Can the Silk City Forge its Next Industrial Revolution?

New Jersey's Paterson is among the nation's oldest planned industrial cities, but it has fallen on hard times since the once-booming silk industry there declined in the latter half of the 20th century. Much of the industry in this city of 150,000 has since left, but now a geological attraction once envisioned by Alexander Hamilton as something that could be harnessed for industrial might, is fully protected, and could be channeled, this time, for its community-building potential.

Photo shows the Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey
A young Alexander Hamilton once envisioned these falls in Paterson, New Jersey, as an economic engine. Now the Great Falls National Historic Park could help to revive a struggling community.

It’s early February and by far the coldest day in an already frigid winter in the Northeast, never mind a wind chill that only the bravest Midwesterner could tolerate. But something about the bright sun and the falling mercury allows for the 77-foot Great Falls, a powerful and elegant geological oasis in these urban environs of New Jersey’s Passaic County, just 12 miles west of New York City, to appear particularly powerful: one of the few things moving with ease amid the Arctic blast.

The falls flow aggressively into the Passaic River at the foot of the New Jersey Highlands, offering a glimpse of the industrial powerhouse that was once Paterson, now one of the country’s most economically distressed cities. Nicknamed “the Silk City” because of the thriving 20th century silk industry here, Paterson was eyed by Alexander Hamilton, the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, as the spark that would ignite a new form of industrial productivity, thus adding wealth, independence, and economic security to a fledgling democratic nation.

The New Jersey Community Development Corporation (NJCDC) a Paterson-based CDC located in a rehabbed factory on the former Rogers Locomotive campus — an area that came close to being bulldozed in the 1970s for an early vision of nearby Route 19 — is looking to build upon Hamilton’s vision, and recently helped to complete a successful campaign to save the Great Falls. On March 30, President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act that protects more than 1,000 miles of scenic rivers and streams from commercial development and creates new conservation areas and national parks. The Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is now established.

While known fairly well (though not nearly well enough) in state, the Great Falls are relatively unknown out of state, despite the role they played in the nation’s industrial birth. According to the Paterson Friends of the Great Falls, the 118-acre industrial historic site is home to the largest and best example of early manufacturing mills in the United States, replete with 18th, 19th, and 20th-century waterpower remnants, including a three-tiered water raceway system that was designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the architect and civil engineer better known for overseeing the planning and development of Washington, DC. The second largest waterfall by volume east of the Mississippi, Great Falls stands at the center of this site, described as America’s first systematic attempt to develop extensive waterpower for manufacturing purposes.

Of course, manufacturing in Paterson has since left, and while there are still some prominent local businesses, Paterson, the county seat of Passaic, with its 150,000 population, could be described as an urban bedroom community, a Rust Belt city in the heart of New Jersey, and the depressed economy only makes things more challenging.

Unlike other cities, Paterson does not have any universities or prominent medical facilities, and while there are some long-standing business community partners, they are not large-scale employers. As such, making the jump into the next economy is a difficult one.

Planning as an Agent of Change

In 2006, New Jersey officially pledged no less than $10 million towards the development of the Great Falls State Park — creating an unprecedented opportunity for the nearby historic district, and the City of Paterson as a whole. Even more recently, Senators Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, in concert with former Mayor and Congressman Bill Pascrell, and a cadre of engaged citizens, supporters, and historic preservation activists, united the entire New Jersey Congressional delegation to spearhead a broad bi-partisan majority to help make the case for a new portion of the National Park Service: the Great Falls National Historical Park. This coalition envisioned the effort as a way to improve the quality of life in Paterson by maximizing the benefits of both State and Federal funding (a rare event as the federal government continues devolving its fiscal responsibilities for core services and public goods down to local governments). For activists, it has also become a way to set the historical record straight and to permanently illustrate Hamilton’s vision for fostering public-private partnerships to stimulate economic growth.

In addition to the aforementioned protections, the Omnibus Public Land Management Act also permanently preserves the 35 acres surrounding Paterson’s Great Falls and Race system. At the bill signing, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar noted that “America’s best ideas for protecting our vast lands and open spaces have often arrived while our country has faced its greatest trials,” referring to the economic crisis facing the nation. Salazar pointed out that it was Abraham Lincoln who set aside the lands that are now Yosemite National Park during the Civil War and Franklin D. Roosevelt who created the Civilian Conservation Corp to help put millions of young Americans to work building trails, campgrounds and parks — all in the midst of the Great Depression.

Building off this effort, NJCDC has worked to maximize the benefits on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by linking it directly to a comprehensive neighborhood planning and revitalization effort. Over the course of the last year, NJCDC facilitated a resident-led planning process designed to intentionally connect the Great Falls Park, the historic district, the Greater Spruce Street Neighborhood (the areas surrounding the proposed park), and ultimately the whole City of Paterson. NJCDC has been working to ensure that this plan is integrated with the creation of much needed green space and recreational opportunities, community programming that benefits local residents through employment and by way of spurring public and private investment.

