Madison Tops Our 2019 List of Best Places to Live

With a strong school system and desirable homes, the historic Morris County borough reaches the pinnacle of our Top Towns chart.

Seen around Madison, clockwise from left: the iconic downtown clock; an 18th-century home on Ridgedale Avenue; McCool’s, where locals gather for sweet treats. Photos by Joe Polillio

If you think of Madison as a sweet New Jersey hamlet with a walkable downtown and a Brigadoon vibe, nobody’s going to argue with you. 

Within the Morris County borough’s 4.21 square miles, everything people move to the suburbs for is within arm’s reach: grassy yards, neighborhood barbecues, a downtown ice cream parlor, a weekly farmers’ market, youth soccer, bike paths and a commuter-rail station. There’s even a Memorial Day parade with floats and fire trucks. 

But ambience alone does not make Madison the number 1 town in this year’s New Jersey Monthly Top Towns survey. There are also practical considerations like its low crime rate, relatively reasonable taxes, great schools and, above all, its rising home values—all impressive data points that drove Madison to the top of our list.

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Madison is home to about 16,000 residents, many of them extremely civic-minded. Mayor Robert Conley, a local since age five, says nearly 1,000 volunteers congregate downtown each May Day to spread mulch and pull weeds around public places, including the town library and post office. “By noon, it’s like The Cat in the Hat,” says Conley. Everything looks beautiful.”

Left: The Smith Family, from left: Madeline, Dawson, Walker and Eli; the Sharif family, from left: Mitra, Mohammad, Arman, Manijeh and Kayvon. Photos by Joe Polillio

The citizens are industrious, too. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 795 Madison residents suit up for the hour-long commute to New York daily by means of  New Jersey Transit trains (Morristown Line), buses or private cars. They are also seriously child-centric, notes Madeline Smith, a ballet, barre and Pilates instructor who moved to town four years ago from Manhattan with her husband, Eli. 

“When we moved in, there were 10 families on our cul-de-sac who had kids under five,” says Smith. That was perfect. The Smith family includes 4-year-old Walker and 2-year-old Dawson—and Smith, who teaches ballet at the local YMCA, is pregnant with her third child. The home they moved into, a farmhouse built in 1890 on a corner lot in Madison’s coveted Hill neighborhood, is a bit beyond walking distance from the center of town. But constant interaction with well-loved neighbors makes up for that. “We do a girls’ night out,” says Smith. The husbands, including Eli, the CEO of Eagle Creek Renewable Energy in Morristown, get together for poker nights. 

For Manijeh Sharif, Madison was an ideal place to raise a family. Living close to downtown, in the Fairwood section, meant she could always find diversions for her little ones. Sharif and her husband, Mohammad, moved to Madison 27 years ago. Now the three Sharif children, all products of the Madison public elementary schools, some of which include free full-day kindergarten, are thriving adults.  

Kayvon, 24, is in medical school; Arman, 22, is a law student; and Mitra, 19, is in college in Boston. Sharif credits the town—especially the schools—with helping his children find their grooves. “All three of them, when they went away to college, realized how well prepared they are,” she says. Madison High School was number 26 on New Jersey Monthly’s Top Public High Schools chart in September 2018, up from number 32 on the 2016 chart. But beyond physics and AP English, the schools reinforced for the Sharif kids that they live in a place where relationships count. 

“The teachers bond with the kids, and that gives them a lot of avenues to connect with others in the community,” says Sharif. “So many of the merchants here know my daughter by her first name. That’s really benefitted her self-confidence.”

Homes seen around Madison. Photo by Laura Baer.
Photo by Joe Polillio
Photo by Joe Polillio
Photo by Joe Polillio
Photo by Joe Polillio
Photo by Joe Polillio
Photo by Joe Polillio
Photo by Laura Baer

Tucked in among Morris Township, Florham Park and the Chathams, Madison is bisected by Route 124, which runs diagonally east-west through town, changing its name from Madison Avenue to Main Street as it heads east. New Jersey Transit tracks parallel Route 124. The historic NJT train station, built in 1916, is the downtown hub. The town traces its history to Colonial times; a cluster of modest homes along Ridgedale Avenue date to the mid-1700s.

