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A Walk Through (Empty) Hoboken

Thirteen - Walk Through Hoboken
Thirteen - History and Documentaries

But boy, did our normally bustling town look dead...

It was exciting to hear that the hit PBS program, "A Walk Through (insert city here)" was going to make Hoboken its next feature. This installment--like the seven previous cities explored before it--is meticulous and breezy in its pleasant storytelling of the origins, growth, apex and downfall of the Mile Square (which the show teaches is actually 1.3 miles). But like the first two parts of a trilogy, the program abruptly ends without finishing the whole story.

Yes, the viewer is tutored on everything from Hoboken’s birth after the Revolutionary War to its darkest period of 1920-1980, but A Walk Through Hoboken stops in its history lesson after Frank Sinatra leaves town for bigger things in the 1939. The Hoboken renaissance of the 1990’s isn’t mentioned…nor is the impact of the 9/11 attacks, when the town lost more residents than any other community in the country, other than Manhattan.

And while the program explores many interesting sites, from Castle Point at Stevens Tech to the old Erie Lackawanna terminal (now blandly called "Hoboken terminal"), nary a human being can be seen in the background of any of its footage. It was like watching the Times Square scene of Vanilla Sky all over again.

That said, A Walk Through Hoboken is a must-see because even Hoboken residents will learn enough tidbits of its history to count on more than two sets of hands. The show never finds fascinating information to be at a premium and runs commercial free for 60 minutes on August 13 at 8 PM (Thirteen | Channel 13 | WNET - NY)

The amiable tour guides are David Hartman, the former host of Good Morning America, and Barry Lewis, a celebrated historian of American and European architecture. The seasoned Hartman asks all the right questions, while Lewis’ endless knowledge of Hoboken is particularly impressive.

But most refreshing was to hear Hartman and Lewis, both raised in Manhattan, admit that they each had reservations about crossing the Hudson to do a show on anything related New Jersey.

Interestingly, in an interview with Hartman, I asked what he may have learned about Hoboken that he hadn’t known before. Chuckling, the 68-year old replied, "I’ve spent most of my life living and working in New York, and had never been to Hoboken. I turned to Barry and asked him if I needed a passport to go over to there."

Sans passport, you may learn from the program that:

* Colonel John Stevens (hence, Stevens Tech) purchased what is now Hoboken for $90,000.00 in 1784. Today, that money will now get you halfway to buying a tiny studio apartment…or is at least enough to pay a year’s worth of parking tickets.

* Stevens’ first idea for generating money on his investment was to make Hoboken a vacation hotspot for New Yorkers. As Lewis tells us, this resort included a six-mile path called River Walk, complete with a mineral water spa from a place known as Sybil's cave. Overnight visitors could also stay at Stevens’ tavern or hotel. Imagine that? Insecure and pretentious New Yorkers coming TO Hoboken for a vacation. In 2003, the only Manhattan seen here are disgruntled smokers and those who prefer to save thousands on annual rent.

* While the history books taught us Robert Fulton invented the steamboat, Lewis reports that is was actually the omnipotent Stevens who invented the engine and conducted the first successful voyage on one. Stevens saw the difficulties for New Yorkers to get to Hoboken on the tricky North River (now the Hudson) by only sailboat. The PATH, bridges and tunnels weren’t built until at least 125 years later, so Stevens simply went ahead and invented the first steamboat to seamlessly get passengers back and forth between Manhattan and the resort. He and Fulton were subsequently involved in lawsuits over the invention...

* A Walk through Hoboken also explores the town’s massive change in ethnicity in the 20th Century. In a town that now is seemingly dominated by the Italians and Irish, Hoboken was considered a version of West Germany before there even was such a country. Back in the late 1800’s, Hoboken’s population was over 40% German. However, due to adversarial policies created by the American government against German-Americans at the start of World War I in 1915, most of this population was driven from the city after their businesses were shut down and harassment became a way of life. Shame. An Oktoberfest in Hoboken would have been embraced by today’s inebriated residents, which now have taken the Germans’ hold of 40% of the 2003 populace...

* Lewis also points out that Hoboken represents one end of the continental United States. As a result, the Mile Square became an important transportation hub in the early 20th century. To get to New York from the west and particularly Philadelphia, train passengers would need to travel to Hoboken and jump on double-decker ferries to the island. The ferry suspended operations in the 1960’s and didn’t resume again until 1989.

* If you live where Sinatra’s parents once did on 5th and Monroe, that was once considered the worst part of town. At the time, that was considered Hoboken’s "Little Italy." To find the modern day version, simply go to Madison’s Bar on a Saturday night in the summer.

* If you live on 3rd and Adams and any blocks west and south of it, congratulations, you live on what used to be a mosquito-infested swamp. That area was so undesirable in the 19th Century that Stevens once sold it for next to nothing.

* A Walk Through also investigates Hoboken’s decline which began after World War I. Given that German-Americans were the most represented nationality, they also owned the most prominent businesses in town. After being banished from town, the gainful employment they provided went with them. And once the Holland, Lincoln and New York Penn Station train tunnels were completed, Hoboken lost its billing as a New York transportation hub. By the time Brando’s On the Waterfront was filmed here in 1954, Hoboken was already doing a fine imitation of a slum. The town would not recover from its economic slump until the late 1980’s, but strangely A Walk Through neglects to tell the viewer what prompted the recovery.

* Frank Sinatra’s roots are touched on by Hartman and Lewis, but not his abrupt departure from Hoboken in 1939. Lewis only says that the Chairman of the Board "moved up, moved out and moved on." The fact that Sinatra NEVER performed here after 1939 or donated anything back to his hometown is another example of A Walk Through only telling some of the story.

"You don't ever go back to the old neighborhood. That has always been the American way," Lewis told me when asked why Sinatra shunned the Hoboken community. "He grew up in a poor Italian neighborhood. If he wandered three blocks away from Little Italy, he got beat up. Once he became a celebrity, he saw no need to go back to a place that didn't bring back any good memories."

The only complaint about the feature is that the current Hoboken population is not captured in its modern existence. It’s a show about its history, yes, but doesn’t illustrate its current image from a demographic standpoint. What is the makeup of Hoboken’s population today? Why has it flourished as a community into one of New Jersey’s most desired place to live over the past decade?

Nevertheless, producer Joe Nicoloro’s decision to feature Hoboken in its 8th show illustrates how far Hoboken has come, and how deep and poignant its history can be to be considered remarkable enough to grab a national television audience’s attention for a full hour.

No matter where you live or work, A Walk Though Hoboken offers a true reality show that network suits have forgotten can actually be entertaining: An education.