Five Days in May – Braddock and Clairton

In May, I spent about 5 days in the Mon Valley area outside of Pittsburgh with the intent of making images in Braddock, Clairton and McKeesport. Using nearby Homestead as my base, I figured I could bounce around between those towns due to their close proximity.

But on many of the days I planned to explore in Clairton and McKeesport, I would drive through Braddock first to see if there was anything happening. I almost always found something new that would grab my attention and I would sometimes never make it out of Braddock.

Braddock is a very interesting town and it has an even more interesting mayor. John Fetterman has been mayor of Braddock since 2005 where he won the job by one vote. Since then the 6’8″, 350-pound, bald, goateed and tattooed mayor has been on a mission to redefine how local government works and slowly bring the town back from the edge of death.

Fetterman, who has a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, will be the first to admit that Braddock will probably never be what it was 50 years ago, but with “90% of our town in the landfill,” he says, there is certainly room for improvement.

I have not had the opportunity to spend any quality photographic time with Mayor Fetterman yet, but we are trying to work it out for my next trip.

Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, also a force to be reckoned with, founded the Free Store, which she runs out of a brightly-painted converted storage container stocked with donated and surplus clothing for people in need. The enterprise is run entirely by volunteers and serves about 1,600 folks each month. With a background in non-profit work, she also co-founded the 412 Food Rescue, which collects fresh, healthy food scheduled to be discarded and distributes it to community organizations that serve those in need.

Adjacent to the Free Store is another non-profit that might be the happiest place in Braddock for children. The Red Lantern Bike shop, operated by Brian Sink, takes in donated, broken and unused bikes and refurbishes and redistributes them back into the kids. For free. In 2014 Sink distributed over 1000 free bikes to children in the community. The day I was there, he was wearing a Superman t-shirt, which seemed fitting since I am sure the kids see him as a superhero.

There is no way that you can hang out on this corner in Braddock, witness the goodwill being spread, and not be moved.

I have been visiting Braddock Farms since I began exploring the town, but the weather was not cooperating much in previous visits and it was too early in the growing season. The farm began in 2007 when Mayor Fetterman approached Grow Pittsburgh, an urban agriculture nonprofit, about developing an urban farm in the town. Today it is Braddock’s single source of fresh produce. The farm employs high school kids from the Braddock Youth Project to work the farm and stands each summer. The students are involved in the farm from planting to harvest. An excellent program that I need to revisit later this year.

It is obvious that there is plenty going on in this steel town and it is easy to get sidetracked on my way to Clairton. One morning I was driving down the main street at about 7:15 and as I passed Lucky Frank’s bar, I was surprised to see the door open and the lights on. From the road, I could see a few people sitting at the bar. It took me about another block to process what I had seen before turning around and heading inside.

In the old day when the mill towns flourished, it was not uncommon for the bars to be open in the morning in these towns to cater to the workers coming off the night shift. Or as some people have told me, the workers going on the day shift.

I hung out for a while, met some interesting people and made a couple of nice frames. Will definitely be back.

I actually did make it to Clairton a couple of times on this trip. The mayor, Richard Lattanzi, was kind enough to meet with me and show me around town.

Clairton is another town that is struggling even though it is home to the largest coke manufacturing facility in the United States. The Clairon Coke Works, operated by U.S. Steel Corp., operates ten coke oven batteries that produce approximately 4.3 million tons of coke annually. Coke or carbonized coal, is produced by baking coal in a heated oven. By using a process that burns off the impurities in the coal, while not allowing the carbon in the coal to burn, the coal becomes coke. When burned, coke generates an intense amount of heat but produces very little smoke, which makes it an ideal fuel for use in producing steel.

Mayor Lattanzi gave me a detailed tour of some places in the city that have been abandoned for years and are finally being slated to be torn down as well as pointing out some of the sites where they have plans to bring in new businesses. Clairton’s downtown is mostly boarded up and the city has not had a grocery store in years.

I met some really interesting people on my two short visits. Donald “Amzi” Lightner was one such man who took the time to talk to me about what life was like when he grew up here as well as 60 years later. I recorded that interview as well as him playing the keyboard in his living room and I will be posting both on this site soon.

Next time I will definitely do more work in Clairton and McKeesport. Oh yes, McKeesport… never got the chance this time.

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