The #1 Town: Ho-Ho-Kus

Residents of the state’s Top Town enjoy their pocket of calm in busy Bergen County.

This classic Ho-Ho-Kus tudor, built circa 1935, is set on a typically large wooded lot in the borough’s tony Cheelcroft section. Developer Harold Cheel lived in the house, and it remained in his family until purchased by the current owners in 2005.
Photo by Christopher Villano.

Drive north on Route 17 in Bergen County beyond the bustling shopping corridor of Paramus, and suddenly everything grows serene. Welcome to Ho-Ho-Kus, a sleepy little corner of New Jersey overshadowed by its busier neighbors. And that’s just fine with the residents of this borough, thank you very much.

“It’s a quiet town. We don’t mind when our town isn’t in the paper. We don’t need the limelight,” says Ho-Ho-Kus Mayor Thomas W. Randall. “Some people even like to call it ‘Mayberry’.”

This affluent hamlet, with its stately homes, commitment to education, relatively palatable taxes and low crime rate, is the number 1 town in New Jersey Monthly’s 2011 Top Towns survey.

The 4,078 residents here enjoy the experience of living in a small town, but also benefit from an easy commute to Manhattan and easy access to the restaurants and shopping of larger neighboring towns—especially Ridgewood to the west.

And while real estate prices are tanking in the rest of the state, the Ho-Ho-Kus market has remained strong, with the median home price increasing 7.8 percent between 2007 and 2010. Further bucking state trends, the median property tax bill for Ho-Ho-Kus residents decreased in the 2007-to-2010 period.

Established in 1698, little Ho-Ho-Kus has no shortage of charm, with tree-lined streets, large yards, a town green with a gazebo, and a small but lively downtown shopping district. And Ho-Ho-Kus maintains its  bucolic appeal despite straddling busy Route 17.

It was that small-town feel that drew Molly Hermann and her husband to Ho-Ho-Kus from Brooklyn. Hermann, who is expecting their first child in September, says they spent over a year looking for the right town before homing in on Ho-Ho-Kus.

“I love that it has a strong community feel,” says Hermann, a writer for Women’s Wear Daily in New York. (Her husband works in finance in the city.) “Coming from the city where you never meet your neighbors, I was ready to move to a place where we could get to know our neighbors and develop friendships.”

She hopes to join the town’s Contemporary Club, a women’s group that offers volunteer opportunities and serves as a sort of Welcome Wagon for families.

Hermann and her husband bought a home in the Cheelcroft section of town, an area that attracts many young families, who are drawn to its meandering streets and cozy cul-de-sacs. It’s also popular for its easy walk to the train station and downtown.

Ho-Ho-Kus’s small business district includes two pharmacies, a handful of high-end restaurants (including the Sicilian Sun, which former President Richard Nixon frequented when he lived in nearby Saddle River), and a few antique stores and gift shops, among other businesses.

Residents must hit the neighboring towns for groceries; there are no supermarkets in Ho-Ho-Kus. On the other hand, there’s plenty of downtown parking. That’s important to town officials.

“We don’t want too many restaurants here,” says Randall, a lawyer with a practice in nearby Westwood. “We want people to be able to find parking. We have a quaint but vibrant downtown and some new businesses that have been great for the town.  But we’re more than happy to be who we are.”

Borough planners were so intent on maintaining the character of the town that they prohibited commercial development on busy Route 17—despite the potential tax revenue. Similarly, franchise businesses are discouraged.

In fact, says the mayor, the 2-square-mile borough is “fully developed”—with homes, businesses and recreation areas. A key recreation area is 16 Acres, a nature preserve that provides open space in the center of Ho-Ho-Kus. The borough has a small commercial area with office space and storage buildings, but nothing in the way of industry.

The heart of the downtown is arguably the 221-year-old Ho-Ho-Kus Inn and Tavern, a popular restaurant and bar (and another former Nixon haunt) that once served as a parsonage. The Inn sits prominently on Franklin Turnpike, once the route of George Washington’s Army during the Revolutionary War. Ho-Ho-Kus residents Laurie and Gordon Hamm own the building, and the Inn has the municipality’s only liquor license. (The other restaurants in town are BYO.)

