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Haddonfield: Charm and history in a town across the river

The Antique Center in Haddonfield

The Little Tuna in Haddonfield

The Antique Center in Haddonfield

The Little Tuna in Haddonfield

Zaffron in Haddonfield

Zaffron in Haddonfield

Most of the iconic tony neighborhoods in the Philadelphia region are in Pennsylvania: the Main Line, Chestnut Hill, Rittenhouse Square, Society Hill, pretty much all of Chester County. Across the river in New Jersey, there's picturesque, walkable Moorestown and Haddonfield. 

For the traveler from Philadelphia, the latter makes for an infinitely easier day trip: Back when the PATCO high speed line was being laid out, Moorestown declined to be included. To get there, you have to drive through the sprawling development that defines Philly-adjacent South Jersey. Haddonfield, meanwhile, succeeded in having the PATCO line sunk as it went through their town but otherwise did not object. They have reaped the benefits of this decision ever since. 

A jaunty old town, Haddonfield delights in reminding visitors of its hallowed and ancient (for America) past. Its origins lie in the romantic tale of Elizabeth Haddon (whose story can be easily learned with a Google search): according to New Jersey historian John T. Cunningham, she is the only woman to have founded a town in any of the Colonies. The area was settled by Quakers -- Ms. Haddon among them -- in 1713, but Haddonfield did not officially become a borough until 1875. There are some houses left over from the 1700s and the town is known for its Colonial architecture (some of it aspirational: the public library is modeled after Monticello).  

Living History

Modern-day Haddonfield really began to take shape in the mid-20th century. In a 1967 interview with the Philadelphia Bulletin, then-Mayor Albert Boyle Sharp recalled that in 1927, "the biggest store was one that sold feed and other miscellaneous items." The business district took off after World War II and the population had mushroomed from 7,000 to 13,200 by 1960 (almost 2,000 more than live there today). 

There was a brief panic in the local business community after the introduction of the suburban shopping districts like Cherry Hill. In the early 1960s, 1,000 retailers opened within a five mile radius of Haddonfield and a tenth of its businesses closed. But by 1967, the Bulletin was already running stories about how well Haddonfield's downtown was holding up ("Stores in Haddonfield Bounce Back Into Competition"), while its mid-market counterparts in Collingswood and Jenkintown would go on suffering for decades. 

The bucolic little borough has also benefitted from Camden's urban crisis. Far enough away that it never feared the fallout of its neighbor's postindustrial decline, Haddonfield was able to lure the professional class who abandoned their offices in downtown Camden. 

"Twelve years ago I knew every lawyer in town," Mayor Eugene Hinski told the Bulletin in 1970, estimating ten lawyers in those days. "Now there are 46. The last time I counted the doctors there were 50." 

Thanks to the speed line, they could be in Camden for court in ten minutes or in Center City Philadelphia in 15.

It was around this time that the historic district was created, causing what Preservation Society Executive Director Joan Aiken called "the bloodiest battle in Haddonfield since the Revolutionary War." Sixty-two percent of the town voted for it, extending protections over 1.1 miles of the 2.6 mile borough.150 buildings were declared architecturally significant, most of them clustered around downtown. 

"Suburban sprawl was coming to Haddonfield," Aiken told the Bulletin. "We have history here. We didn't make it up like Chestnut Hill did." 

(Apparently she couldn't resist a dig at the Northwest Philly neighborhood.)

An uglier side of this instinct towards preservation saw the town vote down, by large margins, a public housing complex for senior citizens in 1970. (Around the same time Collingswood approved its own housing project for seniors; they are the only units under the purview of the Collingswood Housing Authority.) A few years later the town also attempted to deny their affordable housing commitments under the Mount Laurel Doctrine, but after years of litigation provided some units. In 1978, rental units were "as scarce as hen's teeth" according to one real estate agent. 

