Weaving an Economic Rebirth

The Herald News
By:  Bill Hughes and John Gohlke
March 11, 2000

As the 1960s drew to a close, a nationwide recession wreaked exceptional havoc in densely populated, impoverished cities like Paterson and Lowell, Mass.

The once-thriving manufacturing centers decayed into grimy, half-vacant industrial wastelands, where crime and unemployment soared.

As residents and businesses fled, leaving empty eyesores behind, tax bases eroded and governments were forced to cut services to a bare minimum.

But Paterson and Lowell, as they neared two centuries of remarkably parallel history for better and worse, were also approaching a pivotal parting of the ways. The divergence of their futures would be fueled partly by how each city dealt with its past. One built upon it; the other became mired in it.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, both cities were vying for the lucrative honor of hosting the country's first urban national park.

The chosen city would ultimately enjoy about $80 million in grants to revive downtown historic sites and gear up a tourist mill that would eventually draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

In the other city, officials were holding meetings about the still distant possibility at the end of last year.

"Not enough people had the political will or foresight to see what this could have meant for the city," said New Jersey State Sen. Norman Robertson, R-Clifton, who has served on the board of a Paterson preservation group.

A related but broader political battle was also being fought in the late '60s, between two competing models of urban renaissance. Would the cities try to save what they still had - the physical shells of a rich industrial past? Or would they essentially work at a new start, like downtown Newark, through monolithic office buildings and wholesale redevelopment?

In 1969, a Lowell city councilman with some answers to those questions was beginning his political career.

Paul Tsongas, who later served as a Democratic U.S. senator and ran for president in 1992, emerged as a strong opponent of the dominant urban renewal policies of the time, which called for tearing down vacant buildings and beginning again.

Summing up his economic philosophy, Tsongas once said, "If it works, I'm for it."

The politician, who died in 1997 after a 14-year battle with cancer, is widely credited with finding what worked for Lowell and playing a crucial role in its revitalization.

"During the '70s and '80s, we became the owners of a lot of property that we didn't want and weren't prepared to own," Anne Barton, Lowell's deputy director of planning and development, said of the abandoned commercial structures that plague many aging urban centers.

"Paul Tsongas fought tooth and nail to make sure that the visual integrity of the downtown area was maintained," she said.

Peter Aucella, superintendent of Lowell National Historical Park, said Tsongas' push to truly renew the old city - rather than remake it - gave it a more solid foundation for the coming years.

"Tsongas used to say, 'You know what this town needs? It needs a theme,' " said Aucella. "Tsongas had a vision. He knew that if we allowed developers to build these glass and steel monstrosities right next to these beautiful, old, red-brick buildings, what we were going to wind up with was visual schizophrenia.

"He made it clear back in the early '70s that the city's leaders had to decide whether that was going to be the destiny of Lowell. And he helped sway them against it."

During the same period in Paterson, a small, informal preservation group was being formed under the leadership of the late Mary Ellen Kramer, whose husband, Lawrence "Pat" Kramer, served as mayor for four years, beginning in 1967.

"At first, the mayor and his wife disagreed about whether the historic district should have been saved," said Passaic County Historian Ed Smyk. "But she went ahead with her activities anyway, and I think he eventually came around.

"Back then, they wanted to run Route 20 right through the downtown area and tear down dozens of historic buildings, but she was one of the key people who helped stop that project."

Kramer's group, which later became the Great Falls Preservation and Development Corp., started pressing for the preservation of downtown Paterson in 1965. It enjoyed a few early, but short-lived, successes: First, the Great Falls was declared a national natural landmark in 1967; three years later, the group successfully landed the waterfall vicinity on the National Register of Historic Places.

On the momentum of those victories, and with hopes of establishing the country's first urban national park in Paterson, the group persuaded the U.S. Interior Department to perform a major survey of the area. The department's National Park Service was considering Paterson, Lowell and Troy, N.Y., as the finalists, Smyk said.

"Ultimately I think Paterson lost out because the state and federal agencies involved found the local government here to be too combative and recalcitrant," said Smyk, who has studied the history of Paterson for more than 30 years. "The political squabbling that went on back then was even worse than it is now, if you can believe that."

