You should know about Braddock. Because Braddock is America: its past, its present, and its future.
Braddock, Pennsylvania was birthed of American industrial wealth: located near Pittsburgh, the town’s once-population of twenty-thousand enjoyed the economic and cultural benefits of being home to a Carnegie steel mill and a free public library, among the first he constructed.
But today Braddock is a nearly deserted, impoverished and crime-ridden town, home to only two-thousand and five-hundred people, a post-industrial remnant of the bustling city it once was.
In February 2011, Sue Halpern wrote a thorough profile in the New York Times Magazine of Braddock’s mayor, John Fetterman, who has been the subject of much (highly favorable) media attention. Halpern’s reportage was critical of the Mayor’s tenure thus far: the people she spoke to complained that the Mayor was bringing in gentrification without truly empowering locals or alleviating poverty in a significant way.
I heard John Fetterman speak on a panel of mayors from around the world at the New York City Festival of Ideas in May 2011. The discussion focused on how these mayors had improved their cities and made them more sustainable, whether culturally, economically, or environmentally.
During the panel, Fetterman talked about his involvements since becoming mayor of Braddock in 2005 (he is now in his second term): re-purposing buildings into community centers, green spaces, and group homes, reducing the town’s homicide rate to zero, creating an art gallery, building a playground.
A graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School, Fetterman is rewarded for his mayoral efforts with a salary of one-hundred and fifty dollars per month. Much of his development efforts are financed through the non-profit he created called Braddock Redux; family money from his father’s insurance company is the main contributor to the fund.
The more I learned about Braddock, the more curious I became. Had anything changed since Sue Halpern was there? With current levels of unemployment hovering around nine percent and the poverty levels reaching the highest level in fifty-two years, could Fetterman’s work be a potential model for urban renewal in this country– or was Halpern’s skepticism correct?
I was guided, too, by an interest in Rust Belt history: what happened to small towns like Braddock as their factories, and their livelihoods, were exported to cheap labor markets in underdeveloped countries with no minimum wage?
Dave Rosenstraus is the thirty-year-old founder of a biofuel company called Optimus Technologies, whose production facilities are housed in Braddock. Additionally, Rosenstraus is president of the Braddock Economic Development Corporation. A few years ago, he moved to Braddock from Pittsburgh.
We met in Brooklyn, NY, in the neighborhood of Bushwick – itself known as an example of controversial “urban renewal” – while Rosenstraus was in town to play a show with his band, to discuss his biofuel enterprise.
“We were looking for a community of partner organizations that is working toward similar goals,” said Rosenstraus of the decision to move Optimus Technologies from Allentown, PA to Braddock. The move brought the company nearer to like-minded people also working for economic development through innovative approaches.
Then our discussion turned to the media’s alternating treatment of John Fetterman (who goes by “Mayor John” locally) as a super-star, hip mayor with all the answers, and as an overhyped trust fund baby with a problematic approach to urban renewal.
“A lot of the media portrayal is all silver lining,” said Rosenstraus. “That’s not Mayor John’s fault. Mayor John’s job is to sell the town. In reality it’s a lot like other places. There’s a community of people who live there, some who have nine-to-fives, and some very poor people.”
In defense of the mayor’s work, Rosenstraus told me that the urban farm Fetterman had founded was employing youth in Braddock during the summer and providing them with an experience they would not get anywhere else.
On the other hand, he said, some of the new projects, like the art gallery, were not meant to benefit the community as directly. “The art is even over my head,” said Rosenstraus. “But does it bring people in from outside – yes,” he said. “So there’s a potential for bringing in commerce. But there’s also that tricky question of gentrification.”
We discussed the question of gentrification. For Rosenstraus, the sheer amount of vacant lots and abandoned buildings in Braddock simply necessitated outsiders moving in, since locals couldn’t possibly occupy all of them.
But not all development is equally good in his eyes. A restaurant would be a better use of available space than an art gallery, said Rosenstraus. An art gallery, he explained, could not do much in the way of local economic development, because it didn’t employ local people or create new flows of commerce.
“Why would people want to move to a town where there’s no businesses, and why would businesses want to move to a town with no people?” said Rosenstraus.
Currently, Rosenstraus and the Braddock Economic Development Corporation are in the initial stages of doing a market study in Braddock of abandoned buildings, to see who owns what, who is paying taxes on property, and which properties can be repurposed.
“Once we have done the market study we can go to developers and figure out what resources we need,” said Rosenstraus. “We can have a master plan for the town. Most towns have master plans. Braddock has no plan.”
She’s riding in the car, which thus far has taken her out of New York City, her home for the last two years, and eventually will bring her across the country, back to the West Coast, her true home.
