The Trains from Hoboken: An NJT AppreciationApril 19, 2012 by: Samuel Scheib
The PATH train (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) is quite possibly the most attractive thing between Harrison and Exchange Place, the last station before crossing the Hudson River and entering Manhattan. The train rolls quickly and smoothly along the Hackensack River through urban New Jersey, often in sight of New York City. This is the New Jersey that resonates in the collective American consciousness, the acres of ugly that make “The Garden State” more credible as a punch line than a state motto.
The real estate beneath and surrounding these tracks gives the impression that New Jersey’s leaders have dedicated themselves to prostituting the state’s lands to the worst impulses of American industry. Stockyards and rail lines, in use and abandoned, are surrounded by steel shipping containers and dilapidated warehouses. Most of the windows are gone but the remaining panes cling to their frames, as indifferent to gravity as the surrounding environment is to aesthetics.
This landscape, however, must exist somewhere. All major cities have blight, whether from industry or poverty, and had the boundaries been drawn differently the area might have simply been an undesirable part of New York City rather than a reason to insult the entire state of New Jersey. After all, the movement and storage of goods is as essential to industry as the gleaming office towers full of lawyers, brokers, and traders across the water. These places are two parts of the same thing: Manhattan is the Dorian Gray of commerce, this part of New Jersey is his painting.
New Jersey is, of course, much larger than just the land bordering the Hudson River and this shipping container mecca is not representative of the entire 3rd state. There are some excellent places to see and the New Jersey Transit Corporation provides equally excellent ways to see them.
The place to begin is Hoboken’s Lackawanna Station, a destination sure to warm the cockles of any rail enthusiast’s heart. Originally constructed in 1907 from a Kenneth Murchison design, Lackawanna Station is one of the oldest rail stations in the United States. Remarkably, as old as it is, Lackawanna was the fifth rail station built on this site. It is also one of the most multi-modal stations in the United States serving commuter rail, heavy rail, light rail, and ferry service. Just outside the front doors a pair of steel rails dead ends into the black top, a remnant of what was before the nation abandoned the streetcar.
Lackawanna Station was built during the City Beautiful movement, a period immortalized by the White City of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The elaborate facades of the White City, all columns and arches surrounding a wading pool, showed American visitors the value of attractive public buildings and spaces. The irony is that those facades were just that, made only of plaster and hemp and intended to be temporary. Most of them burned to the ground soon after the exposition, but only after inspiring a renaissance in public building construction.
Viewed through the beaux-arts lens, Lackawanna is a classic. A massive Tiffany stained-glass skylight dominates the ceiling, a floating field of greens and yellows enclosed with ornamental plaster dentils and buff limestone. The French tradition continues to the floor via pilasters and wreaths. Echoing the field of light and color above, smaller Tiffany transom lights elevate the building’s signage from mere utility to objet d’arts: ticket counters, exits, and restrooms are rendered in blue glass against a pale background. The internally illuminated, contemporary exit signs beneath the To Trains transom are a stark reminder of how function and cost has trounced form over the last hundred years.
The restored oak benches and copper lights mounted on them make this an inviting place to wait. All the scraping, scrubbing, sanding, and painting notwithstanding, Hoboken Station’s waiting room is best preserved simply by what has been omitted: advertising. Nearby Newark Penn Station is all art-deco cool, complete with a herringbone-patterned blue ceiling, but has been marred by food service structures and Budweiser banners. Hoboken is now, and will remain for the foreseeable future, pristine.
Commuter Rail to Summit
There are scenic train trips following every compass point but the trip to Summit, NJ, on the Morristown Line is particularly enjoyable. As the train accelerates smoothly away from Hoboken station it passes stone churches, stately old homes, cemeteries, and new construction that shows an area on the way up. The view is broken by trees so that the houses and people beyond them become incorporated into this moving slide show of New Jersey. The station names tell the story of the line: Brick Church, Orange, Mountain, Maplewood and Short Hills. Given the proximity to New York City the land surrounding Newark Broad St. and East Orange, the first two stations heading west, are mostly part of the concrete jungle. Soon manicured lawns appear and children play in the yards. After a half hour, trees take over from concrete as the dominant feature of the landscape.
There are rapidly changing architectural styles and social classes; steeples appear then small commercial centers that are clustered around the station, a reminder of how communities were organized before the automobile so radically restructured American cities, especially in the south and west. It is truly one of the great pleasures of urban rail travel to see the life of a place sliced into thousands of component parts and displayed through the glass of a train window.
