Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Looking Back: Hoboken in the 1950's

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.


slezak said...

jim b has a good memory (hoboken's Barbary Coast). It was as he writes.

Too bad in the making of On the Waterfront they did not film River Street as it was back then ...a picture is worth a thousand words. That area was always where the action was, in the 50s. If you turned back the clock 100 years, it had more to offer, such as the theaters, vaudeville, and swinging door bars, and girls were dressed in their very best dresses. (A sailor's favorite port, I'm sure.) The cops on the beat had their hands full in them days...low pay but good tips for looking the other way...that's the way it was.

HOBOKEN WAS NOT BORING...I'm sure a far cry from L.A. (Lower Alabama). WELCOME TO HOBOKEN

Dennis said...

Jim B did not mention that Hobokenites used to go over to the City (NYC) to drink after the bars closed in Hoboken. Yes Hudson and River Street were favorite places for the sailors when a ship was being worked on in the dry docks. I think Peggy's was the favorite and it was on Hudson Street between second and third. Cops didn't really have any problems with the sailors. I am not a ex-swabbie by the way. When the Holland American Line came in their crew used to fill all the German bars. MOST of the problems came from regulars who were jealous of the sailors taking the girls. Have to admit, some of the sailors were darn funny!

Anonymous said...

Just a few comments about the Clam Broth House. The reason why no women was because there was only one rest room in the place and it stunk. The cussing would peel the paper off a wall. A sandwich there would fill you up for most of the day and it was cheap! Beer in the 50s was only 25 cents a big glass and the glass was ice cold. You appreciated that in the summer time. In the winter, the hot clam broth was a treat from the cold wet weather, especially if there was snow on the ground. NYC's drinking age was 18 yrs old. Most of us went over there way before that and got served!! Got sick every time on the tubes coming home. The smell down there was awful and the rocking of the cars did not help. Maybe this was His way of telling us we were doing something wrong!!

Barbary Kid said...

I lived in the area so called "Barbary Coast" for 16 years, at 129 Hudson St. I'd like to make a correction for jim b. River Street only went from Observer Highway to the park at 4th St. It then turned right at the park and was called Shore Road all the way to 11th & Hudson St. where it ended. I enjoyed my years in Hoboken. It was fun, scarry and exciting at times. When it got boaring. We us kids ages from about 8 to 14 would make up a storie. then go tell it to a sailors or seamen in one of the bars. Then point out another seamen or sailor in another bar and say he said it. Then sit back and watch the battle until the cops came to break it up. Some times it turned into a free for all. That's when it really got good. When I go there to visit once in awhile now. I don't enjoy it any more, To many changes. It got just like New York City, including the people there. you want to change the name how about naming it Newyorkburg!

Mary Lois said...


You probably remember where the Empire Theater was, and lots of other great stuff about how Hoboken used to be. Keep reading and commenting--I love what you have to say.

I know it's hard to take changes in a town you liked the way it was. I just left one for that reason, and find I like Hoboken (but know I wouldn't if I had memories of it in the old days when you bad boys baited the sailors and played in the dumbwaiters.)

Dennis said...

It is a small world!! Jim used to hang out with my older sister and her friends on the front stoop (porch out here). The Empire Theatre, that's a new one, even to an old Hobokenite like me. Bobby is right, Hoboken was not boring in any way, there was always something to do or try to do. Saturdays were a good day to sneak into the infamous "Scratch House" to see two good action pictures at a chapter of a story, plus five to ten cartoons. Some times they would show races and whoever held the winning ticket got a prize. I still remember Sam, the manager, walking down the aisles screaming at us to be quiet before the pictures started. You never wanted to get caught sneaking in the back door. Sam had a swift foot for a real heavy man and he would use it, right where you sit down.

Charles said...

