Roads Not Traveled | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Roads Not Traveled

If they didn't build a highway, what would happen to Braddock?

Some people put Braddock down, but Frieda Helvy moved there on purpose. She liked the house, she says.

She lives on Talbot Avenue -- two blocks toward the Monongahela River from the main drag, Braddock Avenue -- with her brother, Harold Grier, and their mother, Burhl.

Helvy's house used to be two homes, joined together. It has a wide, comfortable front porch, with two front doors and, at one time, had two families living side by side. This was back when the neighborhood -- unofficially known as the Bottom -- was filled with immigrants working at U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson Works a few blocks away.
Today, the neighbors who once shared Helvy's porch, like many of those who once shared her community, are gone. Many who still work in Braddock's industries drive in from places like North Versailles and West Mifflin. Those remaining contend with trucks and trailers rattling through the neighborhood to riverside factories, and the hiss of the BOC gas plant, which provides oxygen to U.S. Steel's furnaces at the Edgar Thomson works. The racket is one of the few things Braddock residents have plenty of. "They need parks and activities for the kids," Helvy says. "They need the kids to have jobs clean[ing] out these raggedy lots."

While some of the Bottom's roughly 30 square blocks are lively, others feel more like a rural town, with a few houses per block and lots filled with un-mowed grass. Helvy's house, with a nice coat of white paint and brown trim on the windows, looks pastoral, too. The small front yard is blooming with roses and flowers. If anything, she complains, the neighborhood's being replaced by "too much nature!"

"Rabbits, turtles, groundhogs, maybe bears," chuckles Burhl.

Helvy may not have to worry too much about nature a few years from now. If plans proposed by the state's Turnpike Commision become reality, the 24-mile, $2 billion Mon-Fayette Expressway would be built right in front of the Grier family home. It would sit on a mound of earth 25 feet high and two blocks wide.

The Mon-Fayette has been proposed in various forms since the 1960s, and is still several years in the future, assuming it gets needed funding from the state and federal government. Yet Helvy, who came here from East Liberty eight years ago, admits she doesn't know much about what might happen outside her front window.

Even though the preliminary design of the highway is drawn in bright yellow across the town on Turnpike Commission maps, it's hard for many residents to figure out what it would really be like. "I can't get the idea; will it affect us?" Helvy says. "I'm not against it if it would improve the neighborhood. When I moved here there were a lot more houses. But we'll just have to wait and see."

Helvy definitely doesn't like the idea of a 25-foot berm. "Spoil my view? Dirt mound! That'll be really ghetto," she says.

Many outsiders think of Braddock as "ghetto" already. From Helvy's porch, the hillside of North Braddock is pastel with spring, but directly across the street is a gravel patch where a building was just knocked down. Beyond that is the back end of Braddock Avenue and the vacant upper floors of a commercial building; nearby is a once-grand apartment building with securely boarded windows.

Still, maintains Harold Grier, "It's not bad here." Many of the houses in the Bottom are occupied by older, long-time Braddock residents and would be taken down if the Mon-Fayette comes through. "If they move, they'll have to go somewhere worse."

In Braddock, beauty is often in the eye of the beholder.

To the Turnpike Commission, the borough of Braddock looks like the best option for a four-lane, limited-access toll road. Backers promise that the Mon-Fayette Expressway will revitalize the Mon Valley. A new superhighway to Pittsburgh would have to come through somewhere. In a 2002 environmental study, the Turnpike Commission dismissed the idea of putting the Mon-Fayette on the south shore of the Mon -- in Homestead. Braddock, though, has no Waterfront-type development: Property values are low and the population has dropped from 20,000 to 3,000 over the past few decades. If the road is built, Braddock would become, in planning jargon, a "zone of sacrifice."

Currently, the Mon-Fayette Expressway runs from Interstate 40 to Jefferson Hills, where it meets yesterday's superhighway, Route 51. As planned, it would continue north and fork near North Versailles, sending one spur through Turtle Creek to Monroeville, and the other up to Oakland via Braddock, Rankin, Duck Hollow, Nine Mile Run and Hazelwood.

