Home is Where the Malls Are

Experiencing hometown gentrification

by Angelica Florio


It all started with a giant red “W.” I’m sure that you’ve seen similar giant “W”s, as it is the symbol of the omnipresent “W” hotel chain cropping up all over the world. A hotel is one of the least intimate places to go, given that transience is its purpose (be it for travel or secrecy). Sure, you get a chocolate on your pillow and a travel-sized bottle of lotion, but so does everyone else. It only seems fitting that the construction of that impersonal “W” would be the first sign of change in my familiar birthplace of Hoboken, N.J. 

Though I only lived in Hoboken for the first two years of my life, I visit it every year to see family who, back in the day, ran the town. The one thing I always loved about Hoboken was that it never changed—it symbolized history, tradition and consistency. Much of my family has lived there since emigrating from Italy in the early 20th century and almost every street used to host an Italian deli, pizzeria or church. This city of traditional culture completely contrasted the liberal, unconventional, eccentric town in Oregon where I actually grew up. Hoboken offered me a sense of what I believed to be a more mainstream, traditional way of life. 

Every summer allowed me to feel that I was also returning to my family’s ethnic roots. Growing up in Ashland, which is anything but traditional, having that connection to my heritage was very important to me. OK, yes, so we have our own traditions of fire dancing at the town’s plaza on Friday nights and holding “blessingways” in Oregon for pregnant women, but I always knew that these were not necessarily normal things that generations of my family had practiced before me. Hoboken represented the sense of normalcy I craved, until the infamous gentrification of New York City spilled over, first crossing the river to Brooklyn on the east, and then over the western lying Hudson River to my Hoboken. 

The word “gentrification” gets thrown around a lot, but essentially the term refers to the movement of middle-to-upper class people into urban areas traditionally home to lower class residents. If you’ve ever heard any Bruce Springsteen, you know that New Jersey was the epicenter of the working class and the ever-elusive American Dream. So when a bunch of wealthy “yuppies” (a term my grandma often grumbled under her breath) moved into the urban areas in Jersey, the clash between tradition and modern commercialism commenced. 

Gentrification isn’t all bad. It can spur economic growth in a city with the increase of property value, taxable income and general commercial growth, but this increase in rent leads to the displacement of lower-income families. The people who comprised the Hoboken I was born in were not the ones benefitting from this reverse suburbanization. Rather, their classic views of the New York City skyline were obstructed by the giant upscale apartment complexes that sprung up to house the droves of Wall Street commuters infiltrating the streets. 

In the article, “Gentrification and Displacement: New York City in the 1990s,” Lance Freeman and Frank Braconi write, “Although the rhetoric of resistance sometimes expresses class and racial resentments, the principal concern is usually that lower-income households are vulnerable to displacement resulting from redevelopment projects or rising rents.”  Hoboken has always accommodated commuters who work in New York, but the massive influx of people transformed the city I used to walk through, feeling that it was my own, into a foreign post-grad playground. 

My most recent visit to Hoboken made me think about how a place can serve as a source or affirmation of identity. I had always found solace in the notion that I navigated the same cobblestone alleyways my great-grandfather had walked while he worked along the Hudson which, then too, smelled as musty and rotten as it always had to me.

I knew the city well, and the city knew me well. It was an intimate and special place. But with the influence of gentrification, it began to resemble every other place I’d been to. The waterfront (the city’s most scenic area) now includes bars, food trucks and every variety of workout facility you can imagine. While I am partially excited by the fun, youth-oriented amenities the city now provides, I can’t help but think about the stooped elderly ladies who used to walk down the waterfront on their daily rounds between the supermarket, church and whatever park bench they chose to convene at on that particular day, and how they probably never once talked about needing one of those newfangled workout facilities. 

My de-familiarization and loss of intimacy with Hoboken is also tied to losing familiar characters from that setting. After my grandma passed away, I had hoped that the city would still feel the same. I hoped to use that special space that she and I shared to feel connected and remember the wonderful times I spent with her. However, the city had changed, and so had my life. 

Maybe it’s only natural that the “old Hoboken” I tried clinging to would have to change eventually, but with the loss of my grandmother, the city gained a few more high rises and I no longer felt quite at home. Its unrecognizability has amplified the void I felt in my grandma’s absence. 

The gentrification of Hoboken is just one example of place being tied to identity, and how a change in either one can dismantle that intimacy. In the article, “Place Attachment and Community Attachment: A Primer Grounded in the Lived Experience of a Community Sociologist,” Carla Koons Trentelman writes, “Studying place through lived experience considers an understanding of both the particularities of places and the connection between places ... with personal experience being what distinguishes between ‘place’ and ‘undistinguished space.’” We fill in the spaces we see with memories, so when something about that place changes, the memories it held also begin to slip away.

I’m sure most college students can relate to the phenomena of a familiar place from home becoming oddly unfamiliar upon return. It is almost stranger when a place that felt so much a part of you at a certain time actually stays the same and you’re the one who changes. That rock you used to sit on while listening to Bright Eyes in the height of teenage angst no longer looks like your little island of introspection. It just looks like a rock. 

Junior Alex Farr says she doesn’t want to return to the place where she grew up since her family moved. She says, “That place doesn’t exist anymore, it’s not mine or ours anymore, there’s just a lot of change. My siblings live somewhere else too so it’s just like an empty house.” Farr feels that home is with loved ones, wherever that might be.

Senior Adriane Berenson described how her relationship with her hometown of Salt Lake City changed since going to school and temporarily moving back at various points. “It’s meant different things to me as I’ve moved away from there and moved back and moved away, because the networks of who I’ve associated with have changed. It’s definitely an intersection between people, memory and environment.”

According to Trentelman, humans build emotional relationships with places. Just as in all relationships, one feels a certain level of intimacy with a place. 

I feel that Hoboken was a person who I once loved and knew well, but who has since changed (as people tend to do). I have learned to accept that I will hear the booming bass of Pitbull rather than Hoboken-born Frank Sinatra’s crooning while navigating the crowded waterfront. I accept that I must barrel through the barrage of tourists who line the streets outside my once favorite bakery in hopes of seeing a famous face from the reality show made about the shop, “Cake Boss.” I am more OK with these changes because I realize that I don’t have to physically walk down my grandma’s street in order to walk down memory lane. Instead, I am focusing on my current intimate relationships with the wonderful places surrounding me in the present moment. 

I mean hey, Armstrong Hall is ... a nice place.