Braddock brings attention to towns in decline after steel

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

The once-bustling, now-struggling community of Braddock, Pa., has slowly garnered national attention as the community attempts to find both creative and inspired solutions to the economic downturn. Braddock first entered national news last year after an article in The New York Times described the town’s ongoing attempts to reverse decades of decline, which began with the collapse of the steel industry and then became even worse with the current economic downturn. Since then, Braddock has been covered in a variety of national and international news sources — even gaining its own section on, the popular international magazine and integrated media platform for “people who want to live well and do good.”

Even at Carnegie Mellon, Braddock has become a focal point of new and inventive educational experiences. Jill Miller, a visiting assistant professor of art, has created an advanced sculpture, installation, and site-specific class that focuses on the rural community called Mapping Braddock, in which students are asked to produce ethnographic interviews, collect histories, and create a picture that represents Braddock.

However, a recent move by Levi Strauss & Co., the popular clothing company known by the majority of the nation for its denim, has the potential to bring Braddock a new level of fame.

This summer, Levi’s officially launched an advertising campaign featuring the landscape and community members of Braddock. The ads, which can be seen online, in print, on television, and across large billboards throughout Pittsburgh, feature the phrase “We are all workers.” Photos of families and individuals in Braddock accompany the phrase, which is centered just above a small caption reading “Braddock, Pa.” in the bottom right-hand corner. In partnership with Levi’s, the Sundance Channel and the Independent Film Channel are also working to present a series of videos about Braddock and its people.

When I initially heard about the decision by Levi’s to include Braddock in its new campaign, I was immediately against the move. Levi’s primary goal is, of course, to make a profit. The use of a struggling Rust Belt town in a national corporation’s ads reeks, to me, of exploitation. Levi’s is, more or less, using a community’s unfortunate situation to produce a sentiment that primarily results in increased sales.

However, as the campaign has gained momentum, more details regarding the community’s involvement have surfaced, and I have found that my outrage has diminished, if not disappeared. First, and most influential in affecting my opinion regarding the campaign, was the information regarding Levi’s investment in the community. Levi’s is giving Braddock more than $1 million over the next two years to fund a new community center and support the Braddock Urban Farm. As reported by PittsburghLive, Levi’s contacted the mayor of Braddock last fall and “did an exploratory visit and presented the concept of a partnership between the company and the community,” said Braddock mayor John Fetterman, who won’t appear in the ads. “What they were offering wasn’t participation in a marketing campaign, but an incredible opportunity.”

Regardless of being wary of the potential for exploitation, I have to applaud Levi’s decision to pair a successful advertising campaign with an attempt to improve the lives of a community that is in desperate need of help. While Braddock residents may not be the most photogenic, the most educated, or the most successful, it is admirable for a large company to take up their cause, feature real individuals, and encourage the transformation of a community. I can only hope that more groups will follow Levi’s example, stepping up and backing the hundreds of communities whose situations parallel that of Braddock’s.