Hoboken, New Jersey isn’t a particularly obscure suburb. Peering right across the Hudson River toward Greenwich Village, it’s a fortuitously located municipality that basically everyone in metro New York knows. Odds are good that most adults living in the tri-state area have passed through it at one point in time. Tiny though it may be, it’s hard to avoid. If a person commutes into Midtown from the Garden State using transit, odds are good that he or she has skirted at least the southern edge of Hoboken through its prominent PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) Station. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, Hoboken is crowded, even by metro NYC standards: it packs over 60,000 people into its 1.25 square miles, making it denser than Brooklyn, or basically any of the five boroughs outside of Manhattan.
Virtually all of Hoboken consists of buildings of at least three or four stories—primarily multifamily housing, with no setbacks (front or back or side yards).
For anyone even remotely attuned to the streetscapes of the five boroughs, the above image could just as easily come from Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, or any of the portions of Manhattan not dominated by high-rises.* But Hoboken, sharing much the same urban development patterns of Greenwich Village across the river, achieves its extremely high density precisely because the municipal boundaries are so tight. Simply put, it’s already a densely settled area, but it earns its ranking among the world’s most densely populated cities because the political boundaries that trace its jurisdictional perimeter are so tiny. Notice that, with a few exceptions, the majority of the world cities on this Wikipedia list (as much as Wikipedia can be relied on for this sort of thing) are not places with global visibility: they’re tiny municipalities less than 5 square miles. Like Hoboken. (The only other US cities densely populated enough to make this list are as small as Hoboken or even smaller. They’re also all there in northern New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City.) Hoboken has plenty of attractive pocket parks and a vibrant green riverfront, but these represent almost all green and uninhabited land in the postage-stamp city.
Offering a stark contrast to the waterfront-oriented park system, Hoboken’s homes have no yards. They’re almost all multifamily, with at least three floors and multiple units per building. Thus, the density is over 40,000 persons per square mile. By American standards—and even most of the developed world—this is jam packed.
Applying both the unofficial laws of urban development, as well as the more verifiable principles of economies of scale, densely populated cities are more efficient, and not just in terms of providing utilities, though it certainly requires less pipe, wire, cable, or culverts to service 20 dwellings across one acre of land than it does to service four dwellings, even if the density of conduit is greater in a denser area. The end results in fewer linear feet of pipe, wire, etc per person. But these same principles apply for other public services: the paving and resurfacing of roads, the collection of trash, the provision of emergency vehicles. Efficiencies more than offset whatever inconveniences a high density might engender, at least from a financial perspective.
Quality of life is another consideration: not everyone wants to live cheek-by-jowl with their neighbors, to be able to peer out the window and see Jim or Susan across a narrow alley through their bathroom window, shaving or blow drying their hair each morning. Not everyone wants the higher propensity for street noise, for engines sputtering down a road just ten feet away from the front door, or for chattering pedestrians strolling down a sidewalk that’s even closer. Some people find the relative scarcity of turf grass in cities like Hoboken not just unhealthy but anxiety inducing. The ambiance of Hoboken—of most of the nearby North Jersey suburbs, of a sizable portion of metro NYC—is just as much an acquired taste as a McMansion on a three-acre property where one needs to hop in a car to pick up a bottle of water at the store. Regardless of one’s preference, a high-density place like Hoboken, with its vertically oriented housing and thick density of infrastructure, is often more capable of absorbing disruptions to the housing market, because it offers a higher density of incomes, greater aggregate land value by nature, and an easier time at providing core public services using a comparatively fixed taxation scheme.
If a map of the US represents a literal inventory of municipal options—a jigsaw puzzle of different places to live, with a city boundary standing in for each puzzle piece’s edge—the diversity of lifestyle options is almost infinite. Craggy cluttered urban centers; leafy walkable streetcar suburbs; verdant cow pastures and cornfields; spacious morphing exurbs. Within this inventory, the true Hobokens are few and far between and represent a fraction of the whole. Hoboken’s comparative outlier status, combined with its central location within the nation’s largest metropolitan area, have helped make it among the best examples of that great late 20th/early 21st century phenomenon: gentrification. The line graph below represents the population change of Hoboken through each decennial census, beginning with the city’s incorporation in 1855.
