Braddock’s backers see lots of potential in community’s future
When talking about Braddock, Molly Rice and Jeffrey Carpenter avoid the word “revitalization.”
The term, they say, implies what already exists in the community isn’t vital, and, therefore, doesn’t apply to the historic town.
“Braddock isn’t what you might think it is. There are so many elements and varieties of colors and layers and things to see,” says Rice, a playwright who’s working with Carpenter’s Bricolage Production Company and Real/Time Interventions to bring her “Saints Tour” immersive theater experience to Braddock in May and June.
The show is one of many efforts to draw outsiders in while the community continues to move forward from its unstable past.
As one of the towns hit hard by the collapse of the steel industry, Braddock spent decades suffering from the loss of its tax base.
Today, Braddock supporters continue to use their talents to ensure the community’s future is brighter.
“Braddock is the alpha and omega of the steel industry,” Carpenter says. “It encapsulates the identity crisis this city has experienced. It’s one of the last remaining bastions of old and new coming together in such amazing ways.”
Rice’s “Saints Tour” will run from May 21 to June 13 in Braddock. A tour-guide character will lead participants through town on foot and by bus to “uncover the corners of Braddock that are unsung, magical or made alive by this project,” Rice says. Audiences will encounter musicians, artists and others along the way.
“It enables you to get a much broader perspective of the community,” Rice says.
Mayor John Fetterman, who has led the charge to tackle Braddock’s problems over the past decade, says the importance of arts in strengthening a community is considered “gospel.” He cites as example UnSmoke Systems Artspace, a gallery and artist studio that has hosted “probably thousands” of people at events since its founding in 2008. UnSmoke is an initiative of Braddock Redux, the nonprofit Fetterman founded to better the community through art initiatives, green initiatives, creative reuse of existing structures and other efforts.
“It’s, ultimately, our responsibility to Braddock to give people a reason to come,” he says.
Patrick Jordan is working to create another space dedicated to doing just that. Jordan’s Barebones Productions theater company will have a permanent home in Braddock after 12 years working out of temporary spaces. The company’s Black Box Theater will open May 14 with Miki Johnson’s “American Falls.”
“There’s something in the dirt or the air here,” Jordan says of Braddock. “You either get it or you don’t. There’s a lot of potential down here. People are flocking to it. I just love the energy of the place.”
Jordan describes “American Falls” as “kind of like an ‘Our Town,’ but with a modern twist to it.”
“You have seven characters, and the majority only speak in monologue,” he says. “The story unravels as it’s going, and you don’t realize it until it hits you over the head that these stories are all connected. There’s a lot of dark humor.”
Black Box shares a building with Superior Motors, Kevin Sousa’s forthcoming restaurant in a former car dealership on Braddock Avenue. The theater adheres to the Barebones’ philosophy of keeping things simple, with walls of reclaimed wood panels and exposed brick and planned seating for about 70.
Soundproofing also was a must with what’s expected to be a busy dining room one wall away. Sousa and Jordan say sharing a space makes perfect sense.
“We knew the back part of the space was going to be an incubator for something,” Sousa says. “We did not know we were going to be lucky enough for Patrick to want to put in a theater, which is complementary to the restaurant and vice versa.”
Jordan hopes to use the space to host two to three shows a year, host classes and events and, eventually, offer training for students interested in theater.
“Patrick sees this really great theater space and is turning it into something wonderful,” Fetterman says. “He sees value in a way other people may not.”
A longtime community volunteer and friend of Fetterman and Sousa, Jordan is responsible for introducing the two.
“It was a beautiful, clear day, and everything was perfect,” Jordan recalls with a laugh. “Kids were playing on swing sets. People were waving, saying, ‘Hi, Mr. Mayor!’ It was like that scene in ‘Funny Farm’ when they pay off the town. I just looked at John and said, ‘We have to tell him it’s not like this every day.’ ”
Regardless, it was enough to get Sousa hooked. He now lives in Braddock and has parted ways with other business ventures, including Salt of the Earth in Garfield and Station Street Hot Dogs in East Liberty, to devote more energy to Superior Motors, which drew $310,225 in support from more than 2,000 donors through a Kickstarter campaign. The Heinz Endowments supported the project with a $40,000 challenge grant slated for job training.
The restaurant will embrace farm-to-table dining, using produce from a 2-acre urban farm one block away, a rooftop greenhouse and additional roof space to accommodate a raised-bed garden. The restaurant will provide professional culinary training and opportunities at no cost to residents.
Sousa won’t commit to announcing an official opening date, but construction is well under way.
While no one expects any of these factors to change Braddock overnight, Fetterman is confident the future holds exciting things for his town.
“I want it to become more and more inclusive, welcoming and prosperous,” he says. “That’s the direction we’re headed in.”