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.

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.

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