here: “Yes; my children.” Many of my friends’ kids were born here; this is their hometown. It will be interesting to see if any of them return here after they go off to college.


  8. Well, the ~ $40,000 difference in median family income between the first town and the second at least partially explains any “tradition of social capital,” no? And I disagree that the second town is particularly special among New Jersey communities. It resembles any of a number of wealthy bedroom communities in New Jersey, right down to the culture in which parenting and volunteering become, for lack of a better word, “professionalized” — something that tends to develop in communities of families headed by well-educated, well-employed parents, one of whom has the financial luxury to check out of the workforce to raise children. Clubs, sports teams, volunteer efforts, parent organizations, fundraising — all of it experiences a boon when fiercely competitive, formerly employed parents pour the energy once reserved for their work into their children, the schools, and the community.

    As for your assertion that Jersey lacks its own personality, I think most who were born and educated there would disagree.


    1. Yes, any serious review of the sociological literature will confirm that social capital correlates strongly with income. Our popular fantasy culture tends to portray the exceptions: poor little rich girls like Eloise, whose parents barely know her, being raised by servants, and tight-knit immigrant families in tight-knit communities, but those are not representative of the rich and poor generally.


  9. We went to one of our kid’s football games and they asked the people in the stands if they grew up in MN? (most of them), in the town? (most of them), went to that high school? — about half. Yup. We’ve since moved out to the country when the kids finished school. A good result of the election is getting to know others who had moved from the city (after the election when we started to get together in reaction/action groups).

    Still, after 17 years in MN, it’s not where I see staying. Heck, I visit New Jersey more often than I’d see myself visiting here — friends from a decade on kibbutz in my 20s are still more my people than work or wrestling parent folks here.


  10. I was at a playdate this morning where the hostess and a new member turned out to both be Jersey girls (or adjacent–South Philly). There was much swapping of place names…

    It sounds like the whole place is like a huge small town.


  11. New Jersey has home rule, so most decisions are made at the municipality level. That makes local government significantly different from most other states. Most NJ municipalities have joined forces with other municipalities to form school districts, so the largest expenses of local services–education–is typically handled by a somewhat larger entity. Home rule gets expensive where the municipality does not want to or cannot join forces with a nearby municipality to provide certain services. Thus, some of the Shore counties probably have two or three dozen police departments. Maybe it’s even worse in Bergen County. I have always viewed this as a good aspect of federalism. If you do not like it, you can move, but plenty of people with the means to move do in fact remain.


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