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February 8, 2009 7:06 AM   Subscribe

Braddock, Pennsylvania has been classified as a "distressed municipality." This may be an understatement: From a high of around 20,000, its population has dwindled to below 3000, many of those people unemployed. Braddock's is a landscape so grim ("a mix of boarded-up storefronts, houses in advanced stages of collapse and vacant lots") that it was selected to serve as a backdrop for the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. Its mayor, John Fetterman, considers Braddock “a laboratory for solutions to all these maladies starting to knock on the door of every community.”

Fetterman -- a Harvard grad, and non-native, who became mayor in 2005 -- hopes to draw new residents with the promise of inexpensive real estate, and to this end has established a promotional website (NYT: "...if you can call pictures of buildings destroyed by neglect and vandals a form of promotion").

Direct links to these in case they fall off the NYT article (both open with commercials):

Short video version of the main story with much additional info

Fetterman on CNBC, pleading his town's case for stimulus money
posted by kittens for breakfast (88 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Saw this video, thought it was great. Definitely a part of me that finds old warehouses and abandoned industrial sites fascinating and oddly beautiful. The trick in Braddock seems to be to find a way to capitalize on the industrial and run-down aesthetic by recruiting organic urban farmers, alternative machinists (like the biofuel engine guys), furniture makers, tattoo artists, etc. Because it is so close to Pittsburgh it can effectively become a pseudo-trendy yet still grungy neighborhood where people actually desire to live. Put one mall in there, though, or even just one big box store right in the middle of town and it could ruin the entire feel of the place.

What's more interesting and heartbreaking to me, as a recent transplant to central Pennsylvania, is what to do with all of the little towns like Braddock that do not have the benefit of being only 8 miles away from a cool city like Pittsburgh. Really beautiful old cities with wonderful architecture, old churches, little parks - and they're just abandoned, houses boarded up or in complete disrepair, everything is a little dirty, and on the edge of town sits the 30-acre concrete plant next to the river that hasn't been in use for 15 years - it just sits there, slowly rotting, huge silos and cranes and conveyor belts left behind, rusting.

Anyway, I'm fascinated by this kind of stuff, and if this guy can do something with Braddock, then I'd be interested to see if people could make this kind of a thing work in other places, like St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland etc. Every industrial city has a place like Braddock within a few miles of downtown. Thanks for the links.
posted by billysumday at 7:21 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wow. If a town is so far gone it can serve as a set for The Road, can it really be saved?
posted by Ghidorah at 7:21 AM on February 8, 2009


Wow. If a town is so far gone it can serve as a set for The Road, can it really be saved?

Sure. Or, more accurately, why not? It may be more challenging, but as the links have pointed out, Braddock's got some key advantages of being very close to Pittsburgh, and having a just-so-crazy-it-might-work plan being pushed by a guy who believes in it.

Or, from another perspective: "Saved" is misleading, but the wreckage of it can be used to create something new and sustainable.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:28 AM on February 8, 2009


Also, can it be "saved" by being turned into a nice little suburban enclave with cute little houses and two-car garages and a golf course on the edge of town? No. But it can be "saved" by finding people who would like to live in a place like Braddock, and work to get Braddock functioning again, at least parts of it, and make it their own funky little post-industrial playground? Sure.
posted by billysumday at 7:32 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Huh, I wonder if the town was named after The Battle of Monongahela AKA Braddock's Defeat. If so, damn, some names are just cursed.
posted by The Whelk at 7:37 AM on February 8, 2009


You can see it for yourself.

That's a Google street view of the middle of town.
posted by jefeweiss at 7:39 AM on February 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Braddock has some core businesses and industry, but not the residents. What I was about to add is in the article, so I'll quote it:

Unlike many stricken steel towns, Braddock never lost its mill. Part of the U.S. Steel system, it still employs nearly a thousand workers. But they no longer live in town, and the stores followed them to the suburbs. Eventually, only the stubborn and those without resources remained.

City Paper article from 2006. And then a sad story of artists being kicked out of a building in Braddock from 2007 by a real estate company.

Huh, I wonder if the town was named after The Battle of Monongahela AKA Braddock's Defeat. If so, damn, some names are just cursed.

Yep. Braddock's Field in the French and Indian War is now the town.
posted by ALongDecember at 7:43 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


NYT: Mr. Fetterman, now 39, is hard to miss, at 6-foot-8 and 325 pounds, with a shaved head and goatee. He has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard but came to Braddock in 2001 to work for a county youth program. He won the May 2005 Democratic primary by exactly one vote. (He faced no opposition in the general election.)

The mayor wears his commitment to Braddock not on his sleeve but under it: On his right arm are tattooed five dates memorializing killings in Braddock during his time in office. The victims included a man delivering a pizza and a 2-year-old girl who was assaulted and then dropped into a snow-covered playground. She froze to death while trying to walk home.

On his other arm is a large 15104, the town’s ZIP code.

This impressed many of the younger residents. “I was shocked, because he’s not even from around here,” said Jeremy Cannon, 23.

[[Have tracked this guy before. He is a man. Just to be clear, no irony or smirk in this comment. Sometimes men walk among us. He's one.]]
posted by eccnineten at 7:48 AM on February 8, 2009 [7 favorites]


[[Have tracked this guy before. He is a man. Just to be clear, no irony or smirk in this comment. Sometimes men walk among us. He's one.]]

