Mr. Mayor Mr. Mayor

Mr. Mayor

by Sara Eckel

November 14, 2008

John Fetterman is remaking a deserted rust-belt town for a new creative class.

This summer, across the street from a sprawling steel mill, 800 people gathered in a renovated Catholic schoolhouse in Braddock, Pennsylvania, for the opening of the city’s newest arts venue. On its face, there was nothing unusual about the event. Staff from Pittsburgh museums like the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Mattress Factory museum mixed with young artists and curious townspeople, drinking Penn Pilsner while checking out the works of local painters and sculptors. But Mayor John Fetterman, 39, was awed. “If someone told me five years ago that eight-hundred-plus people would come to Braddock for an art opening at 10 o’clock at night on a Friday, I would have said, ‘What are you on, and can I have some?’”

Braddock, Fetterman explains flatly, is a mess. Once a thriving steel town of 20,000, the home to Andrew Carnegie’s first mill and first public library, Braddock has lost 90 percent of its population since the postwar boom. Now the city, 10 miles east of Pittsburgh across the Monongahela River, is a near ghost town of abandoned homes, boarded-up storefronts, and the accompanying social ills—poverty, drugs, crime. “People say, ‘Why would you come to Braddock? I hope you’re wearing your vest,’” says Fetterman. “So it makes a difference if folks come out and say, ‘I was there. I had a great time. I wasn’t harassed or asked to buy crack.’”

"Fetterman had Braddock’s zip code tattooed on his left arm."

The arts venue is just one part of Fetterman’s ambitious urban-revitalization plan: to turn this dying city into a magnet for environmentally friendly businesses and artists. It may be an unlikely aspiration for a decaying rust-belt town, but Fetterman is an unlikely mayor. In a city that is nearly 70 percent black, Fetterman is a six-foot-eight, 300-pound white guy with a shaved head. He is also relatively new in town—he came to run an out-of-school youth program in 2001, after getting a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard. After winning the 2005 mayoral election by a single vote, Fetterman had Braddock’s zip code tattooed on his left arm, and began inscribing the dates of all the town’s violent deaths during his tenure on his right (there are now six). “It’s a way of saying, ‘This is not a silly thing I decided to take up one day. This is with me and it will stay with me,’” he says.

Fetterman credits his one-vote victory in the 2005 mayoral race to the young people he worked with at a program for high-school dropouts. They registered. He won.

Three years after Fetterman’s election, Braddock’s problems are far from solved, but change is slowly taking root. A couple of blocks from the mill, the Braddock Urban Farm grows organic produce on what was once the site of the Main Hotel. Down the street, Fossil Free Fuel reconfigures diesel engines to run on recycled vegetable oil. Artists from cities like Portland, Oregon, and Brooklyn, New York, have begun colonizing Braddock, lured by four-digit house prices and cheap studio space. The town has new playgrounds, basketball courts, and a summer-jobs program for youths, and Fetterman and his friends recently completed work on a wood-fire bread oven made from reclaimed cinder blocks; Fetterman hopes it will attract an artisanal baker, but if not, he figures they’ll just bake a lot of bread.

If it sounds like Fetterman and his neighbors are throwing a lot of stuff on the wall to see what sticks, they are. “One of Braddock’s best assets is that it’s so far gone, it invites people to try different things,” he says. “We’re freed up from worrying about whether they will work—some will, some won’t.” But the multipronged approach isn’t entirely haphazard. Fetterman believes that only by creating a mosaic of interesting options—both to attract newcomers and to serve longtime residents—will the town survive. “Creating another warehouse district or light manufacture [district] won’t change anything,” says Fetterman. “You need compelling opportunities for people interested in industrial engineering and environmental design, and interesting living options, too.”

But the interesting life isn’t the easy life. Fetterman is looking for people willing to help make Braddock truly revolutionary. “We’re recycling an entire town, so we appeal to those who want to walk the walk, as opposed to feeling good about giving up bottled water and composting watermelon rinds,” he says. “If you’re really serious, come out here.”


PHOTO Ethan Hill

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Mr. Mayor