Historic Spaces

By Joseph Keenan

The role of the Excelsior Coffee and Spice Factory in the Underground Railroad is very interesting because of its ties to strong community abolitionism. It seems that many in Paterson at the time felt the same way Huntoon and Van Rensalier did. In addition to the factory being a production output and safe haven for slaves, it was also Huntoon’s home. The man opened his own home to save many. He also generously gifted a house to William for his wedding. Supposedly, Huntoon had some of the earliest bathroom plumbing in Paterson, and always offered the fugitives baths. They used lanterns late at night in the tower on top of the house when all was safe. This signal would indicate to the conductor that they could bring slaves safely to the factory. It is quite possible the two abolitionists also had a doctor providing medical treatment among their ranks. Dr. David Neer who bought the factory after Huntoon passed would give tours of the cellars where the slaves would stay. These men, and many other brave abolitionists throughout America risked their own lives to save many.

Though I never gave much thought to saving empty historic spaces before reading about this story, I have come to conclude that It is very important to save certain historic spaces regardless of whether or not the structure still stands. Spaces that have a deep community tie, such as an underground railroad that any community would feel a deep connection to deserve to be safe guarded and memorialized. The significance of the Huntoon and Van Rensalier monument to the people of Paterson is that it is important to put something in place of where that structure use to be. The monument can tell a story, and continue to tell it for generations, long after the people who erected it are gone. For all Americans it is important to learn and understand who we are as human beings, we are not slave holders. We may have had a part of our history that we have owned slaves, but in the end, we do not have monuments that tell the story of the continuation of slavery. We have stories of the good will of those who combated slavery in their own way, and that is who we are. When I went to see the monument, that is what I could see. The ground has three great big circles that say “Let Freedom Ring”, Huntoon and Van Rensalier did just that.




Rediscovering Lost Histories: the Huntoon-Van Rensalier Monument

by Kimberly Vasquez

The Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Monument in Paterson has the goal of inspiring racial cooperation through the journey from slavery to freedom. The way Paterson decided to keep its goal by creating a monument of the two abolitionists Josiah Huntoon and William Van Rensalier. This monument speaks out to Paterson in a way that it tells what happened in the past. The doors in the monument signify that no matter what may happen Paterson will always open the doors to those that pursue a better life.

Monuments like these are important for all Americans because they play a cultural role. Old historic sites give us a visual understanding and proof of what happened before we were born. Monuments like these give us a sense of respect for those who lived in different times and went through rough times. A historical space gives us an understanding of our lineage. Monuments give us pride from where we come from and who represented us first when we were not around. It makes us become more aware of our surroundings and teaches us to value where we come from. Monuments are symbols of what cities want to achieve.

Visiting the monument it made me realize that the negative comments that people have said about Paterson and myself, are not true. I truly did not realize that Paterson was founded by one of the Founding Fathers and also the school that I attend is part of a historic event. If only I knew this earlier, I would not have disparaged Paterson. By walking to the parking lot, I honestly can not help but think about how the runaway slaves managed to come here and how the abolitionists were able to create a haven for the slaves. By simply looking at the monument, it gives us hope for all those people who are figuring out a way to strive for freedom.


A Piece of the Puzzle: The Huntoon-Van Rensalier Monument of Paterson, NJ

by Maria Montenegro

As George Santayana once said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” it is important to pass down through generations ALL of human history. The stations and “conductors” of the Underground Railroad are crucial components of the Nations History. It is often the case that one is ashamed or deeply hardened by such history that causes it to be purposely forgotten. However, therein lies the dangers of one’s false illusion that the world is not ugly and that the long way one has come still has a long way to go. One such instance of trite perseverance to remember ALL of history, particularly that of slavery in the U.S.A, and commemorate it was that of Dolores Van Rensailer (Dee), along with Dr. Flavia Ayala and many others to preserve the legacy and history of “Huntoon’s Corner” on Bridge Street in Paterson, NJ. Dee, a direct decedent of African-American abolitionist William Van Rensailer, with the help of other historians and dedicated allies, spent many years researching old censuses, studying maps and any other piece of information she could find to validate her claim in making “Huntoon’s Corner” an historical landmark.

