According to Hackensack city manager Steve Loiacono, his town is really going places."Real estate values are strong, business—and retail in particular—has been expanding and shows no sign of slowing," he says. "Unemployment is relatively low. Service industries continue to expand and move in. Manufacturing continues to see a slow but steady decline as other markets with less expensive labor attract manufacturers."
If this resurgence sounds like late-breaking news to outsiders, it has become a sentiment familiar to Hackensack residents; they've seen this decline and rebirth before—right in their own history books.
The Mouth of a River
Prior to being settled by the Dutch in 1693, Hackensack was home to the thriving Lenni Lenape Indian community that lived and prospered along the banks of the Hackensack River.
Bergen County was inhabited by the Achkinheshcky tribe, from which the name "Hackensack" was eventually derived. Roughly translated, Hackensack means "mouth of a river." The original "Hackensacks" formed villages, each one practicing and serving as its own government. Hundreds of years before Europeans hatched their own form of democracy, these villages practiced a form of representational government, where all members of the tribe were involved in the decision-making.
By the mid-1600's the British began to arrive in the Hackensack area. From then until the Revolutionary War's end in 1783, Hackensack was an area of unrest.
According to the triennial commemorative book Three Centuries of Prosperity: 1683-1993,in 1870, a building boom emerged in Hackensack that continued until World War I, and a thriving bustling commercial and residential nucleus emerged.
According to the book, the railroads and trolley lines opened the township up to a new population: middle-class commuters to New York City and wealthy families who built many of the city's grand homes. "Hackensack was now viewed as affording a suburban lifestyle for those who did not wish to live in Manhattan. The city's population increased more than one-third between 1920 and 1930."
After the opening of the George Washington Bridge in 1931, Hackensack lost many of its wealthier citizens to more spacious parts of Bergen County, the book explains. For two decades the city leaked money until 1956, when city planners called for the renewal and revitalization of some of the city's more downtrodden wards.
The book went on to say deteriorating homes were replaced with office buildings, and schools and other public facilities were modernized. The city was rezoned to allow the construction of luxury high-rise apartments, offering residents the convenience of city-living coupled with the comfort of suburbia. The Housing Authority introduced assisted-housing programs, which were continually expanded to reach its current status of 144 family and 310 senior units.
Back in the Hackensack
"Today, Bergen County enjoys a leadership position in virtually every quality that people look for in a place to live and Hackensack is the leading community in Bergen County," says Loiacono."Shopping, transportation, access to culture and the arts, fine restaurants, an excellent school system, institutions of higher learning and so many other factors make Hackensack an ideal place to settle."
Hackensack is undergoing an extensive revitalization, which includes several areas of redevelopment along the river. Many developers and planners have expressed interest in Hackensack and plans have been submitted to create a multi-use facility with condos and shopping.
In 2004, the city also established a special improvement district called the Main Street Business Alliance. Its goals are to enhance the commercial viability, development, and attractiveness of Main Street by providing coordinated promotion, management, business retention, recruitment, capital improvements and other services to business owners, merchants, and property owners in an area that stretches from Euclid Avenue to Mercer Street.
When Edward Becker stumbled upon just one statistic from the 2000 U.S. Census, he knew he had uncovered the answer to where he should relocate his business. "Most of my customers are Hispanic," says Becker, "and the census listed the city of Hackensack as the fastest growing Hispanic community in Bergen County at that moment, so I knew it was the right move. And the costs were right too."
Becker purchased three commercial buildings on Main Street, Hackensack's business district, and moved in his prospering, then-22-year-old company. Main Street has fast become the place to be for business owners—according to a March 2006 article on NorthJersey.com, the nonprofit Upper Main Alliance and the Main Street Special Improvement District are working hard to transform the once-forlorn strip into a shopping and entertainment hub for the community. So far, the organizations have allocated $125,000 in this year's budget to update and overhaul the storefronts on Main Street to make them more attractive and give the area a more inviting, town-square kind of atmosphere.
"We feel if we build a nice, safe, good-looking downtown, people are going to feel comfortable and come back down to the shopping district," said Jerry Lombardo, chairman of the alliance.
Gregory Liosi, who was born and raised in Hackensack and is now the arts director of the Hackensack Cultural Arts Center, has also seen positive changes in the last five years or so. "There are definitely more businesses and residents now," says Liosi. "We keep track of the new families that have come into the area for the recreation department, and we spiked dramatically a few years ago."
In addition to the Hackensack Cultural Arts Center, which is now a key cultural venue, the metropolis is also home to the New Jersey Naval Museum, the World War II submarine USS Ling, and Fairleigh Dickinson University.
"In Hackensack in particular, the health services area is particularly strong, due in no small measure to the presence of Hackensack University Medical Center, one of the leading teaching hospitals in the nation," says the city manager. "The medical center employs over 7,000 people and is the major economic engine for the city. While it certainly facing many challenges, Hackensack is by no means a 'struggling area.'"
Loiacono is also enthused about the city's future. "There is a growing level of interest in this city from commercial and residential developers, and currently there is an unprecedented number of developments in various stages of completion," he says. "The residential market is booming, with literally hundreds of new residential living units—condos, town homes and rentals—under construction or about to begin."
Acording to Linda McAuliffe, a residential home specialist and owner of RE/Max Heritage Realty Group, Hackensack is a hot market, and is showing no signs of a slowdown. "In 10 years, the entire city is going to look really different because of redevelopment coming into this area," says McAuliffe. "It's going to be an even more sought-after area."
"Hackensack is the bedroom community of New York," McAuliffe continues, "and many people who work in the city want the simple lifestyle. Hackensack is an easy commute—especially from Prospect Avenue, which is just one block from transportation into New York City. People are also downsizing, and Hackensack is convenient to shopping, community, and excellent health care—it's just a stone's throw to Hackensack Medical Center."
That said, home prices may be leveling off a bit from the feverish pace of the last couple of years. "Everything seemed to coincide with the rise in oil prices and the negative press that the housing bubble was going to burst," says McAuliffe. "There's also more inventory than before."
Sales prices reflect the growing desirability of Hackensack as a place to put down roots. For a one-bedroom, one-bathroom co-op in the city's more upscale neighborhoods, house-hunters can expect to pay between $105,000 to $160,00. Two-bedroom, two-bath co-ops range from around $209,000 to $225,000. For condos, the ranges are similar, though there's more on the high end of the spectrum thanks to all the new construction. According to the pros, condo units in Hackensack can range from $106,000 to an almost New York-ish $450,000.
"Families and commuters drawn to our good access to New York City are moving in," adds Loiacono, "and while there is a significant Senior population here, there doesn't appear to be a large influx of older people moving in. The future is full of promise and Hackensack—and over the course of the next few years will be an even better place to live."
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York.