When asked about the city’s once-booming and still-thriving bar scene, most longtime city residents have the same reaction. They close their eyes and slowly shake their heads as if to say that what happens in the bars and cafes that line downtown Hoboken today is mere kids’ stuff. It’s a look that simultaneously suggests a longing for the good old days but also says, “I’m glad things are no longer that crazy.”
Decades ago, the craziness was spurred in large part by the city’s waterfront, which bustled with commerce and passenger ships in the first half of the 20th century. Barkeeps, spurred on by longshoremen who hit their favorite saloons when they got off work no matter what time of night (or day) it was, opened more than 300 liquor serving establishments in town in the post-Prohibition 1930s.
“There were 69 saloons on my beat alone,” explained Paul Kostka, a 76-year-old retired police officer who patrolled Hudson and River Streets from 1950 to 1975, last week. “I have a list of all those bars we used to have. I’ve got it at home still. Oh my god, we have nowhere near the number of bars here that we used to have.”
And people flocked to them. New Yorkers would cross the river when the bars closed in Manhattan at 4 a.m. to keep the party going in Hoboken. Until the 1960s, the mile-square city had some of the most lax liquor laws in the region, which allowed bars to open as early as 6 a.m.
“It was the sort of time where somebody was liable to throw a trash can through the window of the saloon if he was told that he would not be served because he was ‘a little too under the weather,'” said Kostka with a wink, as he tended bar in Louise & Jerry’s Tavern on Washington Street.
Business Administrator George Crimmins, whose father served as police chief in town starting in 1971, said, “These weren’t places with ferns or exposed brick walls; they were typical beer and shot joints. And they were everywhere. There were barroom fights all the time. Underage drinking, strip clubs and prostitution were rampant. It was pretty rough and tumble back then.”
So rough and tumble, in fact, that one strip of saloons that used to be housed in a row of brownstones on Hudson Street, where Marine View Plaza now stands, used to be known as the Barbary Coast.
(Officials say that when this strip of bars was torn down in 1969 to make way for Marine View, an intricate series of underground passages linking the establishments was discovered. Apparently the passageways were used to shuttle alcohol away from police raids during Prohibition days.)
Bars begat bars
The seeds of the city’s still-bustling nightlife were planted during these raucous times.
In fact, if the Barbary Coast-type barkeeps had not opened their establishments when they did, there is no chance that the mile-square city would now be home to so many bars, cafes and restaurants that serve alcohol.
In the 1940s, state officials passed a series of laws restricting the number of liquor licenses that could be handed out in particular municipalities based on population.
Dave Bregenger, the deputy attorney general in charge of licensing with the state ABC board, explained recently that the population caps were eventually set at one license per 3,000 people in town. A small town like Hoboken was able to net more licenses than it was entitled to, since existing liquor-serving establishments were grandfathered into the new law.
A series of crisscrossing and sometimes overlapping city and state laws has been layered over the state’s liquor licensing caps, making opening a new bar with a new license almost impossible. These laws prohibit new liquor serving establishments from being opened within a few hundred feet of each other, or from being opened within a few hundred feet of a school, or a church. Moving an existing license is also very difficult. “In a mile-square town, where are you going to go?” asked Steve Miller, a real estate agent with Century 21. “The only place to go is far west. But you can’t do much because of all this regulation.”
Slowly the regulations have taken their toll. Today, only about 140 bars, cafes, restaurants, private clubs and packaging stores in town carry liquor licenses. And that number is shrinking. It is down from 150 just five years ago, officials with the city’s alcohol and beverage control board say.
“It has become our policy that when a liquor license becomes frozen we do not re-issue it,” said Nick Acatella, the chairman of the board, last month. “There are just too many of them in town now to grant more.”
Requests for variances from the restrictions are routinely denied.
As a result, barkeeps holding licenses in high visibility areas, like downtown Washington Street, have a valuable commodity.
“Anybody who has a liquor license on Washington Street has hit the lottery,” said Mark Bogdanos, a former bar owner who now works at River Street Realty.
Bogdanos says that licenses, on average, probably are worth about $65,000 apiece.
“But the value of the license is always tied to the business,” he said. “The funny thing is that because of all this regulation, there are a lot more places that are hanging around because they figure they do not want to give up the license. Not many people would want to have a bar on the corner of Third and Monroe if they could have the same place on Washington Street. But they can’t so they just stay where they are.”
Down on the farm
At the same time as the number of bars in Hoboken has been waning, the number has been increasing in suburban towns that were once devoted to farming.
Back when Hoboken had 300 bars, there were towns west of the Hackensack that had one or two. As more and more families move west to the suburbs, state officials say, they have been inundated by requests for more licenses.
“As soon as we get the census numbers we issue the licenses,” Bregenger said, noting that Cherry Hill was a good example of a long-time farming community where the number of liquor licenses has shot up. “In some of the places we have seen the number of bars jump several fold.”
Back in Hoboken, a crowd of middle-aged and older men had assembled one weekday afternoon at Louise & Jerry’s, a Washington Street mainstay that looks like it might have served its fair share of longshoremen back when.
While the patrons recognize that a lot has changed since the days when the waterfront flourished, the change they seem to dislike most is the change in the atmosphere at most bars.
“I don’t come here at nights,” said James Halloran, a retired deputy fire chief. “The juke box gets turned up real loud.”
“The crowd you have today, you did not have before,” said an older man drinking next to him who did not wish to give his name. “These are young bucks who come in here with a cocksureness that we just did not have. Nope, you don’t want to be in here in the evenings.”