Since its beginning in 1932, Hinchliffe Stadium had been at the center of the Paterson, New Jersey, community.
It became a home for Negro Leagues legends, including local hero Larry Doby.
Due to neglect, the stadium fell into disrepair and was closed in 1997. It sat abandoned until 2021, when the city made a plan to renovate it to honor the city’s history and revitalize the community.
But after decades of promises broken by city leaders, the March 2023 death of local activist Najee Seabrooks at the hands of Paterson police again has residents questioning who these revitalization projects are really for.
The Complex Task of Rebuilding Hinchliffe
THE DREAM OF RESTORATION
Since 1997, Hinchliffe has sat abandoned – absent the raucous crowds, roaring bands and referee whistles so many had experienced for decades. The locker room was set on fire. Trees grew through the concrete of the seating bowl. Graffiti lined the interior. The field withered away. The once hallowed grounds had become an eyesore.
Baseball Legends Of Hinchliffe
George “Mule” Suttles was a first baseman and outfielder who played in the Negro Leagues for over 20 years and was known for his powerful bat. Suttles starred for clubs including the Newark Eagles and the New York Black Yankees, which hosted games at Hinchliffe. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Nicknamed “The Cuban Comet,” Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso was a left fielder who electrified spectators with his blazing speed and high-caliber defense for the New York Cubans, Hinchliffe’s home team from 1936-37. He won a championship with the Cubans in 1947 before starring in the major leagues.
Before he played in the major leagues and won MVP and the first Cy Young Award in 1956, Don Newcombe pitched two seasons for the Newark Eagles in the second iteration of the Negro National League as a teenager.
Larry Doby was first noticed by the Newark Eagles while playing at Hinchliffe for Eastside High School. He played four seasons with the Eagles before becoming the first Black player in the American League. Doby won two World Series titles and was a nine-time All-Star.
Maintaining the charm and aesthetic of Hinchliffe was a priority in the stadium’s renovation. Ulana Zakalak was the historic preservation consultant and physical restoration lead who supervised the restoration of everything from the stadium’s locker room windows to its ticket booths and outer wall mosaics.
BAW Development CEO
Paterson native Baye Adofo-Wilson remembers attending football games at Hinchliffe Stadium. He can still recall the sights and sounds: the intense Thanksgiving Day battles between Eastside and John F. Kennedy high schools and the procession of the Eastside band during halftime as it covered fan-favorite tunes by artists such as Prince and Earth, Wind & Fire.
As the lead developer of the stadium’s restoration, Adofo-Wilson was charged with preserving the soul of the 100-year-old stadium while bringing it into the modern era. Adofo-Wilson had to navigate barriers both expected and unplanned, from removing a sinkhole from the field grounds to completing the stadium’s $100 million restoration under the uncertainty and restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic to navigating supply chain shortages. For Adofo-Wilson, the completion of the stadium’s vibrant restoration is a victory for the city that he hopes will impact generations of Patersonians for the next 100 years.
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL HISTORY
Hinchliffe has a celebrated football history. Paterson’s local high schools, Eastside and Kennedy, called the stadium home. Each Thanksgiving Day, Hinchliffe would host “Paterson’s Super Bowl” between the rival teams.
EASTSIDE, CLASS OF 1986
Vaughn McKoy starred for Eastside in the mid-1980s before playing at Rutgers University. He became a lawyer and was asked by Paterson’s mayor to become COO of Paterson in 2018. McKoy had three conditions for accepting the job, including the restoration of Hinchliffe. McKoy was vital in helping the project acquire crucial tax credits.
DALE “SKIP” VAN RENSALIER
EASTSIDE, CLASS OF 1966
Dale “Skip” Van Rensalier attended Eastside and later worked at the school for decades. He was known as the voice of the Eastside High marching band, The Marching 100. On Thanksgiving Day he sat in the stadium press box overlooking the at-capacity seating horseshoe, which he estimated was filled with 10,000 fans.
EASTSIDE, CLASS OF 1969
As a kid growing up in Paterson, Rosser attended the annual Thanksgiving Day game envisioning the day that he would play on the Hinchliffe stage. Rosser starred for Eastside in the 1960s and went on to become the first Black quarterback in the Ivy League at Cornell. He returned to Eastside as a social worker and coach for girls basketball and football.
