Urban bytes: Interviews in Pittsburgh and Beyond.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Jeb Feldman, Urban Homesteader, Talks About the Arts Explosion in Braddock, PA

Note: I will repeat all the links that are inserted in the text at the end of the post.

This interview was done quite a while ago ...like.. a year.....which I am mortified about. But I did some editing to update it, and it should give the reader a good (if partial cause so MUCH is going on) idea of the exciting changes going on in Braddock.Braddock doesn't have a lot of urban homesteaders, but they are very busy ones: reclaimingproperties and working on a long list of projects, including UnSmoke Systems, Obscurae, Pointsof Interest, Transformazium, also the farming project...a print studio...............etc etc.and did I mention the business that turns vehicles into green vehicles (Fossil FreeFuels....http://www.fossilfreefuel.com/fossilfreefuel_flash.html).....You get the idea. Lots ofgreat energy in Braddock.

My introduction to the new Braddock came on April 27th 2007, when I attended the opening ofan exhibit of art work by Swoon (an internationally known street artist) and two other wellknown artists Chris Stain and Leslie Stem. Not only was the art, which was ensconced in a spacebelow the mayor's home, amazing, the scene was a revelation.

Clearly, a LOT of people would come to Braddock for an interesting event.There were hundreds of people there. OK, many were drawn by Swoons fame and her ties to alternative culture...but it was amazing. For informationon Swoon see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swoon_(artist)I met Swoon at a talk in Braddock early this fall. She told me she will be in Braddock morefrequently starting in 2010, as work on her project with Tranzformazium begins in earnest.Braddock has had loads of press in the past year. John Fetterman the mayor, has been interviewed and interviewed in the national press. Videoed left and right by news media. It is a fascinating story, and one good summary can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/us/01braddock.html (the accompanying New York Times video is particularly good).

The primary focus of the interview with Jeb Feldman is the vitality brought to Braddock by those in the visual arts. One could make a case that Braddock isn't being so much renovated, it is being repurposed as a fabulous art cooperative.

Jean: How many people would you say have kind of moved here to live here that are what youmight call urban homesteaders? I mean, is it less than 50, is it more than 50, is it . . .Where are they mostly from?

Jeb: There's been somewhere between 15 and 20 people who've moved into town. I mean in a town the size of Braddock with, you know 2500 or 2600 people with of not many people flowing in, it's certainly not enough to stem the sort of the continuing diminishment of the population here..........but I think that it's exciting to think about 20 new people who are here to revitalize and build and , save properties and establish energy in various pockets of town. When those 20 people are here for that sort of common purpose, it seems like a lot of people and it's an exciting number.

Jean: So one newer resident, Jodi ( one of the organizers of the Obscurae photo project) she's from Brooklyn?

Jeb: Yes, she moved here from Brooklyn . She's one of four or five Brooklyners who have moved here, so for whatever reason, we've been poaching Brooklyn. But people have moved from Chicago and Alaska and Portland. I guess with the exception of the Alaskan it's primarily people from urban centers who have moved here, and I think for obvious reasons, from expensive urban centers.

Jeb continues:It's been interesting to watch people move here from all over the place, and it hasn't just been one place, and it certainly hasn't been people {moving here} from Pittsburgh so much. I think three years ago when there were only a few of us involved in this, the conversation about how to develop some more energy and how to bring some people down here........ then I think it was assumed that we'd be targeting Pittsburghers. But with the exception of one artist, named Josh Tonies, who has been fantastic, and he made the move down here, we haven't actually seen other Pittsburghers move here.

Jean: Really.

Jeb: At some point we'd love to become a legitimate option for Pittsburghers when they survey the landscape and think about where they might want to move in town. That when people are looking and they say, well, typically you move to Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, these are all your sort of neighborhoods that people think about, it would be nice for some people to think "there's a lot going on in Braddock and that might be one place I'd consider". Actually it wasn't even in the conversation for a very long time, for anybody.

