To a certain tribe of residents known as the “Suburbanites” who live in neighborhoods with “good schools,” South Paterson is the “lower east side.”
The archetype for hardscrabble, east coast towns, typified by dicey neighborhoods, mom and pop bodegas, and abandoned brick factories.
The East Side High of North Jersey in need of some serious discipline and cleaning up. Once an epicenter of industrial revolution producing cotton, silk, trains, and iron it’s hard to imagine anything eloquent about Paterson, much less South Paterson, but there is.
The incongruities begin with its literary history. The subject of a modern epic poem William Carlos Williams called “Paterson”. Described as “Whitman’s America, grown pathetic and tragic, brutalized by inequality, disorganized by industrial chaos, and faced with annihilation. No poet has written of it with such a combination of brilliance, sympathy, and experience, with such alertness and energy.” If Paterson’s literary history was uncharacteristic, what other incongruities lurked on the South side?
South Paterson is made up of Turks, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Home to the largest Turkish-American immigrant community in the U.S. – at last count about 20,000, down from about 60,000, fifty years ago and the second largest Arab community after Dearborn, Michigan. Visit these streets on a Muslim holiday and you’re likely to see the kids who attend Prospect Park public schools hanging out, observing the festivities with their families.
And not unlike the Middle East, South Paterson’s Arab and Turkish neighborhood — bordered by Madison Avenue to the north, Crooks Avenue to the south, Hazel Street to the west, and East Railway Avenue to the east – also has an identity crisis because it is alternately called Little Arabia or Little Istanbul by outsiders. But according to frustrated locals – though you won’t know it, because that’s not a Turk’s style – one is either a Turk or an Arab, not both. Both can be of the Islamic World, religiously. Turkiye is secular, not Islamic. It is a buffer to fundamentalist Islam, but itself is neither East nor West, which defines both its problem and its blessing: its heart is in Asia (Ankara) but its face is Europe (Istanbul). As with South Paterson, it only looks Arab. Upon closer inspection of the business signs and you realize, they are not Arabic.
The contradictions keep coming, for we have crossed the great divide from West to East. Turks also read right to left. Like Greeks, they say “no” by nodding their head up and down, much like we gesture yes. And “yes” is a downward nod, which looks like the Western gesture for “no”. Once past the cultural reversals, preconceived notions, and unfamiliar language and you realize you are in the land of Oz. Not the mythical place on the hill ruled by a little man behind the curtain, but the real thing. An authentic cultural experience subtitled by genuine, warm, and open people. In Turkish “oz” means “authentic”.
The smell of something grilling lured me into a local eatery slash watering hole where a few of the neighborhood men check in to say hello, use the phone, catch a soccer game, or a smoke at “Oz Karadeniz” 1023 Main St. (973) 523-7779 where I had a succulent grilled Chicken Doner Kebab platter with bulgur wheat and pilaf, and a nice big plate of Cacik Yogurt sauce with garlic and dill. I swilled it down with pure peach soda. Best part of the meal was talking to Ahmet, the owner about the neighborhood. He explained the meaning of the handmade artifacts on his walls and introduced me to the “boss” (his wife) making delicious dips and salads along with his daughter-in-law. His grandson, Joseph doing handstands on the chair of my table was a charming little kid with big brown eyes. I thanked him profusely for his hospitality, and left feeling satisfied.
Drizzly and gray, I was about to head home when I wandered next door to the only Turkish book shop in the tri-state area called “Zinnur” at 1019 Main St. (973) 278-6662, run by Zinnur — previously seen hanging around next door at Oz – who (before I knew it) poured me a glass of Turkish tea in a delicate little tulip glass an homage from the Lalezar era of the Ottomans. Quiet and ready to listen to my questions, he and a store colleague and another guy who was just passing through, reminded me that the rest of the world still takes to stop. And. Talk. To an ethnographer reporter, a citizen diplomat who would tell the real story of Oz to the Suburbanites.
I stopped off on the way home at Taskin, the Turkish bakery where again, I was shown the famous Turkish hospitality inquiring about the Turkish flat bread called “Pide”, handmade and brick oven baked. They come topped with sesame seeds and black caraway seeds or plain for sandwiches or table bread. They took me behind the counter, showed me around while the smell of fresh baked bread intoxicated me. A poster for the Turkish-American Festival was thrust into my hands www.njturkishfestial.org . They wanted me to tell “everybody” to come. There’s a flag raising ceremony on Thursday, May 14th in front of Paterson City Hall (155 Market Street) in front of Clifton City Hall (corner of Clifton & Van Houten Aves.) and lots of parading, eating, music entertainment, singers, musicians, folk dancers, food, vendors, games, prizes & surprises. With all this culture right here in North Jersey, who needs Ninth Avenue?
Next up: The Syrians of South Paterson, NJ.
Lisa La Valle-Finan is an Intercultural trainer, writer, and the Creative Director of getGlobalized™. She’s been traveling and writing for 25 years, speaks French, Italian and Greek, and welcomes all comments and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . More information can be found on the company’s website at www.getGlobalized.org.
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