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a Democrat and former mayor of Paterson, said the city has a long history of insularity. While Lowell's federal designation in 1978 brought an infusion of cash and helped spark the city's recovery, it meant local officials had to cede some control to Washington.

"There's always been a hesitancy in Paterson to be controlled from the outside," said Pascrell. "Even back 100 years ago, after the great fire that destroyed the downtown area, there were people trying to donate money from outside, but Paterson wouldn't accept it."

The Great Falls corporation eventually faced enormous political opposition from those who wanted to see the historic district entirely redeveloped, back when federal urban renewal dollars seemed to be flowing more freely.

Mayor Frank Graves, for example, whose terms preceded and followed Kramer's, tended to veer away from all Kramer policies, and therefore the preservation push.

Lowell, meanwhile, worked steadily toward restoring more than 300 historically valuable buildings over the next three decades, coaxing a tourism economy from the corpse of the textile industry.

Visitors today can tour restored mills with working looms, take guided boat rides through the canal system fed by the Merrimack River or choose from a half-dozen downtown museums.

During the same period, the bricks and mortar of Paterson's history were decimated. The city lost dozens of buildings, many to fires that resulted from years of abandonment and neglect by property owners and city officials.

"It's a travesty that borders on criminal negligence," said David Soo, a Paterson resident and vocal critic of the city's treatment of historic properties. "The game in Paterson for years has been to let property owners walk away from a building, let it burn to the ground, then foreclose on them and sell them to a developer."

Stan Lacz, an architect, planner and Paterson native with childhood memories of running barefoot through the mill his grandfather managed, was similarly critical.

"As far as the fiduciary responsibility to preserve the nation's history, Paterson's government has certainly failed to do that," Lacz said. "When it comes to city government, one regime does the same as the one before it. They talk a good game and nothing happens. I don't know why."

Paterson Deputy Fire Chief James Tice, a 31-year veteran, explained that the city and its property owners lack the resources to back up the laws.

"What we run into, time and again, are buildings where the owner files for bankruptcy, the heat gets turned off, the sprinkler pipes freeze and burst, and the system has to be shut down," Tice said. "Now, we can take the owners to court and try to force them to fix it, but you can't get blood out of a stone."

In the early 1990s, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from Paterson, secured a $4.1 million grant to preserve the city's historic buildings and clean up the raceway system that diverted water to the mills.

The city has managed to renovate a handful of structures, including the Rogers locomotive works, which houses the Paterson Museum, and the Essex and Phoenix mills, which now function as affordable artists' housing and office space.

But more than $1 million of the federal money is still unspent as officials bicker over how to use it.

Not so in Lowell.

"One of the keys to our redevelopment has been toughening our design control standards and strengthening our code enforcement," said Aucella, who was Lowell's planning director before he headed the national historical park. "All the regulations in the world aren't worth much if you don't make property owners comply with them."

Motivating private-property owners to invest in historic preservation has often required political resourcefulness, Aucella added. In one local legend, a former city manager was unable to persuade a man to fix up one of his buildings by traditional methods.

"The next afternoon, a road crew shows up in front of his house and digs up the street, cuts off the water service and leaves for the weekend," Aucella said. "Now I'm not saying the city manager ordered them to do that, but there was a great editorial cartoon that showed him swinging a pick at a pipe, with this landlord ... jumping up and down.

"And shortly thereafter the property got fixed up, so you can draw your own conclusions."

There's a corresponding urban legend to illustrate the course of historic preservation in Paterson, "a sort of apocryphal example of a lot of people's attitudes," said Flavia Alaya, a Paterson author and former chairwoman of its historic preservation commission.

"There is a famous story from that time about a man named Lazzaro who ran a large bakery," Alaya said. "Back when they were trying to run Route 19 right through the historic district, he used to get up at the meetings and say, 'What's so historic about those buildings? They're over a hundred years old.' "

To this day, preservation efforts in Paterson are punctuated with question marks.

Though he declined to discuss details, Pascrell said he believes a national park will be established in Paterson within the next five years.

In December, Paterson Mayor Martin G. Barnes called a meeting of politicians and historic-district property owners to discuss a renewed effort at enticing the National Park Service into Paterson. Barnes said he hopes to submit an application shortly.