Each summer, Groundwork youth pack their bags and head out to some of the country’s most iconic national parks – Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton, among others – to learn new conservation, historic preservation, and outdoor skills. These adventure-packed trips provide young people with the chance to connect with peers, camp, hike, and develop leadership skills while tackling the National Park Service’s backlog of deferred maintenance. The pandemic may have limited our travels this summer, but Groundwork youth still had the opportunity to learn and explore a little closer to home. Groundwork Elizabeth youth leaders and Green Team crew members had a chance to hone their skills at Paterson Great Falls National Historic Site – less than 30 miles from Elizabeth, NJ.
In the mist of one of the nation’s largest waterfalls, Paterson, New Jersey rose to prominence in 1792 as Alexander Hamilton’s brainchild – the first planned industrial city. Powered by the falls, a humble mill town was transformed into an industrial powerhouse manufacturing everything from fabrics to steam locomotives and airplane engines.
While manufacturing declined in the aftermath of WWII, the community still bears the marks of this industrial past in the polluted soils of the 25-30 known brownfield sites in the Great Falls District. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to clean up the brownfield sites and prepare them for redevelopment. With its beautiful overlook of the falls, the Paterson Great Falls National Historic Site is located in the heart of this redevelopment area.
Under the mentorship of Groundwork USA’s Curt Collier and Joseph Leyba, the Groundwork Elizabeth team had the opportunity to bring new life to the park and improve access to this historic waterway. Over several weeks this summer, they completed significant upgrades to the park’s aging infrastructure – repairing metal fences, completing stonework, building walls, pouring concrete, learning metalworking and welding, clearing invasives, and creating breathtaking new views of the falls.
And, while hard at work, the Elizabeth team enjoyed connecting with another community close to home. Every day a crowd would gather nearby to the watch the team complete the updates. Paterson is one of the most diverse cities in New Jersey, and that diversity was reflected in the visitors that stopped by to watch, ask questions and chat with the Groundwork crew. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Black and Afro-Caribbeans, Mexican-Americans, Chinese, Orthodox Jews, and Bangladeshi guests reflected the city’s deep roots as a haven for immigrants from around the globe. While some folks told stories of swimming in the river, others sat nearby drinking sweet tea, and a Peruvian dance festival happened nearby. Meeting the community added a new level of purpose and excitement to the Green Team’s effort to add beauty to the park.
In just three short weeks, the team:
Revamped the Mary Ellen Kramer Monument
Mary Ellen Kramer was a champion of the preservation and restoration of the park in the 1970’s. A monument to her commitment now resides at the heart of the park. The Groundwork team gave new life to the memorial with a new stone wall and walkway.
Repaired Damaged Infrastructure
A car accident three years ago caused damage to a historic iron fence and nearby concrete bench. The Groundwork team put their metalworking skills to the test, replacing and restoring the fence line.
Improved the View & Built New Overlooks
Originally designed as a garden, a large section of land overlooking the upper falls had become so overgrown that the view was blocked entirely – especially for shorter visitors and those in wheelchairs. By clearing away the invasives and preparing the ground for easy-to-maintain groundcover, they added a whole new area for guests to sit and enjoy the view. Nearby, a muddy, slippery, and heavily eroded area further marred the beauty of the site. The Groundwork had the opportunity to design a new vision for the area and bring that vision to life. The site now includes a patio overlook, new railings, and a much safer staircase down the slope. Not only did they improve the view of the falls, but now visitors of all abilities can enjoy the natural beauty of one of the largest waterfalls in the country. Shortly after completing the lookout, a local youth who is in a wheelchair told a Ranger: “I’m so happy that I can see the top of the falls now!”
There was something extra special about working closer to home for the Groundwork Elizabeth team. Lucy Crespo, Groundwork Elizabeth’s Green Team Leader, noted, “many times we go to National Parks to do this great work, but it’s rare that we get to hear the feedback from visitors.” Not only is it easier to hear feedback, but the distance also makes it possible for the team to come back to enjoy the benefits of their hard work personally.
As the Groundwork Youth Corps program continues to grow, we hope to provide this experience for our youth in communities across the country. To learn more about our youth programs, visit our webpage.
*A special thank you to Superintendent Darren Boch, Interim Superintendent Floyd Myers, and Illyse Goldman, Division Chief – Interpretation, Education and Volunteers for making this opportunity possible.