Placemaking Spotlight: Montclair, New Jersey

One of North New Jersey’s most highly-regarded towns balances nature and city adventure

Rooted in Essex County, the town of Montclair was founded in 1868. As the railroad industry grew, Montclair evolved from a commuter stop on the way to New York City to a tourist destination of its own. Named after the French term for “clear mountain”, Montclair lives up to its descriptive name by offering plenty of opportunities for outdoor excursions and undeniable beauty.

Located just thirty minutes from bustling Manhattan, near the Passaic River and north of present-day Newark, Montclair has always been a gathering place and connecting point of sorts. Before the railroads came along, the Lenape Native Americans stopped there for hunting and trapping on their way to collect shellfish on the shore.

In 1679, Dutch settlers acquired land in this area, which was occupied by the English at the time. Azariah Crane, deacon of the Presbyterian Church of Newark, founded a village called Cranetown (now southern Montclair). “Speertown” was the name given to the northern half in honor of Dutchman John Speer, the first European to settle in the area.

Cranetown, over the century, would witness critical moments in the early American history. During the Revolutionary War, the town provided observation points for forces on both sides of the conflict. The soldiers who passed through and decamped here left many artifacts.

As New York grew into a thriving metropolis, the commercial potential for communities located nearby became increasingly evident. The Newark and Bloomfield Railroad Company expanded its network to connect the area with the city. The town’s name was changed to “West Bloomfield” in 1856, and it grew into a commuter hub, with some 6,000 riders daily. However, recognizing a need to give the city a more appealing “brand” to attract more residents and visitors, its name was changed to the more marketing-friendly Montclair. In addition to welcoming railroad riders, it became the perfect spot for catching ferries on the way to New York City and a destination for day trips and weekend getaways. 

When the industrial revolution took off and immigrants poured into New York, the New Jersey outskirts became increasingly appealing for woodsy relaxation and outdoors excursions. Families who needed proximity to the city but craved open spaces made their homes there, and Montclair became better known for suburban life than for its beautiful scenic landscapes.

Presby Memorial Iris Gardens via montclairnjusa.org

Nearly 40,000 people reside in Montclair today, and the town continues to live up to its reputation of idyllic family-living and appealing amenities for weekend trips, dining, and beautiful landscapes. In more recent years, the town has become known for its great education system, nature reserves, and its more than twenty public parks. Woodlands, streams, and ponds also fill the greater town area, and the nearby Watchung Mountains beckon hiking enthusiasts. The town also appeals to athletes with the Essex County Equestrian Club, golf courses, three public swimming pools, and an astounding 18 tennis courts. The town is also home to Montclair State University, the second-largest university in New Jersey.

Katya Wowk, the communications director of Montclair Township, is quick to point out that Montclair is not only a sleepy suburb or a place for weekend fun or entertainment, “This is such an accepting community. No matter what your background may be, you’re accepted here. This is a town that recognizes people’s differences. People feel welcome here no matter what race or gender orientation.”

“I always go to our iconic Edgemont Park,” Wowk says, recalling a part of Montclair’s history that she enjoys sharing with newcomers. “There is an island there. It’s a memorial to the citizens of Montclair who lost their lives in World War I.  Every Memorial and Veterans Day the town holds services to recognize our vets who fought for freedom. It sits on an Island, surrounding the Edgemont Pond”. People can view the annual ceremony from locations throughout the entire park, and it has become one of the town’s most popular events. 

Another must-see beauty spot is the Van Vlek House & Gardens. This private, 12-acre garden estate has carried out its  historic preservation mission by carefully maintaining its surrounding grounds for more than 130 years. Now a Montclair mainstay, the spot is open daily to the public for viewing the beautiful gardens, as well as for private meetings and photography.

Van Vlek House & Gardens via montclairnjusa.org

As in other communities, the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on Montclair, altering its popular events and drawing more nature-minded people to its parks and open spaces. The town is moving forward with its popular events in 2021, including its annual Independence Day Parade. Marking Montclair’s 69th celebration of the holiday, the town is set to debut live entertainment, family activities, and a firework show to live up the town’s streets once again. 

For more information, visit: montclairnjusa.org