Jean: Oh, I wouldn't think, because it just wasn't.

Jeb: And that's exactly it. Like I said, it doesn't have to be in the conversation for every search, every type of person, I mean it's not, this is not a neighborhood for everybody.

Jean: OK. Well, while we're on the topic, if, I can guess, but, other than that people are coming from places that are ridiculously expensive where it's just very hard to live, as even Brooklyn has become, what would attract someone to come to Braddock? What sort of person would be interested?

Jeb:I think there's an opportunity here to sort of shape at a very ground and base level, that you know you don't have in other neighborhoods that have charted their trajectory already.

Jeb continues: And I think that that's really compelling for a lot of people.Then there's sort of the chance to kind of reshape it and actually develop sort of a new vision for this place. It is, I think, the main reason why people are finding themselves here. So the people who are coming are builders, people who want to introduce energy of one sort or another into a place.

And then I think there are other aspects of this, including the fact that Mayor John Fetterman has opened himself up, along with the people he collaborates with, including myself, to try to facilitate projects that revolve around community energy and revitalization. When you have a person at that level in a community like this helping push those kind of projects along, I think that that's another sort of carrot for people . . .

Jeb Continues: People get really excited about the notion that a local leader would be, willing to put himself out, try to help, and be so transparent and so accessible in helping make projects happen. I think that those are the main sort of things that are dangled out there in front of people, but a lot of it has to do with setting a niche for the projects that are here. So, we're trying to build around the energy generated by art and art-related events, green businesses, etc.

Jean: That's right, it's not only creative people who are coming here, arts-related people, it's also the green . . .

Jeb: Right, and I think that they're far more tied together than a lot of people realize. You know, a lot of the people that I think can move here as artists, or that we consider to be moving here because of art things, have ended up being a lot more sort of agriculturally oriented and have been doing more farming and gardening than we had anticipated. So it is very cyclical where a lot of the art projects start to look like they're going to be leaning more towards global food growing, things like that.

Jean: Interesting.

Jeb: Because we're trying to tie this to the community that's here already.

Jean: Right. I wanted to ask you about the outdoor artwork that is all over Braddock.John Morris and I had taken that tour around, looked at all the "points of interest" (ie the art points of interest as designated on the Transformazium website).

Jeb: Great.

Really that's, you know, often times when we talk about the art and the artists here, I can't give enough credit to this group of women who, most of whom have relocated here from other places. They call themselves Transformazium and they're here for a large project.

Jeb continues- They have taken over (legally) an abandoned church that was terribly dilapidated and basically waiting to be razed. While they were waiting for the title to transfer to them, they worked on all sorts of community related projects and a lot of them have been tied into the local agriculture as well.

Jean: Oh, that's interesting, yeah.

Jeb: Working with the local youth on teaching them how to farm and learn outdoor practices.

Jean: And that's the project Swoon (given name Caledonia Curry) is involved in?

Jeb: Right. She put the group Transformazium togther.

Jean: OK, yeah, the rumor that I had heard is that she had bought a church, but that's not entirely accurate . . .

Jeb: The request was made to her as to whether she wanted to take on this troubled church building. But as she travels the world (i.e. creating and exhibiting her work) , there's a group of four people working down here on a daily basis . . .

Jean: Okay, yeah.

Jeb: Plus we're entirely involved.

And Transformazium, while they've got their hands full with the church they've also been doing any number of projects like points of interest which you referenced.

For information on the Transformazium group go here: http://www.transformazium.org/whatandwhy.html

Jean: Mm hmm.

Jeb: And a number of other things.

Jean: Being the small world that it is, uh, when I was in New York (September 2008) and I saw the Swoon exhibit, at Deitch Projects Gallery, and I know there was some guy I talked to and he said he was coming down to Pittsburgh to work on the church for a couple of weeks.

Jeb: They have a lot of people involved in their sort of community there and they have an amazing amount of people float through town that know to do this or that here, as well as for that project, especially recently. It was three, maybe four weekends ago that there was a fundraiser for their project in Brooklyn.

