But the primeval roar of Paterson’s waters told me that something special resided here -– some magnet that had drawn me and thousands of others to it, a psychic force bigger than my own teenage psyche.
I forgot about the city as I traveled the rest of the wide world. I cheated on Paterson with a visit to Niagara, a drive across the country, then moved on to other countries and continents. But when I had my own kids, always on the lookout for fun day trips, I brought them to Paterson to see what I had seen.
There they were, the falls, right where I had left them, quite a spectacle for the eyes of a 7- and 4-year-old. And a 41-year-old.
Strange to have moved
thru Paterson, and the West, and Europe and here again…fire escapes
old as you
That’s when I stumbled upon some of Paterson’s other precious gems: Libby’s Lunch, a Texas-wiener-style hot dog shack right across from the falls. Libby’s, supposedly there since 1936, may be older than anyone remembers. While doing work in the basement recently, the owner’s son came across paper delivery bags stamped with the Libby’s name and the year, 1916.
Around the corner was Paterson’s jewel of a museum – located in the restored Thomas Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works shop – tracing the city’s industrial history; big black locomotives were parked out front and Wright Aeronautical Company airplane parts sat inside — a thrill for my small son. Now that he’s at college, I take my two-year-old nephew to see the antique fire trucks, Lenape Indian statues and locomotives.
The motor of Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis was made in Paterson, as were the sails for the first America’s Cup yacht race. Because it was such an industrial center and important union town, Paterson was a regular campaign stop for presidential candidates: everyone from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. Even Bill Clinton stopped in to campaign for Hillary last year.
But Paterson has seen the worst of American history as well as its best. Boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, immortalized in the Denzel Washington film and in Bob Dylan’s song, grew up on its streets and was falsely accused of a triple homicide committed in one of its local bars. Six of the 9/11 hijackers lived in an apartment in Paterson before their attacks, not far from the falls. Two of its recent mayors have been indicted.
It’s as if Paterson has had a cameo in every chapter of American history.
The Lenape Indians, the first to be pulled by the power of the falls, came for the prime fishing and hunting on the Passaic River. All that’s left now is a display at the Paterson Museum that includes an LED campfire, a wigwam and snarling bear skin.
Hamilton picnicked atop the falls in 1778 with George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, feasting on cold ham, tongue, large biscuits and grog, and was inspired to build the country’s first planned industrial city in 1792, harnessing the energy from its waters. Paterson’s paper mills, textile mills, breweries, Colt factories and in particular silk mills – earning Paterson the nickname Silk City — employed wave after wave of poor immigrants. The Germans, Dutch and Irish were followed by Eastern Europeans and Italians (including the family of Lou Costello, who changed his Calabrian name from Cristillo. He now has his own statue at Cianci Park, not far from the falls, holding a baseball bat in a nod to his Who’s on First routine).
Paterson, the state’s third largest city after Newark and my rapidly gentrifying hometown Jersey City, is now home to 147,000 people from 52 different ethnic groups, including Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Africans, Bangladeshis, Caribbean islanders, Middle Easterners and Peruvians.
Thanks to those immigrants, Paterson has some of the best restaurants in the state. One of my favorites is Griselda’s, a Peruvian spot in a neighborhood dubbed Little Lima. Griselda’s gets packed for lunch and serves great jalea (deep fried seafood) and chaufa (fried rice), though I haven’t been brave enough to try its guinea pig stew. Across town in South Paterson – known as Little Ramallah — is Al Basha, a Palestinian/Lebanese restaurant that serves warm pita with authentic labne, kebabs and stewed lamb.
Six years ago, the latest settlers arrived: the National Park Service. They now run tours of the falls, giving the landmark a legitimacy that it lacked before, working with the city and state on refurbishing the areas surrounding the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park. Since Hamilton became a rock star, Hamilton-heads have been making pilgrimages to that picnic spot and his statue overlooking the falls. The gift shop at the visitors center now sells Hamilton books, banks, hand warmers and the Broadway cast album.
