Rust Belt Remix: The Art of Patience in Small Town Revitalization

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Pinchot’s 2014 Summer Study Tour took Pinchot students, alumni and faculty to America’s “Rust Belt”. The group visited Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit to explore sustainable business opportunities at these significant sites of industrial success, decline and rebirth. In this series of blogs, participants share revelations and reactions along their journey.

Volunteer in the art loan department at Braddock Carnegie Library

En route to Cleveland, our tour of Rust Belt cities took a distinctly different turn – right into the small town of Braddock, PA where we witnessed the robust interplay between art and grassroots revitalization efforts at the community level.

The presence of large anchor institutions such as Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have helped to expedite the economic rebound in cities like Pittsburgh, but smaller towns like Braddock are experiencing a much slower upswing.

However, despite the city’s relative lack of top-down investment, Braddock boasts an impressive community-driven art scene that is inspiring youth engagement and spurring local artists to apply their talents towards beautification projects.

The Braddock Carnegie Library and Community Center stands at the center of this effort. Built in 1889, it was the first Carnegie Library in the United States, and many of the original features have been repurposed. The building still houses a lending library, but the community center serves as an important resource and meeting place for Braddock’s art community. The former upstairs gymnasium is now a screen printing studio run by teens; the downstairs bathhouse is converted to a pottery and ceramics studio. The library also offers puppet-making workshops, and even loans out some of the larger puppets for plays and Halloween costumes. They run a similar art loan program where residents can borrow work from local artists for up to six weeks.

Ceramicist KT Tierney

Local artists Swoon and KT Tierney connected through the community center and are now collaborating on a project to re-roof an abandoned church in Braddock using entirely handmade ceramic tiles. The prototypes of the end product are stunning. The duo hopes to leverage grant funding to complete the project, and eventually turn the interior of the building into a community events space.

A few blocks down the road we met the owners of the General Sisters store, a future bulk goods store that is the brainchild of a graphic designer transplant from Brooklyn. The mission of the store is to provide local residents with healthy, fresh bulk goods free from the deceptive effects of corporate branding.

Each of these ventures expressed a similar sentiment when asked about their biggest challenge: the incredibly slow pace of change in Braddock. They are eager for change to occur, for jobs and people and energy and pride to once again fill the streets of Braddock.

Yet Braddock’s shortage of resources does not seem to be derailing anyone from their work; short term gain or notoriety is not the goal. The passion to transform what is old into something new is weaving connectivity, inspiration and new identity into Braddock at a pace that allows the community to contribute and participate – giving it the power to sustain.

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About the Author – Kate Herrmann

Kate  has lived in Austin, Texas, for the past 6 years working with various non-profits to improve the availability and condition of affordable housing in the region. She is completing her MBA in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University to fine-tune her business skills. She plans to continue working in affordable housing and community development.


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