Monday, November 9, 2009

Benchmarking: Braddock, PA

A big part of our upcoming discussion about Locating Creativity in Hartford has got to include "benchmarking." It's something we do a lot on Where We Live - looking to other towns, cities and states for solutions. Almost every idea we might have about spurring a new, creative economy here has been tried somewhere else. And, for any successes we might point to, somebody has failed so that we might learn a big lesson.

Our show about "Brave Thinkers" with The Atlantic Magazine pointed me toward a big benchmark we should be looking at: Braddock, Pennsylvania. Never heard of it? Not surprised.

Braddock is a steel town, about 13 miles from where I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, and it's been dying for years. The place where Andrew Carnegie put his first steel mill has lost 90 percent of its population, and is barely hanging on. Despite Hartford's status as one of America's poorest cities, there is nothing here that compares with the despair of a place where industry has come, used up its people and spaces, and left them both to rust.

In comes John Fetterman, a mayor and a force for civic change. The Atlantic describes his vision for Braddock this way:

Fetterman, a young and heavily tattooed giant with a public-policy degree from Harvard and a mountain of ambition, wants to save the city by luring artists and small businesses with loft apartments, cheap rent, and other inducements. He imagines Braddock—only a few miles from Pittsburgh—as a community for creative types and eco-friendly businesses, filled with public gardens and culture centers. It’s an utterly idealistic experiment in extreme urban renewal with next to zero financial backing—one that could totally fail, or perhaps serve as a model for other devastated industrial towns.

The blog Design Mind says Braddock hasn't completely turned around, but the signs are hopeful, and here's the lesson for Hartford: Not surprisingly, the turnaround started with art — literally, getting the community together to beautify the city with brightly colored murals, signs, painted houses, etc.

In remaking Braddock, Fetterman's working off his own benchmarks.

Just up the Monongahela River, the steel town of Homestead has remade itself by transforming the site of a former US Steel plant into "The Waterfront" - a kind of pseudo-suburban shopping mall. Not what you'd call classic "new urban" design, but a lively, successful transformation for the blighted site where Pinkertons once battled striking steel workers.

Fetterman looked at "The Waterfront" success, and learned from it. But has not tried to copy it. The change he's bringing to Braddock is more organic, and doesn't rely on big national retail chains.

And, here's a guy who didn't exactly have a "mandate for change." He won his first election by one vote. But he's turning the city on its head by embracing all the residents, young (and increasingly old) and welcoming in outsiders. He's getting press for his work, but he's also seeing where it fits in with similar projects, like the Project Row Houses in Houston, where art is the catalyst, but the people are the engine.

Part of the success? Attitude. The attitude is just as important as the vision. Fetterman says of Braddock, "We're not distressed...we're experimental." That goes a long way toward making people in a city buy your vision...and toward attracting outsiders to invest. But he's quick to point out that much of what he's done isn't because of big money helping hands.

So Braddock, PA serves as a benchmark for Hartford. How far does civic leadership get you? How much is in the grass roots? If the title of Ralph Nader's new book, Only The Super-Rich Can Save Us is right, then will we be waiting for a city savior who's not coming?


- C said...

Great comparisons here John.

I visited Pittsburgh for the first time a few years back and found the the Waterfront to be an amazing space, just once small space, with the power to completely alter this visitor's perception of an entire city. What would be our parallel to that kind of place is here in Hartford? I do not think I am the only one, as clearly others are noticing good things there as well...

That said, as a transplant to this area, I truly believe Hartford's #1 problem is its lack of an elevator-pitch identity, something that can be articulated in less than 15 seconds, something that resonates with people, something that people actually hear and GET, instantly.

I think of Providence I instantly thing of Waterfire, art, culture.
I think of New Haven I instantly think of Yale, culture, and a walkable downtown.

Cities like Springfield, Hartford, and Worcester languish in mediocrity because of more than just poverty or post-industrial neglect, but because they have yet to articulate, in a brief, understandable elevator-pitch, why folks want to be there.

And that is really quite tragic because, once you get involved and start poking around a bit, you do discover how much the city has to offer, if it could just articulate it before the doors open and people exit the elevator en-route to Boston or NYC.


jd said...

Clif -

Great thoughts here. Charles Landry, the urban creativity guru who we'll interview for Wednesday's show, talks about a city having a clear narrative...much like your elevator pitch idea.

We'll also talk about how he stresses to cities that they must be honest about what is and what is not working. That's a point that was clearly made at our last event, with a tension between "boosterism" and "truth-telling."

jd said...

As a follow-up, I must point out that not everyone in my hometown gets the same message about creating a "creative class." Pittsburgh's Mayor has proposed a new "student tax" to fill a budget gap. The group CEOs for Cities has taken them to task ( saying it's a "really bad idea" that acts as a kind of "anti-sin tax" against people trying to better themselves. If you want young, creative people to stay...don't tax them more.

- C said...

"Student taxes" do seem to be quite in vogue of late, vis-a-vis what we saw this week in CA:

I wonder if, while we are talking about encouraging a real creative class, we could apply such creativity to education? The state of CT's capital education being a striking contradiction to the overall's state's national position in graduate degrees (as alluded to in other forums as well):

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