There were three minutes and eight seconds left in the hockey game when the first punch flew.
Some player had gotten checked too hard, and another retaliated with his stick. Suddenly, everyone’s gloves were off and the whole bench cleared. Fans in the bleachers jeered at their archrivals. Some adults even jumped in.
It wasn’t until two kids–one from each team—were hauled off to the hospital that tempers on that February day in 1974 simmered down.
Such was the rivalry between Chatham Borough and Chatham Township. Romeos from one town knew not to date Juliets from the other. Borough kids wore buttons that said “Whip the Twp.” Township pins read “Curb the Dogs”—a reference to the Borough’s mascot. Before each Thanksgiving Day game, the marching band from the visiting Chatham High would parade the mile to the other, drumming and trumpeting thunderously as they crossed into enemy territory, trailed by generations of fiercely loyal fans. No matter the sport, the bleachers were always packed, and the cheering and booing most fierce, when the two towns played each other. In those games, everyone–even the water boys–gave 150 percent.
“You could have had a Borough-Township game of tiddlywinks and it would have been sold out,” says Jack Knightly, a 49-year-old neurosurgeon who grew up in the Township.
Who would have thought 30 years ago that the Montagues and the Capulets would turn out to be good friends?
The farms that once distinguished the Township from the Borough are long gone and residents of the two Chathams are more alike than different. The clashes these days are far more likely to be about parking and overdevelopment than about school sports.
Today, the two school districts have merged, and the towns share a library, senior citizen center, recreation department, and volunteer ambulance corps. Town leaders have talked about consolidating the municipal courts and the public pools. A remarkable number of residents on each side of the border argue that the two Chathams, which already share a zip code, should simply merge.
“Nothing would be better for the Chathams than to become one town,” says Tom Winter, who moved from the Borough to the Township and predicts the change will happen within ten years. “People talk about it all the time, at dinner parties, at soccer games, and on the train Monday mornings. Most of us who live here think of it as one town that just happens to have two governments.”
Of course, the bonhomie could be tested this month because the Township gets bragging rights as New Jersey Monthly’s top-ranked municipality. The Borough, by contrast, came in 24th. The reason? Unlike the Borough, the Township’s median home prices skyrocketed, mostly because the abundance of luxurious new houses skewed its average price higher. Still, the gap between Number 1 and Number 24 is statistically miniscule. And on the ground, residents in both communities are happy to wave off the difference.
The Chathams didn’t always have separate governments. When the Township was formed in 1806, it included the village that is now the Borough. But by the 1890s, a dispute over the distribution of tax revenue prompted the more prosperous village, with its shops along Main Street, to secede from the Township, with its dairy farmers and rose growers.
By then, city-bound train tracks in the center of the village had turned the area into a flourishing summer resort for wealthy Manhattan families. Fathers commuted into Manhattan while mom, the kids, and the staff stayed behind in the gorgeous Victorians on the hills.
Homes right near downtown were far more modest—small, picturesque Capes and colonials on equally small lots. But in their own way, those neighborhoods would soon be thriving too. GIs returning after World War II settled with their young families in tightly packed new housing developments in the Borough. Between 1940 and 1950, population of the Borough swelled by 50 percent, to 7,391. By comparison, the Township seemed sleepy and old-fashioned.
“The Borough kids thought we were a bunch of hicks, like we were farm kids and they were suburban sophisticates,” says Bailey Brower, Jr., class of ’45, who, like every other Township kid at the time, attended the Borough high school because the Township had none.
By the 1950s, with the local agriculture industry wilting, farmers began selling off half-acre chunks of land to developers eager to build the decade’s hot new thing—split-level homes—even if they did sometimes overlook cow pastures and corn fields. Borough residents with growing families and fattening wallets traded up to larger homes in the Township. Outsiders moved in, too, enamored with the burgeoning Township. Between 1950 and 1970, the Township population nearly tripled. The balance between the two Chathams was shifting.
Suddenly, the Township was swaggering. “I remember when I first came here, the Township people would make sure to remind you that you lived in the Borough, or they’d say, ‘Well, I’m from the Township,’” says Debbie Smith, a longtime resident. “And some of the Borough residents resented it.”
In the 1960s, the Township opened its own high school. The two schools were placed in the same athletic conference, further stoking old rivalries. Worst of all were the hockey games, because both teams dominated the rest of the county. Anyone heading for a match between the Borough Gladiators and the Township Eskies knew that if they didn’t get to the arena at least half an hour before the puck dropped, they’d never find a seat.
Township boys and Borough boys who happened to see each other in another town would snarl and strut, or roll down car windows to yell obscenities at their archrivals. It was all considered relatively harmless—until the riot broke out.
“People realized the rivalry had gone too far,” says Harvey Cohen, the Township hockey coach at the time and now athletic director for the regional high school. “We spent the rest of the year trying to bridge the gap, having meetings, making the two teams have lunch together.”
Ten years later, the population in the Borough sagged, as it did in most Jersey towns, thanks to the Baby Bust. The high schools had to scramble to offer the Advanced Placement classes and electives that the new era required. Kids from one school would go to the other for particular classes, as if it were an extension of the same campus. By 1986, after a contentious vote in both towns, the two districts merged.
“My most rewarding year as a hockey coach was 1989,” says Cohen, “because we had these two very good teams who had always fought hard against each other now being asked to work together. And they did.”
These days, real estate agents point to joint assets: the highly rated school system; the easy train commute; the active recreation department; the proximity to hospitals; culture; shopping malls; and the 7,600-acre Great Swamp for nature lovers and hikers.
