Germans, Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and then... Waves of immigration have shaped Hoboken's history
by Sharon Henry Reporter Staff Writer
Dec 20, 2002 | 4306 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Note: This is part of a continuing series that looks at how different aspects of modern Hoboken, including agencies, laws, demographics, and landmarks, came to be.

When the street fairs and festivals are running in Hoboken, the rich scents of ethnic dishes fill the night air. And on Sundays, when it's time for church, the voices and languages of various nationalities float through the streets in song. Hoboken has always prided itself on its diversity, but during its transformation from a resort to an industrial port city to an upscale commuter haven, it has harbored many struggles among different immigrant populations. Whether it was the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, or the Puerto Ricans, the "new" ethnic group has always struggled upon arrival to get along with the old.

The mentality of old-timers-vs.-newcomers, which reared its head in politics during the gentrification of Hoboken in the mid-1980s, is nothing new. Geography and location can be everything. Hoboken was once an island, and some of the islander mentality remains to this day. A look at the history of immigration into Hoboken can shed some light on the politics, makeup and culture of the town today.

Swampy island to bustling port Hoboken was once a swampy island and part of the land parcel that the Dutch bought from the original inhabitants, the Lenni Lenape Indians, in the 1600s. In 1784, Col. John Stevens purchased the land for about $90,000 and developed it as a recreational area for wealthy New Yorkers.

Before 1833, New York state had jurisdiction over the entire Hudson River, extending to "the low-tide water mark" on the Jersey side. A treaty between the two states in 1833 resolved the dispute and set the border down the middle of the Hudson River. This allowed piers and docks to be built and stimulated waterfront development on the Jersey side, and from 1860 until 1910, the city, which had separated from North Bergen in 1849 and incorporated as a city in 1855, experienced rapid growth.

Six shipping lines were based in Hoboken. Railroads crossed and connected here. According to Bob Foster, director of the Hoboken Historical Museum, many of the passenger ships brought immigrants to Hoboken without making it clear to their passengers that they weren't coming to New York City.

Frederic Howe, the commissioner of the Port of New York from 1915 to 1920, attempted to stop the exploitation of immigrants who arrived in Hoboken rather than disembarking on Ellis Island, where they would immediately have come under the island's governmental protections. In his autobiography The Confessions of a Reformer, Howe stated that around 1916, 70,000 immigrants were landed in Hoboken first rather than Ellis Island. "They lost time," he wrote. "They were fleeced by hotels, by baggage men; they were lured into houses of prostitution and saloons, and in the end many of them were brought to Ellis Island by circuitous routes on their way to western-bound trains. They and their baggage were handled over and over again; they were left unprotected on the streets. It often cost them what little money they had."

Immigrants arriving with little money often remain where they land. Irish sources indicate that this same pattern is why so many Irish immigrants to England settled in the port city of Liverpool. Hoboken, with its ports and proximity to New York, was an easy destination.

From Yugoslavians to Asian Indians to European Jews to the Dutch, many groups spent time here, but in the 1800s and 1900s, the four most significant immigrant groups were the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, and the Puerto Ricans.

The Germans

Two German shipping companies - Hamburg American and North German Lloyd - established their bases in Hoboken in the mid-1800s. The German community became firmly established along the waterfront, with beer halls and hotels. Hoboken would eventually become known as "Little Bremen" because of its overwhelmingly German feel. At one point, German was a major language spoken in the city, and the German community had its own German language newspapers, theaters, and schools.

Both St. Matthew's Trinity Lutheran Church and Saints Peter and Paul Roman Catholic Church on Hudson Street were established to deal with the German influx, and they remain Hoboken establishments to this day.

In the late 19th century, Germans held many of the jobs of city government, from the police and fire departments to the mayor's office and council. The Germans counted on votes from their brethren when they ran for town positions. In March of 1895, the daily Evening Journal of Jersey City reported that a Hoboken councilman would "run independently by petition and expects to poll a large German vote. The big, fat councilman...deals in hams and manufactures luscious bologna sausages, and hopes to get also what is known as the 'shinken vote,' which means in English, ham support."

