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'BRADDOCK, PA' is Strong Non-Traditional Content on a Non-Traditional Provider
July 31, 2018  | By David Hinckley

I still cringe when I hear a phrase like “video content,” which sounds so much more robotic and clinical than “TV show.” Then I see a series like BRADDOCK, PA, and I remember why a phrase like “video content” came into currency in the first place.

BRADDOCK, PA consists of four connected reports on Braddock, Pa., a steel mill town that’s trying to hang on in the face of current economics and past environmental atrocities.

It airs starting Wednesday on topic.com, a content producer better known for acclaimed feature films like Spotlight and Leave No Trace.

But topic.com says its real mission is to offer a forum for things that need to be said, even in nontraditional forms, and BRADDOCK, PA fits that definition.

Its four parts run less than 30 minutes, total, and almost half of that comes in a segment on Summer Lee, a Democratic socialist who is running for the Pennsylvania state legislature from the district that includes Braddock.

Lee is interesting enough. She grew up wanting to be "a civil rights activist," she says, before adding in the next breath that she realizes that’s not really "a job."

But maybe by running for public office, she muses, she could make it one.

It’s an intriguing thought, underscored by the death this weekend of Ron Dellums. Dellums got his start as a community activist in the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s before rising through the political system to become a congressman for 28 years. He then returned a few years later to become mayor of Oakland.

While BRADDOCK, PA doesn’t make Dellums or anyone else a reference point, that’s the way leaders can rise all across the political spectrum.

Rosie Haber’s mini-documentary on Braddock looks for signs of hope in a town that’s been badly beaten down. Over the last half-century, it has lost 90% of its population, and the legacy of the steel mill that spawned Braddock in the first place, 146 years ago, is decidedly mixed.

The residue from decades of black smoke and other steel mill byproducts has turned Braddock into one of the most likely places in America to develop cancer. Among other things.

Because she’s not aiming for a comprehensive historical study of the town, Haber instead focuses on a couple of specific subjects.

One is a couple who have become urban farmers, trying to turn Braddock’s increasingly vacant land into sources of the nutritious food that is otherwise hard to come by.

They’d love to make this a career, they say. The problem is land insecurity. They lease land now, which means it could slip away at any time if the owners get a better offer.

Another segment deals with "environmental racism," an umbrella term that includes, among other things, the fact that black families for many years were forced by de facto segregation to live in the areas right next to the mill, where the acrid smoke filled their homes.

It isn’t that black workers couldn’t afford better homes but rather that banks would not give them loans.

BRADDOCK, PA has a number of sharp-edged historical factoids like that which give it a punch greater than its short length might suggest.

It doesn’t outline any broader plans for resurrecting the town, perhaps because at the moment there aren’t any. It does strongly suggest that a number of people there have not given up, which in itself provides the hopeful part of the message.

In the video content arena, perhaps topic.com and Haber hope that people who wouldn’t watch a lengthy documentary on an ailing Rust Belt community might watch four shorter, punchier segments that focus on people inside the town who are doing things we might not expect.

If it works, there’s nothing not to like.

(All photos courtesy of Topic.com)

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