The Passaic: A Postindustrial River Reimagined

On its 80-plus-mile meander through northern New Jersey, the Passaic River flows past the Great Swamp, alive with screech owls and blue-winged warblers; pours over Paterson’s glorious Great Falls, amid ruins of renowned textile mills; and empties into Newark Bay, near one of the largest environmental cleanups of a river ever attempted. By turns serene and so polluted that poet William Carlos Williams deemed it “the vilest swillhole in Christendom,” the Passaic River is a riddle: How can this waterway, with its unique industrial history, become a catalyst for natural, cultural, and economic renewal?

Between the placid upper river and the fouled banks below stand the Great Falls, a fulcrum around which the region’s future revolves. They embody America’s advent as an industrial nation. And now they are the heart of the new Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, a lifeline for a city long bedeviled by industrial collapse. The Passaic’s path through Paterson thus offers a poignant case study in new ways of thinking about nature’s power in urban places. Like other rivers being reclaimed from Los Angeles to Moscow, the Passaic shows how urban design strategies, innovative infrastructure, and a region-scaled vision can drive a distressed city’s social and ecological resurgence.