Jesse Fried • Feb 11, 2019
Paterson's location is magical. It is surrounded by the Passaic River on three sides, at the river's northernmost point during its elaborate 180 degree turn from flowing north to south. The river's turn occurs through a break in the ridges of the Watchung Mountains, where they transform from flat-topped, north-south running ridges into a crescent shaped jumble of tall hills broken up by faults. The center of the city is right near the spot where the Passaic crosses over the steep east-facing escarpment of the First Watchung Mountain and reaches the rolling piedmont below. The river's sheer drop through a deep crack in the basalt forms a huge waterfall. It's one of the most dramatic natural spots in New Jersey, and in fact it's the reason for the city of Paterson's founding.
Paterson is often described as a "planned industrial city." Its location and layout are Big Ideas dating from the early days of the industrial revolution. Such a major source of water power so close to such a huge center of international commerce made it an ideal spot for early industry. It's amazing how much more important physical location was to industry in the past. The waters of the Passaic above the falls were diverted into raceways that spread throughout the industrial district of the city. Factories located along these raceways were able to harness the water power in their own individual ways. Other early 19th century industrial cities like nearby Passaic, NJ and Holyoke, MA had similar systems.
As I understand it, the first major industries in Paterson were railroad locomotives and silk weaving. These multiplied into every imaginable kind of product, heavy and light. Airplane propellors, a famous brand of power tools, guns, experimental submarines, and all sorts of industrial things were made there. Even after industry found new energy sources, Paterson had the skilled labor force and infrastructure to remain a good location for industrial production. Of course its heyday only lasted so long. It's the same story everywhere, the Great Depression and then after WWII the steady decline.
There is a lot of interesting history about labor activism in Paterson, which I unfortunately don't know much about.
Today, immigration keeps Paterson vital. The downtown area is very Peruvian, with lots of restaurants and stores. There's a large Dominican community in the city too. South of Route 80 along Main Street is a district of restaurants, stores and various businesses catering to communities coming from all over the Middle East. The NY area's only Iraqi restaurant is located here. Continuing down Main Street into Clifton and Passaic is a many miles long and incredibly diverse strip of immigrant oriented businesses.
Paterson may no longer be a major industrial center, but it is still one of New Jersey's most important urban centers.
There's no doubt that Paterson is a bit of a rough city, but coming from New York on a recent trip it seems friendly too. People who served us in restaurants were nice to us. Families visiting the falls smiled at us. The moderate density urban neighborhoods seemed somehow familiar and cozy, if a little depressing.