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Mayor of Hell’ works to improve Braddock

Megan Hemler | Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Rolling Stone profile called him the “Mayor of Hell,” and Braddock, Pa. “maybe the worst town in America,” but that doesn’t seem to have diminished Mayor John Fetterman’s energy or dedication to the historic steel town. 

“Our challenge in the town … is abandonment. Since I’ve taken over we’ve saved over two dozen structures, and not one of them was occupied,” Fetterman said in an interview Monday morning.

Fetterman was on campus to deliver a lecture Monday at 8 p.m. The event was sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns.

Now the poorest town in Allegheny County, Braddock’s population has been on a downward slide for years. It’s gone from over 20,000 residents to just 2,500 residents, according to the town’s official Web site, www.15104.cc

The median home price is around $6,000. Fetterman himself lives in a refurbished warehouse that he bought for $2,000, according to a New York Times story published in January.

Fetterman, who grew up in York, Pa., holds a number of degrees including a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University. He first went to Braddock in July 2001 at the request of the county to lead a service program for severely disenfranchised youth.

He ran for mayor in 2005 and won the primary by a single vote. Since then, he has supported a number of initiatives aimed at bringing new residents to Braddock, while also creating new community spaces for current Braddock residents.

“The area’s only art gallery was an abandoned middle school,” Fetterman said. “The greenest building is the one that’s already there. Green initiatives and green jobs are a pragmatic solution for Braddock, using our assets that we already have and creating something that makes sense.”

One of the first buildings Fetterman refurbished himself was an abandoned church, which he lived in with no heat or electricity for eight months. The church now functions as a community center.

A new urban farm now operates in the town. And while Fetterman has been featured on a variety of media outlets, including The Colbert Report, he is quick to point out that he is not pitching the idea of Braddock to anyone.

“There is no PR department. I don’t sell anything. I’m continually working for the community and sharing their story … for those interested in moving to Braddock, I tell them it’s something you’re in for the long haul,” Fetterman said.

Fetterman now faces a new challenge, recently receiving news that the only hospital in town and a major employer for Braddock residents is closing its doors.

“Our hospital has been open since 1906. We have no restaurants, no stores. Soon, we won’t even have an ATM. This has huge implications for us,” he said.