Will Fetterman’s legacy set Braddock on a path to renewal?
John Fetterman cast only one vote during his 13 years as Braddock’s mayor: In 2012, he helped the borough council choose a president.
The mayor of the Western Pennsylvania steel town that wakes each morning in the shadow of the hulking Edgar Thomson Works along the Monongahela isn’t supposed to be too involved in the borough’s day-to-day affairs, voting only to break a tie for the six-member council.
But the towering mayor with a commanding presence — Fetterman is 6-foot-9, weighs 270, and made news last summer after dropping nearly 150 pounds from the 400-plus mark — will leave a similarly oversize mark on Braddock as he settles into his new role as the state’s lieutenant governor.
Borough council accepted Fetterman’s resignation last week ahead of his inauguration Tuesday in Harrisburg. His departure has people up and down Braddock Avenue contemplating what is next.
“This place has a heart; this place has a soul,” Cheryl Johnson said from behind the counter of her restaurant, Aunt Cheryl’s Cafe.
Walking into the warm space, tucked into the lower level of the Nyia Page Community Center on Library Street in Braddock, feels like walking into someone’s home. Johnson glided around the open kitchen, gathering ingredients and stirring the creamy orange filling for sweet potato pies.
“Fetterman took us to one level,” she said. “Who will take us to the next level?”
Fetterman brought new businesses and national attention to Braddock. His relationship with high-profile chef Kevin Sousa led to Superior Motors, a world-renowned restaurant, opening in the bottom floor of Fetterman’s house, a former car dealership. Brew Gentleman, a respected craft brewery, set up shop in an old electrical supply store in 2012. A handful of software and tech companies have moved in.
Johnson, a former social worker in her 50s, spent part of her childhood in Braddock before her family moved to Monroeville. She remembers when Braddock Avenue, just steps from the door of her cafe, was a bustling shopping area serving the entire Mon Valley. She opened her business about three years ago. Since then, she’s tried to make her cafe a safe, welcoming place for neighborhood kids but hopes to see more youth programs like music and sports groups.
“I’m hoping whoever they pick will be able to pull the community together,” Johnson said of the search for an interim mayor. “I think you have to get to the heart of what the community wants.”
Bob Portogallo, a Swissvale native, credits Fetterman with moving his restaurant Peppers N’At to Braddock about two years ago after the operation outgrew its original location in Swissvale.
It was Fetterman who sold him on the move, Portogallo said.
Portogallo’s business caters to an older crowd — people who remember Braddock in its heyday, or guys like the second-generation steel worker sitting across from him at the bar — who want to see the neighborhood do well, he said.
“It makes them feel proud,” Portogallo said, pointing out the map that hangs near the front door.
The crowded illustration details businesses that lined the streets of Braddock, North Braddock and Rankin from 1945 to 1970, when the population hovered around 20,000.
Since Fetterman took office, the population of Braddock has continued to decline, dropping to 1,770 residents in 2017, according to the most recent Census data. About a third still live in poverty.
A bid for one for a marijuana growing facility in Braddock failed. Fetterman worked closely with Steelers great Franco Harris on the project, hoping a piece of the state’s medical pot business would be a boost to his town. When McKeesport won the bid, Fetterman congratulated the Mon Valley neighbor on Twitter.
“Keep it in the valley,” he tweeted.
Fetterman made a scant $125 a month as mayor, according to figures provided by borough council President Tina Doose. As lieutenant governor, he’ll take home more than $150,000. And despite working in Harrisburg, Fetterman intends to continue living in Braddock.
“It’s going to remain our family home and my base, and I look forward to being of service any way I can in my new role,” he said.
Fetterman acknowledged that the work isn’t done in Braddock. But he said things have come along way since he appeared on the Colbert Report a decade ago, pleading for a Subway sandwich franchise to open in the community. At the time, there were no sit-down restaurants in Braddock, he said.
“Every business that came into Braddock has been a net positive,” Fetterman said.
Fetterman said he doesn’t have any regrets about his work as mayor.
“The feedback that I care most about is the democratic feedback, being elected by overwhelming majorities in the last three elections,” he said. He’s “profoundly grateful” for the experience; but, as he told the Tribune- Review the day after he was elected lieutenant governor, “The community needs to be able to move on.”
State Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, agreed the borough needs to move on from the Fetterman days. Lee, who is also in Harrisburg for the first time, grew up in North Braddock and often visited friends and family in nearby Braddock. She now lives in Swissvale, and her district office is located on Braddock Avenue in Braddock. It’s an area that shares more than zip codes, she said. The communities share a DNA and have the power to lift each other up, she said.
“I think Braddock needs empowerment,” Lee said. “And this is not a shot or a slight at anyone. The people are what makes Braddock.”
Ensuring residents and local business owners have a seat at the table is key to revitalizing the community, she said. She hopes attention shifts from the mayor to the borough council, where real decision making power rests.
“I think we kind of have lost track of what the community needs, and what the mayor actually does,” Lee said.
The borough council delayed last week a vote on who will replace Fetterman as interim mayor as residents pushed back against the two finalists and the process used to select them.
As the mayor of a small borough, envisioning a big future for Braddock might have been Fetterman’s biggest asset, said Jason Togyer, communications manager at the Mon Valley Initiative.
The organization works with Braddock, among other Mon Valley communities, to lead community infrastructure projects like Braddock Civic Plaza, a million-dollar investment in a community park on the site of the former UPMC Braddock Hospital, which closed in 2010. It’s also working to develop six new single-family homes on part of the hospital site, Togyer said.
“Even though it is physically small, it doesn’t have a large population, (it still) plays a bigger role in people’s imagination,” he said.
Fetterman put Braddock on the map in a way few others — including Andrew Carnegie and filmmaker Tony Buba — have been able to, Togyer said.
“That is a legacy that the next mayor, for any next mayor, that’s going to be hard to match, and I don’t necessarily think they need to,” he said.
Al Boss has been in Braddock for its heyday, its decline and its rebirth in recent years. The Bethel Park man has run A. Boss Opticians on Braddock Avenue for 56 years. When he opened, there were about five other optometrists on the street. Boss had to wait for a vacancy before moving his business to Braddock in 1963.
He doesn’t think Braddock, or any of the once bustling communities in the valley, will be like that again.
But he sees signs of new growth. More young people are moving in, and he thinks that the outgoing mayor made progress with rehabilitating the business district by demolishing dilapidated buildings, adding green spaces and making the community safer.
“I think he was genuinely concerned about the people of the community and appearance of the avenue,” Boss said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, email@example.com or via Twitter .