Sunday, May 2, 2010

Reclaimed Things: Braddock, PA

Edgar Thomson Works, Braddock, PA
(copyright Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved)

(Click on any image for larger view)

My interest in Braddock was first sparked by the work of my husband, who’d begun photographing the last working blast furnace in the Pittsburgh there. What began as early morning images of the Edgar Thomson Works turned into an exploration of the town, and it wasn’t long before I started joining Kevin on these outings.

Braddock News
(copyright 2009 by Dory Adams)

Braddock is an economically depressed town just outside Pittsburgh along the Monongahela River. In the 1950s and 1960s, the town was thriving with a bustling business district. Since the 1970s, the town’s population has plummeted from nearly 20,000 to 2,000 residents. The town is a mix of tidy homes and abandoned properties with dozens of derelict buildings marked for demolition, particularly in the area known as “The Bottom.” While the Edgar Thomson Works is fully operational, there is not much left of the business district except empty storefronts. The town doesn’t even have a grocery store. Earlier this year, the town’s hospital shut down.

Isaly's, Braddock, PA
(copyright Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved)

Paradoxically, at the center of this ruin and decay is a thriving organic urban garden. With the massive steel mill looming behind it, Braddock Farms stands on a vacant city block with dozens of raised growing beds and a greenhouse. Managed by Jeff Jaeger and entering its third growing season, the garden is a project of Grow Pittsburgh. The nonprofit organization’s mission is teaching and promoting urban food production, and it employs members of the Braddock Youth Project. Braddock Farms sells fresh produce directly from the garden to the public at the farm market at 6th and Braddock Avenue. Pittsburgh area restaurant chefs are regular customers.

Braddock Farms
(copyright 2009 by Dory Adams)

Braddock has a rich and interesting history as the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, which was built in 1875 and still operates today, and the site of the very first Carnegie free library. That library, which housed a swimming pool, gymnasium, and music hall, was once slated to be demolished but is currently undergoing restoration. Mayor Fetterman lives across the street from the library in a warehouse he converted into a loft with additional living space on the roof using converted Cosco shipping containers.

Mayor John Fetterman welcoming audience
at "Wood-Fired Words" reading
(copyright 2008 by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved)

Braddock’s recent political history is interesting, as well. In 2005, John Fetterman won the mayoral election by a single vote. Fetterman, who has a degree in urban policy from Harvard University, came to the area in 2001 to work for AmeriCorp and Pittsburgh’s Hill House. His successful grant writing led to additional outreach projects at Braddock to help at risk youth obtain general equivalency diplomas and find jobs.

Fetterman was an outsider who adopted the town. To show his commitment, he has 15104 (Braddock’s ZIP code) tattooed on the inside of one forearm. On the other arm are the dates of five murders which happened under his watch as mayor. He’s a startling figure – beefy, 6’ 8” tall, with a shaven head and a goatee. Inside that rough-looking exterior is the epitome of optimism. He sees what he refers to as a “malignant beauty” in the town, and he perceives change not as a negative thing but rather as an opportunity for reinvention and repurposing. He sees the possibility of luring start-up companies and eco-friendly businesses to the town. Fossil Free Fuel, which retrofits vehicles to run on vegetable oil, is one such business that came to Braddock in 2007.

In November 2009, Mayor Fetterman made the cover of The Atlantic as one of the 27 people on the magazine’s “Brave Thinkers” list (the list also included President Barack Obama). He is a politician to the core, but one who believes in sweat equity and often has his own sleeves rolled up and is not afraid to do hard physical labor himself in an urban pioneer sort of way.

I met Mayor Fetterman in October 2008, at an event celebrating Braddock’s newly built community oven. Braddock residents and Pittsburgh area guests gathered that evening on an empty lot along Braddock Avenue where the wood-fired brick oven is located for fresh baked bread and pizza topped with fresh veggies from the Braddock Farms organic garden. Among those milling around the oven and noshing on pizza was documentary filmmaker Tony Buba. Not that I recognized his face (although I certainly recognized the name), but because someone said loudly, “Hey, Tony Buba!” Buba grew up in Braddock and returned to it after graduating from college, seeing the onset of decline and understanding that the town was his subject matter to document. The oven-firing event was in collaboration with a fiction and poetry reading organized by Sherrie Flick of the Gist Street Reading Series, which presented “Wood-Fired Words.” The reading was well-attended, and I noticed Pittsburgh Post-Gazette book critic Bob Hoover in the audience.

