There was a time when the roof of nearly every Hoboken brownstone had its own pigeon coop where local youths raised birds for racing.
Pigeon racing is a sport in which pigeons are brought to a spot far away at an agreed distance, often several hundred miles, and released at a predetermined time. The arrival of each bird at its home coop is carefully recorded, and a winner is declared on that basis.
Homing pigeons have been developed by selective breeding to be able to navigate back to their homes from places they have never visited before.
Hoboken resident Vinnie Torre, who for 57 years has bred and raced pigeons out of a coop in the mile-square city, can recall an era when there were dozens of coops throughout Hoboken.
“I remember when I was kid,” he said. “On some blocks, there would be 10 or more guys [breeding pigeons]. It seemed like everyone did it.”
Today, Torre is about the last of the great Hoboken pigeon racers. Torre is the co-owner of Hoboken’s Hillside Loft at Fifth and Monroe streets, which is the reigning state champion pigeon loft. He is also the former North American champ at pigeon racing.
For the past several decades, the popularity of pigeon racing has been waning. According to officials from the Hoboken Historical Museum, by the 1980s, only the “exclusive coops” of the long-standing Hudson County Pigeon Club on Newark Street and a few independent breeders remained in Hoboken. Today, the Hudson County Pigeon Club still owns the building but no longer keeps birds.
“I think a lot of the kids today just don’t want to do all the work,” Torre said. “This isn’t just something you do on weekends. [The pigeons] have to be fed and cared for. Plus it’s pretty expensive.”
A long history
Global interest in pigeons goes back to antiquity. The empires of Carthage, Egypt, and Rome were known to use pigeons as part of an advanced communication network. In Europe in the 19th century, pigeon racing and breeding became a particularly competitive business.
In 1850, Julius Reuter founded the news service that globally still caries his name. The Reuters news service was actually founded as a line of pigeon posts. His fleet of 45 pigeons delivered news and stock prices between Brussels and Germany within two hours, beating the railroad by six hours.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was massive immigration from Europe – and especially Italy – to Hoboken. Many of the new residents brought their love for pigeon racing and built lofts on the roofs.
‘A pigeon for a pigeon’
The most notable cinematic depiction of the Hoboken pigeon culture was in the classic 1954 film On the Waterfront, which showed some of Hoboken’s pigeon lofts and the neighborhood kids that raised the birds.
In the film, Marlon Brando’s character, Terry Malloy, escapes to the city’s roofs to evade the stress of testifying against corrupt officials in the local longshoremen’s union. As far as the eye can see in any direction are roof after roof of pigeon coops.
In the film, Malloy befriends a 13-year-old gang member named Tommy Collins, who was played by Hobokenite Tom Hanley.
In an interesting story of Hoboken lore, Hanley was discovered quite inadvertently by the film’s director, Elia Kazan, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg. According to local historian Cliff Annicelli, at the time of filming, Hanley was living at 105 Hudson St., where the film crew was constructing the pigeon coop set.
In an interview conducted last year by Annicelli for the Hoboken Historical Museum, Hanley said that he was cast in the film because the film’s production coordinator was afraid that he might damage the pigeon coop set.
“At first he hired me to feed the pigeons because I think they were afraid I was going to burn down his pigeon coop,” Hanley said. “He kept telling me ‘I’m going to get you in the movie. I’m going to get you in the movie.’ But I didn’t really believe that he was going to do it; I didn’t believe that he had the kind of influence.”
But then the production coordinator set up a meeting with Kazan and Schulberg. According to Annicelli, during that meeting Kazan and Schulberg did everything they could to rile up the young Hanley. They started to talk about Hanley’s father, a longshoreman who had been killed on the docks.
“I wound up losing my temper and throwing a few chairs at them,” Hanley said. “I guess that was what they wanted; they seemed to be excited by the whole thing.”
It was the exact emotional response that the filmmakers were looking for, and Hanley was cast for the important role of Tommy Collins. Although it was not shown in the film, Collins’ Tommy kills dozens of pigeons in retaliation for Malloy’s testimony. When Malloy discovers the dead birds, Collins screams the oft quoted line, “a pigeon for a pigeon.”