I Will Make You Hurt
The 10-mile car ride from Pittsburgh to Braddock, PA, is littered with signals that you’re headed to the wrong side of town. Through the depleted neighborhoods of Swissvale and Rankin, you can’t miss the decay. Paint peels in big, desiccated flakes from crumbling buildings; trash tumbleweeds blow past shuttered pawn shops with faded signs that read “We buy gold.” When you arrive in Braddock, the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, the feeling is desolate—at least until you hit Library Street, the block where Mayor John Fetterman lives.
On basketball courts whose asphalt is so conspicuously new they don’t seem to belong to the dilapidated town, a dozen black teenagers in high-top sneakers or plastic sandals and socks shoot hoops. It’s Community Day in Braddock, and these kids are warming up for the basketball tournament that coincides with the festivities. For many of them, the inflatable slide and basketball games will be the undisputed highlight of the summer. Just off the courts paces 40-year-old John Fetterman, a white Harvard grad who looks a little uncomfortable passing a basketball from one of his giant paws to the other. He is Braddock’s unlikely mayor, the man who built these courts, and the primary organizer of this league. “Football is really more my sport,” says Fetterman.
At 6´8´´ with a broad barrel of a torso, Fetterman commands respect from the kids even in the absence of basketball prowess. In his long, loose denim shorts and Dickies work shirt, he doesn’t look the part of an elected official—or Ivy League grad, for that matter. He looks like a professional wrestler off the clock and out of costume. His shaved head, overgrown goatee, and tattoo that reads I will make you hurt lend him a menacing aspect, but his light gray eyes brim with the seriousness and intensity of a man who sees his job as a ministry, as though there were no work more urgent on the planet and it’s up to him to save the world. Or at least this one tiny town.
“Today is not just about basketball,” he says. “It’s about doing something about the dearth of recreational activities here, giving these kids something to do instead of get in trouble, giving them mentorship, guidance, hope.” He proudly avers that there have been none of the problems that the community feared might accompany the courts: No loitering. No vandalism. No violence. No drugs. “It turns the stereotype—that these kids are nothing but trouble, problems—on its head,” he says. And even people who had those concerns have since admitted, according to the mayor, that the basketball games beat the abandoned, overgrown lot that recently marked this spot.
When Fetterman was earning his MBA in the ’90s, he never imagined he’d be celebrating his 40th birthday in a town with a population of less than 3,000. He certainly didn’t consider the possibility that his future job would pay an annual salary of just $1,800 and that he’d funnel that meager sum right back into the borough. Like most business school students, he saw a flush future in the money business, as a trader or banker, living the kind of life in which $1,800 might be a single night’s bar tab. But that version of John Fetterman abruptly vanished 16 years ago when his best friend was killed in a car wreck. Fetterman had been waiting to meet him for one of their routine trips to the gym. “When I got the call, time slowed down,” he says. “I was in my mid 20s, but suddenly everything changed. I was in the final months of completing my MBA, but I knew that finance was something I would never pursue. I had to find something that was really meaningful to me.”
Fetterman finished his MBA, but upon graduation, he applied for AmeriCorps, a government program developed in the early ’90s to put young people to work addressing the country’s most critical needs. It was Fetterman’s AmeriCorps service that initially brought him to the Pittsburgh area. He worked primarily with at-risk young people who needed to earn their GEDs. Born and raised in York, PA, Fetterman was sensitive to the issues of post-industrial decline. Pennsylvania is dotted with steel towns gone bust, and though his own family prospered, he was familiar with the economic hardships, deflating population, and increasing crime that are features of that cycle.
While in Pittsburgh, the nearby town of Braddock captivated him. “It’s an outlier among outliers; even among towns that have lost jobs, population, a tax base, Braddock is an extreme case.” Over the course of the years he spent in AmeriCorps, he decided to go back to graduate school, this time for public policy. Service, he had learned, was his life’s work. He emerged with a grant proposal to help Braddock’s young people earn their GEDs. He presented the plan to the Hill House Association, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that sponsors programs that support urban communities. Though he wasn’t surprised the group chose to implement his proposal, it shocked him that they wanted him to run it. And with that, Fetterman packed up his fancy degrees and took up residence in what may be Pennsylvania’s most depressed steel town. At first it was the kids that connected Fetterman to Braddock. But soon it was the soul of Braddock itself, the place’s very bones, the abandoned homes and roofless storefronts whose wasting struck Fetterman as “malignantly beautiful.” He traversed Braddock with disposable cameras, taking the photos that would decorate his future mayoral residence, a stylishly appointed refurbished warehouse that Fetterman bought for just $2,000. But beyond the town’s aesthetic drama—the consumption of splendor by decay—there was Braddock’s distinguished history pulling Fetterman in as well, the story of how a place that was once more densely populated than contemporary Brooklyn became a ghost town.
