If you’re looking for evidence of Mayor John Fetterman’s commitment to Braddock, Pennsylvania, start with the tattoos on his arms. On one is the town’s zip code. On the other are the dates of murders that have occurred in Braddock since 2005, when he was elected mayor. The ink matches his 6’8” 300-plus-pound frame, his shaved head and bristly beard. That, with his preferred uniform of work shirts and cargo shorts, makes him look more like a bar bouncer than a mayor.
But Mayor John, as he prefers to be called, says his overall look is partially practical and partially being deferential toward the community he serves. That community, 10 miles upriver from Pittsburgh, is a former steel town where Andrew Carnegie built his first mill. It also has 90 percent fewer people than it had during its prime in the mid-20th century, with about 2,150 residents, the majority of whom are living in poverty by nearly any standard.
Fetterman, a lifelong Pennsylvanian who was born to teenage parents in York, didn’t arrive in Braddock until 2001. A few years before, he had left his job in his family’s insurance business for an AmeriCorp project that landed him in Pittsburgh in the late ’90s.
After two years at Harvard’s Kennedy School, where he studied education and social policy, he was hired to return to the Pittsburgh area and build a program for at-risk youth in Braddock. He settled in by using family money to save a church from demolition, later turning it into the only community center in town; then he bought a moribund warehouse that he transformed into a loft to live in.
Four years later, at age 36, he ran for mayor, a part-time position with a monthly stipend of a little over $100, winning against the incumbent by just a single vote. When he ran for reelection in 2009, he won by a 2-1 margin—and again in 2013, completely unchallenged. And while Braddock’s population has come to overwhelmingly support Fetterman, there are some at the top of the borough governing structure who have made it clear the borough’s power lies with them.
“Council makes the laws,” former borough manager, Ella B. Jones, said in 2006. “They do it all. They have the vote. They make the rules. And he doesn’t.”
The population has stabilized, which is a marked improvement after years of a massive exodus. The degree of poverty has lessened, with a dramatic decrease in the number of of people going hungry. New businesses have steadily opened. And violent crime has gone down.
Jones, who was later convicted and jailed for forgery and theft of $178,000 from the town’s already emptied coffers, highlighted what Fetterman knew all along: That he would have to find alternative routes to do good for Braddock where the council was either unwilling or unable to step in.
The result was Braddock Redux, a nonprofit he founded with funding from his family and a few others to pursue some of the town’s most pervasive problems without the institutional constraints of the borough council.
Unencumbered, Fetterman began using Braddock Redux to preserve the buildings that had not been demolished with the hope that if people returned to Braddock, there would be something to return to. Beyond that, Fetterman began developing new things for Braddock that had not been seen in decades: city green spaces, housing programs, urban gardens and a new community center.
Fetterman’s commitment to the arts has paid off in a number of ways. Focusing a significant amount of physical space, financial resources and time to build a vibrant arts program and community enhanced the inherent beauty that Fetterman says he has always seen in Braddock.
At UnSmoke Systems, an initiative of Braddock Redux that is housed in a repurposed Catholic school building, a gallery and events space has been refashioned out of the auditorium and former classrooms now serve as artist studios, attracting artists from the area and beyond to work and show their work through collaborations with noted organizations such as the Carnegie Museum of Art, Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
Fetterman’s main motivation for the arts program, however, is to serve Braddock’s youth through a yearly, highly-attended district art show. The Braddock Youth Project also helped build the “Welcome to Historic Braddock” mosaic sign at the town’s entrance. All of it, according to Fetterman, contributes to how outsiders view Braddock—something that he believes will prove important once Braddock gains more stability.
Fetterman began to address the population’s poverty problem by partnering with organizations and businesses to deliver food to the city’s neediest, which often meant Fetterman driving the trucks himself. By negotiating with utility companies, he’s worked to make sure water, gas and electricity stay on in homes where bill payment is delinquent, especially in extreme weather months. And he’s even bought houses to keep them from going into foreclosure, while keeping residents in them at low-or-no cost.
Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, a once-undocumented immigrant from Brazil, is also a part of the town’s transformation. She started Braddock’s Free Store, consisting of two converted shipping containers and a parking lot where everything—food, clothing, bicycles, housewares—is free to all and without limits.
All of this landed Fetterman in the national media, including the Colbert Report, The New York Times and The Guardian, which dubbed him “America’s coolest mayor,” for his sheer will to help bring Braddock back from the verge of a totally shuttered town teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in any way he could do it.
Fetterman began using Braddock Redux to preserve the buildings that had not been demolished with the hope that if people returned to Braddock, there would be something to return to. Beyond that, Fetterman began developing new things for Braddock that had not been seen in decades: city green spaces, housing programs, urban gardens and a new community center.
But are things better in Braddock? For some, it’s not fast enough. The population has stabilized, which is a marked improvement after years of a massive exodus that ranged from 25 to 35 percent decade over decade.
The degree of poverty has lessened, with a dramatic decrease in the number of people going hungry. New businesses have steadily opened in Braddock. And violent crime has gone down—though after a five-year dry spell of new tattoos on his right arm, Fetterman has had to return to the parlor chair each of the last three years.
Fetterman again made national headlines last year, when he decided to scale up his vision by announcing his plans to challenge Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who is up for reelection this year. His dream of bringing a populist agenda to the Senate was dashed when he came in a distant third in the Democratic primary behind former state and federal environmental official Katie McGinty and former representative Joe Sestak.
In his concession statement, Fetterman said his supporters “have started a progressive movement,” adding, “we’re not going away.” As far as his own political future goes, he said he had no immediate plans beyond running for another term as mayor.
And a town breathed a collective sigh of relief.