Across the street from the Inn runs Ho-Ho-Kus Brook, a rivulet that winds through  town. The original one-room town hall once stood on its banks. A memorial nearby honors the borough’s war veterans, including the nine Ho-Ho-Kus men who died in the Revolution.

Farther down the road stands the Hermitage, a stunning Gothic revival home that briefly served as Washington’s wartime headquarters and was also the residence of Aaron Burr. Now a national landmark, it is open to the public as a museum.

But perhaps the town is most notable for its unusual name. Randall claims it’s the only town in the country with the name Ho-Ho-Kus and the only one with double hyphens.

There are many theories as to the origin of the name: Some say it comes from hohokes, a Native American word signifying the whistle of the wind against the bark of trees. Others say the town is named for the Chihohokies Indians, whose chief once lived in the area. Randall’s favorite theory is that Ho-Ho-Kus is a Native American word for running water (and refers to the ubiquitous brook).

Ho-Ho-Kus is a quiet town in more ways than one: There is little partisan bickering over local politics. The mayor and town council are all Republican—reflecting  the overall population—although Randall says he appoints the occasional Democrat to town boards. Randall and the other elected officials (and most of the appointed positions) work on a volunteer basis and draw no salary.

The town is also peaceful in terms of crime. It had the 11th lowest crime rate in the state, according to figures for 2009; violent crime is almost nonexistent here.

For many residents, the borough’s education system is the biggest draw.

That was the case for Sara Clasen and her husband, Chris, who are moving to Ho-Ho-Kus from New York City. The parents of twin 3-year-old boys and a baby girl, the Clasens diligently researched various towns in New Jersey before settling on Ho-Ho-Kus.

“Our first concern in looking for a town to move to was the schools—and Ho-Ho-Kus has such a great school system,” says Sara Clasen. “We went to take a look and we were sold the first day.”
Ho-Ho-Kus students consistently perform well on state tests at all grade levels; the 2010 results indicated well over 90 percent of students were proficient or advanced.

It’s a bit of a stretch to call the borough’s schools a “system.” In fact, there is only one school for grades K-8. High school students attend the highly regarded Northern Regional High School in Allendale, a few miles northwest.

Deborah Ferrara, who has been schools superintendent in Ho-Ho-Kus for nearly three years, says the quality of the schools can be attributed to the dedicated and knowledgeable teachers and generous and hardworking parents.

“I believe the whole thing is wrapped around the community,” says Ferrara. “We have the support of parents in terms of money and time, and we have a [parent and teachers’ association] that has been such a positive force.”

The Ho-Ho-Kus Education Foundation helps fill in the gaps where state funding falls short, mainly in terms of technology. For instance, the foundation raised the money to put Smart Boards in every classroom, paid for a TV studio and helped purchase computers for classroom use.

Ferrara says she is committed to ongoing professional development for her teachers. She uses consultants to help teachers integrate technology into their classrooms and to make the classroom experience meaningful for students.

Of course, the town’s ability to hold the line on property taxes is another positive attribute. The median residential property tax bill went down 5.1 percent from 2007 to 2010. That’s the 18th-best performance in the state. Randall says he and the council have been cutting costs by combining services with other towns wherever possible. Examples include sharing a recreation director and a tax assessor with nearby Upper Saddle River, and judicial services—including a judge and a prosecutor—with Allendale. A revaluation of the homes in town was also helpful, reducing the assessed value of many houses (because prices previously were inflated) and shifting more of the tax burden to commercial properties.

Ho-Ho-Kus is the kind of town where kids grow up and return to raise their own families. That was the case for the mayor’s wife, Karen. (“I grew up in Westwood and Hillsdale, and she grew up here, so we settled on Ho-Ho-Kus,” the mayor jokes.)

Leslie Mechanic-Lind, a longtime property owner in town, recently redeveloped a strip of businesses along North Maple Avenue that includes the new restaurant, St. Eve’s, and an Italian bakery and café. Her own son and his wife just bought a house in town.

“I really like the small-town feel. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody helps out,” she says. “It’s just a very homey community.”

Jacqueline Mroz is a frequent contributor.

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