Although not without its challenges and triumphs, battles lost and won, it has been my sincere honor and pleasure to have served as a Historic Preservation Commissioner in Hoboken for fourteen years. In that time, part of which was spent as the Chairman, many of the initiatives I was involved with have begun to bear fruit, including adherence to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties; the expansion of the historic districts and; the revamping of the Historic Preservation Ordinance component of the City of Hoboken’s Zoning Code. The Preservation Commission is now populated with professionals in the fields of architecture, engineering, construction, archiving, archaeology and historic preservation, ensuring that the application process is smooth and objective. This makeup of the Commission also enables Hoboken to attain Certified Local Government Status and in so doing, access heretofore unavailable state funding for Hoboken for a variety of programs.
“It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.” - William Murtagh, first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places
While I’m stepping away from my seat on the Hoboken Historic Preservation Commission, I am committed to preservation efforts in our City, region and nation and will always remain involved in those endeavors that help define who we are and who we wish to become. By understanding our past, our present is greatly enriched and through preservation, our future has a context that we can shape in the most life-affirming ways. That is the goal of preservation; not merely to enhance the dining and shopping experiences of a privileged few through a murky lens of a misleading nostalgia, but to work to ensure that we, as stewards of our cultural resources, protect them for the future, and through this work, foster the crucial understanding that these efforts are relevant and that the “eyewitness objects”, structures and places of our shared history matter.
Many who have moved to Hoboken as adults, and those who have been here their whole lives, speak about Hoboken’s scale, its walk-ability, safety and charm. They will describe the friendly feel, the pleasant interactions with independent shopkeepers and impromptu meetings with neighbors. The settings for these encounters are the streets, stoops, parks, farmers’ markets and other gathering places in our tiny, diverse, urban village. Whether they realize it or not, they are describing the positive outcomes of historic preservation. The continuation of these elements that serve to attract and retain many of our residents and businesses cannot be taken for granted and deserve our utmost vigilance and the implementation of excellent and thoughtful zoning ordinances.
Much of the work and focus of the Hoboken Historic Preservation Commission is transactionally driven through the application process and largely concerns the built environment of the more conventionally beautiful structures. However, Hoboken’s rich industrial past, its unique geological formations, its view sheds and view corridors are also historic and worthy of protection. A pro-active emphasis for these elements can and should be at the core of preservation initiatives as much has already been lost and what remains has never been more threatened. When and if new structures are to be built, archaeology, which has been largely ignored in the preservation process, must play an expanding role.
Although it’s difficult to step away from this work in the city I love, where my father’s maternal ancestors settled five generations ago, I am confident that my fellow commissioners will continue to improve the functioning of the historic preservation commission and its important role in shaping our City’s future by preserving its past.
Paul J. Somerville
Talking Ed Note: The mayor also issued a proclamation honoring Mark Mouton as the current New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.