The city of Paterson, New Jersey, paid homage to Jamaican immigrants by changing the name of a two-block portion of Vreeland Avenue to Jamaica Way in their honor. According to Derek Alderman, a geographer at East Carolina University who has studied the street-renaming trend, “Change a street name and you change the way people think about their city. It’s where ideology meets asphalt.”
The renaming ceremony was held in Paterson’s Amistad Park on September 4, 2021, as Jamaicans came out to mark the historic event. It is estimated that 25,000 Jamaicans live in Passaic County, with most of these residing in Paterson. The city’s Jamaican population is thought to be the largest of any city in New Jersey.
The guest speaker was Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumpter, and Dr. Karren Dunkley, the representative of Jamaican Diaspora NE, served as the MC at the occasion in Amistad Park, which had recently been renamed in honor of a slave revolt aboard a Spanish ship in 1939.
Dunkley later posted to social media, “It has certainly been a beautiful day for the Jamaican Diaspora here in Paterson, New Jersey! Congratulations again to the Jamaica Organization of New Jersey for their profound achievement in renaming a portion of Vreeland Avenue to Jamaica Way! THE BEST WAY! Everywhere we go, the people dem know who we are! Great job.”
Owen Eccles, president of the Passaic County Chapter of the Jamaica Organization of New Jersey, said, “It has been a long road, but we have gotten here.” He said the Patterson City Council had approved the name change of the street by vote earlier in 2021.
Audrey P. Marks, Jamaica’s ambassador to the United States offered congratulations through an emissary who delivered the message: “This is testimony of your perseverance, and good standing in the Paterson community.”
Jamaica’s Consul General to New York, Alsion Roach Wilson delivered a congratulatory speech with the theme “Stronger together” as the crowd cheered. She added, “Through our combined efforts, we will emerge from this pandemic stronger together. We are hard-working people, striving to make the world a better place.” said Jazz Clayton-Hunt, President of Jamaica Organization of New Jersey (JON-J) State Board. She continued “We are grateful to Mayor Andre Sayegh and the Paterson City Council for the visible acknowledgment they have given to the Jamaican community in Paterson by re-naming Vreeland Avenue to Jamaica Way. It was over three years in the making and I commend the President of the Passaic Chapter of JON-J Mr. Owen Eccles and the Vice President Mr. Errol Kerr who made the push for it to happen. Tenacity and determination is the “Jamaica Way” Hard work and resilience is the “Jamaica Way” Pride and community is the “Jamaica Way” And now everyone who sees the sign will know that Jamaicans are here and we are leaving these spaces we occupy better than we found them”
Also attending the event were most of the city’s council members and former Third Ward councilman and Jamaican Bill McKoy, who said, “Although I have an American passport, I will always consider myself Jamaican, McKoy said before he enumerated the accomplishments of great Jamaicans like Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, and the Jamaican athletes who won medals at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.
In addition to the speakers, the event featured live entertainment, reggae music, and Jamaican food like jerk chicken. Andre Downer offered a dance interpretation of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and Sheila Blythe, the owner of a local restaurant, was recognized for her contributions to the community.
Jamaican immigrants first came to Paterson during the 1960s, and they have reshaped the city by opening their own businesses, including restaurants and beauty parlors, working as housekeepers and health care aides, and in construction. Keith Watson, who came to the US 40 years ago and organized the first Jamaica Day festival in Paterson in 2011, said his mother came to the US for a better life with more job and educational opportunities. He noted that Jamaicans now serve and doctors, lawyers, and law enforcement officers in the city. “The Jamaican population is growing, in a positive way,” Watson added. Many Jamaicans serve in various roles in the city’s government, including current city clerk, Sonia Gordon, her deputy Jacqueline Brown-Murray, former council president, Errol Kerr, and Bill McKoy, who was on the city Board of Education for four years.
With the renaming of the street, Paterson has given Jamaicans at home and abroad a sense of pride at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment appears to be growing throughout the world. In recognizing the contributions of the Jamaican community, Paterson celebrated what is generally known about Jamaica: it is a small island with a global reach.
Photo Source: Jazz Clayton-Hunt, Tamar Newman