Monday, May 31, 2010

Mountain Cemeteries: Decoration Day

[Note: During the summer months posting will be far less frequent, most likely one post per month, so that I can focus on another writing project. Weekly posts will resume in September, after Labor Day.]

Marker at Kayford Mountain Cemetery
(Copyright 2008 by Dory Adams)

I was taught to remember the dead and grew up watching my elders place wreaths and flowers on family graves for Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas. However, the most important day for tending to family graves was Decoration Day, which was what we called Memorial Day when I was a young girl. In much of Appalachia, Decoration Day was a remembrance of ancestors, not just about honoring those who had died while serving in the military. Flags decorated the graves of fallen soldiers, and flowers decorated the graves of family members.

There is some concern that the meaning of Memorial Day has been lost since the traditional observance date of May 30th was moved to the last Monday of May in 1971. When the National Holiday Act created a three-day weekend, the focus of Memorial Day gradually shifted to weekend getaways and family cookouts – a summer kickoff of sorts.

For me, Memorial Day has always been about all those things – cemeteries, fallen soldiers, the beginning of summer, kin and cookouts. Only the language has changed: Decoration Day, The 30th of May, Memorial Day. My maternal family is from the small towns nestled in the hills of Huntingdon County in Pennsylvania, and my great-grandparents, grandparents, and assorted aunts and uncles are buried in the mountain cemeteries there. On Memorial Day, in the town of Three Springs where my grandfather lived, people would gather flowers from their gardens and meet at the town green to form a procession where they carried the flowers to the cemetery. It wasn’t exactly a parade as there was no band, but there may have been a drummer on occasion to provide a cadence. Grandpap always cut rosebuds from the bush in his front yard on the morning of May 30th for me to carry and place on the graves of Grandma and Sarah Alice, their youngest daughter who’d died at birth. He carried flowers for the graves of his parents and for his brother Alfred who’d been killed in World War II. Following a small service in the cemetery, a trumpeter would play Taps, and then we’d walk across the cemetery to place our flowers at the gravesites.

Later that day, everyone seemed to gather at my grandfather’s house. Carloads of out-of-town relatives would arrive. There would be a backyard cookout and the house would fill up with aunts and uncles and cousins. When every lawn chair, porch swing, and porch banister was taken, blankets would be spread on the ground so people could sit on the lawn without getting grass stain on their clothes. People came and went all day long, and if you paid attention to the grownups talking you were bound to pick up a family story or two. My great-aunts loved to tell stories of their brother’s (my grandpap) mischief as a boy, so I know all about whose pigtails he scorched with a match, and how he caught a fish with his bare hands when jumping into the creek in his Sunday suit on the way home from church, and how he rode his new sled down the stairs at the farm on Christmas morning. The stories of Uncle Alfred were told in a different tone of voice, more hushed and with sadness filling up the silent gaps.

Reading Lee Maynard’s The Pale Light of Sunset got me thinking about mountain cemeteries again. Although I’m not from West Virginia, the kinship I feel with West Virginia writers began when I first read Chuck Kinder’s work, and has continued as I’ve read the work of other West Virginia writers. In the opening chapter of The Pale Light of Sunset, Lee Maynard wrote of being born in his grandmother’s parlor, and of learning fifty years later of the birth of a stillborn aunt, his mother’s twin, who’d also been born in that same parlor. Maynard writes: “There was no money for tiny burials. In the stillness and quiet of a black summer night, with waves of heat pouring down the valley and out across the rivers in the distance, with the heavy scent of honeysuckle hanging in the night air, the tiny body was named, wrapped in my grandmother’s prized quilt, and buried in a hand-dug grave beneath the tall grass just beyond the vegetable garden. Beneath the tall grass where I played.” Many years later after living most of his life in the southwest, he returns to where the house once stood in the West Virginia mountains, but the house and everything that he knew there was gone. He writes: “I lie down in the grass and stare upward into a pale steel sky. And I realize that, had I, too, been stillborn, I would lie here, too, forever, next to an aunt whose name I never knew. Under the grass.”

