Mr. Fetterman is trying to make an asset out of his town’s lack of assets, calling it “a laboratory for solutions to all these maladies starting to knock on the door of every community.” One of his first acts after being elected mayor in 2005 was to set up, at his own expense, a Web site to publicize Braddock — if you can call pictures of buildings destroyed by neglect and vandals a form of promotion.
He has encouraged the development of urban farms on empty lots, which employ area youths and feed the community. He started a nonprofit organization to save a handful of properties.
In an earlier era, Braddock was a famed wellspring of industrial might. The steel baron Andrew Carnegie put his first mill in the town, the foundation of an empire that helped build modern America. With the loot and guilt Mr. Carnegie piled up, he also built a library here, the first of more than 1,500 Carnegie libraries in the United States.
Immigrants came to work in the mill, and through ceaseless agitation won union representation that enabled their children — helped by the library on the hill — to achieve a better life.
A local boy, Thomas Bell, celebrated this hard-won success in his autobiographical 1941 novel “Out of This Furnace.” The story recounts the strivings of three generations in Braddock’s mill and their transformation from exploited and maligned “Hunkies” from Eastern Europe into full-fledged Americans.
This year, the town will be featured in the film version of another work of art, Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Road.” Set in a post-Armageddon America where food is so scarce that many survivors turned to cannibalism, “The Road” was shot partially in Braddock.
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A town whose story has evolved from building America to making Americans to eating Americans for dinner might seem a hard sell. So Mr. Fetterman, who is paid $150 a month, also promotes Braddock as a place to buy extremely cheap real estate.
Erik and Shannon Gustafson heeded that call. The couple were living in Chicago, where Mr. Gustafson was a part-time commodities trader, when they heard about Braddock last winter. They settled on a two-bedroom house whose owner warned them that it had black mold and was probably a tear-down. Her price: $4,750.
The Gustafsons paid the money and discovered that the mold problem was overstated. “Space is cheap here,” said Mr. Gustafson, 30. “We can afford to focus on our hobbies.” He is a graphic designer; she is a photographer.
Joel Rice, a furniture maker, bought a 15,000-square-foot former car dealership that he is converting to a showroom, workshop and home, with a greenhouse on the roof. The building cost $70,000, perhaps a tenth of what he would have had to pay for a tiny shop in Oregon, where he was living.
It will take at least two more years to clear the debris and put in new wiring, plumbing and fixtures. But Mr. Rice, 38, is undaunted. “If all our effort here crashes and burns,” he said, “it won’t be because we held anything back.”
Unlike many stricken steel towns, Braddock never lost its mill. Part of the U.S. Steel system, it still employs nearly a thousand workers. But they no longer live in town, and the stores followed them to the suburbs. Eventually, only the stubborn and those without resources remained.
“Even the bars and liquor stores closed,” said Ron Kutnansky, who was born in Braddock in 1953 and lived there and in North Braddock for decades.