There goes the neighborhood

According to Section 15-20.3 of the statute on the books of River Edge, N.J., a resident may not park a vehicle with a commercial license plate in his or her driveway overnight.

Presumably an air-conditioning van or a cable-TV truck in the driveway during daylight hours constitutes a status symbol, indicating the purchasing powers of the inhabitant. But at night a largish, squarish vehicle with lettering on the side, and maybe even a motto, is, well, tacky.

Or, as the mayor of River Edge put it, ''I think the trucks do depreciate property values.''

The plumbers, electricians, landscapers, and carpenters of River Edge are organizing to fight the law that has policemen knocking on their doors at night, advising them to build a garage for the offending van, or at least throw a tasteful tarpaulin over it - apparently the cheapest way to become a law-abiding tradesman.

As the vans formed in a circle against the mayor and town council, one of the plumbers, a man named Peter Hammer, was heard by the New York Times to say: ''Here we are, making an honest living, and they're harassing us because they don't like the way we look.'' A heating and air-conditioning repairman, Gary Gross - who had gone so far as to color-coordinate his van to his house - added: ''We feel like second-class citizens. The mayor wants it to look like only accountants and stockbrokers live here.''

Mayor William M. Doyle - conceding that ''the ordinance may be snobbery to a certain extent'' - tried, in his own words, ''to inject a little levity by telling them that my daughter is dating a boy whose father has a seat on the stock exchange and they're ruining my image.''

The van owners, the mayor admitted, ''didn't think it was funny.'' And for all the rich raw material for satire here, the little contretemps in this town of less than 12,000 is not finally a joke.

If one wants to talk about the aesthetics of the driveway, or elsewhere, it must be said that middle-class respectability has all too often shown an ugliness of its own. Besides manifesting a prejudice in favor of white collars over blue collars, the sometimes written and sometimes unwritten code has also discriminated in matters of race and religion.

The passion for look-alikes of one's ''own kind'' is the stuff ghettos are made of.

One zones out of one's existence whatever does not conform to one's sense of the suitable.

The van-owners are correct in seeing the issue - however trivialized - as a question of civil rights. After the van (even a Mercedes van!), what will be banished next?

Only a few years ago the ordinance-makers might have moved on from their van-ban to a dress-code. Blue jeans, the work uniform of the repairman, could have become a violation too. In order to keep the neighborhood from deterioriating, a ''second-class citizen'' might have been required to wear a camouflaging three-piece gray suit over his jeans until he was inside the house, safely out of sight.

Now, of course, to ban jeans would be to discriminate against all those stockbrokers and other corporate types who make them an elite uniform for weekends. And if commercial lettering on the side of the van were considered the ultimate vulgarity, what would become of designer names on jeans?

No doubt we all want to ''spruce up,'' to borrow another phrase from the mayor. But ''spruce up'' is not the same as ''put on a front,'' or worse, ''cover up.'' The distinction is important. We live in a world where cosmetic appearance counts for too much. The habit of the tasteful tarpaulin can spread until sometimes we seem to be draping everything from poverty at home to the conduct of foreign policy abroad under a panoply of public relations - looking good.

A long-distance van-watcher would not want to carry the argument too far. But perhaps if the tradesmen of River Edge painted on their vans such messages as ''Clean up toxic waste'' and ''Spruce up our schools,'' we would all begin to get our priorities straight.

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