The Star Ledger reports: On one block are Gelbstein’s Bakery, Bookman’s Kosher Meat and Poultry, and Schreiber’s Shoes, all owned and frequented by members of Lakewood’s large Orthodox Jewish community.Down the street are Puebla Travel and Latin Music, El Nuevo Mexico Records and Panaderia Mexicana, which cater to the town’s growing Latino population.
By 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, the tempo shifts, as the Jewish-owned shops close for the Sabbath, but the pulse picks up in the Latino businesses.
Clifton Avenue is more than Lakewood’s Main Street business district. In this Ocean County community – named by the 2010 Census as the fastest-growing town in New Jersey during the past decade – the street is a microcosm of how the town functions, and a portrait of the residents who have turned this onetime iron foundry and resort town into Jersey’s boom town.
To the surprise of almost everyone outside of Lakewood, Census data released last week showed the township’s population soared by more than 32,000, from 60,352 residents in 2000, to 92,843 in 2010. The increase vaults Lakewood into the state’s top 10 list of most-populated towns, at number seven.
The 54 percent population increase, according to residents and community leaders in Lakewood, was fueled by growth in the Jewish community, the Latino community and a third group, senior citizens. The town’s African-American population, meanwhile, dropped slightly.
“There was a time when I was the only pizza place in town,” said Moshe Lankray, 46, who has lived in Lakewood for 20 years and owns Pizza Plus. “With the growth, seven other pizza stores opened up.”
As the sun begins to set marking the beginning of the Sabbath, an Orthodox Jewish man crosses Forest Avenue in Lakewood on Friday evening.
Like the two types of businesses on Clifton Avenue, the various groups largely go about their lives separately. However, there have been occasional clashes in recent years, including more than 40 bias crimes in one year.
Bill Hobday, 69, moved to Lakewood 11 years ago, settling into one of the town’s adult communities in the 25-square-mile town. He said there are now 11 such communities, totalling about 30,000 residents, with community names like Leisure Village East and Four Seasons at Lakewood. He said four senior complexes have been built since he moved there.
There have been some growing pains because growth came so quickly and the groups within Lakewood are so different, said Hobday, who publishes a weekly newsletter for the senior citizen community. But he said residents have more understanding than a decade ago.
“Do we have differences? Sure we do. Do we argue? Of course. But that’s open dialogue that’s needed,” Hobday said. “There’s been some difficult days, sure, but we all have a mutual respect for one another. … We’ve learned to live together.”
Monica Guerrero, who runs Latino Community Connection, an organization that provides immigration and tax services, said she worked with the Census Bureau, trying to educate undocumented Latino residents on the need to take part.
“A lot were afraid to give information, so when people came knocking on their door – the Census takers – there was a mistrust. You have to build that trust,” she said.
In 2000, much of Lakewood was deemed a “hard-to-count” district by the U.S. Census Bureau, a classification used to describe towns where there was a high nonresponse rate on the Census.
To get a more accurate count, Lakewood civic leaders partnered with the Census Bureau in 2009 to form a committee that reached out to the different communities to educate residents on the importance of participating in the 2010 Census.
Lakewood was started in the early 1800s by settlers who carved hamlets out of dense forests, and established a sawmill, then a blast-iron furnace, to take advantage of the area’s natural resources.
In the late 1800s, the town was called “Bricksburg,” after foundry-owner Joseph W. Brick, according to the Lakewood Township website.
Around 1866, the Bricksburg Land and Improvement Co. was formed. Engineers laid out village streets, and the firm advertised the sale of land in New York City newspapers. Prominent bankers invested in real estate there, and magnificent homes and hostelries were built.
Promoters, who wanted a fancier name for the town, changed it to “Lakewood” in 1880. The township was incorporated in 1893. The town’s largest lake, Carasaljo, was named after Brick’s three daughters, Carolina, Sarah and Josephine.
Lakewood attracted the well-known and wealthy, including Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Astors and Arbuckles. President Grover Cleveland spent time there, and during World War II, the New York baseball Giants trained there.
In 1943, a change came that was to set the stage for the future of Lakewood. That year, according to the township website, Rabbi Aaron Kotler, dean of Beth Medrash Govoha, a school founded in Eastern Europe, bought a building in Lakewood and opened a yeshiva there.
That yeshiva, which first served 13 students, has grown and expanded and now serves more than 5,000 students, according to state Sen. Robert Singer (R-Ocean).
Dwayne Terry, 43, who was born in Lakewood and still lives there, stands in front of a bodega on 2nd Street on Friday evening. Calling himself “One of the survivors” he has seen many changes in the town over his lifetime both in the number and ethnicity of the people in town. According to the latest census reports the town of Lakewood had the highest percent population increase over the last 10 years of all the towns in New Jersey.