Jean: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that..........

Jeb: They obviously attracted more people out there than they ever would here, more arts buyers you know. They are just very well connected out there {i.e. in Brooklyn}.

Jean: Sure.

Jeb: So it made a lot of sense for them to do it out there. It was interesting to be out there and watch a fundraiser for Braddock happen in Brooklyn.A number of, most of us actually, traveled out for that.

Jean:Yeah, that's really great. So, the church then is going to be, I mean I know this is probably in process, but if, you know, it gets taken over, if it's fixed up, then it starts as an art project, then at some point it becomes something else, like some kind of community center?

Jeb: You know, you'd have to ask them exactly what their sort of a mission and the, you know, the vision for the whole project.

Jean: Where is the church?

Jeb: It's in North Braddock, actually. It's up on Jones Avenue.

Jeb continues: It is, you know, it's actually what I think a lot of people envision as really one of the focuses of energy that's going to happen in this area, because Library Street becomes Jones Street. Then you have a number of properties at the intersection of Library and Braddock Avenue that I think are really pivotal. Then you have John's church (Mayor John Fettermans ) that he's owned for a number of years now, and the nonprofit that we run is working to turn that into a community center.

Jeb continues: So, hopefully, in a few years down the road that'll be a place sort of teeming with activity. Across the street you got Braddock's, Carnegie Library, you know, which is a.......

Jean: A beautiful building.

Jeb: Very beautiful, you know, historic, Carnegie's first library in America.

Jean: Oh, I didn't even know that. Wow!

Jeb: Right, then you head up the tracks and you have, you know, you have a middle school, you have the Braddock Field historic site, then you have the Schwab mansion, which, is really sort of a real estate relic of the steel magnet era. Then you continue to head up the road and you hit Transformazium's properties.

Jean: Oh, OK, yeah, we passed the Schwab mansion the other day, I was wondering what the story was on it.

Jeb: It's really beautiful. I mean, in a lot of ways it's just sort of a, it's a less refined version of the Frick mansion in Point Breeze. And it's beautiful on the inside. In a lot of ways it could be everything the Frick mansion is, it's just going to take some time and energy. Actually, Dr. Bruce Dixon, who's the Director of Allegheny County Health Department, he's the owner. From what I understand, he is meticulously restoring the property.

(See a slideshow on the mansion here) http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07214/806408-30.stm

Jean: Oh, that's great. OK.

Jeb: I saw that he's been working on recreating the historic greenhouses on the back of the property. From what I hear he's restoring that equally meticulously, so it should be amazing. I mean, I don't know if it will ever be open to the public, but it's certainly going to be a beautiful property.

Jean: Now with the properties that are on Braddock Avenue...... are they, the storefronts and things, are they just in all various states of vacant, not vacant, liens on them, not liens on them?

Jeb: That's it, yes, yes.

Jean: That sums it up?

Jeb: Basically, yes. They are in all various states of sort of neglect, distress, some of them less distressed than others, but by and large,the community has become a bit tattered, especially Braddock Avenue, the corridor, and . . .

Jean: Yes.

Jeb: You can go in and out of a number of those properties. It's strange to just be able to walk through distressed properties that are falling apart, but people are beginning to take care of them. So, it really depends where on the avenue you are.

Jean It seems like...there are definitely some things around that are buyable and reclaimable?

Jeb: I think there are amazing values in the properties here. But it's one of those things where you have to find the value in it for yourself. Because the odds of you actually making money on it are unrealistic.

Jean: Uh huh.

Jeb: It's not a speculative market. There's not a big profit to be had in a property anywhere in this community, as far as I can tell. We've been party to transactions for houses that are going for $5500, and, as cheap as that might sound, I'm not sure that the properties are ever going to go for much more money than that.

Jean: Mm, hmm.

Jeb: And, you know, you can take some of these big commercial properties and put a bunch of money in them, and they still might not be worth anymore than what you bought them for. So like I said, I think the value really has to be the reward of the space that you're happy in and that you can use to create energy.

