Paterson: A Postindustrial Portrait

The Great Falls of Paterson, New Jersey, have bowled over admirers since at least the 17th century, but perhaps none have captured their power as presciently as the Jersey-born poet William Carlos Williams. Meditating on that mystical place where the Passaic River jackknifes over basalt cliffs and crashes into a 77-foot chasm, Williams wrote in his long poem Paterson: “The past above, the future below / and the present pouring down.”

Today, the Great Falls and the eight-square-mile mill city that rose up around them offer a concentrated glimpse of postindustrial America’s plight and potential. Like many places across the nation’s rust belt, Paterson is a zone where the remnants of a once-proud past—smokestacks, flumes, textile mills, boiler houses, riverbanks, tailraces, dye works—now segue to a more communitarian future through a present-day landscape of transition and tatters. A city of surpassing cultural assets—and yet often derided by its own residents as “the last place team”—Paterson poses an instructive conundrum for designers, planners, and urban dwellers searching for a twenty-first-century meaning of place.

This series of essays explores Paterson’s paramount challenge: to connect a prized but remote industrial heritage to the fast-flowing contemporary world. Drawing on a legacy of daring innovation—embodied by the surging Great Falls and the entrepreneurs they attracted—we find in Paterson a testing ground where new forms of urban vitality, ecological renewal, and social resilience can be pioneered for the postindustrial future.

Ground zero of modern America

Among the early partisans of the Great Falls and their transformative potential was Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and agent of America’s growth as a global economic power. Surveying the Falls as a site for what was to become one of the earliest planned industrial settlements in America, Hamilton correctly saw the nation’s future in dense urban districts and immigrant-fueled prosperity, rather than in rural precincts of gentlemen farmers. In Paterson he put his radical ideas to work.

Powered by a system of raceways that tapped the Falls’ water power to drive imposing textile mills, the city was catapulted into a period of frenzied growth. By the 19th century Paterson was the largest silk producer in the world, giving it the enduring moniker “Silk City.” Attracting patent-clutching innovators and workers from around the world, Paterson’s rambling mills sent forth not only silk but sailcloth, hemp, nails, Colt revolvers, steam locomotives, aircraft engines, even submarines. Surveying this lineage of industrial might, Hamilton biographer Richard Brookhiser deemed Paterson no less than “the Bethlehem of Capitalism” and “ground zero of modern America.”

Today, visitors stepping off Paterson’s New Jersey Transit platform—a 45-minute train ride from New York City—find scarcely little hint of the historical assets or commercial brawn that drove the city’s spectacular rise. As in other industrial centers, Paterson’s economic base imploded after World War II, leaving a landscape of emptying mills and blight—bleak streetscapes, misguided urban renewal, parking lots, fast-food franchises. Contemporary Paterson is supremely “underutilized.”

But unlike Detroit or other shrinking cities with plummeting populations, Paterson has seen decades of recent population growth that ebbed in 2000, leveling off at roughly 145,000—including strong Latin American and Caribbean communities, as well as a nationally significant Muslim population. Around Paterson kitchen tables and coffee shops, you’ll hear families conversing in Bengali, Hindi, Polish, Italian, Arabic, Persian, Serbian, and Portuguese. This immigrant influx holds a critical key to Paterson’s future.

So we might say that Paterson in 2015 is ground zero for a new kind of urban reinvention, one suited for a new kind of America. Commenting on the city’s role in pioneering an industrial nation, journalist Peter Applebome observed: “It’s an urban laboratory now as then.” In this spirit, let us take a closer look at Paterson’s historic heart, and consider the role cultural agents can play in catalyzing its revival.

New life for the ghetto mills

“There is nothing in Paterson, most people will tell you, save silk mills and five-and-ten-cent stores. It is true. Yet to me it is a beautiful city in the creative sense—a place in which to stage a great novel. These mills—have you ever seen them?” So wrote Theodore Dreiser in 1916, marveling at the sprawling silk mills and locomotive works that dominated the city and imprinted Paterson’s civic identity with their distinctive, loft-like facades.

