(Featured image: The author on the third floor of the Braddock convent.)
Let me tell you a story about Braddock.
When I was 27, I scheduled, booked, and promoted a four-month, cross-country round-trip/tour. In addition to playing shows, I volunteered at a couple of WWOOF farms along the way, in exchange for a place to stay. That’s how I wound up working the urban farm in the mostly abandoned town of Braddock, PA, right beside their last operating steel mill, and staying in a former convent.
The history of Braddock doesn’t need to be summarized yet again by another outsider. There are many pieces that tell the ongoing story of Braddock and the mayor’s revitalization efforts. (I met Fetterman, by the way, and every impression is that he’s the real deal, sincere and no-nonsense, if a bit over-extended by his desire to do things the right way, ie, by himself.) I don’t know how to help a particular place crippled by capitalism, I don’t understand the racial tensions of Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas, I don’t know the motivations and hopes of the outsiders and long-term residents. What I do know is that I met people who were deeply involved and invested in the future of Braddock and who cared very, very much about all of those things and agonized over them daily. I also know that when I went (in 2009) there was ample evidence of others coming in with a romanticized idea about Braddock, starting things up, running out of money or steam, and leaving. On the first floor of the convent I found a “drop-in” “community cafe” complete with espresso machine and glass counter, but it had been started by someone who had moved on. Later I found a scrap of paper on the floor with a list of “money making ideas” which included “internet porn.” I met many young white people carefully avoiding the use of the term “pioneer” and delicately stepping around whether or not the goal was something like gentrification. Not real gentrification, mind you, just enough for artists…and art galleries…and boutiques…and….
But something has to happen there, for God’s sake. When we rolled into Braddock my first instinct was to turn around and leave. Then it was to move forward and hope for the best, and prepare for anything. The main street looked like, yes, a ghost town. It felt apart and like anything was possible, for better or worse. The term “post-apocalyptic” is overused, but with good reason. I saw blocks of abandoned buildings that literally collapsed before my very eyes- there was one building with a wall that was falling apart more and more, bricks littering the sidewalk below in larger piles every day I passed across the street. I went into long-shuttered businesses and looked through caved-in ceilings up to the fourth floor. I saw decades of wallpaper falling off in layers from all the rain and weather the rotting roof was letting in. I’m sure many rolls of film have been spent taking lovely, positively generic photographs of all the rotting homes and businesses that impoverished families were forced to leave, and I confess that I took a few myself.
Abandoned dentist’s office, Braddock, PA
I felt very drawn to the place and driven to contribute. My traveling companions were touched as well, even if they didn’t get as attached. I experienced Braddock as a scouting trip for a possible future home. If I’d been alone and had more cash I would have stayed longer, perhaps indefinitely. I still felt that way even after the series of events that left me very disillusioned about the whole affair.
The things that made it easy to leave Braddock weren’t the lack of jobs, or the crime rate, or the fact that the place was an utter food-desert. I loved my work at the little farm in the shadow of the last remaining steel mill. I loved staying at the tiny former convent, kept open for contributing visitors, while volunteering. I loved J., the well-dressed Catholic man who spoke almost no English and kept to himself, living in the last room at the end of the hall in the convent and occasionally joining us for dinner, games of pool (though he wouldn’t drink), and attempts at communication. I loved the tiny and literally crumbling bar with no whiskey except rye.
J. and E. (one of the caretakers) at the little bar.
But I couldn’t see how there could be a place for me. There were two lovely young women looking after the convent, who were welcoming and kind but seemed weary, and wary. They were not only anxious about the future of Braddock but anxious about their very status in the building. One of them explained that they couldn’t make any kind of deal to be caretakers there for X amount of time, because it seemed that the owner wanted to be able to keep the convent open for visitors and workers to stay but also be able to sell it…maybe. In a week? A month? A year? Never? Who knew? So they were trying their best, working to make even more money after investing so much in the town, and in the meantime didn’t have any real assurance of how long they’d have their beds. I lived in a van at the time but pitied them. With everything else in the town up for grabs, I can’t imagine being able to think straight in such a state. And people were constantly coming and going from the town and from their home.
The former convent.
I was traveling with two others, and we were very used to sleeping in the van. Since we’d been given the luxury of a room and a hot shower every day, the three of us stayed in one narrow little room with a sink and one mattress in the corner which we took turns sleeping on. We did this even though there were other rooms open, because we were young and spry and it seemed like the right thing to do. I loved that little room. I wanted to stay there forever. I love that room even now and eight years later I could walk right in and find it even though all the rooms were the same. I quietly practiced my little lap dulcimer, I tried to wake early to have time to myself, and I wanted to stay in the room all day in the boiling heat and be alone.
Of course, I couldn’t, because we had work to do, but I cherished my weekends and tried to get away to the room because it was just so small and simple and calmed my soul. I‘d left my apartment yet again and everything I owned fit in the van. I wasn’t sure what would happen after my last show on the tour, but knew that an insecure traveling life as a tumbleweed was coming to an end. The feeling of security that sweet little room gave me only confirmed this.
