No Great Falls Festival?

What a shame for all of Paterson that Mayor Jeffery Jones has cancelled the annual Great Falls Festival. Citing financial reasons for cancellation reminds us too much of Mayor Frank X. Graves’s 1982 cancellation. Graves similarly expressed concern over the city’s financial resources, which many thought a thin excuse for discontinuing an event so closely identified with the administration of his predecessor, Mayor Lawrence “Pat” Kramer.

It was not until 1992 when newly elected Mayor (now Congressman) William J. Pascrell, Jr. brought back the Falls Festival to cheering crowds. The festival has since continued to evolve with the incorporation of new ideas and entertainment. Former Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres was a huge supporter with enthusiastic participation in the dunking tank to raise money for charity. Is it possible that Mayor Jones – like Frank Graves before him – simply can’t bear to continue a tradition upheld by his predecessor?

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How tragic that the celebration created over 40 years ago by the late Mary Ellen Kramer, the mayor’s wife, and a fervent group of volunteers, is not being continued! Mayor Jones has missed a major opportunity to demonstrate how a city beset by financial challenges can rise above them by mobilizing an effort – in the spirit of Mary Ellen Kramer – to enlist the support of local business, foundations and ordinary citizens to bring it to life.

It’s important to understand the history of this event. The first festival, a four-day cultural and entertainment celebration, was held on Labor Day weekend 1971, to honor Paterson’s industrial heritage and its role in labor and manufacturing. The 89-acre Great Falls/SUM Historic District had recently been entered on the U.S. Department of Interior’s National Register of Historic Places. This single act eventually led to the saving of the raceway system and the bulk of the district’s buildings from purchase and demolition by the NJ Department of Transportation for a proposed peripheral highway connecting to Interstate 80.

The festival was opened by then Governor William T. Cahill who arrived by helicopter in Hinchliffe Stadium. It inaugurated Great Falls Park in which an unused and ignored area was turned into a beautiful accessible park largely through Mary Ellen’s ability to energize volunteers and solicit donations of labor and materials. A deck was placed over the Passaic Valley Water Commission’s arch bridge which carried a water pipe, thus opening access to pedestrians to the new park and providing a spectacular view close enough to feel the spray of the Falls. The festival spawned the annual Labor Day parade from the American Labor Museum/Botto House in Haledon which ends at the Great Falls. Great Falls Park was renamed Mary Ellen Kramer Park after her death in 1993.

The festivals attracted tens of thousands. A primary feature invariably was some form of daredevil act. There was a variety of practitioners including: Karl Wallenda, who at age 68, not only walked a wire across the falls, but stood on his head; Philippe Petit’s walk, one month after his famous World Trade Center wire walk; motorcycle and helicopter trapeze acts; and even a human cannonball! Civic and nonprofit organizations showcased their services. Local and national entertainers participated on three stages providing free shows. Ethnic foods, often sponsored by local churches, were a big attraction. Antique auto shows and flea markets were held in Hinchliffe Stadium. Carnival rides and games were a big hit with children.

And of course there were fireworks!

The city’s financial condition and the influence of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ control on expenditures has been known for months. The undertaking of such a major event as the festival requires months of planning and effort by Celebrate Paterson, the nonprofit organizer, and the cooperation of the city and many others. Work should have started long ago to meet this challenge.

Sponsorships from media organizations and beverage companies have been available in the past. Vendors and amusement companies pay fees to participate. The public safety unions may be willing to negotiate for services. The FMBA in the past has run the beer concession. Events and entertainment might have had to be reduced.

Local entertainers and artists have been deprived of an opportunity to have their crafts seen by thousands. Nonprofits and churches are being denied an opportunity to showcase their services and traditions. It is especially sad to have missed the opportunity to capitalize on the tremendous public interest generated by the designation of the Great Falls National Historical Park. The Park Service could be available to talk about, and receive input on, the ongoing planning effort for the Park.

To hold some form of scaled-down festival in October misses the whole point of the celebration – the highlighting of Paterson’s historic role in labor and industry while providing an end-of-summer entertainment experience for the children and families of the entire Paterson region.

Francis J. Blesso