Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017
Let's clear one thing up right away. The man pictured here may be a towering musical giant who gave passionate expression to one of America's most vibrant cultural moments, and he may have many thousands of people, mostly old men, who would egarly lay down their lives for his sake, but at least about one critical fact, he is not to be trusted. Not for a second should you believe his seductive crooning about "New York...New York..." Truly, the fertile cultural and musical soil that nourished him lies west of the Hudson. Why he projected his creative energies eastward is a question many of us have asked in sorrow, and to which we know no satisfactory answer. However, willingly or unwillingly, he has been claimed and celebrated by the small city in which he came into the world.
Frank Sinatra is the most famous of the many influential sons and daughters of the dense, dynamic, "mile-square" city of Hoboken, NJ. It is fitting that an Italian-American figure is Hoboken's crown jewel, as Italian cultural traditions and pride occupy a central place in the city's history. Although Hoboken is a center of NJ's Italian-American heritage, let us not ignore the city's diverse and cosmopolitan characteristics, due to its maritime history, location at the nexus of 20th century waves of immigration, and (it must be admitted) close proximity to Manhattan. Hoboken's social fabric is complex to say the least. A troubling suburban blandness has started to pervade some neighborhoods in recent years, but the city endures as a cultural center of NJ.
Lay of the Land
Hoboken on located at the banks of the Hudson River, on a is a small piece of geologically ambiguous terrain in the naturally swampy lowland between the ridge of the Palisades and the water's edge. There is a hill on the waterfront formed from a big hunk of Serpentine, now providing Stevens Institute of Technology with a scenic hilltop/waterfront campus. A very gentle ridge also along running parallel to the water, roughly along Washington St. To the west, in the "back half" of Hoboken, the land sinks down to sea level, if not below, reaching a swampy lowpoint at city limits at the base of the Palisade. Flooding is common in Hoboken. They didn't have the easiset time after Sandy. I remember reading an environmental impact report (or some similar document) about a proposed residential development in the back half of Hoboken, which claimed that large pools of standing water in the street after rain had cultural value. That may very well be the case.
Known as the "mile-square" city, Hoboken encompasses roughly one square mile of the North American continent. There is a grid of mostly one-way streets, with named streets running north/south and numbered streets running east/west. Washington St., whose southern terminus is at the Hoboken Terminal, is the "main drag" and one of the few two-way streets. In terms of land use history, the city can be divided into three stripes running north/south.
- Waterfront: New York harbor's intense shipping activity used to run much farther up both sides of the Hudson thand it does today. In contrast to Jersey City, only a small portion of Hoboken's waterfront was not the location of railroad terminals, but it still was an intensely industrialized area. Today, new development lines the waterfront: A "W" hotel, large luxury apartment buildings, bland looking restaurants and gyms, and and some office buildings near the train terminal. Viewed from across th river, the relatively low, even height of these buildings make a straking contrast with Jersey City's insane waterfront high rises immediately to the south. In recent decades of prosperity, a couple of extremely nice parks have been built here on reconstructed piers. There's even a fake island. One of them is called Sinatra park. It's a great area to go for a run, but you should watch the huge crowds of runners. Visiting these parks evokes pleasant memories for me from various periods of my life.
- Residential/commerical area: Inland from the waterfront is the core of Hoboken's beautiful historic housing stock. A lot of pre-war ~4 story brick apartment buildings, many characterized by distinctive blocks of grey slate above their windows, used to house the families of workers at the shipping facilities and factories, local merchants, and other members of the community. Now these are considered very nice places to live. Mixed in here is Washington St's commercial district, and a lot of neighborhood restaurants, delis, boutiques, convenience stores, and other businesses, some of them quite charming.
- Industrial area:
History and Culture
Hoboken used to be a largely working class, industrial city. It was, and to some extent remains, a center of immigration. It had a ridiculously influential Italian-American community, which still is a big deal today. There's the Hoboken "Muzz" Festival, a legendary Columbus Day parade, and things like that. There are a number of incredible traditional Italian bakeries, delis, cheese shops, and restaurants there, which leave me speechless with wonder.
At some point, I'm guessing in the 60's or 70's, Hoboken accepted a lot of Carribean and Latin American immigration. It got to have a huge Latino population, alongside the Italian one. There was also a suburban drift during this period, which somewhat reduced the Italian and other European populations. So far a typical story. But then, during the 80's, something weird happened. Well, something common in major American cities, but weird in NJ: gentrification. The area started becoming desirable for people who were anything but working class: the children of those upwardly mobile white families that were now comfortably established in the suburbs. Inspired by hippie and punk youth culture ethoses, and as a rule interested in some form of artistic or musical practice, these bright-eyed youths, whatever their motivations, brought an enormous amount of social and financial capital into the city. When thinking about why this key demographic chose Hoboken, a huge factor is obviously easy access to the greater cultural resources across the river via the PATH, but I think the unique charm of the Hoboken itself should not be overlooked. A related observation is that Hoboken never got quite as seedy and dangerous as other post-industrial cities during this period of nation-wide urban decline.
What kept gentrification from really going off the rails, like it did in places such as SoHo, is that it was more local in nature. A lot of these young people had roots in New Jersey. We are very proud of this period as a blossoming of an innovative and authentically "Jersey" culture. People speak of a "Hoboken sound" in music of the period, exemplified by my parents band The Cucumbers. A common observation of the period was how strikingly different the musical aesthetic was from New York. My parents knew a painter named Tim Daly, whose huge photorealistic works of the Meadowlands now are visibile for all to see in the Secaucus train station, which I think is extremely cool. In general, it seems to have been a fun and exciting time and place that produced some interesting art.
Alas, the human products of suburban communities of New Jersey are not exclusively quirky artsy and idealistic, and gentrification eventually brought about a less interesting, more financially-oriented community. This is no Park Slope. Rather than a bubble of elite liberal urban sensibility, Hoboken increasingly became an expression of white suburban NJ's essence, in city form. Attempting a cultural sketch of this present-day population segment of the population would be too unpleasant to be appropriate here. I will instead suggeset to the curious reader a weekend activity: walk down the couple of blocks of Washington Street near the trainstation and surrounding side streets at midnight on a Saturday and you will quickly understand what I am alluding to.
Of course Hoboken is still much more interesting and culturally rich than any suburban town. Institutions and communities originating during many different stages of its history all continue to thrive today. Don't be too discouraged by the many hair salons, mysterious ubscale boutiques, etc., that you'll see.