Todd Darling didn’t know what he was looking for. He was just sort of wandering with his camera down by the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey. The 70-foot falls, he says, are the “heartbeat” of the now-derelict town, which was founded by Alexander Hamilton and once served as` the lifeblood of the industrial revolution.
As he stood there, just observing and reflecting on the evolution of America, he noticed a person with what looked like clothes and food walking down a nearby path into the woods.
“I thought ‘I’ll go take a look,’” recalls Darling.
He then followed the man through the trees to an abandoned, two-story textile mill. The entire center of it was collapsed and, around the back, there were people—living in the long-forgotten structure.
“I was shocked to find that there was basically a camp set up along the perimeter of the mill underneath the part of the roof that hadn’t collapsed,” Darling said. “There were fold up beds. A little television run by batteries. Sheets hung up over clothes lines. It didn’t feel like temporary housing, it felt permanent.”
And that’s because it was. Darling returned several times, not just to this mill—but to others with homeless encampments in the area too—before he met Bob Mulcahey, a 51-year-old army veteran and unofficial “mayor” of a mill used for manufacturing until the 1970s. Bob ended up at the mill—like others in his community—after losing his job and, then, his apartment several years ago.
The Paterson mills are not easy places to live. The homeless have survived there amidst harsh winters, wild animals, no electricity (except through batteries), and even a hurricane. Bob has experienced severe bouts of depression through it all.
But he and about a dozen others there make do, diving their rooms with sheets or setting up in different parts of the mill.
Bob lives in an industrial furnace, which Darling describes as a large pipe. It’s one room, so small Darling couldn’t fit in it, with a bed, books (Bob’s an avid reader), a battery-powered light, and a fireplace, which Bob built himself. He’s got a partner too. A woman named Jackie, who he first met in the 1980s and who has difficulty walking due to a leg infection. He helps her run errands and bathe.
It’s a harsh life, but it’s not devoid of joy. When they receive their food stamps, they and the others at the mill, organize barbeques. And Bob—in many ways—has learned over time to become one with his environment, interacting with the wild birds and groundhogs as though they are pets.
To Darling, it’s important to document the lives at the mill—and the lives of the homeless, more broadly, as a way of bringing visibility to those who he says feel “forgotten.” Darling estimates there’s 10 to 15 unregistered mills with homeless encampments near Paterson. But this story isn’t just about those people—it’s also symbolic of how America has changed and who it has left behind in the process.
Bob joined the U.S. army as a mechanic in 1987, serving at Fort Hood, a military outpost in Texas. When he returned from service, he worked at his father’s machine shop until it closed. He then took a job with a contractor, who also closed shop. And now, he lives on the fringes of a town which—like towns across America—is defined by shuttered factories and overgrown mansions.
Everyone knows the world is changing. But what will happen to the people who are ill-equipped to change with it?