When I was a young girl growing up in New Jersey, going into “the City” with my father was always a big treat. The journey involved a seemingly complex series of steps, including driving to the train station in town, arriving at that train station at the right time to catch the right train to Hoboken, and then navigating the maze-like Hoboken Terminal so as to end up on the correct track for the correct subway to lower Manhattan.
The Hoboken Terminal figures importantly in my life – and not just because I got to pass through it on the way to adventures in New York City. The Hoboken Terminal is the reason I grew up where I did.
In metropolitan New York City, also known affectionately as “the Tri-State Area,” people choose a hometown based on its commuting options. Workers in the Midtown-based advertising industry tend to live in Connecticut, where bus lines provide easy access to Grand Central Station. Medical professionals live near the George Washington Bridge, which delivers them right into the uptown hospital area. Folks who work in finance, the industry that revolves around the New York Stock Exchange and the former World Trade Center, live in northern New Jersey. New Jersey’s Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic Counties are criss-crossed by commuter train lines, all of which end up at the Hoboken Terminal. From there, a quick walk across the station brings commuters to the PATH (Port Authority Rapid Transit) subway trains which whisk them under the Hudson River to a station that was once the basement of the World Trade Center.
My father was – and still is – a Wall Street kind of guy. Take a relatively easy commute to lower Manhattan and add to it the advantages of a backyard, a cute downtown, and a great school system, and you can see why the decision to live in Allendale, NJ (a stop on the Main and Bergen County train lines) was an easy one for my parents.
Over 50,000 people move through the Hoboken Terminal every day. Like my father, many are arriving and departing on commuter rails and PATH trains. Others are transported in on a variety of bus lines, and still others travel over water to Manhattan’s west side on the newly-rejuvenated NY Waterway-run ferries.
Because of the number of modes of transportation that come together relatively smoothly in its central location, the Hoboken Terminal has always been considered a landmark of urban development. It happens to be a historic landmark as well, and my childhood fondness for the place stems largely from its distinctive turn-of-the-century style.
The Hoboken Terminal was built in 1907 as a hub for ferries, trolleys, passenger trains, and freight trains. It was designed by the same architectural firm that created New York’s Penn Station and paid for by the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad Company. The building is considered to be exemplary of the “Beaux-Arts” style, and its unique features include a fifty-foot high Tiffany glass ceiling and a copper exterior façade made from leftover Statue of Liberty construction material.
The original terminal had a 225-foot clock tower which was taken down in the early 1950’s. In 2007, a new one was erected. It boasts four-foot high copper letters spelling out the word “Lackawanna.” These letters light up at night, and they have come to define the Hoboken skyline.
And well they should. It is obvious the this terminal is Hoboken’s raison d’etre. On my recent visit there, I walked the streets at 8am, in the thick of commuter movements. I didn’t have to look up to figure out where the terminal was; throngs of workers were moving en masse towards it from every possible direction. These walkers, who live in downtown Hoboken, have made the city an uber-hip cultural center. When I was growing up, there was one “acceptable” restaurant in Hoboken (the now-defunct Clam Broth House); missing your Bergen County-bound train and getting stuck there was considered risky business. Now, the city has more Zagat-rated restaurants than any other town in New Jersey, and I saw trendy clothing stores, home décor shops, and fancy-looking pre-schools on every corner.
While it’s safe to say that the working class birthplace of Frank Sinatra is long gone, the influx of money to Hoboken means that the city looks good – really good, in fact. The brownstones are in fantastic shape and the streets are clean and safe. The Hoboken Terminal is impressively well-restored – especially in comparison with the 1980’s appearance I remember so well from my childhood visits.
I have read that the 1980’s represented the Hoboken Terminal’s “lowest point.” Yet, even at its lowest point, the place captivated my young imagination. What I remember best was the Greek revival waiting room. I thought that its tall ceilings topped with Tiffany glass, its solid wood church pew-like benches, and its carved flower-motif wood details were magical, even in their advanced state of deterioration. I remember standing in that room, wondering what it was like to arrive to New Jersey during the height of train travel, when movements across the country were less frequent and more awe-inspiring.
I was carried back in time as I stepped into that waiting room last week, simultaneously seeing the way it had been in the 1980’s and the way it was in that moment. And, in that moment, I was most struck by the contrast between the clean and shiny splendor of the room and the dirty despondency of the homeless people who have taken to occupying it.
Ah, the Tri-State Area; never lacking in irony, and always a land of extremes.