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Beautiful Ruination

Hard-core may be the new green for a town at the end of the line

by Ginger Strand

Published in the September/October 2009 issue of Orion magazine



Photo: Lisa Kereszi

FROM THE POINT OF VIEW of its dead, Braddock is a pretty nice town. The steeply terraced Monongahela Cemetery sits atop a hill from which the Pennsylvania mill town becomes a cluster of clapboard and brick, bookended by a bridge and a sprawling steel mill. Across the Monongahela River, the opposite bank almost obscures the not-so-distant Pittsburgh skyline. Gazing down from their grassy plots, the dead might easily think the streetcars still run down Braddock Avenue, that The Famous and Sachs Ladies Store still sell twin sets, and that the Capitol Theater—one of three theaters in town—is still running a Maurice Chevalier double bill. They might imagine the Braddock News still thuds onto front steps and high school boys still round third base on the Edgar Thomson Works Field, because when the dead look down on Braddock, they see a bustling town of twenty thousand, with forty-four churches and thirteen furniture stores, with jewelry stores, florists, clothing shops, and car lots. They see a town returning books to the nation’s first Carnegie Library, and turning out on Friday nights to the Slovak American Club, the Polish Club, the Union Hall, or the Elks. They see streets crowded with Eastern Europeans, Irish immigrants, African Americans, and Jews, most of whom came here for jobs in steel. They see children attending public and parochial schools while their parents work hard to buy a first home near Braddock Avenue, then a better one up on the hill, then another still farther up the hill, until finally they arrive at the top and they, too, lie down in the ground and let life go on below without them. When the dead look down at Braddock, they see America.

Braddock mayor John Fetterman sees America too.

“We removed six hundred pounds of pigeon dung from the First Presbyterian Church,” he says. “The stained glass windows had been ripped out and sold. Its formal demise was imminent when we took it over.” Mayor Fetterman owns First Presbyterian now, along with a number of other buildings in town. He intends to make this one a community center. He’s trying to save as many buildings as he can, but he’s fighting an uphill battle. Since the collapse of the American steel industry in the eighties, in which the Monongahela Valley shed fifty thousand steel jobs just for starters, Braddock has lost 90 percent of its building stock to demolition and decay. Its population has shrunk to about twenty-eight hundred. The median household income, at around $18,000, is the lowest in Allegheny County. The price of an average home has fallen to $6,200. Abandonment is frequent and much of the town is in ruins. The main drag, Braddock Avenue, is an unabated stretch of boarded-up storefronts and vacant lots where buildings have been razed. The town has deteriorated so dramatically that it was recently used as a set for the filming of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, in which a nuclear war has ended nature, crumbled civilization, and turned humans into cannibals.

“This is what happens when you sacrifice a town on the altar of the free market,” Fetterman says.

The media have also been seeing America in Braddock lately. In early 2009, CNN, Fox News, and the New York Times all descended on Braddock. The general consensus was, Here’s a town that has hit rock bottom. And they’re not giving up! Mayor Fetterman appeared on The Colbert Report, where he declared that Braddock was an example of what can happen to industries and towns in the absence of government help.

“The government shouldn’t be helping us,” declared Colbert. “The market helps us. The market has spoken and the market said, ‘Braddock, I’m sorry.’” The mayor and the audience laughed, but Colbert was, as usual, using the clown’s privilege to speak truth to our lifestyle. The market has discarded Braddock. Posted all around Braddock are signs that read NO DUMPING. Scattered beneath them, along with soda bottles, clothing, and tires, are bricks, paving stones, window frames, fireplaces, and toilets. Braddock is a monument to a lifestyle grown so wasteful it throws whole towns away.

“You know how sad it is,” Fetterman asks, “when economic development dollars have to be spent demolishing stuff?” He looks, as he often does, furious. This is frightening, as Fetterman is six feet eight inches tall, about three hundred pounds, bald, and has the words “I will make you hurt” tattooed on one arm. Beneath that declaration are the dates of murders that happened in Braddock on his watch. The other arm is inked with 15104, Braddock’s zip code. We are sitting in his living room on Braddock’s Library Street. Outside the front window, an angel regards us blandly: he’s perched in front of the Carnegie Library, one of the few things still open in Braddock. Arranged along the stepping stones leading to Fetterman’s door are the shards of a broken Cupid. The living room’s cement-block walls are painted black.

