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Friday, February 11, 2011

Fetterman gets national press ... and this time it ain't a puff piece

Posted By on Fri, Feb 11, 2011 at 4:51 PM

For fans of all things John Fetterman, Sue Halpern's story on the mayor of Braddock is a must-read.

The story is online today in the New York Times Magazine. (The print edition will be available in the Sunday copy of the paper.) And when compared to the media coverage Fetterman has gotten elsewhere, Halpern's piece takes a more jaded view. (Full disclosure: Halpern interviewed me for this piece, though I'm not quoted in the story and -- as far as I can tell -- had very little impact on it.) 

Just for example, Halpern offers some not-unexpected criticism of that famous Levi's ad campaign:

Billboards with Braddock, Pa., along the bottom appeared in Times Square and across the country. They featured portraits of some of the finer-looking denizens of the town, like Dave Rosenstraus, whose company, Fossil Free Fuel, was the one new business in town (which recently spawned another, still with the same partners); Jack Samuel, a member of a straight-edge-vegan-punk-rock collective; and Deanne Dupree, whose boyfriend was the last homicide in town. They carried the affirming slogan "Everybody’s Work Is Equally Important," which had a touch of irony in a place where so many people cannot find jobs.  

The story notes that, for all the ink Fetterman has gotten for trying to bring artists and other pioneers to town,only two dozen have actually moved there. And some of them didn't know what they were getting into. One artist confesses to having been "a little blinded by the image of Braddock that has been portrayed by the media, that all this place is is an artist’s compound." Another couple, meanwhile, has spent $60,000 trying to rehabilitate a home they paid $5,000 for. They are now broke, and purchased a shotgun "because it is more intimidating than a handgun."

Some native Braddockers sound disillusioned as well. Of one longtime resident bemused by Fetterman's initiatives, Halpern writes:

Nothing that was happening in Braddock -- not the green roof on the old furniture store, not the screen printing studio run by members of a socially-conscious arts collective, not beehives, not the Shepard Fairey art installation on a nearby wall, not the Levi’s ad campaign -- has changed the most essential facts of his life: he is poor and without prospects. 

Some of these complaints aren't new. City Paper itself has reported on some of the discontent among residents. And when UPMC shut down Braddock Hospital, Fetterman has sometimes ended up squabbling with those trying to save it.

Even the glowing media coverage has been a double-edged sword. Magazines like Rolling Stone sometimes seem to bulid Fetterman up by tearing Braddock down -- by referring to him as the "Mayor Of Hell," for example. That coverage ain't Fetterman's fault, of course. But you can't blame residents for, as Halpern puts it, "resent[ing] that one man's vision is represented as their collective vision" -- even if that man's vision is genuinely doing some good. 

In fact, one interesting, and previously underreported, aspect of Halpern's piece is its implication that Fetterman has created his own pseudo-government. Fetterman has long been at odds with Braddock's borough council -- which holds most of the actual decision-making authority. And so, Halpern writes:

Fetterman built a back door -- he started a nonprofit organization called Braddock Redux, financed until recently primarily by family money. (His father is its largest individual donor.)

... By heading a nonprofit that is a major property owner, the mayor was able to advance what he calls his "social-justice agenda" without having much political power, or the burden of it, either. 

And I have to note this irony: Halpern characterizes Fetterman's experiments as "a sampling of urban renewal trends" ... including "championing the creative class to bring new energy to old places (an approach popularized by Richard Florida)." Take it from me, the guy who Fetterman once accused of writing a "slobbering rim job" about Florida ... this ain't exactly the company Fetterman would choose to be identified with.

In the end, though, Halpern's piece reads less as an attack on Fetterman, than as an attempt to question some of the adulation he receieves.

Braddock as a brand -- as a vision, or a viral idea -- has been a tremendous success. The Levi's campaign is just one example. At least in the national mindset, Fetterman has remade its image completely: Instead of a decaying steel town nobody cares about, it has assumed a role in the national consciousness far out of proportion to its size. But while Braddock's image has been reborn, the reality is proving far more stubborn.

Halpern's piece begins with Fetterman receiving ovations at a forum to discuss "how ideas can change the world." The story ends by showing how vacuous that kind of rhetoric can be. Braddock needs more than ideas, or brash "pioneers." It needs more money than Fetterman can bring. Its people need jobs and investment, as well as government officials at every level willing to help put the town back on its feet. 

But if Braddock ain't living up to its celebrity profile, that isn't Fetterman's fault. Nothing in Halpern's story makes me think he isn't trying his damndest. Really, you can only fault Fetterman if you assume one guy -- hamstrung by century-old governmental institutions and decades-old economic neglect -- can remake a community overnight.

The fault, if there's any to lay here, lies precisely with those of us who do make that assumption. Those who want to believe a guy like John Fetterman can pull off a miracle -- so the rest of us won't have to bother. 

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