To say Braddock’s not a very nice area of Pittsburgh is a bit of an understatement. It’s the epitome of what happens to a mill town once the industry dries up: Crumbling buildings are frequently splashed with graffiti, windows are boarded up, and storefronts are in utter disrepair. Amidst the harshly aged homes and decay is the city block of shredded metal and crushed concrete that used to be UPMC Braddock—and beside that remains Immanuel Lutheran Church.
Inside the church, Jan McMannis tied black crepe paper armbands onto attendees. “This is a memorial service for UPMC Braddock,” she said. Some people outside tied or taped up signs, but most watched. They treated the event like a wake: they brought funereal flowers, food for sharing, and—morbidly—a hearse. Some were in dress clothes, some in street clothes, five were made up as zombies, and some were still in their St. Patrick’s Day greenery. As one they bundled up against the chill, squinted against the dry and grit-laden breeze, and turned to watch the ongoing demolition. I listened as they documented the loss in fragments of memory:
“Last week that piece of building that’s left was half again as big.”
“A year ago we had a protest where a bunch of people were zombies.”
“Yesterday they tore down . . .”
One of the SOCH (Save Our Community Hospitals) members tried to talk an older woman into telling the crowd of her experiences with UPMC Braddock. The woman turned her down: “I can’t get up there. I’ll cry if I do.”
When the speeches started, it became clear that this was more than just a landmark or matter of convenience. McMannis called the figures out as a man on the ground rang a bell: Six hundred jobs went down with that building, as did Braddock’s only restaurant—the hospital cafeteria—and only ATM. With it, they’ve lost their rehab center, their detox center, their emergency services, and the easiest if not only access to a hospital for some of the area’s older or poorer residents. With it, they’ve lost the place where many of Braddock’s children were born and where many of their loved ones died.
Local musician Mike Stout brought some flair and a sense of hopefulness along with his acoustic guitar, adding his voice to the others who determinedly called out the ugly politics and implications of this particular demolition. As a whole, the demonstrators decried the plutocracy that turned what some saw as their community’s heart into yet another decrepit pile of rubble; they elucidated their outrage with poetry, song, and testimonials. As the pastor spoke an earthmover rumbled to the edge of its enclosure, the metallic screeching of its gears and treads competing with his pleading, impassioned baritone. In response he called out a comparison to David and Goliath, his voice echoing against the hard concrete walls on the other side of the street. “Let me tell you right here,” he boomed. “The government is for the people. You are the people. The government is by the people. You are the people.”
On the church’s small outdoor stage, another speaker flat-out called the closure bullshit. It all ties together for these people: how public transit’s been gutted (a problem which drew six hundred people at a simultaneous rally in Squirrel Hill), the disrepair of their roads, how Pennsylvania’s education system is under attack . . . and how the state legislature is blaming citizens for these problems. Comparisons were drawn with the protests and problems consuming Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio; the call was put forth for a joining of forces and recreation of society across the board, with, “Humanity does not have a zip code!”
Though they may not have the thousands of protesters that Madison currently houses, the sentiment is the same. Here’s ground zero for social revolution: the humble roots of a broken-down old steel town in southwestern Pennsylvania. The government has failed these people. Their mayor, who constantly touts how he got Braddock’s zip code tattooed on his arm, has failed them, going pointedly MIA when faced with this debacle. Their local industry has floundered and the state that’s supposed to help them out is bleeding them dry and stripping away their community supports while blaming them for things as simple as the potholes in their streets. And so, the poor and old and infirm have stood up to say enough is enough. I don’t know how they’ll direct their energy now that the focal point of their cause is in ruins, but I wish them all the best the world has to offer.
For more information, check out Savebraddock.com.
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