restaurant can save a struggling Pennsylvania town
Nobody seems to remember the last time there was a real restaurant in Braddock, Pennsylvania. John Fetterman, the mayor, likes to say that the last place anyone could buy prepared food in town was the local branch of the University of Pittsburgh Medical System hospital — which closed in 2010. His story isn't precisely true. But it isn't too far off from the truth, either.
Along Braddock Avenue, the ten-block main strip that runs through the center of town, there's a Family Dollar, a florist, and a few small convenience stores, but most of the storefronts are long abandoned. A vinyl banner strung across the top of one business declares that Christian Tents Fast Food Restaurant is open for breakfast, but a metal gate and a terse for-sale sign indicate otherwise, and a peek through the window reveals old junk: a green bucket, a container of bleach, and a flyer for a "spiritual musical drama" produced by the Calvary A.M.E. Church in 2002. There's not a total absence of food for sale on Braddock Avenue — a few places serve sandwiches or bar food — but if you want to sit down for a meal? You'll have to go to another town.
Braddock is just a twenty-minute drive from downtown Pittsburgh, but twenty minutes is a lot. Pittsburgh residents will be the first describe their own city as "tribal" — the city is split along ethnic, racial, and class lines, and neighborhood allegiance is so strong that it takes a lot to entice someone to go a dozen blocks, let alone cross a bridge. You have to decide to make the trip out to Braddock — bus service to the town has been reduced in recent years, so getting there without a car can take upwards of an hour — and it's an inconvenient journey, a winding drive on surface streets through dilapidated neighborhoods similar to Braddock in their poverty. Even if it weren't such a pain to get to there, Pittsburghers just don't have much desire to go.
That's all on track to change this year. On the far end of Braddock Avenue, Pittsburgh chef Kevin Sousa will open his new restaurant Superior Motors across from the (still barely operational) steel mill. He's doing this with a lot of help: there's John Fetterman, of course, but there's also the support of more than two thousand friends and strangers who collectively donated over $300,000 on Kickstarter. And Superior Motors will be more than a restaurant: Sousa's plans include a community discount, free lodging for employees, and a culinary job training program for Braddock residents.
Superior Motors isn't just a restaurant; it's a major effort to bring Braddock back to a state of urban vitality.
All of this is urgently necessary. Once a booming steel town with a population of over 20,000 in the 1940s, Braddock's steel mill is now operating at ten percent of its capacity, and the town now has barely more than 2,000 residents. When the hospital shut down in 2010, it took six hundred jobs with it. According to census data from that year, a quarter of Braddock's available housing is vacant, and that's a misleadingly rosy statistic: a significant quantity of housing has simply been demolished, and never replaced.
Superior Motors isn't just a restaurant; it's a major effort to bring Braddock back to a state of urban vitality. It's not the first step that's been taken, though. About five years ago, the town's hardships started attracting national attention, in large part thanks to Fetterman's efforts. A six-foot-eight, Harvard-educated, goateed, and just generally imposing dude scattered with tattoos, he cut a fascinating figure discussing the challenges facing Braddock with outlets like NPR, Rolling Stone, and The Colbert Report. Under Fetterman's leadership, the town has seen the opening of urban farms, art galleries, and a brewery. Crime has gone down, and non-profits teach work and life skills to Braddock's students and young people.
But investing in Braddock is still a risk. Anyone you talk to in Pittsburgh will tell you the town is one of the region's biggest concerns; besides its celebrity mayor — and lately, its celebrity chef — it's best known for being one of the worst casualties of the collapse of the steel industry, an economically gutted town barely holding on. But Sousa isn't worried about that. He's convinced Braddock will get better, and though he won't claim that Superior Motors will be the sole engine that turns it around, he plans for it to be a big part of the change.
Kevin Sousa didn't have to go very far from home to end up in Braddock. But then again, it did take him a long time to get there. Sousa is Pittsburgh's boy. He grew up in a town by the name of McKees Rocks, just about twelve miles northwest of Braddock across the Ohio River. McKees Rocks was a transportation hub back in its heyday; now, it's just another one of the Pittsburgh satellite towns whose very name — to those who've heard of it, at least — is synonymous with poverty. It was already headed that way when Sousa was born in 1974.
