Living With Karens
New York magazine|December 21, 2020-January 3, 2021
A white woman calls the polıce on her Black neıghbors. Sıx months later, they stıll share a property lıne.
By Allison P. Davis. Photograph by Kendall Bessent

When it came time to relocate from near D.C. to the New York tristate area, Fareed Hayat thought, I’m certainly going to Brooklyn. It was the summer of 2017. He and his wife, Norrinda Brown Hayat, had both gotten new jobs—he would be teaching criminal law at CUNY, and she had taken a position as the director of the Civil Justice Clinic at Rutgers—and Fareed had dreams of brownstones fueled by a viewing of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It reboot on Netflix. They considered whether the city could be a suitable substitute for their suburban existence in Maryland, but while looking at homes with their two young sons, the eldest, Kingston, kept asking questions like “Where is the other floor to the house?” and “Are all of the houses just on top of each other?” “He was so extra,” Fareed said.

A few of Norrinda’s new colleagues lived in Montclair, New Jersey, and suggested she look there. Here’s the brochure copy: Only 40 minutes from New York by train. Not suburban, but “urban-suburban.” An art museum there recently hosted a Kara Walker exhibit. Stephen Colbert is on the board of the annual film festival and still lives in town. Oh, and did you hear the rumor about the swinger parties? Parts of it are very affluent—Upper Montclair has been ranked as the wealthiest community in New Jersey. It leans heavily Democratic and has great restaurants, great public schools, a young Black mayor, and a really cute pie shop. And the kicker: Montclair is 24 percent Black.

Well, technically, the latest Census estimate has it at 22.3 percent Black, but ask a real-estate agent, a town resident, and a politician what’s unique about Montclair and eventually, they’ll all trot out that 24 percent figure. For Montclair, diversity is a matter of local pride. New Yorkers could move there and find they wouldn’t have to sacrifice the reasons they had chosen to live in a city in the first place. In 2019, the New York Post wrote, “Montclair is the only suburb true New Yorkers will even consider.” Brooklynites move there with such regularity it has been called “Park Slope with backyards,” along with other epithets that are equally insufferable. To set a Zillow alert to Montclair (versus, say, Glen Ridge, a nearby suburb with comparable median property values but a significantly more homogeneous, white population) is to actively choose diversity and progressiveness in addition to that manicured lawn and the driveway with space for two cars. It is choosing to adopt what some residents half-jokingly call the “Kumbaya” Montclair mentality.

Fareed and Norrinda, who are now both 43, settled into a six-bedroom house in Upper Montclair. Norrinda recalled, “One of my colleagues, their high-school daughter was like, ‘You know, you really live in the whitest part of town,’ because young people just say whatever’s on their mind. I’m just like, ‘Look. It’s very competitive to land a house. You just have to go where you land,’” which for them was Norman Road, where, one day in late summer, I met Fareed as he was unloading groceries from the trunk of his Tesla. After he delivered a fresh bouquet of sunflowers to his wife inside, we set off on a walking tour of their part of town. He pointed out a great mid-century-modern furniture store, Modclair, and a coffee shop, where we got chocolate croissants. We darted past masked patrons waiting in socially distant lines at farmers’-market booths before settling down in a sprawling park.

When they had first moved in, Fareed researched paint colors on Pinterest and decided he wanted his house to be black. He wanted something stylish, not “cookie-cutter”—and he liked the idea of “the only Black family on the block in a black house,” he explained. (Norrinda objected. They settled on more of a charcoal with black trim.) But their private joke on suburban Black exceptionalism didn’t quite hold up on Norman Road. They weren’t the only family of color on the block. There were several interracial families. Corner to corner, there was diversity of age, race, and sexuality, unified by self-selection. “The diversity was the biggest thing,” Fareed said. “You know, 24 percent African American population here in Montclair.” They sent their sons to a public Montessori school that has a Black principal, and both boys have four or five Black teachers. It’s been over two years of block parties, PTA meetings, dinners, and birthday gatherings, of making friends and stitching themselves into the community. Norrinda was made president of the PTA for this school year.

As we walked, I noticed that everyone, white, Black, whatever, gave us a nod as we passed. Of course, no town is perfect; there were some things, some experiences, some people, that had bothered them, explained Fareed. But then he told me a story meant to illustrate just how much being a Black family in Upper Montclair wasn’t a thing. One day, he was out fixing some uneven concrete on the sidewalk in front of his house. A white woman, a neighbor, stopped to ask about the work he was doing. At the end of their conversation, she said, “You remind me so much of my ex-husband.” Fareed assumed the husband was Black, but no—her husband was white. A Black man had reminded a white woman of her white ex-husband. Imagine that! Well, in Montclair, you could.

Recently, though, after the incident in June when a video Fareed had posted of an altercation with a white neighbor went viral, he was thinking about the time he spent in the Caribbean. It’s where he did his study-abroad program when he was a college student at UCLA studying history. He remembered the joy he felt at being surrounded by Black people. The cops there didn’t have guns. He rarely felt like the other. He didn’t feel out of place.

