- Historic Sites
“The City At The Nation’s Front Door”
Hoboken’s hardworking history exudes an undeniable gritty charm—and its view of Manhattan is incomparable.
April/May 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 2
Martin Sinatra, a Hoboken fireman, and his wife, Dolly, welcomed their only child into the world on December 12, 1915, in an apartment house at 415 Monroe Street. The house burned in 1967, and a bronze star marks its location, but plenty of Sinatra is present next door at No. 417, a former candy store where, as a boy, the singer crooned for the customers. Now it’s a museum, open only on weekends, run by Ed Shirak, a fan, writer, and local politician.
Shirak displays a clutter of photographs, rare records, and even one of Sinatra’s silk handkerchiefs, but the real attraction is Shirak himself. In his navy blue suit and polka-dotted tie, he looks a lot like Sinatra. And when he sings Sinatra standards on the museum’s small stage, he sounds a lot like him too.
“Sing ‘My Way'!” a woman calls out from a group of elderly visitors on a recent Sunday afternoon.
“He really didn’t like it, you know,” says Shirak, with a knowing smile.
“For a song he didn’t like, he sang it often enough!” she retorts.
Incidentally, Sinatra did return to Hoboken, but not until 1984. Through the years, however, he had bread delivered to his New York home from Dom’s Bakery, which remains in business at 506 Grand Street.
In 1948 a reporter for the New York Sun named Malcolm Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles about graft and murder along New York’s waterfront. The pieces attracted the attention of the novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg and the director Elia Kazan. In 1953 Kazan and his crew dropped their bags in Hoboken, where they made a low-budget picture in 36 days: On the Waterfront . Produced by Columbia Pictures and starring Marion Brando, Karl Maiden, and Eva Marie Saint, it told the story of a priest’s and a longshoreman’s violent crusade against a pier-side mob, and it won eight Oscars.
Scrubbed though Hoboken may be today compared with Kazan’s celluloid version, you can still walk down a spooky Court Street, where Brando was nearly run down by a truck, and sip whiskey in the barroom on the corner of Fourteenth and Garden where Brando bought Eva Marie Saint her first drink. Today it’s called Frankie & Johnny’s, and its owner, Dino Panopoulos, has managed to turn it into an upscale restaurant without offending the resident ghosts. Panopoulos prepares serious steaks in his kitchen and displays, in a locked cabinet, a gaffing hook that’s even more serious. “This was a longshoremen’s bar,” he says proudly.
The longshoremen’s most enduring legacy in Hoboken may well be its bars, or rather, their prodigious number. Ever since the founding of America’s first brewery there, in 1642, Hoboken has always been wet. The city essentially ignored Prohibition. The most notorious stretch of saloons, on River Street, was known as the Barbary Coast. “It had to be the greatest number of bars in a three-block area anywhere in the world,” remembers Bill Miller, a native son. “If the crewmen couldn’t pay their tabs, they’d make good with artifacts stolen from their ships: swords from Japan, a life preserver, gems. One guy took the 20-foot signboard off the wheelhouse and gave it to the barkeep.”
The Coast was razed in the sixties, but you can easily get a sense of what it must have been like to elbow up to the bar next to a dockworker. Stop by Helmer’s, a German beer hall at Washington and Eleventh that’s been there since 1935, or visit the Madison, at Washington and Fourteenth, where the hand-painted glass ceiling panels have survived for a century, or the Elysian Café, at Washington and Tenth, where the grime on the ornamental plaster looks as if it’s been around about as long. The beer is cold, which is still the point.
One important relic of the longshoreman’s toils survives in the form of a low brick building at Hudson and Thirteenth Streets, the former Machine Shop, Hoboken’s only remaining industrial structure on the waterfront, built around 1890 by the W. A. Fletcher Company. During World War II, workers in the building serviced more than 4,000 ships. Today part of the building houses the small but worthy Hoboken Historic Museum, whose extensive collection, from signs to tools to union cards, was scavenged from the piers by its curator and director, Bob Foster, and other members of the museum, in the late seventies and early eighties, as one shipper after another went out of business.
“After World War I this place was a teeming horror,” says Richard Widdicombe, director of the library at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Standing at Castle Point, he conjures images of industrial mayhem along the now tranquil shoreline below. “The entire waterfront was shipping. It was bar to bar on River Street. Up here was the only good spot.”
It’s not difficult to see why. The view of New York Harbor from the highest ground in the city is so grand that an admission charge would not offend (there isn’t one). The Stevens campus, with its spacious lawns and rare elm trees, is also the only place where you can get a sense of what Hoboken looked like during the early 1800s, when the spot was the colonel’s estate and thousands came to mingle in his gardens. The school is technically private property and sometimes closed, but visitors, if discreet, can usually make their way in without difficulty.
The colonel’s son, Edwin Augustus, founded Stevens Tech in 1870, and its first classroom building still dominates the corner of Fifth and Hudson. A block away, on Sixth Street, the 1856 gatehouse to the family estate survives, built from the same greenish soapstone the Lenni Lanape Indians used to make their smoking pipes. The name Hoboken comes from hopoghan hackingh , “land of the tobacco pipe.”