I believe it is important to fight for the preservation of historic spaces even if the actual building no longer exists because it is important to understand society’s history. The monument of Josiah Huntoon and William Van Rensailer is proof of such importance. The people of Paterson have a great moment in history to cherish and be proud of forever and that is a gift like no other. One such gift that I believe will fuel the people today to fight for the same rights the abolitionists risked their life to earn. The termination of the oppression that society has imposed on minorities has been a long seemingly never ending battle. However, such triumphs as Huntoon’s Corner and many others shed a speck of hope that with perseverance and bravery the powerful message of the introduction of the Declaration of Independence will one day hold true for all members of society.

Threads of Truth

by Malika Rakimi

In her poem “I Open a Box,” Maria Mazziotti Gillan creates an illusion of her childhood memories that were locked up inside of her, and she wanted to share them with everyone – especially immigrants – to help them see the light after being imprisoned behind the shadow of poverty and discrimination.  She depicts a strong visual image through the photo she found inside the box of an entire city welcoming immigrants and hosting them.  Maria is an example of a gifted immigrant who spent her lifetime living, growing up, and working in the most historic and industrial city in America.

“Sitting on a small chair, wearing overalls and shoes that must have been hand-me-downs because they are so worn the sole is coming loose.  I’m not more that 18 months old and cannot have been walking all that long,” Maria shared.

She reveals in these few lines her long path coming from Italy bearing dreams and hopes for a better future and questioned herself if it was worth to come all that way to live in Paterson.  She shared the same destiny with other immigrants who came from different countries, as well.  She is wondering if the decision her parents made would allow her to see the brightness of a beautiful day or would just draw her down into poverty.

Since Paterson was called the Silk City – a city of opportunities – it meant it was a place where anyone can fit and find their best. The diversity that Paterson had at that time opened the doors to millions of immigrants coming for different reasons.  Some came to enhance their living, others were there to escape persecution and discrimination, but they all had a common denominator which was a light that could brighten their path for a better fate.

Any reader, whether he lives in Paterson or not, can clearly see the profound image that Maria Mazziotti Gillan draws about Paterson.  She evokes the warmth of a childhood between the walls and neighborhood created by Italian immigrants.  On the other hand, Maria gives a voice to a past generation that lived a bitter reality from poverty to discrimination. Yet they were the bridge that Americans crossed to build America.  They took all of their values and materials and created a fancy carpet where they could step without hurting their feet.

“The doctor didn’t even come to the room.  He washed his hands, wiped them on one of the rough linen towels I brought from Italy, and stood in the doorway,” Maria describes.

I found it very profound that Maria used the image of rough towels that came from Italy to serve the high class people as an image of an immigrant’s life.  She reveals the sacrifice and self-denial that any immigrant offers in exchange for a new identity.

I like Maria’s poem since I felt the innocence and the honesty of the writer when sharing her sights and emotions related to her roots and childhood.  Through a single image, she gives an entire story of a city full of positive and negative sides.  I challenge any immigrant who lives or has lived in Paterson to deny the bitter reality of being outside the curved box with many hidden holes inside.

Read the poem

Un Tesoro Sin Descubrir

An interview by Mildred Naycir

Historically, Paterson has been known as a city that welcomes people from all over the world making it a rich place for immigrating families who, in return, enhance its beauty with their cultural presence.  To illustrate, Carlos Ramirez’s story presents us with the view of a former city resident who had thoroughly enjoyed his childhood in Paterson.  Carlos and his family immigrated from Colombia to the USA 20 years ago when he was only 10 years old.  As a child, Paterson’s busy life presented a drastic change for him.  He did not know the language and the culture, but he did not struggle to adjust to his new life due to Paterson’s large Hispanic population.  “The city’s large Hispanic presence made it easy to blend in,” he said.  Before him, older members of his family had come to Paterson, making his transition to the new place easier for him and his siblings.

One of the aspects that Carlos likes about Paterson are the museums he visited during his high school years, the historic places like the Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center, and the many parks where he and his family loved to go on the weekends.  “My favorite place was and is the Garret Mountain Reservation Park. It is such a beautiful place where you can enjoy nature, relax and exercise,” Carlos said.  Also, another aspect of the city that he likes is the different restaurants that welcome all cultures, especially African American, Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Latin people.

As a young adult, education plays an important role in improving the community and bringing up children in good standing.  Carlos mentions enthusiastically that “here is where I had seen a major change in the number of new academies preparing students for a bright future.” On the other hand, he reflects that crime-related issues, such as car theft, drugs and gangs still challenge the community.