We were tidy and woke early to work daily at the farm, digging and harvesting and washing and turning enormous piles of compost with pitchforks in the heat. After doing this work for weeks, we returned one day from the farm to find we had been kicked out of our room by members of a certain leftist art collective who had all gathered in Braddock for their annual meeting. Because they wanted to be able to sleep 1-2 to a room. One of the caretakers was kind enough to stuff us in her room for the time being. They were not paying, so we cynically wondered if they were given priority by the owner because they were persons who could possibly bring attention and money to the town. Or if they simply felt entitled. At any rate, they took full advantage even though it meant displacing those who were there before them and who were considering possibly making a home in Braddock. During their stay, they completely ignored anyone not in the collective, including the caretakers, to the point of avoiding eye contact. The irony, of course, is that this collective produces beautiful propaganda-type posters glorifying such things as community building, consensus, class issues, organizing, and social justice in general.
Soon after, a street artist came to stay and took over every single large common room on the first floor, one by one, spreading out her things over enormous areas, then several rooms on the second floor as well. In spite of being a grown woman who had been invited to the town to speak about her work, she was utterly rude and aloof, and just about the entire convent was on edge waiting for her to leave. She did not have a kind word or gesture for anyone, leaving garbage everywhere and generally behaving poorly (I’m avoiding juicy anecdotes). Her work, of course, was also all about community, the downtrodden, and social justice issues. I see it lauded to this day, and sigh. But what were the “caretakers” to do in these instances? From the conversations I had with the women, their unclear position in the convent and the tenuous state of things left them in such a state of insecurity as to their roles and proper place that they seemed afraid to anger the wrong guest or art star. The politics and tensions of the whole situation seemed felt rotten, and with people recognizing the possibility of being the next (or first) big whatever in this new frontier, with no community bonds built low accountability, bad behavior extended beyond the convent walls.
On the third unfinished floor of the convent, in the sweltering heat
One day I found a little injured bird in the parking lot and took it to my room to wash the wound. If I am honest I have to tell you I was glad to have the opportunity to just grab some hardcore kid and instruct him to follow me, keep his voice low, and turn the water on. I remember very well how he snapped out of his aloof punk posturing and helped me attend to the bird. He hovered, asking tentative questions. It was a relief to quietly do something helpful and have an immediate purpose. With the way he eagerly assisted me, I wonder if it was a relief to him, too. Anyway, I tucked the bird in a shoebox with a dish of water and a little fabric draped over the top, but he died in the night.
The grave of the little bird.
The Braddock families we met in passing and their children who volunteered at the farm alongside us on the weekends were warm and friendly. Some younger residents who were focused on “revitalization” weren’t so much. Then again, I’m sure they’d seen dozens, if not hundreds, of rude opportunists, tourists passing through wanting to see if someone else had made Braddock habitable enough for them yet, wanting a piece of it, or just wanting to say they’d been. Can you blame people for being weary and cold when every week brings a new crop of young flighty kids who, by the very nature of one passing through, do not have to be on their best behavior?
E., one of the caretakers at the convent
I don’t know much, but I feel a person would have to be blind not to see the experience in the convent and on the main drag as a microcosm of Braddock’s larger issues. There were the long-term residents just trying to get by, hopeful but unsure of Braddock’s future and so their own: that’s describing most of the town. There were relative newcomers who were nonetheless invested, people who might have left jobs and homes and sunk life savings into the place hoping for a chance at a small business, affordable art studio, or simply to help a community grow: people like the caretakers. There were people who weren’t quite passing through but weren’t quite staying, people unsure of their future there or their possible contribution, people who didn’t have tons of cash to give but saw possibilities there (and after all, if you’re going to open up a small-batch ice cream place or whatever, someone has to buy it and eat it), people who were trying to be ethical and helpful but weren’t sure how to fit in or what the heck was even going on, people who all have a different story and motivations and who the regulars couldn’t possibly just trust because they’d been let down time and time again: us, I think. And then you had people for whom “opportunistic” is far too generous a term. Maybe it’s less about Braddock and more about the duplicity of radical/leftist politics. Or politics in general. Or travel, or youth, or just, people.
In spite of some very typically stupid communal living experiences, it was hard for me to leave and I grew depressed in our last days there. There was something so strange and magical about this place- a former convent, of all things, directly across the street from this one last steel mill that emitted a great roar and shot flames into the air from its highest peak.
But it had only ever been a scouting visit. I had tour dates and so did the musician who did the driving, and another travel companion wanted to move along to a more rural farming appointment we’d committed to. But after a few dates in Minnesota and some time in upstate New York, we were able to arrange to return to the convent for a couple of days. We returned to find that the caretakers had reserved us rooms on the breezy ground floor, complete with beds already made, and a home-made banner hung in the kitchen heralding our arrival. Even if it was only for a short time, we were some of the few who had returned.
Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “No Sisters, No Dentist, No Bourbon.” Ortolana Studio & Press. Ortolana Studio & Press, 14 May. 2017.