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.”

Fast-forward two centuries, though, and the people of Paterson are deep in the downside of the American dream. Between 2000 and 2010, according to Together North Jersey’s draft regional plan, the state of New Jersey lost nearly 200,000 jobs, with the poverty rate in Paterson hitting 27%. Over the past 50 years, the region’s urban quality of life has cratered, with incomes dropping, racial segregation increasing, and infrastructure crumbling. Paterson, said one recent report, is “one of the most violent small cities in the country.”

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’s population, according to one study—that have lost their economic mission.

Toward the socially shock-absorbent city

Paterson was primed to become a cauldron of social distress. Fatefully, the city traces its origins to the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, chartered in 1791 and soon set on harnessing the Great Falls and their water-power potential. Paterson’s start as a commercial enterprise profoundly shaped its future as a working-class melting pot. “Paterson was not designed as a city; it was designed as a corporation,” Christopher Norwood observed in the perceptive 1974 book About Paterson. “From the beginning the city failed to offer those other resources—responsive government, public facilities, a sense of community—which were essential to its survival in the long run.”

In other words, cities need social capital as much as venture capital. Paterson had its power canals and factories, but lacked precisely the social infrastructure that has moved to the forefront of today’s global conversation about urban resilience. Last year, Arup released the City Resilience Framework, created in collaboration with The Rockefeller Foundation to pinpoint the factors that determine whether a city gets knocked down by disruption or bounces back. As much as a flood-resistant riverfront or redundant transport networks, Arup’s research team discovered, social facets of resilience are key to a city’s shock-absorbent capacity: “it became more and more evident that non-physical aspects such as economy and society, or leadership and strategy, were as important as the presence and quality of physical urban systems.”

What’s more, a gulf has opened between the needs of those who control a city’s civic and economic infrastructure—government and the private sector—and the rest of us, who may have starkly different views of what makes a healthy city. Low-income residents are especially at risk, according to a recent strategy paper from Island Press and The Kresge Foundation, which noted that underlying inequities are compounded when the urban poor bear the brunt of climate-change impacts, environmental injustice, and other vulnerabilities. And yet, the quest for equitable urban resilience can spark transformative innovation—what the paper called a “positive regime shift” that incites urban creativity and builds social capital.

Great Falls, great churrasco

How, then, to make Paterson a hotbed of resilience? Start by sitting down to lunch. Few things more tangibly express the city’s multicultural richness than its panoply of restaurants—Peruvian, Dominican, Jamaican, Turkish, Syrian, and Lebanese, to name a few, not to mention a tradition of Hot Texas Wieners: deep-fried beef hot dogs of somewhat Greek persuasion. One can imagine a citywide network of food trucks, restaurant kiosks, and satellite outposts of the Paterson Farmers Market—already a regional destination for fresh produce in South Paterson—that capitalizes on the city’s culinary culture. Just as the Ironbound district became a chow-centric destination long before Newark’s renaissance gained momentum, food could fuel a multifaceted, socially inclusive movement to reimagine the Silk City.

That was precisely the point of Paterson’s entry in the recent National Parks Now competition, which explored how four parks in the northeast could engage new, more diverse audiences through inventive ways of telling stories about some of the nation’s defining people and places. Led by graphic designer Manuel Miranda, the multidisciplinary Paterson team focused on the potential of the city’s culinary riches as a platform to build connections between commercial districts and the Great Falls National Historical Park—and, by extension, between Paterson’s diverse contemporary population and the city’s industrial past. The team proposed an ingenious “Great Falls, Great Food” campaign using signage and social media to grab Great Falls visitors and tempt them to explore mofongo, churrasco, samosas, and baba ganoush—and in the process discover the diverse stories of Paterson’s restaurateurs and residents. At the same time, Patersonians are lured to the national park through smartly conceived posters, placemats, and other features at local restaurants. A pilot version of the campaign is due to launch this summer.

To help reframe the city’s sometimes remote historical themes—Alexander Hamilton’s discourse on public debt might not immediately resonate with, say, recent Syrian immigrants—the team also proposed a kind of movable exhibition in vacant downtown storefronts. Dubbed “storyfronts,” these display windows would be filled with posters exploring themes of innovation, immigration, or protest in ways that highlight connections between Paterson’s past and its present. The team steered away from “founding fathers” stories, instead seeking to interpret Paterson for people already there. “We’re thinking of interpretation in a way that’s much more dynamic and contextual,” Miranda explained in an interview. “Each person can experience the city with or without the knowledge of Alexander Hamilton.”

A prescription for urban eds and meds?

In its quest for inclusive economic development, Paterson may have much in common with places like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Cleveland—former industrial powerhouses that have reoriented employment around surging medical and university sectors. All-important urban anchors, the “eds and meds” have long been a lifeline for communities beset by economic restructuring. Already, northern New Jersey is home to 57 universities, colleges, and technical schools, including Passaic County Community College in Paterson, along with 11,500 students at William Paterson University, just three miles from the Great Falls. Paterson community planners have also envisioned a kind of urban campus connecting International High School, opened as a magnet school in 2008, with the Community Charter School of Paterson and other institutions clustered near the Great Falls. And with St. Joseph’s medical center as a regional destination, Paterson would seem positioned for catalytic “eds and meds” investment.

