Braddock is a small borough situated 10 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh on the banks of the Monongahela River. The town’s rich history—including a drastic decline and cautious rebirth—mirrors the trajectory of Pittsburgh as a whole.
Braddock is named for British General Edward G. Braddock, who was fatally wounded at the site of the town during the Battle of the Monongahela in the French and Indian War. The town was also the site of a key skirmish in the Whiskey Rebellion in the late 18th century. During the mid-to-late 19th century, Braddock was a hotbed for industrial endeavors, including the establishment of the McVay-Walker Foundry and Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Steelworks, which helped make the Monongahela Valley the world capital for steel production.
By the 1950s, the borough’s industrial output reached its greatest point while the surrounding population swelled to over 20,000. But the collapse of the steel industry in the early 1980s hit Braddock hard, catalyzing a drastic population loss that continues to this day. By 1990, Braddock had just 4,500 residents. By 2000, less than 3,000 remained.
A champion for Braddock
After the steel mills closed, the borough's business district and housing stock rapidly became blighted and vacant, while crime and poverty rates skyrocketed. Then, in 2005, four years after he arrived in Braddock, John Fetterman, a 35-year-old AmeriCorps worker with a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard was elected mayor, winning the seat by a margin of one vote.
Fetterman soon sought to combat Braddock’s decline through innovative, arts-driven means. He drastically amped up elementary, middle and high school engagement programs, hoping to draw Braddock’s youth away from rampant gang activity that was plaguing the area. He also started the non-profit organization Braddock Redux
, whose mission involves “promoting local environmental stewardship, arts programs, employment, training, and mentoring for local youth,” and aims to “seek out creative and engaging community revitalization projects.”
Over the past decade, with Braddock Redux as the base, Fetterman along with the efforts of countless volunteers, stakeholders, community workers and patrons, have worked to improve the quality of life for Braddock’s residents and lure young entrepreneurs and artists to Braddock through an innovative network of community projects and investment opportunities. Fetterman has described this process as “homesteading”: supporting public art projects, recycling derelict buildings and encouraging creative ideas to revitalize a crumbling town.
"We’re fortunate in that we made a lot of progress in some key metrics in terms of public safety and business investment," says Fetterman. "While other activities, like food trucks coming into our part of town, act as canaries in the coal mine. These are things that would have been unthinkable seven or eight years ago."
Bringing in new business
While the process has been slow, progress has been made. Collaborative endeavors like the artist collective UnSmoke Systems
, housed in a repurposed catholic school building, and the liturgical design and sacred art business, New Guild Studio
, as well as green businesses such as Fossil Free Fuel
and Grow Pittsburgh’s Braddock Farms
have been nationally recognized as innovative solutions for a post-industrial economic climate.
Recently, acclaimed Pittsburgh-based chef Kevin Sousa
, founder of East Liberty’s Salt of the Earth, Union Pig and Chicken and Station Street Hot Dogs, agreed to open his latest restaurant, Superior Motors
, in early 2015 on the ground floor of the building Fetterman owns and lives in. Sousa and Fetterman are also working together to establish a 1,000-square-foot greenhouse on the building’s roof to help bolster a strict farm-to-table philosophy that will also be supported by the output of Braddock Farms.
A nearby hostel will provide free housing for aspiring culinary and service interns arriving for educational stints under Sousa from all across the country.
Another new business bringing visitors to Braddock is The Brew Gentlemen
, a craft brewery started by two Carnegie Mellon alums.
"Initially, when we were writing the business plan and working on all of that, our entrepreneurship professor made us choose three potential locations," says Brew Gentlemen co-founder Matt Katase. "Braddock was kind of an afterthought. [My partner], Asa mentioned it because he had taken a class called "Mapping Braddock" and spent a lot of time down here and was drawn to the energy. In senior year we spent a morning walking around and after that, it had to be in Braddock."
Mayor Fetterman welcomes this kind of enterprise in the former mill town, where the opportunity to create a positive influence abounds.
"With Braddock, we are building a very personal, authentic and grassroots community," says Fetterman. "For those who really want to work hard, there is great opportunity to achieve success here. Also, you can have a disproportionate impact. [The impact is not as great] if you open a restaurant in Lawrenceville. But if you invest in one in Braddock, it's much different. It's high risk, high reward."
The efforts of Fetterman and his supporters in Braddock have been featured in Rolling Stone
, the New York Times
and the Guardian
. He’s also appeared on national television programs like NBC News' The Ed Show
and The Colbert Report
. However, while the population decline over the past few years has leveled off, according to the US Census bureau, as of 2012, only 2,153 residents remain in the town.
But Fetterman, along with the residents and supporters of Braddock, continue to invigorate the borough and keep it alive through an unwavering vision of creative solutions and collaborative effort.
"In terms of core socioeconomic development and things of that nature compared to East Liberty or Lawrenceville, Braddock has a long, long way to go," says Fetterman. "I like our direction, I just don’t like the distance we have to travel."
Braddock is accessible by bus on the 59, 61A and 61B routes.
**Correction: The original version of this story read that General Braddock settled the borough, when in fact, the borough was named after him because he was killed there during the French and Indian Wa