Haddonfield's socio-economic advantages preserved its walkable downtown and classically laid-out residential neighborhoods from any real challenges. Because of New Jersey's hyper-local education system, the borough enjoys its own public schools supported by local property taxes. Under that system, boroughs like Haddonfield are greatly privileged: the median household income is $123,601, greater even than Moorestown and twice that of Camden County. Their high school is ranked second in the state. 

According to Mayor Jeffrey Stephen Kasko, in recent years that school system, the town's built advantages and the PATCO line have helped attract more young families, especially as older residents move away (probably due to the high property taxes needed to support these hyper-local, high-grade public services). 

"The town has all this history and a great school system, but you pay a lot to have that," says Kasko. "In New Jersey, our property tax system is just really messed up. The way we fund our schools is primarily on the backs of residential property tax payers. That has exacerbated the problem of certain towns being seen as the haves versus the other towns that have declined and are seen as have-nots."

Touring the Town 

Haddonfield's PATCO stop is positioned at the north end of downtown. Retail dominates the scene along Kings Highway, though professional offices and restaurants are liberally sprinkled throughout. Numerous side streets branch off the main drag, offering a second-tier of eateries, galleries and shops. There are no bars: Haddonfield has been a dry town since time immemorial (wines made in South Jersey can be sold in restaurants). 

"The town is supremely walkable, a ton of history, everything looks beautiful," says Kathy S. Gold, founder and head chef at In the Kitchen Cooking School. "I grew up nearby and we came here to shop ever since I was a high school student. Any small town has competition from a mall, but we offer really specific boutiques, destination stores. We have very few chains here: CVS and Starbucks. Everything else is truly owner-operated, so there's a lot of extra attention that people pay."

There are a few gems worth mentioning. On the northeast corner of King's Highway and Haddon Avenue lies the Candy Buffet (220 Kings Highway), like something out of a 1950s diorama. Throngs of children surge about the place, limiting mobility, but it is impossible to avoid being swept up in their enthusiasm. 

Across the street is Conte's Card Castle (3 Haddon Avenue), a narrow little store that caters fans of Magic: The Gathering or its distant cousin the sports card. Owner Tony Cont, is a kindly man who seems to know his clientele by name and is immensely friendly to inquiring passersby. In the summer he lines up card tables outside so that gaming enthusiasts may barter and duel in the open air.

The Haddonfield Antique Center (9 Kings Highway) is a must visit, featuring a delightful array of old cocktail glasses, regional sporting memorabili, and eye-catching wall hangings.  

"I think there are more restaurants in Collingswood," muses Mayor Kasko, mentioning the town's booming neighbor. "We have great BYOB places here, but are probably not as focused on that. Our offerings in town are more diverse. It's not just to come here and go to a place to eat, but to browse in an antique store or shop for some clothes or furniture."

But that isn't to say that there aren't some wonderful eateries -- most of them of the white table cloth variety. 

Zaffron Mediterranean Cuisine (113 Kings Highway) is a recently opened fine dining establishment. The owner and chef, Rocco Farahmand, is gregarious and often comes out to check in and see how the guests are enjoying their meals. Pita bread and homemade sauces are brought to tables in advance of the main courses, which are uniformly delicious. Of special note is the grilled calamari stuffed with hummus, which will lure diners away from generic fried rings forever. 

Further down the street is The Little Tuna (141 Kings Highway), a stellar seafood restaurant outfitted with a raw bar. It's all too easy to binge on lobster bisque, raw oysters and bacon-wrapped scallops, leaving little room for the main courses. 

For those looking for a less fancy bite, Villa Rosa Italian Restaurant (1 Kings Highway) serves delicious pizza and hoagies right around the corner from the train station. 

Exploring Haddonfield is delightful not only because of the beautiful architecture and delicious food, but because the borough implements a 25 mph speed limit throughout the town. King's Highway is studded with crosswalks and motorists scrupulously yield to pedestrians. Haddonfield may be a town for the posh, but they have successfully strived to make it accessible to everyone. 
JAKE BLUMGART is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter
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