'Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories' links downtown to national park
Within the gritty urban heart of Paterson, New Jersey, is one of America's great industrial success stories—recognized by a small national historic park.
Visitors often park their cars, take in views of old mill buildings and a dramatic waterfall that made it all possible, take a picture of a statue of Alexander Hamilton, and leave without checking out the downtown and its restaurants. In that sense, Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is not unlike many urban national parks—which have strong cultural and historical links to their settings. If visitors could make those connections, they could have a more interesting experience and also boost the local economy.
Downtown Paterson, with shops and restaurants, a short walk from the falls. Photos courtesy of June Williamson.
The entire downtown of Paterson and adjacent neighborhoods could be thought of as an integral part of the national park. That's the point that "Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories"—a great name, by the way—is trying to make. This $10,000 demonstration project by the National Parks Service (NPS) and the Van Alen Institute uses social media, wayfinding signs, and storytelling to connect the park and its visitors to local restaurants and historical sites. The team of six professionals—with help from students from City University of New York, Princeton University, and the New School—won an NPS competition that involved four teams with proposals for four urban parks.
Paterson, New Jersey, is the first planned industrial city in the United States, envisioned by Alexander Hamilton, who wanted to take advantage of water power. The Great Falls of the Passaic River, a dramatic 77-foot cascade, was harnessed to power mills with a raceway engineered by Pierre L'Enfant.
The late 18th century plans spawned a long-running industrial success story, when the mills manufactured cotton fabrics, railroad locomotives, textiles machinery, jute, and silk spinning, weaving, and dyeing—the latter is the source of Paterson's nickname, The Silk City. This manufacturing attracted immigrants who labored in the mills, those who owned and operated manufacturing concerns and became wealthy, and the quest of laborers and the labor movement for better working conditions and pay, according to NPS. "Immigrants still settle today in Paterson to pursue their versions of Hamilton's vision, creating a diverse and vibrant culture."
The latter half of the 20th Century saw some economic stagnation and increased crime, but Paterson continues to boast the second-highest density of any US city with more than 100,000 population—behind only New York City. Like many cities, the downtown itself is becoming more of an attraction to tourists, with ethnic restaurants—but the park with its 200,000 visitors could further boost the city's economic revival.
"The six-person team designed a campaign that is seeking to blur the line between the national park and the surrounding neighborhoods in order to motivate visitors through the lure of food to explore the Silk City," according to The Paterson Times.
Telling the story of Paterson's history
“Great Falls, Great Food, Great Stories re-imagines the future of visitor experience in urban national parks by bringing the parks into the streets of the city,” June Williamson, an architectural professor at CUNY and team member, told the newspaper.
The signs posted throughout downtown are in three languages—English, Spanish, and Arabic—that are most commonly spoken in Paterson. They send a message of the city's diversity and immigrant culture. The social media campaign uses the hashtags #GreatFallsGreatFood and #Paterson.
The team also included Manuel Miranda of the Yale School of Art, communications consultant Frances Medina, urban historian Mariana Mogilevich, social impact design consultant Valeria Mogilevich, and creative director Willy Wong. The pilot project ran until November and then is expected to be renewed next summer.
A wayfinding sign.
Robert Steuteville is editor of Better Cities & Towns and senior communications advisor at the Congress for the New Urbanism.