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

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily 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.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs