Teaneck deserves a good rep, not bad rap

March 16, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

READING ABOUT the shooting death of rap artist Notorious B.I.G. in Los Angeles last week, I was intrigued to note that the performer had lived in Teaneck, N.J., a bedroom community outside New York City. It is a pretty little town that I remember fondly, having lived there for six years after my family moved to the suburbs from Harlem, just across the Hudson River, in 1960.

B.I.G., whose real name was Christopher Wallace, moved to Teaneck from Brooklyn a few years ago. He lived in the Glenpoint section of town, an exclusive, gated community of pricey condos. So I was tempted to think of him as a striver much as my neighbors had been more than three decades earlier.

Except there is a big difference. The folks who left the city for Teaneck in the '60s came mostly because they had done good wherever they were before. B.I.G., who boasted of selling crack in Brooklyn before finding fame as a rapper, got there because he did bad.

I don't mean to sound judgmental. Of course, it's difficult to be objective about a place where one has spent many formative years. But I can't help feeling Teaneck deserved better than Notorious B.I.G.

Actually, there are many parallels between B.I.G.'s journey and that of my parents' friends and neighbors, all refugees from New York City, and before that from points farther south.

My parents had come to New York from North Carolina in the early 1940s, when Harlem was still the "Negro Capital of the World," and they stayed right up until the big heroin epidemic hit at the end of the 1950s. We were part of the first wave of black suburban flight.

I was 12 at the time, and I hated the idea of leaving New York. Harlem in the 1950s was still a vibrant community, and the suburbs seemed pale by comparison.

Still, there were compensations. In the early '60s, for example, Teaneck was home to dozens of top musicians whose presence influenced me in ways large and small. My high-school trombone teacher was the first-chair player for the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and the father of one of my school chums played with the famed Guarneri Quartet.

For years our next-door neighbors included jazz trumpeter Nat Adderly and singer Chuck Jackson. Nat's brother, saxophonist Cannonball Adderly, lived around the corner, and jazz flutist Yusef Lateef lived a few blocks away. I got to know them on my first job in the news business -- delivering papers for the Bergen ++ Record.

I hasten to add, our family wasn't rich. We wound up next to such celebrities because housing discrimination in the New York area was so rigid at the time there probably were fewer than a dozen blocks in all Northern New Jersey where blacks could buy homes. Teaneck was one of the few places that made us feel welcome.

Looking back, I can see that it was indeed a model town in many ways. Teaneck was proud of the award it won in the 1940s as the country's best-managed town. In the 1950s, a toothpaste company featured it in ads that suggested the residents of any town could be as happy as those in Teaneck if only they brushed with Crest.

But in the '60s, Teaneck suddenly was confronted with the explosive issue of racial discrimination in housing and education, which threatened to tear apart its hard-won traditions of civility and intergroup comity. I remember because my family was doing some of the confronting.

The town already was quite an ethnic mix: Irish and Italian Catholics, Dutch and German Protestants, German and Russian Jews, plus assorted Eastern Europeans, French Canadians, etc.

And, amazingly, Teaneck actually managed to integrate both its neighborhoods and its schools in relatively short order. There was hardly any of the disruption that accompanied integration elsewhere, and certainly none of the violence.

Teaneck's voluntary self-transformation was described in a remarkable little novel, "Peaceable Lane," which to this day everyone believes was written under a pseudonym by one of the town's outspoken liberal activists. It was a lesson on the power of art as an instrument for social change that I took to heart.

Last week I called former mayor Eileen Kielsczek (pronounced KEEL-a-check) to see how Teaneck residents were taking news of B.I.G.'s death.

She said several residents had worried the singer's notoriety would reflect badly on their town, which, if anything, has grown even more diverse in the years since I left. The newcomers include blacks, Hispanics and Asians. The fastest growing group is young, Orthodox Jews fleeing the hassles of city life. They are opening new synagogues at a record clip.

Many of them probably relocated from Brooklyn, where Notorious B.I.G. and his gang helped fuel the crack epidemic that tore their community apart -- just as my beloved Harlem was torn apart 30 years ago by thugs dealing drugs.

It's ironic that B.I.G. should have moved to suburban Teaneck and lived in a gated community there in order to escape the social chaos his criminality had wreaked on the city.

Still, I guess if I lived in Teaneck I would have tried to be a good neighbor to him. It would have been hard, though, because every time I looked at his face it would have reminded me how there are some people in this world who simply have no shame.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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