For NJCDC and its community partners, this is particularly important in low-income and minority neighborhoods where outside interests determine the shape of housing and economic development efforts — overriding the interests of local residents, institutions, and long-standing community stakeholders. The plan NJCDC recently completed has the strong backing of residents and prominent institutions — a critical component for ensuring these neighborhood priorities will be implemented in the face of indifference and potentially opposing forces.

A resident-driven vision for the future of the Greater Spruce Street neighborhood has resulted from the inclusive planning process and the community’s honest and optimistic public input. That vision builds on the area’s rich history, respects and reinforces its eclectic present, and welcomes a robust future fueled by the unique local collection of natural wonder, historic architecture, global communities, regional position, and involved residents, particularly inspired youth.

The community’s diverse constituency of empowered citizens and stakeholders will work together to usher in a new era for the Greater Spruce Street neighborhood, an era geared towards seven goals:

  • An Empowered Community. A strong base of organized stakeholders investing their time and resources in the neighborhood to instill a sense of permanence rather than transience, taking full advantage of a host of need-specific services intended to improve their life circumstances, and working in partnership to take ownership of the plan and its implementation
  • Lifelong Learning. Allowing for people of all ages to explore a campus of diverse and creative learning experiences.
  • Housing Opportunities. Finding a balance of capital investment, financial assistance, technical support, and policy guidelines that facilitate equitable development, rehabilitation, and adaptive reuse for a mixed income neighborhood affordable to a range of renters and homeowners.
  • Restored Productivity. With economic development taking center stage in the neighborhood’s transformation, this goal is to put the neighborhood’s buildings and people back to work in viable sectors that fit the area’s infrastructure.
  • Engaging Parks and Play Space. This goal strives for revamped, reprogrammed passive park space, new recreation places that honor and reactivate the neighborhood’s proud history, as well as creating an urban environment that is more lush and green.
  • Balanced Streets. Provide for walkable, bikeable roadways that give priority to pedestrians and cyclists over drivers, improved transit stations and awareness of transit resources, transit routes that better link the neighborhood with local destinations, and strategies to manage congestion.
  • Strengthened Identity and Heightened Awareness. Build the public perception and image and greater recognition of the neighborhood and its assets for the benefit of both visitors and community members.

One of the exciting things happening in New Jersey is that community-based organizations (CBOs) across the state are increasingly using neighborhood planning as a tool for transforming distressed urban neighborhoods through development projects and programming. New Jersey now has an innovative program, called the Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit (NRTC), which is designed to support the creation of highly participatory, resident-led revitalization plans by supplying funding for their implementation. The original NRTC legislation was crafted by the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey and is the nation’s first program that offers a 100 percent tax credit incentive for corporations (against their state tax liability) to invest in specific projects and initiatives outlined through these completed plans. Ultimately, this means that each neighborhood where a CBO has engaged their local community in creating a vision for the future development and redevelopment of a neighborhood, can receive up to $1 million per year, to help ensure these plans become a reality.

There’s a real opportunity in places like Paterson to use historic preservation and adaptive reuse as guiding principles for redevelopment. But what is more specific to Paterson is that it’s one of the few cities in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan region where you can really “feel” 18th- and 19th-century industrial building techniques and surroundings.

Paterson is a living case study in the positive and negative impacts of industrialization. As initially designed by Hamilton, Paterson harnessed the power of the Great Falls to power the city and its industrial base and capitalized on the renewable nature of the city’s waterpower. As with most industries tied to extractive methods, Paterson’s treatment of the natural environment created a legacy of pollution and contamination that remains a challenge to this day.

Revitalization for the Next Industrial Revolution

Local leaders, citizens, activists, and community residents have spent well over 20 years to get to where they are today. For many, it has been an opportunity to set the historical record straight by giving Alexander Hamilton credit for his grand experiment in American Industrialization. For others, like NJCDC, it provides an opportunity to coordinate efforts to revitalize the neighborhood surrounding the historical Great Falls.

Preserving the park presents the city with an opportunity to use funds, public attention, and professional expertise associated with the park as leverage to transform the city’s image for private investment — something so important to providing economic opportunities for Paterson residents. Clearly, no single park, project, plan, or act of Congress will be able to transform decades of disinvestment and deindustrialization overnight, but with the right partnerships, a new dawn of productivity will come to the City that Hamilton built.

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Michael Powell is Vice President of Planning Policy and Development for the New Jersey Community Development Corporation in Paterson, NJ.

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