Something About Beer and Economics

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I wrote this essay for a creative nonfiction class I audited five years ago, in the spring of 2015, before the current occupant of the White House rode down that fucking escalator to announce his candidacy. Anyway, I’ve been on Medium for years and have never posted here, but I’m having trouble reconciling Typepad with my URL and for now it’s easier to just post here. I want to get some of my writing out there, and much of my personal blog (c. 2004–2011) does not need to be part of it.
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The whimsical, shiny mosaic sign that welcomes visitors to Historic Braddock, Pennsylvania, belies the sights that greet you once you have passed it: the run-down buildings, the empty storefronts, the collapsing roofs. But as you drive a bit farther down Braddock Avenue, signs of improvement appear, even some new construction. This once-prosperous town has been on hard times for a generation but a few people are working hard to turn around its fate. Asa Foster and his partner Matt Katase are two such people. These young men have brought craft beer — and a lot of hope — to Braddock.

Their brewery, Brew Gentlemen, started as an idea when the two were students at Carnegie Mellon University. The two changed their majors — Katase from math to operations research and entrepreneurship, and Foster from art to digital media and fabrication — in order to pursue this dream of opening a craft brewery. Foster took a class called Mapping Braddock, which required that he spend a lot of time here, and he suggested it as a possible location. Neither Foster nor Katase are from Pittsburgh, yet they saw the potential and energy in this impoverished neighborhood. For them, it seemed like a perfect place and opportunity to build a business from the ground up.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $7,000 beyond their initial goal of $25,000 (full disclosure: my husband and I contributed a small amount), as well as private funding and loans, Foster and Katase opened Brew Gentlemen in 2012. The taproom opened in May 2014. The building, with its fresh paint and large mural, stands out on Braddock Street, the main drag. The day I visited, the taco truck parked out front, PGHTaco, drew a crowd before the taproom even opened.

*****

When my father learned that I was going to research a brewery in Braddock, he told me that my stepmother Barbara’s mother had worked there after Barbara’s father died. I asked her about it when we met up for lunch. “She worked for an upscale little retail shop for women called Fashion Spear, owned by Sydney Katz. He and his wife used to make regular trips to New York to bring back the latest. It was very exclusive and my mother had her regular customers she had to call from places like Squirrel Hill and Sewickley.” [These are affluent communities in and around Pittsburgh.] Barbara added, “If I remember correctly, it was one of the last stores to finally close. Most of their customers had drivers who brought them in and waited for them at the curb so they didn’t have the fear that lone travelers might have had as Braddock went under.”

After hearing this anecdote, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to Braddock. For so long, it had been a vague notion for me, the name of a Pittsburgh-area town that I heard here and there, but never had reason to visit in my suburban upbringing. As a kid, the closest I ever got to Braddock was Kennywood amusement park, during our annual school field trips. You can see the steel structures of Kennywood’s roller coasters across the Monongehela River from Braddock, in fact. They tower over the ridge above the river, jutting into space, impressive even from a distance.

After riding the length of Braddock Avenue, I decided that I would not get out of the car to take pictures. My decision had nothing to do with being scared; there were barely any people around. It was more about respecting the place and not wanting to engage in “poverty tourism.” I took lots of notes as my husband piloted the car through the streets. I knew the town had been devastated during the economic crisis of the 1980s and that thousands of residents — some 90 percent of the population — had left but I didn’t expect the decay to be so bad: empty lots, decrepit buildings, roofs falling in. “The Place to Be” lounge, on a side street, looks like nowhere you’d want to go. Ferty’s Bar, toward the north end of Braddock Avenue, looks like it hasn’t been open in at least 25 years; its sign is peeling and covered in dead ivy. I saw no sign of Sydney Katz’s Fashion Spear. The sense of abandonment is tangible, despite Braddock’s current mayor John Fetterman’s work to revitalize the town. For more than ten years, he has worked to revive Braddock, first as part of AmeriCorps and now as mayor. After his election, Fetterman facilitated the startup of youth and art programs, a community center, and has used his own money to purchase homes, which he renovates and offers at low rents. His extensive work in this town he claims has a “malignant beauty” is paying off. There are signs of life: the youth community garden; murals and other street art; studios and lofts developed by TREK Development Group.

We drove past the youth community garden, and I focused on a pile of old tires. The black rubber seemed to swallow up the brightly colored fence surrounding the garden. The ugliness overshadowed the beauty, a perfect metaphor for Braddock itself. A second pass in front of the garden revealed that it was cared for, attended to, loved even. And that is also a metaphor: outsiders see the bad things first but take a closer look and the love becomes apparent. People are working hard to bring Braddock back to some semblance of its former self. The mayor loves this city. And the little changes are adding up to bigger changes, such as businesses choosing to locate in Braddock. For a town that was given up for dead, this is huge.

