The remarkable, resilient city of Hoboken, New Jersey is worthy of blog posts far longer than this one, and someday I will give it justice. But it’s time to start with a snapshot, evoking one of this densely populated burg’s most cherished cultural artifacts. Not surprisingly, the city, directly across the Hudson River from New York City (with its skyline in full view along the Hoboken waterfront), served as the birthplace to a variety of notable individuals. Among them: the polarizing sex psychologist Alfred Kinsey, Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, venerated star of stage and screen Pia Zadora, prominent mid-century photographer Alfred Stieglitz. But one native son outshines him all.
Not much to look at, you say? At the very least, he earned a star embedded in the sidewalk.
But beyond that, the birthplace of one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated voices is little more than a strip of asphalt. At least the little shop immediately to the left pays tribute to one of Sinatra’s most celebrated acting roles:But, according to this article, this tiny Frank Sinatra museum closed almost a decade ago. As for the home at 415 Monroe Street? It burned down even before Sinatra’s death.
Hoboken finds other ways to honor its most famous set of pipes: a Frank Sinatra Drive spans much of the waterfront, with a southern terminus at Sinatra Park. And in the park? Blue Eyes Restaurant. But time wasn’t kind to the home he knew during his tender years. (Apparently Sinatra himself wasn’t so kind to his home either; he referred to Hoboken as “a dump”.)
The absence of the home—but the presence of the memorial plaque—speaks volumes of our escalating willingness to ascribe preservationist initiatives to just about anything anomalous. The home, one among many in a non-descript, working class block on the west side of town, probably lacked architectural features that would distinguish it. It’s unlikely that anything remarkable pertaining to Sinatra’s accomplishments as an entertainer took place in the home. Yet it’s hard not to imagine that, if it were still standing, various devotees would have ponied up the money to salvage it—if not so much for the historic interest as for the chance to make an easy buck off of tourists.
All things considered, the star in the sidewalk really isn’t that much. And the museum couldn’t sustain itself. Sinatra fandom in Hoboken has apparently experienced a steady decline in recent years, no doubt in part to the city’s rapid demographic shift, from aging Italian working class to a much more white-collar, youthful, multi-culti bent. It’s hard to speculate whether anything could prompt a renewed interest in the artist’s childhood home in the years ahead. Regardless, the Hoboken Historical Museum is hedging its bets on the persistence of at least a smattering of fanclub curiosity, as evidenced by the online walking tour map.
If Hoboken were struggling to lure outside interest—and it most certainly is not struggling—I suspect the efforts to cultivate Sinatra tourism might be a little more prominent. But at this point, the city is putting out the welcome mat each week for new arrivals: some out-of-towners, some fleeing the higher rents across the river. And it has recovered much of the population it lost during its more troubled decades, which began during the Great Depression and continued through the 1980s. Developers are refurbishing (or demolishing) the older, derelict housing, all while seeking financing for new multi-family installations wherever they can fit. The few remaining off-street parking lots are under constant threat…which includes the Sinatra birthplace at 415 Monroe.
Over time, this little parking lot where his family’s house once stood will become a hot commodity, ripe for an infill project. Who knows—maybe a developer will propose a facsimile of the old Sinatra home. It won’t be authentic, and it probably will lack certain architectural features from the original home now deemed obsolete. (It will, however, be a little fancier than the two-room home in Tupelo, Mississippi where another legendary 20th century singer was born. Contrarily, the Elvis Presley home still stands and vociferously encourages tourists. But Tupelo also hasn’t seen quite the phenomenal changes over the last 20 years that Hoboken has.) Heck, it’s likely that no one living even remembers what the Sinatra birthplace looked like, so a facsimile may be impossible. Let them build.
Regardless, the star in the sidewalk serves as testament to Hoboken’s ambivalence to Sinatra’s legacy, not because they dislike him necessarily, but a rapidly morphing city has bigger ambitions than preserving a patch of land that already lost most of its significance to fire. And if this statement suggests I’m dismissive of historic preservation, bear in mind it hardly excludes the rest of Hoboken. He’s already got a street and a park. And Hoboken, under pressure from every direction to build in order to meet an unprecedented resurgence in demand, has other irons in the fire when it comes to preserving the blocks most under threat of demolition to build hip new apartments. We can find plenty of other ways to immortalize Ol’ Blue Eyes than a few buildings or an embedded star. The best ones are probably auditory.