Jean: Yeah, yeah.

Jeb: That might be a business, for example. Say you might be able to come in and find a property that you can run a business out of, and that business could be very profitable, but, the actual property itself isn't a speculative venture.

Jean: One thing I didn't know too much about till lately, and then I was reading that it might not come about, and I know it would be a problem for Braddock if it did ...... is the whole Mon Valley Expressway thing?

Jeb: Yes.

Jean: That would really pretty much mess up Braddock Avenue. Then I was just reading something online saying that it appears the Mon Valley Expressway (through Braddock) will not happen?

Jeb: Right. Well, I mean, I think, you know, given the state of the economy, and look around, and, you know, taxpayers just bailed out the banking industry to the tune of 700 billion dollars . . ...

Jean: Yeah, that's quite a chunk!

Jeb: It's hard to imagine where they're going to scrounge up the money for a road that they had no way of figuring out financing for for the last three (now four) years. I think we were really confident last year that this wasn't happening. And now I think there's even more confidence that it's going nowhere. I mean, from what I can tell, and I feel pretty educated about the project, the Mon-Valley Expressway or the Mon-Fayette Expressway has run out of financing options.
So they've stopped planning at least the Mon Valley Expressway portion of the project. They put a hard stop on that and they said they were going to look for money, and they've been looking for money for a number of years, but then every year they reassess the estimated cost of the project. And it seems like every year when they release the estimated cost, it jumps another billion dollars, so . . .See a Post Gazette article here: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08258/912103-147.stm

Jean: Oh my gosh.

Jeb: You know, as time passes you have to feel more and more confident that it's not going to happen and that at some point they're going to have to adjust their thinking away from the sort of road building, old school, Robert Moses mentality of urban planning. That something different is needed, and hopefully it will lead us to a more sustainable and more progressive solution. Perhaps a more elegant solution to the problem of moving people around the area may come out of an inability to do the thing they initially wanted to do.

Jean: Uh huh. Yup, right.

Jeb: Like a multi-modal sort of solution to local transportation has been proposed and is out there already.

Jean: And what would that mean?

Jeb: That would mean having, you know, having commuters and people move in a variety of ways and I think it would pivot around the notion of public transportation.

Jean: Oh, OK. Yeah.

Jeb: You know, trains and buses and . . .

Jean: Mm hmm.

Jeb: And perhaps even using the waterways, but, you know, multi-modal.

Jean: Uh huh. Well, it would be interesting to use the waterways, that's something that (laughter) . . . probably hasn't happened around here in a long, long time, right?

Jeb: A real long time, but, you know,there's really no reason why, Braddock being 8 miles from downtown Pittsburgh or whatever, that if you had a boat and didn't have a street light between here and downtown Pittsburgh, that instead of having to......

Jean: That's a pretty great idea.

Jeb: You know, I think we could get to downtown in 10 minutes.

Jean: Yeah, that's a pretty great idea. Well, it's and it's also, it's not like the rivers around here freeze up or anything, that I know of, do they? I mean, they're always passable, aren't they?

Jeb: I believe so.

Jean: So, how did you end up getting involved in Braddock?

Jeb: I was just in school here. I was going to Carnegie Mellon and I was becoming more and more certain that I was going to do some sort of community development. That was where my interests lay, and right then, probably at just the right time, I met John Fetterman, who was the mayor-elect of Braddock.I think that the connection happened because I'd been coming down to this neck of the woods for a long time.
I'd been really fascinated by Braddock. I think a fascination that a lot of people, I'm learning, have. I was awestruck by a place where the last mill in the area was still steaming and flaming. And by a town that had obviously lost so much, but had of the sort of architecture it has still left here, and it was very puzzling as to what had happened here.

