Monday, December 22, 2008

Braddock Boosting

Chris Briem revisits Braddock in a recent Null Space blog post. Be sure to check out the comment about the Monthly Review article, which is now available online:

“We’ve had about twenty newcomers this way so far. That number is still small,” the Mayor concedes, “But what I think is important to look at is that these are creative people who are coming from what are called key cities—places like Providence, San Francisco, New York City, Boston. If people are making a choice to leave cultural capitals like that for a place like here, which does not necessarily have the amenities they’re accustomed to, I think it says something good for our ability to repopulate Braddock.”

Fetterman’s leg of the Braddock tour then ends up at the site of an old, long-abandoned Catholic school and convent that he and some of those new citizens of Braddock are renovating into an art gallery. Michael LeFevre—a young commercial painter who moved here with his wife in order to buy a home they would not have been able to afford back in Portland, Oregon—is lending a hand to finish the building’s ceiling. Two more Braddock revivalists, Jeb Feldman and Helen Wachter (a newcomer and a lifelong resident of the region, respectively) show off the fruits of their labor, reviewing the precious and historic architecture that has been saved and put to new use.

Feldman—who arrived in Braddock several years ago at Fetterman’s invitation to serve in the entirely voluntary post of deputy mayor—goes to great lengths to emphasize the respectful intentions of newcomers like himself. Artists moving in to poor urban neighborhoods like this one often have the unintended effect of sparking real estate development that displaces existing residents, and although Braddock has lost most of its people, there are still three thousand reasons to be worried about gentrification there. Feldman insists, however, “I’ve heard people we know in other places in Pittsburgh kind of scoff at what we’re doing, and say they think we’ll displace people. But I have never heard that from anyone who actually lives here.”

Longtime North Braddock resident and executive director of the Braddock Carnegie Library, Vicky Vargo, is pleased with the work of the newcomers, but does acknowledge some concern about their potential impact. “I do think it’s possible, that they may get so many people to move here that it changes things. But what I think is important,” she continues, “is that they don’t storm in, use the town up, and then move on to the next hip spot later on.” The new Braddock pioneers that she’s met, however, “have been very respectful. The ones I have met went out of their way to ask the community that has stuck it out here what their needs are, what their vision for the town is.”

The concerns about gentrification serve as a reminder about why brain drain initiatives are popular with voters. Residents don't want to lose control of their community. The sense of place, even in a struggling neighborhood such as Braddock, is of great value and outsiders threaten it. Ideally, population would stabilize or even grow as a result of retention, higher fertility rates, and the return of expatriates. But the demographic reality is that such an approach won't work.

The old Braddock no longer attracts people. The new Braddock could. That would require change. Radical change. No place is actually static. Those areas that get close to freezing in time are not healthy. Attract newcomers or die.

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