I remember slowly closing the book and putting it down after reading that opening chapter, too moved by and connected to those words to read any further just then. I thought of my mother telling me about a baby buried under a rosebush on my great-grandparents’ farm. She wasn’t sure whose baby it was as it had happened long ago; no doubt in a similar situation to what Lee Maynard writes of when there was no money for tiny burials. I suppose the rosebush was planted later to mark the spot, but Mom always phrased it as “the baby buried under the rosebush at the farm.” Everyone was born at home back then, including her. It was a grim irony that the first of her family to be born in a hospital would be her baby sister, strangled by the umbilical cord which had become wrapped around her neck in the birth process. It was to her grave that I carried those rosebuds on Memorial Day.

Red poppies are supposed to be the flower of remembrance for war dead, but roses have become a flower of remembrance for me, starting with those deep pink roses from my grandfather’s yard. It may even go back to that rosebush on my great-grandfather’s farm. In my own garden there are white roses planted in memory of a dear friend who died far too young of cancer. In fact, when we moved to the house where we now live, that rosebush came with us, transplanted from the yard at the old house. Just last week, my husband set a new stake into the ground to help support the branches which are heavy with white buds and blossoms. There are also poppies in my garden, but they are orange poppies and not the “In Flanders Field” red poppies meant for soldiers, planted because I remember them growing in Grandma’s garden when I was barely three years old and the orange blossoms seemed almost as tall as me.

In Chuck Kinder’s first novel, Snakehunter, one of the characters, an aunt, is determined to make sure all the family graves have tombstones marking them. After forty years of putting headstones on family graves, she manages to get the final stone set on her brother’s grave in a West Virginia hillside cemetery on Decoration Day 1950. The day is spent getting the new granite marker up the hill on a washed-out and deeply rutted dirt road to the family gravesite, and then pulling weeds and tending to the other family graves there. I think of this story every time I visit a mountainside graveyard, and of two West Virginia cemeteries in particular, the Hatfield Cemetery and the Kayford Cemetery.

Hatfield Cemetery, copyright 2006 by Kevin Scanlon

In the Hatfield cemetery in Logan County, West Virginia, the graves go all the way up the steep hillside to the woods, and some of the older graves at the top are actually in the woods now. At the center of the cemetery is the Hatfield family plot where a marble statue of the patriarch, Devil Anse, dominates. In contrast to this formal plot are the more humble graves further up the hillside, some with handmade wooden markers, others marked by rocks with hand-chiseled names and dates. We tend to think of a marked grave as a permanent memorial, but it’s impossible to stand in such a hillside cemetery and not notice how the wilderness reclaims those graves if left untended.

Hatfield Cemetery, copyright 2006 by Kevin Scanlon

The old cemetery atop Kayford Mountain is now practically surrounded by a mountain top removal mine site there. The dirt road up to the cemetery is deeply rutted, which make it impassable to all but four-wheel drive vehicles. As we walked the rest of the way up after driving as far as we could, I wondered How do they ever get funeral processions and caskets up here for burials? While most of the graves there are very old, there are also a few recent graves with new granite markers. It’s an odd juxtaposition of the cemetery and the mine site, the land defying human attempts to claim it along the washed out dirt road, yet destroyed beyond belief by humans and mining corporations blasting away just beyond the graveyard.

Kayford Mountain Cemetery, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams

The cemetery where my grandparents are buried is in a more pastoral setting, at the edge of town and surrounded by a gated stone wall separating it from the adjacent hill farms, the coal long ago mined from the region before the era of extreme strip mining. My mother and a cousin make sure there are flowers on the family graves for the holiday observances, particularly Memorial Day. It gives me a sense of peace knowing my ancestors are at rest in their mountain cemetery while I remember the dead my own way, planting flowers of remembrance in my own garden here in the city.

Photo Credits:
  • Top and bottom photographs: Kayford Mountain Cemetery, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams
  • Middle photographs: Hatfield Cemetery, copyright 2006 by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

Other News:
  • June 1st marks the first anniversary of In This Light.
  • During the summer months, posting will be far less frequent (most likely one post per month) so that I can focus on another writing project. Weekly posts will resume in September, after Labor Day.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

More Wright in Buffalo: The Darwin D. Martin Complex

The Darwin D. Martin House
(copyright 2010 by Dory Adams)

Earlier this spring, we made two trips to Buffalo, New York. The first was a daytrip to tour Graycliff which I wrote about here. On the second trip, we spent several days exploring and photographing in the Buffalo area. The first thing on my list of things to see was the Darwin Martin House, which architect Frank Lloyd Wright referred to as his “opus.” Intrigued that a family owned two Wright-designed estates, after seeing Graycliff I wanted to see their main residence in the city.

