Note: This is the first article in a series that will appear in the Hoboken Reporter explaining how different aspects of modern Hoboken, including agencies, situations and places, got to be the way they are today.
Hoboken's 12-story residential developments might not be rising on the city's south waterfront if not for the introduction of "containers" - those orange and red traincar-like structures that pile up near the Elizabeth part of the Turnpike; the intermodal shipping units that caused the piers of certain port cities to fall into ruin.
In 1964, new technology revolutionized the shipping industry. From 1964 to 1975, every port city in the country went through very dynamic changes. Shipping operations began traveling from piers traditionally located near central business districts, such as Hoboken and Brooklyn, to new seaports located on the fringes of the area such as Elizabeth and Newark.
This was due to the new modern method of shipping freight in 20- and 40-foot metal containers on the backs of trucks. Since those containers could be transferred directly from trucks to ships or ships to trucks, fewer longshoremen were needed to actually unload and load boxes of goods. The development of "containerization" was fought vigorously by the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) because of the loss of longshoremen's jobs. Pier workers commonly referred to the containers as "longshoremen's coffins."
One strike against Hoboken was that there was not enough upland space to construct containerization storage facilities. A large amount of open space is needed for trailer trucks and to sort the imports. This, paired with the $300 million cost to improve the ports in Brooklyn, Newark, and Elizabeth, left the Hoboken piers empty.
But there are more stories behind the history of the Hoboken piers, stories that involve recreation, fires, war, corruption, and of course, politics.
Recreation and the great fire
The city's modern waterfront history began in 1609, when explorer Henry Hudson made his way up the river that now bears his name. Several sailors on his boat noted Hoboken's green-veined rock that made up what is now called Castle Point.
According to officials from the Hoboken Historical Museum, in 1784, Col. John Stevens, colonial treasurer of New Jersey and a patriot, bought the land in this area from the Revolutionary Government of New Jersey at a public auction for 18,360 pounds sterling. That is approximately $90,000 in today's dollars. The waterfront was originally utilized for recreation. On weekends, the area welcomed as many as 20,000 people for picnics and sailing.
During the early 1800s, newly built piers became the home for German tall ships, and later in the century gave way to luxury German steamers. The town at that time was a mixture of German shiphands and Italian immigrants who used Hoboken as a point of entry to America.
On a Saturday afternoon in June of 1900, several bales of cotton waiting to be loaded on the North German Lloyd's Pier 2 somehow ignited. Italian residents living near the docks fled from the distant screams of Germans trapped aboard the fire-laden liners. Most of the sailors who were trapped in the ships burned to death or were drowned by the rising tide. Between 326 and 400 people died and over $5 million in property was destroyed by the blaze.
The Germans rebuilt the piers by 1906, and the deep-water port became home to some of the world's largest steam liners. Currently, the Hoboken Historical Museum at 1301 Hudson St. is presenting an exhibit that runs through Oct. 1, which explores the role these large shipping lines played in the evolution of Hoboken's diverse culture. According to the museum's director, Bob Foster, from the mid-nineteenth century until the United States entered World War I, the grand ocean liners of Germany collected and dispatched a steady stream of passengers in Hoboken, from entertainers traveling for artistic tours in Europe to poor émigrés fleeing political upheavals.
The exhibit examines the effect immigrants had on Hoboken, and how the new arrivals were transformed by their new home.
The first World War
In 1917, just nine days after the outbreak of war, the U.S. seized control of the German-owned piers and the idle fleet that was there. Included in the bounty was the world's largest ship, the Vaterland, which would later be renamed the Leviathan.
According to Foster, Hoboken's facilities and strategic location made it the choice of the federal government as the prime port of embarkation for troops of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. More than three million soldiers passed through the port, many of whom said they expected to be in "Heaven, Hell or Hoboken by Christmas."
The U.S.S. Leviathan transported more than 100,000 U.S. troops to France. After the war, the ship was renovated at a cost of $8 million and returned to the ranks of a luxury liner, but the rarely-used ship was sold in 1938 to Japan for scrap iron.
