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Exquisite Corpse
October 13, 2010  | By Eric Gould


For those who find the ordinary and everyday more startling than TV drama, a new Sundance/IFC documentary on the demise and suspended afterlife of Braddock, Pennsylvania, provides TV definitely worth watching.

Portraits of Braddock is part of the documentary series called Ready to Work, sponsored in part by Levi's, and running on Sundance Channel this month. Next airing Thursday at 9 p.m. ET, it debuted Oct. 4, and is also streaming online at IFC.


Braddock is a series of vignettes -- interviews with a cross section of longtime residents still hanging on, and newcomers who have arrived in a place where a fixer-upper can be had for $1,500. All have their own individual motivation to live where there is no tax base, and a reported 90 percent of the structures have been torn down because of abandonment or neglect. The ones still left standing look like they'll be next.

When the steel industry disappeared overseas in the 1980s, most of mill towns on the Monongahela RIver near Pittsburgh lost their entire job base and, with it, their reason for being. Populations dwindled. Property values tumbled, and so did tax revenues. Poverty and drug addiction set in, and so went the downward spiral of abandonment and evaporating hope.


With Braddock and other towns languishing at low-level subsistence, the occupants may be edged out in terms of drama by the dilapidated houses and buildings themselves -- roofs fallen in, windows boarded up, paint peeled off. Rusting signs and weedy lots everywhere, Braddock weathered into an exquisite wreck, wearing the neglect and passage of time like a great piecemeal quilt, which is at times hauntingly beautiful.


Indeed, one of the better parts of director Aaron Rose's Portraits is the photography (by Tobin Yelland). As a subject, the wrecks of Braddock drift by one after another, often filmed from a slow-moving car. As the sad parade goes by, it's hard to think that even with intermittent booms since the early '80s, towns like Braddock couldn't make it back, and are still trying to find a way out. It leaves you wondering whether there is no economic model that makes sense to get these kinds of areas back to work. Are they just doomed to disappear, Darwinian victims of tidal changes in the economy?


Many residents of Braddock grew up there and can't envision themselves living anywhere else. It's home. Others have arrived looking for affordable real estate and the hope of a new start -- to reclaim the town and their own lives. Marshall, a sustainable farmer determined to bring the town fresh food, began Braddock Farms on empty lots virtually in the town center.

Artists, too, as in many communities looking to revitalize, have been encouraged and helped to move in. Inspired by the rust and decay, these new residents are compelling for their youth and their optimism amidst the ruins. It's an engrossing contrast of lives lived with passion and a town in many ways far past hanging on by the fingernails.

Levi's Ready to Work campaign seems to be an authentic case of a large corporation taking its social responsibility seriously, and using that as part of its marketing campaign. Their website goes far beyond their brand and product with current sustainable and green articles, and with this series, they've contributed financially to Braddock reclamation projects.


Instead of models posing as the downtrodden, they hired real Braddock residents for billboard and print ads that claim to explore real people facing real hardships in a tough economy. They're spotlighting those who like newcomers to Braddock are trying to make new opportunities for themselves after the job market left them with no other options.

Well, buyer beware. It's probably unwise to take a corporate responsibility campaign unquestioned, especially directly from that same company's PR department. (I assume Sundance and IFC are our fourth estate in this regard.) There's always the possibility we're simply watching a long-form Levi's commercial couched as a gritty documentary.

But let's assume the best of intentions for now, and say that Portraits of Braddock is indeed what it says it is -- a collaboration between these extremely talented filmmakers, the local government, a socially responsible corporation, and the occupants of this very strange, very rundown, endlessly interesting community.

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