Paterson: movie, poem, city

There’s a new independent movie premiering this week, which seems to be inspired by the city of Paterson (NJ) as well as William Carlos Williams’s epic poem about it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m happy to see the city in the spotlight, even though I have a feeling, from reading the reviews, it doesn’t precisely reflect the city’s true reality today, but more Williams’ unfortunately now-obsolete vision of it from the 1950s.

I feel a special affinity for Paterson because it reminds me of my birthplace, Hartford—two small, gritty, impoverished but once grand East-Coast towns that seem to be barely working, but have so much potential. Hartford seems to be doing a little better these days. But as for Paterson… I spent some time there this summer, researching an article on one of the city’s neighborhoods for a local publication: I drove past the famous waterfalls and down its crowded, crazy streets, struggling to avoid the residents who kept popping out in front of me; I got lost in the lonely industrial section of red-brick empty factories by the train tracks and finally made my way to the public library in the heart of the city, a turn-of-the-century building in very sad shape, desperately in need of renovation. The reference librarian kindly put aside books for me, but the reference room itself seemed to function as a kind of hang-out for the local neighborhood. Two men started a scuffle at the end of the table where I was sitting. But I wasn’t scared, because this is pretty much what I grew up with.

I feel for Paterson, which is only about twenty minutes by car from where I live: It needs something, something more than a mere infusion of money, but I’m not sure what. Maybe a change in politics—meaning local politics; the new national administration is likely to help the city not at all. Perhaps the movie will help—raise awareness, to use that tired old phrase. I wouldn’t necessarily want to see it gentrified, mall-ified or made into any other generic American city. But something that would rouse and encourage its residents, something that would celebrate its extraordinary diversity and history and urban uniqueness surrounding a stunning bit of natural beauty (the falls). Like…a movie, maybe. I need to see it before I comment any further on it.

The article I did write, which coincidentally will be published very soon, was about the  parish of Saint Bonaventure, which sits practically on Route 80, though it existed long before that crazy road was even planned. If you’ve ever shot out across New Jersey from NYC, you may have seen their sign beside the highway: Travelers Welcome. You should stop, if you get a chance. It’s a lovely little brick church snuggled into a cozy working-class and recent-immigrant neighborhood, but behind it has its own secret garden. Permeated, it’s true, by the roar of the highway, but surprisingly peaceful. And the stained-glass windows are quite amazing, all featuring Franciscan heroes with very distinct visages—former Paterson residents, I’m thinking. Even if you are not ill or seeking a miracle cure, you can light an electronic candle in the St. Anthony shrine next door: It’s all about faith. The grounds of the church were once home to a Franciscan novitiate house, the first stop for young men who had entered the Franciscan order. Thomas Merton mentions it in his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain; it was where he was headed (he did actually visit there) before the Franciscans summarily rejected him. (Their loss!) But the whole thing was actually begun in the 19th century, on the remains of a half-built Carmelite cloister by a group of poverty-stricken friars chased out of Bismarck’s Germany, and I was able unearth all kinds of colorful tales about ragamuffin begging friars among the “farms of Totowa” (before the malls and mega-mansions moved in), carrying giant German-English dictionaries under their arms. To me, history is especially appealing when it’s human, not facts and figures and dates; and I’m seeing that this might be a new path for my writing. (Who needs fiction, LOL!)

So go see Paterson—the city or the movie.  The director is Jim Jarmusch, if that means anything to you. And if you can’t do either, read the poem by William Carlos Williams (it’s actually a book, with a lot of prose and history—and sex!—scattered into it, so even non-poetry lovers will be entertained). And stay tuned for my next post, about another very interesting movie that’s out there.

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