By LINDA MOSS
This past Saturday residents of Cloverhill Place in Montclair gathered for their annual block party. They sampled an ample array of food and drink and leisurely chatted with their neighbors, children and pets in tow. At one point, two people started dancing in the middle of the blocked-off street as Motown tunes played over a loud speaker.
Cloverhill Place, a single block sandwiched between Glenridge and Claremont avenues near Lackawanna Plaza, has been hosting annual block parties for decades. The attendees this year represented a rainbow of races — white, black and brown — as well as people of all ages and professions, straight and gay. The setting is a leafy street with beautiful homes, some Victorians as well as Craftsmen with handcrafted interior woodwork, that date back to the early 1900s. That is Cloverhill Place.
Montclair Local is profiling Cloverhill Place as part of its participation in a New Jersey collaborative reporting effort called Voting Block. The project’s mission is to encourage civil political discussion and more informed voters in neighborhoods across the Garden State ahead of this fall’s gubernatorial election. Montclair Local is one of more than two dozen news organizations that is following a group of neighbors, in our case on Cloverhill Place, this fall as the race develops.
Our reporting partners include 15 hyperlocal and six ethnic-news organizations across the state as well as WYNC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight and The Record.
Residents of Cloverhill Place — who include an inordinate number of people in academia as well as the arts — say they were drawn to Montclair because of its respected school system, its proximity to train stations for commuters, and the diversity and progressive thinking that’s been a hallmark of the township. And for them, their block best embodies all of those attributes.
“The line that we always use, and I think this is true, is our block represents what Montclair aspires to be, which is multi-ethnic, multi-racial, socio-economically diverse, and multiple age ranges, meaning we have retirees on the block, little kids on the block,” James Cotter said. “Montclair makes a big deal about its diversity. I don’t know if that diversity exists in true form or in aspiration in many parts of town. If you wanted to find that kind of diversity, this is the place.”
Mike Peinovich and his wife Billie Gleissner, both in their 70s, are retired. They moved to Montclair as renters in 2001. They bought their Cloverhill Place house roughly two years later, and moved in with their adopted son Matthew, then 13, who is biracial and has learning disabilities. After living in Maplewood and Livingston they came to Montclair, in part, for its schools. They haven’t looked back since and love their neighborhood.
“It’s ethnically diverse, very diverse, and it’s not just black and white,” Peinovich said.
“There are Hispanic people who live on the block,” he said. “There’s an Indian couple. There’s an Egyptian couple. There’s a couple from Nigeria. There are academics. There are business people. There are people in the arts. There are people who work on Wall Street. There are people who work in town. It’s just a very interesting variety. And there are also a couple of mixed-race families, which makes a difference, too. We found that all out after we bought the house, when we went to the first block party.”
Peinovich has a doctorate degree in English linguistics, and his resume includes teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and working for Chase Manhattan Bank. Gleissner was a social worker at various hospitals.
While they have many differences, the street’s residents are a tight-knit, cohesive group. Their Cloverhill Place/Grove Terrace Neighborhood Association over the years has rallied and had a voice on local issues, most recently to oppose a major redevelopment plan for Lackawanna Plaza, the site of a historic train station.
Ann-Marie Nazzaro, 69, and her husband William Milczarski, 68, have lived on Cloverhill Place longer than almost everyone else, since Halloween, or Oct. 31, in 1988. They said they left Jersey City for Montclair, in part, for a reason that draws many to the township: its reputation for having a superior school system. Their young son, then turning 4 years old, had been diagnosed with hemophilia, and they wanted to be sure they were dealing with enlightened school officials regarding his illness.
When they began looking for a house in North Jersey, Nazzaro and Milczarski said that their first broker took them to homes in Bloomfield and Glen Ridge, towns that were then primarily white. But they wanted diversity, an urban feel, and found Montclair Realtor Adriana O’Toole, who introduced them to Cloverhill Place in the Fourth Ward, according to Bill.
“It wasn’t like it was now,” Nazzaro said. “It was a struggling neighborhood. … But we’re city people. … And I had to make peace coming to a suburb, so to me I wanted it as urban as possible. And I remember Adriana saying to us, ‘Montclair is a city with trees.’ And we never looked back and we’re very happy that we did this.”
Shortly after the the couple moved in, Nazzaroe noticed a sign that was detouring traffic down Cloverhill Place because construction was going on at the Pathmark at Lackawanna Plaza. The neighborhood successfully protested the traffic’s re-routing, and the block association was born, Ann-Marie said.