Fetterman’s house is a converted warehouse shaped like an upended shoebox, wedged between the Elks Lodge and First Presbyterian. He bought it for $2,000. Two black shipping containers perched on its roof create extra rooms. The outside is scrawled with graffiti. RIP: Buff. Hawky Dog. Wizzy. Mana. Mizz. The railroad trestle down the street is tagged in similar fashion. The mayor’s black living room walls are hung with art, including a framed collection of postcards from Braddock’s better days, but there’s graffiti on them too. Before he was mayor, Fetterman was an AmeriCorps volunteer, working with Braddock’s at-risk youth.

“When I renovated the place I told the kids I work with, ‘Come on in and tag it up,’” Fetterman says. “I think it’s important for a place to reflect the community it’s in. You can see graffiti as blight or you can see it as art.”

FACED WITH BRADDOCK’S level of ruination, the standard American response is to start over. Save one or two of the more ornate structures, tear down the rest, and rebuild something cleaner. Mark the past with a monument or a museum of steel history, perhaps a park that refers to the old mills. If enlightened folks were in charge, the new development would be low-rise and mixed-use, designed around the principles of walkable neighborhoods and complete streets. Housing would include porches and stoops, blocks would have sidewalks, all of it referencing the America of old that Braddock once embodied so well.

Or, if the developers were simply interested in recouping their cash, upscale retail is probably the route they’d take. That’s what happened in Homestead, another Pittsburgh-area steel community, just across the Mon River from Braddock. There, the former Carnegie Steel Works has been converted to a 260-acre shopping mall, anchored by Target, Macy’s, and Marshalls. Shoppers from the surrounding suburbs enjoy an improv comedy club, a twenty-two-screen movie theater, and dining options ranging from Yokoso!—a Japanese steak house and sushi bar—to Chick-Fil-A. An artful row of smokestacks along one edge of a parking lot pays homage to the site’s industrial past. A study done in 2006 found that the mall was proving successful in paying back its tax-increment-financing bonds, but having little salutary effect on Homestead’s struggling Main Street nearby. Every day, 100,000 cars came to the mall and 100,000 cars left the mall, while the community of Homestead continued its sad decline.

Mayor Fetterman is not contemplating a mall, nor is he trying to bring large-scale developers to town; he’s setting a new tone in Braddock. Rather than attempting to re-create lost America—or a nostalgic reconstruction of it—Fetterman is paying homage to his town’s ruin. It’s a way of acknowledging the past, and forging a truly new future. He has put up a town website with the tagline “Destruction breeds creation: create amid destruction.” Part of the site is a photo gallery: black and white shots of abandoned homes, boarded-up businesses, close-ups of broken windows, and creepers reclaiming walls. It’s titled “Ruins.”

“‘Ruins’ to me is a term of respect,” he says. “There was history here. This was a town that was relevant and thriving. This is not blight. When you treat something like blight or garbage, you tear it down and throw it away.”

Fetterman doesn’t want to see Braddock thrown away. But he doesn’t want to see it remade into something it’s not, either. It’s an interesting balancing act he’s chosen, and it may represent a new way of thinking about economic renewal.

RUINS PRODUCE HUMILITY, something that, ever since 1630, when Puritan John Winthrop proclaimed the Massachusetts Bay Colony “a city upon hill” destined to be watched by all the world, has been notably absent from the American experiment. In the Old World, ruins operate as a cultural memento mori: crumbling ancient capitals attest to empire’s wane, and abandoned markets assert that economic engines are not perpetual motion machines. North America, largely free of these sights, has also been largely deaf to their messages. Ours is the “new order of the ages,” as it says on our dollar bill, an undertaking blessed by God. Here, in the so-called New World, the empire without end truly begins. Or so it might seem in a world absent of colossal wrecks declaring how all goes down to decay.

But in the last half-century, even as the prophets of prosperity have spurred the U.S. on to ever more growth, ruins have become increasingly common features in the American landscape. Braddock, littered with decrepit hulks, is not alone. Detroit has been in a similar derelict state for decades. Cleveland has lost half its population since 1960; today, with foreclosures piling up, one in thirteen houses there are vacant and subject to decay. This phenomenon extends beyond the Rust Belt: neighborhoods in Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, and Minneapolis have vacancy and abandonment rates of 20 percent. Nor is the rural landscape exempt: mining towns in the West or in coal country go dark when their lode expires; rusting railroad tracks bespeak our love of freeways; crumbling barns attest to the rise of industrial agriculture. Down the road from the Michigan farm where I grew up, another family’s farm is sunk in decay; a mile over, at the edge of my aunt Viola’s land, a one-room schoolhouse is slowly being devoured by vines.

