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Urban Pioneer: Mayor of Braddock, Pa. to Speak at Juniata College

(Posted September 17, 2012)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Combining the unbridled enthusiasm of a political policy wonk with the intimidatingly mountainous visage of a biker, politician John Fetterman will outline his vision for bringing Braddock, Pa, back from impoverished decline at Juniata College at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 25, in Neff Lecture Hall in the von Liebig center for Science on the Juniata campus.

The lecture is free and open to the public. The presentation is sponsored by the Will Judy Lectureship Fund.

Fetterman founded a community center, started youth and art programs and began renovating abandoned buildings to market as low-rent spaces to urban pioneers. He started by buying the First Presbyterian Church, then bought a nearby warehouse which he remade as the loft home he still lives in today.

In 2005, Fetterman was elected mayor of Braddock, an industrial-based suburb of Pittsburgh that is home to the Edgar Thomson Steel Works. In Braddock, policy is decided by an elected borough council and everyday management is overseen by a borough manager. The mayor oversees the police force and can break a tie in council voting. As mayor, Fetterman has become an activist for urban renewal, green building, greenways, urban agriculture and other plans to revitalize towns and cities that once were industrial powerhouses and thriving communities.

Fetterman arrived in Braddock in 2001 as an Americorps volunteer, working with youth who had dropped out of school, often helping them earn a GED. After living in Braddock for four years, he decided to run for mayor because it would give him a forum for his plans to renovate downtown buildings to attract artists, businesses and residents.

Over his years in office, Fetterman has sometimes clashed with the borough council, who would like to have more say and local buy-in on the mayor's projects from longtime Braddock residents.

Braddock has been in decline since the 1970s, when the domestic steel industry collapsed. In the 1920s, Braddock had a population of more than 20,000 and employed 5,000 people at the Thomson Works. Today the population is around 3,000 and the steel mill employs about 500 people.

Following his election, Fetterman founded a community center, started youth and art programs and began renovating abandoned buildings to market as low-rent spaces to urban pioneers. He started by buying the First Presbyterian Church, then bought a nearby warehouse which he remade as the loft home he still lives in today. Using funds from his family, Fetterman has bought and renovated a handful of other houses, offering the spaces at greatly reduced rents or free to artists and individuals interested in urban development and growth.

Most of the town's reurbanization projects have been funded by a private foundation established by Fetterman called Braddock Redux. As a result, he has been recognized by national media as "America's Coolest Mayor" and "Brave New Thinker" by The Atlantic magazine. The New York Times magazine featured his work as well.

As a result of the publicity, Fetterman was able to attract a $1.5 million contract with Levi-Strauss to use Braddock as the backdrop of an "urban pioneer" ad campaign and market the city to film production companies. Several films have featured the town, including the post-apocalyptic "The Road."

Fetterman is a native of York, Pa. and earned a bachelor's degree at Harvard University and went on to earn a master's degree in public policy in 2001 from Harvard's Kennedy School. In 2009, he was re-elected to a second term by a 3 to 1 margin.

This August he was recognized as one of 12 "Champions of Change" by the White House as part of the 10th anniversary of the AmeriCorps program.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.