The placards, which still dot scores of buildings after having withstood decades of mother nature's bullying blasts, read: "NOTICE: ANYONE PLACING AN ENCUMBRANCE ON THIS BALCONY OR STAIRWAY WILL BE FINED TEN DOLLARS, OR THE OBJECTS FORMING SUCH AN ENCUMBRANCE WILL BE CONFISCATED."
But the amount of the levy is about as modern as Court Street's cobblestones and Hudson Place's half-buried trolley tracks, city officials say.
"Ten dollar fine?" laughed city Public Safety Director George Crimmins recently. "Is it a daily fine? I know the big thing is propane tanks. They're not permitted on fire escapes or balconies."
"That's before my time," said city Fire Inspector Captain Robert Falco. "Under the fire code, blocking a fire escape can result in a fine up to a maximum of $5,000 per day. There's no $10 fine that I'm aware of. A general violation, as with all fire violations, would be a penalty not over $5,000 per day."
Even though the city isn't actively fining people for placing their potted plants and plush towels outside, it's still unlawful today to obstruct mobility on the steps.
The signs blaring the $10 fine abound, an ornate piece of city history that has remained for longer than many others.
They're up on a building at Newark and Garden streets. They hang over Marie's Bread on Second Street. They pepper the ornate escapes at 715-717 Clinton St., and they're nearly camouflaged by antique grey paint on the glorious curvy metal bars at Tenth and Park.
At 831 Clinton St., for some reason, the placards are large and oval rather than rectangular, and they're both behind and in front of the edifice.
"I can remember them going back, oh, more than half a century, to when I was a kid," said former mayor Steve Cappiello, 78, two weeks ago. "I think they served two purposes. They were almost always at a cross-section of the steel frame part of it. It seems like it was a reinforcement, and it had the notification in there of what the fine is. That's more than the rent they were paying in the apartment, probably. The ironworkers who did those things are probably long gone."
Captain Falco said that there's no current law that mandates that the placards be up. He said that only smoking and non-smoking areas in public places have to be placarded these days.
Falco said that he looked through old ordinances to find the one about the fine, but only came up with laws stating such things as "$2 to park your horse here."
Statutes and ladders
Laws pertaining to fire escapes have changed since the placards were soldiered, but there are reasons that the original fire escapes remained.
According to E. J. Miranda of the state's Department of Community Affairs, before the 1970s, cities had their own building and fire codes, and there were no state codes to override them. In the 1970s, the state adopted a uniform construction code, which would govern fire safety in future construction. In 1985, the state adopted a set of uniform fire codes, so now they had uniform fire laws related to both old and new construction.
One new state law mandated that fire escapes have diagonal ladders, rather than steep or straight ones. This forced some building owners to change their fire escapes. This meant that in some cases developers removed the old ones with the $10 placards, but not always.
Joe Cicala, a senior vice-president at the Applied Companies, which has been building affordable housing around town since the 1970s, said that Applied changed some of the fire escapes when the laws changed. The company also combined certain neighboring buildings that had been separate and installed internal stairs from one building to the next. Since those buildings had new methods of egress, each one didn't need a separate fire escape. But the company rehabilitated some of the old fire escapes and the baskets.
"From an ornamental standpoint, we'd like to leave them," Cicala said. "The state changed the codes related to fire escapes. In a lot of buildings where they went from one basket to another, the state wanted a stair arrangement, and in some of the old fire escapes, you were really walking down a ladder, not a stair. The state required us to retrofit the fire escape for stairs, or dismantle [the old fire escapes] so they could not be used. In some cases we could disconnect the ladders and dismantle the openings [but leave the baskets]. Some baskets were not long enough to accommodate a stairway."
A building at Fourteenth and Washington streets still has the old fire escapes and placards, while the buildings on the 1300 block of Washington have unconnected baskets.
Leonard Luizzi, the president of the Hoboken Historical Museum Board, said he had one of the placards on his fire escape when he was growing up in the 1950s at 1038 Willow Ave. He said he had always wondered about it. "I had an uncle who was a Hoboken fireman," he said. "He was an inspector of a while. It was required for multiple dwelling buildings to have them. It's the same wrought iron that the fire escape was made of. As kids, one time we painted it, and the landlord said, 'You can't do that.' We didn't have central air conditioning, so we played on the fire escape."
One city worker who is also a history buff, who shall remain nameless, said he did not know how old the placards or placard laws were, but upon hearing about them graciously offered to remove them from the reporter's fire escape to add to his personal collection of artifacts.
The placards apparently do have some use, though. They remind people to keep their fire escapes unobstructed, even if the fine is outdated.
"You don't want to have any kinds of obstructions or blockages on the fire escape for obvious reasons," Falco said. "That's actually considered an imminent hazard, which is one of the worst violations that the code has in it - when you're blocking the egress or your fire alarm system isn't working. It's not only dangerous if you trip going down the fire escape; it also impedes firemen from going up when they're trying to make a rescue. Many times also, people put combustibles on their fire escapes that can burn."
Falco said these days, the fire department doesn't routinely inspect the escapes, but the state's Department of Community Affairs does housing inspections of three-or-more family dwellings every five years. One thing they can check is whether the fire escapes are clear and properly maintained. However, if the local fire department receives a complaint of a badly obstructed fire escape, they will check it out.
Fire Captain Robert Falco said that right before Memorial Day, the Fire Department started getting calls about grills.
"Something we're happy about is that new people moving into the town have been calling us before purchasing barbecues and asking what kinds are allowed," Falco said last week. "And we've been getting complaints about propane barbecues in different places."
Here are the rules:
The only place a propane barbecue is allowed is in a ground-floor backyard or courtyard. They are not allowed on balconies, decks, or roofs. They certainly aren't allowed on fire escapes.
Regular grills - electric or charcoal - are allowed on decks, balconies and patios.
No grills are allowed on fire escapes. They also aren't allowed on roofs, unless the building's certificate of occupancy has designated the roof a patio or deck.
For more information, call 420-2269. - CML