Under the Passaic FallsPrint
Photographing an abandoned community
By Noelani Kirschner
June 4, 2018
After living abroad for 13 years, Todd R. Darling returned to his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and discovered a network of homeless people living in abandoned 19th-century mills. Darling set out to document those lives in a series of photographs that he calls Home of the Brave. One homeless veteran, Bob (seated far left, smoking), has become the center of Darling’s project, which the photographer describes here. The images address the familiar problems of addiction, mental illness, and poverty in a city that was once an industrial powerhouse.
Paterson was the first planned industrial city in America—it was founded in 1792 by Alexander Hamilton with the support of George Washington. Like other American cities, it has gone through de-industrialization, and over the past several decades, it’s been a struggle to keep the city above water; in some neighborhoods, the poverty rate is 60 percent or more. Paterson also has a major opioid challenge. There are people coming from all over the Northeast to do drugs in this city.
Mental illness and drug addiction are factors for why people here become homeless. In Bob’s case, he was in the army and then worked different jobs, but each place went out of business. He couldn’t pay his bills, and found it hard to ask for help. He’s a proud guy and struggles with taking charity. It was around 2014 when he actually lost his home. He knew one of the old abandoned mills well, so he went down to live in one of the building’s insulation pipes. He eventually found a furnace within the building and lived there until recently. Now Bob is in the Y and has housing, for the moment. But these grand mills are providing refuge for people who have nowhere else to go. There are probably about 12 to 15 people living in the mill that Bob was in, and there are several of those mills with approximately the same number of people living in each.
Bob is a dependable person and has a big heart. He really values community, so he takes on the role of helping people when they become homeless. There’s such a strong sense of community and friendship with the others who live in the mills that some of them return to visit after securing housing.
After living in Hong Kong for many years, I was able to come back to America with a critical set of eyes. My documentary work is about the American promise: Is it still being fulfilled, and if not, what went wrong? The American dream is possible but is a hard reality and constantly changes. One day people are up, and the next they’re down, and it’s not necessarily a result of anything they did.
Noelani Kirschner is the editorial assistant for the Scholar.