Art Works Blog

MICD25 Spotlight on Paterson, New Jersey

Paterson, New Jersey

The Great Falls in downtown Paterson, New Jersey. Photo by Bob Guarasci

The mission of the New Jersey Community Development Corporation (NJCDC) is to transform the City of Paterson---one of the nation's most economically distressed communities---into a thriving, diverse, and sustainable locale. Among NJCDC's success stories are the rehabilitation of two historic locomotive mills in the city's Great Falls Historic District into housing for underserved populations and the creation of the Great Falls Youth Corps, a partnership with the National Park Service that actively involves youth residents in helping to create the Great Falls National Historic Park, one of the newest national parks in the U.S. We spoke with Michael L. Powell, NJCDC's Vice President of Planning Policy & Development to learn more about Paterson's project.

NEA: Please describe your project and what you hope it will bring to the residents of Paterson.

MICHAEL L. POWELL: The goal of our project is to ensure the arts and various forms of creative expression play an integral role in revitalizing America?s first planned industrial city: Paterson, New Jersey. A guiding focus for this initiative is to maximize the impact and connectivity of Paterson?s recent designation as home to the nation?s newest national park in a way that integrates design and the arts into the fabric of revitalization efforts---both already underway in the neighborhood and citywide.  For us, this means intentionally connecting the dots between the arts and infrastructure improvement, transportation and parking, creative signage and way-finding, and ensuring that the arts play a role in future interpretive elements of the national park, education, and positive change. We hope that this initiative can serve as a model for how cities and federal agencies can come together with local communities and individuals to use the arts and creative cultural activities as a catalyst for sustainable development and redevelopment.

By creating a public process where residents and local community institutions are invited to play a lead role in harnessing the creative power of the arts, cultural heritage, creative interpretation and social history, we hope this project will lay the foundation for transforming one of the nation?s most economically distressed communities for many years to come. We contend that this is a unique opportunity to synchronize the planning for the nation?s newest National Park with the identity of the local arts community---and boldly create ?A Park Like No Other? that intentionally fosters creative collaboration between artists, design professionals, and area youth and provides an inclusive public participation process where every voice and idea is captured.

Too often creative local artists and individuals are left at the margins of planning and revitalization efforts and our hope is that this process will help mobilize a wide array of individuals to play an active role in the renaissance of one of America?s most important cities and industrial experiments.

NEA: Why is it important to have arts and culture at the table when planning community revitalization efforts?

POWELL: Too often, community revitalization efforts lack creative inspiration and miss the opportunity to capitalize upon intrinsic assets such as local artists and creative approaches to revitalization efforts.  Thankfully, there is growing consensus and literature on the power and value of strategic arts-based planning, cultivating the creative class, and fostering culturally-driven community change.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the most successful revitalization strategies include community-based arts and cultural activities in both the planning and implementation phases.  In places like Paterson, where there has always been a strong arts presence---from literary titans like William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg to visual artists like Oscar Bluemner and photographer George Tice---the arts are intrinsically linked to both the past, and by definition, the future.

NEA: How do you think the creation of the Great Falls National Historic Park benefits the civic life of your community?

POWELL: Today, there is a unique opportunity to synchronize the planning for the nation?s newest National Park with the identity of the local arts community---and to boldly create ?A Park Like No Other? which will intentionally foster creative collaboration between artists, design professionals, and residents in an inclusive public participation process. To the best of our knowledge, this has never happened before in creating a new national park and we believe it provides an unparalleled opportunity to increase civic engagement and participation here in Paterson.

Because planning efforts are currently underway to launch the nation?s newest National Park, we contend that there has never been a more vital time to link the arts in a way that creates a place of local, regional, national, and international importance. Underlying this belief is the hope that the future park will serve as a learning laboratory for understanding the complex textures of industrialization, immigration, economic opportunity, diversity, and cultural landscape interpretation.

NEA: Given the nature of your project, how do you define the term public art?

POWELL: We define ?public art? as an installation, design, or work of art that rests in the public domain. We are hopeful that there will be many public art opportunities to help tell the unique story of Paterson?s roll in forming the American experience---from the struggle of the labor movement, to creating economic independence from Britain, to interpreting the literary and visual giants of yesterday and today.

NEA: How important is MICD 25 funding for the success of your project?

POWELL: Without the NEA and the prestigious Mayor?s Institute on City Design 25th anniversary grant, this project and initiative simply wouldn?t exist.  Because the MICD25 initiative is heralded as a unique opportunity to tear down the traditional silos that exist between place-making, design, and the arts, we have been able to interest a wide swath of foundations to come together to help lay the foundation for arts-based revitalization. Thanks to the Dodge Foundation, J.P. Morgan Chase, and the Taub Foundation in particular---who each understand the importance of the arts in sustainable revitalization efforts---Paterson has become a testing ground for funder collaboration and creative synergy.  Our hope is that this type of collaboration will become a more regular occurrence in the years to come, but it simply wouldn?t have been possible without MICD 25.

Visit the MICD25 page on our website to learn about our other MICD25 projects.

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