2022 DRAFT PICK OF THE CHICAGO CUBS
Nazier Mule never played a game at Hinchliffe Stadium, but he’s connected to the stadium’s and city’s baseball roots. He played games at local Larry Doby Baseball Field before becoming a fourth-round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs last year. The mayor of Paterson, Andre Sayegh, touted Mule as the future of Paterson baseball at a ceremony inside Hinchliffe on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2022. “We just thought [Hinchliffe] would always be an eyesore … a symbol of a city in decline,” Sayegh said then. “But now it’s a symbol of a city that’s getting stronger.”
WHERE HOPE AND TRUST DIVERGE
Seabrooks was killed at his apartment a mile from Hinchliffe after a five-hour standoff with Paterson police. Hundreds marched in protest in the weeks that followed, demanding answers from Paterson city leaders. The relationship between the community and its police had long been fractured. Five officers, including a Paterson police sergeant, were accused of beating citizens, stealing their money and lying about their actions from 2016 to 2018. All were convicted of federal corruption charges in 2022. Another Paterson police officer was charged for shooting and paralyzing Khalif Cooper, an unarmed Black man, in June 2022. In late March, the New Jersey attorney general’s office seized control of the police department’s daily operations, citing a “crisis of confidence in law enforcement.”
PATERSON BLACK LIVES
Zellie Thomas’ experience growing up in Paterson is different from that of the previous generation. Born and raised in Paterson, he was in elementary school when the New Jersey Board of Education took over the Paterson Public Schools system. Thomas and his peers would soon see the elimination of programming that older generations had, such as shop classes or music programs, cut as the state focused on improving student test scores. Hinchliffe Stadium’s upkeep was also a casualty of those cuts, resulting in its ultimate tumble into disrepair. Thomas’ generation doesn’t have the same Hinchliffe memories; the stadium had closed. He learned about the stadium’s history and figures like Doby from his parents.
Thomas, a math teacher in the Paterson Public Schools system and a Black Lives Matter organizer, is part of a group of Patersonians who support Hinchliffe’s rebuilding but believe issues such as police and gun violence should be prioritized and funded before city development. The loss of Seabrooks, whom Thomas knew, has mobilized Thomas and his peers to demand action.
“Najee’s life, no matter how much money we put into Hinchliffe Stadium, Najee’s life will always be much more than Hinchliffe Stadium,” Thomas said.
“It’s not about the stadium, I think I’m happy with the way it looks — it’s phenomenal. Our community is often sold out. It’s sold out for something people claim is for one purpose and it’s for something else.”
City council member Michael Jackson represents a portion of the Paterson community that feels wronged by the project’s process and that Hinchliffe’s promise, pitched as a resource for city youth and its residents, will not be fulfilled. They’ve voiced concern about field access and being priced out of stadium rentals for non-high school affiliated teams.
Adofo-Wilson, the project’s lead developer, said there will be opportunities for Paterson nonprofits and community groups to rent the stadium directly through the developers, at a “nominal” fee, in the near future.
Residents have also mentioned a lack of good faith and intentionality in hiring Patersonians during the project’s construction. Adofo-Wilson agrees his team could have done a better job hiring Paterson residents. He estimates 15 to 20% of those working on site were from Paterson – short of the 30% good faith effort initially agreed upon in the project contract. He is confident that number will increase when stadium operations staff is hired.
Questions have also been raised around the project’s high price tag and a lack of financial investment from the project’s developers, who stand to profit from its completion. Adofo-Wilson contends that BAW and its development partners met the 10% equity requirement of the financing agreement with the state of New Jersey by purchasing low income housing tax credits. State records show the developers bought $10.3 million of those credits. Adofo-Wilson said he understands the hesitation about the project as residents have struggled to trust their city leaders for decades.
“I think the skepticism is real because there have been a lot of failures over the last couple of decades in Paterson. I’m a Patersonian. I am doing my best to not be a part of those failures. I want to be a part of the successes.”