As proposed, this is how it would come through Braddock:

After forking near North Versailles, maps show the road squeezing itself onto stilts around the Edgar Thomson works. The highway will largely spare the mill, but not a row of worker housing -- the Clawson houses -- that is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Once the highway passes U.S. Steel property, planners suggest it will drop back to earth, atop a 25-foot-high mound. The mound would lie between Frieda Helvy's street and the back of Braddock Avenue. It would run for a length of ten blocks -- an area about the size of the Strip District markets -- with traffic zipping along on top and up and down ramps.

From the Turnpike Commission's perspective, that's a bottom-line decision: A mound of fill is cheaper than putting the road on pillars. But Bottom residents would be separated from the rest of Braddock by the wall of dirt, except for an interchange at Sixth Street and three underpasses. At the interchange, a large parcel would be dedicated as a park-and-ride lot. The interchange means Braddock residents would have easy access to the highway, but the arms of that interchange will almost cut central Braddock into quarters (see map, page 20).

Just past the center of town, the road will bend northward over Braddock Avenue itself, displacing the main street for the rest of its stretch through town. Having plowed through the heart of Braddock, the Mon-Fayette would continue towards Pittsburgh, passing beneath the Rankin Bridge and depositing a toll plaza on the corner of the site of the Carrie Furnaces, a rare survivor of the old Homestead Works.

At its widest in Braddock, the highway, ramps and parking lots would be almost 1,000 feet wide. According to the Turnpike's impact study, it would displace more than 200 houses (not all inhabited) and possibly 25 businesses. Seventy of these residences are in an area eligible for National Historic Register status.

The Borough of Braddock has neither sought nor opposed the Mon-Fayette Expressway. Braddock's mayor, Pauline Abdullah, is a member of a "design advisory team" for the Braddock-Rankin-Swissvale stretch of the road. The group includes 14 "community stakeholders" and six members of the Turnpike's technical team. But in order to participate, members have to agree not to oppose the road project itself.

"I think [Turnpike officials] are willing to work with us," Abdullah says.

She is pushing the Commission to put the entire Braddock stretch of road on stilts, which she says will be less disruptive than a dirt mound.

"I know an elevated highway [on pillars] would cost more," Abdullah agrees. "It depends on how much they're willing to spend." She knows some people don't consider preserving Braddock a worthy investment, but "they don't understand the feel of the community. We are not expendable! ... I could've left anytime I want ... [but] I just like it! There's families that've been here their whole lives."

Still, like Frieda Helvy and her family, most of those residents lack information about the changes this highway will bring, Abdullah says. When there were community meetings in Braddock, she says, people in the Bottom "came out pretty heavily. There are people living down there that want to stay." Yet in dealing with the road, "Most people are visual. Hearing it is one thing, but you can't conceptualize it."

In the end, Abdullah concludes, "I guess it depends on how insistent we are as to what we get."

LuJuan Reeves has a more modest vision for her hometown than does the Turnpike Commission. She'd just like to open a soul-food restaurant in Braddock, ideally in the same building where her parents once operated a bar and restaurant. Her desired site, in the 100 block of Braddock Avenue, would likely be obliterated by the MFX.

"The highway might bring customers, but there's all kinds of people in Braddock who need a bite to eat," says 37-year-old Reeves.

"I was raised in Braddock, so I remember what it was like. I'd like to see some more businesses. It's like the mills closed, they just think [we should] shut the town down."

From roughly the 1920s through the '50s, Braddock Avenue's commercial strip was the Miracle Mile of its day, filled with turn-of-the-century storefronts and department stores, a regional shopping destination that stretched the length of the street.

Braddock Avenue began to decline before the mills did, in part because steelworkers won union contracts that allowed them to join the suburban home-building boom after World War II in places like Penn Hills, North Versailles and West Mifflin. "Not only do you pull out the people," says Augie Carlino of the Steel Industry Heritage Corporation, "but they end up spending the majority of their money elsewhere," such as the malls of Monroeville and Century III.

Suburban sprawl struck the first blow to Braddock Avenue; now, sprawl could finish the job. "If it's easier to leave than to stay and rebuild, people are going to follow the path of least resistance," says Heather Sage of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a group that's criticized the Mon-Fayette plans: "People will be able to leave Allegheny County for literally greener pastures in Fayette County, where you can start from scratch rather than redevelop a place like Braddock."

