Q&A with Hoboken author Alan Skontra on his new book: “Legendary locals of Hoboken”

MSV spoke with Alan Skontra about his new book, “Legendary Locals of Hoboken.” Among the aspects discussed are his insights into Hoboken past and present and how the photography played a role in connecting the two with the lasting impact on him after completing the project.

Alan Skonta outside his appearance at the Hoboken Historical Museum last month for his new book,
“Legendary Locals of Hoboken.”

You’ve mixed
the Hoboken past and present and blended them together. How did you arrive at
that concept and the black and white photography?
The book is part of Arcadia Publishing’s
Legendary Locals series about interesting people in cities, so I had to follow
some uniformity, such as all the pictures being black and white. But otherwise
they let me pick who I thought should be in the book and in what order. Going
in, I knew a book about Hoboken people without Frank Sinatra would seem lacking,
and since I was going to have to include him I figured I should find lots of
other people from the city’s history. I was interested in doing that anyway. I
also knew putting in a lot of people alive today would generate interest. I do
like seeing contemporary people juxtaposed with their historic counterparts,
such as the Valastro Family of Cake Boss sharing
a page with the original Carlo of Carlo’s Bakery from a hundred years ago.
A book has to
end somewhere. It must have been very difficult figuring out how to capture
most of the present. Tell us how about that struggle and any funny stories you
encountered on the way.
Arcadia keeps all of their Legendary Locals
books at 128 pages, so that ending came quickly. I wish I had 1,000 pages, and I
know I would have been able to fill them with people here. The last chapter is
about contemporary Hoboken, and I decided to group people together at the end
who echo some of the themes or concepts that I had discussed throughout the
book. So that’s where I put Sinatra tribute singer Eric DeLauro, the vintage
Hoboken Nine baseball team, and waterfront activist Helen Manogue. I got lucky
in getting the idea to put husband and wife Chris Halleron and Ann Wycherley on
the last page. I was walking through the A&P parking lot when I suddenly realized
that they and their son Jack are the quintessential Hoboken family. A few of
Chris’ friends joked to me, “Oh, you had just enough room to squeeze Halleron
in there,” but I’ve always said that they’re my closers.
What was the
most surprising elements you learned about Hoboken’s past?
I don’t think I was surprised too much about the
history, in terms of big things. I was already at least familiar with the
Stevens family or how Hoboken began changing in the 1970’s, for example. And,
while I did do research, the book’s short photo caption format meant that I had
only so much room for details. But I did discover historic individuals who I
found very interesting, people like pianist Blind Tom Wiggins, silent film
actress Dorothy Gibson, and reverend Hermann Bruckner. Wiggins was born a slave
in Georgia but died here, Gibson was born here but died in Paris shortly after
World War II, and Bruckner came from Germany and ministered at St. Matthew
during the first half of the 20th century. All three had pretty sad
lives. Though I had limited space to tell their stories in the book, I have
infinite space to think about them, how they lived, and how Hoboken at the time
affected them. They’re so interesting to me that I’m going to be thinking about
them for the rest of my life.

What do you
think might be the most surprising facts Hoboken residents will learn from your
I don’t know if I would cite any single fact,
but in terms of surprising people with something they didn’t really know much
about, I hope people will consider the extent of the military’s presence here
during World War I, when it shipped three million soldiers overseas. Hoboken
basically became a high security military base, and that suddenly affected the
way residents lived, worked, and even whether they could drink alcohol or walk
down certain streets. To my knowledge, the military had never done anything
like that to an entire city before or hasn’t since. I want Hobokenites today to
imagine how that experience must have felt. The other side to that involves the
soldiers. Consider that men from all over the country passed through here, and
that for over 117,000 who died overseas, Hoboken was the last piece of American
land they ever stepped on.
Is there
anyone you regret you didn’t get to feature? 
I regret not really including anyone
contemporary who is a teacher or otherwise involved in education. I considered
several people, but some of them declined or didn’t respond, and with others I
wasn’t able to schedule time to take photos before the summer began. In terms
of notable people, I was never able to contact Natalie Morales of the Today Show. I think I tried ten
different ways. I didn’t need to interview her, just get a high resolution
photo, but neither she nor anyone from NBC ever responded. I couldn’t get
Stevens alum Samuel P. Bush, who was a steel company executive in Ohio and the
grandfather and great-grandfather to the two Bush presidents. Not even the Bush
libraries have a good photo of him. I also wanted to include Benny Tudino, but
when I went to take his picture he was in Albania for the summer.  
How has the
book affected your view of Hoboken?
I imagine writing the book has been like
renewing wedding vows. I fell in love with Hoboken the very first time I came
here, and I’m still finding things to love about it. I see the book as my best
attempt yet at expressing that feeling. Still, I always try to look at Hoboken
as an outsider. I grew up in the south, which is basically another country. I
think my perspective as an outsider helps me stay objective. This is a compact
but dense city, and I think people here tend to get stuck looking at things
through too much of a localized perspective. We forget that this is one square
mile of land and that there are 3.7 million other square miles in the rest of
the United States. I always want to look at things here without bias and also
within a greater context. If people read the book and think I still captured
the city while doing that, then I’m happy.
What else
would you want to share with Hoboken residents about your experience doing the
I do want people to remember that the book is
part of the publisher’s series, and that I had to follow certain rules. For
example, people may say I left out so and so, but I had a small page limit.
Then I’m sure people dislike that I included certain people, whether for
personal or political reasons, but I think objectively that everyone in the
book deserves to be there. Finally, I know people will read first for content,
but as a writer I hope they notice style too. I treat writing as a serious craft,
and I’m always trying to sharpen my work. I might use a thesaurus to pick a more
precise word, add a certain word for alliterative effect, or even count the syllables
in a sentence and compare it to the ones before and after it. My favorite
teacher in graduate school said that writing compares to music, so I always pay
attention to how writing sounds. As I write I try to imagine what you’re
hearing in your head.
Why should
people buy your book? 
I did the writing, but the stories in the book
belong to the people of Hoboken. I wanted to collect and organize the stories
in a way that helps people here have a better sense of where they live, because
I believe that place really shapes who people are. I want the book to put
everything about Hoboken on a table – the history, the people, the
accomplishments – and for people here to look at everything together and be
proud of where they come from or live now. I also think the book can appeal to
people outside of Hoboken, because we’ve given the world many good things, such
as the Stevens family’s technological accomplishments, and also because there
are themes in Hoboken’s history that exist in many cities, such as
industrialization, immigration, transportation and gentrification. People in
other cities can relate. I want those people to know about Hoboken. They
should. I really meant it when I wrote on the back of the book cover that
street for street Hoboken is as interesting as any city in America.

Now on sale: at Amazon, or through: 

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