Entering Summit Station there is no view. The train comes to rest below-grade, the first of many things to appreciate in this northeastern hamlet (being below the street level helps to muffle the sound of the train to those topside). On the street it is hard not to smile at the town arrayed around the station: on one side is a park, on the other the commercial center. The station itself is nestled between Union and Broad Streets. Maple Street crosses over the tracks. The city buried its power lines in 1925 so the view is unmarred by black cables and knotty poles.
The earliest settlers came to this part of the Northeast, called New Providence, around 1710. Residents broke off of New Providence in 1869, forming the Township of Summit and then in 1899 became incorporated to the city of Summit. The city has much history and residents are keen to protect it. Block after block of the old, central core buildings are maintained in excellent condition. The Summit Opera house has been lovingly restored and now contains a café and the Renaissance Church. Parking decks in the downtown area have been smartly concealed within blocks of buildings and there is ample traffic calming. Pedestrians have free reign in Summit; it feels safe to walk and comfortable to sit outside where auto exhaust is kept to a minimum. This is a place that anyone would feel lucky to call home and it is obvious that the city has been well led for generations, but the success of this town is owed to one thing alone. Before there was a township or a city called Summit, the railroad came over Summit Hill.
This was primarily a farming community until 1837 when the twin steel ribbons provided a steady and reliable means of transportation. The train brought commerce and, after the Civil War, wealthy industrialists from New York who built summer estates. Today the locomotive is still the engine of growth for Summit because it carries well-paid commuters to and from New York City far more efficiently than the road network ever could. For the rail enthusiast, Summit, New Jersey, is a picture perfect reminder of the kind of places that trains can build.
Seeing the Light
Upon returning to Hoboken Station, walk toward the pier graveyard, the lonely community of posts sticking out of the Hudson River where ferries once slipped. This is the point of origin for the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, one of three unconnected light rail systems in New Jersey (Newark and RiverLINE are the other two). The train cars gleam against the pewter waves of the Hudson River, a fitting introduction to what lies beyond the station.
Maintenance is only partly responsible for the bright, clean appearance of the light rail system. It is also relatively new. The first segment began operating in 2000 but some sections opened only in 2004. The Hudson-Bergen line is a study in what is new in New Jersey, as development and redevelopment have followed the course of the new service.
Heading north on the green line riders are treated to some wonderful views of Manhattan, including what must be one of the most peculiar views in the history of urban development. Just south of the Port Imperial station, through the small gaps between clusters of townhouses built at the river’s edge, one can see glimpses of the Manhattan skyline. Take a moment to process that: townhouses, river, Manhattan. On nice summer and fall afternoons these neo-suburbanites are grilling hamburgers on the decks of relatively low-density, horizontally-oriented townhouses to the accompaniment of the gentle lapping of the Hudson River. Between glances at the cooking thermometer, the grill master need only to raise his eyes to see the undulating skyline of the most densely populated real estate in America. Timeshare anyone?
The greatest changes are visible on the blue line heading south. Roderick B. Diaz published a landmark study in May 1999 that examined twelve rail projects throughout North America and found that property values increased relative to the proximity of a station. While he looked at heavy and light rail, the effects tend to be more striking for light rail projects because, unlike heavy rail (like BART, MARTA or the New York Subway) light rail does not require a grade separated (elevated or underground) station. Light rail operates on street level and a stop can be a simple concrete slab with a shelter and perhaps a ticket machine, or even just a stop sign. This allows residential and commercial buildings, not to mention street life, to be far closer to the trains. Light rail’s spatial requirements are more inclusive of real estate and that tends to be good for investment.
The Hudson-Bergen Line perfectly illustrates the connection between rail and street. For several blocks through the Harborside Financial District, Exchange Place, and Essex Street, it seems that at least this part of New Jersey, from the crisp red brick condominiums to shining office towers, appeared, fully formed, just moments ago. Just as commuter rail is a vital link between more distant bedroom communities and major metropoli, light rail has a proven track record of strengthening and revitalizing the urban environment. It is also a great way to sight see.
The New Jersey Transit Corporation covers a lot of real estate with those colored bands emanating away from the New York City area on the map. North, south, west, and all points in between, the clean trains and helpful employees of the NJTC make this system an ideal way to take a short break—or a long one if you prefer—during a hectic visit to the Big Apple and to see the Great Garden State. And that is no joke.