The town of Braddock grew up around the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Andrew Carnegie’s first mill, built in 1873. The population and local economy grew with the steel boom. Some of the few remaining residents recall the 1950s, when Braddock Avenue, the town’s main drag, was lined with shops, restaurants, and a movie theater. But as in other such towns and cities, as the steel industry collapsed in the ’70s and ’80s, jobs evaporated, families went broke, gangs, crime, and drugs invaded, and people fled, fanning out into the growing suburban sprawl in search of jobs and a safer way of life. Braddock has lost 90 percent of its peak population and 90 percent of its buildings. It’s an Act 47 town, meaning that it is bankrupt. Its tax base can’t pay for Braddock’s most basic municipal services. The town’s derelict beauty and epic rise and fall gradually mesmerized Fetterman. In 2005, he decided to run for mayor.
“I never expected to actually win,” says Fetterman. “I just thought it would be a good way to start a conversation about the things I thought needed to be discussed.” He knew the position wasn’t a legislative one; his official powers and duties would be almost nonexistent. To his surprise, he won the Democratic primary by a single vote. There were, as expected, no Republican challengers in the general election. Fetterman became mayor. At once, his big personality and progressive ideas—infusing Braddock with an art scene, painting murals, kicking off green initiatives—rankled the status quo politicians of the borough council. He says he has mostly worked in spite of, not with, the existing leadership. He’s outlined his own nontraditional agenda, implementing programs and starting initiatives he believes could eventually revivify the town.
Fetterman’s larger-than-life charisma may have played a part in repelling the borough council, but he’s been able to magnetize a small group of impassioned people to his cause. One of them, Jeb Feldman, is a Carnegie Mellon graduate who recently went to work for Allegheny County in an urban planning job. Before that, he worked as a bartender while in graduate school and spent the remainder of his waking hours working with Fetterman. The two have salvaged abandoned homes with their own hands, laboring to make the property’s inherent usefulness and value visible to an outsider. “It’s filthy work,” says Feldman, who seems too cerebral for any project that requires the use of the pickup truck he drives. With Fetterman’s help, Feldman bought and refurbished a vacant school. The property now houses an arts center called Unsmoke.
Inside, there are galleries and large studios with abundant natural light where eight artists currently work—rent free. “We ask them to pick up a share of the utilities. It costs a lot to heat this place,” notes Feldman as he proudly shows off the rehabbed space. That “we” keeps surfacing as he explains his role in Braddock; though the sweat equity, planning, and management of Unsmoke is clearly Feldman’s, he is constantly sharing credit with Fetterman. Feldman speaks of the mayor in a reverent tone of voice: “John is the pivotal person. … John is the key to what is happening here in Braddock. … John is the hub of the wheel.”
One of Unsmoked’s artists-in-residence is photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier. A Braddock native, Frazier recalls the ravages on the ’80s, the relentless erosion of the collective quality of life due to the crack cocaine epidemic and its attendant increase in poverty and crime. In fact, this is often the subject of her work. She is by any measure a successful artist; she is represented by Higher Pictures gallery in New York City and has exhibited around the world, but she maintains close ties to her town by working here.
“I’ve never had my own studio until now,” says Frazier. “Not even in graduate school.” Though one of her best-known photos is of her mother using drugs, her most recent project, a collaboration with 88-year-old artist and fellow Braddock native Victoria Hruska, focuses on Frazier’s grandmother, who was friends with Hruska during the town’s halcyon era. The installation, called 1921 Braddock Summoning 1982, juxtaposes their experiences of Braddock by interweaving mementos and artifacts from the two artists’ childhoods. The project came about because Fetterman introduced the two women. “He knew it would be a great idea,” says Frazier with gratitude. “John is intrigued by human complexity.”
