At the edge of Braddock, three stories above an unrecognizable building, Jeb Feldman has a comprehensive view of the borough.
Outside his window is an unpaved gravel lot. In it, are two large pieces: an abstract metal statue and a 1975 Lincoln Continental. The license plate on the car reads “15104” — the ZIP code of Braddock. The Continental is supposed to be a symbol of the town where a Jewish community once flourished.
As deputy mayor of Braddock, it’s Feldman’s job, along with his boss, the locally iconic Mayor John Fetterman, to build a new Braddock out of rust and ruins — a place where Jews may one day live again.
Feldman grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, and later Sante Fe, N.M. He attended college at the University of Wisconsin and eventually moved to San Francisco.
In 2004, Feldman arrived in Pittsburgh as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. He came to study arts management. While weekdays were spent in class, he slid behind the wheel of his car on weekends, exploring Pittsburgh and its surrounding neighborhoods.
One day, six miles from the Oakland campus, Feldman stumbled upon Braddock, where U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson Plant — Andrew Carnegie’s first mill — still towers over the community.
“I was confused, excited, and attracted to it,” he said.
There were boarded up windows, abandoned buildings, and overgrown lots. And yet, despite the decay, life remained.
The dynamic fascinated Feldman, and he began researching Braddock. He met Fetterman, who had just become the mayor-elect, and initiated a dialogue. The two developed plans for improving the town.
“Braddock wasn’t just about the past for me,” Feldman said. “I was really attracted to it, and what it could be.”
In 2006, Fetterman made Feldman his deputy mayor, and charged him with working on outreach, recruitment and renewal efforts.
Reflecting upon his studies, Feldman utilized art as a vehicle for Braddock’s redevelopment.
In 2008, Feldman and Fetterman (operating under the nonprofit, Braddock Redux) founded Unsmoke Systems Artspace, an arts venue located at 1137 Braddock Ave. The 17,000-square foot building was originally constructed as a Catholic School in 1904. Now, in its repurposed state, Unsmoke houses 11 studio artists, Braddock Avenue Books (an independent literary press), Bibliopolis (a Berkeley-based company), and Into the Furnace (a writer-in-residence program).
“Unsmoke plugs into the whole growth curve of the place,” Feldman said. “[Braddock] didn’t have any venue for creative activity.”
Not only a space for generating art, Unsmoke is also a gathering place. Once a month, during the warmer seasons, the public is invited to a showing or reading by local artists and authors.
“There wasn’t an entity or operation that had positive public interaction. Unsmoke has brought a nice open door and presents an opportunity to interact with the community,” he said.
Feldman is strategizing with Unsmoke. By bringing people to Braddock, he aims to dispel certain widely held beliefs (for instance, that Braddock is a vanquished and ghastly land). Feldman wants those who come here to see promise in the place.
In Braddock, a home can be purchased for $5,000. As of 2012, there were 2,153 residents. Because of the cost of living and small population, fewer obstacles exist for those who wish to arrive and immediately make a difference.
“If you come here, be a good citizen, and do something positive, it’s going to have a much bigger impact than anyone imagined,” said Feldman.
It has been nearly 10 years since Feldman stumbled upon Braddock. Either because of a pioneering or civic spirit, he has invested in the place. He has no plans to leave, only to continue the work he has started.
From atop Unsmoke, the deputy mayor can see much of Braddock. The hospital has closed and most shops are boarded up. Ninety percent of the residents have left.
Four blocks from Unsmoke is the old B’nai B’rith lodge; two blocks further are the remnants of Congregation Ahavath Achim. Despite the decay, though, life remains.
Feldman isn’t the last Jew left in Braddock. He’s the first one back.
(Adam Reinherz, who writes about life in Jewish Pittsburgh, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)