Also, he is helping Braddock out immensely by being very, very good at PR and publicity. This is maybe the third feature I've seen of him and Braddock in the last year and a half. Either Braddock's story is immensely interesting and unique (I don't think it is, particularly), or this guy is very good at getting his message out. So, kudos to him. Not only is he a mensch, he's a clever mensch, and I hope he makes it work in Braddock.
posted by billysumday at 7:52 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


I apologize in advance for my ignorance. But I've never under why Americans don't just let some towns die out? Why spend so much money and resources trying to revive what's dead? I know there's probably a lot of sentimental value to a place like this, but is there anything else valuable there?
posted by anniecat at 7:57 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's not often that a town takes "In Infinite Destruction Comes Infinite Opportunity" as a civic motto. It's ballsy if nothing else.
posted by The Whelk at 7:59 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wow. If a town is so far gone it can serve as a set for The Road, can it really be saved?

Beacon, NY, setting of Paul Newman's Nobody's Fool, and home to most of my relatives, was pretty much hopelessly desolate from the early 80s through the mid 90s - abandoned light industrial, abandoned main street, etc etc. Then they opened DIA Beacon, and the burnt out main street stores caught snatched up by vintage/antique dealers, coffee shops, etc. Back from the dead. Anything can be saved with effort.
posted by spicynuts at 8:01 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


But I've never under why Americans don't just let some towns die out?

Is this really an American thing? Do other countries spend decades building a city by constructing sewers, roads, industrial buildings, schools, and houses, then just throw their hands up and move on to the next empty space? Seems like if anything, America has more abandoned cities and towns than other countries where population density is higher and space is a more valuable asset.
posted by billysumday at 8:04 AM on February 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


I get the sense that the town, and perhaps its council, is going to kill this guy. Or at least break his spirit, slowly, and over time. That's unfortunate, particularly because there are so many towns on the precipice that COULD be saved by someone with this guy's energy. Towns that would welcome him with open arms, instead of trying to thwart him.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:04 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Wow. If a town is so far gone it can serve as a set for The Road, can it really be saved?

Depends what they end up doing to that book; I'm kinda worried, to be honest.

[[Have tracked this guy before. He is a man. Just to be clear, no irony or smirk in this comment. Sometimes men walk among us. He's one.]]

He's also independently wealth (or his family is) which makes a lot of the things he does (donated tens of thousands to the town) possible. Not gonna find someone like that in most small towns.
posted by inigo2 at 8:05 AM on February 8, 2009


Looks like The Road will feature a few bits of abandoned Pennsylvania according to IMDb:

Abandoned Turnpike Tunnel, Breezewood, PA
Conneaut Lake Park (amusement park in limbo since 1995) Due to arson, a dance hall and bowling alley collapsed, and the rubble will be used in the film.

I apologize in advance for my ignorance. But I've never under why Americans don't just let some towns die out? Why spend so much money and resources trying to revive what's dead? I know there's probably a lot of sentimental value to a place like this, but is there anything else valuable there?

A steel mill, a hospital, and 3000 people. But anyway, let's take your plan. Who will pay to acquire all the houses Who will pay to bulldoze the entire town? Because if you move everyone and leave empty housing standing and pull the plug on police it won't be pretty. And also, who's going to move everyone who couldn't afford to leave or loved the town too much to move?
posted by ALongDecember at 8:05 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


But it can be "saved" by finding people who would like to live in a place like Braddock, and work to get Braddock functioning again, at least parts of it, and make it their own funky little post-industrial playground?

Isn't that what some people are trying to do with Detroit?
posted by dunkadunc at 8:08 AM on February 8, 2009


I seem to recall that they had a decent High School football team, way back in the day.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:11 AM on February 8, 2009


I apologize in advance for my ignorance. But I've never under why Americans don't just let some towns die out?

Yeah. What's wrong with cutting a couple thousand people loose? They're just economic losers, anyway.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:12 AM on February 8, 2009


this is what happens when you have a bunch of balkanized governmental units in one urban area - people can move out of one to the others and you end up with a braddock

if the pittsburgh area was one governmental unit, the area would succeed or fail as one
posted by pyramid termite at 8:18 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sadly, this is not a unique situation. There are many towns like this one out there.
posted by scarello at 8:20 AM on February 8, 2009


I apologize in advance for my ignorance. But I've never under why Americans don't just let some towns die out?

It sounds like that's what the policy has been in Braddock for the past twenty-five years. And well, there are still three thousand people who haven't left.

this is what happens when you have a bunch of balkanized governmental units in one urban area - people can move out of one to the others and you end up with a braddock

if the pittsburgh area was one governmental unit, the area would succeed or fail as one


There are plenty of areas in the south and west sides of Chicago that are suffering from Braddock-like poverty, despite being incorporated into the city. Just because municipality has money and control doesn't mean it needs to care.

I am wondering about the borough government-how much area does it control outside of Braddock?
posted by dinty_moore at 8:32 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


There are and have been whole Braddocks within New York City, Chicago and other large American cities for years. A small, dead town is particularly poignant. But the same-sized dead neighborhood in a big city is simply driven through with the doors locked.
posted by Faze at 8:39 AM on February 8, 2009 [4 favorites]


Isn't that what some people are trying to do with Detroit?

yea, michigan's been actively trying to attract the film biz, too
posted by kliuless at 8:42 AM on February 8, 2009


The lure of revitalization is the idea that people can make a fresh start with damaged goods. People with hope / spirit / fortitude can move in with very little money and buy something to fix up. The history is another thing that lures people to such places, and makes them want to keep it going. The infrastructure is in place, which is a major part of starting a city. Repairs will be necessary, but you don't have to start from nothing.