Among Rust Belt cities, such a strategy has perhaps most ambitiously been used in Cleveland to drive the revitalization of a hard-hit urban corridor. Long pillars of the city’s economy, the Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, and the University Hospitals have over the past decade adopted a more innovative role in urban rebirth. Most dramatic has been the HealthLine, a strategic bus rapid transit corridor linking the city’s central business district with the University Circle medical complex. The heavily blighted zone in between was rebranded as the Health-Tech Corridor, intended to create “a knowledge neighborhood” drawing on the district’s health-related technology and laboratory work. With a zoning overhaul to emphasize mixed-use development, new streetscapes, bicycle lanes, and public art, the project has helped spur significant investment: one analysis found that since opening in 2008, the HealthLine has activated $5.8 billion in transit-oriented development, leveraging $118 for every dollar spent on bus-rapid transit.

At the same time, Cleveland’s health and educational sectors have pioneered new ways of tackling job dislocation among low-skill, low-income workers. Credit goes to the Cleveland Foundation, whose president, Ronald B. Richard, spent 13 years at Panasonic and drew on his experience as a high-stakes risk-taker in consumer electronics before setting out to spark an “economic breakthrough” in inner-city Cleveland. The foundation helped institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, and Case Western Reserve University direct a portion of their supply-chain purchasing power to a network of worker-owned green businesses as a pathway to social equity. Launched in 2008, the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative now includes a commercial laundry service, a solar panel supplier, and the Green City Growers Cooperative, which opened a 3.25-acre hydroponic greenhouse on the city’s east side, where the median household income is below $18,500. The initiative has been hailed as a model for how cities can address a lack of economic opportunity by re-anchoring capital in low-income neighborhoods.

While it may provide jobs and stimulate investment, health-driven development doesn’t often add urban vitality. As McLain Clutter notes in the useful book Formerly Urban: Projecting Rust Belt Futures, medical institutions feature isolated wards, pedestrian bridges, and interior courtyards that resist active participation in the surrounding urban fabric. Yet with their constant churn of people and activity—coffee shops, newsstands, healing gardens, and chapels—medical sites also host “a kind of surreal diversity that is often attendant to a vital contemporary metropolis.” New ways of cracking open medical and educational institutions, allowing their multifaceted programs to energize the city around them, are needed to realize the potential of these critical civic actors for places like Paterson. Through inventive urban design, intricately meshed zones of city and hospital could, Clutter suggests, “lead to new kinds of urban social structures, civic life, and even medical knowledge.”

If Dubuque can do it, Paterson can too

Particularly in America’s smaller cities, which may not have the infrastructure or human capital of larger cities, people-first planning can become the bedrock for sustainable revitalization. A recent report on rebuilding small-city economies from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency profiled the surprising success of Dubuque, Iowa, a historic millworking hub on the Mississippi River with striking similarities to Paterson. Once home to the nation’s largest window and door manufacturing trade, Dubuque (population 58,000) suffered from the flight of large employers in the 1980s, with a 55% downtown vacancy rate and unemployment hitting 23%. The city’s Millwork District—full of grand warehouses and workshops that, like Paterson’s mills, were once a regional epicenter of innovation and entrepreneurship—was on a downward slide, with blight setting in amid 1 million square feet of virtually vacant space.

Key to the city’s comeback was a suite of initiatives rooted in community-driven planning. While urban regeneration schemes often target a single problem, Dubuque knit together a series of interlinked solutions beginning in 1990, with an economic development vision and new comprehensive plan set on winning back the Mississippi River, then blockaded by brownfield sites, as the heart of a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood. Then, in 2005, under the inclusive banner of a new city theme—“engaging citizens as partners”—Dubuque created Envision 2010, an effort to identify 10 community projects with transformative potential. With support from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, the Chamber of Commerce, and others, the city rounded up 3,000 ideas from more than 10,000 participants, winnowing the list down to 30 at a town hall meeting. A selection committee picked the final 10, including revitalization of the Millwork District, new cultural destinations for a 90-acre riverfront project, a walking and biking trail system, an indoor-outdoor performing arts center, and passenger rail service. Nearly a decade later, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque had endowed seven of the top projects, all of which were either completed or underway. Today, with 1 million tourists each year, a 4% unemployment rate, and acclaim from USA Today as one of America’s 10 best riverfronts, Dubuque shows how it is possible to survive tectonic economic shifts through holistic planning that allows citizens to shape their own destiny.

Why Hot Texas Wieners might be America’s postindustrial future

As America’s Rust Belt continues to evolve, it is perhaps worth recalling Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 Report on Manufactures, where he wrote that the young republic’s promise would best be met by sparking the collective enterprise of its diverse communities. In this essay, Hamilton marveled at “the busy nature of man,” whose inclination to innovate remains today a most hopeful resource for the socially resilient city.

Drop by Libby’s Lunch in Paterson, not far from the Great Falls, and you’ll find that something as simple as a working-class meal of Hot Texas Wieners embodies the endless potential of postindustrial America. An innovation born when Greek-inspired chili sauce was added to a German-born frankfurter and first served in Paterson around 1924, these trademark hot dogs show how cities are natural sites of creative cultural adaptation. As a fascinating study of Paterson’s Texas Wiener heritage put it: “Patersonians have made a new tradition using the raw materials of an old one.”

That is a fitting way to phrase Paterson’s role as an incubator of new urban ideas in the twenty-first century. An immigrant-rich city, it represents the storehouse of social capital upon which our future depends. It points the way to melding economic progress with urban vitality. And it draws on an enduring tradition of upstart invention. One might say that Alexander Hamilton’s vision of an industrious America—one that nurtures opportunity and activates human potential—has, in Paterson, been fulfilled. The guy on the ten-dollar bill would be proud.

  • Article

    July 31, 2015

  • Client

    Doggerel: The Online Magazine of Arup in the Americas

  • Photography

    Cameron Blaylock