Walking along Clifton Avenue through Lakewood’s once-flourishing downtown, one sees few signs of a boom. The presence of several upscale restaurants and a smattering of other contemporary businesses—like the French Press, a coffee bar—is offset by other storefronts that are dirty and neglected. Sidewalks are cracked. And there’s a complete disregard for any aesthetic sensibility.
This is just one of the many reasons Harold “Hershel” Herskowitz is pissed off.
An Orthodox businessman who owns Toys for Thought, a well-maintained downtown toy store, and a nearby frozen-yogurt shop, Herskowitz moved from Los Angeles to Lakewood in 1987 to attend BMG. Now a married father of six, Herskowitz says he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating his businesses in an effort to help revitalize downtown Lakewood.
He’s also spent the better part of the past two decades advocating for smarter growth and speaking out against an alledgedly nepotistic political structure he believes is driving the town’s internal problems and creating an unfair impression of the town as a whole.
“People drive through this town and think, ‘These goddamn Jews ruined Lakewood!’ But that’s not true,” says Herskowitz. “What we did ruin was the potential of Lakewood. That’s what’s so upsetting.”
In addition to blogging and speaking out at township meetings, Herskowitz ran for a township committee seat in 2010 against then-mayor Robert Singer, who now serves as a Republican senator representing the state’s 30th Legislative District. And while Herskowitz lost by fewer than 600 votes—an uncommonly narrow margin in Lakewood—he’s now resigned to voicing his concerns as a private citizen.
“I’m pissed because I’ve been working my whole life to get this town to realize its potential, but nothing changes,” says Herskowitz. “The people in charge don’t know what they’re doing with urban planning, and they just don’t give a crap.”
Lakewood, he says, is growing too quickly. Traffic is not just congested; at times, it is frenzied and unruly. Reads one common bumper sticker: “Pray For Me. I Drive In Lakewood.”
Then there’s the construction boom. Building projects are ubiquitous. And while many of the town’s older neighborhoods are manicured and thoughtfully laid out, there are also dozens of blocks where a patchwork of disparate townhouses and single-family dwellings seem haphazardly squeezed onto any available parcel.
Such issues aren’t new. In 2013, the township committee adopted a “smart growth” plan aimed at upgrading roads and infrastructure while also stemming the tide of new residential development. But there’s little evidence of any follow-up.
According to township planning board documents, more than 1,100 housing units were approved in 2015; as of September 2016, the board had approved an additional 95 projects, including close to 500 new housing units and 150,000 square feet of retail and office space.
“They keep saying, ‘Jews have to live here!’ But if we have a lifeboat that only fits 50 people, should we take in 60 and sink?” says Herskowitz. “And it’s not like they’re being persecuted. This isn’t Exodus. We don’t have a boat in the water full of Jews who are going to be sent back to Nazi Germany. It’s okay to say no! It’s vital that we say no! But they just keep building.”
At the heart of the problem, says Herskowitz, is a tightly controlled and insular power structure that facilitates potential conflicts of interest among the five-member township committee, and a ruling class more interested in profits to be gained from incoming Orthodox families than in stemming unwise and unsustainable growth. Herskowitz cites longtime committeeman and former mayor Meir Lichtenstein, who is also CEO of MSL Property Management, which oversees dozens of housing and commercial operations in Lakewood. Attempts to reach Lichtenstein for comment went unanswered.
Lakewood’s municipal structure follows the state’s township model of governance. Five committee members are elected town-wide to staggered, three-year terms. The mayor—currently Raymond G. Coles—is selected by the committee for a one-year term. At this writing, three of the five committee members are Orthodox; all are white men. Three are Republicans, two are Democrats.
“This town is run for the benefit of 10 or 15 people,” says Herskowitz. “So the madness just continues.”