Mayor takes needy Braddock's story nationwide
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman pokes around a community bread oven as it was being readied for a trial run in September.
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Braddock Mayor John Fetterman has become a bit of a national media (and faux media) darling.
He appeared on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" Wednesday night. He was featured in a New York Times article earlier this month about efforts to revitalize blighted and economically depressed Braddock and yesterday afternoon was on FoxNews' "Studio B w/Shepard Smith."
"I don't revel in that," Mr. Fetterman, 39, said yesterday via phone from New York. "It's just really an embarrassment of riches."
He doesn't seek the media attention, he says, but welcomes the opportunity to plead Braddock's case -- the need for revitalization money -- whenever and wherever possible.
Braddock's population has decreased from 20,000 to under 3,000 since the mid-1940s. The average house value last year was $6,200. Braddock shows what can happen to a community when an industry is allowed to fail and there's no intervention, he told Mr. Colbert.
"There are a lot of shovel-ready projects in our area -- not only in Braddock, but in the Mon Valley -- that are highly deserving of stimulus dollars," he said.
A hulk of a man at 6-foot-8 and 300-plus pounds, Mr. Fetterman is a striking and charismatic figure, with his bald head, goatee and master's degree in public policy from Harvard University. A York, Pa., native, he came to Braddock in 2001 to work with AmeriCorps, grew to love the community and ran for office in 2005, winning by a single vote.
Mr. Fetterman earns $150 month for the part-time mayor's job. As for other income, he said he gets financial support from his family.
Many of his efforts have focused on youth. He started the Braddock Youth Project and the Braddock Community Garden. He ran a program, which still exists today, to help young people obtain their GEDs. Next month, a duplex and adjacent house he purchased and refurbished will serve as housing for six youth, who at 18, are too old for foster care.
He has been instrumental in attracting new businesses to Braddock, including a furniture maker and Fossil Free Fuel, a company that retrofits cars to run on vegetable oil. He also helped organize the "Welcome to Historic Braddock" community mosaic project.
The dates of death of five Braddock residents killed during his term are tattooed on the underside of his right forearm, and a sixth will have to be added.
"It's really devastating, and when you're in a city as small as Braddock, it's all very personal," he said. "There're some I'll never get over."
On his left forearm is a tattoo of Braddock's ZIP code, 15104.
He told Mr. Colbert about community efforts to build a community youth center and obtain a Subway franchise.
"We don't have a McDonald's or Subway or just a place where you can go grab a casual lunch," he said.
A Subway franchise also would create 20 to 25 jobs for young people in the community.
"When a community doesn't have anything, this is one of the things we need to start with," he said. "We're not going to get a high-end bistro. This is the kind of economic development that can help pull everybody forward."
He'd gladly accept some of the stimulus money some Republican governors, such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, say they're going to refuse. It's about creating jobs and social justice, he said.
"This isn't a blind populous screed, and there really needs to be a measure of equity," he said. "Somebody needs to explain to me why AIG gets over $140 billion over a couple weekend powwows and we can't get a Subway franchise or a youth center."
Braddock Borough Council President Jesse Brown has been displeased with the media exposure, saying the mayor has cast Braddock in a negative light on a national scene.
"He needs to tone down his rhetoric about the community and the bad shape the community is in and the devastation of the housing," he said. "If he feels that the community is bankrupt, then he needs to go somewhere where he'd like it."
Mr. Fetterman and his wife live in Braddock in an abandoned warehouse he transformed into a loft.
"My son was born in an old abandoned warehouse in Braddock," he said. "I'm proud to tell people where I live. ... I love the community. Acknowledging the challenges is vital to helping it come back."
Braddock Councilwoman Tina Doose thinks the media exposure can help and the mayor is an excellent spokesman who has done a lot of good for the community. "John, he has presence. Most people are not going to get the national notoriety or attention."
First Published February 27, 2009 12:00 am