Paterson Seeks Recognition for Its Grit and Its Green

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 24, 2006

PATERSON, N.J. -- Situated in the heart of one of the Garden State's grittiest cities, the Great Falls National Historic Landmark District embodies an odd mix of industrial decay and roaring natural beauty. Water rushes down 70-foot cliffs into the polluted Passaic River below, just yards away from a shuttered red-brick plant with streaked, aging windows.

One of America's founding fathers once believed Paterson would be the model of how Americans could build a manufacturing center to out-compete Europe. Now, more than 200 years later, a handful of Paterson transplants in Washington, D.C., are trying to restore the city to its original promise.

"When you're telling the story of Paterson, you're telling the story of America," said Rep. William J. Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), who grew up in the city and became its mayor before coming to Congress.

Alexander Hamilton first saw Paterson as a young colonel when he, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette stopped nearby to picnic. Richard Brookhiser, one of Hamilton's biographers, wrote that the future Treasury secretary viewed the falls' water power "as an engine for factories, the high tech of the day."

Founded in 1792, Paterson initially lived up to its billing as the nation's first industrial park. Pierre L'Enfant designed a "raceway" canal system, and the city later earned the name "Silk City" for its numerous silk factories. The city, which boasted textile, candle wick spinning and paper mills, as well, became the birthplace of the Colt revolver and the modern submarine, and by 1854 ranked as the largest producer of locomotives in the United States.

The waterfalls, the second-largest set of falls east of the Mississippi, became a battleground between high and low culture beginning in the 1820s. In 1827, a local entrepreneur bought the Great Falls' north bank and transformed it from what University of South Carolina history professor Paul E. Johnson called "a wild and beautiful spot that belonged to everyone and no one" into a commercial pleasure garden for the middle class.

A 28-year-old factory hand named Sam Patch managed to spoil the garden's grand opening by jumping feet-first from the top of the falls, and surviving; 165 years later, a pair of circus performers performed a comparable stunt, riding custom-made Harleys across cables spanning the falls as a pair of female trapeze artists dangled below.

But the Paterson of today is struggling with unemployment, which is consistently twice the statewide average. Only a third of the students entering the ninth grade finish high school, according to the New Jersey Community Development Corporation, and more than four out of five Paterson students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Pascrell and Latham & Watkins lawyer Leonard Zax -- another Paterson native -- are hoping to change that. They have spent years lobbying federal officials to declare Great Falls a national historic park, knowing it would bring an influx of federal, state and private funds. At Pascrell's urging, Congress instructed the Interior Department to study whether to make the area into a national park; the report should be released soon.

State officials are also trying to transform the falls. In one of his last acts in office, then-Gov. James McGreevey (D) approved spending $10 million to devise a plan to rehabilitate the area, and last month five design firms submitted proposals to turn Great Falls into a scenic local and tourist attraction. One plan calls for a microbrewery and beer garden along with an art gallery, loft apartments and rock climbing area, while another includes a botanical and butterfly garden that would feature local immigrant cultures from Peru, Costa Rica and the Philippines.

The designers crafting these plans are as ambitious as Hamilton, with one promising to "germinate a holistic vision that goes beyond beautification to provide a long-term big idea that will transform a forgotten piece of natural and historic heritage into a destination point."

Still, making the Paterson district a new national park is a tough sell. The nation has a park commemorating the Industrial Revolution: in Lowell, Mass., home to historic cotton mills, 5.6 miles of power canals and a turn-of-the-century working trolley. As Pascrell spokesman Caley Gray explained, "Lowell's our big competition."

University of Kansas history professor Jonathan Earle said that while federal officials have to ask themselves "whether you can have too many of these things," Paterson remains important because it is "part of our industrial heritage and the heritage of Americans as a working people."

In the 1960s and '70s Congress authorized six new national parks a year; the number has dropped to an average of three a year in recent decades. Even once a park wins approval, it can take a while to secure the money to design and construct it: Congress approved building the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial in 1956, but it didn't open until 1995.

But National Park Service spokesman David Barna said, "There's broad local support for this, which always helps."

Zax, who noted that GOP New Jersey Reps. Rodney P. Frelinghuysen and Jim Saxton also support the park designation, said the effort is not just drawing support from those with an emotional tie to an economically distressed city. "We're pushing for the national park designation for Paterson not because it's a basket case in need of manufacturing jobs, but rather because it deserves it on its merits -- no ifs, no ands, no buts," he said.

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