Rubble Rouser

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Not many people would compare New Jersey urban blight to Italian Renaissance wonders, but one architect saw potential.

On his first trip to Paterson two years ago, architect Roy Strickland expected to see nothing more than dilapidated warehouses and abandoned brick factories. Like other cities in New Jersey's rust belt, Paterson has fallen on hard times, with its once-famous textile industry in tatters and its schools so forlorn that the state seized control of the district nearly a decade ago. But driving from New York City, a few minutes after crossing over the Hudson River, Strickland saw signs of hope, not despair. "The trees broke, and there was this series of church spires and domes that made me think of Florence," he says. Not many people would compare New Jersey urban blight to Italian Renaissance wonders, but in Paterson Strickland saw potential. Throughout his visit, he encountered inspiring architecture drenched in history. The structures often looked like battered war horses, but Strickland recognized the chance to do what he had long dreamed possible—spark an inner city's revival by transforming vacant buildings into public schools. Paterson, he believed, could become "The City of Learning."

An expert in school design and an instructor at MIT in Boston, Strickland had been hired as a consultant to help Paterson find sites for new schools. As luck would have it, his idea to make use of run-down buildings fit perfectly with Paterson Superintendent Edwin Duroy's plans to create small learning academies throughout the city, each focused on a career or field of interest. Together, the architect and the superintendent hatched a grand plan to help revitalize Paterson's schools and the city itself.

More than two years later, the pair has laid the foundation for the City of Learning. Six career academies are holding classes at sites ranging from a synagogue to a shopping center. Three more will open this fall. These small changes have not gone unnoticed; people who have called these parts home their entire lives are seeing old buildings for the first time. Their much-maligned city, it seems, has the potential to shine.

Inside the sanctuary of the old St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Merry Naddeo-Siss spreads her arms wide, and children start to sing—60 of them, all clad in white shirts, gray sweater vests, and navy blue pants. "You taught me well, you gave me strength," they begin.

The old church isn't a church anymore; it's the Academy of Fine Arts, a school that Naddeo-Siss and dance teacher Alyson Loughran founded as part of the new career academy plan. Though she used to teach at a traditional school, Naddeo-Siss feels at home among the high ceilings and old Sunday school rooms. "I'm a church musician," she says. "I had my first organ job at age 12."

On this day, students practice under sunlight filtering through a stained-glass window, an image of Christ watching over them. Such religious artwork will be removed once the sale of the building to the Paterson district is complete, but for now, it bathes the scene in purple and green. As a pianist pounds the keys harder, the choir nears the end of its song, and the children begin to stomp. They sway, raise their hands, and sing-shout the final verse: "Like an eagle, I will fly!"

Each of the career academies was designed and launched by teachers. An academy for international studies and languages holds classes inside a limestone-walled synagogue that's rarely used for worship. There, children take PE in a ballroom used for Jewish celebrations and gatherings, skipping and playing under holiday lights that stretch across the ceiling.

People who now flee the city after work might find reason to linger.

Around the corner from the old Lutheran church, a nearly vacant three-story shopping plaza houses two schools, one focused on medical careers, the other on media arts and urban planning. English and math teachers for the two schools lead classes in storefronts that were empty just a year ago. Across town, under the thick wooden rafters of an old textile mill and locomotive factory, students with disabilities will learn about careers with the region's transportation systems.

It's the school at St. Paul's that is the key to Strickland's plan for making Paterson a better place to live, work, and learn. Outside the sanctuary's front doors, the blacktop of a city-owned parking lot stretches for hundreds of yards. Residents call it the "superblock," with little affection. It's here that Strickland wants to see a city square, with sitting areas, fountains, trees, landscaped green spaces, and colorful banners. At a recent town meeting, he unveiled sketches of the park and talked of it teeming with downtown office workers. The square, he says, could serve as a college-like campus and link nearby public schools as well as Passaic Community College. With all the foot traffic, some of the neighborhood's shuttered storefronts will throw open their doors again, and people who now flee the city after work will find reason to linger.

It's tempting to dismiss Strickland's idea as nothing more than a fanciful blueprint. But this is New Jersey, where the state supreme court has ordered the legislature to reverse decades of neglect in poor districts. In July, as part of a settlement in a 30-year-old school-finance lawsuit filed by urban school systems against the state, Governor Christine Todd Whitman signed into law a deal that will pump $12 billion into school construction. Paterson expects to receive about $600 million over the next five years, enough to renovate virtually every school as well as build several new ones.

City leaders still have to be persuaded to bulldoze the profitable parking lot outside St. Paul's, but Strickland is patient. "We'll see," he says. "City building takes a long time, so I'm not too nervous about it.