But starting with ruins, and living with people who were too stubborn or poor to leave often puts you (the newcomer with big goals) at odds with their lifestyles. Gentrification is a dirty word for many places, even if the reality of gentrification is in the far future. And there has to be a draw for bigger companies. Cheap housing in historic buildings is great, but what is there to do? Where would you work? As quaint as a city of artists and crafters sounds, the out of work populous can't support the arts, if they can't keep their own structures stable, or support their own bars and liquor stores.

I'd be interested to see failing industrial towns compared to failing agricultural towns. The mid-west is full of towns and communities with less than a thousand people. My Grandmother took me, my brother and our cousin out to see some historic locations from our family's past. We drove through a series of tiny communities, still surviving, but now the blocks are more populated by open space and collapsing buildings than occupied homes. Town centers are more than half boarded up. But for us kids coming from California, it seemed like a great place to start something new. My brother even thought up the slogan for these towns: "Making _town_ Grand Again" (grand, as in wonderful and a population of 1,000)

inigo2 - Are you sure? It sounds like Fetterman is draining his own funds for the city: Last year, Mr. Fetterman gave the organization another $12,000 — money he says he got by draining his 401(k) — to buy a duplex and another house next door.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:42 AM on February 8, 2009


it was selected to serve as a backdrop for the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel, The Road

(shudder)

Dude, for the mental health of all, that movie should be shelved for a few years or something. If it comes out, I have to see it, and if they do anything like an OK job on it I'm never going to stop having post-apocalyptic nightmares where the formerly civilized streets are patrolled by the hungry and the ruthless, and I doubt I'm the only one.

I do hope they don't delve into the cellar.
posted by theefixedstars at 8:43 AM on February 8, 2009


scarello: "Sadly, this is not a unique situation. There are many towns like this one out there."

PA has a lot of places like 15104. Perhaps not as totally abandoned, but many towns with large sections of abandoned and rotting gingerbread houses. Some of the best abandoned towns I ever saw are in Kansas.
posted by stbalbach at 8:45 AM on February 8, 2009


I am wondering about the borough government-how much area does it control outside of Braddock?

From what I understand, Braddock is a borough, therefore it's government is referred to as a borough government. More about distressed municipalities.
posted by ALongDecember at 8:51 AM on February 8, 2009


@billysumday : No, it's probably not at all an American thing. I didn't mean to imply that it was only an American thing. Obviously it can't be so. It just seems to me that economic revitalization debates are covered alot in the newspapers here. I seem to always be hearing about economic development in small towns in the US. I don't know if I just ever heard so much about it anywhere else, or so often as I have when I read the New York Times.

"Do other countries spend decades building a city by constructing sewers, roads, industrial buildings, schools, and houses, then just throw their hands up and move on to the next empty space?"

I'm not suggesting that the people left in that city move to any empty spaces and create a new town. That would be stupid. I thought they could move to Philadelphia or whatever mid-sized town that's doing better than where they're at now. Maybe they have relatives or friends in other places that are doing better than Braddock.

@ALongDecember: I was just curious. I don't have a plan. I was just wondering why people stay where they are when there's no opportunity for economic gain there.

@Thorzdad : Shrug. I don't get why those people don't move. Perhaps they don't have the money to do so, sure, but I have met a lot of people who moved to America with barely any money and they seem to be able to either to make it in an entirely new place or move back to where they came from. Seems odd that immigrants can make it in a fairly xenophobic country, but people born and raised here, who would probably be favored in terms of getting jobs, etc., can't seem to make it work out for themselves. Go figure.
posted by anniecat at 9:00 AM on February 8, 2009


It sounds like Fetterman is draining his own funds for the city

I guess he's doing both: "With the financial help of his father, who owns a commercial insurance agency in York, Pa., he also makes direct and indirect investments in local real estate. He set up the nonprofit organization, Braddock Redux, and gave it $50,000"
posted by inigo2 at 9:06 AM on February 8, 2009


Great post. A lot of places in the rural Midwest and Great Plains are the same.
posted by LarryC at 9:07 AM on February 8, 2009


I thought they could move to Philadelphia

You do know that Philadelpia is 5 hours away, right? Sorry, not starting a fight but it's just a pet peeve.
posted by ALongDecember at 9:09 AM on February 8, 2009


I'm still struck by this:

Unlike many stricken steel towns, Braddock never lost its mill. Part of the U.S. Steel system, it still employs nearly a thousand workers. But they no longer live in town, and the stores followed them to the suburbs.


What the hell happened? These stories are usually about evil corporations, greedily outsourcing or financially mismanaging things with the workers being left in the lurch. It seems to me there is a much more complex and interesting story here. Did the city fail to invest enough in infrastructure in the 70s? There were a few references to gangs and violent crime, is that what made people leave? Was it government incompetence?

Fetterman's right, if the industrial base is still there then why can't this kind of decay happen anywhere?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:21 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Anyone notice the Crips graffiti in the background of the interview segments of one of the NYT videos? And that the mayor's promotional page (braddocc.com and 15104.cc) header features the name of the town as "Braddocc". I'm sure his intentions are good, but my first reaction was negative. Any thoughts?
posted by kaudio at 9:30 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


What the hell happened?