According to Foster, many of the Catholic and Jewish Germans who came to Hoboken were seeking to escape religious persecution. For some, immigration was a means of escaping from the constant wars that had plagued and fractured the German Empire.

Still, there was reportedly conflict between the Catholic German arrivals and the English Protestant stock that had preceded them. On May 1, 1851, there was a riot on the streets of Hoboken when a group of Germans who had come over from New York to celebrate the May Day holiday were attacked by a "nativist" gang, also from New York.

Hoboken and the United States saw the largest wave of German immigration from 1850 to 1880. By 1890, an estimated 2.8 million German-born immigrants were living in the United States. In Hoboken, 40 percent of the local population was foreign-born at this time, and over half of these were Germans.

But within the following decades, the German community would experience severe hardships.

Even before this country's entry into World War I, there were rumors of espionage and panics over hostile aliens. In 1916, an explosion fueled more paranoia. On Black Tom Island, located in waters that are now just off Liberty State Park in Jersey City, hundreds of thousands of pounds of munitions awaited transport to Europe in warehouses and on barges. "Something" set off the weapons, creating a blast that shattered the glass in windows in Manhattan and all along the Jersey coast. Germans were questioned, and a few residents of Hoboken were rumored to have been deported. Sabotage was never conclusively proved, but it was during this time of fear that the U.S. finally entered World War I in 1917.

During the war, many Germans were rounded up and interned as hostile aliens. Howe reported in his autobiography that 2,000 were held on Ellis Island, while others were held in four other prisons in the country. Anyone with a German name or accent came under suspicion.

"You can imagine how uncomfortable it was to be German in Hoboken," Foster said.

The once-powerful German shipping lines were shut down when the United States seized these "enemy vessels" and used Hoboken as a point of departure for some three million soldiers leaving to fight in Europe. Hoboken's German businesses were hit hard when bars near the waterfront were closed.

By 1920, there were more Italians than Germans among the foreign-born population of Hoboken.

The political Irish

Although the Scots-Irish had been immigrating to America long before, the massive influx of the rural Irish Catholics to this country began following the devastating potato famine of the mid-1840s. Continuing economic instability and political and religious oppression added to the impetus to leave Ireland.

Hoboken really started to see the bulk of Irish immigration late in the 1870s and more heavily in the 1880s. Said Foster, "This was Hoboken's early boom time. Irish masons were brought here in large numbers to build for the Stevens family." Foster added that the small houses of Willow Terrace, the curious-looking private townhomes off Willow Avenue in the center of town, were built for these workers.

The Irish worshipped at St. Joseph's Church and at Our Lady of Grace on Willow Avenue.

Once in Hoboken, they tended to stick together in urban centers, partly as a reaction to the discrimination and hostility they faced due to their religion, their socio-economic status, and relative lack of education. Political cartoons of the era depicted the Irish as sub-human and ridiculed their allegiance to the Catholic Church.

Many businesses refused to hire the newly-arrived Irish workers; one old-timer said that the Colgate Palmolive factory in Jersey City had a sign up saying that no Irish need apply. Perhaps as a result, the Irish tended to seek governmental jobs and in particular joined local police forces and were highly organized politically.

The family history of county Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons, who lives in Hoboken, bears this out: his grandfather was a sergeant detective with the local police, and his father was a firefighter and politically aligned with Bernard McFeely, who served as mayor of Hoboken for 17 years (1930 to 1947), the longest tenure of any mayor in Hoboken's history.

Clearly, in the years after World War I, the Irish held the power in Hoboken, even as the town was becoming increasingly Italian. According to Bob Foster, among many of the Irish old-timers, McFeely was considered the greatest mayor Hoboken ever had. The Italians, on the other hand, didn't have a councilman of their own until the 1940s, when Fitzgibbons' mother's uncle, Frank Romano, was elected.

As for the mayoralty, Fred De Sapio would be the town's first Italian mayor. His term followed McFeely's from 1947 to1953, but then the mayor's office returned to Irish control for another 12 years when labor leader John Grogan held the office from 1953 to 1965.

