David Cummings looks back and ahead at the Fourth Ward
On Mission Street, the seasons passed one into the next with barely a hint of change. Up and down the block, neighbors shared celebrations and heartaches and watched after one another’s children as if they were their own. With utility poles marking the end zones, the boys played touch football year-round, in summers late into the evening.
“It is one of the cradles of the Fourth Ward,” David Cummings said. “Because anyone who lived in Montclair, they lived on Mission Street, or they had a family member who lived there.”
But Cummings, Montclair’s Fourth Ward councilor, knows that this block – just around the corner from Lackawanna Plaza – and this neighborhood that had remained a constant for Black families over generations has been buffeted by change. It is emblematic now, he says, of the ways gentrification can seep in and transform a community.
On a bittersweet walking excursion on a recent morning, he played the wistful tour guide, retrieving small memories while recognizing he was talking about a place and time now gone. Scores of Black families have moved away as housing prices have soared, and more are sure to follow, he said.
He pointed to a three-story, white A-frame house at 69 Mission St. His childhood home, a three-family house, had stood in that spot. The owner of the new house on that parcel, he said, is renting it to one family for $6,000 a month. The house next door was recently sold for $1.2 million, Cummings said.
Looming over the block between Elmwood Avenue and Bloomfield Avenue and the entire neighborhood is a giant question: How will a redeveloped Lackawanna Plaza – make a left off Mission onto Bloomfield, walk about 150 yards, cross Bloomfield, and there it is – further reshape a community already in flux? Amid a years-long debate, the Township Council is deliberating over and revising elements of a redevelopment plan that will turn the plaza into a new commercial and residential hub.
Cummings sees hazards ahead for a Black community that is shrinking in Montclair. Not long ago, Black residents made up about 30% of the population. It is now moving below 20%, he said.
“With the continued development and the way prices are skyrocketing, those numbers are going to continue to dwindle,” he said.
“What is important is we're trying to make sure that the fabric of Montclair remains, and that fabric has always been the Black community. When people talk about diversity in Montclair, they’re talking about the strength and culture that the Black community has provided.”
Cummings called a recent 40% spike in rents for some apartments at nearby 11 Pine St. “literal rent abuse.”
“The landlord knows he can do it, and that’s all because of the redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza,” he said. “That’s nothing against the developer. That’s just a fact.”
He alluded to the 375 apartment units, including 20% for affordable housing, called for in the redevelopment plan.
Cummings stood at the entrance to the plaza’s shopping center, which is now mostly vacant.
Asked what he might be seeing from that vantage point once Lackawanna Plaza is remade, he said, “Buildings.”
“Imagine four-and-a-half- story apartment buildings,” he said. “They’ll be set back, and there will be open space, but that’s what will be here.”
He said that the plan would “bring affordable housing into the complex.” But then, with a wave of his arm away from the plaza, he added, “But it's also going to make everything else, all of this, unaffordable.”
His feelings, he acknowledged, are complicated by his “sense of duty” as a council member. He said that a lot of good can come from a built-up Lackawanna Plaza.
“I have a responsibility to think about what can be done for the township,” he said. “And if we do Lackawanna Plaza correctly, this can contribute to the ability to get a new municipal complex, which we need. Done right, we will be able to get a new municipal complex, almost at cost and not cost taxpayers anything, which then allows us to think about, hey, can we build the community center for senior citizens and young folks, too.
“Lackawanna Plaza can trigger those things. Because this is an opportunity for the town government to do what they've done in the past, which is to utilize development to keep taxes low and spurn other growth.”
While many in Montclair support the current plan, others fear it would encroach on the surrounding blocks. A number of town gatherings in recent months have often drawn standing-room-only crowds, with residents expressing anxieties that a newly conceived Lackawanna Plaza would create a stand-alone community, in effect separate from the Fourth Ward.
The plan includes five residential buildings, including four that would reach 87 feet in height. The proposal also would create 135,000 square feet of nonresidential space, 72,000 square feet of open space, plus a supermarket and other retail stores.
Also envisioned are those 375 apartments, with 20% set aside for affordable housing. By one calculation, the numbers comport with the area’s zoning code, which caps the number of residential units at 55 per acre. Lackawanna Plaza covers 8.2 acres.
But Cummings questioned the algorithm embedded in the plan that was drafted by the township with input from the developer, David Placek, managing partner of BDP Holdings. The amount of true space available for construction would allow for a cap of about 300 apartments, Cummings said.
“That’s where the negotiations should begin,” he said.
