Exactly 97 years ago today, Frank Sinatra was born in Hoboken. A few decades later, On the Waterfront, starring a young Marlon Brando, was filmed there. The small New Jersey city, which sits on the Hudson just across from Manhattan, has a storied past of which locals are fiercely proud.
That’s what photographer John Delaney is trying to capture in his series Hoboken Passing: Mile Square City’s history, as told by its longtime business-owners. What started as a digital photography masters thesis has turned into an ongoing documentary project. And having worked with legendary photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, Delaney knows how to make a portrait.
“I kind of fell in love with these little multigenerational, old businesses that were … community centers,” Delaney says on the phone. “I realized that because this town is transforming so fast into a commuter town, a lot of these places can’t afford the rent, so I wanted to capture that.”
Delaney quickly learned that this effort is a race against the clock. Many of Hoboken’s small businesses — even ones he had just photographed — didn’t survive Hurricane Sandy, let alone the economy.
“I gained a lot of weight doing this,” Delaney says. Which would be hard to avoid if you’re spending time with John at Fiore’s, who claims to have the best “mutz” (or mozzarella) around. Or with Ivan at Antique Bakery, who claims their oven hasn’t been turned off in 100 years. Or with Dom of Dom’s Bakery, who used to literally fly fresh bread out to Sinatra in Hollywood.
Each of these business owners has a source of pride. At Giovanni’s D’Italia Shoe Repair, Delaney says, they bragged about how long they had gone without dusting. But then Hurricane Sandy came along and washed all that dust — and that claim to fame — away. Giovanni’s managed to stay open but has since relocated. Other shops and delis were not as lucky. And whatever happens moving forward, Delaney hopes to capture it.