Nature & History Meet in Paterson, N.J.

A recent article by Lisa W. Foderaro in the New York Times explores the dilemma of a young national park, established in 2011, that faces the question of whether to invest resources in interpretation of the site's natural landscape or historical past. Read an excerpt below to learn more about how the division of nature/culture strains interpretation programs in our national parks!

The young national park in this once-booming industrial city is unusual for its twin features — one natural, the other historical.

A mighty waterfall, one of the largest by volume east of the Mississippi River, tumbles nearly 80 feet over basalt cliffs, where the Passaic River flows through a narrow chasm. It is the river that spawned the country’s first planned industrial city, founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1792 to end the reliance on Britain for manufactured goods.

The two attributes of Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park — natural wonder and machine-age crucible — are at the center of differing visions for the 52-acre site. The National Park Service is now weighing alternative plans for Paterson Great Falls, which was established as a national park in 2011 after decades of lobbying by local politicians and advocates.

One option would pour more resources into the natural landscape, creating opportunities for recreation along the river and educational programs about the waterfall, the habitat and the city’s past. The other would give visitors a more in-depth immersion in the city’s industrial history.

“It’s really a matter of emphasis,” said Darren Boch, the superintendent of the park, as he strode along the rim of the falls, where two billion gallons of water cascade each day. “Part of our job is to maintain and preserve the beautiful view of the waterfall,” he said. “But it’s also to let people understand the significance of the area around the falls. Why is Paterson’s story integral to the history of the United States? There are resources in need of investment and we need to prioritize those resources.”

Over the next two years, the Park Service has committed to restoring some of the parkland along the river near the bottom of the falls — much of it now scraggly, forlorn and closed to the public.

A two-and-a-half-acre stretch of shoreline, to be called the Great Lawn, will be constructed with $4.3 million in local and federal funds, while another $1.5 million will go toward an adjacent space called Overlook Park, where a stage and amphitheater will be built.

Representative Bill Pascrell Jr. of New Jersey, a former mayor of Paterson,worked for years to turn a patchwork of public lands in and around the falls into a national park. He called the plans for the shoreline restoration a “milestone” for this city of 146,000, adding that the outdoor space for performances and events would give visitors another reason to come to the park.“This is Paterson’s shot,” he said. “We have to make this city a destination, just as it once was.”

But how future expenditures will shape the park over the next 20 years is the larger question with which park officials are now grappling. Earlier this year, the federal agency released a Draft General Management Plan and Environmental Assessment. After a series of meetings, the public was invited to weigh in. Park officials say that the two options under consideration are not mutually exclusive. While their capital investments differ, there would be recreational amenities under both, as well as historical signage and programs. Mr. Pascrell said he believed the end result would likely represent a hybrid of the two plans.

The plan also seeks to dampen expectations about a quick or comprehensive turnaround, saying that the approval of either does not guarantee that “funding and staffing” would be “forthcoming.”

Nonetheless, the people who had long pined for a national park in Paterson, a multiethnic city where a quarter of the residents live in poverty, say they are encouraged that the planning has come this far. Leonard A. Zax, a Paterson native who is president of the nonprofit groupHamilton Partnership for Paterson, helped draft the legislation that authorized the park’s creation. “It’s much too slow for me, but this is a project for the long haul,” he said of the progress. “And what’s striking is that it’s starting to take on the look and feel of a real national park.”

For the full article, click here.