Well, steel mills are much more automated these days and don't employee the masses of workers they used to. And the steel industry shrank in the 1980s. The few workers left are paid well and can afford new cars and new homes and don't need to live in their grandparents gingerbread box house that were not very nice even in their prime. So the downtown suffers as the suburbs grow, old story.
posted by stbalbach at 9:34 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


PA has a lot of places like 15104. Perhaps not as totally abandoned, but many towns with large sections of abandoned and rotting gingerbread houses.

There's Eckley, which is a former coal company town that's basically administered by the state as a historical site. The town was so run-down it was used in the movie, The Molly Maguires (about coal mining in the 1870s), but it didn't have to change much to look like it had a 19th-century infrastructure. Locals even nicknamed Eckley "the ugliest town in America."

Then, don't forget Centralia, the town that is slowly dying because of the toxic underground coal mining fire beneath it. Centralia was later a major inspiration for the look of Silent Hill in the movie based on the video game.

So, yeah, there already is a precedent for dying industrial towns in Pennsylvania to be used as the backdrop for movies that bum you out.
posted by jonp72 at 9:39 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


But I've never under why Americans don't just let some towns die out?

I've never understood how people decide "[name your nationality] are like this" and then proceed from that unsupported assumption.

We have a long history of abandoning towns. We even have a name for them.
posted by nax at 9:45 AM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also: "street view" of Braddock.
posted by kaudio at 9:54 AM on February 8, 2009


Wonderful post. Poor Braddock. And North Braddock. And Braddock Hills. And Munhall. And Mckeesport. And Glassport. And Port View. And Homestead. Those little mon-valley towns built a big part of this country back when the steel mills ran three shifts a day seven days a week. And now they've got nothing to show for it. Many of the towns are so poor that they can barely afford to pay the bills to keep the traffic lights going, never mind paving the streets. I wish Mayor Fetterman all the luck in the world but he's got a hell of a task ahead of him.
posted by octothorpe at 10:36 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


this is what happens when you have a bunch of balkanized governmental units in one urban area - people can move out of one to the others and you end up with a braddock

if the pittsburgh area was one governmental unit, the area would succeed or fail as one


Ironically, a lot of the small municipalities near Pittsburgh originally stayed independent because they were richer than the city. They didn't want their tax money going to help out poorer neighborhoods, so they refused to let the city annex them. Now, fifty or a hundred years later, some of them are still rich, but a lot of them have gone down the shitter. Some of them would love to see the city annex them, but now the city won't do it.

I seem to remember hearing that there's some quirk of PA law that makes it especially difficult for a city to annex neighboring municipalities, but I don't remember the details.

Anyway, yes, the balkanized patchwork of local governments surrounding Pittsburgh is a big problem.

I am wondering about the borough government-how much area does it control outside of Braddock?

The borough government controls Braddock. That's it.

The NYT article was worded in a way that's likely to confuse non-Pittsburghers. "Borough" in Pennsylvania means the same thing as "town" anywhere else. Braddock is a small independent town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, with a strong-council weak-mayor system of government. It isn't part of a larger city (unlike the boroughs of NYC, for instance) and it doesn't contain anything except Braddock itself.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:38 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


For you east and west coasters reading this who think that you could never afford to buy your own house, check out some of the properties for sale in 15104 (which includes some of the surrounding municipalities). You can get a three bedroom brick house with hard-wood floors, oak wood wood work, tiled bathroom with clawfoot tub and a fireplace in every room for less than some people pay for car.
posted by octothorpe at 10:52 AM on February 8, 2009


I do hope they don't delve into the cellar.

Well if the imdb role of "Amputee Man #1 In Cellar" is any indication...
posted by billypilgrim at 10:54 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wonder what the taxes would be like on one of those houses. It might be worth taking a gamble and dropping $14,000 on a five-bedroom house, if Fetterman's efforts actually pay off.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:59 AM on February 8, 2009


@nax: You took what I said out of context. I only ever hear about economic revitalization of towns in the US. I've yet to hear about that kind of thing happening routinely in other countries.

Thanks for the link to Ghost Towns. Interesting!
posted by anniecat at 11:11 AM on February 8, 2009


@ALongDecember: I said "Philadelphia or whatever." Not that that matters to my point, which is that I don't think five hours should be a barrier to moving somewhere, when poor immigrants who barely speak English move themselves and their families to do menial labor here.
posted by anniecat at 11:18 AM on February 8, 2009


I only ever hear about economic revitalization of towns in the US. I've yet to hear about that kind of thing happening routinely in other countries.

Okay, you're just making shit up now. The UK and Germany have been reclaiming brownfield sites for a long time now, longer than in America.
posted by billysumday at 11:19 AM on February 8, 2009


There are a lot of Braddocks in New England, not exactly the same, perhaps, but similarly failed mill towns and cities.

If the mayor of Braddock can come up with a formula where the downtown becomes a real downtown again, I would love to see it franchised.
posted by zippy at 11:21 AM on February 8, 2009


@billysumday: How did I not make what I said clear in my last post addressed to you where I was surprised that I encounter economic revitalization topics so often in the New York Times? What part of "I routinely hear," as in I, Anniecat, who does not read Der Spiegel, etc., are you not getting?