It, in turn, attracted Orthodox Jewish families to Lakewood, said Singer, who singled out the rapidly growing Orthodox community as the driving force behind Lakewood’s growth. “We are attracting religious families to Lakewood in record numbers, and that growth will continue,” Singer said.
Students move to Lakewood to study at Beth Medrash Govaha, which Singer said is one of the largest yeshivas in the world, then stay to raise families because Lakewood is more affordable than religious communities such as Crown Heights, Brooklyn. High birth rates for Orthodox families – typically five to seven children or more – contribute.
“There’s a minyan on every corner,” Singer said, referring to a Jewish prayer group of 10 people or more. “Lakewood has become a Jewish mecca.”
Private Jewish day schools, to which most Orthodox families send their children, multiplied, too. The Lakewood public schools serve only about 5,300 students, most of them minorities, according to Singer. He said about 17,000 kids go to private schools.
The differing population makes for a jigsaw puzzle of daily scenes in Lakewood. A young girl dressed in a long skirt – typical of Orthodox Jewish clothing – plays on the lawn at a large brick house one afternoon. On Clifton Avenue, tamales and tacos are on the menus in many restaurants and conversation at the tables is in Spanish.
Across town, meanwhile, at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Airport Road near Route 70, much of the clientele are senior citizens. Three white-haired men stood at the counter one recent afternoon, and three more sat at tables in the store.
Bonnie DeWitt, 66, sitting in a minivan outside the Dunkin’ Donuts, said she rarely goes downtown. “There’s no reason to go there except to pay taxes,” she said.
While some say the growth in Lakewood has gone smoothly, others are less happy.
Kelly Bragg, 38, who grew up there, said the population increase hurt the quality of life. She said Orthodox Jews have bought many homes; she said she was offered $50,000 above market price for her house, but did not want to leave. Others have, however.
“Everything’s crowded, the supermarkets, the parking lots,” she said. “It’s turned into Little Israel.”
So many groups bumping elbows has also led to tension.
Lakewood is home to gang members – some 27 gangs, with 289 members, according to a recent survey. A suspected gang member is charged in the high-profile murder of a Lakewood police officer, Christopher Matlosz, last month.
In the past few years, several incidences of violence have occurred. An Orthodox Jewish woman was abducted from a Lakewood strip mall parking lot in 2006 and raped. A black teenager, an honor student at Lakewood High School, and an Orthodox Jewish teacher got into a violent altercation. And in 2007, an Orthodox rabbi was beaten with a baseball bat.
In 2005, Lakewood reported 41 bias incidents, many targeting Jews, then-Ocean County Prosecutor Thomas Kelaher said at the time. That was the highest number in the state that year.
Then in 2007, a riot erupted inside Lakewood High School. Students said it was precipitated by rival black and Latino gangs.
Lakewood politics has changed, too. The mayor and most of the township committee are Jewish. The Orthodox Jews create a voting bloc, according to Hobday, who described himself as a senior-citizen activist.
The seniors are a bloc too, he said, and within the past few years the Hispanic and African-American communities have become more involved in town politics. “They finally got the message, and now we have a good, positive dialogue,” he said.
Lakewood’s growth may affect the bigger political picture in New Jersey, too.
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth County Polling Institute, said Lakewood will likely have a major impact on the state’s redistricting process. Legislative District 30, of which Lakewood is part, now encompasses approximately 270,000 people – about 35,000 more than any other district in the state.
Mexican American Isaura Hernandez, 18, reaches for a belt in the western/Mexican clothing boutique she works in on Clifton Avenue in Lakewood on Friday evening. According to the latest census reports the town of Lakewood had the highest percent population increase over the last 10 years of all the towns in New Jersey.
“The growth in Lakewood has probably thrown a monkey wrench in some of the maps Democrats and Republicans have been drawing up to this point,” Murray said. “They’re probably going to have to carve out a brand new district out of that area.”
Back in the township, concern is more for the day-do-day effect of the population boom – and the boom Lakewood expects will keep on coming.
Committeeman Raymond Coles said even in the best of times the growth would be challenging, “but it’s particularly difficult now with the economy” to maintain services.
“We were surprised that we didn’t hit 100,000 (people) to be honest with you,” he said. “Just because we’re nearing 100,000, doesn’t mean the population growth is going to stop.”
Steven Reinman, director of economic development in Lakewood, also said he does not expect the growth to slow any time soon.
“It’s a challenge. It strains everything, including our police department,” he said. “We don’t see any slowdown; we continue to see growth. There are some projections of doubling our population in the next 20 years.”