Paterson Must Unite To Preserve Its History

The Herald News
By:  Bill Hughes, Staff
August 23, 1999

Flavia Alaya describes himself as a scholar, writer, artist, educator, and urban activist with a special interest in the culture of cities. A widely published author with a docorate from Columbia, Alaya has lived in Paterson for nearly 30 years and taught at Ramapo College since 1971. Along with Delores Van Rensalier, she published, , a book about the Underground Railroad station in Paterson and has recently completed a forthcoming memoir of her life as a scholar and activist, titled "Under the Rose." Until a year ago, she served as chairwoman of Paterson's Historic Preservation Commission.


Q. Do you think that Paterson is squandering its historical treasures?


A. Absolutely. Our history is literally a patrimony. The rest of the world uses that term freely and literally, and the end of that word literally means riches or treasure, and there is no doubt in my mind that in this city we are squandering it.


Q. How could that be turned around?


A. By valuing it. By revaluing it. By dedicating yourself to understanding its value.


Q. Despite the recommendation of Paterson's Historic Preservation Commission, the city went ahead with the demolition of 14 Van Houten St. What did you think of that?


A. In my judgement they actually violated the law when the board of adjustment conducted their hearing and treated us like objectors instead of as a sister agency that was making recommendations that the law says deserve grave consideration. I think that if we had the funding and the will to assert that true relationship over the one that they invented for sake of giving that approval, we could probably win.

But the law is only as good as the people who have the will and the funding to interpret it. And even though there are other cities where there are historic preservation commissions like ours that are called weak commissions, theirs do have an influence and a really good advisory role.

Paterson has chosen not to do that. They've decided to treat its commission as a kind of underling, to give it second-class citizenship. I think there ought to be a member of the planning board on the historic preservation commission and vice-versa. There ought to be an historic planning person in the planning department. Those kind of intercommunications would obviate having this kind of conflict situation that we have now.


Q. What are your thoughts about the ATP site? Do you think that housing is the best use for that site?


A. I think that there's been a sort of false conflict set up between housing and the use for that space. I don't think that that's the issue because housing is possible on that site. It's seven and a half acres. If what you want is to maximize its use in terms of potential value and revenue to the community, I think that you could do some kind of decant housing. In other words housing for people who get priced out of the artist housing in the district because they make too much money.

But I also think that what's happening now with the housing that they're planning is that not only are you getting a very scattered use of the property that's sprawled out all over the landscape but you're also paving over a significant portion of that cultural landscape to create parking spaces, and that's going to destroy archeology and destroy interpretive potential.

The problem is that the site has been designed badly. Period. We have got to have a better design. We can incorporate housing and maintain the potential of that property, I think, very well. It's just that people haven't been asked to design a maximum benefit use of that property.

It is a magnificent waterfront property, and a lot of cities have turned their waterfronts into wonderful economic adaptive reuse, there's no reason why Paterson can't do that.


Q. What did you think about the recent trouble between the city and the county over the monument at the Underground Railroad site?


A. These things happen. The two markers are there now in no aesthetic or interpretive relation to one another, one on one end of the property, one on another, and that's the atrocity to me. So it looks as though everyone wants to have their stake, literally, in this site and stick up a marker that says we mark this place as ours. That to me is the tragedy of the site. That everybody wants a piece of it and nobody wants to give the community the stake in it that they ought to have.

It is often called common ground because the races met there, they literally lived together there. And the cause of abolition, which was a common ground for us politically, racially and ideologically in the 19th century is represented and memorialized on that site. It should be common ground and what it is right now is just a cemetery.

The council passed that resolution in September at the same time that Delores Van Rensalier and I were publishing our book on the subject and never even thought to consult the historic preservation commission. They put it through the city council and that's what they call having a public hearing, making it item number 174 on the council agenda and they don't call on their experts and say, 'by the way, we've got this matter.' I don't get the way this system works. It seems like they violate their own law at will and unless somebody calls them up on it, they feel they're not obliged to obey it.


Q. What do you think the future of the site is at this point?


A. I don't know. I don't want to add to its woes by trying to predict it. I would like to be as optimistic as possible and say that once it gets reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission that the county may provide a consortium arrangement for funding an archeological project that we've been talking about. Certainly what I would want to happen is to have everybody working towards the same goal.


Q. Why do you think the community, the city and the county have such a hard time getting on the same page with historic preservation?


A. I think it's something in the ancient traditions of Paterson, where every interest group ended up hating every other interest group and they can't get out of that mindset. I wish that somebody would finally come along and say, 'look, it's over folks. If we're ever going to pull this place into shape we've got to talk to each other.'

I was in Newark yesterday, and I don't know what goes on in Newark, maybe there's a lot of infighting there as well, but it looks like a place that's finally got its act together. It makes your heart bleed if you come from a place like Paterson and you go to places like Newark or Providence or even Pittsburgh where they tear each other apart has more ability to relay a sense of total community to the outside world than Paterson does. It just makes you bleed.

So I don't know what to say, nobody like that has come along and we certainly don't have that in the mayoral seat now and you can quote me on that.


Q. Is it all politics?


A. Politics and ego. Nobody can dare to lose an inch of their aura or their cachet by deferring to the expertise of another in this town. And that's the first sign of a weak community, one where if you have the expertise and you have the intelligence and you have the skills and you don't call on them. And in fact, there are some instances when you even have it by law. I can remember times when decisions on historical properties would be made and the Historic Preservation Commission would be the last to hear about it.

Here is your absolutely, by law, endorsed expertise. This is the place you're supposed to come when you have historic issues in front of you. these are the people who you have appointed-I don't mean even elected, I mean you can hate the people who you've got elected, but the mayor's office has officially appointed these people to be their experts and it doesn't even call on them.

Now that's a scandal. The other part is a shame. That when you have the expertise amongst you in your community and you know it's out there and you don't call on it.