Mayor Digs In to Dig Out His Town
John Fetterman, Mayor of Braddock, Penn.
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 . Meanwhile, he spoke to the Gate in
a recent phone conversation about his town and his mayoral
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Gate: How do you see the future,
five years, 10 years down the road, for Braddock?
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
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.
We look forward to your visit at Smith. Good luck with Braddock.
JF: All right. Thank
you so much.