Hoboken’s successful “Main Street” began with 1804 plan

By Ron Hine | FBW | January 23, 2014

Washington Street is Hoboken, New Jersey’s main business strip. It stretches the entire length of this mile square city from Observer Highway up to Fifteenth Street. It is a traditional “main street” that has continued to thrive over the years. It is everything that shopping malls and strip malls are not. People actually walk to get to the stores, bars and restaurants. Most of the businesses are home-grown rather than your typical array of chain stores that can be found anywhere U.S.A. The shops are small and often quaint. The chain stores that do exist, with a few exceptions, blend into the streetscape. The diversity is remarkable.

You can get just about anything you want on Washington Street: restaurants, bars, grocery shops, bakeries, hardware stores, clothing stores, professional offices, pharmacies, nail salons and hair salons. There are more real estate offices than you can imagine. T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon and Cingular Wireless are all there. If you like ethnic food there is Mamoun’s Falafel, La Isla, Karme Cafe, Istana Chinese, Bangkok City, Ali Baba, Charrito’s, Rosticeria Da Gigi and many more. For the gourmands there is Amanda’s Restaurant, Augustinos and Bin 14 Trattoria. There are too many bars and pizzerias to mention. There is, of course, a Starbucks, but last year a new, locally owned and operated (& very hip) coffee shop opened at 1002 Washington Street: Bwe Kaffe.

There are always people walking up & down Washington Street. It is a place where you bump into people you know. It is a gathering place. After work, residents returning from New York City can get off the bus anywhere on Washington Street. The throngs of people exiting the Hoboken PATH Station (a quick trip from Manhattan or Jersey City) nearly all gravitate to this “main street” as they walk home. Having a drink or dinner out or shopping on this commercial avenue after work is a daily routine for many. Walking is further encouraged by the difficulty of finding a parking spot. If you drive, you might spend a long time trying to locate an open, on-street parking space.

New developments are never able to recreate commercial centers that enjoy this same kind of vitality. Ironically, the groundwork for this success in Hoboken was established long before cars were invented. In 1804, Col. John Stevens hired surveyor Charles Loss to create a plan for the City of Hoboken. This plan was referred to as the Loss Map of 1804. The Loss Map delineated Hoboken’s streets, and the blocks and lots for private development. A typical Hoboken block measures 425 feet in length and 200 feet in width. Lots are typically 25 feet or so in width and 100 feet deep.

Most of Hoboken was built during the turn-of-the-century, buildings that still exist today and thus house the ground floor retail shops along Washington Street and elsewhere in town. The platting of these blocks and lots several hundred years ago thus established the diminutive dimensions for shops along Washington Street. The buildings are typically 3 to 5 stories high and most have residential floors above the retail. All of this contributes to what people like about Hoboken and similar urban communities: the human scale, turn-of-the-century architecture, its walkability and its quaintness. It is similar to the Greenwich Village neighborhood that Jane Jacobs described in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Washington Street in Hoboken between First and Second Streets.

Washington Street in Hoboken between First and Second Streets.

Although rents along Washington Street have shot up, the small footprints for the stores make them within reach for an entrepreneur starting a new venture. A typical commercial space in a new building could involve tens of thousands of square feet and a huge monthly nut to pay. The densely populated Hoboken contains 52,000 residents and a built-in clientele for the many shops.

A few more items worth mentioning:

Schnackenberg’s Luncheonette at 1110 Washington Street has been brought back to life by local restaurateurs Eugene and Joyce Flinn. The shop originally opened in 1931 and was run by the same family until being bought by the Flinns. The new shop keeps the spirit of the old luncheonette alive but has brightened up the decor and updated the menu.

Carlos Bakery was once a typical Washington Street store. Now, of course, it is tourist destination, attracting people throughout the region who mostly come by car. The Cake Boss has become a local hero. Go there only if you want to wait in a long line outside.

The Fabian Theatre, a 3500-seat movie palace, opened in 1928 at the south end of Washington at Newark Street. Sadly, it was torn down in 1968. Now, nearly the entire block is taken up by two stores, a CVS and an Office Depot. Before the Office Depot there was a Barnes & Noble Bookstore. This is the one portion of Washington Street which departs from the norm of small scale, mostly home-grown stores. There is a parking lot just south of these two stores.

Related links

Col. Stevens’ plan for Hoboken
Defining the key to Hoboken’s success
Mapping & Platting