Harnessing Social Resilience in the Rust Belt

In a rousing scene from Hamilton, the acclaimed musical about the life of America’s “10-dollar founding father,” a Revolutionary War–waging Alexander Hamilton and his French comrade Lafayette pay tribute to the foreign-born soldiers, tradesmen, merchants, inventors, and artisans whose pluck helped launch the upstart American nation. “Immigrants,” they exclaim: “We get the job done.”

Hamilton, himself an import from the West Indies, was keenly aware of the role immigrants would play in the nation’s future. It was in bustling, immigrant-rich cities like Paterson, New Jersey—where Hamilton planted the seeds of America’s earliest manufacturing center—that industrious individuals he called “artificers” would forge the modern world. With its water-powered mills and workshops set around the Great Falls of the Passaic River, Paterson became Hamilton’s “national manufactory,” a global showcase for activating human ingenuity. As historian Robert B. Gordon put it, “Alexander Hamilton’s uniquely American idea of an industrial park with power canals and factories in which entrepreneurs could rent space for start-up manufacturing enterprises had no European precedent.”

If Paterson was a pioneer in urban American opportunity, today it is a prism for understanding the capacity of communities to survive 21st-century shocks and stresses. This complex swath of northern New Jersey offers unusually fertile ground to test new tactics for turning blight into fresh opportunities for the 45 million people who live in “legacy cities” like Paterson—15% of the United States population, according to one study—that have lost their economic mission.