Seriously? You're trying to start an argument where there needn't be one. How is it so difficult for you to be polite or put that in a more polite way?

You're making a perfectly nice and interesting thread into an argumentative one. Is it too difficult just to say, "Oh, actually, there's quite a lot of revitalization in Germany, etc., see here."

Think about it.
posted by anniecat at 11:37 AM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ironically, in Braddock's case, the economic stimulus might end up having a rather more destructive effect. The north shore alignment of the Mon-Fayette Expressway (now the Selected Alternative), a "Shovel Ready" gift to Fayette County land speculators that gets tabled every few years for costing a few billion dollars too much to extend an empty toll highway to a terminus at a two-lane road in South Oakland two miles from downtown Pittsburgh, would run right through Braddock, tearing down not just businesses and residences but the post office and fire station.

The last collapse of funding for the road (in 2007, I seem to recall, but can't find the news story...) seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for a half-century old project originally intended to move steel from the mills, though there was some noise about a public-private partnership last year back when we had a functioning credit system. But, it is pretty much shovel ready, and nobody doubts it would create jobs in road construction. Hopefully this will not be the only consideration.
posted by Vetinari at 12:13 PM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Vetinari: good point, great links. It looks like Fetterman knows this is an issue and is trying to halt the construction.
posted by billysumday at 12:18 PM on February 8, 2009


For you east and west coasters reading this who think that you could never afford to buy your own house, check out some of the properties for sale in 15104 (which includes some of the surrounding municipalities).

If you could just pick up and move it to Westchester County, that'd be great.

My family is from
posted by stargell at 12:33 PM on February 8, 2009


(oops, continued)

... Aliquippa, a town on the Ohio famed for producing steel and football players. When my grandfather, who had an auto parts store in downtown Aliquippa for years, died a few years back, we put his house on the market. It was a beautiful four-bedroom brick ranch, about 3,000 square feet, on a hill overlooking a golf course, with steel I-beam construction, heated floors and every possible amenity, having been originally owned by the town's leading building contractor—the kind of place that would go for $1 million or more in a nice town near NYC. We barely got $100,000 for it and felt lucky to do so. I was seriously considering moving there and commuting to New York via USAir. If it had been in the Hopewell school district rather than Aliquippa I might have.

Back in the '90s, Mike Ditka, Aliquippa's most famous son, was pushing hard for a riverboat casino in town. I don't think that's the answer.
posted by stargell at 12:42 PM on February 8, 2009


Back in the '90s, Mike Ditka, Aliquippa's most famous son,

Pete Maravich would like a word wth you, sir.
posted by jonmc at 12:44 PM on February 8, 2009


Once local industry decreased, and agriculture became centralized, this was apparently inevitable. We maybe could decentralize farming a bit again, but steel isn't coming back.

So if dying towns are artifacts of a defunct form of economy, and we can't bring back that economy, and no ready substitute that would also revitalize the towns is handy, then this all seems like futile gestures. Some towns will survive, on tourism or a niche industry or as a suburb. Lots won't. I do feel for those who made them their home, but I can't really adopt the "every town is precious" idea that we must save them all. We can't. We may not even be able to save New Orleans, or Detroit, or a lot of towns bigger than Braddock.

What I would like to see more of is larger thinking, in terms of, what kind of settlements do we need, in America, that are sustainable, that are productive, that have a high quality of life? If it shakes out that a lot more of the US becomes wild land again, is that a bad thing in the long run? Does the US need to be heavily settled everywhere?

My state of Texas, by the way, has lots of these little abandoned towns, but they don't seem to cause the same angst here, maybe because they were mostly train depots and farming settlements, not part of the vanished industrial glory of the US.
posted by emjaybee at 12:59 PM on February 8, 2009 [5 favorites]


I only ever hear about economic revitalization of towns in the US. I've yet to hear about that kind of thing happening routinely in other countries.

Then you need to read more -- this is a huge issue across big swaths of the UK and continental Europe. The specific site that was mentioned in the Wikipedia brownfields link above has been the subject of a set of sometimes fascinating articles in the New York Times for example (one; another; and I think there was a more recent article on it, too.). And that, or a similar project, was also written up fairly recently in Dwell, though all I can seem to find on their website is this, which I think is a few years old. And here is a really long pdf about the steps that Sheffield took in trying to reform itself as a post-industrial city (I didn't read more than the first paragraph, so don't blame me if it's full of nonsense).

It's been a huge issue in Japan, too -- here's a book comparing efforts to revitalize Flint, Michigan, and Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture. And here's an article from just the other day suggesting that there are lessons for the US's stimulus proposals in Japan's huge public works programs.

Here is a really interesting blog entry by a landscape architect about a visit to Detroit, and the latest in a very long series of plans to revitalize that city.
posted by Forktine at 1:25 PM on February 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


What I would like to see more of is larger thinking, in terms of, what kind of settlements do we need, in America, that are sustainable, that are productive, that have a high quality of life? If it shakes out that a lot more of the US becomes wild land again, is that a bad thing in the long run?

