In 1901 John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil) began purchasing hundreds of acres of land around the town of Lakewood, New Jersey an hour and a half south of New York. He then built a thirty bedroom, twenty bathroom country estate. Lakewood was a prosperous year round vacation destination complete with swimming, tennis, golf, and ice skating, as well as numerous hotels, fine restaurants, a theater, and many large elegant homes. The grand Rockefeller mansion was demolished in 1966, but the property is now a 323 acre county park.
Lakewood peaked economically and culturally in 1929, then entered a prolonged period of seemingly terminal decline. Rockefeller sold the estate to his son in 1925 for over $3M but by 1938 the house sat on the market with no buyers at the drastically reduced price of $250K. At that time taxes came to $150K a year and by 1940 Rockefeller Jr. transferred the property to the county in order to stop the hemorrhaging. Lakewood’s prosperous families moved away, the large old homes lost value and were carved up into rental units, Main Street businesses failed, unemployment became a real problem, and the tax base withered. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
At the end of World War II suburban expansion soaked up the burgeoning middle class and nearly all the economic growth and political power for the rest of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, Lakewood suffered the fate of most older towns in America. It spiraled further into poverty, disinvestment, de facto racial segregation, and profound apathy from the majority culture.
A misguided attempt to “beautify” Main Street saw the installation of brick pavement, fancy street lamps, and other cosmetic upgrades meant to revive the town. What didn’t change was the underlying social, political, and economic dynamics. The town continued to limp along.
The middle class in neighboring suburban municipalities saw Lakewood as someone else’s problem that needed to be contained. Clear lines were drawn between school districts, tax bases, and service areas. The poor could scrape by in Lakewood on diminished resources so long as the rest of the county was insulated from the costs and consequences.
There’s been a mainstream Jewish community in Lakewood since the 1920s, but beginning in the early 1980s Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn started buying and inhabiting properties in significant numbers. The plentiful supply of big inexpensive homes around the historic Main Street made Lakewood an ideal relocation destination for whole congregations that were rapidly outgrowing their old neighborhoods. The fact that precious few people in authority in the county cared much about the town or its inhabitants made the transition that much easier.
For readers unfamiliar with Orthodox customs I like to describe them as a cross between Mormons and the Amish. They marry young, have unusually large families, live in tight knit inwardly focused communities, dress modestly, and are forbidden to operate machinery or engage in business transactions on the Sabbath. Since they can’t drive to Temple they live clustered together in walkable neighborhoods anchored by a Synagogue.
Every element of Orthodox life is supported by an associated institution from glatt kosher caterers to emergency medical services. The Orthodox didn’t care that Lakewood’s municipal services were mediocre when they began their big move to town. They effectively brought their own.
Of course, there’s always been friction between the Orthodox community and the rest of Lakewood’s population. The single most controversial issue centers around the ever growing number of school aged Jewish children who attend private Yeshivas compared to the rest of the inhabitants who go to underfunded public schools. Orthodox voters greatly outnumber the general electorate and do precisely what the suburban population has always done. They send representatives to office who vote in favor of programs they value, while starving other government departments they find unnecessary. It’s not pretty. I’m not defending it. But it’s absolutely the national norm as practiced for the last few hundred years from coast to coast.
So long as the Orthodox population remained in Lakewood the surrounding towns shrugged. “Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, peculiar Jews… who cares? It’s Lakewood.” But Lakewood is beginning to overflow into neighboring jurisdictions. Alarm bells are going off in leafy subdivisions in Toms River, Brick, Howell, and Jackson as new housing complexes are built and quickly fill with Orthodox residents on the “wrong” side of the line. A combination of continuing migration from out of state and a spectacular fertility rate suggests the Orthodox population will reach a critical mass and dominate the county in about thirty years. Lakewood itself is on track to become the third largest city in New Jersey – and this is a town that only had 38,000 people in 1980.
I’m always on the lookout for techniques that can be used to achieve personal goals that are otherwise frowned upon by the authorities. The suburban landscape and its endemic culture are fundamentally opposed to density. These conventional cookie cutter homes have been tweaked just a bit. Each house is a legal duplex with three floors, eleven bedrooms, seven baths, and at least two kitchens. Plus each half of each duplex has a full daylight basement that constitutes a de facto additional living unit. These suburban condo townhomes are effectively Brooklyn brownstones – albeit made of chipboard, vinyl siding, and synthetic stone veneer. And no rules were broken to build them. It’s just a matter of optimizing for slightly different outcomes.
I noticed that almost none of the newly constructed homes have garages. The typical suburban obsession with cars, parking, and lawns appears to take a back seat to the desire to house more humans instead. A typical two car garage is 24′ x 20′ which is just big enough to fit two more bedrooms and another bath. Why waste that space and money on a little house for a couple of cars?
I’d like to say that the Orthodox Jews of Lakewood are building an urban environment that is as vibrant and appealing as Brooklyn. But that’s not quite the case. Building an actual Main Street town is simply not an option given the larger regulatory constraints. What they’re doing instead is focusing on the quotidian needs of their community. Each subdivision has a Temple, a Yeshiva, and a Mikvah. I noticed a wide variety of small businesses being run out of homes contrary to zoning regulations, but in a context where the neighbors welcome such activity rather than report it to the authorities.
The frenetic growth of Lakewood’s Orthodox population has come with stresses and strains on the public infrastructure. Traffic is brutal and keeps getting worse. The water supply and sewerage treatment facilities are stretched thin. But each time new housing is proposed the voters storm the relevant offices demanding to know why more homes aren’t being approved and why more units can’t be squeezed on to smaller lots. What’s with the ridiculous parking requirements? Sure, traffic is bad. You know what’s worse? Not having a home to live in. It’s a bit like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror where everything is inverted.
I can’t honestly present Lakewood as a model for how anyone else should proceed. It’s a messy and often unsavory process. There are winners and losers and the resulting urban form is decidedly crap – suburban density without good urbanism. But these are the options we have under the present circumstances. Time will tell if what ultimately emerges is worthy of our affection or if the vinyl and chip board shtetls run their course and fail like so many other places.