Hoboken featured in travel column
Last week, The Washington Post featured a story about Hoboken in their travel section.
What do you think of their write-up of our town?
Hoboken, N.J.: Start Spreading The News
BY JOHN DEINER
You can call Hoboken, N.J., a suburb of New York City if you’d like — but those may be your last words.
True, this compact mile-square city on the west bank of the Hudson is bulging with white-collared twentysomethings who’ve fled Manhattan for the cheaper housing across the river. And there’s no denying that the lights of Broadway from a Garden State promenade can’t compare with being in Times Square. Greenwich Village vs. Washington Street? No contest.
But this is a proud town, people, and suggesting it’s anything other than a Jersey original puts you on dangerous ground.
For the past two decades, Hoboken — star of 1954’s “On the Waterfront,” birthplace of the zipper and the ice cream cone, victim of a vicious economic downswing in the 1970s — has been busy reinventing itself. Frank Sinatra was born here, but if he saw it now, he’d probably want to stop spreading the news about “New York, New York.” These days, it’s more “The Way You Look Tonight.” Parks and walking trails have replaced rotting piers, while new construction and renovated brownstones have led to an influx of bars and restaurants. Condos glisten, fountains burble, money is spent.
Hoboken has, in short order, become a contendah.
Today it’s a city of simple pleasures, worthy of a quick visit if you can tear yourself away from the Big Apple. Frank-ophiles can follow in their idol’s loafers on a walking tour, while stores like Wee Beasties (for pampered tots) and Good Kleen Fun (home of the $6 bath fizzy) peddle doodads to inveterate shoppers. Barhounds may want to sidle up to the rail at Texas Arizona or the Black Bear for people-watching and a pilsner.
It’s the start of a long evening. That other city’s skyline is powering up as a full moon works its way across the sky. It’d be a great night for a carriage ride in Central Park, but it’s time for dinner… in Hoboken.
The waiter at Leo’s Grandevous, an Italian cubbyhole a few blocks from the hub of activity along Washington Street, is ready with an answer almost before the question is asked.
“Shrimp Sinatra? It’s a mix of artichokes, shrimp and mushrooms, served over pasta. It’ll get your night going,” he says. Leo’s walls are plastered with photos of the Chairman of the Board, and a shrine has been erected over the bar. That’s supposedly Frank’s favorite stool lying on its side above the cash register.
For a buck, the Hoboken Historical Museum will sell you “Hoboken: The Sinatra Tour,” a 23-stop journey through the city. “Don’t expect much at his birthplace and some of the other sites,” warns a volunteer as he hands over the map. “But you’ll still get a good sense of the man.”
The warning is not unwarranted. A bronze star embedded in concrete near the empty lot where the dead crooner’s birthplace once stood is a mess. There’s a smudge on the tip of one its points, and you can barely read some of the smaller gunk-covered type under “Francis Albert Sinatra The Voice.” Nearby, a dog has left an unseemly deposit on the sidewalk.
Farther afield, St. Ann’s Church, where Sinatra is said to have made his singing debut, and St. Francis Church, where he was baptized, are locked but lovely. Other buildings, such as City Hall (where he received a key to the city) and Lepore’s Chocolates (full of memorabilia), are also closed this Sunday afternoon.
At some sites, all that remains is a street address. Tutty’s Bar was a dive where, according to the map, “Sinatra would hang out with his friends on the corner and sing a capella.” Look for the hole in the ground waiting for redevelopment. The Cat’s Meow, where he “slept under a pool table,” is a deli, while the gym he joined during the Depression is a windowless shell.
Though the area had been settled since Colonial days, the city — nestled between the Holland and Lincoln tunnels and Jersey City and Weehawken — was incorporated in 1855. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a thriving shipping and commerce port, and such companies as Lipton Tea and Hostess were based here.
In the 1950s, however, container shipping became popular, and the port couldn’t accommodate the deep-water vessels or their cargo. Businesses fled; buildings were abandoned. By the ’70s, the city was a dilapidated mess, a joke butt in a state that has taken more than its share of knocks.
A few signs remain of that time, with buildings in disrepair and a skeletal pier jutting into the Hudson. But the Brando-esque longshoremen are long gone. A curvy pedestrian path lopes along the river. Coming soon: a posh 225-room W, the city’s newest — and only — hotel.
Because parts of Hoboken occupy a gentle slope (capped by the Stevens Institute of Technology, on a bluff about 100 feet above the river), walking can be strenuous. Hobokenites are a sturdy breed, so that’s not enough activity. Hence, there’s a skateboard park on Frank Sinatra Drive, with a kid’s-eye view of the Empire State Building, and down the bend in Sinatra Park, sweaty adults play soccer while onlookers dodge bicyclists. At Pier A — a dock turned green space, with a massive lawn, a fountain and a gazebo — joggers nearly outnumber sunbathers.
Nearby is the city’s Little League field, a pint-size version of a big-league stadium, complete with fancy scoreboard and plastic seats.
Apparently, the first organized game of baseball was played in Hoboken, though that’s a matter of dispute. But this is a burg of many indisputable firsts. Through today, you can read about such milestones at the tiny Historical Museum, some of them head-scratchers (First Woman to Caulk Ships), others cheer-inducing (First Oreo Cookie).
You can’t trudge far without bumping into something Italian, be it person or cannoli. For the latter, there’s Carlo’s City Hall Bake Shop, a few blocks from the Hoboken terminal (a web of light rail, trains and ferries). The bakery has been around since 1910. Just don’t go in hungry — and don’t go in full, either. You can’t leave the place without buying something.
After a day of carb-loading at Giovanni’s (greasy, perfect pizza), Carlo’s and Leo’s, it’s almost a relief when the sun goes down and the bar scene kicks in. Not that the eating is over: Diners are elbow to elbow at sidewalk tables along Washington Street, at such fashionable spots as the Elysian Cafe and Robongi.
As the evening progresses, so does the hubbub. At Bahama Mama’s tiki lounge, a bachelorette party slurs through a song. Steps away at the Black Bear, guys pawing longnecks watch baseball on the pub’s two dozen TVs. The Shannon Lounge, BarNone, McSwiggan’s, Buskers: Anything that serves Miller Lite on tap is jammed.
Off the main strip at Willie McBride’s, a limo is parked out front and a crowd has gathered. A celebrity? Nah, just a bunch of Jerseyans suffering through the state’s new indoor smoking ban.
The Brass Rail is, by contrast, eerily tranquil. Late diners are whispering in the restaurant’s elegant white banquettes, and giant mirrors over the bar provide an interesting perspective of the parade of partyers along Washington Street.
A deejay is positioned near the door, though, and he’s pacing, clearly tired of the easy-listening tunes hanging in the air. At 11:01, he approaches a bartender, smiles and says, “OK, enough of this. Let’s crank it up.”