A century later, Paterson is a place residents wryly call “Ghetto Mills.” Its core is scarred by an aborted 1968 urban renewal scheme devised by urban designer Victor Gruen that sought to blast a highway through the mill district. Community cohesion is hindered by looming highway viaducts and poorly sited transportation infrastructure. While a handful of mill buildings have been reborn as market-rate condominiums, artists’ housing, studios, and offices, major properties sit vacant, notably Hinchliffe Stadium, a 10,000-seat concrete colossus built in 1932 and long home to the Negro League’s Black Yankees. According to one community survey, 65% of residents in Paterson’s central historic district are afraid to leave their home after dark.

New life in the land of the Ghetto Mills might be sought out in a tumbledown landscape that’s now part of the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, designated in 2009, and a major impetus for the city’s renewal. This 35-acre park, currently in the midst of framing its first general management plan, includes among other historic features the 7-acre Allied Textile Printing site, home to more than two dozen mill buildings, some dating to the 18th century, that grew into a massive silk dyeing and finishing complex along the Passaic River. Here lies Paterson’s greatest treasure of industrial archaeology: the ruins of the 1836 Colt Gun Mill, where some of Samuel Colt’s first revolvers were made. Ravaged by a ten-alarm fire in 1983, the area is today a tangled mess of collapsed mill fragments and nationally significant heritage.

Nurturing next-generation cultural ecologies

How to reanimate this complex site? Of the tactics in the revitalization toolkit, industrial cities around the world have tapped culture as a potent force for revival. Colonizing the types of underutilized spaces that abound in Paterson, arts collectives, museums, performance spaces, studios, media outfits, businesses, and nonprofit organizations have been shown to not only support “creative economies,” but boost neighborhood cohesion, encourage social inclusion, and spark civic life. At the same time, culture-driven growth requires a set of caveats that are critical for nurturing socially resilient places.

One straightforward model for rooting cultural life in a half-collapsed heritage site can be found in Jamestown, Virginia, a place rich with early American ruins: in this case, the archaeological remains of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. At Jamestown, an inventively constructed museum, known as the “Archaearium,” is poised on pilings atop the island’s 17th-century statehouse, allowing visitors to peer through glass floors at excavated ruins. Jointly administered by the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia, the project shows the potential of a public-private partnership to serve cultural regeneration.

Similar precedents include the Mill City Museum, built amid the ruins of the 1880 Washburn A Mill in Minneapolis, once the world’s largest flour mill. Now operated by the Minnesota Historical Society, the modern museum and educational center rises within the mill’s fire-charred shell and showcases original structural elements. And the ten-acre SteelStacks complex on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Pennsylvania demonstrates how hulking industrial ruins can become—through careful lighting, landscape design, and sensitive architectural interventions—a powerful backdrop to art and cultural programming that not only reanimate a dormant industrial landscape but use the past as a platform to draw together disparate communities.

In Paterson, the opportunity awaits to push cultural engagement efforts even further in the quest for urban revival. In this spirit, a more radical form of reuse can be seen in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, where, in an almost unthinkable transformation, a multifaceted effort to “re-design the Ruhr into the culture capital of Germany” has remade a vast region of rusting blast furnaces and ore bunkers as an emerging hub of cultural and economic vitality. Using an appealing combination of culture, nature, and leisure, a series of extraordinary heritage efforts in places like the Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park reanimated coal mines and power plants as meditative gardens, scuba diving tanks, adventure playgrounds, and exhibition spaces that today attract enthusiasts from around the world.

An equally successful offshoot of the Ruhr’s reinvention is the RuhrTriennale, a multidisciplinary international arts festival that injects vibrancy, humor, derring-do, gravitas, and youthful energy into industrial sites whose festival atmosphere is infectious. Among analogous initiatives in America, the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative’s Pop-Up City initiative has unleashed “wispy but heartfelt” interventions intended to activate shrinking cities. The project’s inaugural “Shrinkapalooza” event, featuring a double-dutch jump-rope performance, optimistically adopted shrinkage as an opportunity to infuse the public landscape with new communitarian ideals. And the Flint Public Art Project has devised a suite of public programs that inspire residents to reimagine their city and infuse its long-range planning with fresh ideas. Audacious public art and performance is well-suited to the wide-open postindustrial present.