Having scrutinized American population change quite a bit over the years, I can attest that Hoboken’s peaks and valleys offer a trajectory that is conventional at a macro level but subtly distinct at a micro level. Most urban ares began to surge in population in the late 1800s and early 1900s, prompted in part by rural migration to cities and—particularly in a massive metro like NYC—spikes in immigration, at that time mostly from Europe. The catastrophic retraction of the economy during the Great Depression instigated a comparative drop in the birth rate and very little population growth in the 1930s, followed by a recovery in the Baby Boom decades of the 1940s and 50s. From that point onward, many older cities—the central locations in a metropolitan area—began declining steadily over the second half of the 20th century, with little sign of recovery until the 1990s or 2000s. Hoboken follows this trend in part. But note that its population peak was 1910, when the census counted just over 70,000 people. It declined that decade, a good twenty years earlier than many other highly urbanized cities began to lose population, and, aside from a minor reprieve in the 1940s (1.1% growth), it continued to shrink for the next 40 years, including a precipitous decline in the 1980s. After World War II, the appeal of high-density urban living among starter families reached a nadir. Combined with a loss of industry related to shipping and shipbuilding, Hoboken fell into a seemingly ineluctable economic retreat.
But then came the turnaround. As rents surged in the more stable neighborhoods of Manhattan, partly spurred by a decline in the crime rate in the late 1980s, Hoboken’s comparatively low housing costs attracted artists and other young newcomers to metro NYC. The range of transit opportunities ensured that the massive employment hub was a train or ferry ride away (or car, for those willing to pay the steep price to use the Holland/Lincoln tunnels in municipalities just to the south and north of Hoboken). As manifested in the line graph, Hoboken did the unthinkable: it recovered a sizable portion for the population it lost just one decade earlier. In 1980, the city claimed 42,500 people; in 1990, it plunged to 33.500 (a 21.3% loss); then in 2000, it grew 15.5% back to 38,500. And its growth across the 2000s was even more formidable: almost 30% to just surpass 50,000. While the growth in the 2010s was a bit more modest (20.8%) most American municipalities would kill grow that much (horrible figure of speech in this context, I know), especially considering US population growth in the 2010s was the lowest on record—even less than during the Great Depression.
While many old urban centers, as well as their urbanized inner-ring suburbs (Hoboken is the latter) have enjoyed a population recovery in the last 25 years, few have been as pronounced as Hoboken, particularly after such a sharp decline. Hoboken peaked in 1910! And declined for almost an entire century! And yet it may soon surpass that peak, over a century later. That V shape on the line graph indicates Hoboken’s tendency to absorb and amplify population shocks that occur to a much more modest degree in most American municipalities with a post-war urban development pattern.
Those who know my style have probably already figured out long ago my tendency to use the weasel word “revitalization”. It’s a key phrase listed under my “Topics” menu bar. And I use it as a more innocuous, less loaded alternative to the increasingly dreaded term: gentrification. I deliberately avoid the word “gentrification” because it has evolved into a pejorative. Gentrification as a concept seems to embody the negative characteristics of revitalization—rising housing costs, displacement of the less affluent long-term residents, a widening socioeconomic chasm—which increasingly supersedes the more positive features: a higher net worth among homeowners, improved storefront occupancy, reduced crime, and a more robust tax base. But, try as we might to dodge a word that carries the weight of stigma (not always deserved), it’s time to state the obvious: Hoboken has fully gentrified. For the umpteenth time, take a (final) look at that line graph.
