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The History of Passaic, NJ

Photo Credit to Mario Pena

Painting the “History of Passaic, NJ” mural on the exterior wall of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Elementary School #6 located at 85 Hamilton Street for the Passaic Public Schools District, is the type of theme I have wanted to paint. Why… because I consider myself a student of history and architecture is a part of art history. The city of Passaic may stretch only 3.25 square miles but its history is long and rich with tradition and I felt compelled to write about it. Within its small borders lies a petrified forest of nostalgic architecture from the last quarter of the 19th into the first decades of the 20th Century.

This labor of love I physically started on August 8th, came to its final end on September 23, 2019. However, preparation for this project began well before August. Its origins were rooted with visiting the local library, looking through their archives, reading, and taking copious notes. Researching through my architectural design books and searching the internet helped to inspire other choices for the imagery seen in the mural’s composition such as the landmarks that represent once upon a time in America. The mural is really a pictorial allegory spanning almost 342 years, beginning in the 17th century with the landing of the Dutch traders who founded a settlement called Acquackanonk on Dundee Island, presently called Pulaski Park. Passaic’s original spelling is Pahsayek or Pasaik. It is from the Lenni-Lenapi language which translates as “the valley or place where land splits.” The Lenni-Lenapi tribe dominated the central northeast region of the eastern United States. They were the indigenous American tribe living along the Passaic River when the Dutch settlement of Acquackanonk was settled in 1678. For the next 200 years Passaic remained a village comprised of farmland that made up an agrarian society until the late 1860’s when things started to change because of the building of the Dundee Dam and Dundee Canal. Due to this public engineering project, a new source for fresh water supplied by the dam and canal, spurred tremendous industrial growth and a population boom. The height of Passaic’s textile factories and mills began during the later 1800’s and stretched until the pre World War I era. These included the Botany Worsted Woolen Mills, Forstmann Woolen Mills, Manhattan Rubber Co. and Paterson Parchment Paper Co., just to name a few. The need for employment at the mills caused thousands of people to flock to Passaic. This was at the time when the great European migration that filled up the four wards of the city began. From the start of the 20th century up until the 1940’s the Second Ward was primarily made up of Italians from Sicily and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe While Passaic’s industrial revolution employed many of its residents, the locals were also self-employed and owned many store-fronts and shops. Another great contributor to the rise of Passaic was the Erie Lackawanna railroad line. In conjunction with the Passaic River it was the lifeline that created an upsurge raising the city to a prestigious level built on commerce. This information is just some of what I learned during my research to collect imagery that would represent Passaic’s nostalgic past from yesteryear. There could have been more imagery included into the “History of Passaic, NJ” mural but a much larger wall would be needed to fit all of it, i.e., references to the railroad lines, hospitals, theatres, restaurants and shops that were once staples of Passaic. A mural based off of the Capitol Theatre alone would be a great theme in itself and would also require its own very large wall. The “History” mural design can be viewed from top to bottom or visa versa, it works both ways. From the bottom you see a European family in grayscale to mimic the old photograph surrounded by portraits of actual students that attend School 6 which is a combination of elementary and middle school grades (K-8). The students also represent the new immigrants of today and become educated about those who came to Passaic long ago from countries such as Italy, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Poland, The Ukraine, Russia and Ireland. The viewer may engage and read the theme of the mural from ground level. As the eye ascends upward seeing what the children are looking at and smiling with curiosity and interest, the onlooker’s eyes travel around the composition on a visual rollercoaster of line, shape and color until it reaches the zenith of the mural where a class of elementary students are gathered around an educator who reads to them as they are sitting on the carpeted floor listening closely to the history of their city. As the story gets told and the pages of history are turned, the students think about what they are learning as they view old photos in a ‘then and now’ book and hearing about the old landmarks that were prestigious symbols of the city’s wealth. The students learn about the Lenapi and the arrival of the fist Dutch settlers. They learn about Passaic’s golden age of industrial expansion that brought the old world immigrants, coming to America in the thousands and how the diversity of its citizens created a shining example of America’s melting pot of ethnic cultures living together to make a better world for themselves, through sheer grit and hard work. The immigrants who helped build Passaic replaced the wood structures with stone, brick, cast iron and steel. Because of that, Passaic has an abundance of splendid little hidden treasures predominately in the First and Second Wards decorated with pride but overshadowed by time and neglect.

