I was born and raised in New Jersey and photographed the city of Paterson because it was a prototype for industrial cities and represented the mythology of America. It was an American Idyll; unsustainable.

Paterson, America’s Silk City, lies hugging the Passaic Falls. The Falls, which powered the silk looms through the 19th and early 20th centuries, still run vigorously, pumping life into the old heart of the city even though the looms are silent.

Alexander Hamilton is considered the founder of Paterson. In 1791, he created the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, a private collective of investors to lease and develop the area around the Great Falls. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

The roofs of the mills creak and crumble, slumping under the weight of snow and withering from age and disuse. Proud people once filled with hope but now dispossessed seek refuge in them. 

The Great Falls and Passaic River propelled Paterson’s industrialization. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

“You can see the ghosts, sometimes they’re happy but sometimes they’re sad,” says Colleen on a winter’s morning. She sleeps in the cold, sheltered by jagged timber from the persistent snow sinking through the roof of the old textile mill.  “What happened?” asks another resident of the mill. 

The Passaic River runs behind Libby’s Diner, a Paterson lunch institution. The river plunges over the Great Falls. William Carlos Williams thought of the falls as the beating heart of the city and relied on its geography to lay out his poems. I wandered the banks of the river, photographing what I found along the way. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

 Answering that question became a central theme of my project. Industry builds communities as it draws in local resources to fuel its growth and then inevitably discovers ways to increase profits by moving elsewhere or maybe becomes obsolete.

Bob rests on the banks of the Passaic after a bath. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

Once gone, the city that relied on its manufacturing base is left without means to maintain its infrastructure or offer opportunity to its people. Decay sets in. Paterson and many other communities in America are left to fend for themselves and often struggle against corrupt political elites.

A smokestack sits high above an abandoned mill on the Passaic. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

Opportunity is born out of who we are or where we are when we enter this world. The notion that we can be anything we want as long as we work hard enough is no longer the rule but the exception to it in America.

A view of Paterson’s Little Lima neighborhood. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

An idyll is an idealised period of time that is typically unsustainable and in literature often ends in tragedy. I selected the title American Idyll for my work because the industrialisation of Paterson in the 19th and 20th century was meant to be the American dream come true. Perhaps it was for a time, but it didn’t last.

The Dolphin Mill complex on Spruce Street. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

In Paterson, it gave way to a new era of post-industrialisation that has trapped the community with declining prospects. The American dream is increasingly out of reach for many. The industrial revolution is romanticised in Paterson and America as an epic story of progress but we often disregard the consequences that many communities have suffered in a post-industrial landscape.

A view of the pulpit and primary nave of the First Baptist church during Sunday morning mass. The First Baptist Church was built in 1825. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

My approach to the project was inspired by local poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg. I wandered the city streets, back alleys, riverbanks, and old mills – stumbling on to house fires, political rallies, and neighborhood celebrations.

A cross at the First Baptist Church. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

I wanted to create an allegory about America, delivered through the city of Paterson and her people. The pictures are intended to be lyrical and metaphorical, arranged like a poem about a day in the life of the city. “A man himself is a city,” wrote William Carlos Williams and, like Williams, I treated Paterson as a person: living, breathing, loving but also dying.  

Paterson’s Guardian Angels observe the fireworks for the Fourth of July at Garrett Mountain. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

Paterson is the second most densely populated city in America after New York, with 150,000 people packed into eight square miles. It’s home to fifty ethnic groups. There’s about twenty-five million people in America, living in small cities like Paterson.

A flag is displayed on a rooftop in the Little Lima neighborhood. It was formerly known as Little Dublin. It’s one of the first settlements in Paterson dating back to the early nineteenth century. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

 Founded in 1792 by Alexander Hamilton as a corporation, Paterson was ruled by corrupt industrialists who paid no taxes and crippled the city’s development. The consequences of its corrupted origins ripple through it today. In black and white, American Idyll depicts a broken city that mirrors American society. 

A boy attended a peace march on Palm Sunday that went from the First to the Fourth Ward. The wards are locked in an ongoing feud known as “up the hill, down the hill” due to their geographic proximity to each other. Gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy attended the event. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
402 East 37th street on fire. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
Jesse (93) looks out of his brabershop window into the 4th ward. A neighborhood notorious for gun violence. The barbershop was opened in the 1940’s and has remained virtually unchanged. However, Jesse has witnessed several murders in front of his shop and the neighborhood deteriorate. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
Shrines for murder victims are commonly found along the sidewalks throughout the city. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
The city council meets to conduct a vote of confidence for embattled mayor Joey Torres. Joey had been accused and later convicted of using municipal resources to his personal gain. The council voted in favor of the mayor staying in power during his trial. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
A chair left along Rt. NJ-19. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
A man’s arm hangs after injecting himself with heroin at an abandoned house in the Fourth Ward with Tru. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
Mike and Bonnie get high on the train tracks. Pete injects Bonnie. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
Mike and Bonnie rest at an abandoned house in the Fourth Ward. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
Two of Christine Banko’s children playing at home. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
The Riverview Towers is a low income, affordable housing estate with 376 units. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
Ra Ra (r) and his brother near the corner of Summer Street and Broadway. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
A couple walks along Broadway, downtown. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
A family has a picnic on Fourth of July at the Falls. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.
People living in an abandon silk mill between Spruce Street and McBride Avenue. Photo: Todd Darling/HKFP.

American Idyll by Todd R. Darling is a lyrical interrogation of the American Dream set in Paterson, New Jersey, US. It will be released in April 2021. Darling is an American documentary photographer based in Hong Kong for 16 years, where he began his career photographing the Umbrella Movement for Polaris Images in 2014. View his portfolio here.

Support HKFP  |  Code of Ethics  |  Error/typo?  |  Contact Us  |  Newsletter  | Transparency & Annual Report

Support press freedom & help us surpass 1,000 monthly Patrons: 100% independent, governed by an ethics code & not-for-profit, Hong Kong Free Press is #PressingOn with impartial, award-winning, frontline coverage.