PATERSON, N.J. — On a lively stretch of Main Street, one bakery is Syrian and another is Colombian and Italian. A Yemeni restaurant opened near a Lebanese spot. And across the street, there is a barbershop called Palestine, where men getting haircuts filled nearly every seat.
André Sayegh, the newly elected mayor, grew up in this neighborhood in Paterson’s south end. He has seen its evolution. Arrivals from around the world have flocked here, many coming from the Middle East, and have opened the businesses — the restaurants, meat markets, shops and salons — that draw customers from well beyond the city’s borders. Mr. Sayegh sees the neighborhood not just as a bright spot in a distressed city, but as a template for growth for other parts of Paterson where progress has been much more difficult to achieve.
“We have all the right ingredients,” Mr. Sayegh, who spent a decade on the City Council, said as he walked along Main Street.
In recent years, the two largest cities in New Jersey, Newark and Jersey City, have mostly been on the rise. But Paterson, the third largest, has continued to be defined in large part by its struggles: crime, poverty and a pervasive sense of limited opportunity.
Still, there is a growing contingent who believe Paterson is primed for revival, imagining a renaissance propelled by what they see as the city’s most promising assets: its diversity (dozens of ethnic groups live here) and a rich history (Alexander Hamilton helped found it). And there are the Great Falls, an unlikely scene of natural splendor in the middle of an urban center, a national park where water from the Passaic River cascades over a 77-foot cliff.
“We keep saying it’s Paterson’s time,” said Inge Spungen, the executive director of the Paterson Alliance, a collective of nonprofits. “A lot of the other cities around us have come back. Newark and Jersey City have had improvements in their cities. I think a lot of people believe it’s Paterson’s turn.”
Yet for all the optimistic talk, there are visible reminders of the city’s chronic problems. Mr. Sayegh follows a mayor, Joey Torres, who was sentenced to five years in prison for corruption, and the Police Department is the target of a federal investigation, which has already led to the arrests of several officers on suspected civil rights violations and narcotics charges.
Ruby Cotton, the City Council president, said she regularly hears from residents complaining about a lack of jobs, the need for economic development and shortcomings in the quality of life. “They’re looking for peace and quiet,” Ms. Cotton said.
Paterson’s reputation has long been sullied by headlines about corrupt politicians and gang violence. In an episode of “The Sopranos,” mobsters tossed a man off the bridge above the Great Falls. Some residents have described their city as the neglected backyard for safer and more affluent communities nearby whose residents come here to buy drugs.
“The attitude for far too long was anything goes,” Mr. Sayegh said. “But there needs to be an attitude adjustment.”
Paterson, about 15 miles west of Manhattan, is not the only city that has staggered to recover after the industries that built it faded away. But other cities have been a source of hope. Jersey City has had a flood of new residents and upscale development. Newark, the largest city in New Jersey and long a symbol of urban decay, has had a rush of development downtown that has encouraged new businesses to open. In Trenton, the beleaguered capital, efforts are underway to revitalize downtown and transform neglected buildings into art galleries and event spaces, yet a shooting at a popular art festival showed how precarious such progress can be.
In Paterson, the Police Department has added officers — two dozen graduated from the academy in June — and updated its computer system. Jerry Speziale, the police director, said that “we’ve cleaned our own house,” by instituting civility and integrity tests for officers and initiating the investigation that grew into the federal inquiry.
One officer was arrested in May after investigators found that, while responding to an attempted suicide call, he was seen on security camera footage punching a man in the face while he was in a wheelchair, and then grabbing him by the neck and pushing him to the ground, according to court records. In April, another officer was charged with distributing marijuana, heroin and cocaine. Two others were accused of stopping vehicles without justification, searching them and detaining people, and, in some instances, improperly taking money and other items from vehicles, the authorities said.
Mr. Speziale declined to comment on specific details of the investigation. “We do not stand for any corruption whatsoever,” he said. “Police officers are held to a different standard, a higher standard.”
Despite his agency’s troubles, Mr. Speziale said the city brimmed with potential. He noted recent improvements in violent crime rates; three murders have been recorded this year compared with 14 during the same period last year, according to state crime data, and the overall violent crime tally fell about 8 percent from 2016 to 2017. “I really believe that Paterson can be the success story of this decade,” he said.
Paterson, densely packed with just under 150,000 residents, has grown into an international hub. It has a Little Lima and a Little Ramallah, and swelling immigrant populations from South Asia, South America and the Caribbean. The public school district said that half its students speak languages other than English, with some 40 languages spoken in its schools. The infusion of ethnic restaurants has made Paterson a food destination.
The city’s boundaries are largely set by the winding Passaic River, the waterway that allowed Paterson to establish itself as a capital in the Industrial Revolution. Manufacturers harnessed the water to power factories producing textiles, railroad locomotives, paper and firearms (Samuel Colt built his gun mill below the waterfall).
Once again, Paterson is looking to the Great Falls to power its ambitions.
Officials have sketched out plans for mixed-use developments and the campus of a university they hope to draw here. Mr. Sayegh said that if he accomplishes anything as mayor, it will be bringing in a hotel. (There is one motel.) The falls are at the heart of those plans.
The falls, which became a national park in 2011, had 300,000 visitors last year, park officials said. Various improvements, including an amphitheater at the base of the cascade, are being built. Officials hope that restaurants and stores will also come to the historic downtown area so that more visitors will be drawn to the park and that the offerings around it will entice them to linger in the city.
“This could be a place in the future that has a second coming, so to speak,” said Darren Boch, the superintendent of the park. “I don’t want to say the national park is a panacea, or that it’s all things to all people, or all the socioeconomic issues will disappear.” But, he added, “It’s going to play a role, a vital role.”
On a recent morning, Mr. Sayegh raced between meetings across town and stopped in his old Council district, on the south end. People shouted “mayor!” as they drove past or stopped him on the sidewalk. He knew many of them by name. He beat five other candidates in a May election and was sworn in on Sunday; Mr. Sayegh, whose parents are Lebanese and Syrian, is believed to be the first Arab-American elected as Paterson’s mayor.
Wearing a conspicuous “I ♥ Paterson” button on his lapel, Mr. Sayegh pointed out neighborhood nuisances, like a liquor store and a hookah bar, that had closed and a preschool that his daughter attended in a building that once housed a rowdy club.
Raed Odeh, the owner of Palestine, the barbershop, noted his frustration with crime and drugs, as well as the sense of trust in civic leaders that had been bruised by corruption and scandal that adds to the pressure Mr. Sayegh faces in his new role. “This is a very big responsibility for the new mayor,” said Mr. Odeh, who has lived in Paterson for more than 25 years.
“If he doesn’t do a great job,” he added, “he will hear about it.”
Mr. Sayegh said he is optimistic, and certain that he would excel. He described Paterson as “the next frontier.” Still, he wants residents to remember that a transformation requires patience.
“It’s going to take time,” he said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
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