Moorestown’s 15 Minutes

ON THE MORNING IN JULY 2005 when his burg became the best place to live in the nation, Moorestown councilman Dan Roccato wasn’t even home. With his wife and four increasingly impatient kids itching to explore the Magic Kingdom, Roccato was heading out the door of his room at the gingerbread Grand Floridian Resort in Walt Disney World when his cell phone rang. On the other end was Jack Terry, the township manager.

“We’re the best place to live in America!” Terry crowed into the phone.

Roccato deflected his children’s withering looks as he tried to decipher what Terry was talking about. “Yes, I know that,” he replied. “To me, Moorestown is certainly the greatest place to live in America.”

No, Terry corrected him. It wasn’t simply their mutual opinion anymore: Money magazine, in its annual rankings of the top places to live in the U.S., had named Moorestown, New Jersey, number one.

“I was shocked,” Roccato says. “Not from the sense that it wasn’t deserved — but from the perspective that anyone knew we were here.”

Oh, they knew. And soon, all of America would know about Moorestown, as the media descended to tell a fuzzy tale of how a lovely little hamlet, with its Meredith ­Willson–worthy Main Street, had come to represent (in the eyes of one magazine, anyway) the perfect all-American town. The Today show aired a report from the baronial Community House, built in 1926; the Inquirer, in a congratulatory editorial, lauded the town as a “tree-lined oasis” with “a palpable sense of community spirit.”

But as Moorestown’s residents were about to find out, life in the spotlight can be a double-edged sword. Not only did Money’s recognition create a fair share of headaches for town officials; it also magnified an issue that Moorestown — along with homespun towns just like it across the country — was already grappling with: How do you preserve a treasured, wholesome, idealized way of American life that’s deeply entrenched in our national psyche, while managing to accept and deal with the realities that modern living brings?

Or, to put a slightly finer point on it: Once word gets out about what a great place to live you are, does that spoil what a great place to live you are?

LONG BEFORE MONEY WASHED UP ON ITS SHORES, Moorestown was an open secret as a desirable community. The town, first settled in 1682 (and named, fittingly, for the town’s first real estate broker), is today a variation on any number of tony enclaves with too-cute-for-words Main Streets, church steeples, Pop Warner football, and avenue after tree-lined avenue of gabled colonials. The appeal of such places is one reason Moorestown endured a landmark growth spurt from 1993 to 2003, as two huge Toll Brothers developments swung open their pricey McMansion doors in outlying parts of town.

But is it really the best place in America to live?

There is, to be sure, something slightly absurd about trying to identify such things — though that hasn’t stopped Money from doing so for the past two decades. The magazine began ranking cities in 1987 (in ’88, Atlantic City came in dead last), and the franchise has proven so popular that it’s spawned countless imitators in the magazine industry. Today we are blessed with everything from Best Cities for Men (Men’s Health) and Best Cities for Women (Ladies’ Home Journal) to Best Cities for Walking (Prevention) and Best Cities for Pets (Forbes). (And there’s the publication — and cover story — you have in your hands.)

“We do it because people like reading these stories,” says Money executive editor Craig Matters, who spearheads the task of assembling nominees for, gathering data about, and whittling down the list of the best places to live in America. “And it’s the biggest franchise we have on our website. People like to benchmark themselves and their towns — and they like to argue.”

In other words, the list, like all such lists, is subjective. So it shouldn’t come as a shock, perhaps, to learn that Matters is from Philly, so he was familiar with Moorestown and all of its cozy charm. Still, he says no fix was in; Money uses a rather arcane methodology of weights and measures to assess the contenders, and Moorestown came out on top fair and square. In its article announcing the honor, Money called Moorestown “a mix of information-age progress and traditional Americana that’s hard not to love and easy to come home to.”

It’s an apt description. In addition to first-rate schools (more than three­quarters of Moorestown high-schoolers go on to attend four-year colleges, and the average SAT score is a healthy 1123), this is a town with an annual “Random Acts of Kindness Week,” and one where the mayor, Kevin Aberant, appeared in last year’s town production of Oklahoma! Patronizing the lemon-sucker stand at the Home & School Fair is de rigueur; ditto for the annual strawberry festival hosted by the Presbyterian church. Recently, there’s been town-wide hand-wringing over the municipal library and how to improve it — with a fair share of the citizenry worried that Moorestown, which is coughing up $5 million, isn’t spending enough.

These are all components of why the town ended up atop the Money heap. At its heart, Moorestown is the America we all wish we lived in, with an oom-pah-pah band that plays in the gazebo on the Fourth of July, and a quaint butcher shop with a bell that tinkles when you come through the front door to pick up your Thanksgiving turkey. No matter how jaded we’ve become by the intrusion into our daily lives of traffic jams, cranky spouses, insolent kids, rising taxes and the war in Iraq, we all, deep down, cling to the reassurance that the Moorestowns of the world still exist — living, breathing Norman Rockwell paintings.

“I have so few bad memories here,” says resident Peter Bender, who chucked his corporate job five years ago to play Mr. Green Jeans, buying the old Moorestown Hardware store on Mill Street. “My wife grew up six blocks from me; I remember seeing her playing on her front lawn when I was walking to kindergarten. These are connections that you have with a community, with a place, and it becomes more than that.”