Despite the frustrations of the residents, Sayegh remained steadfast in his administration’s efforts to address gun and police violence and improve community relations with Paterson police.
Sayegh said the city has done a “top to bottom” audit of the Paterson police department, and traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, to learn about its police department’s efforts to curb gun violence. Sayegh, the mayor since 2018, also pointed to police-worn body cameras, which he said did not exist before he took office.
“We’ve been working almost the last five years on addressing gun violence and the way we protect and serve,” Sayegh said.
While Sayegh stated that improving the relationship between the police and the public is a “priority,” he added that he believes that shouldn’t “halt the progress” in other areas deemed priorities for the city.
“Hinchliffe Stadium doesn’t just happen overnight,” he said. “This is years in the making and it’s also a win for our city, which we need.”
Barry Rosser, the longtime Eastside coach and social worker, is proud of community members’ response to the killing of Seabrooks.
“I’m glad the people of Paterson are responding — protests, speaking out, attending council meetings, confronting the politicians on what their response is going to be,” he said. “I’m glad to see the young people that knew Najee and knew the work that he was doing and the organization he was with — they’re doing an appropriate response.”
Rosser sees Hinchliffe Stadium as a starting place in redefining Paterson — acting as a space for recreation and entertainment for city youth. His hope is that Hinchliffe’s rebirth represents a commitment to the greater revitalization of Paterson.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “We know athletics don’t solve our problem. … It signals a movement. It signals a move that you got some people, you got some money and you got an idea that you’re trying to make Paterson better.”
PUSHING FORWARD THROUGH UNCERTAINTY
The revitalization of Hinchliffe Stadium was supposed to symbolize a new beginning for Paterson, New Jersey. Its resurgence after 26 years is a pillar of hope. As Paterson prepares to usher in a new era for a historic stadium, the city is grappling with an uncomfortable introspection, mired in issues of corruption and misconduct that have mobilized a community now demanding change. It’s forced Paterson residents to ask their leaders: What is hope without trust?
PATERSON SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS
The resurgence of Hinchliffe Stadium excites Eileen Shafer, the superintendent of Paterson Public Schools. In 1997, Shafer, then the physical education supervisor, recommended that Hinchliffe be shuttered after it had fallen into a state of disrepair.
Now renovated, Hinchliffe will serve as the home for Paterson’s athletic programs.
“Our student athletes deserve to play in a state-of-the-art stadium,” she said. “That’s what’s going to happen now. There’s so much tradition and history that comes with it.”
Under the agreement, Paterson schools will have access to the stadium for 180 days of the year, with the rest to be used at the discretion of the stadium’s developers. The Jackals have made a concession for their opening season, opting to play at a different park should they make the playoffs as it would interfere with the beginning of the Paterson athletics calendar.
Adofo-Wilson said the first-year coordination between the two parties has been challenging given the timing of the stadium’s opening, but emphasized that the school district is considered the “No. 1 tenant” of the stadium with its dates being given the priority. The first game to take place at Hinchliffe will be a slate of high school games on May 17.
Shafer, who will retire in June, hopes that the refurbished stadium will impact Paterson students for generations to come. An advisory committee consisting of representatives from both the school board and city will be created to oversee an operating reserve for maintenance of the stadium.
FUTURE OF HINCHLIFFE
After decades of sitting lifeless and silent and held together by history and memories, Hinchliffe Stadium will once again be filled with the cheers and jubilation that can be felt from the adjacent Great Falls.
Pro baseball will make its return to the Hinchliffe diamond. Thanksgiving Day football games will attract residents from every corner of the city.
The hope is the stadium will start anew as a place where athletic dreams are formed and cultivated by future generations.
The next phase of construction on the property includes the completion of a museum dedicated to Negro Leagues history, a food court, a parking garage and a senior housing complex.
For some, Hinchliffe Stadium marks a renaissance in the city, the beginnings of an attempt to reshape the future of Paterson. For others, the stadium serves as a long-term investment in cosmetic bandages while requests for structural change go unheard by city leaders.
“The restoration of Hinchliffe Stadium, in many ways, is a microcosm of the restoration of Paterson. To me, getting this stadium done is the first step or another step toward the revitalization of the entire city.”