Once a key stop on the fur-trading trail two centuries ago, Passaic, New Jersey is now a 3.2-square-mile city consisting of mixed industrial, commercial, and residential land uses and a little over 68,000 people. Located in the southeastern corner of Passaic County, the city is approximately 12 miles from the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels and offers residents easy access to the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.
"Passaic, New Jersey is a microcosm of American history, from the colonial experience to urban decay and back," according to long-time Passaic resident Mark S. Auerbach. He should know. Auerbach, the former city historian, has been documenting the city's history for several decades and is more than happy to talk about its proud beginnings and the rainbow of ethnic and cultural diversity that his town has become today.
According to the original Dutch deed, in April of 1678, a Dutch settler and trader by the name of Hartman Michielsen (later Vreeland) purchased "a great island in the river of Pasaick near by Aquickanucke by the Indians called Menehenicke." According to Auerbach, "The island came to be known as Dundee Island and today that area is known as Pulaski Park."
The city of Passaic was finally put on the map on April 2, 1873, when an act to incorporate the city was signed.
"Between 1679 and 1684/85, deeds and patents were acquired between the original settlers and the native Americans, the Lenni-Lenape, that secured for the original settlers the land including and surrounding modern day Passaic," writes Auerbach. "In October of 1693, the Township of Acquackanonk was created in the northern part of Essex County. In February of 1837, the County of Passaic was created from parts of northern Essex and western Bergen County. In 1854, the Village of Acquackanonk took the name of the river that it bordered, Passaic."
Fur trade helped to spur the city's early economic growth. Even back then, location was vital to the growth and development of the cities. With Passaic located just at the end of the Passaic river, Auerbach explains that its location was ideal for wood loggers to import wood and ore via the river and then by oxen and wagons.
From Trading Post to Town
By the late 1860s, the Village of Passaic was steadily growing in population and commercial and residential size, mostly due to the completion of the Dundee Dam and Dundee Canal in July 1861. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most Passaic residents lived in cold-water flats in tenement houses. The flats had plumbing, but lacked internal heating except for a fireplace or stove.
Big changes and advances were afoot, however. According to Auerbach, "The vastly enlarged and now abundant fresh water supply became the basis for the industrial boom that would fuel Passaic's rapid growth."
The last half of the nineteenth century and that part of the twentieth century before World War I were great growth years for Passaic's numerous factories, mills and mom and pop businesses. The population grew tenfold during this time and peaked in the 70,000s during the decade after World War I.
"The factories and mills that attracted and employed the vast majority of Passaic's citizens are too numerous to mention," says Auerbach, adding that those factories produced everything from woolen goods to rubber products, and operated night and day.
Some of the more memorable factories and mills that fueled the city's economy were the Passaic Cotton Mills, the Manhattan Rubber Company, the Paterson Parchment Paper Company, and the Dundee Power and Water Company. For decades, Passaic stood apart as a center of manufacturing, industry, and progress.
The Cost of Progress
Passaic has always been a city of immigrants, dating back to the days when newly arrived Europeans, who made for cheap labor, worked in the local mills until World War I began to reduce the need for their services. As the region's focus began to shift away from heavy industry and manufacturing after the wars, Passaic's economy found itself somewhat less robust than it had been, and the working-poor immigrants were the first to feel the pinch.
The pre- and postwar industrial booms in Passaic had other consequences, as well. Unregulated factories and mills often had detrimental effects on the environment and employees, and Passaic has seen its share of conflict surrounding the regulation and oversight of its factories.
One highly publicized case dealt with the century-old Pantasote Company plant, which produced plastics for everything from household items to medical instruments. The now-defunct Pantasote factory sits on an eight-acre site on Passaic's Jefferson Street, and has been targeted as an environmental hazard by a number of concerned groups. A class-action lawsuit is also in the works, charging that the largely immigrant workforce in that particular factory was illegally exposed to toxic fumes and carcinogenic materials while working the factory floor.
"[The factory] was a relic of the Industrial Revolution," says Stephen Spitzer, a lawyer who has handled hundreds of worker compensation claims against Pantasote. "They worked under Dickensian conditions."
Today, the city is still working to clean up the environmental detritus of two centuries of manufacturing, and made reparations to the individuals and families whose hard work made the city what it is today.
A Passaic Patchwork
Demographically speaking, the face of Passaic hasn't changed much throughout the years—it has always been a city of immigrants, beginning with the arrival of the English, Scottish and other Western Europeans, followed by Germans, Irish, Scandinavians, Austro-Hungarians and Italians, Germans, and Russians.
"After World War II, Passaic saw an influx of Puerto Ricans, the first Hispanic group to come to our city in any numbers," says Auerbach. "In 1956, during the Hungarian revolt, many Hungarians came to Passaic to join their relatives and friends. Since the 1970's, many Hispanic immigrants from Central America, South America, Mexico and the Caribbean Island countries have chosen Passaic as their home, to make a new start and share in the 'American Dream.'"
Today, Passaic residents' primary employers are no longer the mills and factories, but instead include the New Jersey board of education, the city government, and the area's many hospitals. Many families with parents working in New York City and Trenton find Passaic an ideal location from which to commute into the city and surrounding counties. These days, the town depends on the local Passaic County region for culture and entertainment and its smaller businesses struggle to compete with larger malls.
According to Auerbach, "Passaic once had a thriving downtown. The railroad was here until 1963, when the malls began manifesting themselves. Unfortunately, downtown Passaic was ignored, and there isn't anything left compared to what it used to be."
Living in Passaic
Over the years, Passaic has been home to several well-known residents who were either born planted roots in the area, including comedian Joe Piscopo, actress Loretta Swit and actor Michael J. Pollard. The city has also been used as a film location for the HBO hit television series, "The Sopranos."
Today, Passaic is what Auerbach calls, "a destination," which once again proves the importance of its location. "It's close to the city by transit," said Auerbach.
If you're a house-hunter with your eye on a home in Passaic, Richard Markert, broker/owner of ERA Options & Services in nearby West Patterson explains that most condos in town sell for between $170,000 and $250,000. "They go fairly quickly," says Markert. "It's lower in price compared to other areas, but the taxes are fairly high."
Few co-ops exist in the area, but one three-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium on the high end of the local market recently sold for $349,900 within two weeks of being listed. A recently available one-bedroom, one-bath property sold for approximately $87,000.
According to Markert, the market has slowed slightly, but he attributes this slight drop in sales to the upcoming elections. "People get transfixed about what's happening in the elections and want to see what's going to happen before they buy," he says.
Auerbach, for one, is proud of his city, though he has some thoughts on how Passaic could become more of a destination. "We are in a good place for our future," he says, "but we need to improve our educational system, our housing and road infrastructure, and work towards more cooperation between all the entities."
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie, New York.