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

India PM Modi's party distances itself from religious conversions

BJP under fire for being slow to rein in hardline affiliate groups allegedly trying to promote a Hindu-dominant agenda by luring Muslims and Christians to convert to Hinduism More

Anti-Whaling Group Found in Contempt of Court

Radical environmentalists who threw acid and smoke bombs at Japanese whalers in the waters off Antarctica continue their campaign to disrupt Japan's annual whale hunt More

UN's Ban Urges End to Discrimination Against Ebola Workers

Ban was speaking in Guinea on the second day of a whistle-stop tour aimed at thanking healthcare workers of the countries at the heart of the epidemic 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.
Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacksi
X
December 19, 2014 12:45 AM
The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Putin Says Russian Economy Will Emerge Stronger

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his country's sinking economy will not only recover but also become stronger, despite falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.

All About America

AppleAndroid