She has a Ph.D and a background in health education, and is now executive director of the Foundation For Women & Girls With Blood Disorders. Milczarski is an urban planning professor at Hunter College in Manhattan.
BACK IN THE DAY
The Motown music that played at the block party, songs by groups such as the Four Tops and Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, brought back many memories for Kellice Swaggerty III. His late father worked for those famous artists and many others, such as B.B. King and The Temptations.
“Many of the songs that you’re been hearing, he was the road manager for those groups,” Swaggerty said of his dad. “In fact, when they were playing one of the Four Tops’ numbers, I was thinking of the time they came over to our house after they performed at Montclair State. And Gladys Knight and the Pips had to spend the night here before they had to go to West Point.”
Swaggerty, 59, and his family are among the residents that have dwelled the longest on Cloverhill Place. Swaggerty, a photographer, said his family had lived in Montclair for many years before moving to Cloverhill Place in 1961. And his father started a neighborhood watch on the street.
“To be perfectly frank, I think when you look at our block we are quite atypical in a positive sense,” he said. “Actually Montclair is one of the more diversified communities in New Jersey, where you find more of a mix than you do in many municipalities. But even here, I think our street stands apart from so many other areas of Montclair where we are 90 percent more diverse than some of the other areas.”
Many of Cloverhill Place’s residents said they were in attracted by the homes on the street. That was part of the appeal for 47-year-old Cotter, who teaches high school in South Orange and Maplewood, and his wife Mary Sok, who is also 47 and a teacher. They have two sons, Felix, 3, and Ronan, 6.
Cotter said he has lived in Montclair for nearly 30 years, coming to the town to attend Montclair State University for his undergraduate and graduate degrees and staying. He rented for 15 years before moving to Cloverhill Place.
“I liked the progressive values that the town represents and that the town actually lives up to,” Cotter said. “I think that was a major attraction. Two, I’m a history nut, and I have great affection for the housing stock and the history that the town has. I geek out quite a bit about the history of our town. And three, as it just happens, a number of the people that I went to school with became lifelong friends and we all kind of settled here and bought houses here.”
As with Nazzaro and Milczarski, O’Toole was Cotter’s broker, and she showed him and his wife a two-family house, built in 1907, on Cloverhill Place. They bought it and have spent 10 years restoring the home, stripping the paint off its interior woodworking and making other improvements.
“It was funny,” Cotter said. “The owner of the house gave us this hit list. She said, ‘You need to meet the following neighbors once you move in.’ So she pointed out all these characters who lived on the street, many of whom still live here. They were this array of fascinating, interesting people from all walks of life. And not only did we fall in love with the house but we felt instantly at home. It was a very activist neighborhood. Issues were important to the neighbors.”
The area that is now Cloverhill Place and Pine Street was once part of a farm owned by Thomas and Marcella Levy in the 1800s, according to Mike Farrelly, town historian and a member of the Montclair History Center’s board of trustees. Levy died around 1868, and his wife moved to New York. The farm was then split up between their sons Michael and John.
“A dirt road, called Levy Street, ran in between the two smaller farms,” Farrelly said. “Michael owned the farm on the west side of Levy Street. John owned the farm on the east side. By the 1880s Levy Street had become Pine Street and both farms had become part of the property that Roswell Smith gave to his daughter, Julia, and her new husband, George Inness Jr. (the famous painter’s son, also a painter) as a wedding present.”
The property was subsequently subdivided, and the western boundary of Michael Levy’s former farm became Cloverhill Place, according to Farrelly, who said this happened around 1900, when the first homes were built on the street.
Pine Street, which is one street over from Cloverhill Place and runs parallel to it, and a number of the roads around it became known as Montclair’s Little Italy. In the late 1880s, there was an influx of Italian immigrants to Montclair, workers who in some cases dug trenches for local water mains, according to a study done in 1982 by the Junior League of Montclair/Newark. That immigrant community would go on to build its own church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, on Pine Street.
Cotter’s and Sok’s backyard is adjacent to the rear of the church. Their house was previously owned by a series of Italian-American families who planted two large fig trees, full of ripe fruit now, as well as Concord grapes in their backyard. Those trees and grapevines “populate many of our backyards” on Cloverhill Place, according to Cotter.
