In new documentary Down the House, Braddock rebuilds, one person at a time | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In new documentary Down the House, Braddock rebuilds, one person at a time

The first minute or so of Down the House, Tricia Murajda’s wonderful new documentary — debuting Fri., May 14 at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival — looks like the dream for any out-of-town politician. Featuring old footage from workers at the Leviathan Mill in Braddock, Pa., it is a walking embodiment of every image people from outside the region have of Western Pennsylvania: gritty, hard-working steel towns that are a foundation for blue-collar jobs.

The reality is more complicated. “Outside of this region, I noticed that there’s very much a misunderstanding, and at times even a contempt, for this region and for the people of this region,” Murajda said in an interview with Pittsburgh City Paper this week. “So I think that this really comes from a place of trying to clarify that misunderstanding, and it comes from a place of love.”

Down the House certainly tries to make three-dimensional a region and a city that has so often been pigeonholed. While many of those stereotypes were true, they’re products of a bygone era; in the 1980s, the steel industry in Braddock started to collapse, and with it, many people’s livelihoods. Down the House is the story of a place trying to reinvent itself, forging a new identity out of the ashes of its old one.

It’s also a personal one for Murajda. While she currently splits time between San Francisco and Pittsburgh, the filmmaker and professor grew up in and around Braddock. “This was the early 1980s when I was a really young child, and by that time, things were really going downhill. Most of my uncles still worked in the mill. … my great-grandfather worked in the mill, both my grandfathers, most of the men in my family.”

The time was punctuated with a feeling of inevitability. “I remember a lot of layoffs as a child. … I don’t think I picked up on anger as much as sadness.”

The city went into a tailspin, plagued by crime, poverty, and people fleeing the area.

“You have people that invested so much of their lives for something bigger than themselves, and then there’s just this disregard," Murajda says. “So one of the things personally that I hope there will be much more communication and understanding on is that I think we need to stop calling people’s trauma and struggles 'deplorable' and try to understand what’s underneath that.”

And that’s exactly what Down the House does. It’s not a city’s obituary, it’s a celebration of a community that had everything stripped from them, looks that head-on, and decides to rebuild person by person. Asked about what it was like coming back home to shoot a documentary on her community, Murajda says, “I was inspired. I think sometimes we can get down in this despair. … The reason why I really wanted to do it, is because there is so much that’s going at such a grassroots level. … Nobody’s going to fly in here and come and save us, we’re going to have to do this ourselves.”

Doing it ourselves, in Braddock’s vision, means radical departures from the normal vision of a city, a form of thinking outside the box to find an identity. It means seeing the poverty of your community and responding by creating the Free Store, a thrice-weekly version of a farmers market, where people come and give and take what they need, no questions asked (the only currency required: hugs). Originally started by members of the community in conjunction with John and Gisele Fetterman — John was Braddock’s mayor from 2005 to 2019, and Murajda says of Gisele “She’s the real deal … her heart is absolutely in it” — the program has grown and now includes the Red Lantern Bike Shop, which repairs bikes for the community’s youth for free.

The progress isn’t immediate, but it does exist. “From talking to people, it seems that violence, in general, had gone down significantly when things like the Free Store’s … presence was there,” Murajda says.

Doing it ourselves means occupying corners that have the highest crime rates until they start to dissipate. Doing it ourselves means utilizing community space and turning it into a tattoo removal space for former gang members. And doing it ourselves means taking on the issue of violence in the community head-on.

“There’s these different layers of violence, and violence almost like a contagion,” says Murajda. “This is a type of disease of sorts that spreads throughout a community, and all the ways that this can be disrupted, but through a very grassroots approach.”

And doing it ourselves also means holding onto what made the city unique, while also forging ahead with a new vision of what they could look like. This is a very conscious throughline during all of Down the House, this blending of old industrial toughness with progressive new-age city planning, the beauty and the grit.

A big factor in this is Braddock’s art, which has been a key cog in the revitalization process. Instead of stripping many of the empty plants and buildings, many of them have been repurposed with sculptures and artwork or turned into galleries, like UnSmoke. And the city has made a conscious effort to try and become a place to foster new artists. “It’s really affordable,” Murajda says.

Murajda and her director of photography, Pavel Federov, were aware of these juxtapositions even in the filming process. Shot in very stark contrasts, Murajda says of their decision making, “That juxtaposition of this is what was and this was what is. … It does give the film a kind of haunted feeling, especially if you remember it from a different time."

In the end, however, the film always comes from a place of hope, a sense of a city that has truly understood what it means to pull together, and attempt, even slowly, to become the best version of itself.

“There’s a tremendous amount of divisiveness, and I think that’s being stoked," Murajda concludes. “And what I would really hope for, is if we could communicate in a way that is far more nuanced, and that doesn’t make caricatures of people. Because people are multi-faceted, and regions are multi-faceted, and we all have our histories. So I’d like to broaden that frame.”

Down the House premieres online at 3 p.m. on Fri., May 14.

The film has also been selected for the Manhattan Film Festival, taking place from June 17-27, 2021.

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