Well put, emjaybee. One thing I'm upset with in regards to the stimulus bill, is, where's the vision here? Not that I think it's laden with pork or anything, but, ultimately, what kind of country are we investing in? We're putting an awful lot of money into highways and road construction and not much money into rail. Well, rail was talked about on the campaign trail. Rail is something that could partially rejuvenate some of these towns. And, to your point, in the larger scheme of things, rail could play a part in shaping the settlements and urban or semi-urban centers of the future, that are more sustainable and productive. Maybe let some of the surrounding go back to the land or even use it to develop semi-urban gardens or community-funded farms. Sometimes we get so focused on debating the little things - whether to put in the effort to save a particular city, or to keep funding for a particular program or infrastructure project - that we lose sight of a more grand vision. You look at what was done during the 1930s under the WPA and it's like, shit, yeah, now there was some vision.

Does the US need to be heavily settled everywhere?

Certainly not out in the great plains, which is essentially a desert anyway. I've heard talk of purchasing lots of acreage in the plains states and creating some sort of a "Buffalo Commons," a huge grassy national park, which I think is a great idea.
posted by billysumday at 1:27 PM on February 8, 2009


Oh, the original question was:

But I've never under why Americans don't just let some towns die out? Why spend so much money and resources trying to revive what's dead? I know there's probably a lot of sentimental value to a place like this, but is there anything else valuable there?

As has been pointed out before, your premises here are wrong. One, this isn't unique to the US; and two, towns and cities are indeed allowed to die.

But given that, one argument for revitalization (rather than shrugging and rebuilding somewhere else with better weather) is that often there is a lot worth saving in a place. Beautiful architecture, locations at the intersections of navigable rivers, significant cultural resources, rich histories, etc. By walking away, you lose all of that.

And the tipping point between a town in decline and a functioning place to live can be pretty slim -- one large employer more or less, or a shift in federal funding policies, or some other outside shift that attracts or repels investment.
posted by Forktine at 1:50 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


If it shakes out that a lot more of the US becomes wild land again, is that a bad thing in the long run? Does the US need to be heavily settled everywhere?

I'm not an expert in this, but isn't the opposite happening? The places currently in decline (like the town in the article, Detroit, Flint, any of a hundred towns in upstate New York, etc) are extremely dense, highly urban places. The areas that are growing (or at least, that were growing a year ago before the construction industry went into paralysis) are much lower-density, more suburban/exurban kinds of places. Compare the dense row houses and closely-set workers' houses in the photos from Braddock with contemporary sunbelt urban sprawl -- check out this aerial photograph, for example.

So you could easily find yourself with more, rather than less, of the US converted to built environment as a result of allowing unchecked rustbelt decline. (Purely selfishly, as a resident of the northwestern US, I'd be happiest if not only people stayed in their rustbelt homes, but if they also made their towns so spiffy that they could invite all their friends to come live there, too, taking pressure off of the areas that have had such unsustainably rapid growth.)
posted by Forktine at 2:02 PM on February 8, 2009


if this guy can do something with Braddock, then I'd be interested to see if people could make this kind of a thing work in other places, like St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland etc. Every industrial city has a place like Braddock within a few miles of downtown.

Not so much. I live in the KC metro, about 45 miles (ie more than a few) from "downtown" KC. Granted, this is about the end of the metro radius. But the point is that cities like Stillwell are not distressed. You have to go much further west to see real townships in trouble.

If Braddock is only 8 miles from Pittsburgh, I think it says more about Pittsburgh than the U.S. I can't say for sure why the rustbelt hasn't come back; maybe it's just that the region is inhospitable to automobiles and airplanes. Braddock should hope not, because perhaps the best thing Braddock can hope for is for Pittsburgh to find a way to thrive again.
posted by pwnguin at 2:34 PM on February 8, 2009


[A few comments removed. billysumday, anniecat: take the argument elsewhere if you need to have it.]
posted by cortex at 2:54 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Some of the worst neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago are 8 miles or less from the loop, and Chicago is hardly a failed city. There's money; there's jobs; it's just that the people with money and jobs have fled those particular neighborhoods.

And the same is true in Braddock. Pittsburgh isn't doing as well as it could be, but (unlike, say, Detroit) it's getting by. There's money and jobs there too. It's just that, as in Chicago, the people with money and jobs have fled some areas. Braddock and its ilk are deserted, and nicer suburbs like Fox Chapel and Baldwin are thriving.

The real difference between Braddock and some of the floundering neighborhoods on the South Side, as others have pointed out upthread, is that Braddock is an independent city with its own (completely demolished) tax base. When the South Side started going downhill, it could still get basic services from the city of Chicago. When the same happened in Braddock, it was left to sink or swim on its own.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:56 PM on February 8, 2009


Allegheny County's chief executive Dan Onorato recently expressed interest in trying to consolidate Braddock with all other the towns in its school district. The plan would merge the 12(!) municipalities of Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek and Wilkins Township in the Woodland Hills school district into one town. Needless to say, leafy burbs with good tax bases like Churchill, Forest Hills and Edgewood aren't going to be too happy about merging with old mill towns like the Braddocks and Turtle Creek.
posted by octothorpe at 3:21 PM on February 8, 2009


"Distressed municipality" is a great new range of jeans from 7 For All Mankind.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:43 PM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


ne argument for revitalization (rather than shrugging and rebuilding somewhere else with better weather) is that often there is a lot worth saving in a place. Beautiful architecture, locations at the intersections of navigable rivers, significant cultural resources, rich histories, etc. By walking away, you lose all of that.

Exactly. As a historian and This Old House enthusiast it breaks my heart to see rows of architecturally interesting brick houses, right along a river, falling down while somewhere a few miles away bulldozers are knocking down a forest to expand the suburban sprawl.