From January 1–June 18, 2019, Madison’s highest-price home sale was $1,880,000 for a five-bedroom custom colonial on Garfield Avenue (top); the lowest-price home sale was $373,000 for a three-bedroom colonial fixer-upper on Dean Street (bottom). Photos courtesy of Caldwell Banker

These days, throughout Madison, home prices are thoroughly rooted in the present. Kim Czachor, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Chatham who services Madison and lives there, says homes in a couple of neighborhoods south of the train tracks—the Hill section, where Smith lives, and also the coveted nearby neighborhood known as Dellwood—often go for more than $1 million, and sometimes climb past the $2.8 million mark. Still, Madison can be attainable. The borough’s median home-sale price in 2018 was $700,000, up 12 percent from $625,000 in 2016. Czachor says some of those $700,000 properties can be found in the up-and-coming neighborhood known as Knollwood, north of the tracks. “There’s more new construction there, with builders buying up properties, and it’s walkable to the Madison Community Pool,” she says. “It’s a well-kept neighborhood that’s attracting a lot of young families.”

Apparently, those young families, many of them urban expats from Brooklyn and Jersey City, are not hesitating to apply for mortgages: In 2018, homes for sale in Madison spent an average of 45 days on the market. Only a handful of towns in the state had a lower average. Madison’s average residential tax bill comes in at about $16,000 annually, thanks to kick-ins from corporate residents, including Realogy, Allergen, Quest Diagnostics and Merck Animal Health.

If Madison is long on amenities, it is short on diversity. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the borough is 86.7 percent white. Residents like Smith, who is white, and Sharif, who is of Iranian descent, wish the town was less homogeneous. Smith says she knows she’ll need to bring her kids beyond town limits for exposure to people who don’t look like them. “Attracting residents with more diversity in race and background would add much depth and richness to the experience of living in this great town,” says Sharif.

Bowne Memorial Gateway at Drew University Photo by Joe Polillio

That said, Sharif and other Madison residents who occasionally feel they are living in a bubble know that scratching their town’s surface can yield rich rewards. “The universities bring a little dimension to town, so it’s not all cookie-cutter,” says Sharif, in reference to Drew and Fairleigh Dickinson Universities, both with campuses on the western edge of town. She and her husband have attended lectures at Drew, including one that featured an imam, a priest and a rabbi, for a taste of local diversity. Other residents—and thousands of nonresidents—flock to Drew because its F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre is the performance home to the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, one of the biggest and longest-running professional Shakespeare companies in America.

Madison’s cultural options go beyond its college campuses. Shanghai Jazz, a hybrid Chinese restaurant and jazz club that attracts big names like Bucky Pizzarelli and Nat Adderley Jr., is a downtown anchor. So is the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts, a popular field-trip destination that explores the history and lives of New Jersey workers. A handful of Main Street’s retail shops also fall into the culturally significant category: You can learn how to make calzones at La Buona Cucina, an Italian specialty market that holds cooking classes; inhale old-book smells at Chatham Booksellers, which deals in rare and hard-to-find titles; or acquaint yourself with graphic novels at Dewey’s Comic City, which peddles more than Spider-Man adventures. For a different kind of culture, there’s the Snooki Shop, the eponymous boutique of the Jersey Shore star that opened last year on Main Street, where Vineyard Vines might have been more prized.

You won’t go spiritually bankrupt in the borough, either. The town has numerous impressive-looking houses of worship, as well as St. Paul Inside the Walls, a center for Catholic evangelization. The center is a good fit for the borough, which has a substantial community of Italian-American Catholics, whose ancestors came to work as gardeners in the late 19th century, when Madison was a major player in the rose industry. 

The “Rose City” nickname sticks. So do other remnants of local history, like the former desk of William A. Rockefeller, currently used by Mayor Conley. Rockefeller’s daughter, Madison resident Geraldine R. Dodge, donated the hulking desk, as well as the town’s handsome stone train station, before she died in 1973. Giralda Farms, the sprawling estate where she lived, is now a corporate park ringed with shade trees and bike trails.

Bottle Hill Tavern Photo by Joe Polillio

Residents interested in marinating in local history have plenty of places from which to choose. The latest is Bottle Hill Tavern, opened around the corner from Main Street last year by a quartet of locals. The tavern, named for the Bottle Hill Historic District settled in the 1700s, is decked out with plank-wood floors, exposed-brick walls, lots of nostalgic touches and an au courant specialty cocktail list.

Marty Horn, one of the owners, is a former co-owner of Pals Cabin, a New Jersey dining institution in West Orange that closed in 2013. Horn’s grandfather, also Marty, opened Pals in 1932. Oddly, the most raved-over dish at Pals was cream of mushroom soup. The soup has ended up on the Bottle Hill menu, its recipe intact and its chefs the very same. “All our cooks are from Pals,” Horn says, which has brought an influx of former Pals regulars from outside town limits.

Nobody is worried that the focus on Madison will be dimmed, though. “We built the concept around Madison,” Horn says. “There are so many reasons to love this town.” 

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