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In hopes of reinventing and reinvigorating the town of Braddock, Pa., Mayor John Fetterman '91 is working to repurpose abandoned structures.
In his black, short-sleeve shirt, khaki shorts and work boots, John Fetterman '91 hardly looks like a mayor at a fundraising event.
Then again, at 6' 8" and 350 pounds, with a shaved head, beard and tattoos, there is nothing about Fetterman that says, "Mayor."
But Braddock, Pa., the town that Fetterman serves, is hardly typical. Fetterman, 43, is serving his second term as mayor of the small Pittsburgh suburb. A formerly booming steel town, Braddock was home to nearly 30,000 people during its heyday. The collapse of the mills caused an exodus, leaving a ruined shell of a town with a population of barely 3,000, along with high crime and poverty rates.
It doesn't sound like a place where someone with a bachelor's degree in finance from Albright College and a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University would be tempted to move to.
"I was attracted to it because of its malignant beauty," says Fetterman, repeating a line he often states in interviews.
Fetterman came to Braddock in a round-about way. He grew up in York, Pa., where his parents, Karl and Susan, still live, and followed his father, a 1971 Albright grad, to Reading for his undergraduate degree, graduating in 1991; Fetterman's brother Gregg graduated in 1993.
AmeriCorps, a service organization that works with disadvantaged populations, brought Fetterman to Pittsburgh in 1995. From there it was on to Harvard. After he graduated from Harvard, he returned to Western Pennsylvania, working for an organization that helped troubled youth.
"He had what I thought was his dream job when he called me and said, 'I'm going to Pittsburgh to do social work,'" says his father, standing in the kitchen area of John's house in Braddock. "His mother and I just couldn't believe it," Karl laughs.
Fetterman's house is like him—large, eclectic and strangely magnetic. People are drawn to the mayor, and to his unique style and enthusiasm to rebuild the former steel town.
His house is a renovated warehouse, made even more distinctive by two large cargo storage units attached to the roof. On this night, Fetterman and his wife, Giselle, have opened their home to 100 guests for a pig roast to raise money to buy coats and toys for the residents of Braddock.
Kevin Sousa, a local chef and friend of Fetterman, serves as the cook for the evening.
"We were introduced by mutual friends, and I was instantly drawn to his desire to rebuild this town," says Sousa. "I have plans to open a restaurant here."
Fetterman's home is a step up from his first residence in Braddock—an abandoned church. "It was infested with rats and just awful," Karl says. "His mother and I were so worried about the area, about the crime—about drug dealers. Finally, we had to just stop worrying and turn it over to the Lord."
Fetterman says he was never worried. "I knew that this town had a lot of potential," he says. When he first ran for mayor in 2004, his opponent was the incumbent, an African-American in a town with a more than 80 percent minority population.
"I didn't think I had a chance, but I wanted to make a statement," says Fetterman.
He did more than that. The election finished in a dead heat, resulting in a recount and requiring the verification of three provisional votes.
"Only one of the provisional votes was valid, and it was from John," says Karl. "We didn't know whether to be happy or sad when we found out he was elected."
Fetterman himself was delighted, of course, and immediately set about to make changes in the town. He had Braddock's zip code tattooed on his right forearm. On his left forearm are other tattoos–the dates of the five murders that have taken place since he has been mayor.
"The last date was four years ago," Fetterman says. In the last mayoral race, Fetterman won by a 3-1 margin.
"This is where my heart is. It's where my kids were born. This is my town."
During his time in office, Fetterman has made international news thanks to his enthusiasm to bring the town back from the dead. In 2010, Fetterman and other Braddock residents appeared in an ad campaign for Levi Strauss jeans, and the corporation donated $1 million to the town.
Under Fetterman's watch, changes to Braddock have been significant, although he is the first to downplay his role in the improvements. "I haven't done these; they have happened through great partnerships," he says.
One of the most noticeable is the refurbishing of an abandoned church. The new Nyia Page Braddock Community Center is a place for community members to gather for youth programming, art shows, weddings, graduations and other events. A new adjoining playground is the site not only for play time, but also for community events, such as Braddock's annual Easter egg hunt. The center, named after a young girl who was sexually assaulted and left to freeze to death by her father in Braddock, was created utilizing the Levi Strauss advertising campaign funds.
The town has also just broke ground on a new $20 million redevelopment project that will include a health care facility—one that will take Medicare and Medicaid patients.
And a major film starring Christian Bale and Robert Duvall, Out of the Furnace, was filmed there in 2012.
But the one change that may be most important to the mayor is that in a few months, his town will reach the five-year mark of being homicide-free.
"This is thanks to a multi-pronged approach—we have a great partnership with our district attorney, a great police chief and a youth outreach and development program," Fetterman says. Increased employment opportunities for youth, including community gardens and other projects, have also kept them off the streets, he adds.
Ask the people of Braddock what's beyond the town's rebirth, and the answer is the mayor himself.
"My students know who he is – they see him in the library, they seem him in the community center. Even the littlest community members know he is there for them," says Valerie Alchier, a teacher at Fairless Elementary School, located a few blocks from the mayor's house.
"This is a small town, and our kids don't have transportation to places, so they walk everywhere. When they see the mayor on the
Fetterman was honored in August 2012 at the White House as an AmeriCorps "Champion of Change."
As he welcomes guests to his home and the fundraiser, Fetterman displays a quick wit, although he is stingy with his smiles, according to his father.
"Photos of me are $200," says Fetterman. "If I'm nude, they are $3," he laughs.
One of Fetterman's greatest fans is his wife. As he introduces Giselle, Fetterman quips, "Everyone always wonders how a beautiful woman like her ended up with a big, ugly guy like me."
"I fell in love with Braddock first, then John," says Giselle, who was born in Brazil but moved to New York when she was 12.
According to Giselle, a nutritionist, she read an article about Braddock while she was at a yoga retreat seven years ago and was immediately attracted to what she believed was the potential that Fetterman saw. She called him and came for a visit. A year later, she moved from Newark, N.J., and the two were married.
The Fettermans are the parents of Karl – named after Fetterman's father – 3½, and Grace, 19 months.
"Both of my kids were born right here," says Fetterman, pointing to his ground-floor living room, currently filled with guests for the fundraiser. "Obviously, this is my home. We wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
"I've never been afraid here. We feel responsible for our residents—everyone has our phone number and knows where we live," she says.
Fetterman has started a nonprofit, Braddock Redux, to help with rebuilding the town.
"It serves as a conduit so I can get things done. I can do things like the fundraiser and other programs to make change," he says. Giselle recently opened The Free Store under the Redux umbrella, a shop where clothes and other items are handed out to needy residents.
The fundraiser has brought together admirers of Fetterman from near and far, though most seemed to be from outside of the actual town of Braddock. One attendee is Tom Banks, who grew up in Braddock and moved out when he became a successful business owner.
Banks "met" Fetterman when Banks had donated some work to provide a local family with a handicap ramp. Fetterman sent him a postcard thanking him for his efforts.
"I thought, 'Man, this guy's for real.' A lot of people say they are going to help or make change, but he really does," says Banks. "He's making true social change."
In a town that is "near and dear" to his heart, Banks is starting to see new storefronts, renovated homes and playgrounds.
Lest one thinks Fetterman is in this role for any other reason than his love of the town, he shares his salary readily - $110 a month.
"We live very frugally and receive support and donations from our family and other sources," he says. "This is what I do instead of being supported as an angry artist in New York."
The 24-7 job suits John Fetterman.
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