Cummings said that over a number of conversations with Placek, he had come to view the developer as a “good faith” negotiating partner. But Cummings said he was taken aback by an element of the plan he had not anticipated – the inclusion of 15% short-term corporate housing, which can typically be rented at higher prices.
“That was the first time I thought there was something a little disingenuous,” he said.
Ahead of the walking tour through his old neighborhood, Cummings issued a forewarning: “Wear comfortable shoes.”
In gray slacks, a dark blue pullover, along with white and silver Nike sneakers, he began at the small children’s play area in Glenfield Park on Maple Avenue. Pointing to the swings, he said that his mother and father met as adults in the baby park. His father’s parents had settled in Montclair in the 1920s.
During winters, Cummings, now 56, and his friends would play tackle football on a snow-covered basketball court. “There were no lights, none of that,” he said.
Sandy Hunter, Billy Fields and Charles Byrd, who were in charge of recreation at the park, played a defining role in the lives of Cummings and his friends, often centered on sports at Glenfield Park. Cummings later played point guard for the basketball team and defensive back for the football team at Montclair High School.
“They taught me that sports are 90% mental,” he said.
Walking along Elmwood Avenue, Cummings said that anyone who lived in the Fourth Ward back then simply said they were from the Ward, and it was understood. The area was virtually all Black, with some Italian families, he said.
As he worked his way along Mission Street, down the center of the road, it seemed that each length of sidewalk held an echo from his childhood. Leading a visitor, he sounded almost giddy at the chance to share names and remembrances.
“Right there, number 73, that’s the Rose family,” he said. “My best friend, Wayne Rose. His father grew up in that house. The Rose family is still there. Here, 77, that’s where my good friend, Herb Mayer, lived. My mother's best friend, Miss Ramsey, lived right there. She became our babysitter when my parents were not around.”
He pointed to another house, at 65 Mission St., which was owned by his great-grandmother, Susie Morgan.
“So that's what I'm saying, it was family,” he said. “You couldn’t go anywhere without a friend. All my friends, we all lived here together.”
The youngest of five siblings, Cummings was just 5 when the family moved to Orange Road in the south end of the Fourth Ward, an area, he said, with many Black professionals. Still, he would return constantly to Mission Street to be with his friends.
His father, Morris, who was a construction worker, is now 87 and lives in a senior citizen apartment complex. He still drives and, almost by magnetic force, makes a point of driving around his old neighborhood and down Mission Street, Cummings said.
Nearly two hours into the walk, Cummings still had more stops to make, including the Catchings-Owens Suite, where members of the Do Drop Inn, a seniors group, had gathered to play cards and have lunch. Cummings knew nearly everyone. Some, he said, were the fathers and mothers of old friends.
“These people,” he said. “They are the heart of Montclair. They are my moral compass.”
Sitting at one table, Jimmy Eason, 80, a Vietnam War veteran, said that he was part of the third generation of his family to call the Fourth Ward home. He said he was worried that a restored Lackawanna Plaza would force more people to abandon Montclair altogether.
“I would like to see some development there,” he said, “but at the same time, not to where you’re going to walk through a canyon of buildings.”
He sounded fatalistic about the prospect.
“I'm a realist,” Eason said. “It is going to come through because that's the way it is. We cannot stop it. It's a done deal.”
At the end of the walk, Cummings wound up back at Glenfield Park, in the Wally Choice Community Center. Nostalgia swept over him once more. He remembered participating in a production of “Grease” in the small activities room. The center will soon disappear, replaced by a more spacious facility just a few feet away. Inside, everything was being packed up or thrown away.
Craig Dunn, executive director of the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp., was there to help with the move. He replaced Al Pelham, who died two years ago. Pelham, Cummings said, was a guiding light for him and just about everyone who grew up in the neighborhood. Pelham, he said, was still advising him even after Cummings was elected to the council in 2020.
Dunn, who grew up in the Fourth Ward, said he was not threatened by the plans for Lackawanna Plaza, adding that it was important to avoid “a mindset that says you can't bring the outside world in, that you have to protect the world you have.”
“Then you have entropy,” said Cummings, offering a clinical analysis. “Energy in a controlled system decreases. That’s what happens to towns that don’t welcome people from the outside.”
After three hours, the walk was completed, and Cummings, with some foreboding in his voice, said that the changes reshaping his old neighborhood would ripple past Mission Street and Elmwood Avenue and beyond the Fourth Ward.
“What is important,” he said, “is that the history of Montclair doesn't get lost. There's a reason why this town has become what it is, and we're getting away from it.”