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Compiled by Eric Weld   Date: 9/24/09 Bookmark and Share

Pennsylvania Mayor Digs In to Dig Out His Town

John Fetterman, Mayor of Braddock, Penn.

He’s been called the “Mayor of Hell.” John Fetterman’s post as leader of Braddock, Pennsylvania, a dying steel town that has hemorrhaged 90 percent of its population since the 1970s, and his no-nonsense efforts to transform his town toward a better future, have vaulted him onto the national stage with articles in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and as a recent guest on The Colbert Report. He was dubbed “America’s Coolest Mayor” by The Guardian. All Fetterman wants is a safer, healthier community with a social center for local young folks.

Fetterman will speak at Smith on Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 4:30 p.m. in Neilson Browsing Room, as part of the Landscape Studies Program’s lecture series. Meanwhile, he spoke to the Gate in a recent phone conversation about his town and his mayoral tenure.

Gate: You’ve been the subject of national media attention this year for your leadership of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and your no-nonsense approach to the town’s rejuvenation.

John Fetterman: Well, there’s always been media coverage and interest but it really expanded with the New York Times article, which was February of this year. That’s when it really took off. As you might imagine a story in the Times is going to raise visibility a great deal.

Gate: You became mayor of Braddock in 2005. Did you foresee yourself as Mayor of the town when you first moved there in 2001?

JF: Certainly not, absolutely not. I didn’t expect to win. The first time around, it was very close, a three-way virtual tie. This last election [held this year], which was against a different candidate, had a much different result. We won by a two-to-one margin, which is nice from the standpoint that it’s a mandate in the community that appreciates the direction we’re going in. And I don’t want to make it seem like I have some kind of power here. I just—there are things, certain principles, that I believe in, and that’s the direction that we’ve headed in. Primarily I’d have to say, if I had to distill it down to the most important aspect, I think, in any community revitalization—whether it’s in a New York City neighborhood or a community like Braddock that’s lost 90 percent of it’s population and building home stock—is that there needs to be an appropriate balance of caring for the community that you have, but also appropriate outreach and ways to bring people into the community. Braddock will never be the hip, you know, artsy neighborhood. But I do believe that every jurisdiction, every town, deserves to be in an improving state. It comes down to equity and social justice.

Row houses in Braddock scheduled for demolition.

There was an appalling lack of services and amenities for residents here, from playgrounds being closed to no outdoor recreational opportunities, no summer jobs, and we took important steps to rectify all of those. It’s something we continue to work on and we’ll continuously improve. Those are very important things that many communities take for granted. Where I grew up, it was a foregone conclusion that you had community parks and trails and playgrounds. But in a community like Braddock, that’s a luxury. And so that alone is important to improve the quality of life. But also you need other amenities that will give people a reason to come in and engage in the community. So we try to really have this balance between practical quality-of-life issues for the residents and community that we have, but also bringing in different or nontraditional kinds of activities or venues for outside the community.

Gate: Can you talk about your success in engendering that balance since 2005? How much has Braddock grown since then?

JF: Well, with respect to Braddock, it’s not a matter of growth. I think it’s a matter of, how much can a community lose? And since 2005 we’ve saved over two dozen structures and buildings—homes. I also want to point out that all the things we’ve installed, all the things that we’re working on installing, have never displaced a single resident. Think about this: 90 percent of this town is in a landfill somewhere. Look around your campus, and say, lets get rid of 90 percent of the buildings. And the last 10 percent is in pretty rough shape, too. When you think of it from that standpoint, it’s not so much about growth as it is taking what we have, shoring up what’s left, and making it a safe community. Above all else, that’s the most important thing: that it’s a safe and increasingly more just community. And I think, by those metrics, we have been successful.

Gate: How do you see the future, five years, 10 years down the road, for Braddock?

JF: Well, I have another four-year term that’ll start in January 2010. As long as Braddock is a safer, healthier, more just place, then I don’t really care what it involves. Those are my guiding principles. I’d like to see urban agriculture continue to expand, I’d like to see urban homesteading continue to expand, I’d like to see a community center for our young people. I’d like to see more summer jobs. These things that aren’t earth shattering, that don’t require a $10-million earmark appropriation from Congress. I think what we’re doing is fairly cost-effective, because the alternative is much more costly.

Gate: One thing that’s widely appealing about your approach is that you’re picking yourself up by the bootstraps. You’re saying, yes, government sort of turned its back on us, but we’re going to do what we can for our community ourselves.

JF: Yes, I pride myself on avoiding at all cost mindless boosterism. Forgive my language, but Braddock is f—ed up. We got thrown under the bus as bad as any community could be. To pretend that that didn’t happen, to pretend that we aren’t challenged is disingenuous. But I think it’s important that you have fair expectations. We’re never going back to a time when we had 14 furniture stores in the community, three movie theaters, 50 restaurants. It’s not going to happen. What I think can happen is a much more just, a much more safe, and a much more equitable situation. We’ll never be what we were, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be okay and getting better.

Gate: So your goal is set on building a decent community.

JF: Exactly. And we’re not going to be Soho, we’re not going to be Shady Side [an upscale suburb of Pittsburgh] and I wouldn’t want to be. At the same time, that’s no excuse morally or politically to just throw up your hands and say there’s nothing to be done, because that’ s just not the case.

Gate: We look forward to your visit at Smith. Good luck with Braddock.

JF: All right. Thank you so much.

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