A 19th Century ode to Weehawken

Census shows town today far from ‘hour of infancy’

Love poetry, even in an increasingly digitized world, has never lost its footing as the most romantic of gestures. For centuries, ardent lovers have poured their affections into verse, into entire odes and blazons.
For one well-known poet, Weehawken was the young maiden to catch his eye, to prompt him to pen his professions of her cliffs, her untamed beauty.
Since then, Weehawken has shouldered large scale development and grown into a more populated town, yet her quiet beauty remains.

To Weehawken, my love

In 1879’s Poems of Places: America, editor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put together a collection of place-specific poems from all across the country, including one about Weehawken.
The poem, entitled Weehawken, was written in 1819 by Fitz-Greene Halleck, one of America’s leading poets in the mid to late 19th Century who was dubbed “the American Byron.”
He describes Weehawken, then in her “hour of infancy” with the line “…never has a summer’s morning smiled/ Upon a lovelier scene than the full eye/ of the enthusiast revels on, when high.”
Halleck goes on to describe the Palisades cliffs, stating, “Amid they forest solitudes, he climbs/ O’er the crags that proudly tower above the deep.”
A walk along Boulevard East quickly demonstrates what Halleck meant with, “Clouds slumbering at his feet and the clear blue/ Of Summer’s sky, in beauty bending o’er him, / The city bright below; and far away, / Sparkling in golden light, his romantic bay.”
Finally, Halleck speaks of the pride native Weehawken residents must feel for their town.
“Nor lives there one/ Whose infant breath was drawn, or boyhood’s days/ Of happiness were passed beneath that sun, / That in his manhood’s prime can calmly gaze/ Upon that bay or on that mountain stand, / Nor feel the prouder of his native land.”

Weehawken then

The Weehawken captured in Halleck’s verses was very much different from today. Development in the area was slow before the construction of railroads and streetcar lines.
Most notably, the town was a popular picnic ground for the wealthy during the mid to late 1800s, and they built their homes along the top of the Palisades. The fresh air of the heights drew New Yorkers seeking to escape the summer heat, and Weehawken became the go-to place for tourists and summer dwellers.
Although the town became a transportation hub in the early 1870s, its rise in population occurred at the turn of the 20th century, when the large estates and tourist attractions gave way to residential areas in an increasingly industrial Hudson County.

Weehawken now

The 2010 Census results are out, and the Weehawken of today is, in some ways, but not others, different from Halleck’s day.
Weehawken now has 6,213 housing units – up from 6,159 in 2000 – which are predominantly one- and two-family homes and low-rise apartment buildings.
Halleck’s views remain unobstructed due to local zoning laws that prohibit the construction of high-rise buildings, in order to maintain sight lines from higher points in town.
The town’s population is now 12,554, down 7 percent from 2000. Weehawken was one of only three municipalities in Hudson County to register a loss in population.
Still, the town’s urban population density – 13,948 per square mile – is among the highest in the United States, comparable with that of Jersey City.
In a racial breakdown, 72 percent of the town is white, 40 percent is Hispanic/Latino, 8 percent is Asian, 5 percent is African-American, and .5 percent is Native American.
Since the last Census, the Hispanic population of New Jersey has grown by 39.2 percent, making the 1.6 million Hispanics the second largest population group in the state, after Caucasians. One in five New Jerseyans is now Hispanic.
The only two races in Weehawken that have risen in percentage since 2000 are Asians, by 3 percent, and African-Americans, by 1 percent. Caucasians account for the only loss, at 1 percent.
Deanna Cullen can be reached at dcullen@hudsonreporter.com.