Our sobering, fascinating, harrowing, hopeful visit to Braddock, PA

On our City-A-Year trip we spent half a day in the town of Braddock, PA – a small town about 20 minutes southeast of Pittsburgh.

My brother sent me a link of an hour-long documentary. The email said, “Dude. Watch this. Just trust me.” The documentary is charmingly quirky, deeply saddening, creatively engaging and incredibly inspiring all at the same time.

Here’s the link to the documentary “Ready To Work: Portraits of Braddock” – available online for FREE.

And let me just say this: Dude. Watch this. Just trust me. It’s totally worth an hour of your time.

Braddock Farms

I won’t give you the entire history of the town, but during the boom of the steel industry and the significant investment of Andrew Carnegie, Braddock was the happening place to be.

Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill and first Carnegie library was built it Braddock. But when the steel mill (which employed tens of thousands of employees) was shut down in the 80’s, the town fell off the cliff. And it’s been that way ever since.

In fact, John Fetterman, Braddock’s mayor, has said that 90% of the original Braddock is in a landfill. Much of the remaining 10% is in disrepair. It reminds me of a little Detroit.

You can watch two TEDx talks by the mayor of Braddock which I highly recommend here and here.  Also, check out the Braddock website here. 

But a group of community leaders is committed to bringing Braddock back – maybe not to where it once was, but at least to a place of respectability. The mayor has worked hard to secure grants and the library has been saved from the wrecking ball by some devoted leaders.

Other leaders have encouraged the arts, created jobs, built parks, opened a free store and a funky art gallery, started an urban farm in the shadows of the last remaining steel mill in Allegheny County and lured a high-end restaurant called Superior Motors to open some time next year (the first restaurant Braddock will have had in town in years). It has to have its own Kickstarter campaign because no bank would back such a financially risky endeavor.  (Doesn’t stuff like that just make you want to root for the success of a town like Braddock??)

We knew we just had to visit Braddock where we were in Pittsburgh.

We visited with urban farmer Marshall Hart at Braddock Farms (first time I’ve ever visited an urban farm).

Vicki (the executive director) gave us a tour and told us stories of the Carnegie Library, including the indoor swimming pool (the first of its kind in the area when it was built) and the old gym.

We bought produce from Lou and Walt at Bell’s Market.

Marshall, Vicki, Lou and Walt were all featured in the documentary.

We also visited Ink Division, a great screen printing shop in town. We stopped by New Guild Studio, an art studio run by a couple who makes beautiful Byzantine religious art for churches all over the U.S. and Canada. 

We even toured an abandoned church building – where the floor has collapsed and absolutely everything (the pulpit, the pews, the stained glass windows – even the hymnals and Bibles in the pews and the Sunday school materials on the shelves) were left inside. It looked like something from a zombie apocalypse movie. It was the most eerie and the most significant ten minutes of my entire trip to Pittsburgh. 

Braddock church 2

Below is a panoramic picture I took on a street corner. There are five – count ’em, five – churches at this intersection and four of them are abandoned and shuttered. (Click to enlarge).

Braddock church 3

We loved hearing the stories of people committed to Braddock.

I couldn’t help but think:

  • If I were the mayor of a community in such dire straights, what would I do? With the problems seemingly insurmountable, where would I start?
  • And as a pastor, I can’t help but think: where are the churches in all this? What presence do they play, not just in Sunday morning services, but in seeing this city reborn and its people given true hope?
  • Imagine if I cared for my city so much that I got a tattoo of the date when someone was murdered in my community – like the mayor has on his arms, which he talked about in the documentary.
  • Imagine if a church planter came in to Braddock but just served, loved and listened to the people for the first 2 years before even attempting to have a service.
  • Imagine if a group of friends decided to move in to Braddock – not to use it, but to serve it – in order to live, work and make a life there with the intent to bring about good kingdom mischief over the next few decades.

My mind was spinning and my heart was racing. And it still is.

If you ever visit Pittsburgh, make sure you visit Braddock. It will mess with you in all the good and uncomfortable ways.