Back then, Sousa's father and grandfather owned a restaurant that served mostly American food, with Sicilian specials. But Sousa's, as the restaurant was called, burned down in 1981. Sousa doesn't remember anymore why his family decided not to reopen it, but he reasons that it wouldn't have been a good decision anyway. McKees Rocks at the time looked very much like downtown Braddock does now, he told me. He and his friends drank and did drugs down by the river where the barges would dock. It was fine. But he wanted to leave.
Sousa pulled a brief stint at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, but soon he dropped out and picked up seasonal work at Thrasher's French Fries in Ocean City, Maryland. He spent his next seven years there, working in the summer and traveling or picking up odd jobs in the winter. But in 2000, Sousa decided that Pittsburgh was where he wanted to be, so he returned home and enrolled in the now-defunct Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts. Outside of a two-year externship in Arizona, he's been working in Pittsburgh restaurants ever since.
Sousa was committed right from the beginning to building a relationship with his neighbors, not just running a business near them.
In 2010, a couple of architects hired Sousa to open Salt of the Earth in Pittsburgh's Garfield neighborhood. It's a hip enclave now, but just five years ago Garfield was the sort of place where the KFC was outfitted with bulletproof glass. Salt of the Earth, a modern restaurant with communal seating, was a major change, but Sousa was committed right from the beginning to building a relationship with his neighbors, not just running a business near them. Among other things, he partnered with the Garfield Community Farm, agreeing to buy all the farm's produce and helping the struggling organization become self-sustaining.
Within six months, Salt of the Earth received a full set of stars from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and a semifinalist nod from the James Beard Foundation Awards for Best New Restaurant. A year later, the Beards recognized Sousa himself with a place on the longlist for its Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic category. From there, Sousa branched out, building a small constellation of restaurants, all in neighborhoods that were still far from recovered from Pittsburgh's post-steel-collapse depression, all helping anchor those neighborhoods' revivals.
After you cross the bridge into town and travel a few dusty blocks of Braddock Avenue, Lucky Frank's Irish Pub is one of the first occupied storefronts you see. Signs posted behind the bar threaten to ban customers caught using or selling drugs, stealing, vandalizing the building, or turning tricks. Other signs advertise a happy hour wings special, but a bartender only shook his head when I asked for the menu on a Monday afternoon. The kitchen is only open a couple days a week, he told me, before turning his attention to the small group of men at the other end of the kelly green bar.
Fortunately, the man drinking a PBR tallboy two stools down from me knew where a reporter could find lunch in Braddock. "Don't go to the newsstand down the street," he said, warning me that their hoagies are too small. He told me to go to instead "the Chinese place." He pointed toward Fourth Street and told me to keep driving slowly up the hill until I saw it.
Five blocks up, there it was. Fourth Street Market is run by a Korean-American family, a woman everyone knows as Mama Yon and her son, Charles Burgess. It's primarily a convenience store, but there's a small deli counter in the back offering sandwiches and Asian specials, like the egg rolls Mama Yon makes from scratch. Photographs of neighborhood children crowd the wall behind the cash register; some of them have been hanging there for so long that the kids pictured now have children of their own, with their new baby photos next to their parents'.
He knew almost everyone who walked in the door. "People send their kids here with milk money. They trust us."
The market has been generally in the family for about three decades, Burgess told me; he and his mother took over the business from his aunt and uncle five years ago. They don't live in Braddock — they commute in daily from North Pittsburgh — but he's spent so much time there that he sometimes considers himself a local. Over the hour I spent with him, he knew almost everyone who walked in the door. "People send their kids here with milk money," he said. "They trust us."
One of those people was a young woman named Angel Jones, who grew up in Braddock right behind the Fourth Street Market. This spot and a slice joint called Pizza Dee's were the only places to go for food in town when she was growing up, she recalled, and there were a couple other sandwich or pizza places in neighboring towns that delivered, too. But there wasn't really any kind of sit-down restaurant that she could recall. In fact, nobody who came into the Fourth Street Market that afternoon could remember Braddock's last restaurant.
