Note: this is a revised and expanded version of a post that was previously published on this website. I haven't spent significant time in Camden for several years; here's hoping that things have changed for the better.
I read an essay by Guy Davenport not too long ago, focusing on the rediscovery of the archaic in modern poetry and art, and implicating the modern city as a symptom of cultural amnesia and loss -- but notably for my purposes here -- gainsaying our collective experience of place. The essay appeared in the Georgia Review in the Fall of 1974, and is titled "The Symbol of the Archaic". I want to provide a brief excerpt from that essay followed by the text of a piece I wrote some months ago, which examined the possible relationship between the New Jersey cities of Paterson and Camden. I'm lifting the following passage from Davenport's essay, and in the process may be confusing his argument -- I may return to his essay at some point to reconsider. Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from Davenport that struck me as relevant to my interests here:
The unit of civilization is the city. The classical ages knew this so well that they scarcely alluded to it intellectually. Emotionally it was a fact which they honored with rites and a full regalia of symbols. The city appeared on their coins as a goddess crowned with battlements. She was the old grain goddess Cybele-Demeter, and it is clear that ancient men thought of the city as a culmination of a process that began among the cityless hunters who learned to pen cattle and live in the enclosure with them, who developed agriculture (the goddess's second gift, after the bounty of the animals) and made the city a focus of farms and roads.
About the time the Romantic poets were being most eloquent about ruined cities, the city itself was undergoing a profound change. The railroad was about to cancel the identity of each city, making them all into ports of trade, into warehouses, and markets. Eliot's Waste Land, Joyce's Ulysses, Pound's Cantos, Bëly's Petersburg, all epics of the city, appear at the same time as the automobile, the machine that stole the city's rationale for being and made us all gypsies and barbarians camping in the ruins of the one unit of civilization which man has thus far evolved.
The city lasted from Jericho, Harappa, and Catal Hüyük to its ruin in Paterson, New Jersey (as one poet specified), from Troy to Dublin: Joyce's long chord. Pound in the Cantos makes another chord of meaning with the beginning and end of Venice, Europe's first outpost against the barbarians. (Georgia Review, Winter 1974, Vol. 28 No. 4, pp. 645-6; accessed online at https://www.jstor.org/stable/41397160).
Keep in mind that the period invoked by Davenport opened in the wake of World War II (Williams' Paterson was published in parts between 1946 and 1958) and had witnessed the rise of Fascism and Totalitarianism in Europe, arising from developments further back, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I believe that this history forms the background for Davenport's argument. But my intention here is nevertheless to suggest that place, perhaps especially as defined in connection with urban environments, continues to resonate and matter to the making of meaning within human communities-- though given the geomantic implications here I might suggest that space, rather than "place" per se, may matter more. Davenport has a point in suggesting that with the advent of the automobile, the city became an occluded locale, somewhat alienated from human experience, but the image he conjures of people morphing into "gypsies and barbarians camping in the ruins of the one unit of civilization which man has thus far evolved", overreaches. Davenport's railroad, and later, the automobile, may stand in for the depredations of Industrial Capitalism more generally. But my experience of cities and of human communities more generally has been quite different. Human capacity is dauntless; people do not simply succumb. In my view, the city has retained its significance as a locus of meaningful human experience and identity.
I'll offer a closer look at Williams' Paterson at some other time. For the moment, here are some thoughts on Paterson – and Camden – spun on a thread of personal reflections.
I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, and have always felt I'd lived a charmed life there. Although I moved away with my family before entering high school, I continued to visit my grandmother, who had stayed on, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins, who'd stayed on even if temporarily, relocating, family by family, from the city to the suburbs. But for me, that pattern of returning to Paterson has been a force that's remained. When I had the opportunity to attend college in Paterson, I seized it. Seton Hall University operated a branch there in the 1960s (now long gone). And it turned out that the Paterson branch was enormously interesting because it drew professors not only from the ranks of the main campus in South Orange – including highly-educated Jesuits – while also tapping newly-minted PhDs from Columbia University (Paterson and New York are only about 15 miles apart) who were hip to all the recent and emerging intellectual trends. So although Seton Hall Paterson may not have been an especially prestigious place to go to college, put on your resume, or evolve a professional network, that education was profoundly important to me. It fed my intellectual curiosity and led me into areas of reading and research that have stayed with me these many years since.
