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Signs, signs, uplifting my mind

| Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Eric Heyl | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
One of many street signs in Braddock that display a positive message.

Street signs seldom dispense dietary advice, so it's startling when you come across one that does.

The aluminum sign recently was mounted on a utility pole near the Family Dollar store on Braddock Avenue in Braddock, and offers advice that any nutritionist wouldn't hesitate to echo: “Eat More Vegetables.” To emphasize the point, the sign contains illustrations of what appears to be a head of broccoli and some sort of pepper.

Along a half-mile stretch of the old mill town's main thoroughfare can be found about 50 similarly surprising signs, with messages such as “Believe in Yourself,” “More Hugs Needed,” “Follow Your Dreams,” “Be Kind Always” and “Hug a Tree.”

What gives?

Gisele Fetterman had the answer. She's the wife of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, and the borough's Positively Parking initiative is her brainchild.

“The signs you see along the streets are always so negative — ‘Don't park here,' ‘Don't loiter there,' ” she said. “We wanted to counter those with signs spreading cheer and kindness, signs with uplifting messages.”

A native of Rio de Janeiro and a Columbia University graduate, Fetterman, 31, has been married to the mayor for five years. They met after she read a news account detailing his attempts to lead the borough out of decades of decline and violence.

She offered her assistance in the revitalization effort, in the process gaining a husband, family and deep community roots. She conceived Positively Parking while operating the Free Store, a painted shipping container sitting in a Braddock Avenue parking lot where needy borough residents can pick up surplus and donated clothes and goods.

The sign proposal required approval from the often contentious borough council, which surprisingly approved the idea unanimously.

“That never happens here,” Gisele Fetterman said. “You could tell (council) you want to bring in a clown who's going to hug everyone and give them money, someone still would vote against it.”

The Fettermans paid for the signs themselves, spending more than $1,000. Gisele Fetterman said the reaction has more than made the cost worth it.

“I've seen truck drivers stopped at a red light, staring at a sign and giggling or looking confused,” she said. “I've had some residents ask when they can get signs like that for their street.”

That question could be answered sooner than they think. Fetterman is planning the next group of signs, and she has anti-smoking and anti-littering themes in mind.

The signs wouldn't have survived a week when the borough was at its lawless nadir. They provide a good indicator of how far the community has come.

But more importantly, it's now been more than five years since the last homicide occurred in Braddock. Looking for evidence the borough finally has begun to rebound?

The positive affirmations on the utility poles aside, that once unfathomable streak is the most encouraging sign.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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