Unconventional mayor pulls back curtain on town’s cautious turnaround
John Fetterman doesn’t look much like a mayor.
He prefers shorts and sneakers to suits and wingtips. His head is shaved, and his goatee is scraggly. His arms are tattooed.
But, just like for the town of which he is steward — Braddock, Pa., looks can be deceiving.
Fetterman, joined by Braddock’s Deputy Mayor Jeb Feldman and chef/restaurateur Kevin Sousa, addressed a crowd of 40 Jewish professionals on April 30 at a lunch-and-learn event sponsored by the Jewish Professionals Network, a giving society under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. The event was held at Jones Day downtown as Part II of the JPN’s speaker’s series, “Pittsburgh Rocks.” Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke in March as the first guest of the two-part series.
Fetterman, Feldman and Sousa all moved their homes and businesses to Braddock, a “financially distressed municipality,” according to a state designation, located a few miles east of Pittsburgh. Once a thriving industrial town and the home of Andrew Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Braddock fell apart during the 1970s and 1980s with the collapse of the steel industry.
The town lost 90 percent of its population, leaving it with a scant 2,500 residents. Businesses and schools were shuttered, and crime was on the rise.
Things looked pretty bad for Braddock until 2005, when Fetterman, a Harvard graduate, won the mayoral election by a margin of one vote. He has been re-elected twice, most recently in 2013 by a margin of nine to one.
The colorful Fetterman, who has been featured on “The Colbert Report” and “Real Time with Bill Maher,” first came to Braddock in 2001. He had been alienated from his Harvard peers who were chasing the dollar in the dot-com industry, he said, and he wanted to do some good in the world instead. Luckily for Braddock, he landed there.
Fetterman began his work in Braddock with a project designed to redirect disaffected youth, he said, most of whom were at a fourth- to seventh-grade reading level and many of whom already had a criminal record.
By 2006, Fetterman was collaborating with Feldman in revitalizing the town, continuing to help its youth and trying to turn it into a place that people would want to visit.
“Is Braddock really someplace you’d want to spend a Saturday evening?” Fetterman asked his audience, who responded with nervous laughter. “I don’t blame you.
“Braddock has a horrible reputation,” he admitted. “Google articles in the Post-Gazette, and you see the murders, the stabbings.”
Braddock was a town where police officers were earning just $7.86 an hour, where there were no ATMs and no restaurants when Fetterman took over. Turning it into a destination location was going to be a daunting challenge, which became even more daunting in early 2010, Fetterman recalled, after the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center closed its Braddock hospital.
But despite the challenges, Fetterman and Feldman have begun to make a difference. They opened playgrounds and public basketball courts. In December, 2013, ground was broken on a facility that will house a Highmark and Allegheny Health Network urgent care center.
Last year, the town celebrated five years without a homicide and has had only one murder since. Hence, the numbers tattooed on Fetterman’s right forearm: the murder dates of the few residents of Braddock who have been killed since he has been mayor.
“The tattoos are a constant reminder for me,” said Fetterman.
Mostly, things are going in the right direction, he surmised, crediting others who share his vision and believe in Braddock.
His wife, Gisele, for example, runs The Free Store, where clothing donations from retailers such as Old Navy and Crazy 8 are available at no cost to Braddock residents. Also available, and free, are food, diapers and baby formula.
“We have eliminated food and clothing insecurity in our community,” said Fetterman.
The arts have been introduced to Braddock, with Feldman at the helm of Unsmoke Systems Artspace, an arts venue located in a former school building that houses 11 studio artists and hosts many events throughout the year and fine dining soon will be coming to town as well. Sousa, a James Beard award-winning chef and restaurateur, sold his stake in his most successful Pittsburgh restaurant, Salt of the Earth in Garfield, to free him up to open a new restaurant in Braddock.
The new restaurant, called Superior Motors, as well as other more upscale innovations in town, are always balanced with facilities for those of more modest means, Fetterman stressed.
“We have had a consistent approach,” he said. “We wouldn’t open a unique restaurant without opening a Subway and a medical clinic. This is not about getting the right people in and getting the wrong people to move.
“We continue to improve, but we continue to see all kinds of challenges,” Fetterman continued, attributing
his success to “earnest, authentic community rebuilding.”
Braddock has become part of him. Just check out the tattoo on his left forearm: “15104,” the town’s ZIP code.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)