John Fetterman doesn't remember it either. "It certainly predates me, and I came to town in 2001," he told me. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in 2002 that a local couple had plans to open a Subway restaurant in town, but Fetterman said it never happened thanks to lawsuit threats from nearby franchisees. So Braddock residents — at least, those who can afford cars or bus fare — have to leave town to get their five-dollar footlongs, just like they have to do if they want to eat at Panera, P.F. Chang's, or even McDonald's.
On January 6, 2014, Pittsburgh was in the middle of an especially harsh cold snap. The temperature had hit seven below zero, and the wind chill made going outside almost unbearable. But Kevin Sousa was elated. His Kickstarter campaign for Superior Motors had finally reached its goal of $250,000, and the contributions were still pouring in with nineteen hours left to go. Every time Sousa checked his phone, he saw dozens of new Twitter notifications letting him know that the campaign was doing better and better. He was pulling in an amount of restaurant seed money unprecedented in the history of Kickstarter, all to open a high-concept, multi-component restaurant in a seemingly hopeless place. It was cause for him and Fetterman to celebrate.
But Fetterman didn't have time for that. While Sousa waited at Fetterman's house, watching the Kickstarter funds roll in, the mayor was driving around Braddock checking in on his constituents in the freezing weather. As Sousa recalls it, Fetterman spent the night on the phone with the gas company, urging them to turn the heat back on in about a dozen Braddock homes. If Sousa is Pittsburgh's boy, then Fetterman is Braddock's adopted son. He came to Braddock in 2001 to work with AmeriCorps, was elected mayor for the first time in 2005, and never left.
Sousa was familiar with Braddock from his teenage days drinking beer at the old steel mill, and he had read about Fetterman's work there. Fetterman had heard of Sousa, too, and was impressed that the young chef had succeeded in bringing people out to dine in neighborhoods like Garfield — and in 2011, he had an idea. "I thought that if a restaurant is going to be viable in Braddock, it would have to be run by somebody like Kevin," he told me. "Somebody who has a following, but also somebody that doesn't aspire to simply put finer and finer plates of food in front of more and more affluent and discriminating customers." He asked Sousa to join him down in Braddock for a tour.
The money wasn't just going to create a run-of-the-mill restaurant. Superior Motors had been a big dream. Now it had to become a big reality.
"When I saw the mill coming off the bridge, I fell in love immediately," Sousa recalled of his first visit to the town. Within a few hours of arriving, he told Fetterman that he wanted to open a restaurant there. Struck by the vibrance of the local community center, and the spirit of the Free Store that provides food and clothing to Braddock residents, Sousa also knew that if he did open a restaurant, it would have to be a socially responsible one — one whose ambitions went far beyond the kind of community involvement he'd incorporated into his earlier projects in Pittsburgh.
Sousa and Fetterman spent years talking about plans and scouting out locations, and in 2013 they landed on a 3000-square-foot former car dealership at the end of Braddock Avenue and things really started happening. Fetterman bought the building, moved into the second floor apartment, and offered the rest rent-free to Sousa, who in turn moved his family into Fetterman's old house a few blocks away. But banks refused to lend Sousa the money he needed to build a restaurant in a town that nobody visited. So he turned to Kickstarter to get that money — and to prove that people would come.
In those last hours of fundraising last January, Sousa ended up surpassing his $250,000 goal by more than $50,000. Over two thousand people — including the actor Christian Bale, whose 2013 film Out of the Furnace was set in Braddock — donated to get Superior Motors off the ground. Three private foundations donated another $250,000 combined. Those numbers proved to local lenders that Superior Motors might be a worthy investment after all, and Sousa managed to land a business loan with what he describes as a "ridiculously low" interest rate, and another $200,000 personal loan.
The money wasn't just going to create a run-of-the-mill restaurant. On its Kickstarter page, Sousa described Superior Motors as a "community restaurant & farm ecosystem," elaborating his plans to work with a nearby two-acre urban farm, build a rooftop raised-bed garden and greenhouse, and an ambitious commitment to pay forward its anticipated successes through a tuition-free culinary training program. Superior Motors had been a big dream. Now it had to become a big reality.
