A recent Levi’s ad features a child reading a poem about frontiers, and shots of Levi’s-clad people working to repair damaged buildings in a depressing-looking town. That town is the borough of Braddock, PA, located just outside of Pittsburgh. It has gotten a lot of press lately from outlets as diverse and influential as The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and The Atlantic. The reason for all the press is the new mayor, John Fetterman, who is a bit of a bad-ass. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Public Policy, and he looks like a steelworker. Of course, there aren’t any steelworkers in Braddock anymore; industry has left, as has 90% of its peak population. Fetterman has been doing everything in his ability to draw attention to Braddock’s plight since becoming mayor, and he’s done quite a job. Such a good job, that he’s gotten corporate money for urban revitalization, in a strange symbiotic relationship with Levi’s that is telling of the troubles Rust Belt cities face these days.
Wieden + Kennedy, a Portland-based ad agency, caught on to Braddock’s story and pitched it to Levi’s as the basis for a new campaign, centered around work. Levi’s went for it, and paid to restore a church on Library Street, filmed the process, made it into a commercial, and in doing so, gave Braddock their new community center. Looking at the building from the outside, you can recognize the restored rosary window from the commercial. It’s really quite strange to find that something you’ve seen happen in an advertisement has actually happened, but such is the case here in Braddock. Braddock sold their story to Levi’s for a new community center, and Levi’s is selling us jeans with some rather beautiful 30-second spots. What isn’t clear, however, is to what extent Braddock’s revitalization is anything more than just a narrative, a tidy product that makes for a good news story or commercial.
Walking down the Braddock’s main street, Braddock Avenue, two weeks back, there was hardly a person in sight. Most buildings had their addresses spraypainted on in florescent orange, as is often done to condemned structures. Embracing the decay, my trusty photographer and I wandered into an abandoned dentist’s office on the forlorn strip. The building’s roof had collapsed in on itself, as had most of the floor. In a building next door, also abandoned, I found a Pittsburgh Gazette from 1993 with a brief gossip piece on Michael J. Fox’s frustration with baby boomers. “We’re the post-Pepsi generation,” said Fox. “People graduate college and work at McDonald’s. It’s a different world.”
After Clark shot a few photos, we wandered back outside, to see a youngish man with a camcorder in the parking lot behind the building. Talking to him we found out he was from Sydney, Australia. When I asked him what brought him to Braddock, he gestured at the surroundings, and said, “This.” He had read about Braddock in Rolling Stone. He works in advertising. He had to see it. Who could blame him? I felt the same exact way.
Shortly afterward, back on Braddock Ave, I bumped into a reporter for Pittsburgh’s Channel 4 Action News, along with his cameraman, as they were looking to interview people on Braddock Ave. They were reporting on a nuisance bar, the reporter told me. Club Elegance, it turns out, doesn’t quite live up to its name. There had been a double shooting there the previous night. He was looking for people to interview about it, and I was looking for people in Braddock. We ended up talking to one another. He had filed a story earlier in the year on the Levi’s ad campaign.
I would later bump into Action News’ reporter outside of Braddock’s low-slung municipal building, where the candid receptionist told me that, yes, Mayor Fetterman keeps an office here, but, no, he’s not there and she doesn’t know where he is, but here’s his cell phone number. Unable to talk to the mayor, we walked back up Braddock Ave, and bumped into the Australian guy again.
Including myself and Clark, it seemed that most of the people in Braddock that day were reporting on it, in one way or another. I got the impression of an empty place that was more story than city.
But this narrative can be very valuable. Levi’s gave Braddock about $1 million for their new community center. That’s about four times what the borough received in Recovery Act funds from Washington, all of which is slated for EPA compliance upgrade of the sewer system, according to an op-ed written by Mayor Fetterman for CNN. Speaking with Mayor Fetterman on the phone more recently, he makes it quite clear that Levi’s has been better to him than the Recovery Act. “There’s no close second,” to Levi’s, he tells me.
Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t wish there were a stronger federal involvement. He certainly does, and thinks that given recent interventions in the economy, like TARP, and the lack of intervention for dying blue collar industries in the past, he doesn’t see why the federal government can’t make some money available to rebuild places like Braddock. “I’m not even asking for parity. I’m just asking for one-thousandth of a percent of what [bankers] got.” The financial services industry — or more specifically, Washington’s cozy relationship with it — seems to be Mayor Fetterman’s prime target when he explains what’s wrong with federal policy these days. He calls bankers “slimes” and “sleaze”, and goes off on a funny tangent about the spike in sales of Ayn Rand novels in recent years: “These idiots in the Ayn Rand school of Atlas Shrugged where it’s like ‘We’re the producers’ and, you know — no, you’re not. You guys would all be selling pencils in a tin cup if it weren’t for the collective bailout you received.” He goes on, “those John Galts are the ones that almost wrecked the whole global economy.”
The fact that anyone would suggest cities like Braddock are looking for handouts from Washington makes Fetterman sick; he just wants Braddock to have what they never had — an ally in Washington, someone to save them from the vagaries of the free market. “Braddock is an object lesson in what happens when there’s no intervention,” says Fetterman, “when capitalism just tears a region and a town apart.”
“You can’t go back in time and fix it,” says Fetterman, of the last few decades effect on the Rust Belt, “but you sure as hell can make changes in the future. So yeah, does it make me sad that Levi-Strauss is contributing on a multiple of many many times over what the stimulus did for our community? Absolutely.”
So Braddock treks forward, in their own admittedly bizarre way. They sell a narrative of rebirth to an ad agency, and the ad agency’s client helps them get their start, and people start coming to visit, cameras in hand. But looking at the borough from a high vantage point, past the old steel mill, and across the Monongahela River, you can see the peaks and valleys of a shiny new amusement park’s roller coasters. I wondered if, with all this exposure for its blight, Braddock runs the risk of becoming something similar to the amusement park, for those like me and the Australian guy — a sort of Rust Belt playland, where you go to be entertained, and leave to return to your normal life. The key difference, of course, is that I would have to pay admission to the park, buy a cotton candy, and try to impress my girlfriend at the milk bottle toss, and all of those things cost money. I didn’t spend a penny in Braddock because, not being a pants company or a fan of Family Dollar, I basically couldn’t. That will be the trick for Braddock, going forward.
At least they have a fierce fighter like Mayor Fetterman on their side, though. Without him, none of us would have ever known about Braddock.