My good friend Chelsea, a colleague from our days in graduate school at The New School for Social Research, found herself accidentally touring Braddock one day this summer. Though the circumstances that brought her there were less than desirable, the experience was impacting. A hostile and potentially unstable driver, who she and another cross-country traveler had found on Craigslist in New York, unexpectedly insisted upon leaving the City that the car take a detour to his mother’s home, in Braddock, and the passengers were forced to spend the night there.
Chelsea is unnerved, wanting to return to New York, wondering why her luck has turned bad. The driver’s mother, however, seems more stable than he, and so Chelsea sits back and listens to the woman talk about the town and its history as they drive past one abandoned steel mill after another.
She looks at the mills passing by outside the car window and thinks about debris: the remnants of America’s industrial past, left to rot, and the people who used to work in those remnants, left to go…where? These people, Chelsea thinks, for whatever reason – lack of economic means, of imagination, of courage — cannot leave here. And she reflects on her own mobility, on her journey to New York City and her time there as a student, soaking in knowledge about the world and about herself. She reflects on the privilege of deciding to leave the city and then doing so – just leaving.
But leaving has brought her here, to this town, and she doesn’t understand why. Some of the empty steel mills have been converted into shopping malls, and she sees how the debris of production have been converted into a future of consumption. She sees this New America, that doesn’t make things but only imports, consumes. And all in the same spot, she reflects.
DJ Chevy, who goes by “Jeff,” is forty-one-years-old. He was born, and lived much of his life in, Braddock. Last fall, he opened up Square One Hip-Hop Complex, a hip-hop studio where artists could record demo albums.
“Music was my first love and the Complex came about because it felt like a lot of people in this neighborhood were selling drugs and doing destructive things, just to raise money to go into studios are record,” said Jeff, explaining why he opened the studio. “It didn’t make any sense: tearing up the neighborhood and destroying lives in pursuit of bettering your own,” he told me. But the prohibitively high cost of recording an album keeps would-be serious musicians from recording, Jeff explained.
After spending twelve years working in recording studios, Jeff decided to open up an affordable recording studio for local musicians in Braddock.
“You can work part-time at McDonalds but still pursue your dreams,” he said of the role fulfilled by the Complex. “You can perform there and generate some income. You can record. We do photography. Anything that has to do with hip-hop, marketing promotion, we do that.”
Hip-hop music, Jeff said, is not only popular worldwide, but also provides youth in Braddock with a way to express themselves. “A lot of people can’t talk about what they go through so they write about it, they put it in song,” he said.
Jeff has been overwhelmed with the impact of the studio since it opened. “I have been able to affect some peoples’ lives in a positive manner,” he said. “Some people are just lost: broken souls, looking for direction.” And they find it in music, with the help of Jeff’s mentorship. He insists on musicians being disciplined if they are working in his studio, he explained.
And discipline is one of the things Jeff thinks is lacking among Braddock’s youth. When Jeff was growing up in Braddock, he felt that he had more structure in his life, coming from school and family, than youth in Braddock do today. His family used a more “hands-on approach” in looking after him, he explained.
Back when he was young, Jeff said, “my neighbors and family, everyone would check you on what you were doing wrong. Neighborhoods had standards.”
Nevertheless Jeff is optimistic about the direction Braddock is headed in. “Over the last three years so many different people have moved into my neighborhood, it’s amazing,” he said.
“Some people have an old-school mentality, like ‘We don’t want these white people around.’ But I’ve been in the military and I’ve traveled so I embrace change and challenge,” Jeff elaborated.
“These changes,” he said, “signal hope and possibility. Like-minded people coming here, wanting to make a better life for themselves, can bring good change.”
There are, however, serious challenges in the community “Self-pride is lacking,” said Jeff, meaning that people don’t care about how their neighborhood looks or what goes on there. Also he thinks people aren’t getting the chance to explore good things happening in their own community.
“Exposure is what young people need,” said Jeff. Youth need to be exposed to new ideas because, he said, “you never know what they’re gonna gravitate to.”
Mark Balaschak, my aunt’s husband, grew up in North Braddock, a few miles away from Braddock; both are part of Allegheny County. I asked him what it was like growing up in that area, and what he remembers about the decline of the steel mill industry.
The Braddock my uncle described to me was a thriving town that his family and neighbors would visit for shopping and entertainment in the nineteen-sixties. A trolley would take passengers between North Braddock and Braddock, where department stores and cinemas awaited them.
Around the time of the oil price shock in 1973, Mark told me, the area’s economy began a downward spiral into joblessness, as steel mills began closing down and didn’t stop until the early 1980s. During that time, he said, most of Braddock’s stores closed down, too. Only the pawnshop survived – presumably so unemployed, broke families could sell their valuables.
