Paterson, New Jersey: Where Something Is Wrong

It doesn’t seem like a week goes by without another terrorist attack taking place. The latest happened on October 31, 2017, Halloween afternoon in New York, a city already etched hard on the terrorists map. This time, an ISIS sympathiser used a rented truck to mow down cyclists and pedestrians along a cycle path in lower Manhattan.

Six were killed at the scene, two died in hospital and many others were injured. It was the worst terrorist incident in The Big Apple since 9/11 seven years ago. But this time, things were different. The perpetrator was captured alive.

Sayfullo Saipov

29-year-0ld Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov arrived in the US from Tashkent the capital of Uzbekistan some six year’s earlier in March 2010. He had gained a green card through a diversity visa program, something which allowed him permanent legal residence.

Originally, he lived in Cincinnati, Ohio where he had family, but in the summer of 2015 he left for Fort Myers, Florida before settling up the coast in Tampa.

Some point later Saipov became radicalised and moved again. At the time of the attack he was working as an Uber driver and had relocated once more, this time to New Jersey, the state where he rented thr Home Depot truck which he used as his weapon of slaughter. The place he most recently called home was Paterson.

Up until today, I’d never heard of Paterson, indeed I had to look it up to find where it was and learn something about it. The results make for grim reading.

Paterson, it turns out, is the third most populous city in New Jersey with around 145,000 inhabitants. It may not be that big a place, but perhaps more tellingly it’s also America’s second-most highly-densely populated city. Only New York City beats it to top spot. And Manhattan is just a short drive across the Hudson River from Paterson.

Generally speaking, high-density often equals poverty and inevitably high levels of immigrants. If one looks at recent terrorism in Europe, many of the perpetrators hail from just such an environment, with the poorer suburbs of Brussels and Paris being cases in point.

So it was chilling to find out that Paterson also has the second-largest Muslim population in the United States by percentage.

Paterson was founded by Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and became a city in 1851. Throughout its existence it has been a place of refuge, firstly for the Irish, Germans and Dutch, then it was the turn of Hispanics who were soon followed by those from Eastern Europe and by 1890, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants had also settled there.

Once known as the Silk City, for its dominant role in silk production during the latter half of the 19th century, this was Paterson’s most prosperous period. The fabric mills needed skilled labour which led to the city becaming a mecca for Italian weavers from the Naples region.

One of those weavers was Gaetano Bresci who found notoriety when he assassinated the king of Italy, Umberto I. Another Paterson-born assassin was Giuseppe Zangara who killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak.

As the silk industry declined, manufacturing industries took their place. One of the first to set up shop was Samuel Colt. The gun company that still bears his name began producing firearms in, yes, you guessed it, Paterson, New Jersey.

But Colt wasn’t the only famous person associated with the city. It was also the birthplace of Lou Costello, one half of the Abbott and Costello comedy duo.

Another noted Patersonian was the boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, the subject of the Dylan song Hurricane, whose triple murder conviction was later overturned.

Also born in Paterson was Bill Haast, one of America’s most renowned snake handlers. He relocated to Florida where he opened the Miami Serpentarium, which housed his collection of snakes and from where he produced snake venom. Haast claimed he built up immunity by injecting himself with a mix of 32 different snake venoms. There must be something to it. He died in 2011 from natural causes. He was 100.

In more recent times, there were a number of famous musicians including Dave Prater of Sam and Dave fame, Doobie Brothers drummer Michael Hossack, En Vogue’s Maxine Jones, Steely Dan lead guitarist Jon Herington and rapper Fetty Wap.

Over the years as the fabric mills declined other manufacturing plants sprang up in their place. During World War II, Paterson played an important part in the US aircraft engine industry. But the end of the war saw a decline in industry and since the late 60s the city has suffered high unemployment rates and ‘white flight.’

Despite the decline of Paterson’s industrial base, it still attracted immigrants — most recently those from the Arab and Muslim world — and it’s they who have been responsible for reviving the city’s economy, mainly through small businesses.

One of those, Kontos Foods was set up by Steve Kontos and his father Evripides, a Cypriot emigree, back in 1987. Today, they have 200 employees making 450,000kg of pitta and other flatbreads a week at their three factories in Paterson.

Not all immigrants however came to Paterson in search of the American dream, some like Hanj Hanjour, Nawaf Alhazmi, Salem Alhazmi, Majed Moqed, Abdulaziz Alorami and Khalid Almihdhar came to crush it.

They were among the hijackers in the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington DC and they shared a Paterson apartment in the six months prior to the attacks.

Today, Paterson continues to be a melting pot. It’s home to many Peruvians — officially around 10,000, but some claim it’s closer to 30,000. No wonder many call it Little Lima.

The city also has the largest Turkish-American immigrant community in the United States, as well as the third-largest Dominican-American community. What’s more, Paterson also has America’s largest Circassian immigrant community. Circassians are Suni Muslims originally from the Russian caucases.

But perhaps most ominously, Paterson also lays claim to having the second largest Arab-American community after Dearborn, Michigan.

Nicknamed Little Ramallah, in 2015 Paterson’s Arab American population was estimated to be around 20,000, mainly of Palestinian, Syrian or Jordanian descent. The Daily Telegraph newspaper puts that figure even higher at between 25,000-30,000.

Paterson’s Arab neighbourhood is served by the Masjid Omar Mosque, which was the subject of a widespread surveillance program by the NYPD that targeted “budding terrorist conspiracies.”

Sadly, one of its congregation managed to evade their suspicions.


Uzbekistan, Saipov’s home country, is not on the list of nations which Donald Trump has introduced automatic tighter immigration controls on.

For today’s terrorists, access to weapons is cheaper than ever. The Home Depot truck used by Saipov bore the sign “Rent me starting at $19”

Photo: Andrew Kelly


The title of this essay is derived from the Sam & Dave song When Something Is Wrong With My Baby which was first released in 1967

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