Growing up in Paterson was important for other reasons too. We lived in a diverse neighborhood – working class for the most part – comprising whites (Irish, Jews, Italians, Germans, and English) as well as African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Syrians (mainly from Aleppo), Lebanese, and Jordanians, among others). The latter group has continued to grow, supplemented by more recent immigration from Turkey and Palestine. (At this point Paterson may boast the largest population of Turks in the United States.) There's also a sizeable Peruvian population there (some refer to Paterson as "Little Lima") which was well-established by the time I did fieldwork in the city in the 1990s.
Paterson's proximity to New York was also a factor. I routinely went into the city from a very young age, at first with my parents, especially my father, and later got there on my own. In the early days, I went mostly down to the area around the south side piers, and the West Village, but by the time I got to college, I shifted my focus mainly to the East Village, to hear music at the Fillmore East, and to the great museums farther north on the island – the Met, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, MOMA, and the American Museum of Natural History. And of course, there was The Cloisters, that magnificent collection of medieval art and artifacts located far uptown, on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River.
Given the Columbia PhDs and the Jesuits who instructed me at Seton Hall, and having had access to the great cultural institutions of New York City, and having grown up in a culturally diverse neighborhood, I feel that I've been fortunate. My identity as a writer, especially as a poet, was awakened by the towering muses of William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg -- two widely admired Paterson poets. Allen's father Louis was also a poet, who regularly published his poems in the Paterson News. I read Louis Ginsburg's poems as a boy and aspired to publish my poems in that same newspaper. All of this contributed not only to my self-identification as a poet, but also to my abiding feelings for the city.
When some years ago I worked in Paterson on a project for the American Folklife Center (Working in Paterson; https://www.loc.gov/collections/working-in-paterson/about-this-collection/), I had the opportunity to meet with Paterson mayor Bill Pascrell, who has since gone on to Washington to serve in Congress. When we met in his mayor's office that day, the first thing he asked me, knowing that I like he am a Paterson native, was, "What is it about Paterson that makes it so special?" At first, I could only marvel that he shared my feelings for the city. But I recovered and tried to answer (rather ineffectively, I might add, and we both agreed that we hadn't decided anything). Anyway, Mayor Pascrell just shook his head, I shrugged my shoulders, and we got on with the business at hand.
I've thought about that conversation quite a bit since that meeting, and more recently have come to some conclusions -- emotional and personal, not rational -- and probably not conducive to argument or debate. But here's my thought. First, Paterson is a relatively small place – it's about two miles in any direction from the geographic center of the city. Second, it's geographically defined by the Passaic River, which flows west to east to form an arching, dancing dome over the city. From a geomantic perspective, I believe that would mark Paterson as a propitious and potentially sacred space. And finally, the Passaic Falls – the second-highest falls east of the Mississippi. Those falls would inspire Alexander Hamilton to establish the Society for Useful Manufactures (SUM) at Paterson in 1794; Paterson would be the place where the Industrial Revolution was jumpstarted in this country. Contra Davenport, not the railroad, nor any other development would "cancel" Paterson's identity; the Falls would preserve -- and enhance it.
I mention the Falls for their historical importance, and their symbolic dimension as well. The Falls are a powerful presence, centrally located within a relatively small geopolitical space. And it seems they're part of everyday consciousness; it's as though everyone in the city can "hear" or otherwise perceive them at a deeply sensory level, much or all of the time. That, along with the shaping activity of the Passaic River, evokes a profound feeling of belonging, of deeply embedded shared experience. Paterson has had its problems – poverty, crime, lack of opportunity for many residents – but I've never spoken with anyone who lives or has lived in the city who hasn't felt that there's a significant though indefinable quality about Paterson.