Between 1910 and 1990, Hoboken lost more than half its population—a decrease that puts it in the same dubious ranks as cities like St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo. This comparison isn’t entirely fair; after all, each of the aforementioned is a central city within its metro, and all are many multiples larger than Hoboken in both population and land area. Hoboken is a mere ancillary city that emerged in the shadow of its parent New York. But it’s still a stark decline: even nearby Newark (a much larger ancillary city with a greater reputation for socioeconomic decline) hasn’t lost 50% of its population from its peak. Yet Hoboken is slated to make a full recovery, helping place it once again in the ranks of the most densely populated cities. The only other way a municipality can enjoy such a population rebound after such a decline is if it grows its municipal boundaries by annexation, which is something that Hoboken—hemmed in on all sides—cannot do. It’s gentrification.
So what does this observation ultimately mean? Within the context of the topical threads weaving through this article, it indicates, once again, that a single electrical cable, a copper pipe, a culvert…a single foot length of each of them will serve a greater throng of people than just about anywhere else in the country. It takes less aggregate public effort to deliver public services in a place like Hoboken. It’s cheaper too, after dividing total costs by Hoboken’s remarkably high population for being just 1.25 square miles. Per-capita everything is a model of efficiency in the Mile Square City.
Which probably explains a subtle detail I noticed several years ago amidst my photography spree during my first visit to Hoboken.
One could probably comment on the retail mix: while long-standing local establishments are still pretty easy to come by in Hoboken, the city has its fare share of national chains: the budget-minded Planet Fitness, the slightly more uppity Anthropologie, and quickie chains like Ben and Jerry’s or Qdoba Mexican Eats. The chains will keep encroaching as Hoboken gentrifies; as rental rates rise, it’s harder for entrepreneurs to afford space in those storefronts, and the leasing agents prefer the national chains because they tend to be more stable and more willing to tolerate the price hikes. But that’s not what I’m going for here. Take one more look.
It’s less about what’s there and more about what’s missing. Most of these featured pics come from Washington Street, Hoboken’s commercial spine, paralleling the west bank of the Hudson River, which runs just a few blocks away. And, given that it’s a prime commercial corridor, feating fifteen blocks of storefront shopping/dining, it’s understandable that the streetscape should accommodate pedestrians in a city where pedestrianism is the status quo. But that sidewalk is just huge.
The sidewalk feels much bigger because of what it’s lacking: not too many benches, sparse decorative landscaping, no sculptures, utilitarian lights, pretty standard concrete paving with brick accents on the margins. Lots of room for al fresco dining (no doubt expanded during the Age of Coronavirus), but plenty more room after that. Not even that many street trees. Okay, I’ll concede: Hoboken’s main street does have occasional benches. And bike racks.
But they’re hardly distinct or aesthetic. They serve their main purpose. But there probably aren’t enough of them to meed demand, as evidenced by the clutter in the photo above. And check out this bus stop along Washington Street:
It’s not tawdry; it achieves a certain spartan industrial chic. But it’s not consciously design-oriented, nor does it look particularly wedded to a preconceived brand. Compare this to the featured bus stops on urbanist blogs that compete for best aesthetics. This Hoboken bus stop is as utilitarian as the adjacent streetlight. It’s all pretty plain-jane, come to think of it.
I’ll concede that these photos are old: mostly from 2014 and 2015. But has Washington Street changed much? Using a time-lapse comparison with archived photos from Google Street View, here’s what I can tell has happened in the last eight years:
- the City of Hoboken has positioned the on-street parking spaces from 45-degree angles to 90-degree (the latter is safer and potentially allows more spaces to fit);
- where street trees got felled, the City replaced them with landscaped areas and a few more benches;
- the City added bright green bike lanes and an exclusive vehicular lane so buses could pull over at prominent stops without restricting the remaining traffic flow;
- he City added more bulb-outs to reduce the street width at pedestrian crossings, requiring cars to slow down thanks to a more stringer turn radius and making crossings more visible and safe (the City had already done this a few times).
But that’s about it. Hoboken’s main street definitely contains more furniture and improvements than before, but not what one might expect for a mile-square city that has added 27,000 people in the last 30 years, almost doubling its population. The sidewalks along Washington Street are as huge as ever.
