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Depressed Pennsylvania Mill Town Looks Beyond Steel to Brighter Future

Long before the current economic downturn in the United States, the town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, was already down on its luck. As early as the mid-1970s, this little river town - once the hub of the steel industry in the United States - was in decline. Foreign steel competition led to factory shutdowns, thousands of jobs lost, housing foreclosures, evictions and a steady stream of businesses moving elsewhere.

John Fetterman came to Braddock in 2001 to work as a youth counselor in a community plagued by violence and skyrocketing unemployment. When Fetterman arrived, Braddock had hit rock bottom, its streets a mix of empty lots and abandoned buildings. The population had dropped from 20,000 people to fewer than 3,000 in three decades.

Fetterman is an imposing figure. A little over two meters tall with shaved head and goatee, he looks like a professional wrestler, not the Harvard grad who came to work with high school dropouts. Ultimately these were the same young people who registered to vote and actually elected him mayor in 2005.

Fetterman is passionate about Braddock. He has tattooed the city zip code on one forearm and the dates of each violent killing since his term began on the other. But he says even before his bid for mayor, he had decided to help the struggling town stay alive, buying up building stock headed for demolition.

"I bought an old church on Library Street, and then I bought an old abandoned warehouse next door and repurposed that into my residence."

Rebuilding a community

During his tenure, Fetterman has led efforts to put gardens on empty lots, build basketball courts and turn a former school into an arts center. He's also welcomed construction on a housing project for senior citizens. Despite these gains, he acknowledges change isn't going to happen overnight.

"Braddock will never be what it was in the grand, thriving community with 13 furniture stores, three movie theaters and 40 to 50 pubs," he says. "What it can be and what it needs to become is a community that treats the residents that we have well and also goes out and attracts people into the community."

Among the newcomers is a bio-diesel fuel business and a furniture manufacturing start-up have also moved in. They are as important to the mayor's vision as are long-term residents like former public official Evelyn Benzo, who has never wanted to live anywhere else.

Everyone has a role to play

"I just believe in Braddock," Benzo says. "And, while it will never be what it was, it can be better than it is."

Vicki Vargo, executive director of the Carnegie Library in the center of town, says it's the Braddock community that has kept her in town.

"The people on my block, they all know me, and if it's not because they knew my family, it's because I work here at the library," Vargo says.

Benzo adds, "Everybody has a part to play, whether you live here or work here."

That, of course, means putting people to work, which is the mission of the Employment Training Center in the city's core. Responding to high rates of unemployment in the region, residents come for job counseling, training, academic tutoring and child care. On this day, the center runs classes and workshops to train clerical workers, census takers and environmental technicians.

Looking to a green future

An operating steel mill is the backdrop for the town. It's ironic that none of the 900 workers lives in Braddock. Mayor Fetterman has his sights set beyond steel. There's an abandoned factory on the outskirts of town that has sat vacant for 20 years, depriving the region of valuable tax revenue and jobs. Carrie Furnace is owned by the Allegheny County government, whose development manager Patrick Early has high hopes for the riverfront property.

"A local technology company can come in and set up a small manufacturing area, light industrial, maybe small distribution."

It's a goal John Fetterman shares. He knows a shovel-ready project when he sees one, and he'd like some of the money from the president's economic stimulus package to help put people to work in Braddock.

"If you get the Carrie Furnace right, you are going to be able to recast the entire Monongahela Valley as a green enterprise zone," he says.

While he acknowledges it is not going to fix all of the region's problems, he says it can go a long way as an important engine for the overall health of the valley. That the region with its rich industrial heritage could once again lead the nation is a reality Fetterman hopes to bring to this small river town.