The Battle for Braddock, PA

Sean Posey

Braddock, Pennsylvania might be America’s most embattled community. Born up around what is now the country’s oldest fully integrated steel mill, the Borough of Braddock grew in the shadow of the nation’s steel industry. Immigrants of all colors and nationalities flocked to the gritty steel town, looking to build new lives in a small corner of Western Pennsylvania’s industrial belt. Yet it took only a few short decades for it all to fall apart and for Braddock to descend into a seemingly unstoppable decline. The Braddock of today, however, has gone from being a back page story of industrial decay can you buy viagra over the counter to a front-page story of Rust Belt “revivalism.”

But how did a forgotten corner of the Pittsburgh area become a media cause célèbre? The seemingly straightforward story of one town’s decline is actually part of a much bigger set of problems—tied in a Gordian Knot.

America is not accustomed to decline. The seemingly intractable problems of the Rust Belt have often been presented as economic and social anomalies. The coming of the post-2008 world changed all that. In a country where so many can now see ostensibly unsolvable problems multiplying around them, a truly hard case such as Braddock garners new attention. A whole new generation of young people, fueled by a pessimistic view of established institutions but also filled with an optimism in DIY culture and American frontier lore, are looking to places like Braddock.

Only a few years ago, in a now well-told story, a Harvard graduate named John Fetterman came to town as part of the AmeriCorps program and is cialis better than viagra won the mayor’s race only a few years later. Creating his own non-profit, Braddock Redux, Fetterman pursued a revitalization strategy based on, in the words of Sue Halpern, “land banking…urban agriculture…greening…(and) embracing depopulation.” By 2008, the Braddock story had spread online. In 2009, posted an article titled Move to Braddock, PA And Afford the Life You Always Wanted, Or Why Small Towns Are Best. Braddock looked like the next hot thing: “For all of you struggling out there under hard times, this is for you. For anyone with a dream to quit their job and open up their storefront but can’t do that due to finances, listen up. The Mayor of Braddock, PA wants you to know you can have all that and more, if you move to his city…” The town was held up as the perfect place to launch a business or to pursue a hobby full-time.

Braddock is like few places in America though, with desolation as severe as Detroit’s compacted into a little over half of a square mile. Once a bustling borough of 20,000 people, fewer than 3,000 still remained in 2009. Nor was the borough previously as well known or as storied a place like Pittsburgh or Detroit, or even nearby Homestead, site of the bloodiest labor strike in American history. It’s perhaps best known for having the first Carnegie Library. But what was Braddock and what is it to become?

In perhaps a sad irony, Braddock draws its name from a capable soldier who would go on to be primarily remembered for his disastrous defeat in the Battle of Monongahela against the French and their Indian allies in 1754. According to historian Thoman Mante, what does viagra look like “Few generals perhaps…have been so severely censured for any defeat, as General Braddock for this.” In 1873, only a few years after the town’s founding, Carnegie Steel built the Edgar Thompson Steel Works on the site of the battle that took the life of the hapless General Braddock.

Much as it does now, the Edgar Thompson Works dominated the town. It also provided much of the economic basis for the area, as did other mills located in nearby Rankin and Duquesne. After the building of the mill, Andrew Carnegie, in an early version of corporate paternalism, built the first Carnegie Library in Braddock in 1889. Braddock and the rest of the Monongahela Valley suffered under Carnegie and the robber barons and through decades of labor battles on the way to unionization. In particular, the town served as a fulcrum of local resistance during the Great Steel Strike of 1919, when Father Adelbert Kazinsky of St. Michael’s defied U.S. Steel by hosting union meetings in his church, which the company tried to foreclose on, only to see local workers pay off the lien on the church. Still, the “company” triumphed in the end, holding off unionism until 1937.

Braddock eventually became the “cradle of Western Pennsylvania’s steel industry.” Ironically, unionization, the New Deal, and upward mobility allowed prosperous steelworkers to move out from under the mill’s shadow. The town started losing population in the ’30s—and it never stopped. When deindustrialization came to the Pittsburgh area in the 1980s, it nearly wiped out the embattled borough.

The demise of the mills also erased the town’s identity. As Thomas Bell’s character Dobie says in Out of this Furnace—a mid-century novel centered around immigration, work, and assimilation in Braddock—“I’m almost as much a product of that mill down there as any rail or ingot they ever turned out…” Deindustrialization in the 1970s and ’80s irrevocably changed that dynamic. No longer did Braddock’s young people have ready sources of good-paying jobs in the communities around them.
Into this breach stepped the six-foot-eight Harvard graduate. Fetterman, adorned with the area’s zip code tattooed on his arm, along with a list of names of all the residents killed during his watch, opened Braddock to the world. A town that went from having thirty churches, forty bars, and three movie theaters to almost nothing at all gradually started to show improvement: Fetterman and his non-profit Braddock Redux opened the first town park, helped to attract the first new business in years—Fossil Free Oil, and created new summer programs that provided desperately needed employment for the youth. Major demolitions of vacant and dilapidated structures also commenced under Fetterman’s watch.