The tour gave me more than a look at the interior of the Wright-designed home. I came away with pieces of a story with complex characters, an historic setting at the turn of the twentieth century when Buffalo was an industrial behemoth, motivations and complications surrounding self-made wealth, friendship, family, scandal, tragedy and loss. Now I am more intrigued than ever, and the more research I do the more fascinated I become with Darwin and Isabelle Martin, and with Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Darwin D. Martin Complex includes the main residence for Darwin and Isabelle Martin’s family, with a long open-sided pergola leading from the house to a conservatory and carriage house, as well two other houses on the property – a gardener’s cottage and the George Barton House which was built for Darwin’s sister and her family. There is also a newly built visitor’s center designed by Toshiko Mori. The main house is currently undergoing restoration, and the tour we were on was the last to go through before they were temporarily suspended until the restoration work is completed inside. Tours of the other buildings, however, will continue in the meantime.

The Visitor's Center and Gardener's Cottage
(Copyright 2010 by Dory Adams)

I look forward to returning for another tour of the house after the restoration is complete. At the time of our tour the art glass windows had been removed from the main floor, the wisteria mosaic tiles had been removed from the living room fireplace, and protective drapes divided the open living space and blocked the view down the 100-foot long pergola to the statue of the Greek goddess Nike in the conservatory that would’ve normally been seen upon entering the house.

The fact that the Martin House has been saved is a story in itself. The property had been abandoned for nearly twenty years after Darwin Martin’s death. Martin had lost most of his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash and died in 1935 after several years of failing health. In 1938, Isabelle Martin abandoned the house after she could not afford to pay the back taxes. The day Isabelle Martin walked out of the house for the last time she didn’t even bother to lock the door behind her. The house stood vacant, vulnerable to vagrants and vandals and partially open to the elements, until 1955 when architect Sebastian Tauriello bought it to try to save it. Tauriello sold part of the property in order to save the rest of it. The original pergola, conservatory, and carriage house were destroyed to build three apartment buildings where they’d stood. Later, the University at Buffalo owned the main house and used it as a residence for the university president. Since 1992, the Martin House Restoration Corporation, a non-profit educational and restoration group, has worked to acquire and restore the complete property. The apartment buildings have been demolished and the pergola, conservatory, and carriage house were rebuilt on the original site.

Carriage House and Pergola
(Copyright 2010 by Dory Adams)

The Darwin Martin House was a grand and formal home where visitors were ushered into a reception room off the formal entry upon arrival. The family space on the main floor included a large open area with library, living room, and dining room, and upstairs were eight bedrooms. Darwin Martin, an executive with the Larkin Company, was a workaholic who also kept an office on the main floor of his home where business visitors could enter and leave through a separate entrance without disturbing his family.

Martin had brought Frank Lloyd Wright to Buffalo in 1902 when searching for an architect to design and build the Larkin Company’s Administration Building, which became Wright’s first commercial commission. Construction on the administration building began in 1904 and was completed in 1906. During that time, Martin also hired Wright to design an estate for his family that would include a house for his sister.

The friendship between Martin and Wright is fascinating. Both men were self-made successes who came from broken families, and both men made and lost fortunes. Darwin Martin was a friend and benefactor to Wright even during the years when Wright’s life was filled with scandal and tragedy, and he extended loans to Wright again and again at Wright’s request. By 1932 when Martin’s money was nearly gone, Wright owed Martin $70,000 which was never repaid.

Darwin Martin, who died in 1935 after a series of strokes, is buried in an unmarked grave in Forest Lawn Cemetery. Martin had commissioned Wright to design a family mausoleum for him in 1928, but could not afford to have it built after the onset of the Great Depression. By the time of Martin’s death, there was not even enough money left to put a tombstone on his grave. In 2004, nearby Darwin and Isabelle’s unmarked graves, the Blue Sky Mausoleum was built using Wright’s design.

