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PATERSON, NEW JERSEY is a place that inspires people. It inspired poets Allan Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, it inspired Angelo Bresci, the anarchist who killed King Humbert I of Italy before World War I, and to the city's lasting pride, it inspired "Leaping" Sam Patch, the only man to leap Niagara Falls without a protective device.
The best thing about About Paterson, Christopher Norwood's first book, is that it is a work of inspiration and commitment. Norwood, for two years a reporter for a Paterson television station, writes with a refreshing admiration for the city, and a tenacious desire to get at the spirt of Paterson.
The recent boom in "urban studies" has produced books which are by and large mixtures of bad political science and pop sociology, books that flit from one city to the next, never lighting on one specific locale. What American "urban studies" lacks is a real urban history, a sympathetic study and analysis of specific communities and neighborhoods. Not until we know more about the growth and development of places like Rochester, Framingham or Paterson will we be able to make informed judgments on urban problems. About Paterson is not a great book--it leaves out a lot of necessary information, and tends to make easy points out of complicated issues--but it is a start towards the kind of urban history that we must produce.
Paterson is a middle-sized city (150,000 pop.), described in the '30s WPA New Jersey State Guide as "one of the few cities in America that came out almost exactly as it was planned." It was founded in 1972 as an industrial community, a site for the factories of the Society for Useful Manufacturers (SUM), one of Alexander Hamilton's corporate schemes to industrialize the newly united colonies. The settlement quickly became a colony of the industrialists who ran SUM--men like Samuel Colt, who produced his first revolvers in Paterson. It was not until 1831 that the town was able to establish its own government.
Paterson became what Norwood calls "a Wild West outpost of industrialism." While most American cities developed and began their early growth as commercial centers, producing civic-minded merchants and opulent monuments, Paterson never found benefactors among its industrialists. It was merely a place to house the workers who ran the silk factories, and the industrialists fought every attempt to improve or beautify the town. Jacob Rogers of Rogers Locomotives declined to donate a small patch of land for the city hospital. "I don't owe anything to Paterson," he said.
For Norwood, Paterson is a symbol of the neglected American city, an entity never acknowledged or accomodated by American political institutions. Cities by and large exist at the pleasure of their state governments, which are dominated by rural interests, or more recently, by the affluent suburbs. She is correct is pointing out that American cities have always been suspect. It is in the dense cities that individualist land and property rights have been attacked by collectivist demands.
ALTHOUGH SHE IS sympathetic towards most other aspects of the city's life, Norwood takes a simplistic and negative view of Paterson's political machine. She attempts to symbolize Paterson's problems in its current political struggle between the Democratic machine and its "reform" Republican Mayor Kramer. Her narrative illustrates the incompetence and even cynicism which has marked reform politics in the big cities. The election and re-election of Paterson's reform mayor is far from the affirmation of the city's spirit that Norwood wants to portray.
Kramer deals with the first test of his administration, the threat of minority riots in 1967, by staging a huge block party. "We danced those kids and we danced them until they fell over. We didn't stop until they were so exhausted they couldn't have picked up a bottle to throw to save their lives. We were holding this city together with bubble gum." In campaign jargon, this is "keeping the city quiet."
However, the mayor is unable to deal with a black sit-in in his office, a police riot and a machine-dominated Housing Commission. When the police rampage through a peaceful black neighborhood, beating people and wrecking stores, Kramer refuses to mount his own investigation, leaving the matter in the hands of the F.B.I. The reform mayor shrugs like an old regular--it is too hot an issue to touch. If the Police and Fire Board had held hearings, he explains, "One half of the city would have accused them of a whitewash and the other half of injuring the department."
About Paterson is in many ways a politically naive work: Norwood chooses to treat Kramer's 1969 re-election as a tribute to the city's spirit. "Paterson had every reason to seek an easy way out; but the city did not choose to do so," she writes. "Underneath its hates and fears and confusions, the city's fiber ran strong." But one wants to know more about where the votes came from that kept Kramer in office, and how he managed to get them to the polls.
Crippled as it is, Paterson cannot solve its own problems. Urban renewal, the blind arm of the federal bureaucracy, cannot save it--Kramer's experience with HUD, which Norwood documents, demonstrates the insensitivity of federal aid to cities. But revenue sharing, which put money in the hands of the people who have already failed to manage the city, is not the answer either. We leave Paterson in confusion, clinging, like Sam Patch, to a belief in the spirit of a city that has persevered.
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