Everyone knows that Hoboken is the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and baseball. But what about Blind Tom, the former slave who rose to international notoriety as a pianist and died in Hoboken in 1908? Or Dorothy Gibson, the Hoboken native and Titanic survivor who briefly became a Nazi sympathizer in Germany before fleeing to Italy and living life as an exile? What about Alfred Kinsey, the sex scholar? G. Gordon Liddy, one of Nixon’s so-called “plumbers”? Jimmy Roselli, a crooner to rival Ol’ Blue Eyes?
Then, there are Hoboken’s more modern figures, such as bartender Chris Halleron, activist Helen Manogue, and the current and former mayors.
Their stories and words are now immortalized in print thanks to Alan Skontra, who moved to Hoboken in 2009 and soon began work on a new history of the city, entitled “Legendary Locals of Hoboken.” Skontra, a freelance writer, was approached by the book’s publisher, Arcadia Publishing, in 2010 about writing a Hoboken edition of the successful “Legendary Locals” series. The finished product was published last month.
On Sunday, April 13, Skontra will host an event at the Hoboken Historical Museum at 4 p.m. to discuss the book and the lives of those Hobokenites he’s come to know so well. The museum is located at 1 Independence Court (on Hudson and Thirteenth streets).
“I hope people that move here can use this book as a way to learn about the history and the heritage Hoboken has to offer.” – Alan Skontra
Skontra’s book covers Hoboken from its inception to the present, and includes sections on famous Hobokenites from nearly every era of the city’s history. Beginning with Col. John Stevens and his innovative family members, Skontra weaves a tale of a town once green, open, and pastoral that slowly grows into a hub of immigration.
This first section, of which Stevens and his children are the highlights, also profiles Mayor Lawrence Fagan, who served from 1893 to 1901. An almost ironic precursor to the administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer nearly a century later, Fagan ran as a reform candidate against a political machine known at the time as The Ring.
Skontra spends the next section of the book on what many consider to be Hoboken’s golden age: the era of Sinatra. The book spends plenty of time on Ol’ Blue Eyes, but also focuses on his contemporaries: the aforementioned Roselli, Maria Pepe, the first female Little League player, and Joseph “Biggie” Yaccarino, who founded the famous Biggie’s Clam Bar.
Subsequent chapters of the book focus on residents involved in civic engagement or local business. They include some current local legends: Zimmer, the city’s post-Sandy champion, as well as her challenger in the most recent election, Ruben Ramos Jr., who grew up in Hoboken’s housing projects and became a teacher and assemblyman.
The chapter also features James Farina, who recently celebrated his 30th year as the city’s clerk and Eli Manning, the Super Bowl-champion New York Giants quarterback.
Why it matters
Local history is always an important piece of any community’s identity, said Skontra, and writing this book was a way for him to learn the history of his new home.
“I hope people that move here can use this book as a way to learn about the history and the heritage Hoboken has to offer,” he said. “The other night I met a guy in a bar who had just moved here and I told him to read it so he can learn the history.”
But the book is also for those who have lived here forever. New or old, Skontra said, it doesn’t matter.
“All I did was write this book,” he said. “The stories in it belong to Hoboken and the people that live here,” he said.
Bob Foster, the director of the Hoboken Historical Museum that will host Skontra for the Sunday talk, said the book was a crucial step in recording Hoboken’s history.
“I moved to Hoboken 30 years ago and it seems like whenever I walk down Washington Street, there’s always a funny character or some sort of legendary local,” he said. “There might be less of them now, but thank god they’re immortalized in Alan’s book.”
“Legendary Locals of Hoboken” can be purchased on www.Amazon.com, www.arcadiapublishing.com or at the Hoboken Historical Museum.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org