Why does this matter? It doesn’t really, but it’s interesting how Hoboken contrasts starkly with countless municipalities across the country that would kill for such an infusion of capital. It may seem like a remote analogy, but I can’t help but think of Edinburgh, Indiana, a town of about 4,500 people southeast of Indianapolis (still loosely within the capital city’s orbit), which I featured in the early days of this blog. Main Cross Street, Edinburgh’s two-block commercial corridor, was tidy and attractive and filled with well-maintained 19th century buildings. Edinburgh has lost about 10% of its population since its peak in 1970. The municipality has nonetheless staved off serious economic decline, thanks in part to its proximity to a major employment hub (Camp Atterbury, a training center for Indiana National Guard) and a successful shopping destination (Indiana Premium Outlets, sadly not within the Edinburgh municipal limits and thus not among the city’s taxable property). The Town had clearly invested considerable money in streetscape improvements along Main Cross Street: brick sidewalks with decorative “E” patterns at key intersections, landscaped islands, bike racks, floral planters on the special lighting, pedestrian bulb-outs. As I noted in 2010, these initiatives clearly intended to elevate the profile of Main Cross Street in Edinburgh, incentivizing small businesses to lease storefront space or rehabilitate an underutilized 19th century building. We can call it anything—revitalization or gentrification—and Edinburgh leadership clearly wanted it. But the heart of Edinburgh wasn’t lively then, and I have no reason to think it is today.
Edinburgh isn’t Hoboken. It’s ludicrous for me to compare them. Nothing in Edinburgh remotely compares to peering out across the Hudson River at a megalopolis. Edinburgh only has a minor river tributary, and not a single structure stands more than three stories. But even in 2010, Edinburgh revealed visible evidence of investment in its main street sidewalks—a higher degree per-capita than Hoboken, all while it had considerably fewer resources to do so, being smaller and much, much lower density than the Mile Square City. (It’s also more about three square miles in land area, more than twice the geographic size of Hoboken.) Meanwhile, Hoboken spent comparatively little to upgrade the appearance of Washington Avenue, certainly in relation to its superior resources. No brick emblems in the intersections, no pretty potted plants under the streetlights, sidewalks are primarily concrete rather than brick.
Why invest in fancy pavers and street furniture when people are going to congregate along the sidewalks of the main street anyway? Hoboken has chosen to devote far more money to plush civic spaces along their riverfront.
What these two very different communities reveal is the correlation between streetscape/façade improvements and revitalization/gentrification is slim at best. As quaint as main street Edinburgh is, the superior aesthetics haven’t incentivized that many businesses to locate there or visitors from Camp Atterbury to shop there (not when the successful outlet mall is a mile away). And Hoboken, despite spending next to nothing on improving the aesthetics of its commercial spine, managed to coax 25,000 new permanent residents in less than three decades. Streetscape investments are almost untethered from organic revitalization. And in some respects, an over-investment in aesthetics can almost signal desperation on the part of civic boosters; witness the notorious branding of an Avenue of the Arts in Toledo, right outside Polekatz strip club. (in 2022, it’s almost a truism that a town that touts its “arts district” is probably hinting at desperation for a few deep-pocketed investors. True arts districts don’t need to proclaim themselves.)
Hoboken isn’t as arty as it was in 1993 when the rents were still cheap, but it’s plenty bustling: locally owned small businesses can thrive right next to national chains, the network of transit makes crossing the Hudson a cakewalk, its municipal revenue invariably grows from year to year…and it didn’t really have to do much to get this way. All the money in the world can’t buy a location with “favored winds” if you will. You’ve either got it or your don’t. Can any municipalities overtly attribute their revitalization to the fact that they invested in streetscape improvements—fancy benches and pretty flowers? Not likely. In the end, sidewalks are almost as infrastructural as the pipes and cables running beneath (or high above) the homes and businesses that constitute a community. And most people don’t fixate on power lines—the one exception being yours truly.
*These photographs’ densely packed structures are far less prevalent in Staten Island, the most remote, least populous, and by far the least dense of the five. Though Staten Island’s density is 8,500 persons per square mile, well above that of most non-coastal American cities (excluding Chicago), it is almost suburban in character when compared to the other four boroughs.