Pacek, 57, an architectural designer and vice president of Leonia Arts, a nonprofit group that promotes the borough’s creative community, sized up that claim as soon as he met the neighbors: “There were three oboists between my house and the corner,” he said.
Snug and hilly, Leonia sprouted a vibrant artists’ colony in the early 20th century, as painters and illustrators set up studios in barns and attics. Performers and academics like actor Alan Alda and physicist Enrico Fermi followed, drawn by the pretty surroundings within easy reach of Manhattan theaters and Columbia University.
For Amy Zoloto, 47, a clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic, and Lawrence Rock, 66, the Philharmonic’s audio director, the Bergen County borough of 9,200 was a logical destination. Several musician friends already lived there.
Two years ago, the couple paid $645,000 for a three-bedroom, Craftsman-style house built in 1906 that just needed the addition of central air. Zoloto now practices without riling the neighbors, which was a problem at their old apartment in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx. And as the mother of a first grader, she appreciates Leonia’s supportive atmosphere.
“For someone in the arts with a wacky schedule,” she said, “there’s always somebody to watch your kids.”
Moreover, the 9-mile drive to Lincoln Center — which Zoloto and her clarinet frequently make at off hours — usually takes less than 40 minutes, though she always gives herself a cushion.
Leonians who rely on the George Washington Bridge and narrow Fort Lee Road, which leads to it, know to factor in enough time. Traffic is a given in and around the town, which in 2018 tried banning outside motorists from using its side streets as a shortcut to the bridge.
“You have the best of all worlds in Leonia, but traffic is the price to pay,” said Helen Saitta, a borough native and an agent with Prominent Properties Sotheby’s International Realty in Alpine, New Jersey. Many buyers choose the low-rise suburb, she noted, because New York City is so near.
Joanne Terrell, a lawyer, and Allen Terrell, a contemporary artist and curatorial consultant, came from a place with real congestion: Los Angeles. After Joanne Terrell accepted a job in Midtown Manhattan in 2016, the couple, now both 48, made a wish list: highly rated schools for their two daughters, a commute of under an hour for Joanne Terrell, walkability and ethnic diversity. Mile-and-half-square Leonia, which has ample bus service and sizable Asian and Hispanic populations, checked those boxes for the Terrells, who are Korean American.
Their century-old, five-bedroom, center-hall colonial cost $815,000 and offered a bonus: a second floor in the detached garage, ideal for Allen Terrell’s workspace. When he wants to escape the studio, he heads to the county park on Leonia’s western border and paddles his kayak in Overpeck Creek, just as he did in the Pacific.
“That kind of sealed the deal,” he said of his new town.
— What You’ll Find
Interstate 95 and Route 46 create a loop around Leonia, and therein lies a problem: Tie-ups send some motorists off the highway in search of local access to the world’s busiest crossing.
The borough’s solution — closing off dozens of side streets to nonresident vehicles during peak commuting hours — sparked legal challenges. For now, signs declaring the restriction are covered in black plastic, and the matter remains in the courts.
But Mayor Judah Zeigler reports progress: The navigation apps responsible for directing motorists through town have removed the shortcuts.
Noting that 12,000 vehicles might enter Leonia on the worst commuting day — triple the usual number — Zeigler said the borough’s intention was not to ban outside vehicles entirely, but to keep them on major arteries like Fort Lee Road.
Bridge traffic notwithstanding, Leonia is charming and unhurried. Downtown, centered on a five-block stretch of Broad Avenue, has cafes, a chock-a-block hardware store, a Korean grocery, a dozen hair and nail businesses, and a cow sculpture grazing near the squat post office.
Houses are eclectic in style and date mostly to the early 1900s, with condominiums and apartments scattered about. Up in what locals call “the hills,” on a former golf course, is a neighborhood of 1980s homes on generous lots.
While its immediate neighbors allow high-density residential development — including towers to the east in Fort Lee and boxy duplexes to the south in Palisades Park — Leonia guards its small-town ambience.
“We are protective of our zoning,” Zeigler said. “Other communities have built up and developed nearly every inch of available space. We haven’t.”
The borough, however, is considering high-density apartments as part of a plan to redevelop Willow Tree Road, a remote office corridor next to Overpeck County Park. Zeigler said the redevelopment would help ease homeowners’ property-tax burden.
— What You’ll Pay
An older single-family house needing work might be found in the $300,000s, but generally prices start in the mid-$400,000s, said Rosemarie Bracco, the broker-owner of McAlear Cavalier Realtors, in Leonia. Buyers pay more to live in “the hills,” where homes start in the low $700,000s, she said.
During the 12 months ending March 31, 83 single-family houses sold at a median price of $570,000, compared with $528,750 in the same period a year earlier, according to the New Jersey Multiple Listing Service.
On April 25, the service showed 27 single-family houses priced from $324,995 to $848,000, and two $1 million-plus colonials that a builder plans to construct on a large subdivided lot. Listed near the median, at $565,000, was a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, circa-1925, brick-and-clapboard colonial on Glenwood Avenue, with property taxes of $11,077.
— The Vibe
No one starves for culture in Leonia. The 100-year-old Players Guild of Leonia mounts theatrical productions at the Civil War Drill Hall, a restored armory. The Leonia Chamber Musicians give concerts at churches. The library holds open-mic nights. And there is a sculpture park downtown.
Allen Terrell, the West Coast transplant, finds that the “liberal and artistic attitude” makes for conviviality. “I thought LA was sociable,” he said. “But the hospitality here is incredible. We went to six house parties in December alone.”
House parties may be the only place in town to get a drink. Leonia has no bars, and none of its handful of restaurants — Italian and Asian mostly — have a liquor license, though customers can bring wine.
— The Schools
The 1,900-student public school district, which also serves seventh through 12th graders from nearby Edgewater, has one elementary school, one middle school for sixth through eighth grade, and one high school. Enrollment is 39% Asian, 29% white, 23% Hispanic and 4% African American.
Leonia High School offers academies in science, business and marketing, hospitality and culinary arts, and the humanities, and is slated to introduce academies in the performing and visual arts this fall. “Some of the world’s best musicians live in Leonia,” said Edward Bertolini, the superintendent of schools. “And we want them to be part of the program.”
In 2017-18, average SAT scores were 587 in reading and writing, and 599 in math, versus 542 and 543 statewide.
— The Commute
Those who prefer not drive to Manhattan take the bus. New Jersey Transit’s No. 166 runs on Broad Avenue, and Rockland Coaches buses travel on parallel Grand Avenue. Getting to the Port Authority terminal takes 25 to 45 minutes. Fares are $4.50 one way or $148 monthly on New Jersey Transit, and $5.45 one way or $89.70 for 20 rides on Rockland Coaches.
Additionally, Leonia commuters can take a short ride on New Jersey Transit’s No. 182 bus to the George Washington Bridge Bus Station, in Washington Heights, and catch the A train there. The bus fare is $3.50 one way or $107 monthly.
— The History
George Washington led his troops through what is now Leonia on Nov. 20, 1776, in retreat from the British. The name “Leonia” was chosen around 1865 for the train station, in a nod to Washington’s second-in-command, Gen. Charles Lee, the namesake of Fort Lee.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.