The Sixth Borough

A good look at Hoboken

By Greg Olear

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Hoboken is a city of about one square mile sandwiched between the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. Once the butt of urban renewal jokes ("Hey, if it’s Hoboken, don’t fix it!"), the city has enjoyed a renaissance in the last quarter century as its proximity to Manhattan’s Financial District has attracted more affluent tenants, pumping money into the local economy and reviving what was once a depressed town.

Back in the Day

The town’s name, according to the Hoboken Historical Museum, is a corruption of the Dutch hoebuck, meaning "high bluff," or the Lenape Indian hopoghan hackigh, meaning, "Land of the Tobacco Pipe."

To date, Hoboken’s main claim to fame is being the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. The road that traces the Hudson River is named for him, as is a newly renovated park built on the piers across the river from Greenwich Village. The first floor of City Hall is an unofficial Sinatra museum. (That Sinatra disavowed all association with his hometown and had not set foot in the city for years prior to his death does not dim the ardor Hobokenites feel for Ol’ Blue Eyes.)

Other notables hailing from Hoboken include celebrated photographer Alfred Steiglitz, sex research pioneer Alfred Kinsey, and tennis player Michael Chang. Filmmaker John (Eight Men Out) Sayles is the town’s best-known current resident.

The first organized game of baseball was played in Hoboken in 1846, on land now occupied by 11th Street. In those days, the town was home to a resort called the Elysian Fields, a getaway for new Yorkers with means–among them John Jacob Astor, who maintained a summer home in Hoboken. Hoboken was also home to the first American brewery, the first Blimpie sandwich shop, and the dual miracles of soft-serve ice cream and that indispensable bit of everyday hardware, the zipper.

Notwithstanding its short-lived run as playground for the wealthy two centuries ago, Hoboken has historically been a community of immigrants drawn to the city by its proximity to Ellis Island, its readily available, blue-collar jobs and affordable rents. Two waves of immigration on either side of the First World War brought Germans, Irish, Italians, Slavs, Latinos, and Indians to Hoboken. All of these groups are still well represented here, most notably Italians and Latinos.

The Port of Hoboken was the point of embarkation and return for some three million soldiers during the WWI. Hope of a speedy return from battle gave rise to the slogan, "Heaven, Hell or Hoboken–by Christmas." The purgatorial reputation of the place–not quite New York, not quite New Jersey–still endures.

Maps and Legends

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Hoboken’s main drag is Washington Street, which runs north-south two blocks west of the Hudson. Shopping and nightlife are concentrated along Washington Street and the downtown area by the train station, a terminus of New Jersey Transit, PATH and bus service to New York. The Hoboken train station is a National Landmark and rivals Manhattan’s Grand Central Station in architectural beauty. Taxicabs wait at the station for passengers, rarely wandering through the streets as they do in New York.

Hoboken maintains some of the character of the factory town it was. There are still manufacturing facilities along the outer areas, especially at the Jersey City border to the south. High rents in an expanding residential area make operating a factory here prohibitively expensive.

Aside from a few fraternity houses at Stevens Technical Institute, there are few free-standing houses in Hoboken. Most of the dwellings are attached row houses, some built in the 19th Century. The push for modernization in the 1960s and ‘70s bypassed Hoboken, when a severe economic depression brought on by containerization of ship cargo (shipping goods in enormous containers that lay directly on truck beds) made its inadequate warehouses obsolete. The upside to the ravages of depression is the fact that much of Hoboken’s original industrial architecture has been preserved.

In the late 1970s, gentrification began in Hoboken, with artists–and later white-collar professionals–supplanting blue-collar workers as principal tenants and owners. Recently, modern Upper East Side-style apartment buildings have gone up near Frank Sinatra Park to house the insurgent throngs of young urban professionals, but Hoboken’s overall look suggests neighborhoods more like Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Astoria, Queens.

Daily Life

Twenty-eight thousand residents living in such a small space make Hoboken one of the most densely populated cities in the United States. Many work in Manhattan’s Financial District; the city was hit hard by the World Trade Center tragedy, losing at least 39 residents, according to polls by The New York Times and The Associated Press.

Its small size makes Hoboken easy to police. Beat cops are constantly on patrol, contributing to a permeating feeling of safety and security. "I really do feel safe here," says Hilary Lantz, an editorial producer who has lived in Hoboken for 14 years. "Hoboken is still very much a community," she explains. "The people who live here tend to know each other, hang out socially, and mind what’s going on around them…It makes me feel very comforted that my son can walk home from school, and that there are people who recognize him and say hi to him every day."

Christine Allen, a software market manager who moved to Hoboken this year, agrees. "The streets are safe, well-lit, and there’s a sense of community that furthers the safety. I know our neighbors and the shopkeepers along our block–I like that."

Parking can be a problem–"Non-existant," is how Lantz described it–as there are few driveways, although there are numerous lots offering monthly rates. Lantz reports that she once spent ten hours a week trolling for parking spaces, and that was before the Hoboken real estate boom."You really can’t park anymore on the street, unless you have a strategy." (Lantz’s involved moving to an apartment with a garage.)

