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A as gracious as the shady township of Montclair is, as hip and pricey as it is becoming, there’s no escaping the fact that it sits squarely in New Jersey, a beacon in the vast sea of ugly industrial and suburban sprawl that is the state’s most famous characteristic. Malls and condo complexes lap at its lush borders from every side.
But Montclair remains an enclave of old homes on streets lined with giant oaks and maples planted eighty years ago, some of which fall in every big storm. It has more movie screens than hardware stores and more Thai and Japanese restaurants than fast-food outlets. It is utterly obsessed with education and the present and future development of its much-attended-to children.
Founded as a summer retreat for wealthy New Yorkers, it also reflects the sobering disparities in wealth that characterize contemporary America. Along the ridges of the Watchung Hills, the living rooms of vast, meticulously maintained mansions have clear views of the Manhattan skyline. In the South End, small apartments and houses are home to most of the town’s poor residents.
For reasons few can recall, Montclair is actually divided into two parts—Upper Montclair and plain old Montclair. The two Montclairs share the same government, municipal services, and school system, but Upper Montclair is richer and whiter, with an upscale shopping area and its own zip code.
Partly because of its proximity to the cultural and media institutions along Manhattan’s West Side, Montclair attracts rafts of writers, artists, editors, journalists, TV producers, and other media people. So even minor civic squabbles tend to make their way onto the pages of The New York Times, since half the people who work at the paper live here, or so it sometimes seems.
Montclair is, for much of the surrounding area, a Manhattan surrogate, a place to go for indie movies or fusion cuisine.
It’s commonplace to go out for a walk and see a commercial being shot at the picturesque train station down the street, to encounter a New Yorker writer or a soap-opera star at church or at the organic-foods supermarket, or to spot Yogi Berra, the New York Yankee legend, getting his SUV serviced downtown.
Less-celebrated residents commute into Manhattan or out to the exurban office complexes and business parks that stain the surrounding countryside. A growing number sit by their computers all day in home offices, visited at intervals by UPS and Fed-Ex trucks, with whose drivers they are on a first-name basis.
Newcomers—drawn by improved rail lines into the city, the town’s growing rep for sophisticated cultural offerings, and its deserved tolerance for diversity (all driving real estate prices through the clouds)—are streaming in from Brooklyn and Manhattan. They bring an informed, somewhat combative, politically correct edge to the civic life of a town that was fairly intense to start with.
Montclair is also something of a social laboratory, where trends and traits pop up before hitting the rest of the country. Moms leaving home for work, kids strollered around by nannies, dads staying at home, then moms growing disillusioned with the workplace and returning home to raise their kids—we could track it all as we walked our dogs. We saw the influx of families with two mommies or two daddies. We watched the town become a magnet for interracial couples. An already successful and settled black professional class expanded. The Wall Streeters stayed with their Beamers and Mercedes.
In fact, Montclair seems to include some of everything and everyone. WASP country-clubbers live more or less harmoniously with Jews and blacks; single professionals from Manhattan coexist with kid-crazed boomers from Brooklyn; ardent liberal professors and Republicans and conservatives manage to get along; lesbian and gay families mingle with Asian immigrants.
Of Montclair’s 38,977 inhabitants, 23,000 are white and 13,000 African-American. The 2000 census also found 73 American Indian or Alaskan natives, 1,300 Asians, and nearly 2,000 Hispanics.
Maybe they get along reasonably well because there is no mistaking what Montclair is primarily about: children. Kids are why most people move here or stay here, why they sound off angrily at school board meetings and gather intelligence on math teachers and soccer coaches with the same ruthlessness and determination that archaeologists comb desert sites for dinosaur bones.
Day and night, station wagons, SUVs, and vans zip back and forth between friends’ houses and hockey and lacrosse games, karate classes and art lessons. For Montclair’s hyperstimulated middle-class children, a day without a positive educational or social experience is—well, there hardly are such days.
But high up on the list of things this polyglot town cares most deeply about—close behind real estate values—comes dogs.
