Around the Hoboken Rail Yard

Just some night photos from the Hoboken rail yards and surrounding blocks. (Click on the above photo to see my full album.)

As much as Hoboken has become a bland commuter city, a lot of the industrial-era infrastructure survives. The waterfronts in Hoboken, Jersey City, and Weehawken once served as a break-of-bulk point for all rail lines coming back to Port of New York from the American interior. In the 19th century, passengers and freight bound for New York City would leave the rails at these stations along the New Jersey waterfront to be ferried across the Hudson River to Manhattan. In the early 20th century, the Hudson Tubes made passenger service into Manhattan possible; and, later, the tunnels to Penn Station allowed the main lines to enter the city. Today, the PATH system still links the sites of three of the old New Jersey terminals: Hoboken (once the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western terminal), as well as Newport (once the Erie terminal) and Exchange Place (once the Pennsylvania Railroad terminal). Here is a map by James R. Irwin, showing the old setup:


Cities Service Building
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Surrogates Court
One the most striking buildings in the New York Commons area, the Surrogate’s Courthouse was begun in 1899. In addition to housing the Manhattan probate court it is home to the municipal archives and is therefore sometimes called the Hall of Records.

The Surrogate’s Courthouse has some of the city’s most ornately detailed interior masonry, including heavy columns that support a mezzanine that encircles a soaring atrium. Building materials include variegated colored marble, like something out of classical antiquity. Natural lighting is sparse, and late-Victorian lamp fixtures do not fully compensate. It is enough to create a pervasive gloominess throughout the building. Together, these elements set the tone of its echoing corridors, which comprise a labyrinth of beautiful but eerie spaces — so fitting for a courthouse of this jurisdiction. This building is about death and dusty records, and its architecture reflects those cold facts through darkness and weight, but it also captures the somber and transcendent role of the law in making permanent the legacies of those who are gone. To be anodyne was not a priority in 1899.

Click on the above photo to see my full album.

Canal Street
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I wrote this novel, originally, when I was in high school, and I re-wrote it during college. Fire Work is a psychological drama, and also a love story. It is told by Jack O’Donnell, a teen pyromaniac from Jersey City. Near the beginning, he describes an act of arson, in an abandoned slice of his gritty neighborhood:

I set the metal container on the concrete ground and knelt beside it, and the cool round cap creaked as I twisted it off. The container was one of those red, rectangular cans—the ones that say GASOLINE in slanted yellow letters—complete with an aluminum handle that bridged its top, and a screw-on cap. I poured the entire contents of the container over the pile of garbage, which was spread across the width of the alley between the high, red brick walls. I was about to spark a match and make a run for it, when I suddenly felt like I wasn’t alone. I turned toward the street one last time and died when I saw what had triggered my instinct. At the end of the alley was a police car.


Quietly, carefully, I set down the can. I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. There were no lights, no sirens. Just a white Crown Victoria, stopped at the end of the alley, with the Jersey City P.D. shield showing on the shotgun door. From what I could see, the officer hadn’t gotten out. I strained my eyes to see what I could. The distant light of the street lamp flickered between the high brick walls of the alley. A summer night fog was beginning to settle. I heard a car door open, but I couldn’t see where. The same door, wherever it was, slammed shut. I don’t know how long I stood waiting, but it felt like forever. Finally, the officer turned the ignition. The engine started. The car drove away.

I should have just gone home, but I was too pumped.

Now there was no one. Not a sound resonated in the neighborhood. Not a sound in the alley but my own breathing. Nothing but dead silence. I unzipped the backpack and replaced the gasoline container and the flashlight. I zipped it shut and slung the straps over my shoulders. Then I picked up the book of matches, struck one, and tossed it into the gasoline-doused garbage.

I turned and ran like hell.

As the story unfolds, our protagonist takes on more endeavors, and the reader begins to learn what drives him. But Jack also, unexpectedly, falls in love with a nice girl. And then, equally unexpectedly, he discovers the satisfaction of tangible work. The story weaves through the blue-collar apartments, gritty streets, and eerie night subways of Jersey City, Lower Manhattan, and Brooklyn, at a time when the New York City region’s potential for danger and surprise remained real.

