The Urbanification of the Suburbs

When I drive though this Northwest corner of Jersey, it looks much the same as when my family moved here in the late 70s. Nestled between the cliffs of the Palisades and the foothills of the Pocono mountains are vanilla midcentury homes — Cape Cods, Bilevels, Split-levels — sprinkled with old Dutch farmhouses and Victorians with sweeping porches. Militant town and councils planning boards stand guard over property values and the local schools, so change does not happen quickly here.

The two-bedroom Cape cod where my parents raised three kids — finally the perfect size for my folks — is still there, though it’s the last of its kind on the block. Whenever someone moves out, the bulldozers arrive and squeeze a mini-mansion in its place. My folks’ house is like the last babytooth in the mouth of a ten-year old. My folks aren’t even bothering to do any repairs, because they know when they move out, the house will get ‘dozed, too.

Beyond the glacial pace of individual home replacements and upgrades, these towns seemed impervious to change. Until recently.

Two years ago, developers finally got approval to build new apartment buildings in our town. It was a huge political battle with allegations of favors and money exchanged under the table. These units were put into abandoned lots – former auto dealerships – near the train tracks in town. Some feared that these new apartments would lower their property value and raise local taxes. On anti-apartment Facebook pages, they conjured up images of the invasion of multi-generational families with prolific children needing expensive services.

“Just imagine what happens to your taxes if a family with an autistic kid moves into town, and we have to pay for his education! Disaster!” (Yes, they actually said similar things.) And, of course, there was a racist flavor to their remarks, too.

Somehow, the developers won, and the apartments went up. But they look nothing like the Nervous Nellies predicted. They are super posh and expensive. Rent is around $5,000 per month for a two-bedroom apartment that is located right next to a working railroad. No view, lots of noise.

It’s hard to understand why someone would pay $5,000 to rent an apartment in a suburb, where you can buy a house with half the mortgage and taxes. But these rental units offer a fun lifestyle, zero lawn issues, and a one-year commitment. They appeal to all the people who are still running out of New York City.

Those apartments, with their fabulous common areas and exercise rooms, are similar to the fabulous apartments going up in former industrial space along the Hudson. After visiting a friend in one of those units this weekend, I was ready to move.

Local real estate agents tell me that property values are still going strong here. Agents are in a quiet period right now, but are gearing up for a busy spring. They tell me that people are still fleeing the city because of crime and bad schools. (I’m hearing stories about people not bothering to stop for red lights in areas of the Bronx, because the cops have stopped arresting people. One local kid at Fordham was held up by 12-year olds with guns last week.)

While local residents initially fought against the rise of apartment buildings in their “villages,” I hear no more complaints. Because change didn’t really happen. These apartments cleaned up some unused space and brought in a whole bunch of rich people. Suburbanites don’t really care if their towns increase in density, as long as it is the right kind of density.