Urban Walkabout: Braddock, PA

A shot of the mill on the way into town.

The following is not something that you’ll see often here on Junk Miles Media, but I wanted to share it. There are no bikes, hikes, mountains, wildlife or woods to be seen. Instead you have a look at an urban walkabout I did in Braddock, Pennsylvania over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Last week my family and I made the trip back home to western Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving. We would first have Thanksgiving dinner with my family in the small town of Scottdale (it is indeed SCOTTdale, not SCOTTSdale) before heading to White Oak to visit with my in-laws the next day. White Oak is where we lived before moving to Michigan five years ago and roughly seventeen miles from the city of Pittsburgh. It’s a smallish, relatively safe, suburban neighborhood close to what is known as Pennsylvania’s Mon-Valley*.

The Mon-Valley was once a thriving area; steel mills, rail roads and river barges moving coal and coke made sure of that. However, over the past thirty or so years, as many of the steel mills closed and the coal and coke disappeared, the local economy tanked for many Mon-Valley area towns. Now places like McKeesport, Monessen and Braddock are shadows of their former selves. Many businesses are closed and boarded up, homes lie vacant, and crime, poverty and foreclosures are the norm.

No news is NOT good news.

The aforementioned Braddock sits just seven miles from my old neighborhood, but it might as well be a world away. The town has made headlines in recent years as a revival of sorts is being attempted. A brew pub has opened, a few new town homes and condominiums have been built, and plans for new businesses and restaurants are in the works. I’m not trying to be a downer, and I mean no disrespect to those leading the charge, but from my recent visit it seems a revival is still a long way off.

I don’t know why I decided to go into Braddock and I sure as hell don’t know why I thought walking around the town alone shooting photos would be a good idea, but I went anyway. Hell, despite its proximity to my old home, I think I’ve only been in the town one other time in my life, and taking photos was the last thing on my mind!

All my life–even when living close to such places–I’ve gone out of my way to avoid them, choosing to spend my time on my bike in the mountains to the east, in the woods, or more rural areas like where I grew up and where I live now. I know I can take photos of barns, cows and dirt roads with some mild success, but how would I shoot in an urban environment like Braddock? I wanted to find out (much to my wife’s chagrin).

As you can see in the gallery below, I had some success, and some failures. The unusually bright western PA sun didn’t help matters, but I still came away with a few good shots. As you click through the slides you see many of the shots are not all that great, however I went ahead and included them anyway for illustrative purposes.

A vacant junk shop's baby head & sickle.

One area I failed–from a documentation point of view–was not including any shots of the recent revival attempts. I apologize to those involved for this, but admit I was a bit overwhelmed at seeing how a once thriving town right next to where I lived for years is falling apart. I also failed to include too many people. I already felt a little uneasy taking photos around town, so taking photos of the residents going about their business didn’t seem wise, nor is it really my thing (a street photographer I am not).

As I walked through town all I could think of is the image that most of the world seems to have of America and how I can almost be certain that what I was seeing is NOT what they think of when they think of America. Seeing the living conditions that some Americans deal with is truly astonishing.

Best of luck to the people attempting to bring Braddock back. There is some great architecture throughout the area that I hope will be saved. I plan to return in the near future to take more shots and to try include some shots of the progress being made. I also hope to stop by The Brew Gentlemen Beer Company to sample a couple of pints!

Thanks for reading and thanks to the people of Braddock for allowing me to skulk around your town taking photos.

*Note: There are a variety of opinions on what IS and ISN’T the Mon-Valley. I tend to think of towns like McKeesport and Braddock as part of the Mon-Valley.

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