10.10.10

Mayor of Inspiration

From Colbert pleas to jeans commercials, John Fetterman will try to do whatever he can to turn around the struggling steel town that Andrew Carnegie made famous.

From Colbert pleas to jeans commercials, John Fetterman—a speaker at The Daily Beast's upcoming Reboot America conference—will try to do whatever he can to turn around the struggling steel town that Andrew Carnegie made famous. Plus, read the transcript of The Daily Beast's live chat with Mayor Fetterman.

John Fetterman looks like a guy who would rather steal something than sell something. Weighing 300 pounds, with tattoos reaching up each arm and a goatee to make Rasputin jealous, he sports a Lex Luthor dome atop his mountainous 6-foot-8-inch frame.

But as a salesman, he's actually quite a natural, restlessly promoting a product that doesn't look any prettier than he does.

Fetterman is the mayor of Braddock, a steel town southeast of Pittsburgh, 10 miles upstream from the mouth of the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania's Mon Valley. In case you doubt its mangy appearance, Fetterman has put pictures online: bricked-up storefronts, apartments filled with trash, homes with their guts ripped out. The place is falling apart, and it's been that way for decades, sinking from its height as a key cog of World War II industrial might—1940s population, 20,000—to its current decayed state, home to less than 3,000 people and without even a decent place to get lunch.

Fetterman was first elected in 2005—by one vote. He was re-elected far more handily last year, in recognition of his efforts, which have generated widespread notice because of his passion, and the creativity he couples with it. He'll go on The Colbert Report to pass the hat, begging the television host to open a museum dedicated to himself in Braddock. Fetterman will welcome Levi Strauss & Company into town to film commercials and encourage them to use residents as models for their advertising campaign. He'll bang the drum for clean-energy jobs in front of Congress, hoping that investments could revitalize his adopted home.

When Republican governors like Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Mark Sanford of South Carolina thumb their noses at federal stimulus money, Fetterman tells anyone that will listen that he'll take any government help which might pick up a town whose poverty makes Detroit's worst neighborhood look up-and-coming. He attracted nonprofit and government spending to support summer jobs for area kids and build a community center and playgrounds, and bristles when talking about what could be done with the billions in bailout money received by Wall Street banks.

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John Fetterman
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So bad are things in the town where Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill, that its destruction has become part of is attraction. Fetterman speaks of Braddock's "malignant beauty." The post-apocalyptic film, The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy's novel, was filmed there. And yet the nadir seems difficult to find. Just when things are looking up—The New York Times arrived in January 2009 with the headline, " Rock Bottom for Decades, but Showing Signs of Life"—the local hospital shuttered, losing one of the area's last employers.

Fetterman first came to Braddock in 2001 as an AmeriCorps volunteer. Born across the state in York, he received a public-policy degree from Harvard in 1999 and made a personal investment—turning an old furniture warehouse into a loft-style home. He thinks of reinventing Braddock similarly, trying anything to get creative types to plant roots. He's invited artists to move into studios, which rent for $100 a month. Sheppard Fairey, famous for his "HOPE" poster of Barack Obama, has stopped by to paste up his work. He nurtures a fuel-recycling company, Fossil Free Fuel, which transforms cars so they can run on vegetable oil.

Many of the newcomers attend a monthly karaoke night. Creative types can take advantage of buying a house where the average cost is under $4,000.

"No one moves here just for the property," says Erik Gustafson, who left his finance job in Chicago and moved to Braddock with his wife Shannon in November 2008. They bought their house for $4,700 and have put $15,000 into renovations. "Property is so low everywhere in this country. You didn't move to Braddock because you could get a house for $5,000. You move so you can be a part of something larger than yourself and larger than Braddock."

Fetterman is not above going on national television and begging for Subway to open up a sandwich shop. Or a Laundromat. Or an ATM. Anything that would make life easier for residents who now have to take a 40-minute bus ride to pick up groceries. Besides, Fetterman says, the newcomers aren't about to push anyone out of Braddock who hasn't left already.

"Braddock is gentrification-proof," he says. "Our challenge is abandonment."

Fetterman will share his efforts with those attending The Daily Beast Innovators Summit, taking place in New Orleans this month.

His attention-generating efforts have earned Fetterman his share of critics. (Although one of his loudest foes, the manager of the town's borough council, was recently forced out of her position, accused of embezzling nearly $180,000. She's pleaded not guilty.) Another local politician, Braddock Borough Council President Jesse Brown told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he doesn't appreciate Fetterman talking up Braddock's misery.

"He needs to tone down his rhetoric about the community and the bad shape the community is in and the devastation of the housing," Brown said last year. "If he feels that the community is bankrupt, then he needs to go somewhere where he'd like it."

He'll go on The Colbert Report to pass the hat, begging the television host to open a museum dedicated to himself in Braddock.

Fetterman pushes back on those who see in his zeal ambitions beyond helping the town. "I have the best job in the world," he says. "The corridors to power don't run through Braddock. This isn't something like, 'Next stop, Senate.'"

Fetterman's proudest achievement may be found on his arms. On one arm, he sports a tattoo with Braddock's Zip Code, 15104. On the other arm, he bears the dates of murders committed in Braddock during his five years in office. Six total. A breathtaking number for a town of only 2,900 people.

It's been 30 months, however, since Fetterman has had to add a new date.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.