12/13/2018

Living Across the Hudson

By Michael Stonikinis

A family-owned pharmacy in Hoboken

A few years ago, I read The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch after I had just moved from Scranton, Pennsylvania (my hometown) to Jersey City, New Jersey. I bought the book quite impulsively; at the time I had a vague sort of interest in the topic of urbanism and I remembered being assigned a lengthy excerpt from this book during a course on urban design in college. Of course, like most of the assigned readings I was given in school, I skimmed through it only briefly, hardly absorbing any of its content. However, there was one aspect of the book that I vividly recalled: a section of it had been written about—of all places—my new home, Jersey City.

A relatively new condo building in Hoboken

 

Former Our Lady of Grace grade school, Hoboken

It’s a very short work, barely two-hundred pages long and, like nearly all books on architecture, there are many drawings, diagrams and photos scattered throughout its pages. In brief, there are two thematic sections to the book: In the first, Lynch outlines and then describes a unique method for both qualitatively and quantitatively analyzing the layout and organization of cities; in the second, he applies this method of analysis to three different American cities: Boston, Los Angeles, and Jersey City. I do not intend to provide any sort of comprehensive review of this work, but simply wish to convey a single detail contained within its pages that I found (and still find) infinitely amusing: After days of walking, measuring, note-taking, sketching, photographing, and further applying the various means necessary for his method of urban analysis to be accurately conducted, Kevin Lynch and his students came to the very scientific conclusion that Jersey City was an awful place to live.

Pier C Park on the waterfront in Hoboken

A service alley near Washington Street, Hoboken

Over the last several years during my time living in Jersey City and now Hoboken, I have often thought about Kevin Lynch and whether his analysis was correct. In all honesty, I doubt that he was far from the mark; he wrote his book at the end of the 1950s—a dark time when the automobile was the single-most important factor to be accounted for in the grand designs of powerful urban planners. It is clear today that his analysis has become outdated.

Former Lining Store Building in Hoboken on Washington Street

In the time since The Image of the City  was written, both Jersey City and Hoboken, to varying degrees, have become very desirable places to live. Having benefited greatly from the increased concentration of creative talent and wealth that have in recent decades coalesced around New York City, both Jersey City and Hoboken can now boast many features of sound urban design: walkable streets, beautiful parks, effective public transportation, etc. I have spent much time in both cities admiring their exceptional architecture, reading in their parks, or enjoying a meal at one of their many restaurants.

Saint Ann Church, Hoboken

 

Former manufacturing building turned apartment complex in Hoboken

Interior of the train shed at Hoboken Train Station

However, I often get the sense that the success of these two cities has been in some ways superficial, being tied wholly to the success of nearby New York City. Doubtless, the fortunes of both Jersey City and Hoboken have always been linked in some way to those of New York City, but in the past both cities were able to boast strong local communities that differentiated themselves from their neighbors across the Hudson. 

View of the newly redeveloped underpass area in uptown Hoboken

Now Jersey City and Hoboken are places of transition for either those who are tired of the hustle-and-bustle of Manhattan but aren’t quite ready for the suburbs or those, like myself, who were wholly unacquainted with city life prior to moving to the area and wanted to first “try-out” a cosmopolitan lifestyle at a more manageable scale.

Former manufacturing building that has been renovated into an apartment complex in Hoboken

Hoboken Train Station, train shed exterior 

Perhaps I am given to a particularly pessimistic disposition, but, despite the tremendous influx of money and talent that has occurred, first in Hoboken and then eventually Jersey City, over the last few decades, I can’t help but think that the cost of success was much too high. Many of the great resources that had preserved both cities during their darkest periods in the 70s and 80s—namely, close-knit intergenerational communities, resilient small local businesses, deeply-ingrained shared civic and religious customs—have begun to disappear. In short, the things that have made both Jersey City and Hoboken dynamic and resourceful in the past (and are also crucial to their current appeal) are now the things lacking in the lifestyles of their residents and agendas of their leaders. (I of course claim no exemption from being guilty of the faults of the former group.)

One of Hoboken’s many local pizzerias

Rear yard of a row house in Hoboken

Nevertheless, there is reason for hope. In Hoboken, for instance, the parks, Italian delis, religious festivals and brownstone row houses have not disappeared. But as I walk to the bus stop in the morning and come across a construction site for yet another speculative condo building with its blank sheet metal cornice with abstracted corbels and applied thin brick veneer fastened to aluminum tracks with its mortar squeezed from a tube, I often think of Kevin Lynch.

View from lower court of an older apartment building in Hoboken