Braddock, PA

Carnegie Library - Braddock PAPerhaps. But not likely 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 70”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. And why not – he makes great copy, a 6’8”, 300 pound, heavily tattooed white Harvard grad with a shaved head who wants to attract artists to a dying steel town where the remaining population is mostly black. He seems a dedicated man, 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 seperating 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 (because 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

It’s worth remembering that 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 could rub shoulders. All those marginal 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 in those places, 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

But what else are communities like Braddock to do? Unless the West re-industrializes (and there does seem 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, which it will have to do, the inevitability of gentrification for successful cultural communities will change as well. And who knows, 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

16 Comments

  1. “A law was made a distant moon ago here. July and August cannot be too hot. But there’s a legal limit to the snow here – in Bra-a-dock!” When I read and hear the descriiptions of my hometown, I don’t believe they even come close to describing the beauty of Braddock — its people.

    When I think back to the 50’s, 60’s (I attended senior high school from 1963 to 1967), my heart melts. Free music lessons were provided for all students with good grades who desired to learn how to play. I never had to purchase a trombone — and my family did not have any money to purchase one. The school provided me with a used instrument that afforded me the privilege to begin a love affair with all types of music.

    We had great teachers, too. Mrs. Grigassy was my gregg shorthand teacher. In addition to teaching the technical side of the subject, she emphasized the behaviors and disciplines that were required to become an expert in gregg shorthand. I had the privilege to teach gregg shorthand for over 30 years, and I employed her teaching methodologies and helped hundreds of students learn the subject.

    Mr. Frank Marino, Mr. Richard Howard, and Mr. Ferber were great music teachers who provided as many private lessons as students desired at no cost to the students. I learned the importance of sharing my gifts and talents with others, and had the opportunity not too long ago to provide two young men from my church with trombone lessons. I was even blessed to purchase the trombones for them.

    Ray Napolitan was my little league baseball coach. I shall never forget my first game as the starting second baseman. I made no less than four errors. The baseball was literally “eating me up.” We won the game and Mr. Napolitan came over to me and said, “Ronnie, good game. You had two hits today.” He never mentioned all of the errors I made that day. I never forgot how he managed that situation, and his manner of doing so has helped me tremendously in carrying out my leadership responsibilities over the past 25 years.

    My dad, Charles Wright, was an expert in steel production. I marveled at the way the steel workers looked out for each other. The shift started at 8:00 a.m. They relieved their co-worker at 7:30 a.m. so that they could leave the plant at 8:00 a.m. I never heard my dad indicate that his co-workers were late, but always dependable.

    Braddock was a special place and our High School English teacher, Mr. William Horan, said it best when he authored and produced our class of 1967 senior play–“Socrates, Cassanova, and Us.” Mr. Horan knew the gifts and talents of the students, but he also knew the hearts of the students and the production was a great success.

    Hopefully, you get my point. There are some great stories to tell about Bra – a – dock — It was truly my Camelot.
    My classmates had wonderful dreams to become doctors, teachers, business leaders, etc.

    • Hi Ronald,

      Thanks so much for the post. I haven’t been checking this site as much as I should lately. It’s amazing to go back and look at these places from someone who grew up there. Hopefully, one day, Braddock and all places like it that have fallen on hard times will come back.

      Best wishes for the New Year.

      T.

    • Ron, I was checking out some websites about Braddock and North Braddock and read your post and wanted to let you know I appreciate your recognition of Ray Napolitan as a coach and mentor to you in your youth. He coached Little League for over twenty years before he died of cancer much too young at age 56. His mentoring and tough love helped me as well to achieve a Ph.D at Pitt, a long career in education where I hope I was able to do the same for many of the young people with whom I worked with those 35 years.
      Growing up in towns like Braddock,North Braddock, Rankin, etc. I believe gave many of us a strong work ethic,character, and mental toughness to do whatever we wanted to do and be able to generally handle whatever life threw at us with confidence and humility. Growing up in North Braddock I also had many “mentors” who helped me along the way, but Ray Napolitan was the mentor that was the hardest working, most giving family man, and bravest man I ever knew even in facing death with cancer;and I love him and have missed him every day of my life since his death in 1969———— He was my Father !

  2. Ron – nice memories, but Mr. Horan’s name was Thomas. I attended Braddock High School from 1958 till 1961 – lots of good memories.

  3. Ron,

    My husband, Tom, was born and raised in Braddock between 1941 and 1959. He has many memories of the place he calls home. One of your posters said that he hopes Braddock will one day rise from the ashes and live again. Well, Braddock will not come back by itself. I believe we all need to pitch in and start the action. We are in California but, modern technology allows us to scour the internet for solutions.

    • Hi Connie,

      Thanks for your message. It’s so very true, that these communities can not revive themselves without action from their residents, present and former. One of the most debilitating problems these communities face is a sense of isolation and a lack of awareness of options.
      T.

  4. Ron,

    I am very proud to say that I am the grandchild of Ray Napolitan. I love to hear the stories of my pap when it comes to anything involving baseball. I could listen all night to them. Thank you very much for sharing.

  5. My parents were born and raised in Braddock. My father born 1913 and my mother 1915.As a child(50s&60s) I spent many hours with my parents on braddock ave or visiting relatives even though my parents bought a house in west mifflin in 1952 overlooking Braddock from the backyard. My parents would always talk about what a great town Braddock was as they were growing up,All the stores,movie theaters and life long friends everywhere.On saturday night ,the streets were so crowded with people you could hardly walk . the stories brought to life what a dynamic town it must have been in their time. It hurt them to see their town turn into what it became.Having lived in Florida for 33 years, when I return to Pittsburgh , my first stop is braddock to visit mom&dad and all the relatives at Braddock cemetery and drive down Braddock Ave .Memories that are priceless.

    • Thanks for the comment. It must be so strange to go back there now and see what’s happened to it. I’m glad, though, you still go back and keep some part of it alive.

      T.

  6. Hello: Wonder if there is any way you can help me connect with the grand child of Ray Napolitan, my little league baseball coach. I decided to write a book and need some information and hopefully pictures that I may use. Thanks.
    Ron Lewis, email: drlewis143@gmail.com

  7. What are the bars names in Braddock, PA?
    Which one does Richard Agatucci run?
    He’s my cousin & I want to get a hold of him… Thank U kindly
    Linda Webber Gilmore

  8. Ron, I was in the Marching Band, Dance Band , and Pep Band with you. I’ve been a Police Officer a total of 37 years: ( in the Pgh. Housing Dept., Rankin, North Braddock, Oakmont, and the past 11 years in Verona PD) I was able to assist Bradock PD several times while I worked in Rankin and North Braddock. There simply is not a more congenial spot, for happily ever aftering , than right here in Br-ad-dock. Bill Seyko Class of 1968

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