By Paul Thomasch
PATERSON, New Jersey (Reuters) - The devastation from Hurricane Irene is the latest setback for this working-class city of 150,000 people that has lost its industrial glory and fallen behind its wealthier neighbors.
Emblematic of the epic flooding in the northeastern United States, the New Jersey city of Paterson has known its share of adversity, from bruising labor strife a century ago to heartache from the September 11 attacks in 2001.
"Paterson is a dying city," said Jerry Hurtel, 63, who was visiting the city's Great Falls on the Passaic River on Thursday while taking the week off from his supermarket job because of the storm damage.
"When I was a boy, Paterson was the place to shop. Furniture? Wedding dresses? Bedding? You went to Paterson. Now nobody goes downtown -- even before the flooding," Hurtel said.
Many of Paterson's industries were powered by the Great Falls, the second largest waterfall by volume on the East Coast.
The river that once fueled Paterson's economy has now submerged entire neighborhoods after it reached its highest level since 1903 following Irene. Search and rescue teams have pulled hundreds of stranded residents from their homes, and U.S. President Barack Obama is set to visit on Sunday.
As Hurtel spoke, National Guard helicopters circled overhead, floodwaters crashed over rocks, and onlookers hung over railings snapping pictures.
"Pretty impressive. Who needs Niagara Falls?" Hurtel said. "Of course, some of it is probably being pumped from my basement."
Paterson, just 20 miles northwest of New York City, is ethnically diverse with large concentrations of blacks, Hispanics and a large Muslim population.
It started out as a planned industrial city developed using funds raised by an investment group formed by Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury secretary.
Nicknamed the "Silk City" for its 19th-century silk factories, Paterson has a place in labor history as the site of a six-month strike in 1913 by the Industrial Workers of the World, or "Wobblies," who were viewed as a threat to capitalism at a time when the United States had a radical labor movement.
The city inspired poet William Carlos Williams to write "Paterson," and critics have praised its turn-of-the-century architecture. Boxing fans recognize it as the hometown of Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, the middleweight contender who spent 22 years in prison for a triple murder until he was cleared by a judge in 1988.
Paterson has about 10 mosques, and city leaders estimate there are at least 25,000 to 30,000 Muslims. They include immigrants from across the Arab world, Turks, and Muslims drawn from the U.S. black population.
Paterson was shaken by the September 11, 2001, attacks. On that day, a report circulated on some radio stations and Internet sites that Muslims in Paterson had demonstrated in celebration.
Paterson officials promptly denied the report, and Muslim leaders insist it was pure fabrication.
Less well known is Paterson's real if unwitting link to the attacks. At least two of the hijackers who commandeered American Airlines 77, the flight that crashed into the Pentagon, had rented an apartment in Paterson, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, the official U.S. inquiry.
Today the streets of central Paterson are dominated by beauty salons, discount shops, electronics stores and the homeless.
"There's no business, no money," said Angelica Reque, 32, a cashier at De Dios grocery on Washington Street.
"A crazy town," a customer interrupted. "A lot of homeless, a lot of stealing, a lot of crazy -- walk a block, you'll see a dozen homeless."
Others say its troubles are overstated.
"It's not as bad as people make it out to be, it's gotten a bad rap," said Luis Ruiz, 52, who came to the city from Puerto Rico as a child and now works in the library of Passaic County Community College. "I've never been mugged, never had any troubles."
Still, he said, the economic downturn has taken its toll.
"I've never seen it this bad," Ruiz said. "There's been lots of layoffs, companies leaving. It's tough."
(Additional reporting by Jon Oatis; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Xavier Briand)