Green Space Part of Saving Mill Towns

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — If you were mayor what would you change? John Fetterman got that chance in a community so run down that it had lost 90 percent of its population.

"It was one of those places you didn't want to drive through," said Fetterman, a speaker during the recent "A Better World By Design" conference hosted and organized by students from Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design.

Braddock, Pa., was one of hundreds of U.S. mill towns stuck in steadily decline during the past 50 years. In its heyday, Fetterman said, this "prototypical walkable community" had nine department stores and 15 restaurants. Today it has none of either. Even the town's one hospital has been shuttered.

But Fetterman, a self-described "badass" with prominent tattoos and an imposing physique, built on his stint in the town with AmeriCorps and public policy education to eventually run for mayor in 2005. Now in his second term, Fetterman has engineered big improvements. He mobilized the town's youth to improve the city's appearance, reduce crime and create jobs for its 2,200 residents.

The crime rate in Braddock has been reduced 45 percent since Fetterman took office. The mayor took to having the names of murder victims and the dates of their violent demises tatooed on his forearm. "Thankfully," he said, "I haven't had to visit a tatoo artist in three and a half years."

Vacant lots were transformed into gardens, apiaries and playgrounds, and a community brick oven was built on one lot. Derelict buildings were converted into community buildings, art galleries and space for start-up businesses. He bought a vacant church and converted into a community center. But "truckloads of money," he said, raised through grants and corporate investment are critical for jump-starting such a turnaround.

There's still abundant blight, and "it's not a hip and alternative neighborhood," Fetterman said. But people and businesses are moving back. A company that recycles used vegetable oil into biodiesel and converts conventional gas-burning vehicles to run on the stuff has taken up residence in Braddock.

Fetterman has gained considerable media exposure for initiating this unorthodox turnaround, including appearances on the "Colbert Report" and coverage in major newspapers.

He expressed deep empathy for the plight of Central Falls and the city's recent bankruptcy. Braddock, he noted, has been in receivership since 1987.

"I feel your pain, sister," he told Gayle Corrigan, the chief of staff for Central Falls, who was in the audience.

Corrigan, who had met with Fetterman earlier in the day, urged the audience and community at large to submit creative ways for helping the maligned city. "We're open for ideas," she said.

Already, the tiny Rhode Island city seems to be adopting Fetterman's strategy. Brown University students have been interning at City Hall and one was recently hired as a planner.

Engineering a turnaround is a long fight and only for the dedicated, Fetterman said. "It's changing peoples' perspectives a thousand cuts at a time."