John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, Pa., is a rare man with an even rarer mission: to pump new life into his 142-year-old town, the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill but now one of America's most devastated Rust Belt cities.
In the 1920s, the height of the Industrial Revolution, Braddock — about 10 miles from Pittsburgh — was a thriving suburban metropolis of 20,000 with a density similar to that of Brooklyn. Today, the population has hollowed out to under 3,000.
Where once there were 30 tailors, 25 shoe stores, 14 jewelers, 51 barbers and 53 restaurants, today there are none. Most of the structures that once housed these businesses have long since collapsed. After the decline of the steel industry in the 1970s, Braddock couldn’t hang on to its residents, leaving it all but left for dead.
But what others have written off occurs to Fetterman as a calling. The hulking, 6-foot-8 Harvard Kennedy School graduate’s commitment to Braddock is as visceral as it is visionary: He has the city's ZIP code, 15104, tattooed on his left forearm, along with the dates of each murder that has occurred under his watch. For the past several years, he has been leading efforts to creatively reknit the community, working with remaining residents to convert abandoned spaces into community spaces.
He helped a local mason build a brick-oven pizza kitchen out of fallen debris from a neighborhood building. He purchased an old millworker’s row house with $7,000 of his own money and converted it into a foster home for abandoned children. An old Catholic middle school is now a studio and gallery for local artists.
Residents are preparing to welcome a film crew that will soon start shooting the movie version of writer Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel "The Road," using Braddock’s forlorn streets as a backdrop. (“Even Hollywood knows where to find good post-apocalyptic America,” Fetterman told conferees at the annual PopTech conference for social innovators Thursday in Maine.)
'Definitely still experimental'
But Fetterman, 39, is clear that his struggle to reimagine Braddock is just getting started. Fetterman told PopTech conferees that he “felt a bit like Obama must have when he got the Nobel Prize” — undeserving of public attention for his vision while the reality of his work has yet to materialize more fully.
Indeed, Fetterman — who moved to Braddock in 2001 to work on an AmeriCorps project and ended up running for mayor four years later, winning office by a single vote — almost canceled his Poptech presentation. Earlier this week, Braddock’s last large employer, UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center), announced that it would be shutting down operations and moving some six miles up the road, to neighboring Monroeville, early next year. Fetterman says it is “hard not to take that personally,” given his efforts so far.
But Fetterman remains philosophical. “This isn’t like a Lifetime Original movie, you know — something that has a guaranteed happy ending,” says Fetterman, who just made the cover of the Atlantic magazine’s November “Brave Thinkers” issue, which hits the stands this week. “I don’t yet have the answer. We’re definitely still experimental.”