The arts community is a cornerstone of Fetterman’s vision for Braddock. It’s an unorthodox approach to small-town leadership, but the strategy has been effective at drawing in new residents. “With so many empty spaces, so many people gone, it’s important to bring new people in to have growth,” says Fetterman. He knows that the cost of acquiring a home (sometimes for as little as $2,000) and a studio space (often free) in Braddock is alluring. With such low overhead, artists can pursue their work full-time with few of the financial stressors that can sabotage artistic efforts elsewhere. One artist, according to Feldman, settled in Braddock after being priced out of a total of eight neighborhoods around the country that were once artist-budget-friendly.
Fetterman is quick to point out that what is happening is not gentrification, which elbows poor residents out of their longtime communities. “There is all this space and nobody here to be pushed aside. We need people to come,” says Fetterman. The nascent arts community he has almost singlehandedly built is small but close-knit. They gather at Unsmoke for impromptu salons or around the recently built outdoor brick oven for pizza and beer. And newcomers often follow Fetterman’s lead in terms of community service. Transformazium, an arts collective that has moved to Braddock from New York City, has held fundraisers for the town and launched community arts projects.
The attention Fetterman has brought to Braddock has made him a target for some who believe he is more interested in cultivating his own celebrity than erasing local blight. “When I was reelected last year, the Post-Gazette called it the nastiest campaign on record in Allegheny County,” says the mayor. “But you know what, when the votes were tallied, I won by a 2-to-1 margin. That was validating.” The tensions between Fetterman and the city council are ongoing, and he no longer attends meetings. Members wouldn’t return calls requesting interviews for this article. Someone who answered the phone in the borough office called Fetterman “nothing more than a glorified ribbon cutter” before refusing to provide his phone number and slamming down the phone.
In spite of the imbroglios that sometimes surround him, it’s impossible to overlook the mayor’s accomplishments. He has spoken before Congress in support of cap-and-trade legislation. Braddock Redux, a community non-profit organization, has recently salvaged two historic properties and turned them into homes for teenagers who have aged out of the foster care system. The summer work program that Fetterman implemented with the help of AmeriCorps keeps 100 kids employed for $8 an hour installing environmentally friendly green roofs. The community basketball league keeps another 100 kids engaged and out of trouble.
Ryan Wooten, police chief in neighboring Rankin and co-commissioner of the basketball league, says he’s noticed that the program is making a dent in local crime. And he applauds Fetterman’s efforts. “A lot of people say they care, say they want to take an interest with these kids. But we’re not talking—we’re doing something,” says Wooten. Fetterman plans to convert the old church next to the basketball courts into a full-fledged community center. As with many of his projects, he will likely pour a lot of his own money into the renovation. During the Community Day tournament, as Fetterman, flanked by the kids of Braddock, passes out pizza and Gatorade, it’s impossible to imagine him working on Wall Street.
It wasn’t until after his 2005 election that Fetterman got his first tattoo. It’s Braddock’s zip code writ large down the inside of his hulking forearm. It was etched there by Rich Cosgrove of Inka Dinka Doo in Pittsburgh. Just 10 days after he took office, he decided to get another tattoo after being called to a crime scene where he saw the body of a pizza delivery man who had been shot in the head. Fetterman would get the date—01.16.06—tattooed on his other arm. It was just the first of five such dates he had inscribed on his flesh, each the date of a murder that has happened in Braddock during his tenure as mayor. A more recent one—
02.03.07—is a reminder of the most disturbing crime scene Fetterman has been called to yet. It’s the day 2-year-old Nyia Page was allegedly beaten unconscious by her own father and then left in the snowy woods to die. “There were tiny footprints in the snow; she froze to death,” he remembers.
The I will make you hurt tattoo isn’t a threat, says Fetterman. “It references the personal anguish the circumstances [of those dates] cause me.”
When one of Fetterman’s friends was killed—10.08.06—he says he took some degree of solace in getting the tattoo. “When you see something like that, it affects you. It’s horrible. The tattoos, well, it’s an easier place to carry it,” says Fetterman, pain roiling his typically serene expression. In his old life, he had never even considered a tattoo, but he believes these memorials are meaningful and appropriate. They remind him of the commitment he’s made to this community and his hopes that as his adopted hometown comes back to life, the murders, the tattooed dates, the hurt, will fade into the past, and that a new Braddock based on refugee artists and the emerging green economy will take shape. They also give him a way of coping with his grief. “Because it’s just the numbers, it feels private, not like if it were their names,” says Fetterman. “Most people think they’re prison tattoos. Not everyone knows what they are. But I know.”