Fred A. Bernstein

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40 Years on Montgomery Place

Returning to the block I grew up on

Published in The New York Times, September 22, 2002

JERICHO -- Muriel Tiegel, a 74-year-old with the bearing of a much younger woman, remembers the time she and her husband almost sold their house on Montgomery Place. A friend's daughter was eager to buy the two-story colonial with paneled den, which they had bought in 1962 for $27,800.

The offer was for more than $600,000.

The Tiegels, who consider themselves middle-class -- he is a retired New York City elementary school principal, she is a homemaker -- were tempted by the 2000% profit. So they began making plans to move to an apartment in nearby Roslyn. ''At the moment, it sounded exciting,'' she said. ''We were going to start a new life.''

They were two days from signing the contract. Then, Mr. Tiegel said, they realized that he would lose his basement office where he does volunteer work for the local Lions Club, and Mrs. Tiegel would have to find a way to squeeze eight rooms of furniture into five rooms. On top of that, their monthly expenses would increase. ''The money,'' Mr. Tiegel said, ''turned out to be worth less than we'd realized.''

So they stayed, in the corner house they bought when potato farms were giving way to three-bedroom colonials on quarter-acre lots, with streets named after New York counties. (At one end of Montgomery is Steuben; at the other end, Saratoga.)

The Tiegels aren't the only family about to celebrate their 40th year on Montgomery Place. Of the 22 original residents, 5 remain (and 2 more sold their houses to their children). Most of those who left did so only a few years ago when they were in their 60's or 70's, ready to retire to the Sun Belt. In a country in which people move, on average, every six years, according to James Jasper, a sociologist who wrote the book ''Restless Nation,'' Montgomery Place is an anomaly. Families stay, on average, around 30 years.

Since I grew up there, I was curious about what made the neighborhood so stable. (With their children already middle-aged, the holdouts aren't there for the Jericho schools, which are consistently rated among the best in the nation.) Luckily, all five of the original families remaining on the block remembered me, and were willing to talk. None has any plans to move.

The couple I knew best, the Youngs, had changed the least. In their house, only the upholstery fabrics are different. Beverly Young, who will turn 70 next year, still works at the neighborhood elementary school, as a special education teacher. Stanley Young, 78, still commutes to Manhattan, leaving at 4:45 a.m. by train, for a 12-hour workday as a lawyer, professor, and insurance agent. Just as they did 30 years ago, Mrs. Young comes home first, parking her car in the garage (often carrying bags from Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom), and Mr. Young follows hours later, leaving his car in the driveway.

Mary Biers also works. She's a principal at a Roman Catholic school in Brooklyn. In bad weather, she too catches the 4:45 train from the nearby Hicksville Station. Her husband, Charlie, who is retired, plays golf three mornings a week at nearby Eisenhower Park, and takes care of the garden, which includes an experiment in growing tomatoes upside down from hanging pots. He says he never wanted to leave Brooklyn for Nassau County. ''When people ask me where I'm from,'' he said, taking a break from mowing his lawn, ''I always say Brooklyn. I'd go back there in a minute.''

He may be the only one. Virtually all the original homeowners left the boroughs -- following the newly completed Long Island Expressway to inspect the furnished models -- and most haven't looked back. The expressway had reached Jericho at Exits 40 and 41 in 1960.

My parents, who had grown up in cramped city apartments, were typical of the new arrivals. They were almost all in their late 20's or early 30's. In January 1963, when we arrived, there were no mature trees in the neighborhood, just spindly ''builder shrubs'' crowding the cement foundations. Because the next street wasn't built until years later, our house backed onto an empty lot, where I hid behind mountains of topsoil during games of hide-and-seek,and turned stray construction materials into a clubhouse. In those days, children didn't have play dates. To find someone to play with, all I had to do was step outside the house. To get to the neighborhood school, completed the same year as the houses on our block, we walked or biked, passing the Tiegel house as we rounded the corner. My house, at 5 Montgomery Place, was a raised ranch, hoisted up five or six feet, so the basement gets light and can accommodate a garage. My parents stayed there until 1985, when my mother's terminal illness forced them to sell the house -- to a family that, not surprisingly, still lives there.

After 22 years on the block, my parents were among the first to leave. Why had so many of the neighbors remained? My first clue was that none of the old-timers are close friends, although relations between all are cordial. The closest friends on the block decamped to Florida, in rapid succession; several of the couples are now neighbors again. The ones who stayed behind were those whose social lives didn't revolve around the block. Among the holdouts, only Mr. and Mrs. Young and Mrs. Biers still have paying jobs; the others do volunteer work. Ida Ross, at No. 8, works in a soup kitchen. Mr. Tiegel, who has had three cornea transplants, works for the Eye Bank of Long Island, ''because someone did it for me.'' All five couples have children and grandchildren. The Tiegels' daughter, Nancy, moved in around the corner with her husband, Raymond, and 11-year-old son, Lucas. At one point, during my visit to the Tiegels, the phone rang. Mrs. Tiegel listened, then told her husband, ''Nancy needs you to pick Lucas up tomorrow at Post,'' referring to nearby C. W. Post College, where he would be playing soccer. Then Mrs. Tiegel turned to me: ''That's why we stay,'' she said. But none of the other old-timers has children in the neighborhood. What they have is a place that, all agree, provides a perfect balance of city conveniences and country pleasures. Mary Biers says Jericho offers easy access to some of the world's best beaches, as well as idyllic state and county parks, with Manhattan only 40 minutes away by public transportation.

There have been big changes on the block. The neighborhood was once mostly Jewish and Italian; of the 10 "old-timers" on the block, 7 are Jewish and 3 Catholic. Now there are many Asian families, but, just like 40 years ago, no African-Americans. And while there were, as best anyone can remember, no divorces among the original owners, second marriages are common on the block now. In 1963, Stanley Young was one of just two lawyers on the block. Now there appear to be about a dozen; Muriel Tiegel says that both her next-door and across-the-street neighbors are two-lawyer couples. In the 1960's, most of the mothers on Montgomery Place stayed home; now, they have careers, which leads to a sight that amazes the old-timers: nannies with strollers congregating on the corners.

Even the traffic on the block is different. There are two or three vehicles per family, many of them S.U.V.'s. (In the 1960's, my mother drove my father to the Hicksville train station, so she could have the car during the day.) And, while Jericho prides itself on providing excellent water from a town well, bottled water is popular these days; a Poland Spring truck makes frequent visits. Most surprisingly, a school bus now drops children off at their houses even though the school is still only a few hundred yards away. Parents today are just too scared to let their children walk, several residents said.

One thing that hasn't changed is the quality of the schools, a reason property taxes for the typical house have increased from under $1,000 a year when my parents moved there to nearly $10,000 now. ''There's nothing those schools don't provide,'' said Mrs. Young.

But each older family that remains on the block keeps a younger family from taking advantage of those schools. To Jerry Tiegel, that's not enough of a reason to sell. ''They should enjoy the neighborhood,'' Mr. Tiegel said of the young families hoping to live in Jericho. ''But not my house.''