Some trips are more like a journey in the old sense, a venture into terra incognita, propelling you out of your comfort zone into an environment that shakes up your interior landscape. A junket from Manhattan to Paterson, New Jersey was one of those. The group included Ron Gallen, who had grown up in Paterson, his wife, the artist Liz Markus, my partner Noel Brennan, and our friend Chris Burrill, a cinematographer from Los Angeles who has travelled to many remote and exotic places. Paterson is sixteen miles from the George Washington Bridge, half an hour by car, traffic allowing. We went on a cold gray semi rainy day in early May.
First stop, Rutts, just outside Paterson, where, according to Ron, you can get the best hotdog in the world. The choices on offer are rippers, wellers, cremated, and in and outs, that is to say, hardly cooked. An orange soda is a “Howdy” and a Yahoo is “gimme a Marvis,” just so you know. Then on to the Tick Tock Diner, inside the city limits and, according to Ron the first diner in America, renovated except for the clock on top and the slogan “Eat Heavy.” Cakes pretty bad.
I had long had a yen to go to Paterson because I am a devotee of William Carlos Williams' great poem, a book length work called “Paterson." Throughout the writing of "The Absent Hand, if I got stuck, if I was engulfed by doubt as to the revelatory capacity of place, then all I had to do was open "Paterson." I also knew that Paterson itself had declined disasterously. Because of the great falls there, second in volume only to Niagara, the American industrial revolution had literally started in Paterson. When industry left the United States Paterson, like Detroit and almost every other industrial city in the United States, was left for dead. Williams engages with the physical environment of Paterson, as a language in itself. He never subsumes it completely into his own poetic imagination, developing enormous entrancing metaphors out of the features of Paterson, such as the falls, but also local history, characters, the outlying landscape. For all this he leaves Paterson intact as itself, as its own freestanding expressive reality. His poem exists in a middle distance between the place itself and the meanings we find in it. I wanted to go see what the poem was saying today.
Ron’s great grandfather Finkelstein, had come to Paterson from Russia. He had built and operated a silk mill there. His first name is forgotten, but his daughters were Annie, Rosie, Lilly, Gussie, Frieda and Bessie, Ron’s grandmother--from the poor part of town. One line of the Finklestein family had gone on to become rich, the other not so much. We drove through the blighted city—boarded up houses, un-repaired fire damage, uncollected garbage, the population sparse. We went through the poor part of town, still poor like all else now. Everywhere were the ruins of former prosperity. Eventually we got to the Falls. What I did not get from the poem is that the Falls is configured by an intense notch. The Passaic River takes a hairpin turn, concentrating the water into one principal very narrow, very steep drop, a vertical gorge of black basalt that carries the most of the volume. The the rest is subdivided into contradictory crisscrossing routes down; the thoughts of the sleeping giant, as Williams described them. In the late eighties the Falls were designated as a National Park because it was in this spot, at that time unsettled, that Alexander Hamilton decided that the American Industrial Revolution would begin. Today, a system of decks and walks around the falls, and even a bridge over them, gives the spectacular feature a caged quality. You can look at it every which-way. The rangers in the small visitor center that day were from Paterson, and, though they must have seen many visitors, they had about them an air of swallowed amazement that anyone would be interested in their city.
Just below the falls is a handsome brick industrial building that looks very powerful, as if it contains a big dynamo. Other brick nineteenth century beauties, abandoned of course, appear a bit downstream and throughout the city. A system of sluices that distributed the waterpower flowed throughout until hurricane Irene damaged it so badly it had to be shut down. To hear of this recent loss was startling, loss seeming so old now and imbedded in the very grain of Paterson. The city, of course, cannot repair this historic system. We found Ron’s great grandfather’s silk mill, or at least the site: it seemed likely from the style of construction that the mill still standing there had replaced the original, or maybe the old mill had simply been faced with some kind of concrete. A sign identified it as a chemical operation but it appeared to be closed. Extensive fire damage had occurred in the upper stories. The large windows were open. Smoke-wings rose upward from them, blackening the facade. You could see through the windows to thick darkness, interrupted by small bars of fluorescent lights at angles that seemed oddly wrong. The damage seemed old. How could they still be on? The abandoned American city is something that the heart almost cannot take in. It seems as if a kind of war has taken place, a sacking. The lights bars had no impact on the darkness which remained black as pitch.
We made a few other stops and then were on the highway, back in nyc in a thrice. It is a characteristic of the world now that distance and proximity no longer mean what they once did. Paterson is a place that seems to be in a realm apart, farther than Shanghai. The people are in a place of no exit, or so it appears. Paterson has not been able, as other desolated cities have, to find within itself the seeds of regeneration. Given the beautiful architecture of the mills one wonders "Where are the artists?" But Paterson itself is, always was, a work of art already, fiercely contemporary art, beautiful, startling: an installation in the garden.