A Neighbor of Epic Proportions

by Christine Adams Beckett

Paterson, New Jersey is a strangely situated city, nestled in between leafy suburbs of New York City, and is largely unexplored by its neighbors. One might never know its existence if it weren’t for the presence of the award-winning St Joseph’s hospital there, with one of the only true pediatric care units the area. Less than 6 miles north of the Center of Montclair, its a physically close neighbor, yet Montclarions rarely visit. Perhaps they have been guided by their GPS hosts north on McLean Boulevard on their way to a friend in Glen Rock or Ridgewood and were dismayed by the squalor that existed there, boarded-up store fronts of independent junk stores, discount clothiers and bodegas. City busses in this third largest city in New Jersey choke residents that line the streets, leaning up against the walls of an abandoned entrepreneurial waste land, smoking cigarettes and eating their lunches from paper wrappings.

great falls waterfalls of passaic river peaceful tranquil scenery brige over waterfall paterson new jersey

View of the Passaic Falls, Engraved by J. Sands after Artist WH Bartlett

Indelibly placed on the map largely due to the 77-foot Great Falls there, the largest on the East Coast second only to Niagra, Paterson was — and is — a place of beauty. In the 18th century, before America was even established as a country, before Paterson was established a town, George Washington himself came to admire the falls during his extensive travels through New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. It is said that he even carved his initials and date on one of the faces of basalt . He enjoyed picnic lunches here with LaFayette and Hamilton.

The picnickers had greater visions for this powerful force of nature, and as such, Paterson can be construed as the seat of the industrial revolution. Its powerful waters once harnessed for its energy, mills sprung up along the Passaic River thanks to the efforts of our first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who chose the Great Falls as a natural place in which to turn newborn America’s rich natural resources into goods of their own, forever shifting our economy from agrarian to capitalist. By founding the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, Hamilton permanently removed Mother England’s shackles, and the fledgling United States began to fend for themselves and thrive as an independent economy. Silk, cotton and duck cloth for sails, locomotives, submarines and guns: Paterson provided an array of lucrative products that buoyed our new society, changing the face of a social order. The average American won the ability to earn his fortune with hard work rather than by gentry.

Evenually, Globalization and the shift of American manufacture to foreign locales, and the exodus of more successful retailers to the newly conceptualized shopping mall left Paterson in squalor. Factories were left to decay, smaller businesses moved in as the market price for residences and businesses plummeted. What is left along the falls are eerie but beautiful monuments, roman ruins of a collossal giant of American manufacture. Their gorgeously arched industrial brick facades are ripe for preservation.

Little by little, Paterson has shown signs of renewal thanks to many hard working residents past and present who are breathings new life to its districts. Suburban neighbors who have renovated their kitchens might be surprised to learn that their Parsons cabinetry is crafted in a vintage Paterson mill. Alfaro Furniture is centered in Paterson, linen manufacturers, rental companies, movers and storage companies.

Most notably, however, is the recent recognition of Paterson’s heritage and the desire to preserve it. There are numerous sites in town that have recently been placed on the National Register of historic places, and in the case of the Falls themselves, Paterson is now home to America’s 397th National Park. A development plan has been established and is said will take years to come to completion, The Paterson Museum most ably educates those interested in the history of this unique and historically significant seat of American manufacturing, and the birthplace of American capitalism.

Always home to immigrant populations who found work here, Paterson is also a notable seat to African American history. The black Yankees played baseball at Hinchliffe Stadium here and black pilgrims seeking a congregation in which to worship God without the stigma of segregation set up the First AME Zion Church, where the city’s first Colored School was founded in 1855. The church and school has just been declared an historic site and will be preserved by the town government.

Paterson has also been muse to many novelists, essayists and even poets. Allen Ginsburg famously posed high above the Falls, double entendre well intended, and was even issued an arrest by the mayor of Paterson after a poetry festival in which participants smoked marijuana to enhance their sensory experience of the powerful rush of water. The case was later dismissed due to lack of evidence. Paterson also served as setting for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Juno Diaz novel, The Brief and Wonderoud Life of Oscar Wao. But most eloquently, there exists the epic poem by Rutherford doctor and Pulitzer Prize-winner himself, William Carlos Williams, who penned his epic Paterson as a response to the “anti-epic” Waste Land by ts eliot. James Breslin, who authored a biography of Williams, outlined the contrast between the two great works and serendipitously also describes what many believe to be the future of this great New Jersey city:

The Wasteland is a kind of anti-epic, a poem in which the quest for meaning is entirely thwarted and we are left, at the end, waiting for the collapse of Western Civilization. Paterson is a Pre-epic, showing that the process of disintegration releases forces that can build a new world. It confronts, again and again, the savagery of contemporary society, but still affirms a creative seed. Elliot’s end is William’s beginning.” (source: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/William-Carlos-Williams).

The renaissance of Paterson is imminent. This singular city with a rich history is in the early processes of a great renewal, which will forever change the face of it but with a new purpose, a reinvigorated goal.  A visit in the near future is suggested, before the mysterious façades of the old mills are scrubbed clean, and their secrets are washed away.