John Fetterman MPP 1999 is a busy man these days. In the first six months of 2009 he has been the subject of a New York Times profile, appeared on the Colbert Report, been interviewed by CNN, and testified before Congress promoting caps on carbon emissions — to name just a few of the activities he’s been engaged in since the start of the year.
None of it means a thing, he says, except that by speaking out, he might help Braddock, Pennsylvania — where he has served as mayor since 2005 — and towns like it receive some of the attention and support they deserve.
At 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, Fetterman is hard to ignore. The town’s zip code, 15104, is tattooed on the inside of his right forearm. On his left are the dates of murders that have occurred in Braddock since he became mayor. Even more imposing than his physical size is his outrage at the heartlessness with which Braddock and other towns have been treated by leaving residents to fend for themselves.
Nestled alongside the east bank of the Monongahela River, just a few miles outside Pittsburgh, Braddock is a shadow of its once vibrant self. In the 1940s and 1950s, most of the country’s steel came from this region. Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill and free library here. Fourteen furniture stores alone operated in the town, which occupies just two-thirds of a square mile. Its main street bustled with restaurants, a movie theater, and grocery stores.
Today Braddock is home to just 2,500 residents. After jobs in the region disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s, most fled. The rest stayed behind to watch their town struggle with unemployment, drugs, and crime. Fetterman describes Braddock as the economic outlier among economic outliers in the “Mon” Valley. More than 200 houses are currently slated for demolition. The average house price is $6,200; the average income, $17,000. “If there’s a community that has a lower average home price,” he says, “have someone from that town call me collect, because I want to go visit.”
Fetterman came to Braddock in 2003, four years after graduating from the Kennedy School, to start a school project helping young people earn their GEDs. He bought a warehouse, in which he now lives with his wife and young son, for $2,000 and the church next door, to start a community center. He decided to run for mayor because he saw so much that needed to be done. He won by one vote — thanks, he says, to the town’s youth, who supported his candidacy. He earns $150 a month as mayor and works with a city council and council president with whom he often clashes.
To the many media seeking him out recently, Fetterman has talked about the town’s potential for growth. An abandoned steel mill on the edge of town has been designated a green enterprise zone. It would be the perfect site for new industries, he says. He encourages outsiders to consider relocating to the area. Some already have and are enjoying the freedom of low-cost housing. An urban garden provides summer jobs to the town’s youth and produce for the residents. In the basement of the beautiful old Carnegie Free Library, which sits across from his home, a small business produces water-purification vessels for sale throughout the developing world.
Fetterman knows Braddock will never be the town it once was, but it can become a wonderful place, he says, where people can live safe, dignified lives. He believes his work is paying off. Homicides are down to just one so far this year, and police call volume is down 50 percent.
His appearances on Colbert and CNN, Fetterman says, are nothing more than a platform. “Regardless of how many of my 15 minutes are up, even if it’s all of them, I hope the plight of a lot of these communities remains in the spotlight,” he says. “As the rest of the country tastes what it’s like to wonder where the bottom is, they might remember that there’s someplace that found exactly where that is.”