Many of my New York City friends find my enthusiasm for Paterson, New Jersey, a little baffling and somewhat perverse. For many years I admired the place from afar, as a literary icon, of all odd things, because of my college research on William Carlos Williams. Paterson also has a resonance with contemporary national politics: two of the September 11 hijackers, Nawaf al Hamzi and the enigmatic, mild-looking, soft-featured rural Saudi Hani Hanjour, who piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, lived in Paterson briefly.
In its crumbling melting pot isolation, virtually ignored by the rest of the country, Paterson appears to be an ongoing American experiment, but it is far from clear to the casual observer whether the experiment is working out. As in many of the less gentrified cities of the Eastern Seaboard, violent crime is endemic, but the city remains irrepressibly energetic. The city does not look like America thinks America is supposed to look, and yet it is a very American place.