In conversation, Sousa makes a point of being very clear that while he hopes Superior Motors will help revive Braddock, he has no expectations of saving it singlehandedly. Fetterman's more openly optimistic; he told me that he thinks it's impossible to overstate the importance of restaurants as economic drivers. "One good restaurant can help people reimagine a space, a street, and a neighborhood," he explained, and it's an argument that certainly feels right to anyone who already values restaurants. The trouble isn't one of overstatement, though; it's one of stating anything at all. The relative importance of restaurants as economic drivers is an astonishingly complex matter to assess.
"One good restaurant can help people reimagine a space, a street, and a neighborhood."
One thing that seems sure enough, at least, is that restaurants can be an indicator of a robust economy. In a May 2012 special report, restaurant trade magazine QSR argued that "one of the strongest indicators of the nation's employment and general economy is the restaurant industry." And in a December 2013 story, the
But, as Kolko later told me, the correlation between restaurant density and a city's economic success is a difficult thing to unpack. "The relationship runs in both directions," he said. "Restaurants are often a sign of neighborhood change or gentrification." But revitalization is usually a multi-pronged endeavor, one in which restaurants open up alongside shops, condos, small businesses, hospitals, tech offices, cultural centers, and whatever else you can imagine in just about any combination. Separating restaurants out of that equation to measure their specific influence is difficult at best — and likely impossible.
Of course, there are at least a few concrete factors by which we can measure the economic effects of specific restaurants. When Superior Motors opens, it will create new jobs. If all goes to plan with Sousa's training program, many of those new jobs will go to previously un- and under-employed Braddock residents. And the further idea of the program is that those Braddock residents who train under Sousa will be able to go on and obtain restaurant jobs elsewhere in the Pittsburgh area ("Once a chef like Kevin Sousa signs off on your kitchen skills, you can get a job anywhere in Allegheny County, no sweat," said Fetterman), making room for new students to take their places at Superior Motors, who will in turn move on to other restaurant jobs, and so the cycle will continue virtuously.
Superior Motors will also start paying local taxes when it opens. Braddock might desperately need a bump in municipal revenue, but one restaurant's contribution to the bottom line is more or less negligible, pointed out Mike Madison, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and writer who has studied Pittsburgh's revitalization. "A restaurant's not going to throw off enough in the way of property taxes to make a meaningful difference in the town's ability to provide public services or invest in infrastructure," he said. Madison was also less than optimistic about the restaurant's job creation impact: Superior Motors will be a sixty-seat restaurant, large for Braddock, but a size that only requires about twenty employees total. Even with Sousa's training program, that means the restaurant would only employ a handful of actual Braddock residents.
Though a single restaurant might not be able to do much for a community in a direct economic sense, where it can make a difference is emotionally. Alice Julier, director of food studies at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, argues that restaurants and food projects like urban farms help a community form a cultural identity, which in turn entices others to join the community. "It's more vitality in terms of what the neighborhood is like," she said. "And what it offers for people who want to live there." And according to Julier, people want to live in neighborhoods where they can find affordable, interesting, and good food, particularly in a city. "It's what we expect out of urban life."
But what's unclear is whether a trip out to Superior Motors for dinner will compel all of these people to stay in Braddock, spend their money there, and truly invest in the community. Julier believes in culinary tourism as a valid economic development strategy — after all, she argues, the largely economically insecure people of Braddock cannot be expected to support an influx of new businesses by themselves — but she believes there have to be options for residents. "Just like anything else, restaurants exist across a spectrum," Julier said. "You want to offer people food across that spectrum, and you want to offer people jobs across that spectrum."
Madison is on the same page. "You can put all the brew pubs and upscale restaurants and coffee shops over there, and it's still food tourism," he said of the town's planned culinary revival. "My view of economic development is that it has to follow the money. Rather than saying, 'What kind of businesses would be best for Braddock?' you would say, 'What kind of money exists in Braddock that would support this business?'" In other words, he wants to see entrepreneurs opening businesses for the people who already live there, rather than creating culinary destinations for out-of-towners who will drive in, eat their meals, and leave. That means restaurants that are affordable and approachable, characteristics rarely ascribed to the sort of restaurant that Superior Motors aims to become.