“I’ve been in six different school districts as a teacher or administrator, and I can tell you this is a unique place,” says superintendent James O’Neill. “There’s a disproportionate number of terrific kids and talented teachers, and a disproportionate number of dedicated parents who spend an inordinate amount of time supporting the district. It excels in academics, in the arts, and in athletics. It’s a little like Lake Wobegon. If Garrison Keillor came here, he might not want to go home.”
Even Money magazine was wowed by the Chathams in 2005, naming the combined towns the ninth best place to live in America.
That same year, parents from both sides formed the Chatham Athletic Foundation to upgrade fields and expand recreational capacity in both towns. They raised close to $600,000, targeting first a field in the Borough and then one in the Township.
“We try not to promote the differences,” says Noelle Joralemon, a realtor with Town & Country Properties, who grew up in the Borough and has lived in both towns. “Besides, in so many ways, we’re one and the same. Together, the Chathams really are a Fourth-of-July, apple-pie kind of place.”
Many longtime residents credit the small yards of the village and the closeness of its houses for its unusually strong sense of community.
“When we moved to the Borough, our house didn’t have a garage,” says Janice Brooks. “We parked in the driveway, so every time I walked to my car, I’d see whoever was out gardening, getting their mail, driving down the road, and I’d chat with them. And the next thing you’d know, it’d be an hour later. Now in the Township, I pull right into my garage, so at best maybe I wave to someone as I pass by.”
Most families who move to the Township from the Borough maintain their links with the other side. “We have the same friends, the same downtown, but just more space and a bigger yard,” says Tod Rittenhouse, who moved in 2004 from his 1928 modified Cape on an eighth of an acre in the Borough to a larger house in the Township on a lot four times larger.
To be sure, the friction between the two towns has not fully dissolved. Township residents sorely resent that permit parking at the New Jersey Transit station is reserved for Borough residents. And a few in the Borough sense a subtle but lingering class divide. In 1999, the most recent year for which data is available, the median household income in the Borough was $101,991. In the Township, it was $106,208.
But the biggest tension is between those in both Chathams who are fed up with the aggressive development of the last decade and those who defend it. With the opening of New Jersey Transit’s Midtown Direct service in the 1990s just as Manhattan’s economy was strengthening, land values in towns along the train line shot up. People paying top dollar for that property wanted an impressive house to show for it, and soon, ranches and split levels from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s were being razed to make room for “uber-houses with four soaking tubs and six bedrooms,” as one disenchanted resident put it.
“On my street, they’re knocking down every other house,” says Mary Claire Malloy, who has lived in the same township house all her twenty years. “It used to be very quiet, but now there’s always construction noise. All the houses I grew up around are becoming monsters. It feels like a different town than it used to be.”
Charlie Churchill, 45, is dismayed too. Churchill’s ancestors, after whom Noe Avenue is named, landed in Port Elizabeth before the Revolution and helped found Chatham. Churchill lives in the Township in an expanded 1850 saltbox on three acres. Just this past fall, he saw the bulldozing of the house where his grandmother grew up, a two-story wood home built in 1900. In its place will be two $2.5-million mansions.
“There’s nothing wrong with nice renovations—some of them look much better than the 1950s housing,” says Churchill. “But it’s the big and audacious ones that don’t lend themselves to the property.
“I moved back here because it’s got great schools, lots of people to play sports with, it’s close to New York yet you have space and air, and it’s fun to drive down the street and point out to my kids, ‘This is where your great, great, grandmother grew roses and fed the cows.’ These new homes, they just don’t fit.”
But where Churchill sees unsightliness, another Noe descendent sees salvation.
“The only thing that’s saving the Township’s hash is the ratables coming from these larger homes,” says Bailey Brower, Jr., deputy mayor of the Township and Churchill’s uncle, who has lived in his parents’ carriage house all his life. “Without those big houses, the tax cost for the older homes would be astronomic. These big houses are what the younger people want—with their vaulted ceilings, game rooms, saunas, his-and-hers bathrooms, and entertainment rooms. And if they can’t get it here, they’ll go someplace else. And then we’re left with a bunch of houses that won’t sell for a pretty price, and present owners would be socked so hard with tax bills that they couldn’t afford to keep living here.
“I have very little patience with the people who are trying to maintain the status quo,” he adds. “It’s like standing in front of the ocean and thinking the high tide won’t wash out your sand castle. You either move with the time or you die with it.”
In the last year, as the housing market has sagged elsewhere, the average sale price in the Township has jumped from $833,000 to more than $1.1 million, skewed largely by the big-ticket new homes.
“Two years ago,” says Township mayor Kevin Tubbs, another transplant from the Borough, “the Township committee passed an ordinance putting some controls on the size of homes, and it’s stopped some of the bigger plans. Most of the houses we have are nice, but we need to keep an eye on it.”
Back in 1974, on the day the Big Brawl broke out, Jack Knightly—then a geeky freshman on the Township hockey team—delightedly jumped into the fray. He left the Township for the Navy in 1985 but moved back ten years later, first to a Borough house and then to a bigger 1999 rebuild in the Township.
His best friends these days? Old rivals from the Borough high school.
“That’s what’s so good about the Chat-hams now,” Knightly says. “All the intensity people were aiming at each other is now put together. My kids don’t even know the difference between the Township and the Borough. To them, Chatham is Chatham. If I were to ask them, ‘What’s the difference between the two?’ they’d say, ‘Where’s the border?’”