News / USA

Small Town USA Struggles to Revive Itself

Photographer George L. Smyth has documented the decline, and hopes to photograph the economic and community revival, of Braddock, Pennsylvania. (George L. Smyth)
Photographer George L. Smyth has documented the decline, and hopes to photograph the economic and community revival, of Braddock, Pennsylvania. (George L. Smyth)
Faiza Elmasry
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."

  • This building, with a banner welcoming people to historic Braddock, Pennsylvania, has spraypaint on the front door indicating it is scheduled to be torn down, which it was after this image was taken. (George L. Smyth)
  • Liberty Baptist Church in Braddock, Pennsylvania, moved to a new location. This building no longer exists. (George L. Smyth)
  • Edgar Thomson Steel Works was a major employer in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Today, several hundred people still work there. (George L. Smyth)
  • Bell's Market is open for business in Braddock, Pennsylvania. (George L. Smyth)
  • This business in Braddock, Pennsylvania, was still open in 2011, when this picture was taken. It has since closed. (George L. Smyth)
  • The owner of the Fourth Street Market in Braddock, Pennsylvania, has been able make ends meet for the past few years, which gives him hope for the future. (George L. Smyth)
  • This building in Braddock, Pennsylvania, is still in use. (George L. Smyth)
  • This is a familiar sight in Braddock, Pennsylvania, two houses side by side, one occupied, one vacant. (George L. Smyth)

“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.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs