Rust-Belt Ruins: Life Within a Tarnished Legacy
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier’s book "The Notion of Family" captures how three generations of women survive living in a former Pennsylvania steel town.
Braddock was once a booming Pennsylvania steel town fueling the hopes of workers seeking a better life than what the South could provide.
By the early 20th century, the Pittsburgh suburb had become a thriving home for an African American community, offering theaters, restaurants, department stores and churches.
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier would grow up in this storied town decades later, surrounded by the fading remnants of its legacy.
ABOVE: 1980s "Welcome to Historic Braddock" Signage and a Lightbulb, 2009.
Grandma Ruby and Me, 2005.
In her book "The Notion of Family," Frazier captures the modern reality of a deindustrialized town through images of herself, her mother and her Grandma Ruby interspersed with scenes of decrepit buildings.
“There were restaurants, five-and-dime stores, children stores, and furniture stores. Aww, we use to have everything,” Frazier recounts her Grandma Ruby telling her.
The Bottom (Talbot Towers, Allegheny County Housing Projects), 2009.
Growing up following the collapse of the steel industry and in the advent of the war on drugs, Frazier lived an alternate reality from her grandmother where the local restaurant was the Braddock Hospital cafeteria.
“In the 1980s and 90s as a child living on Washington Avenue,” Frazier tells NBC News. “I always wanted to know why my grandmother and I lived at the bottom in harsh conditions near railroad tracks, heavy truck traffic in the shadow of the mill.”
In photographing herself and her family, Frazier offers a raw look at three strong women navigating the ghosts of manufacturing and a struggling community left behind.
“One of my goals is to disrupt the privileged point of view that only educated and elite practitioners can create work about the poor or disenfranchised,” Frazier says in an interview published in the book.
Mom and Mr. Yerby's Hands, 2005.
While black steelworkers earned more than they did working in agriculture in the South, they faced discrimination that prevented most from getting promotions, perpetually working as unskilled laborers in the most physically demanding of roles.
“As steel production declined, the economic foundations of the town’s commercial district faltered and Braddock’s black social infrastructure followed the same downward spiral,” explains Dennis C. Dickerson in an essay in “The Notion of Family.”
Mom and Her Cat Ziggy on American Red Cross, 2005.
“I was obliged to make this work regardless of my comfort level,” Frazier says.
“By understanding that my family and I have a position and history that parallels the rise and fall of the steel mill industry it made me comfortable and willing to lay bare my version of an American narrative that is complimentary to the great men that have come before me in Braddock such as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Bell, Tony Buba and Dennis C. Dickerson.”
Self-Portrait March (10:00 a.m.), 2009.
“I knew I did not want to make stereotypical images of the drugs, violence, and poverty my family faced; but, I also believed my reality needed to be unabashedly confronted,” Frazier says in the book.
It is in this environment that she picks up her camera, but she is not alone. Frazier collaborates with both her mother and grandmother in making her images. She photographs her mother, her mother photographs her.
Mom Relaxing My Hair, 2005.
In presenting the town of Braddock through the eyes of three generations, Frazier takes ownership of her past and present while welcoming observers through the familiar and comforting lens of family life.
Home on Braddock Avenue, 2007.
Over time, urban blight consumes Braddock as visualized by its dilapidated buildings and ailing residents. Hospital visits to get a cup of coffee become hospital visits to treat illnesses, as Frazier’s life becomes intertwined with Braddock Hospital.
Grandma Ruby and J.C. in Her Kitchen, 2006.
“As a youth I could not articulate my poverty, but I could feel the sickness and death surrounding me. For me it was a spiritual matter that each time I froze a frame from my reality it was one step closer to removing what I can only describe as an intangible slow deterioration of my family,” Frazier says.
U.P.M.C. Professional Building Doctors' Offices, 2011.
Frazier witnesses Braddock’s only hospital suffer the same fate as the abandoned buildings throughout the town. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center closed the hospital on January 31, 2010, a year after Frazier’s grandmother, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, passed away within its walls.
Momme (Shadow), from Momme Portrait series, 2008.
“We all come from families and communities that are affected by local economies and industry,” says Frazier.
Frazier recognizes that there are “multiple Braddocks around the world” and is committed in her effort to highlight the plight of the individual in the face of large companies and economies. “This is only the beginning and it is far from over.”
Aunt Midgie and Grandma Ruby, 2007.
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “The Notion of Family” was published in October 2014 by the Aperture Foundation.