Edwin Duroy arrived in Paterson three years ago to great expectations. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New Jersey, Duroy had logged 20 years in the Hoboken schools, starting as a social studies teacher and rising through the ranks to become the state's first Hispanic superintendent. In Paterson, he was inheriting a school system with an infamous history of corruption, dysfunctional leadership, and dismal student performance. But this was nothing new for him: Hoboken had been on the verge of a state takeover when he took over in 1991, and he had managed to boost test scores, spur innovation, and pull the system back from the brink.

Strickland earned teachers' respect when he turned design of the new schools over to them.

Initially, state officials told Duroy that a back-to-basics curriculum would save Paterson's schools—a typical approach for an urban system. But Duroy had other ideas. He crafted a reform strategy based in part on the success of small schools created in Harlem by progressive guru Deborah Meier. And given broad powers by the state's takeover law, he persuaded key local leaders to buy into the idea of career academies as well as Strickland's plan.

Among Duroy's backers are many Paterson teachers. He earned their respect when he turned the design of the new schools over to them. "He's throwing education back into the hands of the teachers, and that's where it belongs," says Kathi Kellett, a former teacher who now heads up a leadership academy at John F. Kennedy High School in the city's Hillcrest neighborhood. "It's rejuvenating me."

Debbie Slota, another Kennedy teacher, persuaded the district to open a restaurant academy that now features a student-run classroom eatery. "I worked my dream out on paper, and it became a reality," she says.

Nicholas Michelli, dean of education at Montclair State University in neighboring Upper Montclair, graduated from high school in Paterson and wants to see the district flourish. Montclair is helping sponsor a new academy for high school students interested in teaching careers. The academy opens this fall inside an old downtown office building with 60 students.

Over a lunch of baked chicken, green peas, and mashed potatoes at the restaurant academy, Michelli sounds a cautious note of optimism: For the first time in years, Paterson schools may be headed somewhere. "Dr. Duroy has this wonderful idea, to essentially do what charter schools do in some areas," Michelli says. Then he leans over his plate and adds: "This is an urban district on the move. It's exciting."

Taking a stroll through downtown, Roy Strickland talks about the local landmarks with the enthusiasm of an amateur historian. Founded in 1791 as America's first planned industrial city, Paterson was built along the banks of the Passaic River near a set of seventy-foot falls. These falls, it was believed, could power factories and mills that would wean the infant country from European goods. Over the next few decades, industry flourished, and the city became the world's leading silk manufacturer as well as a cultural hothouse. Mills lined the waterfront of "Silk City," as it was known, while posh stores, vaudeville houses, and movie theatres dotted the main street. Writer Allen Ginsberg and comedian Lou Costello were born there, and William Carlos Williams—once a hospital pediatrician in Paterson—wrote five volumes of epic poetry about the city.

Though fires have claimed a few of Paterson's architectural marvels, Strickland does not have to walk far to point out some striking buildings: the towering City Hall, created by the same men who designed New York City's famous public library; an old post office with gables, gargoyles, and the striped walls of a Flemish design; and the former police headquarters, made from solid limestone and adorned with ornate, arched windows. "It really is a very beautiful town," the architect says.

Strickland, 48, had never seen Paterson before his visit two years ago. He grew up in New York City, graduated from Columbia University, and opened an architectural firm in Manhattan. After winning a local contest for small-school design, he became interested in school architecture and made it his specialty when he took a teaching job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology nine years ago.

‘The kids can push the envelope and change the culture.’

Roy Strickland,

Strickland is experimenting with some of his City of Learning ideas in other districts. Union City, another northern New Jersey town, has asked him to design schools that will house social agencies, libraries, and other programs. The architect also has worked with schools in Berkeley, California, to link campuses more closely and develop a college-like neighborhood of schools—something he hopes to replicate with the city square next to St. Paul's.

During many of his visits to Paterson, Strickland stops by the media arts and urban design school. He requires his graduate students at MIT to help Paterson classes construct models for new building projects in the city. Jane Riesman, one of Strickland's students, has been working with her kids on an educational park that would replace a wasteland of barren asphalt and grass that stretches between two downtown schools. The surrounding neighborhood is hardly inspiring; demolition of a high-rise housing project is underway, scattering dust everywhere, and prostitutes loiter nearby, even before noon. But Riesman's students envision a very different place. One of the student models includes a swimming pool, skating rink, food court, climbing wall, ice cream shop, sandbox, and a pond with a fountain and lots of trees. "It's fun, and it makes us feel like we're in charge and helping the community," says 15-year-old Marilyn Medina, one of the model's creators.

Though the models for the park may be somewhat fanciful, Strickland says it's important for the students to dream. "They're setting a tone for the town," he says. "The kids—as the kids in the civil rights movement did—can push the envelope and change the culture."

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

Vol. 12, Issue 1, Pages 63-67

Published in Print: August 1, 2000, as Rubble Rouser
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