The past above, the future below
And the present pouring down
—William Carlos Williams, Paterson
In “The Darker Side of Paterson,” a four-minute YouTube video, Kevin Womble Sr. takes viewers on a tour of what he calls “the depths of hell”—the dank basement of an abandoned house in the northern New Jersey city’s notoriously violent Fourth Ward. “All I see are heroin bags, heroin bags, heroin bags everywhere,” Womble says in a gravelly baritone, panning to a feces-covered bathroom. “This is Paterson.” He leaves to show the building’s exterior—windows boarded up, the yard a miscellany of detritus. “113 Straight Street,” Womble sighs. “Beautiful site, beautiful location, terrible situation.”
On a sultry Friday afternoon in June, I found Womble setting up some tables outside a church-affiliated community center where he helps run the after-school program. A thin man of 61, he wore an army-green shirt with faux epaulets and matching pants, a woven pink fedora, and a salt-and-pepper goatee. Pointing to a chair, he told me to look around.
We were on Governor Street, around the corner from the Straight Street house and one block from Rosa Parks Boulevard—known to locals as “Death Avenue.” Across the street, a toddler played on a porch while, a few paces up the sidewalk, a dozen young men in white tees operated a thriving business, collecting cash and peddling pills and powder to a steady flow of haggard customers.
“This, 25 years ago, was a whole different thing,” Womble told me. “There was a time when Governor Street was thriving—houses, apartment buildings, stores, bars, the whole nine yards. But the economy got so bad, the cost of living got so high, the quality of living got so low, that it’s possible we’ve reached a point of no return. The vast majority of our people are just barely surviving day to day. Combine that with the corruption in the politics, and this is what you’re going to get.” He scanned the street. “This is where we are.”
Ten days after last year’s election, Mike Pence stopped by the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York City to take in Hamilton: An American Musical. At the curtain call, Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who plays Aaron Burr, the nation’s third vice president, caught Pence scurrying for the exits. “We are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us,” Dixon told his character’s successor-in-waiting, reading a statement given to him by the Hamilton producers. “We truly hope that our show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”