Braddock has a per-capita income of less than $20,000, and the population is more than two-thirds black. The diners Sousa and Fetterman are counting on attracting are likely to be affluent and white; the businesses and organizations they're hoping the restaurant will help draw — art galleries, coffee shops, boutiques — are not necessarily what the current residents might choose for their main street. The two men are mindful of this; they've considered the question of whether Superior Motors portends a gentrification of Braddock that will ultimately displace its lower-income residents, addressing the town's poverty issues simply by pushing its poorest residents out into another zip code.
Fetterman and Sousa both seem to be aware of how it looks for the two of them, two white men, to be working to impose a change of fortune onto a predominantly black town.
Sousa has arrived at the conclusion that the restaurant does no such thing. "I don't see why anybody wouldn't accept us for trying to do something that was obviously bringing something of value to the neighborhood," he said. "It's not like we bought a building, kicked out a longtime resident, and said, 'Hey, we're going to do this little hipster restaurant.' I can see why that would upset people. But this was an abandoned building that was just sitting there boarded up that we turned into a beautiful restaurant that serves the neighborhood in a number of ways."
And, Sousa continued, Braddock's existing residents will benefit from the restaurant as much as any potential visitors from out of town. "People deserve to have a place to go out to eat. People deserve to have a shoe store, a pharmacy, a medical center. They're all pieces of the same puzzle," he said. "Just giving people the basic needs doesn't cover everything. That's not living."
Gentrification is controversial; even the term itself is a matter of debate. But the process — and its effects on the racial and economic makeup of a neighborhood or town — is a necessary part of any conversation about urban revitalization, including Braddock's. In a 2011 profile of Fetterman, the New York Times Magazine pointed out tension between the elected mayor (who is white) and Braddock's city manager at the time (who is black), a woman who cuttingly described Fetterman as the city's "great white hope." Fetterman and Sousa both seem to be aware of how it looks for the two of them, two white men, to be working to impose a change of fortune onto a predominantly black town.
Still, Fetterman is quick to point out how race and class always need to be considered in any conversation about municipal evolution. He moved quickly to anger when I reminded him of an old plan to build a four-lane commuter highway through Braddock, demolishing a good portion of the town in the process. "Only about an older, poor, black community could you get away with this idea, all to make white suburban commuters' drive shorter," he said of the proposal. "It was just a terrible idea, a horrible idea." By contrast, the residents of Braddock seem to welcome Superior Motors. Charles Burgess at the Fourth Street Market said that all of his customers — at least, the ones who know about the project — support it. They support the idea of a restaurant, any restaurant, coming to town. Even Burgess and Mama Yon are happy about the competition. "I love Braddock," Mama Yon said. "Anything that creates more business is good for our town."
"We don't view this as a Per Se or a French Laundry," Sousa said to me in late September. "But it will be a destination restaurant, in some sense." The Superior Motors space had just moved into serious construction mode, and he and Fetterman were giving me a tour. The restaurant is set into the ground level of the former car dealership, the dining room facing Braddock Avenue, with great big windows allowing a sweeping panorama of the steel mill across the street.
"For us, this is the million-dollar view," said Fetterman of the industrial vista. Neither man was worried that the working mill might be a distraction for diners; in fact, quite the opposite. Superior Motors is embracing the mill as part of its identity — the restaurant will retain the midcentury-industrial feel of the neighborhood with concrete floors, a roaring wood-fired grill, a partially open kitchen, and conversation pit-style seating by the windows. "The sound of the mill to me is like a kitten purring," Sousa said.
But there's more to Superior Motors than what's in plain sight. The restaurant itself is modest in size, and in the way back of the building, behind the kitchen, there's open space that Fetterman and Sousa hope will be an incubator for other businesses or community groups (a theater company recently used it for a performance).
Sousa promises that income should never be a factor in a Braddock resident's ability to dine at Superior Motors.
Most of the restaurant's produce and meat will be sourced locally. There's also that greenhouse on the roof and, down the street, a plot of land run by urban agriculture non-profit Grow Pittsburgh will provide about seventy-five percent of Superior Motors' produce. Sousa will be using honey from an apiary located behind the former convent next door (it's now a hostel run by a nonprofit called Braddock Redux, which is funded primarily by Fetterman's family). Fetterman says the restaurant's focus on local sourcing is "not a fetish. It's what makes sense." It's about supporting the community, sustaining and possibly making jobs. Whatever Superior Motors lacks in local sourcing, he says, they'll make up for in local hiring.