Montclair, it turns out, is Dogville, U.S.A. According to the American Veterinary Association’s U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook, Montclair almost perfectly exemplifies the American dog-owning population—educated, affluent, child-centered, and middle-class to the core.
Dog ownership increases as family income rises. Nearly 40 percent of American households with annual incomes of $60,000 or more own a dog, compared with fewer than a quarter of households with less than $25,000 in income.
More than three-quarters of dog owners nationwide are home owners, and dog owners are much more likely to be highly educated than the population as a whole. This is Montclair.
As is obvious on TV every night, dogs have become part of the American Dream package, that vision of supposed success and joy that includes a house, a patch of lawn, kids, and a car or two. An affectionate canine companion completes the picture.
In Montclair, people focus on their dogs with much the same intensity they apply to their children, the difference being that dogs can’t play sports, take music lessons, or apply to college, fortunately for them.
I’ve been walking dogs—first Clarence, a golden retriever; then two yellow Labs named Julius and Stanley; now two border collies named Devon and Homer—in and around Montclair for nearly two decades.
So have a lot of other people, raising all the policy issues that have cropped up in every town with dogs: Should dogs walk off-leash? Should they be permitted to run freely in parks, or, for that matter, be admitted to parks at all? How much barking constitutes a nuisance? Should people be permitted to own so-called “dangerous” breeds like pit bulls? How vigorously should the police enforce clean-up laws? What if people want to own more than one dog or two?
Such questions have become so sensitive that what a big-city newspaper would refer to as “a senior police official” would agree to meet with me only on condition of anonymity. He also insisted on leaving the jurisdiction: we met at the Eagle Rock Diner in adjacent West Orange. “In my shoes,” he told me in a hushed voice over coffee, “there is just no percentage in talking publicly about dogs. Every dog call is bad. Either there’s a nasty biter loose, or some dog ran away, or there’s a dogfight, or somebody’s dog is barking late at night. It’s nothing but trouble. Whatever you do, you lose. People will fight harder for their dogs than they do for themselves.”
The township issued 1,049 licenses for dogs in 2001, but officials think at least three times that number are in residence without licenses. Although local ordinances require vaccinations and licensure, the senior police official confided what dog owners already know: this isn’t high on the cops’ list of unlawful activities, so the law gets widely ignored.
The numbers fluctuate, of course. Trainers and walkers and groomers talk about “Christmas dogs,” the legions of adorably beribboned puppies placed under trees that will inevitably mean an upswing in their business a few months hence.
Like the rest of the town, the registered dog population is diverse. But among the properly licensed dogs are, in round numbers, 50 beagles, 150 golden retrievers, 200 Labs and Lab mixes, 20 German pointers, and a dozen cairn terriers along with hundreds of mixed and indefinable breeds.
Because dog ownership correlates with class, since they are expensive to own, Montclair may have more thoroughbreds than many towns; despite its mix of incomes, it remains a predominantly upper-middle-class community. But people’s attitudes and feelings about their pets are the same, regardless of income.
It’s stunning just how much the dog experience has changed in the past few decades. Years ago, people went to the pound to find a dog, or got a puppy from a friend’s or neighbor’s litter. Those who bought purebreds or boutique breeds were a privileged minority, their well-born dogs an affectation.
Dog training was little known and little needed, since most dogs merely wandered their neighborhoods and were seldom walked on leashes. Mailmen and children got bitten from time to time, but it hardly ever made the news. Fighting breeds were almost unheard-of. People surely loved their dogs, but by contemporary standards, few spent much time or money on them. Dogs were in the background, not at the center, of family life. They slept in the basement or—unthinkable today—in a backyard doghouse, chased after cars and other dogs, ate table scraps.
They came and went. Some got hit by cars, others ran off or were put down when they got sick or old. When that happened, people went to the pound for another dog. Beyond the initial round of puppy shots, people rarely invested much in veterinary care.
Often much loved and fondly remembered, dogs were not treated as family members, according to behaviorists who have studied human-animal bonds. Nor did they have playdates, a phenomenon fairly common in Montclair today. The notion that they were a part of one’s deepest emotional experiences would have been a joke.