Urban Pioneers and the Rust Belt Renewal

urbanpioneers_blogpost_300x200.jpgYou’ve probably heard of Braddock, Pennsylvania given the attention it’s gotten for its rising-from-the-ashes, against-all-odds resurgence over the past decade or so.

Much of the credit for this renewal has gone to Braddock’s Mayor, John Fetterman, who has committed his own money to projects ranging from an at-risk youth program to a church-turned-community-center to a non-profit called Braddock Redux, which puts up money for community revitalization projects and advances what Fetterman calls his “social-justice agenda.”

Susan Halpern recently wrote a story for The New York Times about Fetterman called “Mayor of Rust”. She lauds Fetterman and his folk-hero status—“a Paul Bunyan hipster of urban revival.” And this seems appropriate given his demonstrated commitment to Braddock, where poverty is the norm and 27 consecutive months without a homicide is really astonishingly good news.

Halpern writes, “He has turned a 13-block town into a sampling of urban renewal trends: land-banking (replacing vacant buildings with green space, as in Cleveland); urban agriculture (Detroit); championing the creative class to bring new energy to old places (an approach popularized by Richard Florida); “greening” the economy as a path out of poverty (as Majora Carter has worked to do in the South Bronx); embracing depopulation (like nearby Pittsburgh).”

The best part about what’s happening in Braddock is that it’s all about reinvention and re-imagination. “Ninety percent of our town is in a landfill somewhere,” says Fetterman in a Levi Strauss & Co. promotion featuring Braddock, “so reinvention is our only option.” This place will not go back to what it was—and it wouldn’t really make sense if it did. Braddock was a steel mill town. The Edgar Thomson Steel Works likely employed the majority of the 20,000 residents living in Braddock in the early 1900s. Today, the mill employs one tenth of the workers it used to, and the landscape of manufacturing in America has changed. Braddock’s Main Street used to be lined with businesses. In 2010, there were less than a dozen. A third of its 2,671 residents live at the poverty level.

So Fetterman is working from ground zero, from a place of extreme need, where any kind of investment in this poster child of urban blight and run-down Rust Belt decline would be seen as a boon, an uptick in the economic viability of the place. And so far, people are buying it—literally and figuratively. Since Fetterman arrived in 2001, galleries have opened in rundown schools, vacant lots have been converted into organic garden plots, outdoor pizza ovens have been built from the rubble of collapsed buildings, bee colonies discovered in an abandoned structure are now being tended by nearby charter school students, and the convent has become a sort of hostel for prospecting entrepreneurs, artists and young families looking for affordable first homes.

It’s also attracted investors such as that little clothing company mentioned above, which has actually resulted in a pretty compelling ad campaign called “We are all Workers”. Here’s the Epilogue of the 11-episode series, “Ready to Work”, and an LS&CO UNZIPPED blog post to go along with it:

Art is playing a key role in Braddock as well. An engine of social change, art does what other community building forces can’t do: like it or not (sorry, artist friends and family of mine who balk at this generalization), art is border-crossing by nature, it’s convention-bucking and—in its best form—it’s unique, personal, evocative, alive…a force of change for the better.

The other thing that struck me about all this activity in Braddock is that it’s totally reliant on people and their degree of investment. And not just financial investment; emotional and physical investment as well. David Lewis, an NYC architect and urban planner who has been instrumental in a redevelopment project across the river from Braddock, told Halpern, “The key to urban reclamation is citizen participation… You start with the people.”

This is exactly the approach the Foundation takes in the small cities and towns where we work. You can’t have a healthy community without engaged citizens to keep it going, to keep it evolving, to keep it human. (Kind of obvious, no?) People have to do more than just reside somewhere.

Fetterman_blogpost_200x142.jpgBut people don’t move to places to fix them. Not usually. They move to places because they see opportunity or a good fit for themselves. If their success turns out to make the town a better place, then great. Some even shy away from the notion of “improving” a place. Jack Samuel, one of the 20-something “straight-edge vegan punk rockers” (that’s right) who started an artist collective in Braddock, thinks that whole notion is positively “colonial.”

Then there are the natives, like 32-year-old James Smith, who can’t find more than temporary work and can’t afford the food sold at Braddock’s weekly farmer’s market. Smith is glad for what Fetterman is doing, but it’s not doing much for him directly. Here’s Smith quoted in the NYT article: “Our generation, the generation before us. There is nothing for us.”

This is a predicament that America’s “coolest mayor” a.k.a. the Mayor of Hell (courtesy of Rolling Stone) might not be able to solve. But Fetterman didn’t earn his Brave Thinkers status for nothing. Ten, fifteen years ago, the only thing notable about Braddock was its devastating decline. Today? Well, just Google it.

What I’m hoping for Braddock is that this is just the beginning. So much energy has been generated...it can’t die out now. One of Fetterman’s arms is tattooed with Braddock’s zip code, the other with the dates of each of the killings in Braddock since he took office. Now that’s a Mayor with some committment.

Now if we could just find a guy like Fetterman to be the Paul Bunyan of declining rural communities...

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