Hoboken Passing: Photographing the Last Mom-and-Pop Shops


John Delaney's portraits capture men and women whose whole world is changing around them.

Hoboken, New Jersey, played host to the first organized baseball game in America. It was home to the first American brewery. Dorothea Lange, the photographer behind the most iconic photographs of the Great Depression, was born there. And it was where Frank Sinatra grew up and let out his first mighty wails.

This small town -- measuring one square mile and nestled just across the water from New York -- is the place where German and Italian immigrants came to build their lives, loading and unloading goods on the docks that line the Hudson River waterfront. Along the way, families set up bakeries and shoe repair shops, delis, and pizzerias. These mom-and-pop establishments kept residents working for generations, even after the bustle along the docks disappeared.

It is with a tinge of sadness that photographer John Delaney has watched all of this change. In recent years, developers have moved in, building sleek condominiums laden with shiny amenities. One-by-one, old businesses have shuttered, replaced by cell phone stores and trendy chain yogurt shops that are converting the community into a seemingly interchangeable piece of the American puzzle. "It was becoming this blah of nothing," said Delaney.

Plagued by nostalgia, Delaney began photographing the city's remaining family businesses.

He photographed Dorothy at Schnackenburg's Luncheonette, where, until recently, you could buy a hamburger for about a dollar. He climbed down the dusty, windy stairs at Giovanni D'Italia Shoe Repair to photograph Georgio, an Italian cobbler who speaks little English.

And at the Antique Bakery, Delaney captured Ivan, the owner, who bragged that the enormous coal ovens hadn't been shut off in a century. "If he didn't have modern sneakers on, you wouldn't be able to tell the date," said the photographer.

Delaney plans to continue documenting the city's history throughout the coming spring and summer. He is aware that's he's fighting against time. "When I started the project, I thought I'd have huge resources of places to visit," he said. "I soon found there weren't that many left."

But many of his subjects, he said, seem unaware that an era may be ending.

"They are all pretty proud," said Delaney. "I originally named the project 'Hoboken Passing.' But I feel bad about that, because they don't see themselves as passing. Most of them have no intention of leaving."

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Julie Turkewitz is a New York-based journalist. She also writes for the New York Times.

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