Urban Pioneers of Braddock, Pennsylvania

Editor’s note: Inspired by Mayor John Fetterman’s 2009 PopTech talk, Sarah Graalman became fascinated with the vibrant art collective movement growing in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Graalman is a writer and storyteller who performs her original works all around New York City.

Artistic communities often arise from abandon and ruin: artists, always hungry for inexpensive space, are drawn to these centers, and from there you can follow the art-crumbs. Artist finds cheap space. Artist wants good coffee. Artist wants cheese plate. Shops open, others want to live in artistic neighborhood… and presto! Rejuvenation.

These movements also spring from struggling communities’ need for art, and the inspiration so many artists derive from the hidden beauty within devastation and decay – whether it comes from a desire to heal or to educate future generations. Like modern day etchings on a cave wall, art born from urban revitalization and community rebirth is often how we preserve our stories for future generations.

Welcome to Braddock

Which brings me to Braddock, Pennsylvania. At PopTech last October, Mayor John Fetterman told audiences of Braddock’s near-catastrophic struggle, losing 90 percent of its population after the steel industry collapse of the 1970’s and subsequent pummeling by the crack epidemic of the 1980’s. By the turn of the century, the town was in ruins with a population of barely 2,000. Though rebuilding a town nearly left in ruins is certainly more complicated than simply putting up a community canvas, the call for creative thinkers is at the heart of Braddock’s new pulse.

In many cities, rising costs of rent and art-studios are squeezing out those who must work double-time for rent, making time for their passion a nocturnal coffee-fueled endeavor. In Braddock, Mayor Fetterman has called for the “urban pioneer, artist, or misfit to be a part of a new experimental effort” in making Braddock home. Thus far, a few dozen have come into Braddock since its revitalization began.
The result? A small art boom.

Unsmoke Artspace
Gold In Braddcok show, image by Stephanie Armbruster, courtesy of Unsmoke Artspace

UnSmoke Artspace is a gallery/studio housed in a repurposed Catholic school building, which provides studio space to 7 artists and 1 resident writer. Currently, it’s hosting Gold In Braddock, pulling in artists from LA, NYC, Philly, and Pittsburgh. The show, running until June 5th, exploits the polarity between the exterior context (the steel town) and the interior space (the art gallery) to raise questions and inspire reflection. In the spirit of Braddock’s renewal, this show is also an experiment. It asks, “what can art do in this context?” These artists will return to their communities having shared in Braddock’s experiment in renewal.

Image courtesy of Christina Ray Gallery and Fountain Art Fair for a Transformazium benefit show, Idea For the Here and Now

Transformazium was created by four former NYC residents who relocated to Braddock. These artists intend to transform an old church into a community skill-sharing center. They have stated that they want to explore the challenges of the post industrial city, especially the intersection of art and community. Renowned Brooklyn Graffiti artist Swoon, who is part of Transformazium, said recently that part of the work in Braddock “is about trying to understand the world, to gain a consciousness of what’s happening, and then creating a work that’s a document of that process.” They also work with the youth of Braddock, creating site specific out-stallations, breathing life into former ruins. Artworks now cover buildings, bridges, and underpasses, turning Braddock’s abandoned exteriors into an outdoor museum.

Perhaps Braddock will pull in more pioneering artists, drawn to the town’s low housing costs and need for creative, strong minds to rebuild a town that was almost devastated. Mayor Fetterman has often said that rose colored glasses don’t work when it comes to looking at Braddock’s future, where the road ahead is thick with pock-marks (the largest employer, UPMC Medical closed on January 31, 2010).

One could draw inspiration from a speech delivered by Orson Wells in Third Man: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Comparing Braddock to pre-renaissance Italy may seem a stretch, but this historic steel town’s citizens are realistically facing their trials and attempting to spin a small town revolution. Who knows what might come from Braddock’s rebirth? A town that is proving, despite the setbacks, it will persevere. One thing is for certain: Some artists are hearing the call of a town that has embraced the spirit of the artistic pioneer.

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