Hoboken, N.J.: A Cynic’s Guide to the Sixth Borough
As a little girl, I dreamed of living in Manhattan. I wanted to occupy a high-ceilinged Tribeca loft with shiny wooden floors and plenty of sunlight and quirky neighbors I’d refer to as “characters.” But then after finishing graduate school I got a job in New Brunswick, New Jersey, an hour’s drive from my beloved Manhattan, and had to face facts: I was going to have to live in the Garden State. For starters, I needed a car to get to my job. Then there was the tiny hitch that editorial assistants apparently don’t make enough money for Tribeca lofts.
Desperate to be as close as possible to my dream city, I settled in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson from Manhattan. Those first weeks I walked every day to the water to gaze across to the skyscrapers. When my New York friends made jokes about New Jersey (which Manhattanites do often) I rolled my eyes along with them.
Even though I lived in Hoboken, I refused to admit I belonged to the place.
But then something unexpected happened. After a few months (yes, it took months) I actually started to like Hoboken. I found the locals’ obsession with hometown hero Frank comical and endearing and I liked the other bits of oddball history thrown my way. In Hoboken, did you know, the first organized game of baseball was played? Did you realize the first American Brewery was here? Oh – and the first Blimpie sandwich shop?
I also liked living in a place that still felt like a tight-knit community. Hoboken’s population pales in comparison with Manhattan’s and my neighbors – unlike later, less friendly ones I’d have in the big apple – actually stopped by to borrow a hammer, say, or ask if I wanted to attend their housewarming party. (Why, yes, thank you, I’d love to.)
Hoboken’s main thoroughfare is Washington Street and you could spend a whole day just wandering along it, stopping to peer at the sugary baked goods in the window of Carlo’s, now made famous by the TLC show Cake Boss, or pausing for a massive slice of pizza at Benny Tudino’s. But Hoboken is really a city of nooks and crannies and, at only a little over one square mile, it’s infinitely walkable
Hoboken sits between the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. It used to be blue collar town but more and more it’s filling up with boutiques and condominiums. Still, it retains some old world character and the places I like best are the ones that have been around for a long time. Many of them are products of the robust Italian-American enclave here.
My friend Mauro introduced me to Leo’s Grandevous on Grand Street, one of Hoboken’s oldest family owned and operated restaurants. “On Friday nights they make stuffed calamari and pasta exactly like my grandmother did,” he told me. “Sounds clichéd, but it’s true.” When someone whose family has been in Hoboken for generations pitches a place to you this way, you go. And you eat.
If you want to give yourself an Italian inspired culinary quest for a day out in Hoboken, I strongly recommend trying to track down the best mozzarella. I like Losurdo’s Italian bakery. Or order the chicken cutlet with fresh mutz, roasted and hot peppers at Biancmano. Unless you are a professional body builder, do your stomach a favor and get the half instead of the whole sandwich.
I think I really started to love Hoboken after my first Italian Festival. It was the weekend following Labor Day, still warm enough that you wanted to eat your meatballs in the shade. A crowd followed behind the statue of a saint (La Madonna dei Martiri – Madonna of the Martyrs) and a marching band played melancholy music to accompany her journey. Eventually, she was put onto a ferry and sent out into the river.
This isn’t the only annual summer festival in town though. Stuff your face with sugary zeppoles at St. Anne’s Feast in July and get your music fix at the Hoboken Art and Music Festival in September. Patti Smith and Hello Radio have played there in the past.
When my Manhattan friends visited me in Hoboken, I had a list of spots all picked out to prove that my city was as cool as theirs, or at least that it was cool. First I took them for cappuccinos at local favorite Empire Coffee and Tea on Bloomfield Street. We’d walk half a block to Church Square Park and drink them while watching the Labradors and Pomeranians chase each other in the dog run. I’d say something like: “pretty peaceful, here, huh? And we’re closer to Manhattan than most parts of Brooklyn.”
They were likely still unconvinced at this early hour and so I’d make them trek farther off the beaten Hoboken track to Antique Bakery for crumbly cookies or a fresh baguette. The glacial pace and sincere friendliness of the transactions makes you feel like you’ve traveled a hundred years back in time. If they weren’t yet charmed by quaint Hoboken, I’d up the culinary ante, guiding them to La Isla for amazing, reasonable Cuban food (not to mention it’s BYOB, like a lot of places in Hoboken, a sure-fire way to make an NYC resident jealous) or Amanda’s Restaurant on the opposite end of town for elegant Italian. We’d finish the day off with beer and tunes at Maxwell’s, a famous music venue who has seen its fair share of rock stars pass through.
“One of the greatest thing about living in Hoboken is getting to look at Manhattan,” a friend once back-handed complimented my new home. But she’s not entirely wrong. Perched on Pier A, near the train station, you can take in outdoor movies all summer long against an electric Manhattan backdrop. If you’re up for a short trek, though, I strongly recommend heading to Stevens Institute of Technology on the north side of the city. Up the steep set of steps that leads into their campus, a panoramic view of New York awaits. Just step over any flushed teenagers who’ve latched onto the picturesque spot as prime make out territory.
I recently moved to the West Village. I love the neighborhood but sometimes, walking along the Hudson, I find myself nostalgic for a city it took me so long to love. I find myself longing to return to Hoboken, like an old friend I’ve lost touch with, even though she lives just across the river and has given me an open invitation to visit whenever I’ve got the time. But that’s one thing you can count on us New Yorkers to never have enough of.
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