Community turns to art activism

Before he even opens his mouth, John Fetterman — the mayor of Braddock, Pa. — is immediately interesting. At 6'8'' tall, with expansive shoulders, a shaved head, goatee, and tattoos running up both arms, the Harvard graduate looks more like a professional wrestler than a politician — a fact he joked about during a presentation he gave Friday evening in McConomy Auditorium.

Sponsored by AB Lectures, Fetterman’s presentation was followed by an appearance from Caledonia Curry, a street artist known as Swoon. Swoon is invested in the ongoing urban development project, Transformazium, which is being instituted in Braddock.

“In a weird way, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for Braddock,” Fetterman began, introducing the audience to his town with a series of media slides and pictures. In the last several decades, de-industrialization has transformed the once-prosperous town of 20,000 into a Rust Belt ghost town of less than 3,000. Plagued by severe economic hardship, nearly every business has fled, leaving the buildings to crumble and violence to stake its domain.

“We’ve lost 90 percent of our population. Ninety percent of our buildings and businesses are gone — we are the poorest community in Allegheny County,” Fetterman said, with an air that communicated his resolution to face the town’s problems head on.

But then the mood of his presentation shifted. A bright picture of smiling youth who had taken part in Braddock’s summer program filled the projection screen and the mayor began to speak about the revitalization currently taking place in his community.

The re-purposing of abandoned structures, including the conversion of the town’s First Presbyterian Church into a community center; the creation of an urban garden on a previously vacant lot; and the installation of a 3,000-square-foot playground in place of the dilapidated remains of a JC Penney are among the improvements made since Fetterman took office in 2005.

The mayor, whose dedication to his community is evidenced by the tattoos on his forearms — on one arm the community zip code, and the dates of the five homicides that have taken place in Braddock since he took office on the other — has gone as far as to contribute his own money to the revitalization effort.

“I’m the guy with the best job in the country,” Fetterman said. “I love what I do, but make no mistake, it’s hard.”

In a more recent effort, the town paired up with Levi Strauss Jeans for an advertising campaign that was filmed in Braddock, featuring actual Braddock inhabitants, pumping more than $1 million into the community.

Perhaps the most interesting revitalization approach taken by Fetterman has been through art. “Artists see value in circumstances that other people don’t,” he said.

For this reason, artists like Swoon have started to play an active role in rebuilding Braddock through the Transformazium project. Swoon said that she sees art as serving a very important purpose in communities, and was attracted to Braddock because of her interest in urban farming. The street artist, whose diverse projects range from the construction of weather-resistant earth-bag domes in Haiti to the building of rafts made from New York City trash that she then rode down the Mississippi River, called Braddock a “microcosm of our country.”

Along with other artists and activists, Swoon has turned her efforts to converting Braddock’s abandoned United Brethren Church into an arts-based community center, furthering Fetterman’s art-focused community building efforts.

Carnegie Mellon students with interests ranging from public policy to the arts attended the lecture, and many of them were already aware of the work being done by Swoon and Fetterman.

“I came because I’m a huge fan of Swoon’s artwork and I’m also interested in what’s going on in Braddock,” said Christina Lee, a sophomore art major.

Sophomore in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences Celine Berger became familiar with Swoon through the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s Art in the Streets show. “I’m really interested in urban redevelopment and street art. I found out about Braddock from the Levi’s Jeans commercials,” she said.