Somebody, put one and one together and decided that John and I should sit down and have beers, cause they had met him somewhere. And so we sat and talked and I think our ideologies really aligned. He was working with disenfranchised young men, trying to get them jobs, so I started working with him.Nice piece on Mayor John Fetterman from POPCITY here http://www.popcitymedia.com/features/fetterman0425.aspx

Jean: When was that, roughly?

Jeb: That was, that was late 2005.

Jean: Uh huh.

Jeb: But 2006 is when I really started working a lot down here. But I was still in school, and so what I would do initially was a lot of research, which I think really served me very well, because now I know where I am and what's happened here. I started helping John facilitate and manage some of the projects he had going on. {For example} I was trying to recruit people for the start of a studio space we had going on, and trying to figure out if anybody was interested in this concept of this community center in this big old abandoned church, and in the meantime we were running events through this church without windows. So we were doing all these kinds of things, just trying to sort of figure out where we could establish some traction.

Jean: Uh huh. I was at the Swoon opening, when she did the work which was exhibited below the mayor's residence, shall we say? (laughter). And ofcourse next to that, in the the church they had the bands. Yes, that was great, that was an amazing thing.

Jeb: Yeah everything that we've got going, in a lot of respects are still extensions of those kind of activities. But things have evolved a little bit, and instead of having a Swoon show in the basement of the mayor's residence, we actually have a gallery now. And instead of having studio spaces in a building that we had entree to because of a kind of a handshake agreement, we now own the building where the studios are, and . . .

Jean: Which is this building?

Jeb: Right.

Jean: Yeah. Now, I was looking online, and did you get an Arts Management degree?

Jeb: I did.

Jean: Degree from CMU? OK, OK, yeah. So that's what your background.

Jeb: Yeah, it's part of my background.

Jean: Where did you move from when you came to CMU?

Jeb: I guess I consider myself, uh, a transplant from California, although I had sort of a layover in Wisconsin.

Jean: OK (laughter).

Jeb: And I grew up in New Mexico, so I've been around, a little bit.

Jean: Uh huh. OK. Is Unsmoke Systems what you're primarily involved with now?

Jeb: I feel like I'm involved with everything, but I do have to do the day to day on Unsmoke Systems. I mean, there's the cooperative of people, the artists in here and a few other people who have been sort of working on this project, there are, other collaborators on it, and then I sort of have to sort of um, kind of agitate things occasionally and sort of keep it going, and so this is, I guess, yes, partly because I am sort of the, actually, I'm the proprietor of the building. It sort of falls on me to make sure that things stay on course here. I'm also involved in most of the projects that the mayor is involved in and the sort of partnerships that Braddock Redux, the nonprofit that we sort of run projects through are involved in. So it goes beyond the realm of Unsmoke Systems.

Jean: OK. Well, and, how would you describe Unsmoke Systems ?

Jeb: I think Unsmoke Systems is a cooperative of artists and a venue, slash arts and gallery space and that's to me really what Unsmoke Systems does. But it also serves, it serves the greater Braddock community as a place where anybody can use the venue itself as a place to sort of entertain or to undertake whatever they'd like to do. I think it's a very flexible space, the 2400 square foot gallery slash venue. Arectangular box for whatever kind of projects people want, so . . .
Jean: The gallery space opened, in spring (2008) ?

Jeb: We had the grand opening, I guess, technically in July (2008).

Jean: OK.

Jeb: In partnership with, I'd actually call it wildly successful grand opening, in partnership with the Carnegie Museum of Art and their Carnegie International.

Jean: Oh, right, yes, OK.

Jeb: Which was great, I mean, something like 16 artists installed all over the building and there were, you now, anywhere from 700 to 900 people out here, for a number of hours; it was fantastic and really well received, and it provided a lot of sort of momentum for this project as a whole.

Jean: Yeah, yeah. How many artists have studios here now?

Jeb: Mmm, there's 9 visual artists and a writer.

Jean: And they're basically renting studio space?

Jeb: No, they're basically, they're basically helping with utilities.

Jean: Oh, really. OK.

Jeb: The actual space itself is, I guess, technically free.

