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 21st-century meaning of place.

This first article in a series of three on Doggerel 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.