The long-term goal is for seventy-five to eighty percent of the Superior Motors staff to be from the Braddock area, but Sousa knows that won't be possible at first, given the difficulty of opening a restaurant combined with the lack of trained cooks in town. That's where that the culinary job training program comes in, a plan he hopes to set in motion within six weeks of the restaurant's opening. There will be six spots available in the program to start, and Sousa says the interest is high: a hundred applications already, and offers from chefs around the country to help with training. For employees or students who need housing, the convent hostel next door is providing rooms free of charge, while Braddock Redux recently bought up another property where employees can stay for free.
Though Superior Motors is aiming to become a destination for food obsessives from Pittsburgh — and perhaps beyond — Sousa's also hoping to draw diners who are closer to home. He promises that income should never be a factor in a Braddock resident's ability to dine there, and to that end, Superior Motors will offer a discount of some kind to every resident of the town. Sousa says he's not quite sure yet what form that will take, but the aim is to offer at least fifty percent off the cost of their meal, or maybe even to create a pay-what-you-can scheme. Either way, his goal for the restaurant isn't just for it to employ the people of Braddock, but to serve them, too.
David Lewis, a 92-year-old urban designer and architect, believes wholeheartedly that the right restaurant can be a good starting point for revitalizing a community. He should know; after all, a single restaurant was key to his own mission to revive the main street of Homestead, Pennsylvania.
Homestead lies no more than a three-mile jaunt from Braddock, just across the Monongahela River. The towns have their similarities. Both boast late-nineteenth-century libraries founded by Andrew Carnegie. Both were built on economies that hummed around a steel mill, though Homestead's is now defunct. And both towns declined precipitously right in time with the decline of the American steel industry.
But that's just about where the similarities end. A railroad runs on Homestead's side of the river, and a major bridge makes the town a direct pathway for Pittsburgh workers commuting from the outer suburbs. That kind of traffic makes for opportunity: a sprawling open-air shopping center took over the former Homestead Steel Works site in 1999. And, Lewis pointed out, unlike Braddock, Homestead has a main street that, while not exactly thriving, shows promise.
This last accomplishment can be credited in large part to Lewis himself, who is part of a local consortium dedicated to both preserving and revitalizing Homestead's historic Eighth Avenue. They've snapped up a number of properties, including one building that had great historical and architectural value: not only had it once operated as an inn for travelers arriving by stagecoach, its exterior is also entirely wrapped in tin. In 2009, Lewis opened a restaurant there with his wife and stepson, aptly named the Tin Front Cafe.
In Braddock, at last, there's starting to be evidence of one thing beginning to lead to another.
Thanks to timing, economics, and luck, the restaurant turned out to be exactly the encouragement the depressed main drag needed. "Almost immediately, another restaurant opened up down the street," Lewis recalled. In the years since, Homestead has seen an influx of culinary culture: more restaurants and a gin distillery have opened, and a brewery has set up shop in the old fire station down by the train tracks. This month, a Pittsburgh tour operator is launching a "Rust Belt culinary tour" highlighting "revamped treasures of the still gritty mill towns," with plans to make several stops in Homestead. "So one thing leads to another," Lewis said.
One thing also led to another in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville. Even though it lies close to downtown Pittsburgh, it languished for decades. "Ten years ago, Lawrenceville was Braddock," said Madison, the University of Pittsburgh professor. But then local developers, urban designers — including Lewis — and pioneering entrepreneurs began focused work on its redevelopment, bringing in art galleries, furniture stores, and culinary options like the now nearly decade-old Piccolo Forno, and chef Justin Severino's acclaimed spot Cure, one of Pittsburgh's hottest restaurants. "Everything developed from there," said Lewis.