Given a population of just 3,000, it's actually remarkable that Braddock Avenue has as much retail as it does. The surviving businesses are spread out, rather than clustered together, making the district look sparser than it is. Yet a walk down the street reveals: two auto-parts stores, a barber shop and beauty salon, a florist, an optometrist, a used furniture store, a large clothing consignment shop, a mini-mart, a donut shop, two specialty meat markets, a Family Dollar store and Lucky Frank's bar -- which just started serving meals. There's also the Early Childhood Learning Center, a successful day-care and preschool funded by Heritage Health Foundation.

Another positive sign for Braddock's residents, many of whom don't own cars, is the contemplation of transit investments -- none of which are yet formal plans -- by the Port Authority and Allegheny County. Either an additional East Busway stop or rail to the Carrie Furnace site in next-door Rankin could halve travel times to Downtown, Oakland and the rest of the East End.

To search for additional, more unconventional signs of promise in Braddock, architects Jonathan Kline and Christine Brill were dispatched there last summer as artists-in-residence by 3 Rivers 2nd Nature, a project of Carnegie Mellon University's Studio for Creative Inquiry. 3R2N director Tim Collins also wrangled nationally known environmental artists Walter Hood, Alma Dusolier and Helen and Newton Harrison to participate. According to Brill and Kline, the artists were instructed simply to go to Braddock and "cause change" -- a bafflingly blank slate.

"We came as artists," Brill stresses -- not urban planners. Because they hadn't been invited by the community to work professionally, they had no budget to put their ideas into practice. Also, Brill says, "Braddock needs so much, you just want to do as much as you can for it. We didn't want to promise more than we could deliver."

Upon arrival, Kline and Brill set up shop in a room at the Braddock library -- the first one Andrew Carnegie bestowed on his steel towns -- and were there daily in June 2004. There, they held community conversations and youth workshops to develop visions for Braddock -- natural, historical, cultural -- that might be realized in addition to, or instead of, the Mon-Fayette.

Most importantly, Brill and Kline built an elaborate conversation piece intended to coax out the dialogue: a 6-feet-by-8-feet, 3-D scale model of Braddock that showed every building and topographical contour line. Brill and Kline didn't include the highway in their model, but to show its likely effects on the town, they placed the affected buildings on a Plexiglas panel that can be lifted away from the landscape. Much of Braddock can be seized by "eminent domain" with the sweep of an arm.

The model was an instant hit. "We wanted something to talk about, not to just talk," Brill explains. "People could say, 'This is where I went to school; this is where I grew up.'"

The model reveals that the area is a mini-watershed, once dominated by Tassey Hollow, the ravine that separates North Braddock from Swissvale, as well as streams that once flowed through the 6th Street valley and Dooker Hollow, near the Edgar Thomson works. When Braddock was industrialized, public-works projects plowed the streams underground. Most of the water, Brill and Kline believe, is entering the storm sewers, which are shared with the sanitary sewers.

If these creeks were restored, the couple suggests, they could provide community recreation while simultaneously relieving pressure on the sewers. Keeping fresh water from overwhelming sewage treatment facilities means that less raw sewage would gush into the Mon during heavy rains.

Another idea that emerged was to investigate converting some abandoned lots into public parks, because Braddock's few parks are very small. The parcels could also become commercial or community horticulture projects.

"We wish we'd brought recording equipment, because the stories were just incredible," Brill says. "People felt a sense of abandonment, but there was also a great community pride. This one guy whose buddies all worked in the steel mills, he says they're all out in California, but he's staying, because there's something in Braddock that keeps him going.

"I don't know why, but we didn't realize we'd get that stuff. But once people started talking, they almost couldn't stop."

Brill notes that their summer youth workshops were well-attended, because kids had little to do besides hang around the library. "The kids had no idea about the buried streams, the town's history. They were fascinated," she says.

Brill and Kline are preparing to return to Braddock this summer. They'll do an urban hike and discussion during which they hope visitors can meet residents. Their most novel effort, though, will be a "pre-enactment" of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, in which community members will literally stand where the highway would go and talk about Braddock's past, present and future. "We don't think people have a good understanding of what's going to happen. We want to show it in a direct way," Kline says.

In order to see that potential future more clearly, Braddock may need to develop a stronger sense of its past. In 1991, many parts of the borough were found eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, including the Braddock Avenue business district, two residential neighborhoods and an area surrounding the library. These eligible spots never were officially designated, however, thus never receiving some of the benefits and protections that accompany National Register status. Last year, the Braddock Avenue section was found no longer eligible due to structural decline and demolition.

