A dark time in Hoboken’s history: Remembering the arson victims of the ‘70s, ‘80s

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A community effort is underway in Hoboken to finally tell the story about a wave of fires that killed dozens of people and displaced hundreds 40 years ago.

Over the years, Hoboken has evolved from a gritty, working-class enclave to a town with the highest rents in the state of New Jersey. Hoboken’s Hispanic population has dropped by 50% during that time.

The gentrification of Hoboken wasn’t just the result of market forces and economics. It was fueled by evictions, intimidation, violence, arson and murder.

As many as 55 people died in a series of fires in Hoboken between 1978 and 1983 – many of them children and the impoverished. Hundreds more were displaced by fires that were intentionally set.

Newspaper headlines of the era described an epidemic of arson. On Jan. 21, 1979, 21 people were killed and 21 more injured in a fire at 131 Clinton St. On Oct. 25, 1981, 11 were killed, including a 9-year-old child, in an unsolved arson at the El Dorado apartment complex on Washington Street. On April 30, 1982, 13 were killed, including three babies, at the site of a former hotel. It remains another unsolved arson. And the list goes on.

The allegations - never proven but widely believed – is that fires were being set by property owners to clear tenements and hotels of poor tenants for conversion into higher rent condos for the new waves of Wall Street yuppies who were flocking to Hoboken.

Many of today’s newer Hoboken residents do not know about the history of the fires in the city. But for those who lived in what is called “Old Hoboken,” the images of mothers dropping babies from windows and other horrors still haunt them.

Hoboken resident Rose Orozco worked as a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital amid the fires. Orozco is spearheading the Hoboken Fire Victims Memorial Project. She plans to build a memorial to the 55 victims in Thomas Olivieri Park.

“I just felt it was part of our history and that it should be remembered and these folks should be remembered,” Orozco says.

There are other efforts underway to remember those victims and tell their stories. All Saints Episcopal Church is running a three-part series beginning with a day of conversation and storytelling on Saturday.

“Just giving people permission to talk about something that was a really painful era in Hoboken’s history,” says the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas.

A prayer walk to the fire locations will be held in March and a service of remembrance is planned. Anyone affected by the fires - including victims, first responders and community members - is invited.

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