From the issue feature, "Empathy Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation."
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edgar thomson steel works

Edgar Thomson Steel Works, Braddock, PA. Image courtesy of Superior Motors/Kevin Sousa.

The Rust Belt town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, has an unusual collection of structures within its modest cluster of a downtown. At the oldest end of the spectrum are buildings that witnessed the rise of the borough’s population to over 20,000 citizens during the American steel industry’s peak in the 1920s. Remnants of the town’s once thriving economy include the twisting compound of the Edgar Thomson Works, Andrew Carnegie’s first American steel mill, residing at the town’s heart since 1872; the tiny, white building that houses Bell’s Market, a butcher shop in operation since the 1890s; and the 1889 Braddock Carnegie Library, the first of over 1,500 libraries built by the tycoon and philanthropist.

Downtown Braddock’s other set of buildings accommodate organizations that emerged under the leadership of Mayor John Fetterman in the wake of the severe economic decline that has been decimating the town since the 1970s, leaving it home to fewer than 2,500 today. These include a community center occupying the shell of a former Presbyterian church, a set of razed lots that were turned into beds for an urban farm and a convent that was converted into a hostel. Absent are the things most would expect to find in even America’s smallest towns: local shops, a grocery store, a full-service restaurant.

In fact, a restaurant is the next initiative in the works. Overseen by Fetterman in partnership with nationally recognized chef Kevin Sousa, Superior Motors is slated to open in 2015 inside a former car dealership of the same name. There is no question that Braddock could benefit economically from a restaurant, but what the town really needs are places that envision a future for a community with both a challenged present and a deeply rooted past. Superior Motors ambitiously aims to address this need by extending itself well beyond the confines of a standard fine-dining establishment. For one, it will offer food at a significant discount to residents and provide culinary training and jobs for local youth. And nestled among Braddock’s other young organizations, it will utilize produce from the nearby farm and house visitors assisting with the restaurant’s development at the hostel. Promising a place representative of Braddock’s past, present and future, Sousa articulates, “I don’t mean that every plate is going to be the kind of food that steelworkers ate when they worked here. When I say ‘representative,’ I mean the food is going to be prepared by people from here, who are giving things back to Braddock . . . it’s a restaurant that can only exist here.” He concedes that creating a restaurant for a community in desperate need of one—among so many other things—is far from straightforward. While Superior Motors should slide seamlessly into the newer side of Braddock, it remains to be seen whether it can connect with the old Braddock that is still so present in both the buildings and the memories of longtime residents.

Sousa maintains that Superior Motors was conceived without referencing any particular model, but its multifaceted approach has a 125-year-old predecessor that sits just a few blocks away. Behind the 1888 building’s deceptively traditional stone façade, the Braddock Carnegie Library once contained a bathhouse, an unusual feature provided for workers coming from the mill to shower. Other amenities added in 1893—a music hall, swimming pool, sauna and barbershop, among others—further established the library as an uncommonly diverse resource. While these personal touches make the building seem tailored for Braddock, its early relationship with the community was complicated by the coupling of its opening with unwelcome changes at the Edgar Thomson Works, including a move to 12-hour workdays and the end of its union.

braddock carnegie library

"The Carnegie Library in Braddock, PA." Photo by flickr user Kristen Taylor, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

Despite the questions of morality embedded in its genesis, the library ultimately evolved into a place owned by Braddock citizens, in the most literal sense, when a self-organized group rescued the decaying building from demolition in 1974. In more recent years, the library has returned to its previous, more dynamic definition of use, though in more contemporary forms. Among other updates, local artist collective Transformazium turned the sauna into a screen-printing studio that attracts dozens of local participants every week, meeting practical needs for birthday invitations and greeting cards in a town devoid of a business district. Transformazium’s Dana Bishop-Root explains, “Screen printing is a powerful tool because it is an inexpensive process, it is easy to learn and it is a transferable skill . . . The library was an obvious host site for the shop because of its purpose as a communication source and its history as a multi-use space.”

While the print studio is only one addition to a building that has shifted its shape for over a century, it reflects the library’s overall success at staying relevant to a town on the brink by remixing its history into a place that resonates in the present. Ideally, Superior Motors will find similar success integrating local resources into a space that speaks to both old and new Braddock. Then, it may also become a model worth revisiting 100 years from now.