Though I have photographed the area many times, I still get a deep-in-the-gut sadness when pulling into Braddock, Pennsylvania. Like many of the satellite mill towns around Pittsburgh, Braddock was once a thriving, bustling and largely middle-class town. And like those towns -- Clairton, McKeesport and Homestead, for example -- when big steel went overseas in the 70s and early 80s, Braddock fell hard. From its peak in the 1950s, Braddock has lost 90% of its population. Over the past few decades, like so many similar towns, Braddock has battled drugs, unemployment and general apathy in an effort to stay afloat.
But Braddock has become somewhat of a poster child for decaying mill towns. From Braddock Mayor John Fetterman's many media appearances to the recent Levi's commercial campaign, Braddock has found its plight on the national stage. The Levi's commercials never fail to raise my ire: While it's good that Braddock and its story gain media prominence and, hopefully, a few Levi's dollars, the jean-maker is another American company that has outsourced work overseas. In other words, Levi's labor practices are indicative of what killed towns like Braddock in the first place.
In 2005, Mayor Fetterman began a proud campaign to let the world know about Braddock and the possibilities that still existed there. Having spent a considerable amount of time photographing in Braddock, it's obvious Mayor Fetterman has a large uphill battle to face. He has pressed the idea of drawing artists to the area, based on low living costs and local government cooperation. Of course, at some point, everyone has to be able to make a living and, in these times we live in, that isn't so easy.
Much of the formerly busy business strip is gone. Suffering from years of decay, many of the buildings that housed local commerce have simply been wiped away. While other formerly thriving mill towns in the area still possess some ghostly infrastructure, Braddock is now largely missing those qualities.
There is still a heartbeat, but it's faint. The great hope is that, at some point, the tide will turn enough that Braddock will truly be in the state of transformation; that the work ethic and ingenuity of its supporters will pay off.
Walking in and photographing Braddock isn't a lot different from doing the same in certain parts of Detroit. There's a sad silence to parts of the town that isn't always the most comfortable -- but neither is it a major deterrent.
There are cities and towns in America that tell an important chapter in the development or arc of our country. Braddock is such a place.
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