August 19, 2008
An email from Jim B. is worthy of a post for you who remember the old days in Hoboken.
Late comments, but the whole area of Hudson south of 4th Street was all related to the ships and liners coming in to the Port. Most of these were removed before the 50's, when the Port Authority took over the piers and the area was really cleaned up.
Above 4th Street, Hudson was all residential (and Stevens) up to 11th Street. From 11th Street up on the river side, there was Maxwell House, the can company, the Bethlehem Steel shipyards. On the West side of the street it was residential up to 13th street, where there was a company that made aluminum pie tins, a gas station, and some bars. When they put out the garbage, it usually contained defective pie tins, that were great for skimming all over the street.
There was a very slow green and yellow train that traveled down Hudson to River Street, where it would pick up freight cars from a float bridge, meaning the freight cars would be barged to Hoboken. The tracks were right in the middle of Hudson Street, and the trains could do down River Street (now Sinatra Drive). If you placed a penny on the tracks the train would flatten it.
The train would blow its horn if it could not get through with cars double parked. Elysian Park looked out over the float bridge, and there were usually freight cars parked there. We often got in trouble by playing on the freight cars, jumping from one car to another, climbing on the ladders, and opening the doors. They were always empty when I was there.
14th Street had more bars, a pool hall, and some other stores. The pool hall was always very busy. There was a party fishing boat that came in at about 15th and Hudson and people could go out to the Bay to fish.
From 12th and Hudson to 14th and Hudson, by the shipyards, were the streets that we played basketball, football and stickball on. The basketball hoop was on the 12th Street gate to the shipyards, which was good since it was lighted during evenings. Stickball and touch football were played along the Machine Shop outside. It was narrow and hemmed in between the walls and cars. On the Northwest corner of 13th street, we played stickball, pitching from the shipyards to the wall, and hits depended on how far up the wall you hit. Of course it was an out of the pitcher could catch the ball on a fly off the wall.
Both Hudson and River Streets from Observer Highway to 4th street were historically the Barbary Coast. It was a very tough area, lots and lots of bars, not the kind that make martinis. Most bars in Hoboken only served beer and mixed drinks. A mixed drink is a beer and a shot. The shipyard often had people working three shifts, 8 AM to 4 PM, 4 PM to midnight, and midnight to 8 AM. The 14th street bars opened up for two hours before and after each shift to accommodate the workers. Bars in Hoboken opened earlier than bars in NY, and some drinkers would leave the NY City bars when they closed and then came to Hoboken to continue drinking. I don't remember wine at any of the bars uptown, however at some of the Italian bars and restaurants there was always wine, I only remember red wine in tumblers, not in stemmed wine glasses.
The Clam Broth House was different. There was a bar for men only, and a dining room for both men and women. The bar had pots with clam broth where you could fill ceramic cups with the broth. When you ate the steamers, you threw the shells on the floor. Usually you had beer with the steamers. They also served great sandwiches. I only ate in the dining room a few times, it was not memorable like the bar. (Believe it or not women were not allowed in the bar up to the 1970's). The Elysian and Helmer's look pretty close to how they used to look. The Elysian had the swinging doors you would see in Westerns, but real doors outside of that which could be locked. Behind the bar was a portrait of John Grogan, former mayor. There was a pool table in what is now the dining room. Beers were served in small glasses, not the pints they are served in today.
I'm here to tell you not much of any of it looks the way Jim remembers it today. Helmer's, I'm told has been completely restored since it burned some time ago. It has been brought back in exact detail. Work is being done to bring back the Clam Broth House, but of course they will not replicate its atmosphere, with those clam shell discarded onto the floor and the cups of steaming clam broth to take the chill off.
Everybody agrees you really wouldn't want the waterfront back the way it was--grimy, smelly, and dangerous--but it can't be denied the city had a style all its own. We newbies still get a sense of it, but we can never truly know.