But the buildings aren't the only significant part of Braddock's heritage, Augie Carlino says. The town's social history is also important -- and endangered.

"We did oral histories all though that neighborhood" of the Bottom, he says -- and found plenty of underappreciated history. But, he says, the town's preservation has to start with the residents themselves, as a grassroots effort, rather than as a campaign by an outside organization. "A homeowner, or a group of homeowners, despite their lack of technical expertise, our organization or other organizations can help. There's money to be had if someone will go after it. Somebody in that community has to make it their mission."

The Mon-Fayette's backers, among them former County Executive Jim Roddey, have long argued that the highway project will mean new jobs and economic development for the Mon Valley. But even a massive highway might not be the ticket out of Braddock's economic despair.

Allegheny County's 2004 Mon Valley Economic Development Strategy argues that workforce development is a prerequisite for economic development. What will attract employers and boost productivity, it suggests, is how well the old working class can become a modern "trades class," with adaptable technical and communications skills.

The study warns that a large segment of the Mon Valley population may be growing "unmotivated and in a general state of despair."

Despair is certainly a real threat in Braddock, where household income is half the county average and unemployment was 15.5 percent in 2000, higher even than in the rest of the Mon Valley. According to 2000 Census data, only 14 percent of Braddock adults over 25 hold an associate's degree or higher. Twenty-two percent lack a high-school diploma or equivalency. If the highway is built, what certainty is there that Braddock would benefit in proportion to its sacrifices?

Residents have benefited less and less from the other large infrastructure in their town: Today, only 600 people work at Edgar Thomson Works, down from its peak employment of 5,000 during World War II; Braddock locals believe that few borough residents are actually employed in the plant that dominates their town. Company spokesman John Armstrong reports that, in addition to a union clause that gives preference to steelworkers' family members (there's no bonus points for being from Braddock), many of their production jobs require at least an associate's degree.

Lena Franklin knows about these problems firsthand. In a converted eight-floor furniture store on Braddock Avenue, 77-year-old Franklin works the phone and thumbs two massive Rolodexes -- "Contacts!" -- as a job developer for Great Lakes, a nonprofit agency that works with Allegheny County. Franklin came of age in Braddock's glory days, when she worked in one of its department stores. In the 1970s, she was able to operate an entire program placing women in steel-mill jobs. Now, openings for such jobs are rare. "Do you know the average job today only pays $7 per hour?" she says. "That is not enough to maintain a household."

On the next floor, a group of Braddock's young residents take GED classes. At this moment, a revolving crew of three or four young men are shooting pool in a small black-painted room next to the classroom and computer lab.

Most of the students are in their early 20s, and are only vaguely aware of the Mon-Fayette plans. Mickey Ruffner, 20, explains it would take out Woodlawn and half of Talbot Avenue.

Told that the highway would be on a 25-foot-mound, one of the young men was doubly incredulous. "We're gonna tear it down. We're not paying to drive on the highway."

How would the highway be torn down? "We'll drive drunk on it!" comes the answer.

Ruffner, who lives in Braddock, was most familiar with the project. He already has his diploma, and says he's waiting to enroll in an electrical certification class at the community college; his stepfather taught him many trade skills already. He says he comes to the GED classes because the building is "a place to stay out of trouble."

Ruffner thinks interest in, and knowledge of, the toll road is low. "If you were to go door to door, people'd be like, 'What the fuck you talkin' about?' They don't let us know shit." If something new were built in Braddock, Ruffner says it'd "probably just get wrecked again. People are ignorant."

Asked what the town needed most, the guys say a gym, a weight room, a boxing ring, basketball courts. The Braddock library contains a gym, although it's not always open; scarce funding forces the library to keep limited hours for even basic services.

But if the Turnpike Commission sees Braddock as the backdrop for grand highway plans, officials and residents struggle with even the most grassroots redevelopment proposals.

At a recent borough council meeting, LuJuan Reeves, the would-be restaurateur, inquired about her occupancy permit. She was told that there wasn't enough parking available to grant it, even though the sidewalks along Braddock Avenue are often empty. Reeves suggested customers could park in front of some of the vacant buildings nearby. "I'd like my business to do so well they have to park all up and down Braddock Avenue," she said.

