Paterzen: The Paterson Free Public Library

“He [Cody] decided to start reading books in the library so he would never be a bum, no matter what he worked at to make a living, which was the decision of a great idealist.” i

The Paterson Free Public Library, also called the Danforth Memorial Library, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1905 and designed by the architect Henry Bacon—the same architect of the Lincoln Memorial; this was Allen Ginsberg’s hometown library. Paterson was founded by Alexander Hamilton as the country’s first planned industrial city on the banks of the Passaic River shortly after the American Revolution. The Great Falls of the Passaic provided energy to industry, such as silk mills, (“. . . paterson williams the carlos poet, so carlos he makes a shroud out of a mill . . .” ii). The present-day library is more than a place for reading and computer use, it is a community center, a community shelter—busy with local residents, many in need of a warm place on a cold morning.Paterson Public Library staircase
The reference department (local history, author collection, and reference material) holds books on Ginsberg as author and subject (some are non-circulating, others are found in the nonfiction section), and librarians are eager to help. I was given a folder with old newspaper articles, local boy makes good—pages yellow with age. Curiosity prompted my visit, to glean something of young Allen’s hometown, and perhaps gather a bit of local history and color. After all, Paterson is a source of material for two original and highly successful American poets: William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg.
My mission at the library was in search of Ginsberg, but a staff member introduced me to a slim book House Calls with William Carlos Williams, MD by Richard Coles. Thomas Roma’s black-and-white photos provide a vivid look at life in Paterson, a window onto Ginsberg. (Find the book on WorldCat Library.)
A main marble staircase and old oil paintings of the Great Falls grace the library’s interior. It was apparently an impressive and relatively new edifice when Ginsberg was a boy. However, its glory days are gone and the building seems in need of resources an ailing city library would need, additional space and renovations and modernization. A security guard occupies the main entrance. When I called to make an appointment with the reference department, I was specifically told to park in the lot. “It’s safer there.” Paterson has a high violent crime rate.
In jest, Allen once thought—as one might about one’s hometown—in Paterson, “they don’t know nuttin’ about nuttin,’” iii (locals and local politicos might like to respond to that), however, most patrons going into and out of the library recognized me as a stranger and extended a neighborly “good morning.” I caught a vibe in Paterzen, Pater’s zen, in downtown, heavily populated P-town this morning, in “blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning” iv at the first public library in “nowhere Zen New Jersey,” v and Allen would have dug it, too, and being the world citizen and accomplished idealist and shaker and mover he was, maybe he—a man of letters and the academy—would have found a way to boost his old hometown library.

i Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Cody. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). p. 56.
ii Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Cody. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). p. 292.
iii Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012). p. 133.
iv Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl” from Collected Poems 1947-1980. (New York: HarperPerennial, 2001).
v Ibid.

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Author: GK Stritch

GK Stritch is a contributor to Beatdom and the author of CBGB Was My High School. The book is available at the St. Mark's Bookshop, New York City, and amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

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