A Reading, PA, native first arrived in Braddock in 2001 to work with AmeriCorps, an American volunteer organization. He ran for mayor in 2005, winning by a single vote. He had never held office before that.
Throughout the twentieth century Braddock was a robust steel producing city that was once a center of commerce for Western Pennsylvania. Then its economy collapsed after the rise of globalization. The town became economically decimated as jobs and factories moved overseas and Braddock lost 90% of its population. With the loss of economic opportunity, Braddock was beset by problems common in the post-industrial landscape: unemployment, drugs, disinvestment, and crime. A town where one-third of its 2,671 residents live in poverty.
Fetterman’s approach was aggressive but fundamentally simple: he looked for opportunities to bring back hope and pride, beginning with a small, do-it-yourself approach, such as planting fruit trees, or making an outdoor pizza oven out of reclaimed bricks from an abandoned factory. He also offered up free studio space to artists in order to welcome in the ‘creative’ class.
His work in Braddock is an ongoing experiment; people, especially homesteaders attracted by the availability of low cost housing ripe for renovation, are moving back to Braddock. Crime has decreased. While challenges remain, the arc of Braddock represents fundamental lessons about how to reinvent place, and meet the challenges brought on by globalization, even in the first world.
We had an opportunity to speak with John Fetterman about his thoughts on how to imagine a new future in a post-industrial landscape on our podcast, Social Design Insights. Listen to the episode below.