As the pages of Passaic’s history book are turned the students learn about George Washington and the Continental Army. During the start of the Revolutionary War, Washington crossed over the Passaic River after his miraculous escape from Fort Lee, in November of 1776. Washington led his army over the Aquackanonk Bridge as he and his rag tag troops headed south, making the iconic crossing of the Delaware River, Christmas Day 1776 and they would win decisive victories at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, NJ. The Aquackanonk Bridge, long gone, was replaced by the Gregory Avenue Bridge in the early 20th century and sits 50 yards south of the original bridge. The Acquackanonk Bridge reference represents this historical crossing by our nation’s founding Father, as well as, a compositional metaphor for bridging the gap between Passaic’s past, present and its future. The middle school student holding his chin is pondering Passaic’s history as the story unfolds. Above the equestrian image of Washington stands the tallest building in Passaic. This iconic, twelve story Art Deco design building at 663 Main Avenue was built in 1931 during our country’s Great Depression. It is the crowning capital of Passaic’s skyline and was originally called the People’s Bank and Trust Company. It was built the same year that the Empire State building was constructed in New York City. Today, 663 Main Avenue is the current home of the Passaic Board of Education, a tenant, who just recently moved into this historical edifice. This Art Deco treasure is landmarked (National Register of Historic Places). After decades of neglect and abandonment, the Hanini Bros. firm, purchased and beautifully restored Passaic’s iconic structure back to its original grandeur.

To the right is the once great Paulison Castle commenced in 1873 and finally finished in 1892 when it became Passaic’s second city hall. “The Castle” stood where present day Passaic High School is now. In its day the Castle boasted a beautiful park juxtaposed to a small lake. I could only imagine the aesthetic beauty that was created. This ornate masterpiece of architectural design was torn down in 1954 to make way for the modern minimalism design of the city’s high school (student population 3,000 with a staff of 300).

In the top right section of the mural is the famous and iconic Capitol Theatre. It was originally a vaudeville/movie theatre built in 1921 and could hold an audience capacity of 3,200. Not in the mural, but other iconic landmark theatres worth mentioning are: the first Montauk Theatre first built in the early 1900’s as a Vaudeville theatre with a seating capacity of 2,640, the Second Montauk Theatre built in 1924, as a live theater/movie venue and the Central Theatre, (1940, cap. 2,400) another venue of notable performances that included The Glenn Miller and his Band’s last ever American performance (Sept. 27, 1942), Frank Sinatra and Pink Floyd. The Capitol Theatre was a legendary entertainment venue with a long list of acts performed by American masters such as James Brown, Queen, Rolling Stones, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Parliament-Funkadelic and the Beastie Boys were only a few of the heavy hitters that once performed live on the Capitol Theatre stage. While I was painting this section, Passaic residents passing by would stop, view and comment affectionately about their fond memories of their experiences at the Capital Theater. Unfortunately, this landmark should have been cherished but it was not valued as such and rather was perceived as old and outdated when urban blight began to creep into the city and caused further damage to its existence. Sadly, this legendary entertainment venue was razed to the ground in 1991 after a fatal fire, now stands a Pizza Hut.

At the bottom right corner is an Afro-American girl from the 1960’s civil rights era reading a schoolbook. It is up to the viewer to come up with their own story about her and what school subject she is performing in front of the class. The African American population has been well rooted into the fabric of Passaic society for decades, e.g. the Shirelles were discovered at a Passaic High School talent show in April 1957, NFL Pro Bowl and Super Winner Jack Tatum and NFL running back for the New Orleans Saints Craig “Ironhead” Heyward.

The golden age of Passaic during the period between the later half of the 19th and early 20th centuries is very well preserved as seen in its remaining old factories, warehouses and residential buildings from that time period. During that era Passaic went from being a town built with wood to a city erected in stone, brick, iron and steel. A parallel can be made between Passaic and ancient Rome during its own golden age. Under the reign of the emperor Augustus Rome was transformed from a city of brick into a city of marble. The golden age of Passaic lost its luster and began tarnishing towards the later end of the 20th Century. However, that may have been a blessing in disguise because years of urban blight accompanied by the cheapest colored paint you can buy took away the original beauty and grandeur of the city’s pride. I have to commend Hoboken, NJ that they restored 90% of their golden age period back to its original splendor. Many of the old Passaic buildings’ designs are comparable to Hoboken and are heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman Revival or Neo Classical (Reid Library, 1903), Gothic, Victorian, Art Nouveau, English Baroque, Art Deco, Flemish and Mesoamerican. All styles can be seen adorning the city blocks in the form of what most people would regard as mundane structures of no importance to Passaic’s glorious past.