For Italians, Willow was the divide

Just as the Irish had been economically and politically pressured into immigration, the Italians who came were fleeing a population explosion which the poor land and limited natural resources could not sustain. Like the Irish, they came to areas where family members and others of their region had come before.

Said Bob Foster, "They loved their towns, but there just weren't jobs." Many who came here took advantage of the building boom on the waterfront and got work in construction and on the docks. Some always intended to earn a lot of money and return to their homelands, but never did.

Once again, those who had been persecuted before now became the hostile old-timers. During Fitzgibbons' grandfather's era, a tremendous Irish-Italian rivalry developed. According to Fitzgibbons, the Irish were mainly centered to the east of Willow and uptown and particularly around First Street. As Foster put it, "Willow Avenue was the DMZ in a way, with the Irish to the east and the Italians to the west. You stayed in your neighborhood. Even in the '50s and '60s, you could wind up in a fight if you crossed the line."

But as time passed, the two communities would reach a different sort of understanding.

Just as the Irish and Germans had intermarried before, now the Irish and Italians began intermarrying.

"That's when [the rivalry] starts to break down, when there's intermarriage between the groups," Foster said. Maurice Fitzgibbons himself is half-Italian and half-Irish, and was chosen as the city's Irishman of the Year in 2002.

After John Grogan's mayoralty ended in 1965, every mayor of Hoboken has been of Italian descent: Louis De Pascale from 1965 to 1965, Silvio Failla for two months in 1965, Louis De Pascale again from 1965 to 1973, Steve Cappiello from 1973 to 1985, Thomas Vezzetti from 1985 to 1988, Patrick Pasculli from 1988 to 1993, and Anthony Russo from 1993 to 2001.

The current mayor, David Roberts, is half-Italian. He is English and Hungarian on the other side. Roberts acknowledged the role ethnicity can play in campaigns, but added, "My election has brought an end to the ethnic election of mayors in Hoboken. No one group could elect a mayor on its own. Hoboken is a very diverse place now."

Still, the influence of the Italian population can still be felt all around town. There are social clubs relating to specific Italian towns of origin throughout the city's west side, as well as Italian bakeries, delis and restaurants. The feasts of the Madonna Dei Martiri and Saint Ann carry on the traditions of the old country, although these same feasts and the carrying of saints' statues through the streets had made the Italians the object of derision in their early years here. And in the 1980s, the young professionals who flocked to Hoboken were part of a war on the letters pages of the Hoboken Reporter that centered on the tradition of exploding loud "bombs" during the religious feasts. The Yuppie vs. old-timer letters that resulted were eventually published by the Reporter as a book, Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime.

Puerto Ricans

In the 1960s, the city saw waves of a new immigrant population: The Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rico was acquired by the United States, along with Cuba and the Philippines, after the Spanish-American war in 1898. While Cuba was granted its independence, Puerto Rico was not, and it wasn't until 1917 that Puerto Ricans were granted a limited form of citizenship.

After this, there was a small wave of immigration to the U.S., and another in the 1930s after the sugar business that supported the colonial economy of the island fell on hard times. But the major wave of immigration to this country began in the 1950s and continued through the 1970s. Like the Irish and Italians before them, Puerto Ricans came seeking jobs and wanted to be in a close-knit community surrounded by others of their culture.

According to Raul Morales, senior vice president of management for the Applied Companies, which has built hundreds of subsidized units of Hoboken, many Puerto Ricans came here to be with family and to live in a place that reminded them of the small towns they had left. Morales himself came to Hoboken 37 years ago because his brother was already here.

A big lure for Puerto Ricans was the factory jobs that used to abound here in the 1950s and the 1960s. In the 1950s, the Tootsie Roll factory, located at 15th Street and Willow Avenue, even advertised in papers in Puerto Rico promising jobs and cheap apartments in Hoboken. Many took the offer, but unfortunately, the factory would close in the 1960s when many other factories closed as well.

There was tension between the Puerto Ricans, Irish, and Italians. Besides factory closures, the shipping industry was on the decline. With the advent of new shipping "containers" that could be driven across the country and hoisted onto ships without the need for longshoremen, Hoboken's port jobs fell into decline. The blue-collar Irish and Italian workers often blamed Puerto Ricans for their lack of work.

