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Save Montclair from … whom, exactly?

Last week the president and the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that they would be dismantling a 2015 provision of the Fair Housing Act (itself a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) that required any municipality that received federal funding for housing to comply with the FHA’s anti-bias stipulations. 

Remarks made in support of this by the president characterized public housing as an affront to the aesthetics of the suburbs, and he suggested that those residing in public housing are criminals who are a burden on those who pay property taxes in the community.

I will admit that I don’t know if this rollback will affect any of Montclair’s current or future rental stock, but the sentiments expressed by the president are not only common among suburban conservatives, but also sadly mirror those of the group Save Montclair quite closely.

According to their own website, it is the group’s mission to “stop the development of oversized buildings” and to only support development if it “enhances the financial health” of the town, among some other unsubtle verbiage about “preservation” and “heritage” if you weren’t already tipped off by the dog whistling. Given the fact that the grotesque McMansions on Upper Mountain Avenue seem to be of no concern to the group (they even attempted to save the empty Lewis estate on Pleasant Avenue when it was planned to be demolished to make room for eight single-family homes), it is quite clear what types of oversized buildings they are targeting.

Montclair is no doubt beholden to private developers to fill out the sorely needed affordable housing stock in town, and I’ll be the first to criticize these soulless slumlords with zero sense of architectural compatibility or consistency. 

Every city government in America is praying that these vile, private-equity-backed cabals of property management companies and their legal teams will market their town as a desirable place to live and get former prison architects to design what are essentially ugly college dorms for adults, call it something like “the Lofts at Bay Street” and charge $1,800 a month for a one-bedroom. Because of the unwillingness of our governments to provide operational and capital budgeting for good public housing this is, unfortunately, what many of us are left with.

I will, however, stop very far short of halting the construction of these buildings with no readily available alternative. Save Montclair suggests on their website that we repurpose existing and abandoned structures for affordable housing, which I actually would support in some situations. 

However, there are two glaring problems with this. First, there isn’t exactly an entire district of abandoned piano factories lying around for us to repurpose. Second, this is dangerously akin to an unsuccessful bid to limit gentrification in big cities called “downzoning.” A sometimes well-intentioned policy that attempts to stave off new construction in an area through a bastardized version of historic preservation in lieu of an actual rent control policy. 

This, of course, only restricts supply while doing nothing to mitigate demand, the end result being a few “new” units whose demand is so high that only the very wealthy can afford them or, if they are designated as “affordable,” you end up with a waiting list (much like the ones we already have in Montclair!) decades long with nowhere to go in the meantime. 

Perhaps not so ironically, these units will likely still be managed by the same developers that Save Montclair pretends to deride on the basis of historic integrity. 

The group so obviously does not care who profits off of the commodification of a basic human right as long as they don’t have to be reminded of it.

One last note — let’s say you are, like me, convinced that Save Montclair is just a bored obstructionist group of NIMBYs who concern themselves more with aesthetics and the gnawing, upper-middle-class paranoia of decreasing property values than they are with fulfilling the basic human need of shelter. Maybe, however, you still feel that renters don’t pull their weight when it comes to paying property taxes. 

If that describes you, I would implore you to ask yourself a few things. For the rented buildings that are subject to property tax, who do you think provides the landlords the money to pay those taxes? Who do you think uses, benefits from, and is advocating for a better town, the renter who lives in town and spends half their income on rental property tax and the other half on local services, or the landlord who oftentimes lives elsewhere? 

You will get nowhere by demonizing the poor when they are far and away the ones championing harder for a more livable and equitable Montclair, even as the property-owning class regards them as burdensome vermin and is hellbent on banishing them for a chance at a bigger payday.

Renters comprise 44 percent of the population of Montclair, which is higher than the state average. The wealth gap is continuing to widen in this country, and real estate and property speculation continues to provide a widened avenue for the accumulation of wealth. 

As this happens, the poor, working and renting class relationship to the landowning class in Montclair is becoming more and more fundamentally asymmetrical. The supposition of Save Montclair and the fledgling Montclair Property Owners Association that we find some sort of “middle ground” on rent control is increasingly becoming impossible, but it has always been insulting. 

We in the Fourth Ward need housing and food security, not reconciliation with the half of the town that likens us to an infestation. New development in town may be ugly, and it may not provide an adequate percentage of affordable units to preserve the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the town that you like to show off but never experience, but it is sorely needed. 

The Save Montclair group’s insinuation that the “character” and public services of the town are in jeopardy is frighteningly close to arguments made by northern segregationists in the ’60s and ’70s in places like Detroit and Boston, and was echoed yet again by our commander in chief just last week. 

I must say I am jealous of the members of Save Montclair that they will have a presidential candidate to vote for in November with whom they can emphatically agree on most issues.

Rent Control Now. Food Security Now. We are not the ones Montclair needs to be saved from.