There are a number of parks in the city to give Hobokenites a taste of the green, including the splendid Frank Sinatra Park, whose view of Manhattan rivals the Promenade in Brooklyn Heights.

On the downside, Hoboken is not particularly known for its stellar educational infrastructure. The lackluster public-school system, however, has been helped in recent years by the founding of two charter schools, one of which goes through 12th grade. The traditional public schools, according to Lantz, "are not very impressive. They spend a tremendous amount of money per student, and yet have pretty poor showings in terms of matriculation and scores on national tests."

To-Do List

Aside from affordable places to live, Hoboken, it is said, has more bars per capita than any other city in the United States–though these bars tend to be very similar in design, size, beer options and clientele, the latter of which tends towards the white, straight, upper-middle-class, and socially conservative. The scene draws people from all over New Jersey, as well as locals. This is, after all, the town where Bruce Springsteen shot the video for "Glory Days," and on any given night, Hoboken’s bars and pubs are full of people eager to have a good time, listening to cover bands and nationally-recognized acts like The Samples and Hobokenite Freedy Johnson.

Hoboken is also home to a panoply of great restaurants, ranging from New York-caliber jacket-and-tie places to the fabled Clam Broth House, to Benny Tudino’s, which serves, to quote numerous residents and visitors, "the best pizza ever."

And of course, one of Hoboken’s main selling points is its proximity to the whirl of Manhattan. With so many dining, shopping, and nightlife options just a bridge away, many of Hoboken’s 20- and 30-somethings spend their weekends across the Hudson.

The Real Estate Landscape

Limited nightlife options and a lack of highbrow cultural outlets hasn’t stopped people from re-locating to Hoboken, however. Safety, quiet, and reasonably sane housing and rental prices continue to attract newcomers. According to HomeAdvisor, the median home purchase cost in Hoboken is $192,000, compared with $201,000 in Astoria, Queens and $268,000 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The number is slightly skewed, however, because the free-standing houses available in Queens and Brooklyn do not exist in Hoboken.

Most of the homes in Hoboken are either rental apartments–eight-unit complexes owned by a single landlord–or condos, owned by individual condo associations. Jeff Quinlan, a local real estate agent and developer, estimates the split is 60/40, rentals to condos. There are very few co-ops in Hoboken.

Real estate prices in Hoboken have significantly increased since the mid-‘90s. In 1995, a two-bedroom condominium on Park Avenue sold for $127,000. Four years later, the price was up to $160,000. Today, the same space might go for around $300,000. One bedrooms list at about $200,000.

"I moved here eight years ago, out of college," Quinlan says. "Back then, things were stagnant–but it’s exploded since then."

Rents, too, have gone way up. "When we first moved here," Lantz says, "we rented a very small one-bedroom for $750 a month. Now we pay three times that." She estimates that rents have tripled in the 14 years she has lived in Hoboken.

That said–Hoboken is still less expensive than New York City.

"The difference in rents is significant," says Charles Sterne, an editor who lives near the center of town. "We’re saving $600 a month from what we were paying in the East Village. And we looked in Brooklyn and found that most rents in the attractive neighborhoods were comparable to Manhattan."

There are other real estate benefits to living in Hoboken. Taxes are lower, apartments tend to be larger, and the overall market is somewhat less cutthroat and bloodthirsty.

"They treated us like humans!" Allen says of the brokers and landlords she dealt with when moving to Hoboken. "In Brooklyn, we needed pay stubs and letters from our bosses and bank statements. In Hoboken, our last three addresses were all they needed."

According to Quinlan, the market has slowed somewhat due to the economy, the September 11 tragedy, and the natural slowdown at the holiday season, "But," he explains, "it’s not going down–it’s getting more realistic. People buy houses and think they’ll be worth a million dollars in a few years, and they’re not worth a million dollars."

The market, Quinlan says, has been inflated for the last few years, probably as much as 30 percent. The glut has made some homeowners greedy.

"We have a saying in real estate: ‘The pigs get fat; the hogs get slaughtered,’" says Quinlan. "People bought a place for $150,000, and they don’t want $300,000 for it, they want $320,000. So they only make $150,000–what’s not to like about that?"

Wrap-Up

There is plenty to like about Hoboken: the safety, the quiet, the architecture, the history, the sense of community–the lower state income tax. Some of the town’s appeal lies in its unique, not-quite-New-York-but-not-quite Jersey status.

"I am thrilled to no longer be living in Manhattan," says Sterne. "You’re always in the middle of things there. It was exciting for a while, but, at a point, you want to just be able to leave the craziness for a while and just go home."

However, it’s just that ambiguity that doesn’t appeal to some people. Hoboken may never have the cachet of New York for the very reasons some Hoboken-dwellers seem to love their town. When asked why he moved from Hoboken to the Upper West Side, longtime resident and book editor Chris Keeslar explained, "Everyone moves out of Hoboken."

Only time will tell if his is the majority opinion. In the meantime, Hoboken will likely continue to grow and prosper, rivaling official boroughs like Queens and Brooklyn and living up to its nickname, "The Sixth Borough."

Mr. Olear is a freelance writer who lived in Hoboken for four years.

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