Jean: OK. All right, uh, I had met the people, I don't recall their names, who had moved here, and live next door. He is going to do furniture making and they're fixing up the car dealership?

Jeb: Right.

Jean: The abandoned car dealership, or maybe not abandoned, I don't know, closed?

Jeb: Yes. Joel and Kristin own the dealership across the way and they will be making furniture out of that property; there’s an old convent building behind us, sort of here at the back of the parking lot. We hope that that becomes the coffee shop . . .

Jeb: And then there’s this building which has been sort of the hub of sort of arts activities.

Jeb: Not to a lot of fanfare, we’re not sort of the fanfare type. I think we had a good turnout on Saturday and hopefully sover the course of the next month we’ll see a number of more people come down. We’re obviously not a foot traffic community, so you have events, and people come out. You know it’s been great.

Jean: I was wondering, is there kind of a mixture of all through Braddock of the newer residents plus the older residents? That is as far as residential location is concerned.?

Jeb: Well, I mean, you get, you know, there aren’t that many newer residents. I guess, for the most part, the new residents are is sort of centrally located on this side of town (near Unsmoke Sysytems). but, I mean, there aren’t enough of them to sort of say, well there’s a pocket of them sort of anywhere.

Jean: Yeah. Yeah.

Jeb: As far as the population of Braddock goes, I think in the eighties it was even as amny as 8,000 people and now we’re down around 2600 or so.

Jean: Yeah. Well, there’s some very nice buildings over in the other section as well, (between Braddock Ave. and the river). Some nice homes, and then there’s a couple of, nice large brick, I don’t know what they were, warehouses or something. And there’s a great Swoon piece that looks like it’s been there for awhile, it’s kind of aged, but uh . . .

Jeb: There’s a lot of them actually, sure we have uh, we have as many Swoon pieces per capita as any place in America perhaps.

Jean: Uh huh, yeah.

Jeb: It may be perhaps that we might even have as much public art as any place per capita in America, to tell the truth . . .

Jean: (laughter) That’s true.

Jeb: With 20 pieces or whatever there is here . . .

Jean: There is oh yeah, in terms of just all the public art, yeah, yeah. Yeah, which is very worthwhile for people to do the points of interest tour which is on the website.

Jeb: I mean you have points, in addition to points of interest as well. You know, James Simon has been working down here for awhile and he placed a beautiful mosaic sort of piece in a small kind of little pocket park . . .

Jean: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I saw that from afar and then we never quite got back to it.

Jeb: Yeah, that’s great and that, that was just installed um, over this last summer (08) and he put two mosaic totems up within the last few weeks. The County participated in that and landscaped the space for him, and donated the land, because they just built the new bus stop right on the avenue. So there are a lot of sort of colorful things happening around town and hopefully projects and work that, you know make people here proud of their community.

Jean: Yeah.

Jeb: You know, I certainly am proud of being here.

Unsmoke Systems Artspacehttp://unsmokeartspace.com/home.html

Tranzformazium (includes information on "Points of Interest")http://www.transformazium.org/whatandwhy.html

Braddock shop helps clean Third World countries' waterhttp://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09039/947753-82.stm

Obscurae Photo Galleryhttp://obscuraegallery.org/

Move to Braddock PA and Afford the Life You Always Wanted, or Why Small Towns Are the Besthttp://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/10/move-to-braddock-pa-and-afford-the-life-you-always-wanted-or-why-small-towns-are-best.php#ch01

Mayor John Fetterman (from POPCITY)http://www.popcitymedia.com/features/fetterman0425.aspx

Braddock Reduxhttp://www.braddockredux.org/node/27

Braddock in the NY Times (the video is great)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/us/01braddock.html

The Post Gazette Slide Show on Scwab Mansionhttp://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07214/806408-30.stm

Swoonhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swoon_(artist)Monvalley Expresswayhttp://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08258/912103-147.stm

Fossil Free Fuels
Posted by Jean McClung at 10:12 PM
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