I went around Passaic studying its urban landscape and noticed there were quite a few buildings that have the year marked on the top of these golden age type apartments. If you look at the top of these buildings you will notice some have triangular roofs. This is a direct influence from ancient Greece and is known as a pediment seen on ancient Greek and Roman temples. Old banks, schools, municipal buildings and libraries were built in this classical style. The designs under the building ledges are reminiscent of triglyphs and metopes, which are based from classical Greece architecture, arched doorways and windows are taken from ancient Rome. It is actually incredible that the ancients still dominated late 19th and early 20th century architecture up until the 1940’s (pre WWII) and that employing ancient and Medieval architectural motifs into their buildings’ designs perpetuated the evolution and legacy of architectural tradition passed down over millenniums. Art Deco is reminiscent of ancient Mesopotamia, Egyptian and even Mesoamerican structures. Passaic may be a small city but is gigantic when it comes to freezing a moment in history and encapsulating the persistence of time.

Passaic has many old cathedral style churches and a few old schools from its golden age. These are not included in this article because it is safe to say that those structures are not in danger of being demolished. However, the apartment buildings and red brick factories are presently within the scope of gentrification. There is one glimmer of hope that Passaic and cities alike will see the value in the old and not redevelop but to restore on the outside and renovate on the inside, in order to protect and preserve its rich heritage. Sad when you see a great piece of Americana in the form of architectural history get destroyed by fire as the recent burning down of the Marcal Paper factory in Elmwood Park, NJ. It was built in 1932 and went up in flames and totally destroyed in 2019. That was a landmark building with an iconic red, old school sign. Even sadder when you see the golden age of any American town and city throughout the United States where urban renewal and developers purposely stripped away its character for modernization. All these new gentrified boxes don’t even have fire escapes, again stripping the city of its ‘indigenous’ look. Less is more but rents are higher. The old look created with art in mind as seen in many golden age ornately decorated fire escapes. They are not just boring vertical bars they have a sense of aesthetic design that employ the elements of art just as much as the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci.. People like to have roots and to feel connected to something. Cultures are proud of their history and the same can be applied to countries, cities and towns. Contemporary society is also recognizing cities with a historical culture, that’s where people want to live and work. People would love to live in a restored factory. How cool would it be to have a courtyard in an apartment complex that has a six story high smoke stack? It would function as a monument that pays homage to the historical past. The famous quote form George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and this brings me to the NYC city planner Robert Moses who had the original Pennsylvania Station which was built in 1910, demolished in 1963. The present day Penn Station is a mere shoe box design compared to the old decorated train station built during the early 20th century. The 1910 original design was based off of the Baths of the Roman emperor Caracalla (AD 211). That era with its golden age treasures are gone forever, never to be replaced. Passaic is prime for gentrification, it’s inevitable and it has actually already begun. The city that winds along the river is only twelve miles from Manhattan. Passaic has a bus and train line and it’s poised for river front properties, restaurants, cafes and waterfront pedestrian parks along the Passaic River. Hopefully, gentrification will not erase this city’s integrity but keep it real because change doesn’t always mean progress.

I want to thank Principal Stacey Barbetta Bruce for her unbridled passion towards Passaic, the city she was born and raised in as an extended member of the Mistretta/Manney family. Principal Bruce’s grandmother’s portrait is painted below George Washington, having attended the original Lafayette School on the site of the current School 6 in 1931. Her father (Bruce’s great grandfather) worked on building School #11 in 1924. Principal Bruce was very instrumental with getting the ball rolling on this notion to paint a mural dedicated to the history of the Passaic community as well as saluting the old established residents and the new immigrants, e.g., Indian, Mexican, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Columbian, Peruvian and all other Latinos that today make up the great city of Passaic.

I would like to thank the support of Superintendent Pablo Munoz, Assistant Superintendents Jeff Truppo and Rachel Goldberg, President Arthur Soto & the Passaic BOE. Passaic Board and Business Administrator- Erlinda Arellano for seeing the vision for supporting and promoting the arts and allowing me to illustrate a history lesson by means of an art education. Thanks to the City Historian Mark S. Auerbach, for his 125th Anniversary of the City’s Incorporation Year overview (1873-1998) of Passaic history, from 1678 to 1998.

Passaic 7

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