How do I tell an accurate story about places that are embedded in my subjectivity? On the surface it’s a food story because that’s nearly all I know, but it’s also a personal story rooted in the memory of my agitated youth. Decades of experience and reflections have sharpened its edges. Clouds of data have settled like stardust across the plain of my consciousness giving objectivity a stronger foothold. Yet the affluent suburb of Ridgewood, New Jersey, my hometown, and its rough and ready neighboring city, Paterson, occupy a large compartment of my soul where the two places remain divided by a concrete Jersey barrier.
The story begins in the 1950s with two buses—one is brown and the other is yellow. The brown one carried businessmen from Ridgewood to the New York City Port Authority Bus Terminal where they would fan out across midtown to their respective corporate office buildings. The yellow bus transported women from Paterson—about seven miles away—to my town’s tony neighborhoods where they would make their way to the private homes of residents to clean, cook, and care for their children. My house was one of them. The women were known as “cleaning ladies,” they were Black, and my siblings and me called them by their first names even though they were often older than our mother.
Both buses motored up and down Monroe Street, the same route I used to walk or bike to school. Late in the afternoon as I made my way home, the brown bus would sometimes pass the yellow bus as each was returning riders to their respective homes. Occasionally, I noticed the Black women turn their heads to look at the white men whose faces were buried in their evening newspaper. I wondered what these women thought, what Paterson was like, and who, if anyone, cared for them. I knew about the white men. One of them was my father and others were fathers of my friends. The cleaning ladies, who we politely referred to as Negroes, or sometimes “colored,” only traveled 15 minutes by bus, but for a 10-year-old Ridgewood boy, Paterson was as remote and mysterious as Mars.
When you don’t know stuff, you tend to make it up, and what we made up about a place as dark and distant as Paterson was often fueled by racism and white privilege. In that sense, the things you don’t know, or know incorrectly, also become the source of your fear. We saw Paterson as Black, dangerous, and poor. It was the place you did not take your date on Saturday night. It was where Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a contender for the middleweight boxing crown, was falsely accused of murder in 1966, convicted, imprisoned, later spotlighted by Bob Dylan, and not released until 1985. It was the site of civil disturbances in 1968 following Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. It was a place where police corruption and incompetence exceeded even New Jersey’s legendary standards of skullduggery. (And it is, unfortunately, still such a place: the New Jersey attorney general took control of the Paterson police department this March, due to its inability to manage itself, including police killings of Black men).
In an effort to gain some clarity over these dissembling memories, I embarked on a modest pilgrimage to Ridgewood and Paterson to look at each place afresh, and as I am wont to do, I did it through a food lens. Food gives me a place to pivot from, a solid and necessary footing from where I can interpret a city’s broader social and economic dimensions, perhaps ones that would afford me more accurate views into my discontent. But the food lens was not just a vocational choice, it was also because the region’s poetic godfather, William Carlos Williams and his epic 20th century poem “Paterson” admonished, “Say it! No ideas but in things.” To capture the truth, in other words, I had to let my ideas grow out of the reality and immediacy of people, their deeds, and nature. Those are the things that matter, and I can think of no better thing than food.
To begin, a community’s food system has much to do with its social and economic conditions, and since numbers are also things, or at least representative of other things, here’s an abbreviated side-by-side comparison of Ridgewood and Paterson (all figures are for 2021).
|Median Household Income ($)||194,256||48,450|
|Persons without health ins. (%)||2.9||20.9|
|Average life expectancy (years)||86||74|
|Poverty rate (%)||2.6||25.1|
|Bachelor’s degree or higher (%)||78.3||12.5|
|Black or African American (%)||1.2||24.7|
|Hispanic or Latino (%)||8.7||62.6|
These are the things that tell a tale of two cities. Ridgewood and Paterson are geographically close, but the socioeconomic differences are achingly far apart. To place Paterson in a larger metro New York context, Mary Celis, president and CEO of the Passaic County United Way put it this way, “Paterson is only nineteen miles from Wall Street.”