“There has always been industry here,” said Robert Veronelli, who runs the visitors center. “But the only industry left now is tourism.”
On a weekday visit in spring, I was the only person on an official tour of the falls, but Mr. Veronelli said more than 300 tourists passed through on summer weekends, not just visitors from other parts of New Jersey but from as far as Texas and Arizona.
When I was there, several people were milling about the falls on their own, including a young couple. Joshua Ortiz, who grew up next door in Clifton, had been here many times, but his friend, Shannon Klemm, never had. “It’s so gorgeous,” said Ms. Klemm, shaking her head and looking over the stone wall at the falls, the second largest by volume east of the Mississippi after Niagara. They had come because they were both “Sopranos” fans. In one episode of the HBO series, hit men throw someone into the falls from the arched iron footbridge.
My guide, park ranger Ilyse Goldman, countered that on most sunny days you can see a rainbow from that same bridge because of the falls’ spray. I have never been so lucky.
The latest boon to the town’s tourism is the film, “Paterson,” by Mr. Jarmusch, which was nominated for the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year. The movie is about a poet/bus driver named Paterson, played by Adam Driver, who is inspired by the falls. Mr. Driver quotes Mr. Williams in the film, the perfect poem about the plums in the ice box. And “Paterson,” Mr. Williams’ epic paean to the city, is one of the dog-eared books on the character’s writing desk.
Books will give rest sometimes against
the uproar of water falling
Movie fans often stop in at the Paterson Museum to ask if the nearby bus depot is the same one used in the film. Indeed it is, answers the museum director Giacomo DiStefano, who was born and raised. “Why isn’t the museum in the film?” they ask. “If the Paterson character worked across the street, wouldn’t he come and visit?” Mr. DiStefano explains that the character doesn’t really exist.
Mr. Jarmusch’s movie is a draw for out-of-towners, but Paterson’s most recent favorite son and homegrown poet is rapper Fetty Wap — 26-year-old Willie Maxwell II, who grew up in the Fourth Ward neighborhood. Mr. Maxwell’s 2014 runaway hit single “Trap Queen” references trap music, known for its synthesized, complicated beats and gritty lyrics that both celebrate and lament inner-city life.
Mr. Maxwell recorded a music video last year for another single, “Wake Up,” featuring marijuana and a stripper, not unusual subject matter for a music video. But it was filmed in Paterson’s Eastside High School, which Mr. Maxwell once attended. At the end of “Wake Up,” a tattooed woman takes an apple off the teacher’s desk and uses it as a pot pipe. Paterson officials were not amused and launched an investigation last year into how a stripper pole and platform made it into the school. A principal took the fall and was suspended, and the approval process for filming on school property has now been tightened.
If he were still alive, Paterson poet Ginsberg probably would have appreciated Mr. Maxwell’s work. When he returned home to Paterson in 1966 for a poetry reading, Mr. Ginsberg told the crowd that he had just smoked pot at the falls to better appreciate their beauty. The mayor told the police to issue a warrant for his arrest. So Mr. Ginsberg didn’t make a public appearance in Paterson for another 14 years.
Unlike Mr. Ginsberg, Mr. Maxwell has remained a strong presence in his hometown, distributing turkeys at Thanksgiving and hanging out in the neighborhood.
And you can’t change what’s understood, ayy
And if it’s all good it’s all good, I’ma rep my ‘hood, ayy
Paterson today is not just rough around the edges, but throughout; gang violence and drug deals are common, its smokestacks dormant, bail bond shops numerous and the banks of the Passaic dotted with tents from the homeless living where the Lenape once fished.
On my most recent drive there, I heard on the radio that a spotted Savannah cat someone was keeping as a pet had been set loose on the city streets. Thankfully it was caught before I got out of my car. When I mentioned the Savannah story to Mr. DeStefano, he laughed and said, “For Paterson, that’s good news. At least no one’s being indicted.”
The large, spotted cat slinking past littered streets and aluminum sided homes, was like something one of the city’s poets might include in a line. The wild power of nature bumping up against the industrial landscape that was once America.