Is Montclair progressive? I have been thinking about this question for some time now, but was jolted to write after reading Mayor Spiller’s recent article “Keeping New Jersey Blue Starts in Montclair.”
I believe Montclair suffers from the “illusory truth effect.” That is, if we repeat something often enough, we believe it. Like saying Montclair is progressive. Yes, Montclair consistently votes Democratic at the state and national level, but I like to focus on what actually happens at the town level.
Montclair is hardly a progressive town. In my view, a communal progressive agenda would lead to unwavering support for public libraries, leadership on affordable housing, a focus on early childhood education, laser-like attention to the academic achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, programs for vulnerable senior citizens, advocacy for green space and environmental protections, changes to our view of streets and sidewalks from auto-driven to people-driven, enhancement of public transportation, offerings of big transformational ideas, an embrace of Montclarians of all political persuasions and many more steps that local government could take to make progress on improving people’s lives.
Instead, looking at Montclair over the years, here is what local government has:
• An adversarial relationship with library management and relatively low library funding compared to similar towns;
• A $1 million-plus housing trust fund not being maximally used for affordable housing
• Town-owned land at New Street and Wildwood Avenue, ideal for affordable housing, but left undeveloped for years;
• Single-family zoning laws that stem from historic, racially discriminatory policy;
• An accessory dwelling unit ordinance that has not been acted on;
• Explosive development that persistently reduced the 20% affordable housing allocation below this mark;
• A persistent achievement gap and sacred cows in the school budget that should be examined for fund reallocation to address this gap;
• Elimination of a successful publicly funded pre-K in the 1990s;
• The reneging of a promise for a brick-and-mortar senior citizen center;
• Protection of the wealthier section of town from development and undesirable businesses like pot shops;
• A lack of any “big ideas” for reconfiguration of our streets to promote walking, biking or a shuttle bus around town;
• Decades of advocacy by others for the Essex-Hudson Greenway funding, with council indifference or tepid comments; and
• A marginalization of our friends and neighbors of the Republican party.
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It is easy to declare Montclair a sanctuary city, to welcome Afghan refugees or to ban plastic bags; these are not areas of transformational change that affect the township budget or the daily lives of many of our citizens. Local government can be a force for change, but that progressive leadership has been absent in Montclair.
We should either stop patting ourselves on the back for being “progressive” when we are not, or make real progress on goals that improve the lives of Montclarians.
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