Carlos considers that the strength of Paterson is the diversity of its immigrant population, their resilience and their willingness to make Paterson a safe place for generations to come.  Being proud of his Colombian roots, Carlos emphasized that Paterson has great potential due to its rich past and its undiscovered treasures  – tesoros sin descubrir. 

When thinking about his favorite memory, Carlos thinks back on the time when, as a child, he and his family visited The Great Falls during the cold days of winter.  He remembers being amazed by the freezing waterfall.

Carlos and his family had moved out of Paterson about ten years ago but even though they are no longer living in Paterson, he and his family continue visiting their relatives and enjoying Paterson’s restaurants and parks.  Ultimately, what Carlos is now looking forward to seeing in his first American hometown is for Paterson to continue to flourish and shine as the city that it was a long time ago.

In Our House Nobody Ever Said

by Aleksandra Janowska

In the poem “In Our House Nobody Ever Said” writer Maria Mazziotti Gillan states an important message to not only the citizens of Paterson but also to all immigrants living in the U.S.  Gillan wrote about her family and explained what she and her siblings liked to do.  Her brother loved to read encyclopedias and her sister loved to play baseball.  On the other hand, Gillan loved to read.  When Gillan was 17 she realized she wanted to be a poet.  She explained how no one in her family called her crazy for dreaming big, but instead, her mother saved pennies for a year to buy her a typewriter.  This is such an important message to all immigrants:  always dream big.  Even in my own experiences with family friends who emigrated from Poland, I see hesitation to dream big.  They come to America claiming they will live a better life but they stop themselves.  It is understandable to be cautious but this poem shows that someone can live in a low income city, dream big, and accomplish what they wanted.

I also feel that Gillan is being relatable with how she sees books and can hopefully inspire more people to read.  Many people who read, including myself, read to escape reality – whether it is to leave responsibilities, travel to another land, or become the main character to experience another life.  She wrote, “I, who found in books the life I wasn’t brave enough to live, who found in language the beauty that lifted me out of the constraints of my world, the cold-water tenement apartment, the coal stove, the raggedy linoleum, the light bulb hanging from a cord over the oil-cloth table.”  Gillan read to escape the hard life she was living, which I hope more people will also do.  So many teens and adults don’t read because it is too hard or takes too much time but those who do read know how spectacular reading a book is.  It’s not like we can just pack a bag and move to a land where magic is possible or fight villains and never get hurt.  But what we can do is pick up a book and simply read.

Read the poem

A City of Dreams

by Brishna Bibi

Many who have visited the city of Paterson will know that it is a city where many homeless people sit outside on the hot sidewalks with nothing but the rags on their bodies.  They will see how they have extended their arms out rattling old metal cans for everyone walking and hoping someone would drop a bit of change.  Yet for someone who lives in Paterson, they see beyond that.  Even people who constantly commute to Paterson, such as myself, will see beyond the homeless people and the friable roads and sidewalks.  For those who have immigrated here, they will see a city filled with bustling opportunities, a new life, and most importantly, the security they may not have had in their home country.  The author Maria Mazziotti Gillan would agree as well that Paterson is a city that has changed the lives of many.  She references the Herald News which called Paterson  a “gritty city” but she shows readers another side as she writes about a city filled with people of various heritages walking down the beautifully worn out city.

Reading Gillan’s poem “The Herald News Calls Paterson That Gritty City” opened my eyes particularly when she says, “I love the voice of this city, the eyes of its people, the whooshing sound of the great Falls…..” because now that I walk down Main Street to catch a bus, I hear the city talking and laughing away and I cannot help but smile.  I see the joy on the faces of families walking together to the innumerable stores and others standing outside just for the fun of it.  I see the children holding tightly onto their mother’s hands pointing and laughing at the bright lights that are displayed in front of the stores.  I see men and women standing by their own ice cream stands and waving their bells in order to attract customers.  It makes me think, how did I not see this before?

But to the many natives of Paterson, that is exactly what they see and hear.  They see Paterson as a never-ending maze filled with adventures and with these adventures come close relationships with one another.  These will be the friendships that last for generations.  Reading Gillan’s poem makes me want to grab a friend and walk down the streets Paterson to show her the hidden beauty that Paterson has to offer.

Read the poem