Many American towns facing economic decline have struggled to survive during the past few decades. Some didn’t make it. Others are working hard to restore their financial health and find new communal identities.
The residents of Braddock, Pennsylvania, are determined to become one of those comeback stories. Once fairly prosperous, the borough went into a steep decline after the U.S. steel industry collapsed 40 years ago.
“At its high point, it had about 20,000, 21,000 people there. Literally they lost 90 percent of their population, which is absolutely devastating to the place,” says photographer George L. Smyth, who has a lifelong connection to the town. "Braddock happens to be just about a mile north of where I grew up and where part of my family still lives.”
Two years ago, Smyth decided to start photographing buildings in the mostly abandoned downtown. Fifteen of his black-and-white prints were recently exhibited as part of what he calls "The Braddock Project."
“I’ve shot a lot of places and a good number of them have already come down, which is a good thing,” he says.
A good thing, because the demolition of many of these buildings is part of a long-term redevelopment plan for the city. Smyth says Braddock’s turnaround began in 2005, when John Fetterman was first elected mayor.
“He’s a Harvard grad who then worked in Braddock as an AmeriCorps volunteer and instead of then going out to find fame and fortune elsewhere, he decided to stay in Braddock and do what he could to try to bring this place back,” he says.
Fetterman, who trained as an economist, sees reviving Braddock as a personal mission.
“Coming out of the graduate school, I just wanted to do something where I would hope there would be of meaningful societal benefit. I feel like I found a calling of sorts working here in town,” Fetterman says. "I see it as an absolute investment of everything that I have into the community. The only home I’ve ever owned is right here in Braddock. I got married here in town. My two sons were born at home right here in Braddock.”
For nearly a decade, local government and business leaders have worked together to enhance their town’s quality of life: improving safety with more community policing, attracting businesses with new commercial and housing space, and opening new health care facilities.
The overall goal is to attract new residents from neighboring large cities to come and raise their children in Braddock. To that end, they've recently opened new playgrounds, started an organic farm and invited a well-known chef to start a restaurant in Braddock. The organic farm will help supply the restaurant.
Public officials are also trying to create job opportunities and attract young people by offering spaces and other incentives for businesses to come and hire locals.
"It’s most definitely a trend," says Mark Stapp, a real estate development professor at Arizona State University, who adds that other small towns are taking similar steps. “That’s a normal evolution. You can look across the entire U.S and in other parts of the worlds as well and find places that are no longer viable as a place because they’ve lost their purpose. A lot of it has to do with changing economies, or as the economy of the nation has changed, it has impacted small towns.”
To survive and thrive, he says, they must reinvent themselves. He points to farming communities that once were surrounded by fields.
“What we’re beginning to see now is a transition from being rural, agriculturally focused small towns to being suburbs, being assimilated into the overall metropolitan area," Stapp says. "We see them urbanizing.”
But, Stapp says, that doesn't mean small towns must become part of the metropolis. By adding value to a city, a town can retain its identity.
“They can provide a lifestyle opportunity, providing service to the overall economy," Stapp says. "So for instance, a big city, you may find people who don’t want to live in a big city and through efficiency, technology or changing transportation patterns, the small town becomes a desirable place to live.”
It’s that’s transformation, now under way in Braddock, that gives photographer George Smyth hope for the future.
“It’s more than just Braddock itself," he says. "It’s really the inspiration of a place that’s been totally beaten up and decided to get back up and fight. That’s what we’ve done as Americans forever.”
Smyth plans to return to Braddock with his camera twice a year for the next decade to document the progress of the Braddock's hoped-for revival.