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I am Audrey Henson interviewing for the Teaneck Oral History Project. The interviewees today are Mrs. Lula Powell and her husband, Mr. Melvin Powell. Mr. and Mrs. Powell moved to Teaneck, I believe, in 1940.
(I) Is that right?
(I) In 1944. I imagine you have a story to tell in terms of black people moving into Teaneck in 1944 in comparison to what we will find moving into Teaneck now some forty years later in 1984. Mr. Powell, you would like to speak.
(M) Yes, I would. In 1944, we bought this plot of ground and across the street was all white people. There was a little store across the street. They tried their best to discourage us. They said the place was condemned and then after they seen we was continuing to get it, they come a little nasty to us. They wouldn't sell us things out of the little store. And after a while, they was convinced that we were coming in and then we seen signs go up on the houses across the street. They were all white people living there. And they said that this house is condemned and you are going to lose your money but we continued on and all of the lawn, weeds was growing up knee high. I got on my knees with a hand sickle and cut them down, the whole lawn. And after a while, I went up to see Mr., Doctor at that time, I can't think of the inspector's name, but I went up and applied for a permit to fix the house so we could live in it. And he said, I just condemned that house over two years ago. You can't live there. And after I proved to him that I was a masonic and he said, I'm not going to sell you a permit. I am going to give you a permit. And he said, I have a lot of houses in New York and I do a lot of Saturday nights work there and you are going to have to do the same thing. Dr. Bookstaver was his name. And he give me the green light and he come down and examined the house with me and he had a car at this time. He closed up his office and drove me down about two o'clock in the afternoon and he gave me the permit and give me God Bless. And we went forth to try to make it nice, fixing one room at a time. Until finally we got the house completed and we began to have roomers and after that, a year or two later, we converted the house into a four family house and through all of this, we had trouble and we overcame them by the help of God. And we, were you going to say something?
(I) Well Mrs. Powell, I think at this point, you have something that you'd like to add.
(L) Well my husband is speaking about 243 (East Forest Avenue) the house, this house here, which now is a four family house and when we bought it, it was an estate and Lorraine Avenue, the side of 243, was a dirt road. We were the first black people in this vicinity as far as Lorraine Avenue and no blacks lived above Lorraine Avenue. What my husband was speaking about was straight across the street is Forest and the house was condemned and they finally let us tear away the entire outside, the entire inside, all except the frame of the house and we went from there and proceeded to try to make the place livable again and we worked continuously as he said. The place was grown up like a little forest and our property reaches from Forest Avenue to Rosemont Place with an L in the middle. We found out many things. During a time, part of our property was on someone else's part and after working all that time, we continued to build on this 243 house but we didn't have either one of these houses and after we got this livable, we lived there a while.
(I) Let me ask a question here. At this point, you have 255 East Forest Avenue and 243 Lorraine - no also East Forest Avenue
(L) And 242 Rosemont Place which is in Teaneck.
(I) Which is in Teaneck. All of this was one large estate which you bought at the time and proceeded to build or rebuild the houses that were on this estate.
(L) It was a very, very hard job. In 1958, all the land was vacant except 242. In 1958, almost half of the property, the town said that we would have to sell to them and they wanted it for part purposes so in 1965, we kept it all this time, it stayed in court about three years and all of this time up until 1965, I believe the amount of money that they paid for the piece of property was $2,000 for the extra piece of land near the Englewood border. And in 1965 there was a little piece of news in the paper. We have decided that we will not build a park and we won't need the land that Mr. & Mrs. Powell sold to us. We will sell it at auction.
(I) When you say we, in this article, who is we, the town of Teaneck is ... continue.
(L) Town officials. And when they put it up for auction, it was sold behind closed doors. My daughter and me went up, they expected us to buy, they had five big contractors sitting up there bidding on the property and I didn't bid. I just sat there. And the second or the third bid, they knocked it off on $6,500 so we lost about $6,000 on that piece of property. So when the contractor decided to build there, I suppose he was building it to rent and he decided to build there, my husband and me talked it over. The house looked nice. We said let's buy it back so that's what we did. We bought it back so that's how we own 242 Rosemont Place. In 1960, we stayed in court asking for a variance to build 255 for five years. They finally gave us a permit to build 255 and this is where we live now. This had been, 243 had been made into a four family house. It is now a four family house. 242 Rosemont Place, they eventually gave us permission to have a three family unit and during the time we were here, this place was rezoned two or three times to private houses but it anything ever happened to the 243, the four family house, we could never build it back again. It would have to be a one family house.
(M) What is the mayor's name of Teaneck?
(I) The mayor right now? Mr. Brooks.
(M) Yes, I want to mention his name when I start talking again.
(I) So let's continue our mood. We are talking about the properties and the difficulty that both of you have experienced in owning property. This certainly is an economic hardship that was perpetrated, you feel, because you were black people trying to own property in Teaneck.
(L) And with the economy now the way it is and how high the taxes are, it is quite hard to manage and maintain a place like this. It takes a lot of hard work. You can't afford to hire much help. You have to do what you can to keep it livable and presentable to the town and to the people and we are church people. I am a science student and took up many things during the time that we were working to try to educate myself and to help my children. For instance, in 1968 I started working in Holy Name Hospital and I became a nurses aide and from there, different things. I did human relations and public speaking from Dale Carnegie and picking up a little bit here and a little bit there and raising my children and my husband and me have really been hard workers.
(M) I would just like to say at this point at the present day an assessor came by and assessed our property and he assessed our property so high that we can't hardly make it today at this stage after all of these years. He assessed this little house On Rosemont Place at $109,400 and our taxes have gone up so high that we can't hardly pay it. And I left a note on the mayor's office that I wanted to see him. I wanted to set up an appointment with him and see, couldn't we rectify this a little bit but I haven't heard from the mayor as yet and this has been two months ago. It seemed like they overcharged you and then they ignore you. You can't sit down and talk about anything that's happening to you. But they continue to feed you these high bills and pressuring you so much that it just is breaking your back. You can't hardly stand up under them.
(I) As senior citizens.
(M) I am 75 years old and it seems like the weight would get a little lighter but it seems like as we go along, the weight the load gets heavier and we are just striving day by day trying to stay above the water but sometime it look like it is just impossible. That we are going too far down to turn loose. We got to try to hold on and ask the authorities to consider us as older people. They have told me many times at the City Hall in Teaneck that I really have brought this corner out. They say it is no more a sore eye. It used to be a sore eye here. But they said it is a beautiful place now. I have got so many comments but I haven't got no reduction in anything.
(L) We don't get any benefits at all as senior citizens. We don't get any benefits because of our income but there is no consideration about the outgo. When a house is as much as ten years old, it begins to need repair and now instead of giving you a reduction on the houses, they are appraising them much higher which the taxes is just outrageous. They really are.
(M) People have lived here and moved owing us $700 and $800 and we can't do a thing about it. You speak to the town, they say it is out of their hands. Somebody leave trash and stuff right in front of your house, the police tells us it is out of their hands. They got nothing to do with that. And so we don't have anybody to run to. Sometime it seem like we don't have no protection for the money that we take up to City Hall every month. They collects our rent.
(L) Our taxes on each house with four periods of paying it runs in fact the whole, all of the three houses within the town cost us about $10,000 a year for four people which is an awful lot of money.
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