These ruins belong not to a vanished empire, but to us, evidence of a waning way of life. To see Braddock’s revival in terms not of reversing or erasing the ruin, but of honoring it, is to propose a radical reconsideration of the lifestyle it so recently represented. The Norman Rockwell world of the Braddock News and The Famous department store and the Capitol Theater are not going to be rebuilt.

“That world is never coming back, and anyone who says it is, run, don’t walk, away from them,” Fetterman says. He’s an optimist, he declares; his first son was born one month ago in this very warehouse. But he’s not looking to re-create a lost ideal. He’s looking to redefine what ideal means.

“What is sustainable today?” he asks. “It certainly isn’t our banking industry. It isn’t our car industry. I just think there needs to be a re-evaluation.”

MARION MANION IS GIVING a tour of Braddock’s farm. “People stop by all the time and talk about [how] their mother used to live on this corner, or they remember the hotel,” she says. “People just love to talk about their stories, and they remember Braddock when.” She too remembers Braddock when. Just thirty years ago, her husband, a pharmaceutical salesman, used to come here a lot, to visit the town’s many doctors.

John Fetterman called Manion, who is executive director of Grow Pittsburgh, an urban farming nonprofit group, in 2006. He proposed that they start an urban farm in Braddock. He had already established that the community would use it: a year earlier, he and some volunteers planted a vegetable garden in the lot next to his house. He put word out that anyone from Braddock was free to come and take what they wanted. Nobody vandalized the garden, and everyone took only what they needed. Manion was intrigued. She drove over to Braddock and was shocked by what had happened to the town since the 1980s. She agreed to set up the farm. Today, after one full growing season, it’s Grow Pittsburgh’s biggest economic development project.

Manion and Mayor Fetterman seem like unlikely partners. She’s a slight, middle-aged woman with perfectly highlighted hair and a stylish, pea-green handbag. But like Fetterman, she started out in community outreach, for many years directing Pittsburgh’s food bank. And, also like him, she can see a future for Braddock that isn’t just about renewing the community, but is about changing the fundamentals of how things work. She thinks Braddock, with its vacant land and cheap warehouse space, could become a center for cooperative urban agriculture.

The Braddock farm comprises fifty raised beds on eight vacant lots on Braddock Avenue—a football-field-sized area once occupied by homes and a hotel. Fetterman and Manion chose it for its visibility.

“The first season went pretty well,” Manion says. “We are selling to about six to eight restaurants in the Pittsburgh area from this site, and we have a farmstand there that’s really the only access anybody in Braddock has to fresh produce.” The market takes food stamps and farmers’ market nutrition coupons, state-funded vouchers for low-income families. In the summer, the market sets up a tent and parents picking their kids up from the school across the street often stop by for some peppers or okra. The first farmer the project hired was baffled by the African-American community’s love of green tomatoes. He prized the fully ripe ones, and had to have the pleasure of fried green tomatoes explained to him. 

This year they have a new full-time farmer named Marshall Hart. Today is his first day, and he’s busy kicking off the new growing season. As we walk up to the farm plot, he emerges from the shed and heads for the high-tunnel greenhouse with a trowel. He’s collecting soil samples to be analyzed for organic content, determining how much fertilizer will be required this year.

“I like that I’m not just working on a farm,” he says, packing dirt into a small plastic baggie. “I’m working on a farm that’s also a community outreach. I’d like to see this become normal.” He indicates what’s around him. We are in the high tunnel, and neat rows of leaf lettuce are poking up from the soil. Outside, a shift whistle issues a nasal tone. Just a block away, U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Plant looms over the farm. One of the ironies of Braddock is that even as the town has declined with the steel industry, the Edgar Thomson plant has stayed open. Today it is the only steel mill still functioning in the Mon Valley, and it thrums with the low hum of industry 24/7, its twin smokestacks blasting white steam into the sky. Those who work there do not live in Braddock; unionized steelworkers—the ones who are left—make a decent wage. Most of them live in the suburbs.

ERIN HARRELL HOLDS a strawberry seedling. “I’m planting them all over town,” she says. “I love the idea of being able to walk around all summer and find strawberries.”

