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Creative Placemaking in Braddock, Pennsylvania

July 31, 2023

Braddock, PA viewed from the top of the Ohringer Arts building.

It’s frustrating to look at your neighborhood and know that something is missing.

Unfortunately, this disappointment is all too familiar in communities that have watched major industries leave, their populations shrink, and homes and storefronts become and stay abandoned. But far from throwing in the towel, intrepid artists and resident leaders are finding ways to fill the gaps in their communities.

The Pennsylvania boroughs of Braddock, East Pittsburgh, and North Braddock—collectively known as “BEN”—showcase such examples of creative placemaking and community resilience.

To see these examples firsthand, the 2022-23 Community Revitalization Fellowship (CRF) cohort travelled to BEN for the third and final learning exchange of their fellowship program with Community Progress. These learning exchanges, which include technical and leadership training and tours of creative placemaking and revitalization projects, are an opportunity for the fellows to learn in and from each other’s communities.

CRF fellows from BEN Chardae Jones, Crystal Jalil, Edith Abeyta, Fitzhugh Shaw, and Jona Reyes shared with their peers from Loíza, Puerto Rico and Syracuse, New York what their community was missing, and how they were activating formerly vacant, abandoned, and deteriorated property to meet neighborhood needs.

Collectively home to fewer than 8,000 residents, the three boroughs that comprise BEN share many challenges with the fringe suburbs of Pittsburgh. Population loss and property vacancy followed the decline of the steel industry, resulting in economic decline and disinvestment.

When a place shrinks dramatically, the barriers aren’t just economic—they’re physical. The region is notoriously hilly, so getting to one of the region’s few grocery stores on foot or bike is physically difficult. In fact, a large portion of the BEN region is both a food and transit desert. In an environment that isolates its residents, access to necessities is even more important.

To address this need, the BEN fellows plan to use the $10,00 in grant funds from participating in the Community Revitalization Fellowship to kickstart plans for a corner store in Braddock called General Sisters.

A new mural graces the side of the future General Sisters corner store.

Inspired by the work they saw happening in Syracuse and Loíza, the CRF fellows are working on getting this neighborhood grocery store up and running. “The goal of the space is to bring the community together through food and art,” said CRF fellow Jona Reyes. “Currently there are no stores in the borough that offer healthy eating as well as a space for artists and other community members to gather and learn from one another.”

Community-wide input has been a start of the General Sisters vision from the start—the space originally dreamed up by other residents, and now the BEN fellows are working to realize that vision. The fellows are also their engaging curious neighbors with posters and prompts to ask what kind of food they hope to see in their future store.

With food insecurity being a major issue, activating vacant spaces to improve access to healthy food is key. In 2009, the nonprofit Greater Valley Community Services opened their doors in a former Salvation Army building. GVCS offers after-school programs, assistance to families, and a safe space for the community to gather.

In 2023, GVCS started a community garden program to grow fresh food, provide employment and education opportunities, and help connect kids to where their food comes from. The garden offers community members a safe and supportive environment to enjoy the outdoors.

“Our community is in the middle of a long gun violence epidemic. Many of our kids don't remember a time when streets and public spaces were safe,” said CRF fellow Fitzhugh Shaw. “So, it's my hope that the Greater Valley Garden can be a place for all of our neighbors to heal from the trauma of poverty and violence. I've said that it's a more of a church than a farm: a place to be nourished.”

As the garden grows, it will provide opportunities for experiencing nourishing foods and herbs, and a space to discover all kinds of plants, animals, and bugs.

Other projects our fellows visited include the Ohringer Arts building—a former Braddock furniture store turned into affordable artist residences and arts incubator with a breathtaking view. The Tri-COG Land Bank, which serves all of Allegheny County, gave a tour of a once-abandoned home now fully revitalized.

The learning exchange showed that with creative community leaders—including former mayor of Braddock and current U.S. Senator John Fetterman’s work to revitalize the area  city—residents of BEN and the hundreds of communities like it are taking aim at what’s missing and working to close the gaps. 

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