"At this point, the waterfront, which had been a source of employment for many of the blue-collar Irish and Italian workers, was winding down," Foster said. Add that to the fact that the Latinos spoke a different language, looked different and had a different culture than the assimilated Irish and Italians, and there was a new cause for discrimination.

"In the '60s, it was pretty tough," said Raul Morales. He told the story of a landlady who rented an apartment to him on 11th Street, but once the landlady saw his wife's more Latina appearance, she tried to back out of the lease. Morales managed to negotiate a three-month "trial period." The Moraleses ended up staying for three years, and when Morales did leave, the landlady cried. He had been her best tenant.

Said Morales, "Maybe one family had done something wrong? How do I call it - prejudice, discrimination, or just ignorance. But back then, maybe one person would do something wrong, and the rest were judged by it. It was wrong."

Puerto Ricans were reportedly 40 percent of the population in 1970, but by the 1990 census, this had decreased to 20 percent. In the most recent 2000 census, Puerto Ricans represented only 12 percent of the local population.

Morales attributed this to a displacement of the poor. Housing costs have skyrocketed in Hoboken. "If they weren't vouchered or living in the Housing Authority or in Applied Housing, they've gone to Union City or Jersey City or into [other] areas to get a low rent," he said.

Politically, the Latino community has shown its muscle in town in the last two decades, despite the decline in their population. Self-proclaimed "reform" political tickets in town have often sought Latino representation on their ticket to appeal to this community. Morales said that unlike the refugees who were fleeing from Communist Cuba in the 1960s and came from all levels of the economic spectrum, the Puerto Ricans who first came to Hoboken were the less educated people, people from the mountains and the countryside. "They were the less educated," he said, "so the politicians then could move them. We have more representation today, even though we are less in the population now."

The new wave in the 1980s

Although this is not immigration in the classical sense of the word, the arrival of so many young urban professionals, derisively called "Yuppies" in the 1980s and 1990s, inspired the same sort of reaction that the arrival of previous groups of immigrants had caused in Hoboken. This influx has certainly had a dramatic impact, reshaping the Hoboken of 30 years ago.

The economic decline of the city had continued in the 1970s, with the closing of the piers and loss of factory jobs. According to Yuppies Invade My House at Dinnertime, Hoboken employment figures plummeted from a high during World War II of 100,000 to a low in 1975 of 15,000. "At this time," the book states, "Hoboken's unemployment rate was twice the national average. It had the highest per capita Welfare rate, the lowest median educational achievement levels and the lowest incomes in the state."

Puerto Ricans, who were 40 percent of the population in 1970, "found themselves with a 40 percent unemployment rate - twice as much as the rest of the city."

After artists began moving to Hoboken from Manhattan in the 1970s to take advantage of the low rents, young professionals followed in the 1980s. There was political tension. While some old-timers who owned land benefited by renting and selling to "Yuppies," others felt pushed out of their own city.

The rough streets of Hoboken underwent a "renaissance" and have since been the site of many a debate over the positive and negative effects of the newcomers on the city. Washington Street hosted newly refurbished restaurants and taverns, and residential complexes began rising on the crumbling waterfront. The city was transformed economically, as per capita income increased by 116 percent in a decade, from $20,020 in 1989 to $43,195 in 1999. In the mid-1990s, as the economy continued to soar, real estate developers took a gamble and built new housing far west of the popular waterfront and Washington Street areas, in the neglected old-timer strongholds. Some built two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartments that could be easily shared by young, single people fresh out of college. This made some residents fear that Hoboken would become a city of transients.

But in the last few years, the city's newcomers have stayed to raise their families here rather than leaving for the suburbs. They have demanded new schools, resulting in two parent-founded "charter schools" in the city in the mid-1990s.

There was another educational development recently. One of the city's private schools moved into a brand new building in the center of town. It had rebuilt a historical structure on property that had long been used for educational purposes, and the new building was meant to resemble the historic structure that had been there before - the old Martha Institute, which had been erected in 1866 as one of the city's first schools, meant to educate the German immigrant population with bilingual classes in English and German.
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