It’s not that he felt that out of place in Montclair. He knew what it meant to feel really, truly out of place in his neighborhood, he said. He’d been out of place when he first moved from L.A. to Silver Spring to go to law school at Howard University. Before deciding to pursue law, he had done well investing in properties in L.A., enough that he could buy a home with a pool for himself and his brothers and nephews. Yet he felt under suspicion from the moment he parked his Range Rover in the driveway. “It was always a question of legitimacy,” he said. But here in Montclair, their moving truck was met by cupcakes dropped off by a white man, who chatted him up about the schools. “You know, this space is a creation,” Fareed said. “White people come to this space to be around a diverse space. So I recognize that, and I don’t feel out of place in that way.”

He knows you have to be able to fulfill certain economic requirements to pay off a mortgage and the insanely high property taxes in these areas of Montclair. If you can do that, it makes you a certain kind of acceptable, which isn’t to say the cupcakes-bearing white neighbor wouldn’t have been as welcoming if the Hayats weren’t two accomplished lawyers. “There’s been a lot of intentionality about creating a space that’s welcoming to a person like myself economically and education-wise,” Fareed said.

But since that altercation with a white neighbor, he has been on a half-serious campaign to convince his wife that—since school was remote anyhow, and their jobs were remote anyhow—didn’t it sound nice to just rent a two-bedroom apartment in Barbados or St. Lucia or South Africa? To ride out the pandemic in a place where he didn’t feel like his Blackness was the center of the conversation, where he didn’t have that consciousness every single moment? Where he wasn’t just part of the 24 percent.

THE INCIDENT ON Marion Road, as people call it now, even though it occurred on Norman Road, happened in late June during that pileup of stressors: covid and the peak of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Like many in a financial position to do so, the Hayats, realizing they would be home all summer, had decided to make a few upgrades to their yard and started work on a stone patio out back. It was a weekday. Their two boys had just gotten home from forest camp and were inside having lunch, while their parents remote-worked in different parts of the house. The landscaper and her crew were outside planting a garden and installing the new patio.

Susan Schulz, a neighbor who lived one street over on Marion, approached the landscaper. Schulz’s and the Hayats’ properties are separated by a wooden fence, ’90s-sitcom style. They could have popped their heads over it to share a quick conversation, had they been friendly enough to do so. Schulz noticed work being done in the neighboring yard and went to investigate. She approached the landscaper with such deliberateness that the landscaper assumed she was going to ask for a business card. Instead, Schulz began to inquire about the work being done: What was being built? Did the Hayats have a permit? Was this a patio? Can this be done without approval from the city?

Norrinda was standing on the porch on a call and heard Schulz outside. It was the second time she had come by that day. Norrinda sighed, paused her work, and leaned out to tell Schulz she would speak to her when she was off the phone. Schulz left and came back again with the same question: Did they have a permit for this work? She left and came back three times in under an hour, according to several people on-site that day. “Let me go because my neighbor’s trying to talk to me, and she’s a firecracker,” Norrinda said to her colleague.

She went to talk to Schulz and dispatched Fareed to tell the landscaper it was okay to keep working. When Fareed got outside, Schulz was interrogating his wife.

“At this point, Norrinda is becoming more offended,” Fareed recalled. The questions from Schulz—did you get a permit? Will you stop working until you have one?—were becoming more aggressive. It’s legal in Montclair to build an unraised patio in your own backyard without a permit. Still, they went back and forth, back and forth, about a permit that nobody needed. Schulz also accused the Hayat children of throwing balls into her yard. Eventually, Fareed had had enough.

“At a certain point, I’m not being friendly over here,” he recalled. To Schulz, he raised his voice: “You know what, you should just leave.”

But Schulz refused. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said, according to Fareed. He repeated his request. Again she refused.

It was then that a handful of neighbors started to come out of their houses to see what was going on. One white neighbor, who was passing by on her daily walk, heard Fareed saying, “I’m asking you to please leave our property.” “He was really polite, but there was an urging,” she said. “That’s when I felt like something might be really wrong.” She decided to stick around with the others. The landscaper put down her work and joined them.

The already heated talk began to escalate into an actual shouting match. Fareed became more adamant that Schulz get off his property, and Schulz began walking backward down the driveway. She lost one of her flip-flops. She noticed the neighbors watching. She stood in the middle of the street as the argument continued. Then Schulz pulled out her phone and called 911, and Norrinda pulled out hers and started recording.

“I’m calling the police,” she said.

“Okay, we expect that of Amys,” Norrinda can be heard saying, her voice shaking. “Of course you are.”

While on the phone, Schulz paced in a circle. She approached a neighbor on the sidewalk, perhaps looking for someone to corroborate her story, perhaps just looking for sympathy. “Did you just see him physically push me?” she yelled.

“Oh, he absolutely didn’t push her,” reported the neighbor who had walked by. “I think she was looking to me—honestly, it did feel like a look of incredulity. Can you believe what he’s saying to me? I understand she was upset, but that’s just an insane trope that goes back so many hundreds of years of white women saying that Black men are assaulting them. And it was just really unbelievable she thought she would get away with that with witnesses.”

Over the phone, Schulz told the police, “I need an officer … the gentleman who is taller than me pushed me off his property.”

Neighbors began to yell things like “Shame on you” and “In this climate, you’re doing this?” while Schulz continued her defense, sometimes to the neighbors, sometimes to Norrinda and Fareed. “He pushed me ten feet … I came over here alone. I should have brought my son … Are you gonna say you didn’t put your hands on me?”

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