Doing more on school safety

Montclair, we need to do more to keep our students and teachers safe. Vague advice from the CDC and New Jersey has left our public schools scrambling and without clear direction. The Montclair community should lead the way by putting protections in place that will allow our kids to be back in the classroom and to socialize safely. Here are some approaches that parents should advocate for in their child’s school:

  • • Provide KN95 masks for all of our teachers! (N95 hospital masks are not available to the public, but KN95s provide similar protection and are essential to stop airborne transmission for around $2 per disposable mask).
  • • Provide masks for all kids in our schools. For the cost of a Starbucks, you can keep a student safe for a week.
  • • Voluntary COVID-19 testing every week.
  • • Training for our teachers about how to teach an engaging virtual class when school buildings close.

Parents need to understand that some masks are more protective than others. Cloth masks are the least protective. A filter can be added to a cloth mask to help with protection. Surgical masks are only slightly more protective but do not fit tightly. 

Cloth and surgical masks only really work well if EVERYONE is wearing them. Wearing a mask is a consideration to others, saying I respect you enough to protect you from any virus I might have. If others are not wearing masks, your best protection is a KN95 that fits your face well, with a metal piece to mold around the bridge of your nose. 

KN95s are a necessity for any teacher or administrator around students who cannot wear masks for developmental or behavioral reasons. Wearing a mask loosely, under your nose, does not protect you or others.

I’m back to a private special needs school, and I’m fortunate to work at a school that cares for its students and staff. After spending a fortune on cleaning products, shields and protective KN95 masks for all staff, we live the new school norm, and it is working.



Leaving no students behind

The front page article in the 7/30 edition of the Local — all about learning in bubbles, those families creating “COVID pods” to ensure their students get socialization as well as professional tutoring during the COVID time — shows the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit in Montclair.  

Protecting our children from falling behind in school can only be seen as praiseworthy.  But what about those who don’t have the space, time or money to fund such an operation?  These students cannot help but fall behind, through no fault of their own.  The inequity in these “pods” is built-in.  How do we live up to Montclair’s ideals and ensure that all students have access to socialization and professional tutoring during this time? 

References to Katrina Bulkley’s “ideal world” are sprinkled throughout the article.  Of primary interest and importance is (under “Pods for all”) “she would like to see the district partner with churches and community-based organizations that could offer the pod education option to families with two working parents who cannot afford to hire a teacher to oversee a pod.”  

Let us tap into that same creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that spawned the pod movement and figure out how to ensure that no student is left behind.



Take police out of public schools

Across the nation, we have been hearing calls to “defund the police” as more and more people realize what exactly the American police stands for and does (hint: it’s not protecting or serving). Montclair is no exception in this movement.

On July 19, a new organization called Montclair Beyond Policing (MBP) held a virtual town hall with Mayor Sean Spiller to discuss the Montclair Police Department budget, with speakers from Montclair Beyond Policing and other groups. In the MBP presentation, speaker Maya Jenkins was the one to introduce what their organization believes to be the major steps our town can take toward police defunding. One of the steps listed was the removal of police officers, or school resource officers, from school grounds. I couldn’t agree more.

Anyone who has been watching the news lately, or has ever been Black in America, knows the threat that the police pose to Black people. Black students and children are not spared from this danger. Countless other examples reinforce this fact. Data show that Black students are arrested or referred to law enforcement 2.3 times more than their white counterparts, and tragedies such as the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice show how dangerous and destructive it is to have police around Black children. 

Locally, Amiri Bradley, a Black MHS alum, refers to the Montclair Police Department in a Facebook post as “the racist police department that arrested me twice before the end of seventh grade without any cause whatsoever, detaining me for six plus hours and illegally forcing me to sign away my rights to be in certain public places.” 

There is no reason for any armed person to detain a 12-year-old, and clearly no reason to have cops in our schools, since these stories and proven data show that they can do much more harm than good for Montclair’s Black children.

A fellow member of MHS’ class of ’22, Anaya Thomas, puts it quite well— “When you think of police, you often think of criminals and crime, and you shouldn’t criminalize students early …  (that) is why when you look at the United States prison system, it is mainly made up of African American males.” 

The presence of police in our schools criminalizes Black students from kindergarten and tries to condition them into a life of subjugation. Their removal would help end the school-to-prison pipeline.

Thomas makes another excellent point, which is that the money spent on school resource officers should be instead spent on the mental health of students. This ties into one of the major reasons why much of the public believes we need police officers in schools: to prevent student drug use. 

Many parents, when picturing a teen who uses drugs, picture a messily dressed teen who skips class, goes to parties and steals in order to fuel their drug habit. While these children also deserve help, a more accurate and common picture is of a student who is shunned or bullied by their classmates, suffering from depression or anxiety, or whose parents cannot afford to put them in extracurriculars, and as a result of their unfair circumstances turns to drugs to console or distract themselves.

The fact is that the majority of people who are drug addicts become addicted because the drug fills some psychological hole for them. The solution to this is not to punish children and permanently stain their future for a mistake made as a result of circumstances they cannot control. Instead, we need to have more free and accessible after-school programs for all students, regular mental health checks and psychological help that is free for all students so that it is not only rich white students who can fix their mental health. Violent fights can be ended and avoided without police in a similar way, if we use trained social workers and de-escalators and expand upon Montclair High School’s existing restorative justice program.

Of course, though, there is the obvious issue of school shootings. The thought of having a malicious, armed person in our school is terrifying — and also what Black students experience every day by having police officers in the building. There is no quick fix that will protect us from a school shooting. Even having a resource officer isn’t useful; there have only been two times where a school resource officer successfully intervened in a shooting, ever. To contrast, all one has to do is look at social media or the news to see how often police arrest Black people and children. The trade-off is not worth it.

Besides, by reinvesting the money spent on school resource officers into mental health and restorative justice programs, the increased well-being and camaraderie within the school will likely decrease the amount of potential school shooters over time. 

This is not a perfect or quick solution, but it is better than putting Black students at risk every day for the sake of a poor defense system that may never come into use.

Hopefully by now readers understand why removing police from school campuses is so necessary, but some may still wonder how it relates to defunding the police overall, and why it is such a vital first step toward non-punitive justice. The answer lies in the fact that we are specifically removing police from schools — that is, decreasing not only general dependency on police, but youth dependency. 

Removing resource officers and reallocating their funds into mental health and restorative justice will teach the current youth to rely on their community, health professionals, empathy and restorative justice to keep themselves and their peers not only safe but happy.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum, I have seen many of my peers share posts on social media about mental health, community bond-building, de-escalation techniques and nonviolent solutions to police. People my age are beginning to view justice as healing and communication, not as punishment and revenge. Imagine if an entire school, class of graduates or generation was taught this mind-set.

Ultimately, though, the main reason police must be taken out of schools is not for the sake of an agenda. It is because we cannot continue letting Black students be endangered in their spaces of learning. 

We have about a month before some students will begin to return to campuses, and when we do, we cannot also return to the threat of school police officers. We won’t.

The writer is a rising junior at Montclair High School.


Gratitude for teen activism

2020 is a lot of things, but without dispute it has truly been the year that our young people have stepped up to lead. Two weeks ago a local group called In Harmony Montclair (IHM) held its annual Harmony Concert, albeit virtually. This year, Start Out Fresh Intervention Advocates (SOFIA) was honored to be the recipient of the funds raised via the event, which reached just shy of $5000. 

This would be amazing enough on its own, especially for a small, grassroots nonprofit like SOFIA. However, what impressed us beyond measure was that the group is made up entirely of tweens and teens from age 10 through age 17. All the planning, fundraising, organization, rehearsal via zoom, community building, technical setup and performing was run by a fantastic team of teens, led by IHM founder and director Maggie Borgen. Visit them at

The much-needed funds raised will go directly towards facilitating our #WeCare program that delivers COVID-19-related supplies and staples to our clients in Montclair and Essex County. They will also help us continue our workshops and outreach programs as we adjust to effectively holding them virtually while maintaining confidentiality and with our trademark personal touch. Our gratitude for the efforts of the young people in In Harmony Montclair knows no bounds. 

SOFIA is also thrilled that In Harmony Montclair has agreed to be a youth sponsor of our 10th annual Walk Against Domestic Violence on Sept.  12. As we are holding the walk both in-person in Canterbury Park and virtually to allow for participation from everyone who wants to join in, we look forward to the influx of teenage energy and innovation. SOFIA’s walk is usually the biggest fundraiser of the year; however, we know that this year will pose additional challenges to spread the message that “With Awareness There Is Hope.” This is why we hope the entire community will come out and join us to Walk Against Domestic Violence.

Please visit or our social media channels for more information about our 10th annual Walk Against Domestic Violence. We hope to walk with you!


Cynthia Walker is founder and executive director of SOFIA. Kristin Wald is vice president of SOFIA’s board.


Schools: reopen or repurpose?

We keep waiting and hoping, but there is no vaccine yet, there is no cure yet, and there seems to be little understanding of the pathology of the Coronavirus. As fall approaches and school reopening plans are being formulated, perhaps it is time to rethink and reinvent.

Current plans seem to be focused on two paths – hybrid and remote learning. The hybrid model limits the number of hours children spend at school, the remote model eliminates the hours entirely. Instead of either of these two options, how about repurposing schools for the present as childcare centers intended primarily for those learners who for one reason or another most need the school environment, with practically all instruction online whether children are in school buildings or at home?

Unlike many essential workers, teachers have the ability to work safely from home. What if school buildings were opened systematically for the neediest and the youngest -- special education students and those on free and reduced lunches, children who lack viable online access, children of parents who can’t work from home, K through 2nd graders, etc.? Supervision, if not instruction, could be handled by staff less at risk of developing severe Covid symptoms, but nearly all the formal teaching would be online, and maximum energy and resources could be spent on making learning the best it can be.

No system for opening schools in the middle of a pandemic will solve all problems but until a vaccine is available, repurposing the school buildings might be one way to minimize the inevitable shortcomings imposed by coping with the virus. How about we make learning accessible from anywhere, including from within the buildings? How about we come together as a community with a collective solution, with a willingness to give something up so that those who need the help get the help? So while we evaluate hybrid vs remote learning, how about we ask ourselves - are we looking for childcare or are we looking for children to learn?