A Small Town Mayor Invites Street Artists to Revive His Abandoned Town – Swoon and Others Heed the Call.
By Salome Oggenfuss
Artist and photographer Salome Oggenfuss recently took a trip from Bushwick, Brooklyn to visit the town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. She invites us to take a look at the beautiful work she found on the streets there, and to consider moving.
Braddock is a small town about a half hour drive outside of Pittsburgh in the Pennsylvania “Rust Belt”. In its heyday in the 1970s, the town used to boast about 20,000 residents, but when the steel industry started collapsing soon after, people moved away. The crack epidemic in the 80s further diminished the town’s population, and nowadays only about 3,000 people are left in Braddock and almost half of the town’s buildings are unoccupied.
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In the early 2000s, John Fetterman, who originally came to Braddock to work for AmeriCorps after graduating from Harvard, decided to run for Mayor of Braddock, winning the election by just one single vote. Most people would have considered a place like Braddock long lost, and not worth putting any energy into. In fact large parts of the town look so dismal that a portion of “The Road“, the movie adaption of Cormac McCarthys post apocalyptic novel, were filmed in Braddock. But Fetterman recognized Braddock’s two main attractions – space and time.
Think about it – aren’t most of us struggling artists in Brooklyn often sick of the fact that we work like dogs in order to pay rent for our apartments and maybe a studio space? This lifestyle leaves us exhausted, with not as much energy to make art we’d like to have. John Fetterman’s suggestion is – move to Braddock, buy a building for as little as $5000, put some time into redoing it, and then you’ll have plenty of time and space to make work.
Of course, the move would be a trade – there are no restaurants in town, no coffee shops, and the dollar store is the only option to buy groceries right in Braddock. Unlike in New York, you won’t be able to order food at 4 am, or choose from a wide variety of nightlife options. But a bunch of people have been daring the move.
Around the same time as Fetterman became Mayor, five young ladies; Ruthie, Erin, Dana, Leslie and Caledonia (aka SWOON….), most of them from Brooklyn, obtained a huge, abandoned, beautiful church just a few blocks off of Braddock Avenue, for $20,000. They formed what they call “an art-based community organization“ named Transformazium. Some members now permanently live in Braddock, and others go there often to work on refurbishing the church as well as other projects, like the community silk screen shop they opened in the local library.
A couple of years ago, they invited a bunch of their artist friends (street artists and otherwise) to put up art all over the buildings and streets of Braddock. When I entered town from the bridge crossing the Monongahela River, one of the first pieces I saw was a Shepard Fairey wheatpaste. I took a walk around town, and noticed a bright mural by Noah Sparkes right on Braddock Avenue, amazing Bird Paintings by Polina Soloveichik further up the hill, and a colorful mural by Maya Hayuk on an old factory wall down by the river. Delicate Swoon wheat pastes can be found in little nooks and crannies all over town.
It was so fun wandering around town and finding beautiful art in the most unexpected places… even inside of abandoned buildings or on church windows!
Salome Oggenfuss is an artist and photographer living in Bushwick who likes portraiture, poetry, riding bikes to the beach, and currently, milkshakes.
Learn more about Salome Oggenfuss
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