Photo credits: Photographs copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lost in "A Moment in Time"

Fisherman along the Ohio River outside Western Penitentiary, Pittsburgh PA (copyright 2010 by Dory Adams)

Click on image for larger view

A few weeks ago I mentioned “A Moment in Time,” a project launched by the blog Lens at the New York Times. The purpose of the project was for people around the world to take a photograph at 15:00 U.T.C. and upload it to the New York Times website as a contribution to the “global mosaic” of images representative of that moment. It sounded like an interesting project and a fun thing to do, so I wanted to participate by submitting an image from my city and to encourage others to take part as well. The project was an overwhelming success in that more than 14,000 images were submitted.

“Overwhelming” may be the key word here, as it was quickly apparent that the NYT project staff had difficulties managing the influx of photographic images and getting the interactive global mosaic up and working. The site finally went live May 11th, a week later than planned, but I’ve not yet been able to determine if the photograph I submitted of Pittsburgh is actually part of the mosaic. Because my photo is in a large category (“community”) and in one of the largest stacks of photographs (Pennsylvania is included in the northeast region which has multiple major cities), my browser freezes or crashes before I can get through that single stack. I’ve tried viewing the site on several different computers and by using both Firefox and Explorer with no luck. There are many more stacks of photographs (sorted by region and category) to view, but I’d like to see whether my image of Pittsburgh is actually included. On May 2nd, there had been problems with uploading images to the site. While I was able to upload mine on the first try late in the afternoon and received a notice that it had been uploaded successfully, I’m not sure it actually did since others have left comments on the blog saying they’d received that same message but their image was not in the stack for their region/category.

At this point I’ve simply wasted far too much time trying to view my image only to have the system crash before I can work my way down the huge stack of photographs where it should be. So, I’m uploading my photograph here – and if any of you happen to see it on the NYT site, I’d be grateful if you’d copy the URL for that particular page and e-mail it to me (my address is in the sidebar to the right of this page).

There was a lot going on in Pittsburgh at 11:00 a.m. (15:00 U.T.C. for Eastern Standard Time) on May 2nd, including the Pittsburgh marathon with 16,000 participants and a graduation ceremony for the University of Pittsburgh. It was going to be a morning of traffic jams, detours, and bridge closures. The logistics of getting around the city would be a challenge. I considered photographing the marathon, but realized that most of the runners would’ve crossed the finish line by 11:00 a.m. I also considered photographing parishioners entering or leaving mass at St. Benedict the Moor Church since the gorgeous statue of the saint atop the church is a favorite photographic subject of mine, but the mass schedule did not quite jive with the designated moment.

Pittsburgh’s urban trails are a favorite aspect of the city for me, so I decided to photograph at a stretch of the Allegheny Trail along the Ohio River near Western Penitentiary that always interests me. My husband and I walk that stretch from time to time, and I’m always fascinated by the prison there. Over the past few years it has gone from closed and vacant to fully operational again. We’ve watched as it transitioned from quiet and spooky obsolescence, a big tombstone of sorts, to an active and menacing sight with gleaming new razor wire atop the walls and fences. First opened more than a century ago in 1882, the structure looks medieval. This is the kind of place you might have nightmares about, and in fact I have a recurring dream which takes place on the side street beside the tall stone wall of the prison yard where posted signs warn “no stopping or standing.”

In serene juxtaposition to the penitentiary is the Ohio River scenery. On the rainy Sunday morning of the photo project, I came upon a fisherman wearing a yellow rain slicker who was fishing from a dock just beyond the trail and the prison walls. I photographed the fisherman on the outside enjoying his leisure time while the men inside those walls served their time. What can’t be captured in the photograph is the sound coming from the prison, an echoing din of voices talking and shouting above the background noise of movement inside. That sound bounces from wall to wall around the interior of the building to the outer yard walls and eventually beyond. I was amazed by the sound and wondered how much louder it must be inside. It had been a cold winter day the last time I’d walked this trail, and except for the Christmas Day visitors arriving in the parking lot, it had been very quiet then.