Now it happens that I had a significant experience that led me to this, far away and at some distance from Paterson. After moving back to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in 2003, I determined to develop project work in the Delaware Valley, rather than travel distantly to do fieldwork. I'd still travel, but I wanted to develop local connections, dig in more deeply, and have the opportunity to follow up. That opportunity materialized in Camden, just across the river from Philadelphia.
At the time, according to statistics, Camden had the highest crime rate in the country. It was plagued by poverty, and as I came to believe, by corruption in city hall. Money had been pouring into the city, but with scant if any visible results in the neighborhoods. I developed contract work with a local arts organization and began going over the river and into Camden regularly. I didn't own a car, so I took the PATCO train into Camden and walked from the station into the neighborhoods. Although the city was regarded as a dangerous place I didn't know how else to do my work. But as I've learned over the years, people everywhere love, work, raise kids, gather, party, and so on, even in the so-called dangerous places. Life went on in the Camden neighborhoods pretty much as it did in other, more fortunate places.
But I want to say that when I first stepped foot in the neighborhood known as North Camden, I was overtaken by a feeling very much like the feeling I had in Paterson! It may have had to do with the streets, or the houses, or the people. I didn't know. But when I rode on the bus through the city, as I did on occasion, observing Camden from that perspective, I realized that Camden doesn't look anything like Paterson. Or at least, there wasn't any obvious comparison. So then what was it?
I've always loved looking at maps, and still use them extensively. And of course, doing fieldwork in the days before GIS I depended on published paper maps and atlases to navigate to places and find my way around once there. I also used maps to plot any more significant social, cultural, or geographical features I'd identified during fieldwork, and if possible identify and study any emerging patterns that could be meaningful. So when I first looked at a map of Camden, I was surprised to find that like Paterson, it had been shaped by the protective dome of a river – or in this case, two rivers. At Camden, the Delaware River flows along the western boundary of the city and rises over the top of the city, where it meets the Cooper River flowing in from the south and east. To the south, there's Newton Creek, which feeds the Delaware and jabs east towards the center of the city, to form a watery southern boundary. (I've been told that Newton Creek has silted up quite a bit over time and that many years ago it joined the Cooper River, forming a defining circle around the city, forming an insular space.
In Camden, too, I recognized that same feeling of uniquity I'd personally felt in Paterson. In Paterson, however, I hadn't associated that feeling with the river dome, until I had that experience in Camden; until I'd noticed that the geography, and the riverine setting, were fundamentally the same in both places.
So that's it! My understanding of why Paterson is such a special place -- why the felt experience of living in Paterson inspires an authentic feeling of uniquity, irrespective of whatever civilizing process may have been at work to radically transform our cities, and empty them of meaning.
I want to close with a postscript on poetry, reemphasizing the references in the preceding text. These two cities -- these places -- have engendered a significant and enduring body of poetry during the past two centuries. Two poets, in particular, come first to mind: Walt Whitman in Camden, whose Leaves of Grass revolutionized verse form -- and content -- in the second half of the 19th century, and William Carlos Williams, whose verse epic, appropriately titled Paterson (alluded to by Davenport), written almost exactly one hundred years after Leaves of Grass, was and remains a key modernist text. There were other significant poets in both places too – Allen Ginsberg, a native of Paterson (whose father Louis was also a poet), and the great American haiku poet Nick Virgilio in Camden (Virgilio died in 1989). Ginsberg's Howl, a signature work of the Beat movement, is another foundational 20th-century text. Virglio's output and his impact in and around Camden and neighboring Philadelphia was large, with what is perhaps his most famous poem, reflecting the Japanese roots of haiku:
out of the water …
out of itself.
Photo by J. Kyle Keener