First of all, I'm really enjoying your "Finding Myself In Hoboken" So you think we were the bad boys huh? If you lived in the neighborhood with us back then. I'm sure you would have cheered us on like the rest of the girls that hung out with us did. The Empire Theater was a Vaudeville, Burlesque Theater I was told by the janitor of the apartment house we lived in. He used to play the piano for Empire and the Hudson Burlesque in Union City. The name was changed to the Rialto Theater before I moved into the neighborhood and it was already an an Opera House. It was in the earley 50's it was changed to a Movie Theater. When I moved into the hood 1943 it was used for Opera's. We seen the greatest automobiles and Limo's of the century pull up in front of that Theater. The nights the shows would play we would buy a book of matches at the corner candy store for a penny. We would then wait for intermission and hold a match for the patrons coming out of the theater, so they could light up their cigaretts and cigars. They were always good for 5 or 10 cent tip for the service. That way we had our movie money for the next day. We would go to the Rivoli Theater(Scratch House) as it was called to the locals on Washington St. The ticket used to cost 6 or 7 cents. They always showed old movies but a lot of cartoons. We had two other movie theater's in Hoboken then. We had the Fabian Theater on Newark and Washington St. The US Theater was on 7th and Washington. Them Theater's used to cost 20 to 25 cents for a ticket. But they were the nice theater's. Dennis has a lot of info and stories from our old town also. I came to find out everyone didn't like it, or had as much fun and good memories as I did. I have some stories that will make your hair curl. we'll get to them at another date.

Mary Lois said...

You must have had a great time in the old days of Hoboken, Charles. Thanks so much for joining us here and telling a few stories. Now we know about the Empire--later called the Rialto--and about those matches! What fun.

Do come back and tell us more.

Anonymous said...

You cant stop change Hoboken was made up of hard working men longshoreman shipyard railroad factorys. We live in coldwaters flats most of us did not have our own shower we would go to the ymca to shower we shared a tolit with two famlys When I was telling this to someone I was working with He told me that he did not know that I was poor when I was a kid. I told him I was never poor we just did not have any money but never ever thourgh we were poor. We had a confident in ourselfs we were tough but we had respect for ourselfs and others. If they ever bring back the Clam Broth House I hope the Men that drink there now can feel what it was like when it just a mens bar .

Anonymous said...

My family grew up in the yellow flats on 12th & Washington st .I can a test to everything he wrote !! There was more bars in Hoboken then any town in the USA !! My fathers bar was on 12th and Washington st Tains !! Remember this was the baby boom era. So there were a lot of big family's in Hoboken back then . I had 4 brothers and 2 sisters .But so did alot of my friends also ! Oh on 13th and Hudson .Was Stick ball Stratum !! It was wrote up in the NY Times back in the 60"s .A home run was over the roof !! Where the Hoboken Museum is right now .Oh by the way the fishing boats he was taking about was the Sea Star and both Palaces 2nd & 3rd !Yes Hoboken was a working class town .But i wouldn"t have wanted to grew up any place else !! I have a house in Weehawken now .But still get down to Hoboken alot .Washington st is still my main st .But with out living there .And the parking is just so much better in Weehawken !! Thanks for your memory of Hoboken .
Ken G..............>

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Hoboken in the early 50's and it was great. We lived in a cold water flat at 12th and Willow next to the old police station, which was torn down years ago. I remember churches and bars in every neighborhood. On snow days the town gave us free tickets for the movies and closed off many streets to sleigh ride. I remember 10th street park and the park at 4th street across from St. Mary's. We use to go to the factories on Clinton St. To collect empty bottles for deposits and then would buy good Italian ice. Oh the good old days.

Anonymous said...

Lived on 11th and Willow Ave. I read what one of your other readers said about not ever feeling poor, I agree with him/her. Lived on the top floor of a 5 room cold water railroad flat. Had a fire escape that brought me freash air and a feeling of freedom. Also, tar beach was the thing to do, get your blanket and your sun glasses and go up on the roof to get your tan or burn, whatever! Bar on every corner, used to look under their doors to see the color televisions, I had a black and white one that had no reception. The first time I had a bath was when I got married and had gotten an apartment in North Bergen that actually had a bathroom. Prior to that, we had a cast iron wash tub that had to do and I remember the little roaches floating around the top of the water. By the way, that was only on a Saturday night, we heated up the water for hours and each one of us would take turns getting in the water. The oldest child went first, I wasn't the oldest. Never felt poor or underprivledged!!! Loved growing up in Hoboken, people were kind and schools were good. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to express my feelings.