Locals refer to it as Western Pen, but the official name for the facility is The State Correctional Institution – Pittsburgh. It had operated as a maximum security prison until closing in 2005, and then in 2007 it reopened as a medium security prison due to dangerous overcrowding in the PA prison system. This image of Western Pen would fit into my category of “reclaimed things” here at In This Light where I have ongoing themes of “abandoned things” and “reclaimed things.” For the purpose of the “A Moment in Time” project, it seems to fit best in their category of “community.” The penitentiary is a community within itself, and it’s also part of the larger community of the neighborhood and city, albeit a walled-in and gated one of the unfashionable kind.

The editors at Lens who undertook the project of trying to capture a single moment globally are to be commended for their efforts. It’s truly a wonderful project, and I will no doubt spend more hours browsing through the images. Perhaps the editors at Lens will improve their global mosaic so that the images on the interactive site can be searched by city instead of larger regions, so that all those who contributed photographs to the project can have their images seen.

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

Guest Post by Josh Wilker: "Acting the Fool"

I’ve been following Josh Wilker’s blog Cardboard Gods for a long time – not because I’m a baseball fan or a baseball card collector, but because of the stories he tells about his own life in reflecting on the cards he collected as a boy. Josh is a wonderful writer (we were classmates in the MFA program at Vermont College), and I’m very excited about the publication of his new book Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards.

He will be in Pittsburgh on his book tour: Wednesday, May 12th, 7 PM at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, SouthSide Works (510 South 27th Street, Pittsburgh, PA). For more info call the bookstore: 412-381-3600. This event is free and open to the public. Josh will be reading, discussing, and signing his book – and there’s always the possibility there will be a bubblegum-blowing contest. If you live in the Pittsburgh area, come out and join us.
Tour events for other areas are listed here.

A big thank you to Josh for writing such a fantastic guest post for this week’s In This Light!

“Acting the Fool” by Josh Wilker

A few years ago, I finished a novel I’d been working on for years, tried to get it published, failed, and more or less shut all the shades and lay down and stared up at the ceiling with my stomach hurting. Now what? I knew I wouldn’t stop writing, because by then I’d already been writing pretty much every day for a couple decades, so writing was on me like an unshakeable bad habit, like nailbiting or buying scratch-off lotto tickets, but I was worried about setting off on another long writing journey that would end, as all my previous long writing journeys had ended, with me heaving a sigh and dumping a pile of pages into an increasingly tightly-packed file cabinet drawer.

The novel had been loosely based on my family’s experiences during my 1970s childhood, when my mom and my third parent, her boyfriend Tom, had taken my brother and me to the country to “get back to the land.” I structured the novel like a record album. I hoped the setup would not only be an homage to the Woodstock-era records that inspired and buoyed that hippie dream of reviving Eden but that would also justify the always risky narrative strategy of employing multiple first-person narrators: I wanted to create a web of voices in harmony, one voice in one song threading into a different voice in the next, like the voices on the greatest of the back-to-the-land anthems: Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and The Band’s first three albums, including the one they recorded in something like an attitude of pure play with Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes.


In Across the Great Divide, Barney Hoskins writes of Bob Dylan and the musicians who would become the Band: “Without the pressure of touring or studio recording hanging over them, the motley quintet had a ball with ‘the little workshop situation’ in the basement.

“‘They were a kick to do,’ Bob told Jann Wenner in 1969. ‘Fact, I’d do it all again. You know, that’s really the way to do a recording—in a peaceful, relaxed setting, in somebody’s basement, with the window open and a dog lying on the floor.’

“[Garth Hudson added]: ‘It was relaxed and low-key, which was something we hadn’t enjoyed since we were children.’” (p. 138)


After trying and failing to sell my novel, I needed to find a way back to joy. I needed to play. A few years earlier, while writing another file-cabinet novel, this one about a young aimless man who worked at a struggling liquor store, I had begun writing an occasional notebook entry about my childhood baseball cards. I was living in a cabin in the woods and slowly cracking under the self-imposed strain of trying to create something brilliant with the liquor store novel, and it was only when I took a break to write about one of my old cards that this strain lessened. I found that I didn’t so much care what I wrote. I just wanted to hold a card in my hand and let it take my mind wherever it wanted to go, just like the card had done when I was a kid, playing.


