Joseph Sabino Mistick: Braddock will never give up
Back in the days when the Edgar Thomson Works was booming, the road along the mill wall was jammed with workers’ cars during the change from second trick to the overnight shift. For half an hour or so, two-thirds of the work force filled the streets around the mill, jockeying for precious parking spaces near the gate.
For a kid who was along for the ride, picking up your grandfather and an uncle or two at the end of their shift was a thrill. By 11:20 p.m., the bumper-to-bumper line of dusty cars would have led you to Carl’s Corner Café on Braddock Avenue, where the men would throw down a klucker — 2½ ounces of harsh rye whiskey just to cut the mill dust — followed by a frosted fishbowl of strong beer.
Braddock boomed then. But changes in the steel industry and lifestyle ended all that, and Braddock’s population dropped from 18,000 after World War II to less than 2,000 now. And while there have been some recent bright spots — restaurants, a brewpub, a gallery and a theater — the old town has not really buzzed like it used to.
But last week showed that sparks can still fly in Braddock, after the 130th anniversary celebration of the opening of Carnegie Library and a community protest over a fracking proposal on the site of the old mill days earlier.
Hundreds of visitors toured Carnegie’s first library to kick off a $15 million capital campaign to restore the historic building. Nearly demolished in the 1970s, the building has continued to serve the struggling community with the help of good folks who simply refuse to give up.
Current residents, volunteers, schoolchildren in costume, people from neighboring towns, public officials and politicians, and anyone who has held onto those deep Braddock roots roamed the old building. There were speeches and performances and lots of private reunions. The place hummed again.
And just a few days earlier, area residents crowded into a Braddock fire hall to oppose a proposed fracking well on the old mill site. Dozens of speakers told representatives of U.S. Steel, Merrion Oil and Gas, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection that they are sick and tired of bad air and bad water, demanding that the companies look elsewhere.
They may be facing long odds — the site is zoned industrial — but the simple fact that they organized and are fighting toe-to-toe shows that the body blows Braddock has taken over the years have not finished it off.
As filmmaker and Braddock native Tony Buba told the bigwigs, “In this community, we have to fight for everything.”
“We’re exhausted. But as you can tell here today, we still won’t stop fighting.”
The people of Braddock know that the big mills and factories are not coming back. Just as we all know that coal mines and coal-fired power plants are not coming back, in spite of the lies of politicians who will promise anything to win an election.
But that does not have to be the end of the story for towns like Braddock. As the people of Braddock showed us last week, sometimes you have to make your own hope.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at [email protected].