*****

Lawrenceville is an up-and-coming neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and it is light years ahead of Braddock in terms of infrastructure and amenities. The length of Butler Street, the main drag, is populated with cafés, restaurants, shops, and breweries. I believe that breweries create economic opportunities, after seeing firsthand the effects the rise of craft breweries had on Lexington, especially the good effects that West Sixth Brewing had on its neighborhood. West Sixth provided jobs and opportunities for the local population and its presence helped reduce crime and drug activity. It seems like much the same has happened in Lawrenceville and could potentially happen in Braddock. One of the first breweries in Lawrenceville, Church Brew Works, opened in 1996. It drew people who would not ordinarily set foot in “Larryville,” as it is affectionately called. What followed was years of community development that helped turn the town around and into the hotspot that it is.

The differences between Lawrenceville and Braddock are marked. Lawrenceville has a hip, indie vibe. It is a bustling place. Its real estate prices are growing fast, as Pittsburgh realizes what a treasure it is. Braddock, by contrast, feels and looks like a shell of a town. I texted my shock at Braddock’s appearance to a friend who was to meet us at Brew Gentlemen, and he replied “Downtown Braddock looks a thousand times better than it did five years ago. Everyone feels sorry for the town because of its rich history. That mill was Andrew Carnegie’s first steel investment.”

That mill, the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, is still in operation at the edge of Braddock. I had no idea there were still operational steel mills in The Steel City. The Mon Valley Works — Edgar Thomson Plant, as it is officially known — is owned by U.S. Steel and has been in operation since 1872. As of 2005 (the most current data I could find), it produces 28 percent of domestic steel production and employs about 900 people, some of whom are second- and third-generation steelworkers. The mill sits on the site of Braddock’s Field, a battle site of the French and Indian War. British General Edward Braddock and his troops were defeated here, and Braddock himself was killed. This gives double meaning to the “historic” label applied to Braddock: battlefield and steel mill. The rest of the town doesn’t seem so historic; the neglect and disrepair of many of the properties belie the heritage of this place. Still, some buildings are well maintained. Others are shiny and new. The odd mix of abandoned properties and new construction give Braddock a rag-tag feel.

Brew Gentlemen is housed in a former electrical supply company. The building has been renovated, and the public part of the building is welcoming and attractive. The taproom still has an industrial feel with one exposed brick wall but the bar and other walls made of reclaimed wood lend a pleasing warmth. The friendly bartender added charm to the atmosphere, too. I had an appointment with Foster at opening time one recent Wednesday. My husband and I ordered a flight of five of Brew Gentlemen’s beers as we waited for Foster. The General Braddock’s IPA, an east-coast style IPA, was my favorite of the bunch but they all went down very easily. The place makes good beer.

Foster is an affable young man, clean-cut, and, well, a gentleman. We spent an hour chatting about the brewery and Braddock. I asked about how the community had responded to the brewery’s opening the previous spring. “There’s a fairly segmented population in Braddock, so the response wasn’t unilateral,” he said. “We were encouraged by people who were happy to have anything commercial in town but not too many residents stop in the taproom. Some folks were happy about us, some were not.” When I pressed, Foster explained that he felt that the tensions came from “old versus young, rather than black versus white.”

Brew Gentlemen employs ten people; two of them, the owners, live in Braddock. Foster told me that Brew Gentlemen is helping turn around the idea that Braddock is “a place you’ll get shot.” He said, “I can walk home from this place at two in the morning, and I feel safer than I did in Shadyside [an affluent neighborhood in Pittsburgh proper].” I asked Foster if he and his partner worried about gentrification, it that was an issue. He shook his head. “There’s no one left to displace. The population of Braddock fell from twenty-seven thousand to twenty-seven hundred over the course of thirty years.”
When I admitted that I had not felt comfortable leaving my car to take photos, Foster laughed and said, “People here are used to random-ass white people with cameras. It’s fine. You can go out and take photos.”

So how has Brew Gentlemen affected the town of Braddock? “Braddock is a food desert. We provide space for food trucks. That is the only place besides Family Dollar that you can get a meal in Braddock. But we can’t take credit for that; we just provide a space for another business. Braddock has a lot less red tape for food trucks than Pittsburgh does.” (Braddock has at least four markets/grocery stores, so the food desert claim may come from the lack of restaurants, but that is also changing. More on that later.)

