Braddock, Pensylvania – the next Lower East Side?

Carnegie Library - Braddock PA
Carnegie Library - Braddock PA

Perhaps. But likely not anytime soon.

I first became aware of Braddock, PA last summer, through an article in my Google news alert from the People’s Weekly World (‘We take sides – Yours! Working class opinions and views since 1924’) entitled:

‘Future for the Mons Valley: “Hell doesn’t have to last forever”‘.

At first what amazed me was not Braddock – but that an old time leftie journal like People’s Weekly World still existed in today’s America. Or today’s anywhere, since our political conversation has shifted so rightward that what would have been centrist in the 70’s is now ‘radical’ left. But then I got interested in Braddock.

Braddock, Pennsylvania, sits just outside Pittsburgh, and has a population of 2800, down from 200,000 in the 50”s. The mayor, John Fetterman, has become a celebrity of sorts. Most recently, he was profiled in the Atlantic’s ‘Brave Thinkers’ series, but many papers have profiled him from the Guardian: America’s coolest mayor? to the New York Times: Rock Bottom For Decades but Showing Signs of Life. Fetterman makes great cop: a 6’8”, 300 pound, heavily tattooed white Harvard grad with a shaved head who wants to revive a dying steel town where the remaining population is mostly black. He seems a dedicated man, has built a website dedicated to the town braddoc; ‘destruction breeds creation – create amidst destruction’ (‘braddoc’ was the local Crips’ spelling of the town’s name).

Having grown up in a town surrounded by ghost towns and abandoned mines, a town that is itself almost now completely abandoned, I’ve always been fascinated by abandonment: what it means, what places become after they’ve been abandoned. But the story of Braddock and Mayor Fetterman’s attempts to revive it, struck other chords.

Abandoned Street, Braddock PA
Abandoned Street, Braddock PA

In an excellent article from ReadyMade Magazine( ‘One Man’s Mission to Save Braddock, Pennsylvania’), the writers illustrate not only how black people were left behind by the GI Bill, by a lack of seniority in the workplace, but how Braddock is in the absurd position of possessing the last operating steel mill in the Valley, yet how almost no one works at the mill actually lives in Braddock. As Mayor Fetterman says, “the mill’s only contribution to the community is pollution – one of the main reasons white workers, when they could, moved out.”

The mayor would like to see the white folks come back. Not the white working class – no one expects that – but the only white folks who re-inhabit depressed urban areas their parents or grandparents fled – artists, urban frontierists, chasing cheap living spaces, an off-the-grid community, freedom, or sometimes just escape.

I’ve lived in some (albeit much tamer) version of Braddock since my teens – depopulated or recently de-industrialized neighborhoods occupied by the artists and misfits Fetterman wants to attract. Since about the mid-90’s, when it became apparent that cities like New York and London would have less and less space for people on the margins, I’ve thought real artistic renewal would come from smaller centres – like grunge came from Seattle. That hasn’t happened on any meaningful level, and cities seem to be separating into two types – gentrified and depressed (or semi-abandoned). The question remains – can any kind of real cultural movement form in places like Braddock (or Detroit, Buffalo . . .). And if they can, can they revive not just the city but the fortunes of the people who already live there, or resist the uber-gentrification (a little gentrification, like a little poison, can be a good thing) that seems to follow any cultural flowering?

Abandoned Department Store, Braddock PA
Abandoned Department Store, Braddock PA

The Lower East Side is a half hour’s walk from the power centres of mid-town and Wall Street – even at its most abandoned and depraved, when drug lines circled around blocks of abandoned tenements, the separation was more psychological or cultural than physical. In many respects, New York was a more egalitarian place in those days, and drugs, art, thrills, formed the nexus where the powerful and the marginal rubbed shoulders. All those spaces I inhabited (or squatted), were in the heart of the city, in properties that are in some cases now worth millions.

It takes a certain kind of person to live off the grid, and the communities that formed were often riven by drugs, conflict, or an extreme (and crippling) marginalization. Isolation, drugs, blightend landscapes, crime – these aren’t easy to take day after day, especially as you get older.

