Beauty Spots and Breathing Room

by Christine Adams Beckett

Charles W. Anderson at age 58, circa 1905. Photo courtesy of The Friends of Anderson Park Conservancy website.

Every Montclairion should be very grateful for Charles W. Anderson, who donated 15 acres of his own land in 1903 to the Essex County Park System, the first ever of such systems of parks in the nation.  He was working on a town Committee regarding land conservation as early as 1896, but in the end it was only Anderson, an insurance executive, who put his money (in the form of land) where his mouth was, forming what is now the park that bears his name.  The rest of Montclair followed suit, acquiring land financed by a bond issuance, a financial move that proved to be very controversial at the time.  Townspeople were up in arms because the issuance would create debt for future tax payers.  Those who didn’t utilize the parks or didn’t expect to, were renting and would feel the trickle down effects of high taxes in the form of higher rents, outright opposed the park development project.

Thankfully, Anderson and others had the foresight to see the importance in reserving what we now refer to as “green space.”  The town was changing rapidly, becoming less of a destination for those in the City seeking breathable air and more of a place of permanent residence.

In 1856, the train came to what was then known as West Bloomfield, making present-day Montclair a picturesque destination for Sunday excursions, featuring panoramic views from our First Mountain and rolling pastures below.  By 1860, many decided to stay and take that train ride in reverse, making West Bloomfield, now newly-named Montclair, a bedroom community for New York City businessmen.  When residents outgrew the one train at what is now Lackawanna Plaza and Bloomfield authorities did not agree to a bond issue to underwrite another railroad, these same businessmen were able to lobby the State legislature for a charter to form a separate township, Montclair.  By 1873, the Greenwood Lake Line brought five stations to Montclair, offering many convenient options for the 6,000 commuters in our community.  The result is as expected; according to the town’s website, “Montclair’s population leaped from 5,147 to 42,017 between 1880 and 1930.”

If you were to look at an aerial shot of Montclair today, you would understand the foresight of C.W. Anderson.  Our suburban oasis would have been more like a congested pile-up of homes and cars without lungs the likes of Anderson, Brookdale, Edgemont, Nishuane and Glenfield set aside as thoughtfully developed spaces of beauty and breath, conceived by the Olmstead Landscape Design Firm, no less.  The town was growing exponentially at the turn of the Century, developing so quickly that the railroads could barely keep up with the demand.  To create what Anderson himself called spots of beauty and breathing room, he spearheaded the effort to acquire land to be set aside for public use, ironically located across Bellevue Avenue from the train station, an aptly named street which offered a framework of beauty to those stepping off the train from New York.

Lisanne Renner, historian for the Friends of Anderson Park Conservancy gave a charming tour of the Park recently, well attended by a smiling group of friendly villagers in the mood for a Saturday morning stroll.  What we all found most remarkable is how much we had taken the beautiful, pastoral acreage for granted.  For six years now, my dog and I have jogged its windy, thoughtful paths by centenarian trees all the while very tightly wrapped in our own world of day-to-day distractions.  What I didn’t know is that there was an entire history behind the acquirement and maintenance of the Park, now lovingly cared for with a keen respect for its rich history; the Friends organization has even acquired an original copy of the Olmstead Landscape plan from the The Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site’s extensive archives.  The Conservancy uses it as its Master Plan today, with sensitivity to modern knowledge; for example, many plant species that were fashionale during the Victorian era are now considered invasive, so those professionals affiliated with the the Friends of Anderson will suggest a more eco-friendly alternative.

During tomorrow’s run, I will look for those trees that stood in Olmstead’s original design.  I will seek to find where they proposed to put an underpass walkway under the railroad tracks to Upper Montclair Center, but never did.  I will be grateful for a man who in 1903 championed a less-than-popular idea for something that would become so integral to our daily lives that we take it for granted today.  I pledge never to be so blasé again about the tangible pieces of beauty that represent a larger spirit of community  that surround us.