We’ve arrived at the “sixth” borough in our blog series celebrating Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. We’ve already visited Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island, and if you missed the prior posts, we encourage you to go back and read them after you’ve finished reading about New Jersey—the metaphorical “sixth” borough.
By virtue of not only its geographic location to the “nonstop metropolis” but its cultural vibrancy and contributions to music, art, poetry, and the birth of new forms and styles west of the Hudson, New Jersey has earned its place as the “sixth” borough of New York, though this moniker has been used to describe any number of places that have a special connection to the city (looking at you, Philadelphia).
We’re going to explore New Jersey’s cultural riches—but if there’s another place akin to a mythical, metaphorical “sixth” borough, please share in the comments.
New Jersey. It is the place where William Carlos Williams published his epic poem, Paterson, which would also become the primary literary output of the last twenty years of his life as it was published in five books from 1946 to 1958. It is a poem that celebrates the city as place of endless possibilities, and which, in the prefatory notes, William explains:
“. . . a man himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody—if imaginatively conceived—any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions.”
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was also raised in Paterson—with Williams as both his pediatrician and his mentor. With the publication of Howl and Other Poems and an obscenity trial that followed, Ginsberg gained notoriety and public attention. An outcry of rage and despair against a destructive, abusive society, Howl is a long-line poem written in the tradition of Walt Whitman:
And on that note—Walt Whitman, America’s great “poet of democracy,” also resided in New Jersey, in Camden, until his death in 1892. In addition to democracy, his poetry celebrated nature, love, and friendship and affirmed his limitless curiosity.
“For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme! For you, for you I am trilling these songs.”—Walt Whitman, from For You O Democracy
New Jersey has nurtured its musicians as much as it has its writers and poets. A bit south of Paterson, in Passaic, in 1957 four teenage girls formed the seminal girl group The Shirelles. Their hit “Will You Still Love Me” is the consummate piece of early ‘60s pop—full of poppy melodies that capture the essence of the time.
And further south, in Deptford Township, a tall, gangly, shy child grew up to become a pioneer of New York’s punk scene: Patti Smith.
New Jersey is a place where some of the greatest artists of all time called home. The sprawl and fullness of the state’s cultural vibrancy is captured and celebrated in greater detail in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas with the map “The Suburban Theory of the Avant-Garde” which celebrates New Jersey’s greats and praises the music, art, and poetry of the “sixth” borough.