Some of the older post WW2 suburbs are old enough these days to have their own historical societies and little museums--but they don't have much to show. The Braddocks of the country have a historic texture to them that cannot be duplicated in a newer community. And yet as the country shifts its settlement patterns (and later in this century begins to shrink) some triage is necessary. We can't save it all.
posted by LarryC at 4:07 PM on February 8, 2009


Yeah, Braddock is a strange place. It is ridiculously historic in its own way, because of the 18th century battles, and the 19th and 20th century industrial history. I don't think anyone's mentioned one additional feature of the city - its library. Braddock has one of the earliest libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie, which served as a kind of compensation to the workers who worked in his mills. These libraries, like Braddock's sometimes had what seem like unusual features to modern eyes, like baths, swimming pools, and theaters. But they functioned more as a kind of complete community center then. Anyway, the Braddock library is run-down but still open. Last year I saw a neat play, Zola's Therese Raquin, that was staged in the old underground pool, now cracked and rusty, long unused, by a local theater group, Quantum Theatre. Very spooky and atmospheric.

Braddock is such a long way from being restored to anything approaching good health that it's almost silly to count such instances as progress. (I mean, you don't count the days a 2-year-old has left till graduating from college.) But as long as there are still a few people who haven't given up on the place, there's some hope.
posted by chinston at 4:10 PM on February 8, 2009


I visit Braddock on a semi-regular basis, in fact. A friend of mine bought a house up there about 10 years ago as part of community rejuvenation project of some sort. The house itself was priced at $30,000 though it was in sound condition inside and out and he had to agree to be a resident there for ten years as a condition of the loan.

The post-apocolyptic element is at least somewhat overblown. It's a real dead-end town that's not going anywhere soon, but he's got good neighbors and for someone with no gentrified middle-class aspirations, it works for him and many others. Granted, he's one tougher-than-leather sonofabitch, though. Two guys with knives once tried to mug him in Schenley Park and he put both of them in the hospital with his bare hands. So he may be more ready for the apocolypse than your average homebuyer.
posted by el_lupino at 4:30 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was happy to see someone linked to Centralia in this thread, because it's a fascinating story, although the reasons for Centralia's collapse aren't nearly as complex as Braddock's. Where employment shifts, zoning and tax codes and laws that let whole communities fall through the cracks might have led to Braddock's current state, what happened in Centralia was - a fire started in a garbage pit, igniting an exposed patch of a major coal vein. Coal deposits under the town have been burning for about 45 years now.

As most Pennsylvanians - especially central and northern Pennsylvanians - can attest, Pennsylvania is basically one giant mound of coal with a thin layer of dirt over top of it. So it is conceivable that the fire raging under Centralia could spread. The last I heard, there was a plan to dig a giant trench encircling Centralia to contain the underground fire.

Surprisingly, 18 people still live in Centralia.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:31 PM on February 8, 2009


I understand that the Centralia fire can be expected to burn for thousands of years. It may well outlast the monuments of DC, of New York, or Mount Rushmore.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:19 PM on February 8, 2009


Here's how to save a town like Braddock : start a college there, provide free housing for artists and musicians, and legalize gay marriage.

Gentrification always starts with students, artists, and gays.
posted by Afroblanco at 5:27 PM on February 8, 2009


I always forget Centralia's name. I'm stunned to learn that people still live there. The idea of living in a town where the streets are gooey from the fire underground freaked me out. Is there another city we can use in Pennsylvania? I mean, we've got post-apocalypse/The Road from Braddock, Silent Hill from Centralia? What's next?
posted by Ghidorah at 5:48 PM on February 8, 2009


What's next?

Scranton for The Office, Philadelphia for Philadelphia, Pittsburgh for the mysteries thereof, Harrisburg for its proximity to Three Mile Island, and Latrobe for the skunkiest beer facimile on the east coast.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:13 PM on February 8, 2009


MStPT, actually they make Sam Adams in Latrobe. The skunky beer of which you speak is now brewed in Newark, NJ.
posted by octothorpe at 6:45 PM on February 8, 2009


There are opportunities in Braddock. Property values are low, and it is close to Pittsburgh. This town will come back with proper planning.
posted by timburns15330 at 6:47 PM on February 8, 2009


Ooh, ooh, Marisa, do Ligonier!
posted by box at 7:26 PM on February 8, 2009


(threadjack) It's funny, Maravich isn't nearly as central to Aliquippa's self-image as Ditka. Football vs. basketball, for one. Plus, Pete moved out before high school age and didn't play for the Quips. He is, however, my second cousin's half cousin, FWIW. Ditka is my sister's godfather, believe it or not.
posted by stargell at 7:56 PM on February 8, 2009


If Braddock is only 8 miles from Pittsburgh, I think it says more about Pittsburgh than the U.S ... perhaps the best thing Braddock can hope for is for Pittsburgh to find a way to thrive again.

Er... Pittsburgh's doing pretty well, and for a city that used to basically be synonymous with blue-collar work and huge smoke-choked factories and now has pretty much none left, it's doing very well. There's a little tech, and finance, and a metric ton of health care and biotech. Braddock's its own problem; Pittsburgh is thriving just fine, thankyouverymuch.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:22 PM on February 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've heard nothing but nice things about Pittsburgh over the past five years. I wonder if there's a similar movement like in Baltimore, where a group of young professionals get together a buy a few row houses in a "distressed" neighborhood. There's been some success stories, but also some failures. These are not neighborhoods where you'd want you kid to wander around unsupervised.

