Hoboken as a town has undergone many changes over the last few decades, and is probably unrecognizable to anyone who lived here fifty years ago—and would be equally unrecognizable to anyone who lived here a hundred years ago. All places change, of course; economic and cultural forces are constantly at work everywhere, but in Hoboken the divide between past and present is starker and more opaque than in some places. Many people living here today have little idea what this town was like in the decades before their arrival.
Books offer a glimpse into worlds long gone, and it’s about high time a sort of unofficial Hoboken Book Club existed for folks who want to learn a little more about their home. With the right mix of fiction and non-fiction, you can put together a pretty comprehensive idea of what Hoboken has been like at different periods of history, and get beyond just On the Waterfront and the modern-day condo paradise that represent the sum total of most people’s concepts of Hoboken. First up, Holly Metz’s surprising Killing the Poormaster.
Before the Safety Net
The modern-day social safety net that exists—including Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, Welfare, and a host of similar programs—didn’t exist in the early part of the 20th century, and Hoboken, like a lot of other cities, had a system of help for poor families that was loosely organized, poorly funded, and administered by a single city official, known, believe it or not, as the Poormaster. For Hoboken in 1938, that was Harry Barck, who had held the position for decades, a solid member of the political machine rewarded with what was an easy sinecure. Barck was in charge of a $3,000 annual budget to distribute as he pleased to those who applied at his office in City Hall, and by all accounts he was a cruel, mean-spirited man who routinely denied benefits to people—once denying food tickets to a mother whose son later died of starvation.
Such events did nothing to faze Barck, however, and he continued to be hard towards the poor. He believed most of the men were simply unwilling to work, despite the fact that there was, you know, a Great Depression going on and most of the available city jobs were given out to those who were connected to the McFeely family, who provided the city’s Mayor and Chief of Police.
To say that Barck was hated by the many unemployed men and women struggling to survive in Hoboken would be an understatement. So when one of those men—Joseph Scutellaro, who’d once been in good graces with the machine but now found himself scraping by on less than $6 a month in public assistance—killed Barck, few were surprised. Scutellaro claimed an accident, but he was charged with first-degree murder anyway, and he faced a legal system filled with McFeely loyalists.
A Different Time
If you’re having trouble imagining such things happening in Hoboken, that’s all the more reason to check out this fascinating book. Metz not only lays out a pretty thrilling legal story, she also paints a bleak picture of what life was like in Hoboken during the Depression, before unemployment insurance and other programs designed to prevent people from starving to death because they’d lost jobs through no fault of their own. As you read, you can imagine who might have lived in your brownstone or tenement back in the 1930s, and what their lives were like compared to yours.
Perspective is always useful. Learning just how awful, corrupt, and poorly run things once were in Hoboken also brings plenty of fascinating tidbits, like the fact that in the 1930s Hoboken had a population north of 50,000, a number that had dropped to just over 30,000 by 1990 as the city hit its low point before the current revival. Killing the Poormaster is a book that offers plenty of perspective, and will leave you a little smarter about the town you live in.