During this time, there were 237 Hoboken saloons that gave rise to a budding culture of pier guards and troopship crews. Today, there are still approximately 140 liquor licenses in Hoboken, with the establishments serving young professionals, if not dock and factory workers.
At the end of World War I, the federal government retained ownership of the piers. The end of the war was essentially the end of the steamship era in Hoboken. The 1930s brought hard times for Hoboken as well as idle large ships in its port.
Things changed again in the 1940s. As with World War I, the second World War brought vitality to the waterfront. During WWII, ships were built and repaired in the Todd Shipyards, uptown. The ship repairs at the site continued under various owners until the mid 1980s.
After the war ended in 1945, a newfound interest arose for the piers. In 1952, the U.S. Maritime Administration deeded the property over to the city of Hoboken. The city then signed a 52-year lease with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to operate the former steamship complex there as a cargo terminal. With a renovation priced at $18 million, the southern piers became one of the most used import locations as well as the home to the hundreds of longshoremen who were needed to unload the cargo.
With the incredible amount of cargo and the power of controlling everything that came in and out of the port, organized crime syndicates thrived. The local chapters collected dues for the right to work, and much of the cargo was stolen, lost, or held.
The crime and mob influence became so rampant that in 1952 the Waterfront Commission was created by the federal government to regulate crime on the port.
The underworld crime world was immortalized in the film "On the Waterfront" (1954). Elia Kazan's movie portrayed the oppressive waterfront dock culture, where dockworkers struggled for work and dignity under the control of hard-knuckled, mob-run labor unions. The film, which was shot on location in Hoboken in 36 days, pulled no punches about what life was like on the shores of the mile-square city. It showed in vivid and depressing detail the cargo holds of ships, workers' slum dwellings, the bars, the littered alleys, and the rooftops.
The movie won eight academy awards, most notably for best picture and for best actor for Marlon Brando. Brando played Terry Malloy, a down-and-out struggling boxer who ends up saving the community by becoming a morally redeemed martyr.
The rebirth of the waterfront
The longshoremen continued their work until the rise of containers after 1964 obviated the need. Slowly, the piers fell into ruin in the 1970s.
But in the 1980s, a growing group of artists, followed by young professionals, began to discover Hoboken. In this inexpensive alternative to Manhattan, craftsmen could find a cold-water flat for less than $100 a month. As more young professionals flocked to town in the early 1980s, rents rose, and there was some conflict between landlords and old-timers who wanted the rents to stay low.
Developers began taking an interest in the town and converting inland homes into new condos, which were selling like hotcakes. This surge in the new market created a frenzy to develop dormant property on the waterfront.
In the mid-1980s, the New York/New Jersey Port Authority, at the request of the city of Hoboken, performed a feasibility study of a major section of the waterfront. The study suggested that the land be used for a balanced mix of housing, office facilities, retail and consumer services, and research. The plan also called for public improvements such as the creation of open public space, upgrading of transportation options like the PATH, transit rail and bus service, improving roads and infrastructure, and providing adequate parking.
The piers were still owned by the city and leased and maintained by the Port Authority in accordance with the 1952 lease. However, in May of 1988, a termination of the lease was negotiated. At that point, City Hall and the Port Authority entered into new negotiations for future development of the site.
Two attempts by City Hall and the PA to encourage development there were rebuffed by the public, in 1990 and 1992, during Mayor Patrick Pasculli's term.
In a proposed 1990 deal, the city and the Port Authority, which was ready to invest $125 million, planned to build six 150-foot high residential buildings and one 250-foot building on the 30-acre southern waterfront site that included the piers next to the Erie-Lackawanna Train Terminal.
The plan failed by 12 votes at a heated public referendum in which more than 10,000 Hoboken residents voted.
Two years later, a deal that called for developing half of the site failed by a vote of 5,547 to 5,316. In both cases, critics said the plans were too large and inconsistent with the character of Hoboken.
After both of the amendments failed, Pasculli's administration created the Hoboken Waterfront Corporation and tapped various segments of the community to work out a new plan. The Waterfront Corporation was made up of 15 officials and local residents, including staunch opponents of the past plans.