Braddock's inability to propose an alternate future for itself makes it hard to contest the Turnpike's plans. At the Turnpike's design-team meeting, where Pauline Abdullah was hoping to get the highway elevated on pillars, a Turnpike Commission engineer asked, "What's the hope for Braddock Avenue five to 10 years from now?"

After a long pause, Braddock Planning Commission member Laura Zinski replied, "Right now, it's just being land-banked" -- inactive and awaiting redevelopment.

On the Talbot Avenue porch of Frieda Helvy, her brother Harold and their mother, Burhl, however, life continues rolling by. And so does Roy Price -- on a turquoise bicycle.

"Whaddya wanna know? I'll tell you! I'm Mr. Braddock," says Price. He is 47, but the bike and the Sally Jesse Raphael-style purple glasses make him seem younger.

"I remember the last movie [shown in Braddock] was in '68, Last Days of Pompeii." He's hoping Braddock doesn't get similarly buried. Braddock was once big-time, he continues. "We had a couple gangster funerals here."

"We don't need more mobs," Frieda says indulgently.

"I shed blood on every street here," Price boasts. "If you couldn't fight, you were square -- whites and blacks too, because whites grew up here. We were the Cherry Way gang, the Food Alley Bombers, then there was Mellow Willow. And if somebody not from Braddock came in, look out! One way in, and one way out!"

It's not that Price still thinks one-way-in-one-way-out is the ideal transportation solution for Braddock, but he does consider the Mon-Fayette Expressway the wrong idea. "Look at the old people here. Don't take their homes: Build it up. Let them build an expressway out in Churchill, do that crap out there."

Later, at Lucky Frank's bar, Price introduces his "boys": Brian the bartender, the Ron Ankneys (Sr. and Jr.) and most of those who pass back and forth through the narrow bar to the men's room or to an open bit of counter to place an order. Braddock Avenue might be vacant, but at 5 p.m., it's hard to get real estate at Frank's.

"We've always been multicultural in Braddock," Price says proudly. Price, who's African American, gets everybody around him talking, especially to congratulate Jim the Cook, a Braddock native who just quit a famous suburban Pittsburgh restaurant ("the family fought all the time," he says) to begin cooking here. Frank's customers are being treated to the first "hot," "prepared" and "for-sale" meals Braddock has seen in a while.

Lucky Frank's would likely be displaced by the Mon-Fayette Expressway, though the bartender thinks the road could be OK. Maybe Frank's could go up on an interchange, and Braddock could even be a little bit like Cranberry Township, he theorizes. Nearby is Bobby, who gives "the Rabbi" as his last name. He said he got the nickname in the steel days, when he was a contractor in the mills cleaning furnaces. Asked how he's made a living since, he says, "I guess I've been blessed with many talents. I can do concrete, I can do carpentry. I was doing cabinetry today."

He jokes that he is one of the few people left in their section of the Bottom near the Rankin Bridge. The Rabbi says he tries to keep the vacant lawns mowed, "And what do you think happens when my mower hits glass?" He bought his house there for $1,000. "It needs $15,000 of work, but I can do that myself." Recently, he's helped his buddy fix up a bar he bought.

"That's the one thing about this town here," the Rabbi says. "General Braddock, General Washington, there's a lot of history here that people don't give a shit about."

A couple hours later, the crowd has thinned. Price got an urgent cell-phone call and beat it, and even Ron and Ron Jr. are headed to Lucky Frank's gravel parking lot ("Park at your own risk") to steer their pickup home.

The Rabbi says he'd drive me to the Swissvale Busway station, but his license is suspended: This is one Braddock resident the Mon-Fayette may not be able to help. We part ways, and the Rabbi continues along an old street otherwise cut off by the 1951 Rankin Bridge's moat of cloverleafs. He disappears behind the high weeds of an overgrown patch.

As I trudge up to the bridge, the sun dips behind its rust-specked railings. Suddenly, Braddock is cast in a romantic dusky blue, its rooftops in twilight before the still-dominant mill. Directly below is a tavern building flush against the Dipcraft fiberglass plant -- the one with the sign like a giant beanie -- but otherwise alone on a half-deserted street. The bar is nothing fancy: a typical Braddock turn-of-the-century building that could use more work, a 1907 cornice. But the Rabbi must've headed there, toward the place he helped his buddy fix up.

If Braddock is to survive, that's just the sort of do-it-yourself rehab it will need.

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Kaibur Coffee

By Mars Johnson