Photos by Melodie McDaniel
Braddock, Pennsylvania, just ten miles from downtown Pittsburgh, has a complicated history of great success and immense hardship. In 1873, Andrew Carnegie built the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in North Braddock, the first domestic steel plant to use the mass-production Bessemer process. Carnegie also built the first of his nationwide system of libraries in Braddock.
The steady decline of the region’s steel industry since its midcentury peak went into overdrive in the seventies and eighties, leaving a big psychic scar on the area. Mills closed, corporate giants moved to the tax-friendly Sun Belt. More than 100,000 jobs were lost seemingly overnight. Pittsburgh was once the eighth-largest city in the country. It now ranks in the twenties.
Above: Thomas Robinson walking down Ravine Street in Braddock
Towns like Braddock, just outside the urban core, were practically abandoned. Braddock has lost 90 percent of its population since its 1940s heyday. Now, a good majority of the town’s buildings have been overtaken by nature or reduced to rubble by demolition crews. Much of what Braddock once was occupies the local landfill. In recent years, though, the community’s spirit has been slowly rising from the rubble. This is due in part to the leadership of John Fetterman.
The six-foot-eight-inch, tattooed mayor was elected six years ago by encouraging young people to vote through his work in a youth outreach program. On his left arm, Fetterman has tattooed the Braddock ZIP code, and on the right, the dates of all the murders that have happened during his watch.
Braddock is a mixed community, and there’s been racial tension over the years. Yet there’s something about having to fend for themselves that has bonded the younger generations. They have been able to overlook differences and move toward building a community that addresses everyone’s interests.
Through innovative programs promoting agriculture, technology, and manufacturing, Braddock is trying to fashion its own future. One great example is the urban farm, a once-vacant lot in the heart of town that volunteers have transformed into acres of growing space.
The farm now provides fresh produce along with affordable local vegetables that go directly onto the tables of Braddock residents. Modest but significant community-building efforts such as this go a long way.
Above: Marshall, who is in charge of the Braddock Organic Farms; behind him is the Edgar Thompson Steel Works
Braddock is slowly becoming a renegade arts colony; property is cheap in the town, so many houses and buildings are being bought and rebuilt. This renaissance is working toward creating a new economy based on creativity rather than capitalism. Local artists knock on doors to make sure people have food and heat, and they work with the community on creative endeavors that help bring modest revenue to the town.
This is an antigentrification model of growth that is inspiring to see. The nonprofit Braddock Redux has supported new galleries and the conversion of an old convent into a youth hostel. Fetterman and his father bought the old Presbyterian church and turned it into a youth center. The grand library has recently finished a renovation restoring much of its former luster.
Above: Deer sculpture by Tim Kaulen at Carrie Furnace, an abandoned steel mill
We are both directors, and through separate but related assignments we ended up in Braddock working on projects related to an advertising campaign where residents were cast as models for television and print. Normally we don’t have time to get familiar with our surroundings; the production usually wraps before we even acclimate. But Braddock seemed immediately familiar and somewhat foreign at the same time. It’s difficult to describe—the landscape is different, but the human geography is the same.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is clawing its way back. It was one of the few cities to add jobs during the recent recession. Pittsburgh has done this by being creative and civic minded, expanding education and looking forward to science and health care while also staying true to its heritage—steel is still forged in Pittsburgh, but now the city focuses more on providing technology, parts, and supplies to the steel industry, like an expert consultant. Braddock, in its own way, is doing the same.
Maybe there’s a model here?
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