August 11, 2008
I used to say that for a city to attract new residents it had to have water nearby. Now I say for it to have lasting appeal it needs a major gathering place, a central hotel like Wilmington, Delaware or a wide, cafe-lined boulevard like, say, Hoboken.
This is what I wrote on my old blog in June of 2007 after my first visit here:
Freeze, Hoboken! Don’t let the developers in to tear down your glorious old buildings on Washington Street and put up something cheaper and tackier. Stay as sweetly raffish and wise as you are today, with Italian restaurants, bakeries, and row houses all over. The casual observer sees Catholic churches everywhere, and a beautiful Tudor style Episcopal church (with an announcement on its board outside of a celebration of the history of Gay Pride Week) as the main street becomes residential and trees crop up.
The Hoboken "attitude" is well-known. The surprise after actually visiting is how small-town nice the place is. One short shot on the train and you're in the West Village, in New York itself, but ignoring that, the small city of Hoboken (pop. 38,000, one mile square and so tightly bound by Newark on one side and Jersey City on the other, unable to grow) has a personality all its own.
On my second visit, last fall when I came up here apartment-hunting, I continued my observation of the main drag: It was a perfect October day, a little breezy and the sky a bright blue, as I walked up Washington Street (it seems to be just about impossible to take a photo of that street without half of the street being in shadow, by the way) and saw the people chatting on the sidewalks, pushing baby strollers, and drinking coffee in the many sidewalk venues. There was a happy, outgoing American attitude in what was essentially a Old Town atmosphere -- a very appealing combination.
I had a salad at a restaurant with tile floors and again the dark wood walls, and walked up to the new building where I found a tenant going inside who let me in to look at my new apartment and investigate where the electrical outlets are and walk the room for rough measurements so I could decide what furniture to bring. I stopped in the office of one of the realtors I had spoken with on the phone to tell her I had found a place and wouldn't be needing her services. She had found a place she wanted to show me in Guttenberg, but I was sure I could never love Guttenberg. She gave me a map of Hoboken and when I told her the buildings I loved she recommended I look for the library. When I heard her say, "We have a beautiful library!" I thought of how many times I'd heard that exclaimed about the unappealing structure that is the new library in Fairhope, and my heart sank.
I needn't have worried. Historic preservation has a place in Hoboken. The library there was probably built in the 1880's; it is small, Victorian and cozy. It smells of books and only has two computers. I hope it has friends, friends that don't think the best thing you can do for a library is make it five times the size you need "to allow for growth."
Hoboken, known as the Mile Square City, is actually two miles square, but it cannot grow because it is enclosed by neighboring cities. It has a historical museum which is ironically in a new building, and the display there now is of Hoboken's musical heritage. There is a corner devoted to favorite son Frank Sinatra, of course, and displays of the poster from Hair (authors Gerome Ragney and James Rado, who were hippie actors in the 1960's, lived in a warehouse loft in Hoboken when they wrote the show.) Stephen Foster apparently lived in Hoboken for a time. It was an interesting show, and I had a good time browsing through it.
On my travels through town I actually did meet a bona fide curmudgeon, a man with shoulder-length hair who had set up a table with old books and records for sale on the sidewalk in front of his apartment. We talked about the books and records, and he told me "Hoboken isn't what it used to be," and he gave me an inside track about the corruption in politics and the snobs who have moved into town. I know where he lives and plan to stop by again when I'm in the neighborhood.
Since I've started posting about Hoboken here, I've gotten lots of traffic and lots of email from Hobokenians too. It's as if my new life is calling to me. Now for the next three weeks I've got a lot of packing to do.
The rest is history. I packed, I moved, and here I am. From real Hobokenites I've learned that most of them refer to Washington Street as "The Avenue," and don't know why. But it is undoubtably the heart of town, and, although not frozen, it is going to stay special as long as there is a Hoboken. Hoboken has water, too; the Hudson River which separates it from Manhattan and offers as beautiful a skyline view as you'll find anywhere in the world.
Oh, and as for that curmudgeon. I've been by his corner many times and never laid eyes on him again. I hope he still lives here and has another sidewalk sale in the fall. This time I'm looking for a Jimmy Roselli record.