‘NOT MAYBERRY,’ BUT ‘SWEET’
Kate Greenfield, 67, and Harry May, 63, are a interracial couple who came to Cloverhill Place from Long Island City, Queens, and found a welcoming community. They had been living in a co-op and were thinking of buying a house, in part to find a good school system for their son, Zach, who was then going on age 8, Greenfield said. During Memorial Day weekend in 1999 they visited Montclair, and by Labor Day that year they had moved to Montclair, she said.
When they first visited the township, Greenfield said, they thought, “We could live here.”
“And in driving around town, we saw all kinds of people together. You didn’t just see white people with white people or black people with black people.”
May has similar memories of his first impressions of Montclair.
“It was sweet,” he said. “We came down Grove Street and we saw so many people together. There was an AIDS [memorial] garden right on the corner of Walnut and Grove. … We walked into a candle shop and someone in the store heard that we were thinking of moving to Montclair and next thing the woman was giving us samples of candles.”
Greenfield and May, who were commuting to New York, also appreciated the town’s amenities.
“Being New Yorkers, this was appealing because you could walk,” Greenfield said. “At the time Midtown Direct wasn’t running yet, but you knew you could walk to cultural stuff. You could walk into town. You could walk to the bus. You didn’t need a car for every single place you went.”
She has retired as a public school guidance counselor but now works at a private school on the Upper West Side part-time. May is employed now as a property manager for the Elizabeth Housing Authority.
While May celebrates Montclair’s diversity, he said, “One of the things we got from the beginning is that Montclair isn’t Mayberry. Let’s not get confused: It’s not Mayberry. But people talk about the issues. They acknowledge them.”
In the end, the Montclair school system worked out well for their son Zach. He graduated from Harvard University in 2013.
ACADEMIA, ARTS ENCLAVE
Matt Knutzen, 45, and his wife Lili, 48, moved to Montclair from Manhattan in 2008 as renters, and bought their house on Cloverhill Place in 2009. Lili, who has a psychotherapy practice in Manhattan, said they thought the town would be a great place to raise their family. Their first daughter was 2 at the time. The Knutzens also liked the urban vibe of Cloverhill Place.
“This just felt like a neighborhood that was very reminiscent of Brooklyn to me,” said Lili, who grew up in that borough. “There were a lot of parts of Montclair that were very suburban, where I couldn’t imagine getting in a car every single time I wanted to go someplace. So here we have Nicolo’s [Italian Bakery] around the corner. You can walk to Walnut Street. You can walk up Glenridge Avenue. The little Y is there for the kids. And I just thought it was an ideal place.”
Matt is director of humanities and social sciences research at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street in Manhattan. In fact, Lili said that she started to call Cloverhill Place “the humanities block, because everyone on the street works in the humanities.”
A number of the street’s residents work at universities. In addition to Milczarski at Hunter, Cloverhill Place is home to John Torpey, a noted sociology professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Another resident, lawyer Laila Maher, is dean of student and alumni affairs at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
Members of Montclair’s arts community are also represented on Cloverhill Place. Mia Riker-Norrie, general director of the Opera Theatre of Montclair, lives on the block in a house with her husband and family. And Mary See, an artist and community activist who owns the 73 See Gallery on Pine Street, resides in a friend’s apartment on Cloverhill Place.
Cloverhill Place dwellers expressed many of the same concerns as their fellow township residents about the future. Those who chose the block and town for its diversity fear that gentrification — brought by skyrocketing real estate prices, new upscale developments and rising property taxes — will change Cloverhill Place’s nature. Cotter and Peinovich have joined other Cloverhill Place and township residents in opposing a proposed mixed-use redevelopment for nearby Lackawanna Plaza, which will include several hundred apartments. That property is the site of a historic train station.
“What we very much want is for whatever development that is going to go there to be sensitive to the historical nature of the site, for it to recognize the residential character of the area, and for it to be in keeping with the level of density that would be respectful of the people that have been there,” Cotter said.
“Many people are new to Montclair, but Montclair is not a new place,” he said. “It also is not a museum. And so what we have to do is we have to balance the needs of the people who have been here versus the growth that is inevitably going to happen. … It just can’t be the kind of development that will only be for the developers. It has to be for the people who are here.’
Peinovich and Gleissner are looking to renovate their six-bedroom house and move, but they said that they don’t see many places where they can go in Montclair to downsize.
“We could live here forever, but do we want to pay these taxes on this very large house?” Peinovich said.
The original version of this article had the incorrect last name for William Milczarski.
This story is part of the Voting Block series and was produced in collaboration with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Cooperative Media and New America Media. To read all the stories in this series and see the full list of reporting partners, visit VotingBlockNJ.com.