STATELY BUILDING, LOFTY GOALS: Hoboken Community Center Updates Mission of the ‘Y’
by Susan Lisovicz
images courtesy of the Hoboken Historical Museum
Hoboken is world renowned as the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and for many baseball purists, America’s Pastime. But its architecture is also famous: the Mile Square City with the mighty New York City skyline is also blessed with abundant examples of 19th and early 20th century architecture. Charming brick row houses and handsome brownstones can be found unbroken for blocks. And then there is the stunning Georgian-revival that anchors one of Hoboken’s most vibrant corners in the historic district.
Like Hoboken itself, 1301 Washington St. has a long story. The motto “Spirit Mind Body” on its red brick exterior offers a clue. Incorporated in 1883, this is one of the oldest YMCA’s in the U.S. To this day, with little fanfare, the recently renamed Hoboken Community Center serves a critical need in one of the most densely populated and expensive regions in the country. Since 1927 it has housed thousands of men who might otherwise be homeless. Many are veterans.
A LIFELINE FOR MANY
“J.B.” has been a resident since he lost his home in one of the suspicious fires that plagued Hoboken in the 1980’s. “After I lost my apartment, I was too afraid to move back into another similar building, which was all that I could afford at the time, until I got a room at the Y.”
“S.C.” moved in after having what he described as a nervous breakdown. “I was living in Staten Island and my marriage fell apart, my business failed and I lost all my money. I couldn’t stay in that place. That was 1989 and I’ve been here ever since.”
And thousands of others also consider the Y a lifesaver.
Generations of children learned to swim in the Y’s Art Deco tiled pool. Teens perfected their layups and dribbling on its basketball court. Yuppies twisted and stretched on their yoga mats there. And seniors limbered up at the popular Silver Sneakers classes. At its peak more than 2,000 counted themselves as members of the Hoboken-North Hudson Y.
“The Y was an integral part of our lives growing up,” says Michael Cricco, one of 12 children who grew up on Castle Point in Hoboken. “Why was it important? It was a place where all different kinds of kids could go. I played basketball with kids from the projects, with kids that had more than me. It taught me valuable lessons.”
AGE, HEAVY USE TAKE THEIR TOLL
Despite its fire-proof masonry and sturdy steel structure, over 80 years of continuous, almost around-the-clock usage took their toll. In order to renovate the massive 61,000 square foot facility, the board of the Y determined that the housing component would have to be overhauled first. Low-income tax credits were pursued as the primary source of the massive construction project. It was complicated and it took 10 years.
“There are many moving parts to a low-income housing tax credit deal and there were many delays, extensions and headaches,” says Paul Somerville, former chairman of the board of directors. “But our volunteer board members and excellent consultants kept us moving forward with weekly conference calls, bi-monthly meetings and a commitment of time from all involved that is hard to over-estimate.”
During construction, residents were re-located within the building and no one was displaced, even during the catastrophic Super Storm Sandy. Despite the complications and the worst financial crisis since the Depression, the north wing finally reopened in 2013 with 96 furnished rooms for low and moderate income men with a fully upgraded residential facility.
“Each new room is at least 20 square feet larger than the old rooms. They are fully furnished and have individual HVAC units, windows and closets. The residents have new bathing facilities and on-site laundry rooms, as well as a meeting room and round-the-clock staff,” says Somerville.
The fifth floor is a completely new addition. During research for the project, it was discovered at the Hoboken Public Library that a fifth story was designed for the 1927 edifice but never executed.
The occupancy rate remains at or close to capacity. Now the board is focused on bringing back the shuttered fitness and communal space.
“It’s urgent that we continue the momentum that will return the building to serve the entire community,” says Ken Nilsen, who is overseeing the project as president of the Hoboken Community Center.
NAME CHANGES, MISSION HASN’T
While the Y never abandoned its mission of housing vulnerable members of the community, its recreational and other programs were reluctantly suspended in March of 2010 after many years of operating at a deficit. Every Y must be self-sustaining and significant portions of membership dues are paid to the parent organization. Eventually, and by mutual agreement, the Hoboken YMCA severed its ties, at least temporarily, with the national Y, and “The Hoboken Community Center, LLC”, a 501-c (3) non-profit entity was formed to continue with the same purpose.
“The goal is to embrace the original mission of serving the entire community with programs and services for the youngest to oldest citizens of Hoboken,” says Nilsen.
Lifelong Hoboken resident Alice Galmann says, “There are very few places in Hoboken where the whole family can go and use a facility together in very different programs. For a large number of Hoboken residents it was a place where memberships were more affordable and that’s missing.”
“I get very emotional talking about the Y.” says Cricco. “The Y served the community very well. Not just people of substance, but people with problems as well.”
PHASE TWO FUNDRAISERS PLANNED
Now the board is working on that next phase with important fundraisers like the popular “Taste of Hoboken,” in which dozens of local restaurants provide tastings of their signature dishes, set to resume this winter.
The New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office has determined that the building is eligible for listing on the New Jersey State and U.S. National Registers of Historic Places. But as the oldest social service agency in Hudson County and a facility that has served tens of thousands over the decades, the Hoboken Community Center has already earned its status as one of the area’s most important institutions.