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Creative Destinations: Braddock, a Steel Town That Levi’s Helped Reinvent

With a dynamic mayor (and a kick in the pants from Levi-Strauss), this depressed town of 3,000 is getting back on track.

You’ve probably seen the Levi’s commercials. The cinematic spot with color-saturated scenes of a rundown town, and a girl off-camera musing about how “things got broken here” how “frontiers are all around us.” Or the shorter, more upbeat ad (same town and people) declaring that “there’s work to be done” and “reinvention is our only option” over a jazzy version of “Heigh-Ho.” The ads are partly about the joys of work, work wear, and wearing jeans (not necessarily in that order), but it’s their eerie location, Braddock, PA, that’s the real star.

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Levi’s involvement with the town extends far beyond just shooting a couple of commercials there. Levi’s paid over $1.5 million to turn an abandoned church into a new community center and to expand an urban farm program, and it shot the commercial using real people from town, paying them standard rates for a commercial appearance.

Why Braddock? For one thing, it’s the story. A once-prosperous town that once had 20,000 people in the 1940s is trying to recover from the long industrial decline (and the poverty, the crime, the drugs) that have turned it into a near?ghost town today, with a population of just 3,000. (In fact, the town has more than enough abandoned buildings and cautiously optimistic citizens to fill a series of melancholy yet hopeful documentary shorts that Levi’s made with IFC and Sundance.)

But it’s unlikely that Levi’s would have found Braddock if it hadn’t been for the town’s mayor, John Fetterman. In the past five years he’s gotten the New York Times, the BBC, and other major media to pay attention to this small town, 9 miles east of Pittsburgh. Fetterman doesn’t have any control over Braddock’s budget–that’s up to a borough council–but he is the town’s most influential advocate. At 6’8″, with a shaved head, with one arm tattooed with the town’s zip and the other with a list of dates on which Braddock’s citizens died violent deaths during his tenure, he’s very hard to ignore. See for yourself on this clip from The Colbert Report:

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When Levi’s approached the mayor last year, Fetterman was at first “wildly skeptical” about the partnership, according to Christian Parkes, the marketing director at Levi Strauss. In retrospect, though, this partnership is a perfect complement to the many overlapping initiatives going on in Braddock:

Braddock Community Center. Shots of the new stained-glass windows being installed in this former church are given pride of place in both commercials for good reason–it’s a tangible sign of the town coming together. To refurbish the church, Levi’s paid nearly the entire bill; the general contractor was Massano, a public-minded Pittsburgh company.

Braddock Farms. This two-acre urban farm, in the shadow of the only steel mill in town that’s still operating, has nearly a hundred raised beds for vegetables. Some of the produce is sold at low prices at a stand in town; other vegetables are sold to Pittsburgh restaurants at a higher mark-up. Members of a local work group, the Braddock Youth Project help out.

Unsmoke Artspace. Jeb Feldman, one of the early homesteaders in town and now the deputy mayor, came to Braddock when Fetterman was running for his first term. The nine studios in this “old Catholic school” from 1904 are rented at low rates to artists and a writer. Some live in town, and some commute in, drawn by the low cost and all the space. The ground floor is used for what Feldman calls a “no budget gallery” that puts on arts shows and other events–they are often the first thing to cause Pittsburghers and others to visit Braddock. A nearby building has been turned into a hostel for visiting artists and other guests.

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Transformazium. The core of this art group is made up of five highly connected artists, most of whom have ties to Brooklyn and its art scene (street artist Caledonia Curry, aka “Swoon,” is among them). A few years back, Transformazium bought a partially damaged church building. They are “deconstructing” it in order to reuse the materials and build a new structure. Transformazium also runs a screen-printing shop out of the town’s library, an 1888 beauty that was the first of the 1,700-odd libraries Andrew Carnegie built in the United States from his steel-mill money. Not surprisingly, it too is a work in progress.

It’s easy to oversell projects like these and make the town seem like the second coming of San Francisco or Brooklyn. These are signs of hope, but the town’s future rests on much more basic needs. What’s important to the town is that it attract jobs, not hipsters. The “ultimate bellwether for the community,” Fetterman says, is its crime rate, and that has gone down “drastically” in the past five years–the mayor hasn’t had to add to that tattooed list of death dates he has for over 2-1/2 years. It’s metrics like these, and not the number of art galleries or Brooklyn émigrés, that are the most important to the community. As far as Levi’s goes, look for more financial assistance and presumably more TV and Internet spots in the next year or so. “We’re not leaving Braddock,” says Parkes.

[Photos: Kristen Taylor; Hryck; and Salome Oggenfuss]

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