Another street - Braddock, PA
Another street - Braddock, PA

What else are communities like Braddock to do? Unless the West re-industrializes (and there seems to be a growing awareness that this might be a good idea), there isn’t much that can be done. The solution that is proposed again and again for depressed communities seems to be big box malls, gambling or a prison – Fetterman’s opponent in the last election wanted to bring in a gas station. The homesteaders provide population, new ideas, energy. Maybe, as our economy changes, the inevitability of gentrification for successful cultural communities will change as well. Maybe new industries will one day come back to Braddock . . .

In the meantime, Braddock remains an experiment worth watching. Even if it doesn’t become the next Lower East Side. And if it is successful, perhaps my little town will attract people in like fashion one day . . .

Uranium City, Saskatchewan Uranium City, Saskatchewan, where I grew up. Empty buildings stretch for three or four miles

More articles:

former steeltown

From the Monthly Review: Braddock, Pennsylvania – Out of the Furnace, Into the Fire

Thread in city-data.com about Braddock, mostly from people from neighboring areas

8 Comments

  1. If they had a trader joes and a good gym… I’d think about it… I mean depending on how much more can go down the tubes here…. Nah… too many trees. I’m stuck.

    and uranium city. Well I actually do know more than I’d like about that… what a small world it is.

  2. LOL. well. perhaps I’ll post something in Sunday Memories about debris of past times and other sundry acts of self/destruction. or maybe Hand -Me -Downs: what besides sweaters and toothbrushes get left behind people places and things change.

    In fact! this might be Sunday’s blog! Thank you Tim!

  3. CO – Hmmm, very mysterious . . . I don’t think I’ll sleep a wink until Sunday . . .

    You’ll understand my intense curiosity. The odds of anyone in New York who doesn’t know me personally knowing anything about Uranium City – never mind, ‘more than I’d like’ is about, I don’t know . . . seven million to one?

    Although it was a New Yorker who, through an amazing coincidence, sent me back sixteen years after I left.

    T.

  4. Is it better to help people move out of such places or to help other people move in?

    It’s not clear what can be done about company towns which lose their sole industry, especially if they’re in areas which don’t have much tourist appeal.

    Perhaps government can stave off the worst effects by relocating some of their offices and departments to those places, but often that means relocating their existing staff as well, rather than recruiting from the local unemployed.

    I don’t see the appeal of staying in a dying town where there’s no work and no future. I’d be out of there, just like you moved out of Uranium City. For some people the prospect of moving seems to be overwhelming: they’d rather have a welfare pittance in familiar surroundings than strike out somewhere new and unfamiliar.

    Seeing as those who stay behind usually end up with poorer-than-average health and shorter-than-average lifespans, it’d be good to help and encourage them to move to where there’s work and a future through adequate relocation grants.

    As for the poorer echelons of the creative industries being encouraged to help repopulate such districts, that’s a recurrent theme in Britain. Almost like you’re being challenged to disagree. How can you not like art? Do you really want to sound like a philistine in polite company?

  5. Ian: Thanks for the thoughtful comment . . .

    Well, I guess the government could move people out – but where do you put them?

    Also, Braddock is only one example amongst many. Detroit, Buffalo – these cities are now half-abandoned, should we move everyone out of these cities as well? And where do we put THEM? And what do we lose when we abandon cities like Detroit or Braddock, pit towns in the north of England or, for that matter, one-industry towns like Uranium City?

    Encouraging creative type people to move in isn’t a perfect solution – creating new industry, or bringing back the industry we inexplicably let go elsewhere, would be ideal. But I can’t agree with just abandoning places, especially those with history like Braddock. Community, continuity – these still matter.

    It’s worth remembering that places like New York’s lower east side, or the Brooklyn neighborhood I’m writing this now, weren’t considered much better than Braddock at one point. Whole sections of central Brooklyn were very nearly abandoned in the 60’s and early 70’s.

    I guess also the other point I’m trying to make is that it’s difficult for a real underground to make it in cities now. Cities are expensive, media culture swoops in on everything almost as soon as it happens. There has to be SOMEWHERE to live off the grid. Mayor Fetterman’s experiment is just that: an experiment. If he fails, Braddock will likely collapse completely and everyone will leave. But if he succeeds, perhaps there is another model for one industry towns everywhere. There has to be a better process than the one that exists now.

    T.

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