In A Long Strange Trip by Dennis McNally, Jerry Garcia speaks about the first music he and his friends made under the name The Grateful Dead. The first gig for the Dead, formerly a blues outfit called the Warlocks, was to serve as the “house band” of the Merry Pranksters’ acid tests, those attempts by Ken Kesey and his cohorts to reinvent the world by leveling everything within and starting anew, like a child. “The idea,” Garcia said of the new music, “was of its essence formless. There was nothin’ going on. We’d just . . . make something of it.”


Childlike, formless playing has a better chance of occurring with musicians than with writers, first because music is more rooted at its inception in the body than in the brain, and second because music can be a creation that’s shared, an action conducive not only to play but to joy. I wondered if writing could be shared in its early stages in a way that, while not exactly like the collaborations of musicians at play, at least might free me up from what had become a stifling, overstraining solitude.

My wife and I went to Target and bought a scanner. She figured out how to set it up. My brother helped me set up a blog. I got out my box of baseball cards. I wanted to try to tap back into that rejuvenating sense of play that I’d glimpsed while living in the cabin, and also try to find a way to share it. I reached into my box of baseball cards and pulled a card out at random. It was Mark Fidrych.

Of all the cards I could have pulled out! Fidrych embodied the brief yelp of joy that is this life more than any other baseball player ever had. For one season, before arm trouble set in, he was the best and most entertaining pitcher in the American League. He talked to the baseball and bounded around the infield like a kid after a teammate’s good play and in all ways had the time of his life, as if it was all just a game he loved. All I had to do was look at the photo of him on the card and hold the card in my hand as I had done as a boy and the words began tumbling out of me like giggling little leaguers from a bus that had just pulled up to a sunny green field.

I scanned the Mark Fidrych card with our new scanner. I posted the image and the words that had rushed and tripped out of me on my new blog. I shared them.


As that year I spent in a cabin in the woods was coming to a close, I began to understand that I wouldn’t be able to avoid it being a failure. Time was running out. I’d written every day, and yet the novel I’d hoped to write had never materialized from the muck of the writing. I knew in a few weeks I’d be heading back to the world, broke. The weather began to get warm. I had taken Peter Guralnick’s two-volume Elvis Presley biography out of the college library. I sat on the porch of the cabin in the sun and read. There were worse things I could have done.

Years later, as I started sharing my playtime writing about my baseball cards with whoever wanted to see it, I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going, but I was having fun. The writing kept reaching out of that feeling of childhood play, allowing me to once again and with fresh eyes approach the subjects I’d been attempting to get down on the page all my adult life: the back-to-the-land years with my family, my lifelong bond with my brother, my years as a clerk in a struggling liquor store, even my year in the cabin. The stories in the packed file cabinet of failed pages were rising up from a state of suspended animation and flailing around, young again.

I didn’t know that I’d have that in my future as I sat on my porch at my cabin, defeated, and read fat books about Elvis. Nor did I know that all the formless playtime writing would begin to suggest a form, a book with a narrative shape, encompassing a life that had persistently announced itself as terminally shapeless. At that moment on the porch of my cabin, I was still a decade away from finishing that book, my ode to play and to my childhood baseball cards and to my holy stumble of a life.

But I do remember feeling something flicker inside me as I read about how it all began for Elvis. It’s one of my favorite stories, right up there with the story of Dylan and the Band having fun in a basement or Jerry Garcia and the boys inventing a new sound out of giggly nothingness.

Elvis came to his first full session at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios and worked late into the night, mostly on sentimental ballads that came out, despite his fine voice and sincere efforts, sounding stiff and lifeless. Just before they called it quits, the whole thing a glum failure, Elvis grabbed a guitar and started just horsing around. Instead of a ballad, he played a faster,looser song, Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right.”

“All of a sudden,” session guitarist Scotty Moore recalled, “Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill [Black] picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them. Sam, I think, had the door to the control booth open . . . he stuck his head out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And we said, ‘We don’t know.’

“‘Well, back up,’ he said, ‘try to find a place to start, and do it again.’”

Josh Wilker at his desk

Josh Wilker writes about his life and his childhood baseball cards at Since his first posting in 2006, his site has been featured in The New York Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, and He is a winner of the Howard Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction and has an MFA from Vermont College. He lives with his wife in Chicago.

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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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