Mark reflected that the decline of the steel industry predated even NAFTA, which some argue has permitted the relocation of factories from the U.S. to Mexico’s cheaper labor market. The U.S. steel industry was using inefficient methods of production and foreign industries simply took over the market, he said.
A billboard that proclaimed Braddock Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Braddock, to be “Value’s Greatest Shopping Center” stuck out in my uncle’s memory. It was a sign whose meaning changed over time from authentic to ironic, as one shop after another on the Avenue was shuttered for good.
The late seventies were a time when Mark saw people, who he had previously observed going to work every day, staying home instead. Next for the region came a rise in crime, abandoned homes and lots, and a feeling of ghostliness. People left the area; without jobs, it no longer held opportunities for them and their families.
Today many Americans, whether Tea Partiers or liberals, are publicly enraged about the country’s healthcare situation, which is overwhelmingly one of inequality. (Close to sixteen percent of Americans were uninsured in 2006 according to U.S. Census data.) But most of us cannot even begin to imagine living someplace with no hospital at all.
The hospital in Braddock shut down, despite Mayor John’s efforts to save it, in 2008.
Tina Doose, forty-one, is a Councilwoman in Braddock. She grew up nearby and moved to Braddock with her husband when he bought a house there decades ago. She and the other Council members are working on ways to revitalize the area formerly occupied by the hospital and Braddock Avenue, along with the Braddock Economic Development Corporation headed by Dave Rosenstraus.
“They said it was the utilization numbers,” said Doose of the hospital’s shuttering. “But what we can tell from the numbers is that utilization numbers were good. Over 25,000 people annually used that emergency room. But they shut it down anyway. They built a new facility in Monroeville – a multimillion dollar, new one, right up the street from a competing hospital there. They took away from us almost every doctor, everything we had in our community.”
But, Doose said, a doctor who recognized the need in Braddock for healthcare opened a free clinic in town, where doctors work on a pro bono basis. The Town Council hopes to provide them with a new building that is equipped for their serviced.
For the Braddock Ave Restoration Project, Doose, said, “the goal is to get new businesses along Braddock Avenue. One woman mentioned having a plaza there and naming it Braddock Hospital Memorial Park. The facility meant so much to the community. This would be a symbolic way of remembering it and having some green space.
Doose affirmed her support for Mayor John, who was sworn in at the same time she took office. The new playground he’d commissioned – the only one in Braddock – and the community center he’d created in an abandoned building, were examples of real estate being put to good use, she said.
“People are wanting to move to Braddock,” she said. “And some of this is because of John.”
“A lot of people look at him as an outsider,” she continued, addressing the critique that Sue Halpern and others have waged against Fetterman. But, she said, “He’s lived here, he’s raising his family here. He just had a beautiful baby. He is a true Braddockian, in my opinion.”
Doose feels that this is an exciting moment in Braddock, one of possibilities.
“In all my time here I’ve never seen more individuals excited about Braddock than I do now,” she said.
It is hard to judge a place – and all the people in it – with a journalistic snapshot.
Even if I spoke to everybody in Braddock it would be difficult to evaluate whether Mayor John’s reforms are working, or not. (And some people in Braddock, unfortunately, have become reticent due to what they see as biased media coverage; an artist named Dana from Brooklyn, who is a member of a collective called Transformazium, said that her collective decided not to speak to me because “many people have asked us to tell our story of being here and there is no hierarchy of stories between us and our neighbors who never get asked.”)
But when it comes down to it, does it really matter if Mayor John is an outsider, or not? Does it make a difference to the teenagers who are learning how to farm in an urban setting whether the money to fund the project came from Fetterman’s father? When new businesses pop up along the rehabilitated Braddock Avenue, will it be important that Fetterman’s media profile helped attract entrepreneurs to the area?
Furthermore, not all change is coming to Braddock from the ‘outside.’ DJ Jeff’s hip-hop Complex is an example of how locals are identifying gaps in community social life and finding ways to provide them, inclusively.
It simply seems too soon to tell whether Braddock will ever recapture its original glory or claim one that is entirely different yet just as legitimate. So what can we learn from Braddock?
If Braddock tells us anything about America’s past, present, and future, it is something like this: this country was founded with good intentions and a belief in the potentials of capitalism to create a strong society, but these days it seems that we’ve lost our way quite a bit. Now we are looking for a way forward that’s more environmentally-friendly and equitable. We aren’t sure what exactly that way forward is, but we are looking.
We are looking.
Thanks to Tanya Paperny for her edits, to David Cohn for his patience with this piece, and to everyone who spoke with me for the article.