His was one of the first Puerto Rican families to move onto his Willow Avenue block during a wave of immigration in the 1950s, and was raised in what was known as the "Tootsie Roll Flats" because Latinos were lured there to work in the local candy factory.
Later, Olivieri became one of the city's best known tenants' advocates and a proud supporter of the Puerto Rican community.
In an effort to capture this unique and interesting perspective, the Hoboken Historical Museum and the Hoboken Friends of the Library have released a new oral history book titled When People Got Together and There Were Feasts.
The book is the newest installment of the "Vanishing Hoboken" series, which highlights, through the recollection of longtime residents, the city's disappearing identity as blue collar and working class.
The majority of this chapbook is Olivieri's quotes from a 2001 interview conducted by Hoboken resident and family friend Alisa Del Tufo in Olivieri's home on May 11, 2001. In it, he talks about courting his wife and the changes in town.
In 1950, the Olivieri family was one of the first Puerto Rican families to immigrate to the mile-square city. "It was a Hoboken atmosphere that was totally different from the way Hoboken is now," Olivieri in the book. "We were the second Puerto Rican family on that block."
The major wave of Puerto Rican 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. One company, the Sweets Company, even advertised in newspapers in Puerto Rico promising jobs and cheap apartments in Hoboken.
Hoboken quickly became a popular destination for immigrants. "Just by word of mouth; people telling their relatives and their families back there that this was a nice place," Olivieri said. "In 1955, there was a huge migration of people from Puerto Rico to here. That was the biggest year, historically, and at one point the Puerto Ricans numbered close to one fourth of the population of Hoboken."
One of the draws of Hoboken was the large number of factory jobs. Olivieri was raised in what was known as the "Tootsie Roll Flats" at Willow and 13th streets. "There are nine buildings with 15 apartments in each building, so there are 135 apartments," Olivieri said. "Most of the people who lived there worked for the Sweets Company of America - Tootsie Roll - [which] was right on 15th and Willow streets, where Macy's now builds their floats."
But the Tootsie Roll factory wasn't the only employer in town. There was also clothing, textiles, Maxwell House, Standard Brands, and others.
"Hoboken at the time was a very industrial town," Olivieri said. "It had a lot of factories that dealt with garments, principally woman's clothes. And there was big industry here, where a lot of people who lived here worked here."
His father was one of the few residents in his building that didn't work for Tootsie Roll. His father got a job as a "stationary fireman" to take care of the heating system in a building, which back then was coal.
No Puerto Ricans wanted
But it was far from a perfect time for the new residents.
There was tension between the Puerto Ricans, Irish, and Italians, especially when industry started to close or leave. 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 off. Some blue-collar Irish and Italian workers blamed Puerto Ricans for their lack of work.
After living in Brooklyn for a couple of years with his new wife Margie, Olivieri moved back to Hoboken in 1964. He looked for a bigger apartment for the couple and their two young children and was exposed to racism that would forever change his life.
"We moved back to Hoboken, and in 1965 it was a big, rude awakening for me when I was looking for an apartment to move in," he said. "That's when I really became conscious of the prejudice and became witness to personal incidents of prejudice."
Olivieri said he called up a real estate agent who thought that because his last name was Olivieri, he was Italian. On the phone, the agent initially said there were no apartments available. Then she suddenly said, "Wait a minute. I'm sorry that I couldn't say anything before, but I had some Puerto Ricans in the office and you know how it is."
"That really gave me the chills. I still get chills to this day," Olivieri reflected.
Olivieri said as he searched for apartments, time after time, he was the victim of both subtle and overt prejudice.
Shortly after that, he began a lifetime pursuit of social justice. He worked from 1969 to 1973 for the State Regional Drug Abuse Agency, counseling addicted teens and going into the schools to educate the county's youth. From 1973 to 1975 he counseled drug addicts in the state's Model Cities program.
Olivieri first began working in City Hall for tenants' rights as a staffer in the city's relocation office from 1975 to 1979, where he helped educate families and give them the best options to stay in the city. If they had to leave, he would teach them their rights for their protection.
In the decade that followed, new tensions erupted between long-time Hobokenites and newcomer "Yuppies" who were willing to pay escalating rents. Tenant advocates like Olivieri were needed to make sure landlords were obeying the laws.
From 1979 to 1984, Olivieri kept similar duties to his prior job while working in the Community Development Agency Housing Rehabilitation Program. From 1985 to April 30, 2001, he served as the city's tenant advocate, informing both tenants and landlords of their rights under Hoboken's rent control laws, which date back to 1973.
Olivieri has also served as the city's director of Hoboken's Latino and Minority Affairs, where he played an integral role in community relations and in the organization of events such as the Puerto Rican Day Festival.
Proud of his heritage
Even though there were some difficult times, Olivieri often misses the old days.
"Back then, the customs of the island were more vibrant and more prevalent than they are now," he said. "You were talking about first-generation people coming over who still had those memories and still share. A lot of people have pride, and the pride is shown in parades and the festivals."
Olivieri retired in 2001 and now divides his time between Hoboken and a home in Puerto Rico.
Copies of the new oral history book are available at the Hoboken Historical Museum at 1301 Hudson St.