What I could not have known when I began writing Fire Work, in 1996, was that I would inadvertently capture some of the last moments before the Internet became a pervasive part of life — and especially adolescent life, in America. I also could not have known that I was describing a transitional — some might say funerary — period in the history of 20th century, working-class New York. Then there are the dated details, like the twin towers at twilight; calls made from pay phones; beepers and subway tokens. Twenty years later, these qualities of the story have come into starker relief. There may have been something enchanting about that time. Now, it feels very far away.

I had a literary agent for about a year when I was 24, but she did almost nothing. Shortly after I terminated our contract, I started law school, and since then adult life has meant fewer free hours. Trying to navigate the publishing industry, especially as an outsider with non-literary career aspirations, seemed like an exercise in futility. So I decided to self-publish.

For a while I used the pen name Ben MacNamara; a preview version on Google Books still exists under that name. (I plugged it on LT once, as the work of a “good friend.”) I used a pen name out of a general desire for privacy. But more specifically, I also worried that the language, the crime, and the coarse, poor environments in which the story takes place could be unacceptable to certain people in my professional life. For various reasons, I’ve now decided to come out of the literary closet, so to speak; and to put out the latest ISBN under my full name, which I already use for the rest of my creative and professional work. And now I’m making a plug:

READ MY NOVEL. (Link to download.)

I realize that reading a novel seems like a commitment in these busy times, but I promise: this one moves fast, is relatively short, and has a lot of humor. It also has some pretty detailed descriptions of vanished, un-varnished urban settings from 1990s New York City and Jersey City.

If I were starting again, don’t believe I’d write Fire Work today like I did when I was 16, or 23. But I do think it’s a funny, meaningful story, about a time and place that deserves more literary attention than it has gotten; and I’m proud of the work that I put into it when I was, basically, still a kid.

I hope some of you will read it. I would love to get feedback from those who do.

Casey Bill Weldon, 1936.

We gonna leave here, mama. I don’t want you staying here.
I don’t need no iceman, I’m gonna get me a Frigidaire
That’s what I’m gonna do when we get on the outskirts of town.

The promise of the modern American suburb was a measure of independence. Given how annoying the constant interaction of urban life can be, the suburbs seemed to offer a wholesome alternative. And when the suburbs were being built as physical towns, they offered urbanism on a more human scale than big, industrial cities. But what happened when the suburbs, because of evolving land use policies, essentially became the permanent outskirts of town? When the development of urban nodes — with their opportunities for social and commercial interactions — was banned within walking distance of people’s new homes?

In some cases, suburban developments offered a space to create artificial fiefdoms; a separation of households from entire categories of interactions. Many blue-collar American men faced the first green shoots of female economic and political parity in the period preceding the suburban boom. (American women in the 1940s had proven their economic power by essentially running the domestic industrial system while the men who were their peers were in Europe and the Pacific, fighting World War II.) A certain type of American man would likely have recognized that his tenuous status was in flux. Having the iceman hanging around was not a pleasant thought!

It is well documented that mid-20th century suburban development patterns helped prolong the racial disparities that characterized American life. My question is, to what extent did the post-war land-use policies also slow the progress of feminism? And to what extent did the men who participated in these developments recognize and value that aspect of the physical forms of these communities? Having listened to American women who lived through the mid-20th century, it is hard not to recognize how stifling of an arrangement that iteration of suburbia could be.

Rome and the Romantics
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An excellent exhibit at The Morgan illustrates the study of Rome by 19th-century visual artists and writers; the influence of the Grand Tour on artists of the time; and the maps and guidebooks that visitors followed. I think the images speak for themselves. My Flickr gallery has a lot more images, some of which are very close, for detail. Not too many exhibits combine ancient urban planning, Romantic-era art and writing, and 19th century cartography. We really enjoyed this one!