And I hear the local football team is pretty good.
posted by bardic at 9:07 PM on February 8, 2009


But I've never under why Americans don't just let some towns die out?

I don't understand, either. Especially since we have towns in Iraq to rebuild.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:31 PM on February 8, 2009


I wonder if there's a similar movement like in Baltimore, where a group of young professionals get together a buy a few row houses in a "distressed" neighborhood.

Baltimore is a good comparison case because it's similar to Pittsburgh in a lot of ways-- industrial city with good housing stock and low cost of living. The thing is that there are so many opportunities to buy inexpensive row houses in Baltimore that aren't in a severely distressed neighborhood that you wouldn't want to consider those distressed neighborhoods in the first place.

Normally I tend to be sanguine about the prospects of well-located, formerly thriving neighborhoods looking for a comeback: they were thriving in the past for a reason, and by dint of their good location and solid housing stock, many of these places should, in theory, be able to recover.

I just can't see the justification for anyone, outside of someone looking for a lot of warehouse space, to move to Braddock. Yes, real estate is cheap for a place just 8 miles outside of Pittsburgh, but real estate is cheap in Pittsburgh, too.
posted by deanc at 7:04 AM on February 9, 2009


I think deanc has the right idea about why people wouldn't choose Braddock--most places in the area are cheap, and most people would prefer to choose the nicer cheap neighborhoods in Pittsburgh or other boroughs to Braddock. Pittsburgh has its share of problems, but it also has its own share of fiercely loyal adherents.
posted by that girl at 8:55 AM on February 9, 2009


I just can't see the justification for anyone, outside of someone looking for a lot of warehouse space, to move to Braddock.

I live in a small house, built in 1954, near an airport. I could buy a block in Braddock, bulldoze it, and rebuild it using modern equipment for the price of this house. I could move to a place where there are few people, where I don't have to worry about "eminent domain" because no one wants me to move, where I won't have to pay more in property tax per year than I did for my last car. I could walk up to and chat with my elected officials, instead of having to join ACORN and weed my way through multiple layers of flappers just to figure out how to remain lawful.

Plus, according to the article, the water probably tastes better there, too.
posted by FormlessOne at 10:38 AM on February 9, 2009


Thanks for this post, Kittens. I'm currently writing a novel set in the current day but with a couple of characters who have a dim view of times to come and are acting on that view, so this gives me even more to chew on.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:29 PM on February 9, 2009


Although Braddock is 8 miles from Pittsburgh, the topography of the region makes it seem much more isolated and a world away from the city.

A big problem in Pittsburgh (and like all Pittsburghers, when I say Pittsburgh, I mean the whole region - I live in a borough next to the city (and not far from Braddock), but I say I am from Pittsburgh and my address is Pittsburgh) is the lack of good public transportation. What we have now is a Port Authority that continues to cut bus routes while raising fares. There was a plan in the late nineties to use existing rail lines to create a light rail route that would have run out into the Mon Valley, but it never got any traction -- it could have been a wonderful thing and surely helped those municipalities. Unfortunately as other have mentioned, the specter of the Mon-Fayette Expressway never seems to completely vanish -- and what an awful thing it would be if it were ever completed. Just what we need: More roads (a toll road, to boot!) -- and poorly planned ones at that.

Still, Braddock is an interesting place. Some stuff's going. Some time in the last 3 years I went to an art event that centered around the library and surrounding buildings -- artist displayed works, performed music and created installations just for the night. I went to another art installation at an abandoned church a couple of summers ago and someone running the exhibition mentioned a few people had stopped by recently -- they were moving to Braddock from Brooklyn to raise chickens! I don't know if it happened, but it was intriguing. In addition, some friends went to an event last summer at a community brick oven that I think was attached to the community garden.


And just one more thought about Pennsylvania -- There are over 2500 municipalities in the Commonwealth -- I can't help but believe that we could save some money and generally lift up whole regions ( like the region encompassed by the Southwestern Planning Commission (although I am not a fan of that organization) if some municipalities were combined -- or at least some agreements were made to share services. The redundancy is staggering.

As for the gambles that municipalities take by going it alone, you only have to look at the Wilkinsburg Public Schools to know how horribly wrong that can turn out.

I love this region, for its past, its present day and the possibility of its future -- go Braddock! Go Pittsburgh!
posted by nnk at 5:08 PM on February 9, 2009


I'd move there in a minute if I could buy the library and move in (shelves included)!

(Stares at the last 2 bookshelves I bought yesterday trying to figure out where to put 'em...)
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:06 PM on February 9, 2009


Oh man! WHAT a library! That's it, gimme. I will pay you the princely sum of $1000.

(Kidding on the price, but definitely feeling the "want a library pleeease" mode -- I am in love with the high school my friend bought & lives in).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:10 PM on February 9, 2009


John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, was on Colbert Report last night. Hulu link.
posted by ALongDecember at 9:06 AM on February 26, 2009


Thanks for the link, ALongDecember. God, not even a restaurant? I hadn't realized that.
posted by chinston at 7:26 AM on February 27, 2009


Yep, he just wants a Subway sandwich shop. Of course, go across the river and there's a major shopping complex and an amusement park. Those are not in Braddock of course.
posted by ALongDecember at 12:54 PM on March 2, 2009


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