Harrell is part of an art collective that calls itself Transformazium. The group—the core living in Braddock consists of four women—was begun by street artist Caledonia Curry, who goes by Swoon and is known for evocative life-sized paper cutouts of figures wheatpasted to urban buildings. The figures are designed to be transitory; with weather and subsequent postering, they slowly disappear. Swoon came to Braddock a little more than a year ago—her figures adorn one end of Fetterman’s house—and fell in love with the United Brethren Church in North Braddock. Abandoned and stripped of anything that could be carted off and sold, United Brethren was saddled with over $400,000 in back taxes. A fire had gutted its attached rectory, but the main building, with a star-shaped interior ceiling, was beautiful, even in decrepitude. Swoon convened the collective, and five women of Transformazium purchased United Brethren for $20,000 through the Allegheny County Vacant Properties Recovery Program, which allows the county to forgive back taxes on abandoned buildings and sell them for their most recent assessed value. Four young artists of Transformazium moved to Braddock—three of them live in a house owned by Fetterman—and began to plan United Brethren’s new life as a community center.

Helping individuals and groups like Transformazium acquire abandoned houses and other buildings is one of the most radical parts of Mayor Fetterman’s plan. He began by offering free studio space to artists in an old office building he bought himself, with financial help from his father. (Although he rarely discusses it, Fetterman comes from a well-off family in the insurance business.) He lured Fossil Free Fuels—a company that makes vegetable-oil conversion kits for diesel cars—to Braddock by offering them a cheap lease on a nine-thousand-square-foot former electronics store, and free rent for a year in one of his own houses. He has purchased at least three homes and turned them over to people who couldn’t otherwise afford them, providing interest-free loans and covering the cost of insurance himself. He bought an abandoned convent and maintains it as a free hostel for people looking for properties, and for AmeriCorps volunteers or those who come to work on the Grow Pittsburgh farm through WWOOF—World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Recently, some of the new residents converted the convent’s front room to a café-style space, installing a bar, a cappuccino machine, a waffle iron, and comfortable tables and chairs. A gargoyle sits at one end of the counter. With no license, the café doesn’t operate as an actual business. Anyone who wants to simply comes in, makes coffee or waffles, and hangs out. A donation jar on the counter collects money to restock supplies.

It may sound collectivist, but for Mayor Fetterman it makes economic sense: luring individuals to town to invest sweat equity in repairing neglected properties saves the municipality a $7,000 demolition bill, and moves homes that would have been liabilities back onto the tax rolls. But it also stakes a claim for reuse, as opposed to the constant replacement that has become America’s approach to housing. The Transformazium project is meant to counter this trend, modeling a kind of adaptive reuse that’s based on the needs of the community. Even the unsalvageable rectory is not simply being demolished.

“When you demolish a building unethically, you just implode the building into its foundation,” says Ruthie Stringer of Transformazium. “You contaminate the land and can’t use it for growing things.” After acquiring United Brethren, the women of Transformazium attended a conference on deconstruction put on by Buffalo Reuse, a group formed in another town with issues of abandonment and decay. They got excited about the process of deconstructing their rectory. Three days a week, they spend five hours together painstakingly unbuilding the rectory, piece by piece. Right now, they have removed two rooms-full of lath from behind the plaster. They put the boards up on the websites Freecycle and craigslist; a woman immediately contacted them hoping to acquire them to build birdhouses.

“We want to practice actively valuing the resources that are here,” Stringer says. “Sometimes what we’re doing feels destructive. But to know that all this stuff is going to be moved and reused makes it feel more respectful.” The group spends a few hours after each deconstruction session in writing and reflection: part of what they hope to accomplish is to create new models for working with abandoned or decrepit structures.

“We just take up the farmland and build crappy houses,” says Leslie Stem, another member. “Now is the time that we should be salvaging resources.”

REAL NEIGHBORHOODS are a resource as valuable as wood and brick. Suburbanization killed Braddock just as much as the collapse of steel. And while it’s easy to bemoan the shift from Sach’s Ladies Store and Neal’s Café to the bland homogeneity of Target and the Olive Garden, both landscapes—the old Braddock Avenue and the new Waterfront mall at Homestead—are designed to put shopping at the center of life. Because ever-increasing production requires ever-increasing consumption, the drive shaping those landscapes is the constant pursuit of the new.

It’s also the pursuit of profit. And while artists coming to a neighborhood and fixing up the houses has typically led to gentrification and an increase in property values that afflicts existing renters, that’s unlikely to happen in Braddock. For decades, the state of Pennsylvania has been planning to build an interstate, the Mon-Fayette Expressway, that would essentially demolish the town. The town’s death-row status has scared off developers and the “flippers” so prevalent in other depressed cities, where abandoned homes are being traded in large numbers, sometimes on eBay by people living thousands of miles away. There’s little potential upside to Braddock. The people who come are here because they like the atmosphere and want to be part of the experiment.