In Braddock, at last, there's starting to be evidence of one thing beginning to lead to another. A couple of Carnegie-Mellon graduates opened a brewery called The Brew Gentlemen on Braddock Avenue last year. The brewery doesn't serve food, but it started attracting visitors, who in turn attracted food trucks from Pittsburgh. The owner of the Blowfish BBQ truck, Justin Blakey, found success parking outside the brewery every Friday evening, and has toyed with the thought of opening a brick-and-mortar spot in town. Superior Motors isn't the reason Blakey is interested in Braddock, he said, but a restaurant with that kind of profile is definitely a bonus. On top of all that, just two weeks ago the Allegheny Health Network opened an urgent care center in Braddock that returns some of what was lost to the town — in terms of both jobs and infrastructure — when the old hospital closed in 2010. And Sousa reports that a small Pittsburgh tech company has bought property in town, with plans to move its business over entirely.
But still, Braddock is not Homestead. "Each of these towns has its own history, assets, and service areas," Lewis pointed out, and that municipal context makes the path to recovery easier or harder. Braddock's circumstances happen to be less fortuitous than most other towns, making its revival more of a challenge. But, Lewis noted, Braddock also has a major asset in John Fetterman: a mayor who is fully engaged in his town's revitalization, personally helping entrepreneurs like Sousa, Blakey, and others find affordable real estate, and attracting national attention to the town's growth efforts. Everyone in Homestead wants Braddock to win. "The more Braddock succeeds, the more we succeed," Lewis said.
There's a bit of an "if you build it, they will come" element to reviving a neighborhood, a certain amount of self-fulfilling prophecy. "If you tell people that a town is thriving, they'll start to believe it," Madison said of the aura surrounding urban revitalization. "They'll move here and they'll invest money here." Regardless of whether the narrative is true or comprehensive, people in Pittsburgh seem to believe that simply calling a community successful will make it so. Everyone I talked to echoed Lewis' sentiments that an effective stimulation of Braddock's economy means that there could be recovery anywhere. Everyone wants Braddock to succeed, and everyone thinks Superior Motors is a big part of it.
There's a bit of an "if you build it, they will come" element to reviving a neighborhood, a certain amount of self-fulfilling prophecy.
"I wouldn't put that on Kevin," Fetterman said when I asked him about the burden of expectations that Superior Motors seems to be bearing. "To say to him, 'Not only does your restaurant have to be great, but it also has to make the rest of Braddock more attractive'? I believe that it will ultimately make Braddock more attractive, but we have other good things happening on the avenue. If he opens a great restaurant, and it continues to thrive and train young people in the culinary arts, I think that's more than anyone could ask of an operation."
Sure, the odds are stacked against Sousa with such an ambitious project — opening in such a neglected area — in such a narrow-margin industry. And he's not afraid to admit the difficulty of working in restaurants: he has battled with debt, employee complaints, and he recently had to close his hot dog restaurant Station Street, which had been heralded as a boon for its neighborhood when it opened. But people in Pittsburgh still believe that Sousa will succeed in drawing people to Braddock. The restaurant's Kickstarter provided 2,026 reasons to believe in that. And Sousa is Pittsburgh's boy, after all. As one source told me, "I don't know how he's going to do it, but he is."
There's a certain mythology surrounding both Sousa and Fetterman. Both men are larger than life, and there are some people who paint them as steel-spined heroes who will stop at nothing to protect their hometowns and lift up their neighbors. Others won't hesitate to say Sousa and Fetterman's efforts are misguided, maybe even paternalistic. (They only say this in private, though. The first rule of Pittsburgh seems to be that you don't talk shit about Pittsburgh — at least, not on the record.) But humanity isn't judged by ledger, and people are almost never entirely in the red or the black. What is true is that both men want to see Braddock succeed, and they're hoping to play a role, whatever the size, in that success.
Sousa himself knows that Superior Motors isn't enough to fix decades of brokenness in Braddock; if anything, he believes credit for Braddock's progress belongs solely and deservedly with Fetterman. He freely admits that he doesn't know much about economic development, and that it's way out of his comfort zone to do some of the things he's been called upon to do in this project, to write grant proposals or come up with a curriculum for a culinary training program. And he's not sure that Superior Motors will have the same kind of rocket-to-the-moon success he experienced at Salt of the Earth. But he is sure that he's more passionate about Superior Motors than he has ever been about anything in his career. And you could say that he's realistically optimistic. "I don't think one restaurant can save a town," he said. "But I think that it can be the start of something that can help a town save itself."