Chris Scanlon

Go Matawan

Much to my surprise my hometown of Matawan, NJ was listed as one of the top 50 towns by Businessweek to "raise your kids for less." In fact it came in at 12. I must admit I am a little shocked by this. This is not the Matawan I remember.

The article lists the top 50 towns with the best family-oriented neighborhoods, the most affordable homes and the best schools. They say "a good measure of all the things a child needs to grow and prosper every parent should consider when choosing a new home: test scores, cost of living, recreational and cultural activities, number of schools, and risk of crime." To determine the best schools the authors took into account the number of public and private schools in the vicinity, how well the reading and math test scores at those schools stacked up against the state average, and any No Child Left Behind awards or grants received from the government. Oh yeah, they mentioned something about "diversity" as part of the criteria. Gotta put that in somewhere....

In the TOP 50....wow. Things sure have changed since I was a kid. Still, recent visits show another side of "12" that the article doesn't talk about. Businessweek failed to mention the massive sprawl that's spreading in Matawan and Monmouth County. The authors seem to value open green space as an important part of the picture, but if this is the case how the hell did Matawan come in at 12? What I've seen there and in surrounding towns the past few years is farm lands, woods and fields replaced by cheap condos, one on top of the other with little or no green space. Sure, this happens everywhere. Development happens. Houses get built. Schools get built. Businesses are created. But there seems to be no long term sustainable growth plan in place. The policy seems to be "build wherever we can, as cheaply and as crowded as possible." Aesthetics, land preservation and common sense do not apply. Does Businessweek consider overdevelopement a "cultural activity"?

It was no surprise to me that several Monmouth County mayors were found guilty of bribery and conspiracy a couple of years back, in collusion with developers, construction firms and even mafia to ease restrictions and zoning laws so more and more crappy homes could be built. The Feds busted them well after the money changed hands, the farms were dug up and the foundations poured. Businessweek might have mentioned that. Great place for kids. I guess the risk of white collar crime doesn't register on their crime-o-meter.

Hard to think about Matawan that way, as "12". When I grew up there my parents had just fled New York City in a white flight panic, hoping "12" would be a safe haven from what the city had become. They weren't alone in the Flatbush Diaspora. It seemed all the families I knew left Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Jersey City or Newark for the promise of safer streets and quiet nights. In my neighborhood, Strathmore, there were three styles of houses repeated over and over again: the Rancher, the Country Clubber, and the Cape. This uniform and non-descript design, created by William J. Levitt of Levittown fame, was monotonous and had no character. Coming home from work at night you could easily pull up to the wrong house, open the wrong door, and sit down to eat with the wrong family. When I think of Strathmore now it reminds me of the planet Camazotz in "A Wrinkle in Time", where "all objects and places appear exactly alike as the living are forced to conform by an unseen and menacing force."

Now all their kids are moving back to Brooklyn and renovating brownstones. Funny.

When I think of Matawan schools I think of my senior year in high school when our teachers worked without a contract and the students staged a walkout in protest.  Massive budget cuts, programs slashed....you know the drill. This seemed to happen in "12" every few years.

I remember being in 2nd grade and barely able to read. My teachers didn't notice. "12" schools at their best.

I think of the racially charged fights of the 1970s between kids in Strathmore and black kids from Cliffwood Beach, another neighborhood in Matawan.  I remember a mob of kids on our front lawn coming to attack my brother. I think of hoodlums bred from suburban malaise. I think of a friend from the neighborhood smashing the glass of a pinball machine at Shop Rite out of pure boredom or frustration, or maybe because he saw "Tommy" the week before. Vandalism was the recreation in Matawan back then. 

12 in the top 50 places to raise your kids for less. Well, I can tell you I was raised there with less. Go Matawan.

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