Volume 28                            Summer 1999                            Number 2

The Suburbanization of Paterson, NJ's National Historic Landmark District

David Soo, a Paterson resident, reports on a threat to preserve the city's industrial landscape.

There are times when an average citizen must develop expertise in order to stop something wrong from happening. Ten years ago, when I moved to Paterson, I never expected to find myself doing just that. Now I am part of a preservation battle against the city and a developer over a proposed prefabricated, suburban tract housing project on a 7-acre, city-owned property, formerly the Allied Textile Printing (ATP) site, adjacent to the Great Falls and along the Passaic River.

The ATP site is a key property in the Great Falls National Historic Landmark District. The historic district is known especially for the use of the tremendous waterpower derived from the 77'-high falls and fed to the mills through a three-tiered engineered water raceway system enabled by the natural contours of the terrain. The ATP site was one of the first locations developed by the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (S.U.M.) with Alexander Hamilton and the great architect-designer Pierre Charles L'Enfant beginning in about 1791. The ATP site was home to a number of mills, including Samuel Colt's original gun mill. The planned industrialization of this unique place is a seminal expression and realization of the Hamiltonian vision of an industrialized America. This is truly a founding father's site.

Demolition by neglect has been a tragic theme in Paterson, and particularly in the historic district, which is listed as a priority 1 threatened landmark area by the Secretary of the Interior. The ATP site is home to decaying mills and ruins, and because of this condition, it is being partially rehabilitated by $1.67 million of federal Urban History Initiative funds, administered by the Philadelphia office of the National Park Service (NPS). The proposed work will include demolition and site clearing, archeology, and rehabilitation of historic properties. This work and the proposed housing development are receiving a Sec. 106 review with full consultation by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

The project's proponents have yet to answer properly some very basic questions about the impact and possible adverse effects on archeological resources or to even consider whether a housing development with acres of parking is appropriate for an industrial NHL. During demolition, generic archeological monitoring is the only type of work that currently is scheduled in the budget. Without funds for mitigation or conservation, it can almost be guaranteed that crisis management archeology will cause delays and encourage the loss of misidentified and undiscovered resources.

To better understand the history of the ATP site, the NPS completed a study called the Maxman Report in 1996. This report, which was a preliminary guide for preservation and archeology, has been used inappropriately as a benchmark for development. It fails to identify two 150-ft. long stone-arch tailrace culverts which have visible brownstone openings at the river. The most glaring error is the misidentification of an intact mill building as being constructed in 1915, when it clearly is a ca. 1840-50 mill. This mill will be demolished according to the developers' proposed plan.

Another serious concern is that the developer wants to install approximately 50,000 yds. of fill, up to depths of 13 ft., on the east half of the ATP site. The forces from compaction and the weight of the fill could damage archeological resources, including the two tailrace culverts. It would permanently preclude the reopening of the head- and tailraces for interpretation and education, and it would flatten the industrial landscape and destroy the visual understanding of the use and development of the power canal's third tier. This is a unique area where mills were built in relationship to the natural terrain, which made possible the use of waterpower. The very reason for Paterson's existence!

Now that it is becoming apparent that historic preservation issues might interfere with the proposed housing project, many residents feel that the city administration and the developer created this dilemma by signing an agreement to construct the townhouses before the completion of the historic reports or archeological investigations. City officials are attempting to put into place an agreement with the NPS that gives them power to control which historic resources will be demolished or retained. To date, the city has shown a lack of responsibility and allowed the developer to perform test excavations without the supervision of an archeologist. In one instance, the developer dug test pits with a tracked backhoe through sensitive archeological areas. These test pits were 20 ft.-deep and 20 feet long!

We are confronted with issues of national importance. If the City of Paterson and the developer are able to subvert the importance of archeology on a publicly owned site in a threatened NHL district with federal funding created especially for historic preservation and archeology, then a precedent will be set that will lower national standards.

The Sec. 106 review is still taking place and provides for full public involvement. Through this process, we have an opportunity to have a meaningful influence on the future of this site and the national perception of urban industrial history. Please write the NPS to make your opinion known. We need help because the archeology can't always be where the people who care about its preservation live.

Info: Paterson Friends of the Great Falls, Inc. 13 1/2 Van Houten St., Paterson, NJ 07505; (973) 225-0826; fax 225-0011; Website: PatersonGreatFalls.org Consultation packages may be received by writing: Paterson / UHI, NPS, Cultural Resources, U.S. Custom House, 3rd Fl., Second and Chestnut Sts., Philadelphia, PA 19106


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