The latter examples reflect the rise of “creative placemaking” as an arts-driven antidote to urban ills. The best of these projects link new culture initiatives deeply to local institutions. One case in point is Baltimore’s Station North district, where artists were galvanized to help revive a fragmented neighborhood that, like Paterson, has struggled to unite diverse communities around a shared vision for the future. Here, a coalition wove together monthly public art events; a widely praised street art effort, Open Walls Baltimore, that engaged local and international artists to create murals in underutilized spaces; an awards program for emerging artists; and a national symposium on cultural districts that spotlighted best practices. By smartly connecting to local communities, the project rallied economic and cultural energy while engaging longtime residents in dialogue about neighborhood transformation.

With its nascent creative community and beckoning industrial infrastructure, Paterson has repeatedly been called prime territory for arts-driven revitalization. A 2012 report from the Regional Plan Association, for example, found the city ripe for a range of art-forward efforts such as growing artist-in-residence programs at converted mill buildings, expanding the annual Paterson Art Walk, and activating Hinchliffe Stadium and the Allied Textile site with temporary installations, performances, festivals, and other events. Perhaps most important, the report called for an arts district to be established in and around the Great Falls that would foreground Paterson as an arts incubator—an effort that could be informed by other New Jersey cities that have rallied local arts scenes such as Asbury Park, Newark, and South Orange.

Now for the caveats. Places like Paterson may have a tough time translating culture into cash for residents of distressed communities. Studies have suggested that major culture and sport initiatives often dismally fail to boost economies—the Olympics being an oft-cited case in point. And other research cautions that while clusters of cultural activities can be linked to significant social benefits—such as better public health and child welfare outcomes—economic benefits are harder to come by. In an analysis of “natural” cultural districts, or places with a concentration of cultural organizations, businesses, artists, and other cultural agents, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that economic benefits like decreasing poverty and rising property values only accrued in districts that had already been buoyed by economic advantages. For struggling places like Paterson, the research suggests, nurturing diverse “cultural ecologies” with many kinds of cultural assets can better position them to catalyze new civic life.

Urban fabric for a new national park

Fortunately for Paterson, the city has a powerful partner to anchor its own cultural ecology: the National Park Service. The potential of a national park to catalyze cultural and economic regeneration should not be underestimated. Consider Pullman National Monument on Chicago’s South Side, recently designated by President Obama. Like Paterson, Pullman is considered one of America’s pioneering industrial communities, built in 1879 as a company town to manufacture George Pullman’s rail cars. An economic impact study found that after its first decade, Pullman would create more than 300 annual jobs, $15 million in annual wages, and $40 million in sustained economic output. Such figures may seem bullish, but the national park in Lowell, Massachusetts—another hotbed of early American textile innovation—draws more than 500,000 visitors annually, sustains nearly 400 jobs, and pumps $28 million into the local economy.

Tourist dollars won’t sustain any place without an ambitious civic process that puts the riches of industrial heritage in service of community life. The Ruhr’s reinvention is a classic example, built on a decade-long initiative known as the International Building Exhibition Emscher Park. This effort set out to investigate the Ruhr’s very essence: How can we build a regional planning framework for future economic development? How do we redefine a region whose heavy industry has disappeared? And how can we build a shared frame of reference for an increasingly diverse population? Such questions are crucial for places like Paterson. Only through a broad vision and dialogue will historic resources find a foothold in today’s postindustrial economy and culture.

Such a multifaceted approach would be in keeping with principles suggested by the Urban Fabric project, a research initiative led by design firm Sasaki that explored the rebirth of former textile cities such as Fall River, Massachusetts and Newark, New Jersey. Calling for more sustainable forms of industrial urbanism, the project advocates for “solutions that combine innovative partnerships, political capital, system-wide thinking, and the transformative power of design.”

There’s a precedent for radical rethinking in the land of the Ghetto Mills: “Paterson did not just manufacture; it produced articles that redefined the limits of life,” wrote Christopher Norwood in 1974. “It is impossible to think of any other city whose products cut so deeply into the texture of the United States and not only transformed its national character, but revolutionized America’s relations with the world.” It would only be fitting if the city where Alexander Hamilton launched America’s answer to the Industrial Revolution were to redefine the limits of our twenty-first-century lives.

  • Article

    June 15, 2015

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    Doggerel: The Online Magazine of Arup in the Americas

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    Cameron Blaylock