The new plan, developed after scores of meetings, largely rectified the problems that had polarized the community.
In 1995, the plan was finally unveiled during Mayor Anthony Russo's term. The approved project provided for a 300-room hotel, 1.1 million square feet of commercial development, a 500-unit residential development, and parks, rather than buildings, on Piers A and C. Pier A Park was completed during Russo's term.
The city released requests for proposals from private developers to build on the three-block site according to the plan. The Port Authority pledged to contribute more than $80 million by upgrading the surrounding infrastructure, including road improvements, the renovation of the five acres of Pier A Park, and the completion of the stretch of the riverfront walkway that connects Pier A Park to Sinatra Park, all of which are now completely open to the public.
After the city got proposals from developers, they and Port Authority chose Parsippany-based developer SJP Properties to develop the office towers on the south waterfront. When finished, the Waterfront Corporate Center will include two 550,000 square foot office buildings - a total of 1.1 million square feet of Class A office space. International publisher John Wiley & Sons moved into SJP's 13-story building last month, where the base of the German piers once stood. Next year, Marsh & McLennan Companies, a leading professional services firm, will occupy 425,000 square feet of office space in a twin 13-story building next door.
The corporate center will join the recently opened residential building at 333 River St., which was built by the Applied Companies in partnership with Starwood Heller, LLC. Applied, one of the major players in the area's apartment market, is now filling its $100 million E-shaped building, which offers 526 studios and one-, two- and three- bedroom units and over 60,000 square feet of street level retail.
In the 1980s, the former site of the Todd Shipyards on the northern waterfront was purchased by developer Anthony Dell'Aquila and later sold to Applied, which had built hundreds of market rate and subsidized housing units in Hoboken in the 1970s and 1980s. After 36 public hearings before the city's Planning Board, a lawsuit by opponents of the project, a court reversal, a change in zoning, and then several new hearings, Applied won the right to build the Shipyard residential development project, which is currently under construction and will boast 1,140 units when completed.
Also in the 1990s, the Belle Mead development company bought the former Lipton Tea building at the head of Washington Street and began turning it into the "Hudson Tea Building" condo complex.
Developers Daniel Gans and George Vallone purchased the former Maxwell House Coffee factory, which had closed in 1992, on the central waterfront, to turn it into townhouses. That project is currently before the Planning Board.
The waterfront has also seen a renaissance when it comes to open space on the river. Pier A, Sinatra Park, and the Hoboken Train Terminal have been revamped and re-imagined. Where longshoremen once labored, bankers, computer programmers and lawyers now play Frisbee with their families.
Within the next three years, Mayor David Roberts pledges that a publicly accessible waterfront walkway will extend the entire length of the city, as is required by state law. By the end of the decade, the waterfront will be a mix of developed residential, commercial and open space.
One is the loneliest number
Union Dry Docks, a company that repairs and cleans barges by lifting them completely out of the water, remains on Hoboken's northern waterfront. It is the last active maritime industry there. How long it will remain is hard to say, as the property has been the subject of interest for Stevens Institute of Technology, who would like to build there.
Elsewhere on the waterfront, recreational events are starting up again. A highly successful outrigger canoe race was recently held off the Maxwell House property, which contains a small beach, and sea kayakers are often seen paddling off Sinatra Park. Roberts has even hinted at that he might be interested in bringing a cruise ship to the city's ferry terminal, which in the next decade will also undergo a complete facelift.
The waterfront is also marked by tragedy, as on Pier A Park on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, hundreds of commuters watched the World Trade Center tumble, sending smoke throughout an area they had been about to commute to, or in some cases, had seen their loved ones off to.
The storied waterfront will continue to grow and change, sometimes by choice, sometimes by the forces of nature, war or economics. The piers brought in the first immigrants and harbored hundreds of longshoremen, and they will be the future home and work place for the area's business professionals. When the waterfront struggles, Hoboken struggles, and when the waterfront is vibrant, the city also follows suit.