David Cogswell | September 10, 2015 12:00 PM ET
Sightseeing at Home
I travel much more than the average person and I go to many exotic places, so I like to think of myself as an adventurous person. But in reality much of my daily life is couched in repetitive routines and habits.
I’ve lived in Hoboken, N.J., for more than 25 years and I’ve fallen into relatively narrow and fixed patterns of activity. As I conduct more and more of the affairs of my life online, my experience of the actual place I live has become increasingly narrow. I don’t know much more about the place than I knew 15 years ago; less really. My explorations and my knowledge about the place I live have not expanded much in recent years.
In fact I probably experience less of the Mile Square City than I did a decade ago. I’ve fallen into a very narrow range of behaviors when I am at my home station. But this narrow pattern of behavior was recently disrupted in a pleasing way.
I needed to travel to Jersey City, the next town over from Hoboken, and rather than driving and having to deal with a treacherous and high-hassle parking situation, I decided to take the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail.
The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail is a simple, streamlined electric train system that connects the cities of North Bergen, Union City, Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City and Bayonne, in Hudson and Bergen counties in New Jersey.
These are the New Jersey towns and cities that line the Hudson River directly across from Manhattan, in the shadow of the colossal skyline. It’s one of the most densely populated areas in the country. Jammed highways are a recurring daily nightmare that natives are forced to become accustomed to.
Parking is nearly impossible. If you do happen to discover an open space somewhere, you’d better be certain of the precise parking regulations because mistakes can be extremely expensive, not just in money, but in time and heart-wrenching hassle. Failure to comply with parking regulations is dealt with harshly.
In such an environment, public transportation is a highly valued resource. The building of the Light Rail line winding through six densely populated cities was a highly complex project.
The initial idea was floated in the 1980s and was brought into being by a public-private partnership. In 1996 New Jersey Transit contracted builders to begin construction and by 2000, the first segment was open to the public. In 2012 the whole system was completed.
I had little reason to use the light rail before, but on this occasion, I decided to check it out. I had a surprisingly enjoyable experience.
First off, the system itself is beautiful. The train is elegant, compact, clean and quiet. It glides into town as quiet as a breeze. It has two stops in Hoboken and since the town is only a square mile in area, no part of town is very far from one of the stops.
The system is operated on the honor system. You buy a ticket in a vending machine and then you stick your ticket into a second machine to stamp the time on it.
You just carry that ticket with you. If an official asks you, you must produce it as proof you paid. If you can’t find it, you will be very unhappy. Fines are steep.
The one-way fare is $2.20. Seniors and the disabled ride for $1.10. The value is extraordinary. It’s a good deal even compared to driving your own car.
The Hudson-Bergen Light Rail is a surface transit system, so while it feels and operates like a subway train, it never goes underground. Instead of being submerged in a dreamy, dark subterranean world, you are up above the surface where you can look around at the landscape you are traveling through.
Many people who have knowledge of Hudson and Bergen counties may laugh at my suggestions of of sightseeing in Hudson County. What is to see there?
But in fact, it was a great sightseeing experience for me.
I only experienced a small part of the line, from Hoboken to Jersey City, and even though it was all within a few miles of my base, it was a fascinating sightseeing experience.
For one thing, the train winds around in such a way that when you’re riding it you see things from completely different angles than you would see them any other way.
The politics and the geography of building such a line were immensely difficult, and the route as it exists now still embodies that difficulty. For most of the path north of Hoboken the train runs along the Hudson River, with stunning views of the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline.
When it reached Hoboken, the line had to be diverted from the hotly disputed waterfront, so the line snakes back around the back of town, where Hoboken bumps up against the vertical cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades.
In spite of the rundown funkiness of some parts of these towns, the Palisades, the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline are spectacular sights. Getting used to them by living near them day by day is no excuse to not appreciate their beauty. These are sights people the world over would love to see.
At the Ninth Street/Congress Street stop in Hoboken there is an elevator that takes people up the side of the cliff from Hoboken to Jersey City Heights at the top of the cliffs. The elevator makes the train easily accessible to people in the Heights. It also serves as a great artery of transportation between Hoboken and the Heights.
After the train gets through Hoboken it has to negotiate a path across a tangled ganglion of highways and railroad tracks that converge in a giant highway and railroad nucleus at the entrance of the Holland Tunnel to New York.
In such a dense cluster of highways, railroad tracks and residential, industrial and commercial developments it’s amazing the train line was ever completed. Coming out of Hoboken it winds around in an S curve on an elevated track over the entrance to the Holland Tunnel and then gradually descends back to ground level around Newport and the Harborside Financial Center in a sparkling, renewed Jersey City.
I saw all the familiar sights of my hometown from completely different angles than I had ever seen them before. I could look down on the Holland Tunnel exit and Newport Mall from the elevated section of the train. After passing from Hoboken across the Holland Tunnel Entrance into Jersey City, the train rides through an increasingly bright and rejuvenated Jersey City, with many attractive, inviting sections.
The city has blossomed in recent years. Skyscrapers have sprouted up by the waterfront in the financial center, an offshoot of Wall Street just across the Hudson. Old buildings have been restored. New trendy commercial strips have arisen, with colorful restaurants. Special sections are blocked off from car traffic, encouraging walking traffic and outdoor cafes.
As Manhattan has grown increasingly steep and prohibitive in price, the funkier, more creative elements of society have spread out to places like Brooklyn, Long Island City and on the Jersey side, Jersey City and Hoboken.
It was great to see how much Jersey City has developed in the most pleasant, creative, conscious way. It reminded me of similar renewal developments I’ve seen in European cities.
My travel experience has helped me to appreciate these things close to home and familiar. To some people, my former self included, this area I now call home is exotic, and is a tourist center that is in great demand by people around the world.
On this little train ride from Hoboken to Jersey City, I was able to see the New York skyline, from some of the best angles from which it can be viewed. I could see the downtown skyline as well as the uptown skyline. I could see the river, including the marinas with crowds of sailboats huddled together with their naked masts, and the Statue of Liberty, which stands just off shore toward the Jersey side of New York Harbor.
I saw all these great sights from unconventional angles, with no crowds and nominal prices. There is no tourism industry side to it at all, except me, the perennial tourist. Even in my hometown I’m on an endless sightseeing excursion.
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