- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

BRADDOCK (AP) — Mayor John Fetterman worked alongside a team of volunteers pulling broken furniture and other debris out of an abandoned church, its ceilings sagging and its belfry thick with pigeon droppings.

It’s too important a building to leave for the birds, he thinks, but could be a perfect setting for an art show. It’s just one of his projects to revive Braddock, a Rust Belt town near Pittsburgh where smoke still rises from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works — Andrew Carnegie’s first mill, opened in 1875 — but where nearly every other business is now shuttered.

The 37-year-old, Harvard-educated mayor is staking his time and quite a bit of his own money on something that is far from a sure bet.

He has no grand plan, just an edgy, almost post-apocalyptic Web site (www.15104.cc/) that shows the town’s many ruins, celebrates local institutions like Jimmie’s Donut shop and Lucky Frank’s bar, and lays out his philosophy in stark black lettering: “Destruction Breeds Creation, Create Amidst Destruction.”

He sees small steps as the way out. Local youths will tend a farm on the main drag and sell organic produce to stores in Pittsburgh. Landscaping will beautify a site now studded with debris from three demolished buildings. Art shows, festivals and concerts will bring in younger people.

Not everyone approves. The six-member borough council would prefer that he focus on official duties such as overseeing the part-time police force. Mr. Fetterman rarely attends council meetings, and when he does “he seems to be aloof … and in a world of his own,” complains Council President Jesse Brown.

However, Rich and Maria Reynolds, owners of one of the town’s last remaining stores, Jimmie’s Donut shop, say the council is one of the biggest obstacles to progress.

“You need to clean up the blight … but in order to do that you need to have certain elected officials who aren’t living in the past,” Mr. Reynolds says.

However, the council has joined in efforts to preserve the Carnegie Library — the nation’s first, built in 1889.

Mr. Fetterman, who grew up in south-central Pennsylvania, has lived in Boston, Seattle and Washington, but is so taken with Braddock that he tattooed the borough’s zip code, 15104, on his arm, along with the dates of the four homicides here since he was elected in 2005.

“The history, the malignant beauty, the steel history, the Elks Lodge next door, the first Carnegie Library across the street … this is the best,” he says.

For now, however, storefronts along Braddock Avenue are nearly all boarded up. Debris-filled lots, dilapidated wooden homes and buildings in varied states of disrepair fill the rest of the town. The community has about 2,700 residents. In 1920, the population was nearly 21,000.

In addition to the abandoned church where he hopes to hold an art show, Mr. Fetterman’s projects including spending $50,000 for the old First Presbyterian Church, saving it from demolition and using part of it for Braddock’s first cafe. He also holds programs there as coordinator of the town’s Out-Of-School-Youth program, a job that pays him $30,000 a year — on top of his salary as mayor — $110.22 a month.

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