So if the locals don’t really belly up to Brew Gentlemen’s bar, who does? Craft-beer lovers from all over, that’s who. Foster said that a lot of empty-nesters frequent the taproom as well as people their children’s age. This jibes with what I have noticed in Lexington: the taprooms attract people of all ages. When I spoke with Mayor Fetterman a couple days later, he told me that people from Sewickley, the richest community in Allegheny County, are coming to drink beer in Braddock, the poorest community in the county. “A quality-of-life business like this draws people,” he said. His pride in what the brew gentlemen have done was evident: “They have an exceptional work ethic, and they care about the community. I’m amazed constantly at their ingenuity. I had high hopes and they’ve been blown away tenfold. These guys are 24 years old, and they’re killin’ it.”

It is hard to separate Braddock from the image of its mayor. Fetterman is a tattooed Paul Bunyan, a gentle giant who loves his adopted hometown. I asked him what some recent developments had been. “Well, we just got the urgent care center in town. I can’t overstate the importance of that to the community.” (In 2010, Braddock’s hospital, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, closed despite the protests of Fetterman and concerned citizens.) He mentioned that his wife, Gisele, runs FreeStore15104, an organization that distributes surplus and donated goods to citizens in need. Started in 2009, FreeStore has grown to serve not just Braddock but all of Allegheny County. “The Freestore is a game-changer that’s eliminating both food and clothing insecurity.”

Fetterman’s devotion to Braddock and its people is evident, literally. He has 15104, Braddock’s ZIP Code, tattooed on his left forearm. On his right are dates, the dates that people have died in violent ways in Braddock on his mayoral watch. You can hear his passion for the town in his voice and the emphatic way he speaks.

*****

My hunch that craft breweries create economic development, as observed here in Lexington, turns out to be correct. According to the Brewer’s Association, in 2012, the craft brewing industry poured $33.9 billion into the U.S. economy and employed more than 360,000 people. That $34 billion represents the total impact of craft beer as it travels through the three-tier distribution system — breweries, wholesalers, retailers — in addition to non-beer products such as food and brewery merchandise. More than 108,000 of the 360,000 jobs come directly from breweries and brewpubs, including serving staff.

Mayor Fetterman called Brew Gentlemen a “quality-of-life” business and he is spot-on. People like beer, they like local businesses, and they enjoy the social aspects that breweries provide. Breweries, much like bookstores and coffee shops, are “third places,” those gathering spaces beyond home and work. After Country Boy Brewing and West Sixth opened in Lexington in early 2012, my husband and I spent quite a bit of time in each place, and we made friends there. These friendships continue beyond the world of beer.

While Foster said Braddock residents don’t frequent the Brew Gentlemen taproom — ergo, it is not their third space, yet — enough people visit from the surrounding area that Brew Gentlemen is poised to become part of the fabric of Braddock. Craft beer drinkers are bringing their money to town, and this influx is already influencing other entrepreneurs.

Pittsburgh restaurateur Kevin Sousa plans to open a restaurant near the Edgar Thomson plant at the edge of Braddock. Superior Motors will be more than just an eatery, however. Sousa plans to offer free housing for employees as well as a community discount and a culinary training program for Braddock residents. And the success of his other restaurants means he is well known in Pittsburgh. Superior Motors will bring people to Braddock, just as Brew Gentlemen does. The community discount will ensure that Braddock residents also get a taste of Sousa’s cooking. The restaurant will also ostensibly provide a few jobs for residents as well, serving and dishwashing positions at the very beginning, and later cooking jobs, once the culinary training program is up and running.

Brew Gentlemen has not yet hired from the local community because, according to Foster, even a beer server requires specialized knowledge. Future plans include a production facility and when that day arrives, the brewery will likely hire Braddock residents.

*****

Can Braddock be saved? I believe so, but it will never be the Braddock of yore. This town cannot be restored. Instead, it is being reinvented, thanks to Mayor Fetterman’s belief that Braddock is worth investing in. He is the catalyst as well as the face of Braddock. His work in attracting entrepreneurs via financial incentives is one reason entrepreneurs are choosing to locate their businesses in Braddock.

Brew Gentlemen is also helping this renaissance, by helping make the town more attractive to visitors. “If you build it, they will come,” that famous quote from “Field of Dreams,” applies especially to breweries, to my mind. Foster and Katase have created a place where people want to visit: a craft brewery in a rundown town. Their product — good, local beer — keeps people coming back. Who knows what chance encounters might happen in these third places, what relationships might develop, what opportunities might arise? Foster said that Brew Gentlemen was helping people understand that Braddock is no longer a dangerous place. It happened in Lawrenceville, with Church Brew Works’ pioneering, and it can happen in Braddock with Brew Gentlemen leading the charge.

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I'm Ali. I think. A lot. Sometimes I write.

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