A tsunami of media attention arrived along with the new artists and volunteers in Braddock. And here lies the first of several key problems. In 2010, Levi’s gave Braddock a million dollars to film commercials on location for its new ad campaign, using the town’s residents as models. Although the money must have been needed, Levi’s television and print ads proved highly problematic. In a Levi’s commercial called “Go Forth to Work,” a disembodied voice exclaims: “We were taught how the pioneers went in the West. They opened their eyes and made up what things could be.” As scenes of residents working on decayed buildings drift across the screen, the voice continues: “A long time ago things got broken here. People got sad and left. Maybe the world breaks on purpose so we can have work to do.”

Using a town like Braddock as a stand in for the frontier is obviously extremely problematic. But suggesting a town destroyed mostly by forces outside of its own control broke “on purpose” seems beyond the pale. Braddock photographer LaToya Ruby Frasier in particular called out the Levi’s campaign. In referencing one of the still ads for Levi’s Braddock campaign, “Everybody’s work is equally important,” Frasier said, “It’s really insidious when you put a black man in a photograph, and then you put on top of it ‘Everybody’s work is equally important,’ especially when you know the history of the steel mills in Braddock. They didn’t want to employ us; they barely employed us.”

Is everyone’s work equally important in a town where so many have no work at all? Could Braddock’s new “pioneers” change the game? In a particularly damaging 2011 article for the New York Times titled “Mayor of Rust,” Sue Halpern revealed that about twenty-three people had moved to the town since the publicity blitz began several years earlier. More fundamentally, Braddock seems to have no economic game plan at all. After a trip to Braddock, historian Jo Guldi observed “no evidence of sustainable economic thinking.” She recommends “naturalizing flows of capital into the community in a way that doesn’t depend on in-migration as a total source.” Of course, that’s a problem in countless Rust Belt communities; desperate measures are advocated to induce immigration without any real plans to include low-income communities. Fetterman and Braddock Redux do attempt to reach and impact native residents with summer programs and youth enrichment programs. But the overall unemployment crisis, especially among African Americans, remains.

Tony Buba is the man who has chronicled the travails of Braddock longer than perhaps anyone. His many films on the town include “Lightning Over Braddock,” “Voices from a Steeltown,” “Braddock Food Bank,” and “We are Alive: The Fight to Save Braddock Hospital.” Buba is representative of a much earlier generation of Braddock artist. His films are often set in Braddock and feature explicit looks at working class life and the impact of the town’s decline on residents.

Fetterman and the new generation of artists and homesteaders are not the first immigrants who tried to help revive Braddock. According how does viagra work to Buba, “In the late ’70s, a group of activists got together to reopen the abandoned Carnegie Library, and they had a lot of great programs out of there too. It was all part of a time here, when a lot of the socialists from the ’60s…were getting jobs in the steel mills, getting involved in the union.” Buba sees distinct differences between that generation and the current group of immigrant artists and urban revivalists: “Honestly, if you compare what these kids are doing to that last wave of activism…. The group that did the library had a lot more buy-in from the black community in Braddock…. There was an energy from the civil rights movement and everything else. I don’t know that I see that these days.”

New existential threats to Braddock’s existence have also emerged. For years now the Mon-Fayette Expressway project has hung over the town. Long a dream of developers, the expressway itself would go right through present day Braddock. Ground broke on the first leg in the early seventies. The project itself developed as a way to connect towns producing coke for the steel industry to the towns and cities with the actual mills themselves. The crash of the steel industry in the ’80s seemed to put a permanent halt to the as of yet unfinished expressway. Still, years of effort to get the last leg of the expressway off the ground have chilled those in Braddock; if it ever breaks ground, the project would effectively destroy the borough. Even if the Mon-Fayette doesn’t get resuscitated, the threat of eminent domain is seen as a deterrent to investment in the area.

Another huge blow recently came with the closing of the town’s largest employer and only hospital, Braddock UPMC. Immediately, a community movement—Save Our Community Hospital—emerged cialis versus viagra to challenge the shutdown. Despite a valiant effort, the hospital closed in 2010 and the building itself was subsequently demolished. After the closure of Braddock Hospital and the disappointing numbers from the 2010 Census, things seemed to be going backwards in Braddock. Chris Potter of Pittsburgh City Paper asked, “Did we really think that beehives and green roofs could reverse decades of suburban sprawl and free-market excess? And if not, why did national media give them so much ink in the first place?”

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” But are there second acts for economically and politically abandoned towns and cities? This question seems to drive much of the media coverage of Braddock. It’s comforting to think a few immigrants, some green projects, and some good publicity can help renew a fading icon like Braddock—for reasons that are much bigger than the borough itself.

It’s not just very small steel towns like Braddock that are collapsing; most of Pittsburgh’s industrial satellites are in various stages of decay: Duquesne, Rankin, Homestead, McKeesport, Clairton. The city that built the American Dream, Detroit, just declared bankruptcy this past year. The former heartland of industrial America is beating more and more slowly.

With no real national urban or industrial policy, and no real expectation of one, we accept government withdrawal from our embattled working class communities. We accept that towns and cities with next to no resources should fend for themselves. We look to individuals, immigrants, and well-intentioned and underfunded grass roots programs for solutions. In age of shrinking horizons and diminishing possibilities, the buzz around a place like Braddock becomes understandable. We want to believe in Braddock, because we want to believe in that other declining and increasingly broken community called the U.S.A.

–Sean Posey

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