In the last few years, I’ve heard a few references to Braddock, PA in random conversations. A DC acquaintance mentioned going to Braddock to visit some artist friends who had all picked up and moved there. An artist visiting DC to help with a massive installation had just been through Braddock and was thinking about moving there. There were huge houses selling for nothing, I heard. Artists were moving there to renovate the houses, have space to work, rebuild the town. I got a vague impression of a diy, punk, artist utopia.
John Fetterman on the cover of The Atlantic
That was in 2011 and 2012 and it’s surprising that all I’d heard at that point was word of mouth. I somehow missed the Levi’s campaign and the copious media attention devoted to Braddock’s Mayor, John Fetterman, including profiles in Rolling Stone (they dubbed him “The Mayor of Hell”) and The New York Times Magazine, and an appearance on The Atlantic’s list of “Brave Thinkers” in 2009:
Fetterman, a young and heavily tattooed giant with a public-policy degree from Harvard and a mountain of ambition, wants to save the city by luring artists and small businesses with loft apartments, cheap rent, and other inducements. He imagines Braddock—only a few miles from Pittsburgh—as a community for creative types and eco-friendly businesses, filled with public gardens and culture centers. It’s an utterly idealistic experiment in extreme urban renewal with next to zero financial backing—one that could totally fail, or perhaps serve as a model for other devastated industrial towns.
Fetterman spoke at the Creative Time Summit, giving a presentation on his accomplishments as mayor that – sadly – encapsulated the worst tendencies of the summit. It was long on celebratory anecdotes and uplifting pictures, short on detail and critical analysis, a laundry list of projects rather than a glimpse into strategies for successful “placemaking”. They built a new playground, new artist studios, and an apiary where middle school students learn to bee keep! There’s a community center, renovated affordable housing, and a community garden with a farmer’s market! All of which is awesome! But how did they pay for it?
According to this New York Times article, many of the projects Fetterman talks about were actually carried out by Braddock Redux, a non-profit he founded outside of his role as mayor. Early funding for Braddock Redux came primarily from Fetterman’s family. Which is fine. Starting a non-profit devoted to community development, arts and education is an admirable way to use your money. But it does explain why it felt like there was a missing piece in the presentation. Throughout the talk, Fetterman identified himself exclusively as the town’s mayor, Braddock Redux wasn’t mentioned at all.
The relentless cheerleading of Fetterman’s presentation felt especially out of place given that the other representation of Braddock likely to be familiar to followers of contemporary art are the photographs of LaToya Ruby Frazier. A native of Braddock, Frazier’s photographs depict her family, their home in Braddock, and the surrounding community. The intimacy of Frazier’s work makes the broader issues at hand – environmental degradation, poverty, racism, de-industrialization – physically palpable. Exposure to contaminants, economic distress, and lack of access to good medical care have had a physical impact on the bodies of Frazier and her family members, resulting in years of illness and pain (She has lupus, her grandmother, mother, and step-grandfather had cancer). The series Campaign for Braddock Hospital (Save Our Community Hospital) documented the 2010 grassroots campaign to stop the destruction of the town’s only hospital. It was especially jarring when, during Fetterman’s presentation, he listed replacing the old hospital with new housing and an urgent care center among his many accomplishments as mayor. The Braddock Frazier documents and the Braddock in Fetterman’s presentation couldn’t be further apart.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Bottom, 2009, 20″ x 24″, Silver gelatin print.
It goes without saying that Fetterman and Frazier also have vastly different perspectives on the 2010 Levi’s campaign that used Braddock as a backdrop to sell jeans. The campaign took Fetterman’s call for homesteaders to another level, with the slogan “Go Forth” and voiceovers about western pioneers: “People think there aren’t frontiers anymore, they can’t see how frontiers are all around us.”
As Frazier mentions in this segment on the Art21 website, the use of frontier imagery evokes some really dark parts of American history. But drawing on the myth of the frontier – that supposedly vast, open space just waiting to be transformed by white settlers – is actually quite apt. In the same way that the myth of the American frontier erases the reality of the genocide of Native Americans, Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign ignored the realities of Braddock, the immense challenges faced by its residents, and the decades of exploitation, economic desertion, environmental abuse, and racism that resulted in the town’s current state.
During the conversation between Rick Lowe and Nato Thompson, the two discussed the difference between a solution and a gesture within the realm of social practice art, distinguishing between a work of art that points to a thing vs. a work of art that is the thing. So Lowe’s Project Row Houses started as an aesthetic gesture, but it also is a functioning organization that provides housing. The project both points to the failure of existing models and is a functioning structure that attempts to remedy those failures. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that, on some level, any project that attempts to tackle a major systemic social problem is always going to be a gesture, in the sense that it won’t be large enough to eradicate the problem. Project Row Houses is a functioning structure, but it’s not a national housing project, as Thompson points out.
It was good to hear Nato Thompson and Rick Lowe acknowledge these limitations because it was exactly what was missing from the presentation about Braddock. The community center, the garden, the beekeeping kids – these are all structures that do good in the community. But in the face of decades of disinvestment and environmental blight, these are gestures. The Levi’s ad is also an aesthetic gesture, of course, just a misguided and ill-advised one, pointing to some frontier utopia where (attractive, young, white) workers gather together to rebuild a (supposedly) deserted town. But a real solution to Braddock’s problem is far more complicated. Like the contaminants left behind by steel production, these problems are deep, baked into our social and economic structures from decades of exposure. I wish there had been time at the Summit for a more nuanced conversation about those realities in regards to Braddock. And that LaToya Ruby Frazier had been there to speak. From a July 2013 interview she did with the Brookly Rail:
I don’t know what activism is at this point. And I’m very concerned about activism and art because I’m seeing all these artists getting social practice degrees and saying they’re activists. And then you see them in predominately black communities like Braddock, and I start scratching my head wondering, well, does a social practice degree teach people how to interact with black men and black women? Because that doesn’t happen so well in Braddock and that concerns me. Trying to interact with these artists and watching how they just put their blinders on when it comes to race makes me realize that I have to be accountable to the community. I can’t just be an artist, and I don’t know that anyone is just an artist. At the end of the day, I’m a human being amongst fellow human beings. For me to ever become an activist would be using my work to change and shape policy like Lewis Hine and his colleagues. They achieved that. The Pittsburgh Survey achieved that. I haven’t matured to that level yet, but it’s something that I’m starting to think about and work on.