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

Guatemala Mudslide Death Toll Rises to 86

Death toll is expected to continue to rise as emergency crews dig through tons of earth for an estimated 350 people still missing More

Debris Found in Search for Missing Ship

Objects located Sunday have not yet been confirmed to be from the 240 meter container ship, El Faro, which disappeared in the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, according to US Coast Guard More

Survivor: Gunman Spared 'Lucky One' to Give Police Message

Law enforcement official says a manifesto of several pages was recovered; contents not revealed More

This forum has been closed.
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.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs