Wrought from Ruins: What can become of an old Pennsylvania steel town?

August 23, 2010
by Nell Porter Brown, Harvard Magazine

The mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, M.P.P. ’99, trudges around this decimated steel-mill town—with its vacant buildings and grimy air—in size 13 high-tops and gas-station-style work shirts, carrying the weight of a restless but resolute energy. He frowns a lot. Never does he crack that politician’s “meet and greet” smile. Nor does he particularly go out of his way to solicit attention, although with a shaved head and six-foot-eight linebacker frame, he is hard to miss. “My looks worked against me at first,” he says, “because people thought I was a skinhead.”

Fetterman is an outlier in an outlying town. He is a white man with an Ivy League degree and some family money who spent his twenties in existential wanderings—following interests in social work, business, and public policy. But about seven years ago he chose to put down adult roots in this bombed-out historic town on the Monongahela River, eight miles from Pittsburgh. Home to Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, in 1875, and first free library, Braddock has lost 90 percent of its population since World War II—and many of its grand old buildings to lack of maintenance and landlord absenteeism.

Older residents still remember having to fight the crowds to walk down the main street. Now Braddock is a predominantly African-American community of about 2,800 people with rampant unemployment and the highest poverty rate in Allegheny County. Some neighborhoods boast pockets of well-kept, often Victorian-style, houses, but the downtown strip holds mostly boarded-up buildings and weedy lots. There are a few bars, a convenience store and used-furniture store, and Hidy’s Café serves terrific burgers—but the Family Dollar store is the brightest presence. The town’s hospital closed down earlier this year. About 560 people work at Braddock’s last big employer, the original Edgar Thomson Steel Works, down from more than 5,000 in its heyday. Most of them don’t live in town. The blast furnace still runs 24-7, generating white smoke and a constant humming. “I know what living in Cambridge is like,” allows Fetterman, 41. “I would rather be here. It’s just where I feel like I belong.”

Read the full story on the Harvard Magazine website.

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John Fetterman

John Fetterman has been profiled in the Harvard Magazine and in the Harvard Kennedy School Magazine.

“My looks worked against me at first because people thought I was a skinhead.” — John Fetterman

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