Imbalances like these translate into long-term consequences for children. Take education, for instance. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars of investment by New Jersey over the past two decades, Paterson Public Schools—which educate nearly 25,000 students in more than 40 school buildings, 17 of which are over 100 years old—remain in desperate need of new facilities and extensive repairs (northjersey.com). Without the tax-base to adequately support its physical infrastructure, to say nothing of ongoing operations, the Paterson school system must rely on mostly inadequate aid from the State of New Jersey whose often unsympathetic suburban state legislators look askance at urban needs.
…poor, the invisible, thrashing, breeding, debased city
“Paterson” by William Carlos Williams
Never could such conditions be imagined for Ridgewood schools. My parents deliberately moved there in the early 1950s because even then the schools had a reputation for being among the finest in the state. Later, new residents would mortgage themselves to the hilt for the privilege of settling themselves anywhere within the village’s boundaries so that their little Marks and Susies could one day claim a diploma from Ridgewood High School. Of course, the property taxes required to maintain an exceptional educational standard would suck the marrow from your bones. A classmate of mine and former mayor of Ridgewood is reputed to have said that residents will never flinch from raising taxes in order to support the schools—that, effectively, the sky’s the limit. So steep is the “membership dues” that, as the tale goes, the lawn signs congratulating Mark and Susie for graduating from Ridgewood High in June are soon replaced by for-sale signs in July.
Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
Its spent water forming the outline of his back…
[T]he river comes pouring in above the city
And crashes from the edge of the gorge
In a recoil of spray and rainbow mists…
Given that Paterson was envisioned by Alexander Hamilton in 1792 as America’s first industrial center, there is more than a little irony in the city’s struggling financial condition today. Building off the Passaic River and its Great Falls potential for energy generation, a system of channels was constructed to power textile mills and later the manufacturing of locomotives and airplane engines. Hamilton led the founding of the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.), New Jersey’s first corporation, to oversee what became a juggernaut of creation, technology, and industrial output.
When the demand for all that productive might declined after World War II, so did the surrounding economy. Today, the Great Falls, a still functioning hydroelectric plant, and the Paterson Museum are joined loosely around the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park which is now part of the National Park System. Nearby, you will find recently revitalized Hinchliffe Field, one of only two remaining Negro League baseball stadiums in the country. It stands as a testament to the national shame of segregation and the resilience of Black athletes. The reactivated stadium is also accompanied by the construction of 75 units of affordable senior housing, both projects instigated by Paterson’s Mayor Andre Sayegh.
As with similar efforts I’ve seen in other cities where a well-intentioned economic comeback is underway, the focus is often on burnishing one gem while ignoring the setting. The Falls and the adjoining viewing areas created by the Park Service are one of the more spectacular natural sites in the mid-Atlantic region. And if you take the time to absorb the totality of U.S. history compressed into this one small area, most people would not fail to be impressed. Unfortunately, the surrounding neighborhoods are in disrepair and probably on some city list for renovation. The signage, roadways, and parking in and around the historic site will leave the visitor hopelessly bewildered (I swear, Siri told me, “Sorry pal, I’m lost. You’re on your own!”). The general maintenance and appearance of the area are such that you could imagine the Paterson Sanitation Department, some private museum board of directors, and the Park Service arguing over whose job it is to pick up the trash, fix the broken fences, or provide a minimum of landscape services. On the day I visited, the main roadway into the historic area was closed while emergency construction crews repaired an aging street that appeared to retain vestiges of Hamilton’s wagon ruts.
In spite of all this, it’s worth a visit!
Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that food has become both an opportunity and a challenge. Andre Sayegh—the city’s youthful and visionary second term mayor—is using food as a part of the city’s comeback plan. I was admittedly delighted to see Paterson’s home page tagline read “Great Falls, Great Food, Great Future!” No argument from me about the Falls; the city’s multi-ethnic restaurant scene (there are 72 nationalities represented among city residents) may one day put Paterson on some kind of regional food map; as to the future, well, time will tell.
