“The City At The Nation’s Front Door”

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Beyond the waiting room, a shadowy expanse of train shed stretches far down to a tangle of rails in the distance. These tracks once sent passengers as far as Buffalo, where they could connect for Chicago, where they could connect for anywhere. Once completed, the shed immediately became the railroading standard, replacing the high single-arch structures that dominated the Victorian era with a breakthrough design featuring a series of low peaked roofs with long, open, lengthwise notches to allow smoke to escape from the idling steam engines. The concept still serves today, venting the top-exhausting diesel engines of New Jersey Transit.

 
 
 

Just north of the terminal, a long recreational pier that reaches out into the Hudson can offer you a haunting look at the Lackawanna’s empty slips. Even maritime-minded visitors will, admittedly, need vivid imaginations. The grimy bustle of the old waterfront has vanished. Bill Miller, an author and ocean-liner historian, recalls watching it all in wonderment as a child in the late forties: “The Holland-America piers were filled with freighters delivering Heineken and crates of tulips and cheeses. We shipped Fords and Chevys and a tremendous amount of grain to feed postwar Europe. At the American Export lines, you’d smell the spices from India and the oranges from Israel.”

Tulips, spices, Chevys—all gone. Pier A is now a park. But beneath the grass and benches this remains an important nautical site. It was here that America dispatched and welcomed home two million soldiers from the battlefields of World War I. On August 31, 1918, the busiest day of all, 51,356 young men shipped out for Europe. Many of them returned to the same spot in wooden coffins. A World War I memorial stands uptown in Elysian Park, but perhaps the most fitting tribute to them is the vista beyond the pier. The view of the Manhattan skyline is not only stunning; with the sound of water licking the pilings and the smell of brine everywhere it can bring a sort of peace.

 

“I used to defend Hoboken by asking people from New York City, ‘What kind of view do you have?'” says the petite, salty Dorothy Novak, wiping down the counter of Schnackenberg’s luncheonette, which her father opened on Washington Street in 1931. The booths are made of wood, and a rickety screen door bangs shut behind you as you enter. “People tell me this is like stepping into another decade,” she adds. She’s speaking of her shop, but she could be describing Hoboken itself. For though the great ships and the longshoremen are gone, the city they built survives, looking much the same.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when air travel choked off the passenger business and containerization drove the freighters to deep-water ports, Hoboken went through a period of neglect and abandonment. But unlike other industrial towns that fell on hard times and never got back up, it was well situated to re-invent itself as a bedroom community. Gentrification began in the 1970s. Today its row houses, brownstones, and tenements, the working-class quarters of the turn of the last century, are in great demand. And they are everywhere.

Many of the buildings were put up by the Hoboken Land & Improvement Company, which was created in 1838 by John Stevens, a colonel in the Revolutionary Army and the founder of Hoboken. Stevens purchased a square mile of land in 1784 with the idea of using its waterfront for shipping and of developing the rest “as an exclusive section.” In the 1820s and 1830s he had some success in promoting it as a pleasure resort, drawing thousands of well-to-do Manhattanites across the river to a lush green esplanade known as River Walk and the park he named Elysian Fields. But bluebloods and longshoremen seldom shared the same neighborhood, and the arrival of shipping companies ensured that the city’s future would be an industrial one.

Between 1900 and World War I, Hoboken was home to more than 250 manufacturing plants that made everything from wallpaper to silk stockings. At Third Street between Grand and Adams, an imposing clock tower dating from 1906 rises above a building now holding residential lofts that once belonged to the manufacturing firm of Keuffel & Esser, which made instruments that helped plan the Brooklyn Bridge and in 1891 invented the slide rule. The old Standard Brands building, recently converted to rental apartments, stands at the top of Washington Street. There Sir Thomas Lipton manufactured his invention, the tea bag, beginning in 1919. Not one to underutilize the factory’s massive freight elevators, he used to ride his limousine straight up to his office.

UNLIKE OTHER TOWNS THAT FELL ON HARD TIMES, HOBOKEN WAS WELL SITUATED TO RE-INVENT ITSELF AS A BEDROOM COMMUNITY.

As a blue-collar town Hoboken couldn’t boast of too many famous residents, and it was wholly unaware of one that it did have. In the early years of the last century, a wrinkled, gnomish woman could be seen tottering up and down Washington Street, in rags. Her name was Hetty Green, and she happened to be the richest woman in America. Heir to a whaling fortune, the reclusive Green was the shrewdest moneylender of her day. Known to her colleagues as the Witch of Wall Street, she occupied a cold-water flat in a building that still stands at 1200 Washington Street. There, sitting on a fortune estimated at $200 million, she dined on oatmeal.

It is said that Hoboken’s most famous son, Frank Sinatra, didn’t think much of the city. The story goes that in 1948, while performing at the Union Club (which survives as condominiums today, at 600 Hudson Street), he was booed off the stage and swore he’d never come back.