By Kelly Nicholaides
for Montclair Local
The Pine Street Historic District contains a blend of early-19th-century brick apartment buildings, multiple one- and two-family houses in disrepair, and residents who include the middle class and working poor.
Most of the small businesses that built the neighborhood a century ago are gone. A mix of Italians who escaped economic depression in the 1870s and African Americans who came during the Great Migration planted the area’s middle class economic and social roots, bringing in craftsmanship and culture.
As luxury housing redevelopment takes shape around the area where few mom-and-pop shops and eateries remain, residents say it will come at a cost of Montclair’s identity by pricing out the most vulnerable residents.
Pine, Baldwin, Bay, Grant and Sherman streets and Glenridge Avenue make up the one-mile historic area. Businesses dotting the area include Nicolo’s Italian Bakery, which has been there since the 1960s, Urban Chicken, Bivio Panificio, Diesel & Duke burgers and a liquor store.
Picking up a friend in the Pine Street area across the street from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Fourth Ward resident Ciara Butler, 18, acknowledged that some of the housing stock needs maintenance, but not replacement.
“People come here to live because of the diversity. If you take this part of town out and replace it with something more like Upper Montclair, then you push out middle-class families. Montclair loses part of its identity and what it stands for, which is having communities that are different than other parts of Montclair. The buildings, the corner stores, the pizza place and the church all bring people together,” said Butler.
Fatimah Leftwich, 37, has lived at the end of Pine Street above a liquor store on Glenridge Avenue, since 2013 with her two children. A crossing guard, Leftwich rents a three-bedroom unit for which she gets a housing voucher to help with payments. The property was sold in May 2017, and she was informed that her lease was being terminated. But she is determined to stay.
“They’re trying to get us all out of here. The new management company wants to renovate. They’ll probably charge $2,000 a month or more for rent. You can’t get housing when rent goes up past what the voucher will cover. I may have to move to West Orange. We should be able to stay here. But they want to make room for the train people,” Leftwich said, referring to commuters who rent upscale units.
Although she admits that she has been in trouble with the law last year after punching a police officer who responded to a disturbance on Pine Street, Leftwich said the matter was resolved to her satisfaction. She says that she has stayed out of trouble since then, and indicated that she cares about the people who live in her community.
In a walkway behind her residence, Deshon Samuel, a 61-year-old unemployed African-American, is seated and contemplating where he will go when the weather turns colder. He is homeless. A former auto technician, Samuel, was born and raised in Montclair. He says he lived in housing on Pine, Walnut and Forest. For at least the past five years, he estimates, he has been living on the streets — after a combination of lack of work and rental increases.
“I live outside now,” Samuel said. “I had jobs but sometimes the work dried up. Landlords kept selling the buildings and raising the rent. You get some assistance, but if they want you out, they find ways, like coming in and redoing [renovating] everything.”
Unmarried and with no children, Samuel moved to Georgia and lived with his sister until her death, later returning to Montclair and back to life on the streets.
The liquor store below Leftwich’s residence is one block from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. Several residents and parishioners expressed concerns that the church property will be the next place to disappear along with affordable housing. At the Sept. 25 Mayor and Council meeting, former Montclair Police Chief Tom Russo reminisced about the parish’s history through his childhood when the streets were lined with Italian and American flags, fig trees and grapevines, and the area was steeped in the Catholic faith. He rattled off dozens of names of small businesses from delis to butchers, a gas station, cobbler and more.
“The site of my first homicide investigation was at a butcher shop,” Russo said. “All of these businesses in a six-block area are gone, except for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church, which is an anchor.”
Historic Preservation Commission member Kathleen Bennett said the church represents the only Romanesque Gothic architecture in Montclair.
“It’s a key piece of history in the Pine Street Historic district. I want everyone to know the significance of this building,” Bennett said.
She added that despite the church being on state and national historic registers, it’s up to local historians to protect it.
“If someone buys it and proposes to knock the buildings down, the Archdiocese can sell, although any site plan changes would need town approval. These buildings are important because of the people in the community they serve.” Bennett said.
Raffaele Marzullo, President of the church’s St. Sebastian Society, said that immigrants from hundreds of Italian villages came to Montclair and settled in the Fourth Ward. “The church ran community outreach programs and funded restoration. It’s now a racially, ethnically, economically diverse community, with 112 years of accomplishments. But everything is going away. At what point do we value money more than people’s needs? We have worked to bring other programs to Mt. Carmel like Spanish mass. Anything to keep the community going,” Marzullo said.
Reverend Michael Spievy of Citadel of Hope Church in Bloomfield told the council at the meeting, he doesn’t think enough attention is placed on what a building does in community. “It’s not a church thing, but a people thing. It would behoove you to get in partnership with more than 50 ministries of Montclair which are the lifeblood of this township. I see an influx of people coming in. We can move ahead with the times, but I don’t want to lose the flavor of the community. We will partner, gather clergy to protect the legacy of the Pine Street historic area,” Spievy said.
In 2016, Mt. Carmel merged with St. Teresa of Calcutta to improve fundraising through tricky trays, Toys for Tots, Italian feasts and renting out parking to pay for maintenance and capital improvements. Newark Archdiocese spokesperson Jim Goodness said the church will stay. “The Archdiocese is definitely not selling the property,” Goodness said.
However, the Archdiocese sold property at 147 Bloomfield Ave. to make way for the Vestry, a five-story upscale apartment building with 46 units, of which eight are earmarked as affordable housing. Montclair has 3,000 people throughout the state on a waiting list for affordable housing, the township planner confirmed.
In the historic Pine Street area, construction is underway for 110 luxury housing units on Baldwin Street in Glen Ridge—half a block from Nicolo’s Italian Bakery in Montclair. Other high-end housing includes the Montclarion at Bay Street.
Alisyn Gay, 37, said she grew up in the Pine Street historic area and moved back five years ago. “It has changed, but my kids love it. The church is a good place. I think it will stay in the area,” Gay said.
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel is the anchor of the Pine Street Historic District, but many people who live around it need more than faith to be able to stay.