Braddock Community Oven
(Copyright 2008 by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved)

Braddock is interesting photographically because it’s changing. Things could go either way for the town, but efforts are being made for a positive outcome. Each time we stroll through town to photograph, we find change – something gone, something new.

Braddock Street Art
(Copyright Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved)

One of my favorite things is to discover public artwork around town. Mayor Fetterman has enlisted the artist community in his efforts to reach out to the Braddock youth. Some of the installations are temporary, such as the paper cutouts by street artist Swoon which are pasted to buildings around town. Others are permanent installations, such as a 10-foot walkway mosaic of glass and tile depicting a pond with marine life. The mosaic was built by teens in the Braddock Youth Project under the guidance of sculptor James Simon. Funding for the mosaic project came from multiple sources, including a federal Housing and Urban Development block grant, the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, and Braddock Redux (Mayor Fetterman’s nonprofit). James Simon also worked with the community youth to build a new welcome sign for Braddock.

More Braddock Street Art
(copyright 2009 by Dory Adams)

Mayor Fetterman values the creative class and knows that urban renewal often begins through the artistic community, partly because artists are looking for cheap studio space. Once artists move into an area, there’s a tendency for it to become a hip and trendy spot to live – and then, of course, the artists can no longer afford to stay there and have to find another neighborhood with cheap rents.

One of the buildings bought by Mayor Fetterman now houses Unsmoke Systems, a gallery and art studios, which opened in July of 2009 as an artist cooperative. “Gold in Braddock,” a new exhibit by artists from around the country, just opened at Unsmoke Artspace and runs through June 5, 2010.

The story of Braddock as a mill town is an old one. Thomas Bell’s novel Out of This Furnace, which is set in Braddock, tells the multigenerational story of Slovak immigrant workers in the mills. Published in 1941 and out of print for many years, it was rediscovered and reissued in 1976. Since then, it has remained in print and is on many college syllabi as required reading. Perhaps a new story of Braddock is in the making, one with an environmental and creative class twist, and with a triumphant ending.

Photo Credits:
  • "Edgar Thomson Works" copyright Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved
  • "Braddock News" copyright Dory Adams, all rights reserved
  • "Isaly's, Braddock, PA" copyright Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved
  • "Braddock Farms" copyright Dory Adams, all rights reserved
  • "Mayor John Fetterman" copyright Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved
  • "Braddock Community Oven" copyright Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved
  • "Braddock Street Art" copyright Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved
  • "More Braddock Street Art" copyright Dory Adams, all rights reserved

"Gold in Braddock" at Unsmoke Artspace
May 1 - June 5, 2010:

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Edd Fuller said...

Dory--enjoyed the article on Braddock. I think it is important to document places like this, particularly the buildings that are slated for demolition. I really like your and Kevin's photos.

One small point: you say Andrew Carnegie's first mill was built in 1975. 1975??

Thanks again


Dory Adams said...

Thanks for catching that date typo Edd -- that should be 1875! I've corrected it in the post.

BrettB said...

Unfortunately, there's only one building slated for demolition. The mayor referred to those of us who don't feel that's the best route as "off the reservation."

We'll have a full history of that in the coming weeks:)

Great pictures. We'll have another site up in afew days with some more...motivational..picture of Braddock:)

Anonymous said...

If you destroy the past history by demolition, what is the point? I believe in the mayor's ideas. It will only make the people who live there stronger and more self sufficient. Great documentary on the Sundance channel!!!

Kim said...

I loved this article. My mother, and her entire family pretty much grew up in North Braddock. I'm only 26 so I've never seen it in it's glory. However; how my mother decribes it when she was youngand it sounds fantastic. I would love the opportunity to visit again someday and see it the way I've pictured it from her stories and memories.