South Main Street in Paterson returns with shops, food

PATERSON — Main Street in the southern part of the city has been left in disrepair for decades as the middle class flees to greener urban pastures. They left behind empty storefronts and neglected buildings.

This is no longer the case.

The once moribund buildings and storefronts of South Paterson have been replaced or renovated. New restaurants serving a dazzling array of international cuisines line the main thoroughfare, along with new boutiques and jewelry stores with windows gleaming in 21-carat gold.

The turnaround comes decades after the “white flight” of the 1960s when the city, along with other urban areas, suffered from a loss of middle-class families and jobs, which also moved to the suburbs.

City residents know and others are quickly learning that Main Street, from Maria Street near St. Joseph’s University Medical Center to Crooks Avenue on the Clifton border, has undergone quite a change.

South Paterson looks fabulous, many say.

“Absolutely,” agreed Mayida Zaal, an education professor at Montclair State University with Palestinian and Colombian roots who grew up in South Paterson. Those who made a difference and transformed the neighborhood are people from Middle Eastern countries who “emigrated in the 1970s” who came to the area and “worked and saved”.

As the new immigrants acquired wealth, they opened shops and focused on raising their children. Many have remained in the area even after their children have grown up and moved on and they are the ones who keep the area in good shape.

“They came back to build their own community’s financial infrastructure,” Zaal said.

It was a slow burn that started with small businesses like butcher shops and other storefronts. They added a little at a time and now people are noticing and amazed at all the changes that have taken place over the past decade. The past five years have been particularly dramatic, residents and others said.

Clifton Councilor Bill Gibson, a former police officer, and Lenny Fabregas, from South Paterson, said the transformation has been amazing.

Fabregas said he was dating his former neighbor who he described as safe and wonderful considering the investment the community has made. It’s not just the shops and restaurants, he said, but the many rehabilitated buildings and new construction.

“It looks great,” Fabregas said. “Very different from when I grew up.”

Gibson said the southern section of Paterson offers an impressive array of cuisines, especially for those who enjoy Middle Eastern cuisine. He said the 4-mile stretch from Main Street in Paterson through Main Avenues in Clifton and back to Main Street in Passaic, particularly the stretch from St. Joseph’s University Medical Center to Paulison Avenue in Passaic, has additional more people were found willing to invest, many of them new Americans.

Darna on Main Street in Paterson on Wednesday August 31, 2022.

Passaic Mayor Hector Lora said visitors can sample cuisine from five continents along this particular stretch of road.

On the Paterson side, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes are prominent. During a recent tour of the area with Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, he visited some of his favorite spots, including Lebanese Mediterranean restaurant Darna.

Saned Ziyadeh, a waiter at the family restaurant, said his father Jamal was initially a taxi driver when he moved to the United States.

“He saved his money and slowly built this restaurant,” Saned said, pointing to Darna.

What was once a humble storefront now sports a Petra-based motif, an indoor fish pond and enough seating for 270 diners. On weekend days, places are occupied. It is particularly busy after sunset during Ramadan.

“It’s so crowded,” said Paterson Police Superintendent Jerry Speziale, who stopped by during the mayor’s visit.

“I love this place,” Speziale said. The neighborhood isn’t just popular with locals, he said, “all the cops eat here.”

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Alongside shops, restaurants and meat markets, jewelry stores are appearing. Locals say local jewelry stores, like Zena with its gleaming 21-karat gold, are giving New York’s Diamond District a hard time.

Opposite Darna, brothers Rami and Amed Jbara opened Jerusalem Jewelry, attracting people from across the country. The store also offers 21 karat gold, which is a brighter, shinier yellow than 14 or 18 karat gold.

Saned Ziyadeh greets a customer at Darna, his family's restaurant on Main Street in Paterson, Wednesday August 31, 2022.

Rami and other jewelers said more and more customers are coming from as far away as California. Sayegh said Manhattan jewelers are moving to the southern part of Paterson.

Zaal said when friends and extended family return to visit the area, a big reason is to shop in the Old Quarter.

Two blocks from the Main Street jewelry stores, the Jbara brothers have a sign posted on a vacant lot announcing that they will soon be building the “biggest” jewelry store, with over 4,000 square feet of retail space.

“It’s called the Halal district but I call it our diamond district,” Sayegh said.

Across the street, Shoroq Alhussein said when she opened Zena’s a few years ago, and despite COVID, it was “the best decision” she ever made. Foot traffic is amazing, she says

Zena on Main Street in Paterson on Wednesday August 31, 2022.

People find the store and take business cards to pass on to family and friends, Alhussein said.

It’s not all positive news, even among fans in the area. Some are concerned about affordability.

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Rents have gone up and Zaal warned that many of the reasons people stay invested in the community have to do with the fact that their parents and grandparents still live there.

Many said that while they like the improvements they see, they want to make sure older generations aren’t pushed back with high rents and high expenses.

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