Mayor of Rust-Belt "Hell" to Speak at Notre Dame

Author: Erik Runyon

John Fetterman, the man Rolling Stone dubbed “the mayor of hell,” will visit Notre Dame to share his experience of another America—a Rust Belt town plagued by crime and a struggling economy—and his efforts to help revive the place.

Fetterman, the Harvard-educated mayor of Braddock, Pa., will speak at 8 p.m. on Monday, November 16, at McKenna Hall as part of a two-day visit he hopes will highlight the struggles towns like his endure—and confront students with realities they may not have encountered.

“I want to emphasize the importance of understanding that there are a lot of different Americas,” he says. “There’s the academic community, the public sector, the private sector. And then there are communities like Braddock that are beyond the fringe. Most people can’t fathom living in a community with no restaurants or ATMs or things that most college students would take for granted.”

Decline and Decay

The Braddock that Fetterman inherited as mayor is a far cry from the town where Andrew Carnegie built his first steel mill—and first Carnegie Library.

Some 50 years ago, the town was thriving with 20,000 people and plentiful jobs. But in the decades that followed, the country’s once-profitable steel industry slumped, leaving the town with a plummeting population and a rising crime rate.

Today, Braddock is home to fewer than 2,000 people—a 90 percent drop from its heyday. Pockmarked by vacant buildings, it lacks the restaurants and retailing that healthier cities take for granted. Even its marketing pitches highlight its down-and-out feel.

Take, for example, a blurb for Lucky Frank’s, an Irish-style tavern: “Come in, shut up, order a giant Yuengling draft, and relax. Parking, of course, at your own risk.”

The Battle for Braddock

Fetterman wants to change all this. In 2005, four years after he moved to Braddock to work with AmeriCorps, he ran for mayor and defeated the incumbent by just one vote. Since taking office, he has emphasized the town’s need for more programs that will engage young people—everything from new playgrounds and service projects to a community garden.

Meanwhile, he also continues to court a broad range of outsiders in an effort to build a grassroots community of good neighbors he hopes will save the sort of public spaces Braddock so desperately needs.

The town’s website urges potential renewal participants to “create amidst destruction” and bills Braddock as “an unparalleled opportunity for the urban pioneer, artist, or misfit to be a part of a new, experimental effort.”

The mayor, whose tattooed arms record each killing that has occurred in Braddock on his watch, has seized opportunities—including a February appearance on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report and the November cover of the Atlantic Monthly —to plead the town’s case.

“We’re not asking for much,” he told host Stephen Colbert, “but when you consider all the billions and billions that have been thrown at the banking industry, I think our community really cries out for social justice and equity.”

Service Partnerships Possible

As Fetterman considers how to help revive Braddock, he may have some support from Notre Dame. The mayor says he’s eager to discuss new ideas during his time on campus, when he will visit classes and meet with both student groups and individual students considering career or graduate school options.

That’s welcome news for Carolina Arroyo, an associate professional specialist with the University’s Department of Political Science, who arranged Fetterman’s visit after seeing him on The Colbert Report.

Although plans to collaborate are preliminary, Arroyo envisions scenarios in which students from a variety of disciplines could both study and provide help for the town.

“I think there are multiple opportunities for partnerships—everything from internships to research projects,” she says. “There are opportunities for students interested in the arts, architecture, public policy, poverty studies, labor studies and non-profits. Our students want to improve the world, and Mayor Fetterman is doing just that.”

Originally published by Josh Stowe at on November 10, 2009.