For the most part, that means artists. Fetterman has welcomed artists to Braddock, building an environment friendly to experimentation even as he speaks disparagingly of “the creative class” and “alpha cities” like New York or Austin, where the arts have been a critical part of economic revival.

“There are a lot more of us,” he says, meaning struggling postindustrial factory towns, “than there are of those alpha cities.” Fetterman’s vision is not that Braddock becomes a trendy gallery district—the SoHo of Pittsburgh. In conversation, he repeatedly stresses that his first responsibility is to the community—mostly poor—that already lives in Braddock.

“They’re the ones who voted me into office,” he says. “They registered to vote, many of them for the first time, and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been elected.”

Fetterman won the 2005 mayoral race 149 to 148—the deciding vote was cast on a provisional ballot. Fetterman knew the young people of Braddock well: after getting his master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard, he joined AmeriCorps, and worked in the Young Fathers and Mothers Program at the local Hill House Association. The year he ran for mayor, fifty people were shot in Braddock and its two neighboring communities, North Braddock and Rankin; fifteen young people died. Part of his sense of urgency comes from the desire to stop that violence. While the high-profile projects Fetterman has instituted are the ones bringing new residents to town, it’s the kids from the community center he cares about most.

Fetterman’s hard-core personal aesthetic can be seen as a way of bridging the gap between his town’s two communities. It’s also a way of embracing history that might be called, if not un-American, part of a counter-tradition that contrasts with the dominant American drive toward newness. Braddock’s transformation, if it occurs, will turn it into a town that is less New World than Recycled World. Its old economy, like America’s, was built on manufacturing: the conversion of natural resources—iron ore, coke, limestone—into steel. Today, the liveliest business in town is Josh Steel, a scrap metal recycler. All day long, its sprawling riverfront complex receives trucks packed with metal detritus, a backlog of cars and containers and industrial debris on its way to being remade. Some of it will even be remade by hand: the women of Transformazium convinced the scrap yard to hand over any functional or nearly functional bikes that come in; the bikes line one wall of United Brethren. The women plan to rebuild them and make them available to local kids.

The kind of art that Braddock inspires is, like the town itself, evocative of the past and comfortable with decay. In 2008, new Braddock residents Jenny Fremlin and Jodi Morrison realized that the town was playing host to a wide variety of photographers, all attracted by the town’s decrepitude. They contacted many of them and organized a benefit exhibition and lottery sale of photographs, dedicated to raising money for Braddock Redux, a nonprofit founded by Fetterman to help fund community projects, especially those focused on at-risk youth. The opening featured pizzas made in a wood-fired oven hand-built with salvaged bricks outside Mayor Fetterman’s convent. The exhibition has become an ongoing online gallery, obscuraegallery.org, dedicated to showcasing Braddock’s peculiar beauty, which you might call the postindustrial sublime. Just as the splendid vistas of the Catskills or the White Mountains provided Hudson River School landscape painters with a vision of the immensity of geologic history and the smallness of the individual soul, the striking details of Braddock stand testament to the transience of human endeavor, to the fact that time conquers all and that beauty, if it is to be found, must be found in ruin and death as much as in newness and life.

“For me it was really obvious the first time I came to Braddock that I had to take pictures,” says John Ryan Brubaker, the guest curator and one of the photographers from the show. “There’s so much history in the small pieces that have worn over so much time.” Brubaker’s photos included pictures juxtaposing crumbling buildings with vibrant vines or bushes. “I like the plants,” he says. “For a place that has such a reputation for falling apart, it has a lot of life.”

Erin Harrell of Transformazium agrees. “What living and working in Braddock has taught me is to be aware of change,” she says. “You can’t not be aware of the passage of time.” The people who are attracted to Braddock are committed to maintaining that awareness. Their town will never have the glossy sheen of a mall, or the artfully orchestrated “historic” feeling of a landmark district or preserved site.

Not everyone gets Mayor Fetterman’s take on renewal. After the wave of publicity in February, 2009, Braddock Borough Council President Jesse Brown grumbled that Fetterman “should tone down his rhetoric about the community and the bad shape the community is in and the devastation of the housing. If he feels that the community is bankrupt, then he needs to go somewhere where he’d like it.”

Fetterman, for his part, likes Braddock just fine.

“A lot of people would say, ‘Braddock? Why bother? It’s a wasteland,’” he says.  “I believe it’s a great place. It’s not for everybody, but it’s great.”

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Ginger Strand, a 2009 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Nonfiction, is the author of Inventing Niagara. She is an Orion contributing editor.

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