AFTER THE INITIAL PUBLICITY LAST SUMMER, a wave of Money-inspired pride swept over the town. Heady from all the attention, Mayor Aberant zipped off a tape-recorded message to residents during the dinner hour, then, along with other town fathers, boarded a fire truck and spread cheer to block parties all over town, ordering up a first-ever Fourth of July parade and fireworks. Stately mansions on Chester Avenue hung banners proclaiming CONGRATULATIONS, MOORESTOWN! Tourists showed up to take pictures.

Some residents even felt the thrill of celebrity firsthand. Melissa Brown, who moved to Moorestown from Washington Township two years ago, was rafting down the Truckee River outside Lake Tahoe with her kids a few weeks after the announcement when some other rafters pulled up alongside. One asked where they were from. “Moorestown, New Jersey,” she yelled. “Hey!” came the reply. “We’re number seven!,” referring to Middleton, Wisconsin.

And yet it didn’t take long for a, shall we say, darker side to emerge. Town pride, after all, is one thing — a big jump in home property values is another. So more than a few locals, convinced they could stretch their town’s appearance on Today into a big payout tomorrow, tested the waters to see if they could cash in — to see if Money could make them money. They threw up FOR SALE BY OWNER signs all over town, but the hoped-for real estate boomlet never came, quashed by the larger national trend of higher interest rates. “I don’t think it really had that big of an effect,” Dave Lewis, the owner of B.T. Edgar & Son Realtors, says of the magazine honor.

Maybe not on real estate sales. Developers, however, were a whole other story. Like bouquet-carrying suitors courting the pretty girl down the block, they descended on Moorestown in throngs, clogging the planning board and town council with plans to make the greatest place to live in America oh-so-much greater. Not that the town had much interest. The Toll Brothers developments of the previous decade unleashed a baby boom on the local school system that eventually cost taxpayers a cool $81 million in expansion costs. District enrollment has been growing at a clip of two to three percent a year — and the last thing anybody in Moorestown wants is more development.

The builders came anyway, undaunted. A typical example was the developer who wanted to buy a 14-acre parcel that was zoned for half-acre lots, meaning (subtracting for roads) about 22 homes. But he had a better idea: a gated community of luxury “clusters” (code-speak for townhouses) for the 55-and-over set. As they to nearly all such proposals (politely, of course — this is Moorestown), local officials said no. “Every week a developer comes into town hall and says, ‘No one’s ever thought of this idea before — and it’s perfect for the best town in America!’” Roccato says. “And 99.9 percent of them are bad.”

But it wasn’t only out-of-towners whose image of Moorestown changed. The honor also raised the expectations of the citizenry, many of whom may have spent too much time reading their own press. The tussle over how to modernize the library, along with a surprisingly testy council race this November, are just two indications that the locals now expect a higher standard wrought by winning the real-estate equivalent of the Oscar.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone started off a sentence by saying, ‘For the greatest town in America, shouldn’t we have a better’ — better Main Street, library, turf fields, whatever,” says Dan Roccato. “People have really used it as a way of framing their needs list. You’ll hear that quite often around town: ‘For the best place in America, by golly, how come our taxes are so high?’” He laughs, throws up his hands. “What are you going to do?”

BY THE TIME MOORESTOWN’S YEAR AT THE TOP WAS OVER THIS PAST SUMMER, not everyone was sad to see it go. In a surprisingly stinging editorial in the high-school newspaper, junior Sam Kramer wrote, “The concept of one best place to live is patently absurd for the same reason that a list of 10 best movies is — both are wholly subjective and therefore lack any real meaning.”

But if Moorestown’s 15 minutes are over, the debate over what to do about its increasing desirability as a place to live isn’t. Moorestown’s population grew almost 20 percent between 1990 and 2000. Despite the town’s reluctance to approve more housing, that figure is likely to swell even more in future years, as companies like Orleans — which has almost sold out its Windermere Estates, priced from the low $800,000s to $1.1 million — manage to elbow their way in. And as the “new” people race into their circular driveways in their BMWs and Jaguars, the “old” Moorestonians fret, worried that the way of life that landed them a brief moment in the spotlight will be no match for the crushing consumerism of modernity. In effect, the charm and grace that make Moorestown what it is will be lost as the true heartbeat of the community — the people who have raised families here, who volunteer here, who know about the famous cream doughnuts at the Peter Pan Bakery — get priced out by increasingly crushing taxes and housing costs.

Jim Wolfe, a hippie-looking guy who’s raised four kids here and owns Ralph’s Market, the local butcher and sandwich shop, remembers how when the high-school football team would win a game in the mid-’70s, the band would march down Main Street in full uniform to celebrate. He can’t imagine the “new people,” drumming their steering wheels as they wait to speed off to ­Moorestown Mall, being interested in that. “You lose that stuff as you grow,” he says. “The little, small-town things slowly disappear.”

Maybe faster than you think. This past July, Money released a brand-new ranking of the Best Places to Live. As it has in the past, the magazine changed the parameters it uses for its selections, ensuring that the same towns don’t make the list over and over (and that a whole new crop of people will buy the magazine). This year’s winner? Fort Collins, Colorado. Proving just how subjective these lists can be, Moorestown was nowhere to be found.

Michael Callahan wrote about Grace Kelly’s wedding in the April issue of Philadelphia magazine. E-mail: