The Radburn Association
THE GRANGE TAPES: LOST RADBURN STORIES
Although Radburn was one of the most publicized communities ever founded in America, today some of its history is shrouded in mystery. But tape-recorded interviews with Radburn’s founders and settlers, stored for decades in The Grange, provide missing pieces of our fascinating story. This is part of a series of vignettes about life here almost a century ago.
JEWS IN RADBURN: HERE FROM THE START
Here’s the conventional wisdom: At least until World War II, Radburn excluded Jews. In the earliest days, the story goes, Jews were turned away as home buyers; and even in later years some real estate agents told Jews, “You’d be more comfortable somewhere else.’’
But interviews with some of Radburn’s founders and settlers, tape-recorded a half century ago and stored ever since at The Grange, tell a different story: Some of the earliest residents were Jewish, and discrimination may have had as much to do with class as religion.
Early Radburn did not welcome all comers. African Americans, for example, were systematically excluded (as they were from almost every other middle-class suburb).
Jews were different. The family of Robert Cohen, an accountant, were the first residents of 5 Aberdeen Place in 1930. Around the same time, the family of Abraham Platt, a stockbroker, became the first residents of 22A Townley Road. A few years later they moved to 10 Ashburn Place.
Around the same time, William Elbow and his wife (a Christian) moved to Radburn from Paterson, where he managed a department store; he’d been told Ridgewood was unwelcoming to Jews. (In 1942, he was elected president of the Radburn Board of Trustees.)
Maxwell Golburgh was a salesman for the City Housing Corp., the company that built Radburn and sold homes here until it went bankrupt in 1934. Golburgh himself bought a home on Owen Avenue in 1948.
Yet some Jews were discriminated against, according to taped interviews with several non-Jewish residents.
Here’s Karl Duerr of 10 Burnham Place, who was a trustee, in 1978: “In the early days, City Housing discriminated. If you were Jewish, you didn’t have much chance of getting in here. You had to fill out a questionnaire to come in. … What faith you were; where you were born; where were your parents born. … They really had the lowdown on you.’’ That stopped, he said, after City Housing went bust.
Lloyd Kerr, another former board member, said that “Mr. (Max) Golburgh was Jewish; he wouldn’t rent to Jewish people.’’ But Kerr, who was a client and an admirer of Golburgh, said the realtor had a motive: “He was trying to keep boorish people away. (It) had nothing to do with religion. He was being selective.’’
(Jane Lyle Diepeveen, a Radburn resident and local historian, wrote in 2010 that Goldburgh told her he’d “made it a point” to sell homes to two Jewish families.)
The man with the most say about who could move into Radburn was its first manager, Major (US Army Ret.) John O. Walker, a courtly Virginian born two decades after the end of the Civil War.
In 1969, he confirmed that prospective residents had to fill out a questionnaire and be interviewed: “Before we signed (potential residents) up, we compared them to people here -- to figure if they could get along together. And if we decided they couldn’t do it, we turned them down.’’
He continued: “Take for example, Bob Cohen, one of the first Jews that bought a place here. … Any other Jews that came around to apply, we compared them to Bob Cohen, and figured that if they couldn’t get along with Bob Cohen, they couldn’t get along with anybody. So out they went.’’
Cohen was an accountant – a professional, like most of his neighbors. But a Jewish factory worker with an eighth-grade education probably was not welcome in Radburn.
In his Radburn history Garden Cities for America, Daniel Schafer concluded that while early “Radburn followed no explicit policy of discrimination … realtors hired by the CHC discouraged Jews as well as blacks ... to create what they saw as a congenial environment.’’
For Major Walker, at least, life in Radburn was broadening. He was the Platts’ neighbor on Ashburn Place.
One fall, Walker was in the Meyer Brothers department store in Paterson when he noticed a selection of greeting cards, including some for Rosh Hashanah. Walker had never even heard of the Jewish holidays, let alone cards for them.
“And I thought it would be a very nice thing to give Abe Platt a Jewish New Year’s card, which I did. And he was very appreciative and surprised to get it, and said it was the only time he’d gotten a Jewish New Year’s card from a gentile.
“As a result of that, up to the present time, that’s 40-odd years, I have never missed sending Able Platt a Jewish New Year’s card. He lives now in Arizona, retired, and I’ll get him another one October 1 of this year.’’
A, B … R? THE ALPHABETIC LOGIC OF RADBURN’S STREETS
Generations of Radburn residents, noting that two groups of streets north of Fair Lawn Avenue begin with A or B, and that a group on Southside begins with R, have wondered: What about the alphabet in between?
That question had long bugged former Radburn trustee Fred McMullen. But in 1969, he got an answer.
It came in his interview with Charles Ascher, the lawyer for the company that developed Radburn and the man who named Radburn and its streets.
Ascher noted that Radburn was developed simultaneously north and south of Fair Lawn Avenue, with two “superblocks’’ taking shape in the former and one in the latter.
Ascher explained that the CHC had big expansion plans for Northside, where “we hoped we’d build C and D and E blocks,’’ each centered on a park. Accordingly, he said, “We wanted to leave room’’ in the alphabet for expansion toward Glen Rock and the Saddle River.
On Southside, the emerging R superblock also was supposed to be the first of several, because Radburn hoped to attract industry on that side of the community and would need worker housing -- preferably in walking distance. There would be other superblocks, with streets beginning in S, T, etc.
Of course, none of that came to pass. The Depression killed the market for new single-family homes on Northside, and industry never showed much interest in Radburn. Hence the gap between B and R.
However, just before and after World War II some developers who built on land outside Radburn once owned by the original development company picked up on the alphabetic naming scheme. And so many streets north of Fair Lawn Avenue that are not in the Radburn Association begin with F, G and H – even though their residents can’t use the pools.
Radburn’s very first settlers were Jim and Emma Wright of Paterson, who moved into 2 Allen Place on April 25, 1929. Two days later, they got company: Howard and Lillian Zeller at 14 Allen, and Fred and Kathy Veile at #8.
Although the Wrights moved in first, there was no agreement on who was second -- the Veiles or the Zellers. “We used to argue about who got there first,’’ Kathy Veile recalled in 1978. “We always said our moving van passed the Zellers’’ en route to Allen.
Kathy -- by then a widow for two decades -- recalled the three couples’ first night on the unfinished, isolated cul de sac, surrounded by woods and fields and the beginnings of a construction site.
“We all went to the Wrights’ house and became acquainted,’’ she said. Beverages were consumed. And, as a lark, Kathy said, “We elected Jimmy Wright mayor, Howard Zeller chief of police and Freddy the fire chief.’’
(In fact, Jim Wright would become the first resident on the Board of Trustees.)
It was the beginning of an exciting time. As Kathy put it, “You felt like you were pioneering. It was an interesting little community to start, and we all felt that we started it, that we were very important people. We went to meetings every night on every little subject, and used to fight like cats and dogs, and end up best friends.’’
PARTY TOWN FOR THE MOTOR AGE
An exceptionally high percentage of residents of early Radburn had attended or graduated from college, and some residents have said the place felt like a college campus.
But college isn’t all work – then or now – and it seems another side of campus life was reflected in the new community.
“The first people who came here were partying types,’’ Karl Duerr of 10 Burnham Place said in an interview in 1978. “Every Saturday night was a gala affair. If you went to bed to sleep you were wasting your time, because they were hollering and hooting and carrying on until the wee small hours.’’
When Lloyd Kerr, a former president of the Board of Trustees, was asked in 1978 about residents who exchanged houses, he replied that they also were “exchanging their spouses.’’
“That was Prohibition,’’ he said, and among ‘’the young people who were living here …. it was considered smart to get booze and get a little cockeyed. A lot of marriages were broken up just because of that idiocy.’’
Community social events were boisterous. Robert Turner, Radburn’s second manager, recalled that dances sponsored by groups such as the Bridge Club and the Fire Company were very popular. “Although there were many stories about these functions,’’ he said, “the general rule was ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.’’’
But the Depression, which followed the stock market crash of October 1929, put a damper on the festivities – sort of.
“We couldn’t have parties, so we had something called a ‘Depression Party,’’’ recalled Harriet Roeder, who moved with her husband Bill to Allen Place in 1929. “You’d invite a bunch of people who’d bring whatever they had. … Everybody brought (some kind of alcohol) and dumped it into the punch bowl. How we survived, I don’t know!’’
But eventually even Radburn’s partying spirit was dampened by economic reality. Many of the biggest partiers “went broke and had to leave,’’ Duerr said. “So things quieted down around here quite a bit.’’