Mary Lois said...

Always happy to have a new contribution to this old post. Many good memories of old Hoboken, and I'll bet there are more to come from you b 'n' r's.

frank steffens said...

i lived at 1220 hudson street,with my grandfather-fred steffens.across the street was bethlehem steel.everyday on the top floor of this apartment,i could see the huge cranes,lifting steel onto the navel ships.& in the center was a set of train tracks,runing north & south of hudson..altho i wasnt born ti 1960,i do remember this very well.used to see the sailors entering & leaving the ship yard..oh & maxwell house coffee(good to the last drop)the arroma of coffee-was traveling throughout hoboken..
thanks for the memories...

Anonymous said...

We use to cross the railroad tracks and climb the hills to jersey city North Street park to go swimming. Does anyone remember the casket making company under the 14th st. Viaduct? The propellor factory on Grand Street?

Tommy S. said...

I grew up on 12th and willow during the late 50's. I remember the Police station on the corner and they had the loudspeakers outside and would make announcements. We would hitch rides on the back of the jitney buses on Washington St. to go to the Saturday matinees at the Fabian. 5 cartoons and 3 movies for a quarter! Playing roller skate hockey on the tennis courts of 10th St. park and stickball in Wallace schoolyard. I could go on and on... A great place to grow up in.
Tommy S.

June said...

With the Easter holiday approaching, I'm thinking of my step-grandfather who raised me. George Bendotti was known as Hammy by his friends, for his expertise at
chasing pigs from the Hoboken slaughterhouse across the railroad tracks when a train was approaching. As a boy, he was the breadwinner of his family, literally bringing home the bacon for his siblings and his mom, who had been widowed at an early age.

He used to take me to Hoboken on Saturday mornings in his old black car with the squared-off back, long running board, and the big Nestles Cocoa poster pasted between the two separate back seats. We'd visit his buddies Nick the Greek who raised rabbits in his yard (to my horror, he gave me a hideous, bony rabbit's foot once, when I'd asked Hammy for one to put on my bike. I thought I'd get a nice colorful green one with a brass chain like they had at the 5&10!). We'd also visit Clutch, who ran the junk yard and wore a dirty Dixie cup over his handless arm-stump.

Hammy worked the docks as a longshoreman, and would bring home goodies hidden in his quilted thermal underwear jacket...he'd call us kids into his room, unzip the jacket, and some wonderful stuff always came tumbling out! Once it was tiny radios, another time, hippie beads, but the most memorable night was when he came home bulging with little glass bottles full of cherries in some kind of alcohol, which my grandmother promptly confiscated.

Grandpa loved the holidays, and was infamous for sticking his finger in the bottom of each chocolate candy in the box (when no one was looking of course) see what oozed out and then decided whether to gobble it up or not. He loved me, and never complained about having to raise my sister and myself.

Hammy was sweet, a diamond in the rough. One night, long after my grandfather went to bed, I was still sitting in front of my lentil soup in the kitchen. My grandmother insisted I eat it, and to me, lentil soup didn't look like something anyone should eat; I couldn't get it down. After a few hours I began to cry a little; Hammy could hear me from his bedroom. He got up quietly, came into the kitchen, and put his finger to his lips for me to 'shush'. He sat down, ate my soup, and went back to bed.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone remember a bar on 1st street called Old Homestead? I did not grow up in Hoboken but my grandmother did (in the 30s-40s).

jkosty said...

Yes ! The Old Homestead was my great grandparent's bar. Our family does not own it anymore but I believe it is a restaurant now.

Anonymous said...

My parents owned Town Lunch, 215-217 Washington St. phone OL9-2006

Anyone remember the place?