Consistent with his aspirations, the mayor, a lifelong resident of Paterson with a Jimmie Fallon-like personality, did a video of a five-restaurant food crawl with northjersey.com’s food editor, Esther Davidowitz (Palestinian restaurants in Paterson: Our food crawl to 5 in 5 blocks (northjersey.com). Together, they noshed their way down Palestinian Way, an honorary street name selected to recognize the city’s Palestinian population, the second largest in the U.S. To call the blocks along Palestinian Way a food Mecca is more than an obvious pun—the large number of halal food outlets and mosques speak to the depth and diversity of Paterson’s Arab community—it is also a rich and rewarding cultural immersion.
Having had lunch at Al-Basha, one of the restaurants on their crawl, I can attest to how delicious the cuisine is. In their video, Sayegh and Davidowitz sampled hummus, compared the restaurants various baba ganoush dishes, waxed enthusiastic over an okra and meat creation served over rice, and had a cute argument about the correct shape of falafels. What stood out for me about the piece were two things: that a city mayor would celebrate his community’s cuisine with so much articulate gusto, and that one of the region’s major media outlets would raise up restaurants in a tattered city that would not be a dining-out destination by its generally prosperous viewers (the broadcast’s opening line captured that ambivalence: “Been to Paterson lately? Ever?”). In a not-unrelated note, Mayor Sayegh also understands the connection between calories in and calories out. One of his quality-of-life initiatives is to have active outdoor recreation space no more than a half-mile from any residential dwelling—no small task in a city as densely built as Paterson.
But the big food challenge is not where to eat out, it’s food insecurity—affordability, access, and dietary health. Paterson has a large low-income population, virtually nothing of economic substance to anchor its tax base, and not enough financial fuel to rev up its economic growth engines. Capturing as much economic benefit from food—normal household consumption, restaurants, and various food chain activities—is an obvious default position for a resource-poor place. But until the time when a rising economy can lift all ships, people must be fed, and to do that well in Paterson requires a steep climb up a mountain of food injustices.
In 2021, the New Jersey Department of Economic Development conducted a statewide food desert and access study. Using the USDA standard definitions, the study identified 50 areas around the state—urban, suburban, and rural—as food deserts and then ranked them as to their comparative “desertification.” Paterson’s southside was the number 13th worse while its northside came in number 15 Food-Desert-Communities-Designation-Final-2-9-22.pdf (njeda.gov).
The ironic accompaniment to a food desert is a food swamp—an oversaturation of fast-food places and low-nutritious food outlets of which Paterson is awash. Filling in the food landscape, and in response to high levels of food insecurity, Paterson is also home to five large food pantries, each receiving over $500,000 a year through Emergency and Shelter funding, according to Mary Celis of United Way of Passaic County, which sponsors the Passaic County Food Policy Council Passaic County Food Policy Council | United Way of Passaic County (unitedwaypassaic.org).
Food studies like New Jersey’s and the tabulations of a city’s other food outlets can tell you a lot about a food environment, but they don’t reflect how people living in those places cope with a multitude of realities that an anti-poor marketplace imposes on them. To get a better sense of that, I had lunch with Mary and six of her Food Policy Council members at Al-Basha’s.
Clearly, themes of underinvestment/disinvestment and their impacts on Paterson’s food system were strongly shared by everyone. “Good food is not available in Paterson,” was the conclusion reached by Deacon Willie Davis, one of the city’s leading urban agriculturalists. This was echoed by others including Kimmeshia Rogers-Jones, a social worker and long-time community activist who sees the small grocery stores that remain in the city and those just beyond its borders as predators who take advantage of Paterson’s BIPOC community. “They know we’re coming because we have no choice, which is why they have low-quality food. Go to a Shop-Rite [a regional supermarket chain] in Fair Lawn, Wayne, or Paramus [higher income, nearby towns] and the quality is much more improved.” She also expressed her frustration with local food insecurity: “It’s mind-boggling to be in a rich country when we have so many hungry people in Paterson.”
Shana Manradge, a food entrepreneur and founder of A Better Market, said, “We [BIPOC residents] go to places where bad food is because ‘they’ know we’ll buy it! What’s affordable to us is not healthy and causes diseases—that’s the inequity!” The relation between the low quality of available and affordable food, and what’s healthy was underscored by Darryl Jackson, a teacher and political activist. A number of years ago, Darryl adopted veganism as his primary diet in reaction to the unhealthy food that filled his neighborhood. “I realized how addicted I had become to the sugars and salt around me. I realized how my body was affected by the food available in my community.” While he likes to make it clear he’s “not militant” about his choice to be vegan—“I’ll eat whatever in the company of others”—he feels passionately that there’s a strong relationship between Paterson’s low-quality food, the residents’ health, and their low levels of activism. “Not enough people act against these injustices because their food undermines their vitality [including] not knowing how to grow their food.”
The more macro aggressions of society’s injustices were also highlighted. Steve Kehayes from Habitat for Humanity reiterated that “access to safe and affordable food and housing are human rights,” ones that the group felt were not fulfilled in Paterson. Lisa Martin from City Green, a statewide gardening organization, pointed out that there’s a need for a living wage to be paid to everyone. As the leader of the Passaic County United Way, Mary Celis confronts the depth and breadth of the region’s inequalities and their consequences every day. She bemoaned the absence of fair tax policies that would progressively tax and equitably distribute wealth and income. “The nation’s COVID allotments and waivers ended which reduced the expanded Child Tax Credit and SNAP benefits and is impacting access to Medicaid. These policy changes are having adverse effects on people in Passaic County, and they are issues that the Food Policy Council cares dearly about,” she said.
Beauty is a defiance of authority. “Paterson”
Much to my surprise, the subject of nature’s beauty came up as something that was lacking in Paterson. Maybe it was because I grew up under the canopy of Ridgewood’s well-tended shade trees and walked through dappled light my whole young life that I took nature’s soothing and salutary effects for granted. To lie in the grass and gaze up at the leafy majesty of my lot’s massive oaks was a gift I naturally assumed was available to all. I guess that’s why I was a little shocked when Kimmeshia said, “Beauty isn’t just a suburban thing. We should have it here too! We need more gardens like Deacon Davis’s in the 4th Ward. It’s so beautiful!” Lisa Martin added with just a hint of irony, “After all, this is the Garden State!”
And in that spirit, knowing that waiting for an under-resourced city to intervene was like waiting for Godot, these citizens are cooking up their own solutions. I made my way on a cool day in late April to the Green Acre Community Garden at 12th and Rosa Parks Avenue. That’s where I found Deacon Davis presiding over an outdoor “chapel” of raised vegetable beds, a greenhouse, and an array of fruit trees that he’s been developing and tending since 2014. Lettuce, early collards, and onions were poking their heads above the soil and soon would be joined by a steady flow of fresh, summer vegetables. At the age of 72, Deacon Davis is as fit as spring fiddlehead. He works circles around those who are half his age so that he and his volunteers can give away thousands of pounds of fresh produce to the people of the 4th Ward. “My agenda is for the people, not for profit,” he said.
The garden, which is one of the more attractive urban gardens I’ve seen anywhere, has numerous partners including Habitat for Humanity, City Green, and the United Way. But clearly it is Deacon Davis’s diligent and nurturing presence which bathes a harsh, urban environment with beauty. He comes from a family of Black North Carolina sharecroppers who taught him how to farm, but like millions of other Black farmers, was victimized by that brutal and racist form of agriculture. “I grew up in a house with no running water or electricity,” he tells me. “One night before I went to sleep, I placed a bucket of water next to my bed. When I woke that morning, it was frozen.” Emerging from these circumstances remarkably un-embittered, he said “I also learned a lot of patience.” As I stood with him and Mary Celis taking in the abundance of his horticultural achievements, a steady stream of residents walked by calling out, “Hi, Deacon Davis,” and “How are you, Deacon Davis!” Clearly, the Deacon is a beacon.
Shana Manradge is another member of the food policy council who’s taking matters into her own hands. Frustrated by the distance she must drive from her home to buy healthy food, she decided to go into the retail food business in a most unusual way. When she swings her garage door open in the driveway of her modest house, you’ll find grocery shelves and refrigerators filled with food instead of a Subaru. Packed with produce and chicken from Black-owned farms in South Jersey (K&J Organic Farm and Smith Poultry) and a variety of nonperishable food items from local food entrepreneurs, Shana started “A Better Market,” which currently serves 60 households a week at prices that beat those of area supermarket chains (Home | A BETTER MARKET). One of Shana’s specialties is a bag that contains $40 of fresh produce that she sells for $25. “People in Paterson have to go too far to find real food. I want to make it available right here!”
While Shana pays herself a small salary, it doesn’t cover the many hours required to pick up food, run the store, advertise, and conduct endless rounds of outreach. For all of these tasks she taps into a full reservoir of willing volunteers including a high school student who produces a weekly flyer, Deacon Davis who rounded up a free refrigerator unit, and countless friends and church members who lift crates, sort produce, and price goods. Her midterm goal is to find an affordable brick and mortar store so she can reach more people and also accept food stamps, a physical facility being a USDA requirement for SNAP certification.
The State of New Jersey is not indifferent to the injustices that befall places like Paterson. When compared to surrounding, mostly white suburbs like Ridgewood, Paterson exists under a system of food apartheid. In an attempt to rectify that condition, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority has committed $40 million to invest in the state’s food desert communities. Mary Celis and her team put together a proposal for a portion of those funds for a Paterson project. (Just as this blog went to press, they received word that they will be awarded a $125,000 grant from the state that “will be used to develop a feasibility study for a supermarket, food retailer, or farmers market to be located within a mixed-use development site in Paterson.”)
Paterson’s problems are complex and deep, and the wealth and income gaps in North Jersey are wide and frustrating, especially when you see the region’s islands of intense poverty surrounded by one of the heaviest concentrations of financial power in the world. People like Deacon Davis and Shana Manradge bootstrap their way from one bushel of produce to the next; the United Way dutifully assembles one funding proposal after another to secure money for badly needed projects; Mayor Sayegh cobbles together $100 million to renovate a former Negro League ballpark to restore some of the city’s glory days. This is how it’s done in crumbling places like Paterson—a combination of local heroes, persistent social service organizations, imperfect and at times ambivalent state governments, and an earnest elected official or two keep the boat afloat, but their efforts alone are never enough to beach it firmly on the shores of prosperity.
When I asked the food activists gathered at Al-Basha what their number one priority for action would be, they responded with near unanimity: Kids! Better schools for kids, better food in the schools for kids, a garden in every school, etc. “Would you feed this food to your children? That was the question I asked the board of health,” Kimmeshia Rogers-Jones told the group, referring to the city’s overall food environment. “To me, that’s the only test that matters. I would prefer to shop in Paterson, but I can’t serve that food to my family!”
As I was wondering why people like Deacon Davis, Shana, and Mary go to such lengths to secure food and rebuild a once beautiful city, I remembered a passage from James Baldwin’s extraordinary essay, “Nobody Knows My Name.” He cites the substandard conditions of segregated Southern Black schools and their abysmal educational results. As school integration proceeded in the face of white hatred and violence, Baldwin asks if “those Negro parents who spend their days trembling for their children” place them at such risk (some days their children return home covered in the spit of their white antagonists) out of some set of ideals? No, he answers himself, “They are doing it because they want the child to receive the education which will allow him to…one day abolish the stifling environment in which they see, daily, so may children perish.”
I suspect that is why Paterson’s people do what they do. They want their children to overcome the conditions that will, if not corrected, cut decades from their lives.
(Coming soon: Part II in which a former son of Ridgewood, New Jersey, returns to his old stomping grounds to find that nothing is as he expected.)