BRADDOCK, Pa. — As Americans wonder just how horrible the economy will become, this tiny steel town offers a perverse message of hope: Things cannot possibly get any worse than they are here.
Hunched on the eastern edge of the Monongahela River only a few miles from bustling Pittsburgh, Braddock is a mix of boarded-up storefronts, houses in advanced stages of collapse and vacant lots.
“Everyone in the country is asking, ‘Where’s the bottom?’ ” said the mayor, John Fetterman. “I think we’ve found it.”
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.