The first time I went to Hoboken was when I went there for tutoring in French. It was bucolic. First the ferry ride and then the bike ride over to my tutor's small apartment house that was a bit in from the river, where she had a three-floor tiny walk up apartment and a superb view of the sky.There were no high-rises, no fancy shops, only prosaic stores that sold the necessaries of living. And lots of bars. Bars lined the streets along the waterfront. It was definitely blue collar, old, and seedy.
Forty years later, on an early morning in an aspiring spring, the scent of the multi-million dollar lottery lured me back to Hoboken. The sun was still low in the sky and the breeze from the river was fresh and pleasant. I was caught up in the spell of an adventure. I had the feeling of being in a foreign land where time was infinite and I was on a voyage of discovery.
The first thing you notice is the noise. There is none. It is like a small drowsy town in Europe, without its medieval architecture, where a local retiree drinking an espresso in a café feels free to invite me to join him after he had noticed me taking photographs of the fantasies of wedding cakes in the window. He gave me a brief history of the town.
He told me that the early settlers were Germans who largely lived on the east side along Washington Street. It is the architecture now that distinguishes the east from the west side of the street. The east side, nearer the river, is where rows of brownstones give Hoboken its elegance. Crossing that divide and going west to the farthest reaches of Hoboken are mostly small aluminum-sided houses interspersed between four-story brick apartment buildings, all carefully tended, reflecting the blue-collar framework. The glory of Hoboken is its riverfront. When I first came to Hoboken, the riverfront was the rundown area - all rotting docks and bars.
Thanks to exquisite planning, much of it has been replaced by a splendid promenade of pink and grey-colored stone running parallel to the river.
It runs the length of the city with a clear majestic view of the entire New York City skyline from Battery Park all the way north as far as the George Washington Bridge. It is lined with benches. At the end sits a little outdoor cafe on the river's edge where, fed by the proprietor, ducks swim and geese decorate the rock pilings. The café is airy and cozy. It has a wooden counter and above are photos of Ol' Blue Eyes in his various roles. Further along the promenade, a small group of men were fishing, their fishing poles propped up against the railings that line the banks. When I asked, they told me they were fishing for striped bass. On the promenade an elderly gentleman approached me when he noticed me taking photographs of Manhattan's skyline. He told me that before he retired, he had worked in Hoboken and that this was the site, right in front of me, of the pier, Pier 4, on which the film On the Waterfront was shot. Those infamous bars of Hoboken have not been totally eradicated. They have been gentrified.
On both sides of Washington Street, upscale and downscale, you can find these bar-restaurants metamorphosed into more decorous restaurants of all nationalities and stripes. Old, venerable restaurants are a reminder of the old Hoboken. What hasn't changed in 40 years is the feeling you get of peace and tranquility, and even with the gentrification that has lubricated Hoboken, there remains an old world, small town quality that exudes a sense of serenity. It is a walking paradise of a town, being only one mile-square, almost all of it overlooking the Hudson River with its magnificent panoramic view of the skyline. There is an overarching spirit here that defies explanation. Perhaps it's the small town egalitarian feel to the city. There doesn't seem to be any overt sign of extremes of wealth. It has an essential middle-class feel that retains the solid underpinnings of the old working-class - a working-class, however, that with the gentrification of Hoboken, has done very well for itself. - Sara Nicoll (The author is a frequent Current contributor.)