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
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
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
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
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
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.