Gretchen McKay

Dreams of a dreamer

Gisele Fetterman helps her son August, 4, get ready for school at their home in Braddock. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

The line of new and expectant mothers stretched a half block down Braddock Avenue by the time Gisele Fetterman opened the doors of a former-pharmacy-turned-business-incubator at 5 p.m. and welcomed in the smiling faces.

Inside was a mountain of baby equipment and supplies, still in their original packaging, free for the taking. The charity organization Delivering Good had dropped off 27 pallets of infant gear that morning — enough car seats, strollers and baby carriers to fill the beds of more than two dozen pickup trucks. It was time to give it all away at Braddock’s first community baby shower.

It took Ms. Fetterman and her volunteers more than eight hours to unload and sort the baby booty into piles. Larger pieces got stacked against a wall on one side of the room; baby books, clothes and blankets were piled high on a folding table on another, kitty-corner from where MAYA Organization handed out flyers about the nonprofit’s free services to pregnant women.

 

“It was my workout for the month,” joked Ms. Fetterman, 36, herself a mother of three, before rushing off to kiss a baby and envelop his excited mom in a hug.

Many politicians’ wives do good deeds for the communities they live in. Ms. Fetterman has rolled up her sleeves and gotten to work in her adopted town of Braddock from day one, and never slowed down. And she has big plans in her new role as Pennsylvania’s second lady after her husband, John, was sworn in as Pennsylvania lieutenant governor in January.

Since moving to Braddock from New Jersey more than 10 years ago, she has become one of the struggling steel town’s staunchest activists and community leaders. The baby shower showcased her latest initiative, The Hollander Project, the incubator and co-working space for local women entrepreneurs she co-founded last year.

In 2012, she established Free Store 15104, where residents in need can “shop” for slightly used clothes and household items and surplus food. In 2015, wanting to address the disparate problems of food insecurity and food waste, she co-founded 412 Food Rescue so that unwanted, perishable foods made its way into schools, shelters and charities instead of a Dumpster. For Good PGH, a nonprofit that works to advocate inclusion and inspire kindness, followed in 2017.

She doesn’t draw a salary for any of it.

It’s a contagious energy that has made the Brazilian “dreamer” who came to the U.S. undocumented at age 7 arguably more popular than Braddock’s longtime, larger-than-life former mayor — her husband John.

“She’s magical,” said Kristen Michaels, her partner at The Hollander. “She just believes things are going to work when everyone else is thinking about what can go wrong or how much work it will be.”

“She has an X-factor,” Mr. Fetterman agreed. “Her compassion and empathy has no filter, and people are drawn to that.”

She’s also fearless, especially when it comes to the subject of immigration.

After her husband was elected to office Nov. 6, she tweeted, “Pennsylvania, your second lady is a formerly undocumented immigrant. Thank you.”Pennsylvania, your second lady is a formerly undocumented immigrant. ❤️Thank you.

And at his inauguration on Jan. 15, she gave her fellow dreamers a visual shout-out by attaching a pin to the bow of her vintage-inspired dress. Handcrafted by Braddock-based Studebaker Metals, it reads “Immigrant” in flowing script.

‘GOING ON AN ADVENTURE’

Gisele Fetterman thought she was simply going on ”an adventure” when her mother, Ester, asked her to help pack a suitcase in 1989. In reality, they were leaving Brazil to immigrate to the U.S. Here she is on her Brazilian passport. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

Ms. Fetterman was in second grade when her mother, Ester Resende, came home from work carrying two suitcases. They were going on an adventure, she said, and Gisele and her older brother, Delfim, needed to pack. At the time, the family was living in Rio de Janeiro’s middle-class community of Jacarepagua in the West Zone, but it was close to one of the city’s largest slums. Her mom, who had divorced Ms. Fetterman’s father when Ms. Fetterman was just a baby, had decided to escape Rio de Janeiro’s never-ending violence after learning her sister-in-law Madalena had been robbed for a seventh time. Within days, they were on a plane to New York.

No one in her family spoke any English, so they had to rely on a friend of a friend to put them up in an extra bedroom while they searched for a cheap apartment. They ended up above a doctor’s office in Queens, where her mother — a nutritionist with a doctorate in Brazil — found work cleaning houses and working for tips as a coat check girl. They furnished the apartment with items their neighbors had discarded at the curb.

Gisele Fetterman spent her early childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She immigrated with her mother, Ester, and brother, Delfim, to the U.S. in 1989, when she was 7. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

Gisele Fetterman visits the West Zone neighborhood she grew up in during an August 2018 visit to Rio de Janeiro. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

At first, Ms. Fetterman found trash-picking puzzling; in Brazil, she said, nobody ever throws anything away. But soon enough, whenever they heard garbage trucks rumbling down the block, “that’s when we went shopping,” she said. Her mother, who moved to North Braddock to be close to her daughter and her family, still has some of those original pieces in her home.

Gisele Fetterman’s parents, Delfim Almeida and Ester Resende, pictured in her hometown of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

In 1990, the family moved across the Hudson River to more affordable Harrison, N.J. Studies show that children of immigrants experience more poverty and don’t do as well in school. But Ms. Fetterman, who learned English by watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” said her family always managed to get by because of her mother’s sacrifices, even if they had to be invisible and avoid the spotlight. Smart and hardworking, she was inducted into the National Honor Society in high school.

“Kids adapt,” she said.

Other than being teased occasionally about her “unibrow,” she had no problem making friends with other ESL students. She marched in her middle school color guard, acted in school plays and dipped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins after school and on weekends. But she was never completely at ease until she became a permanent resident in 2004. Until then, she knew she could be deported at any time. “You pay taxes and work so hard, so it was like, ‘What do you mean you won’t want us here?’” she said. She became a U.S. citizen in 2009.

Her brother became an artist in New York City. She studied math at Kean University in New Jersey before deciding she’d really rather be a holistic nutritionist. She earned her degree at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition for Holistic Nutrition while also volunteering as a “hugger” at a home for babies going through withdrawal and feeding the homeless at a Salvation Army canteen in Newark, N.J.

“I always knew her future would be bright,” said her mother, because she’s a glass-half-full person. “She wears rose-colored glasses and wants people to see through those glasses.”

One person greatly influenced by Ms. Fetterman is Destinee Holmes, who met her when she was 10 through a Big Sister mentoring program in Newark. Ms. Holmes, who is studying criminal justice at Essex County College, still talks to her at least three times a week.

“She’s just a beautiful person who wants the best for you,” said Ms. Holmes, noting how she helped her navigate a skin disorder. “You can trust that she’ll always be there for you.”

After graduating from the institute in 2007, Ms. Fetterman worked as a nutritionist focusing on food justice and access. She often organized pop-ups where she distributed free furniture and other nonperishables that businesses had donated to Newark residents in need.

“I was food insecure growing up,” she said, “so knowing that even one less person isn’t is really special to me.”

A PERFECT FIT

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gets help putting on his tie from his wife, Gisele Fetterman, in their hotel room before leaving for his swearing-in ceremony Jan. 15 in Harrisburg. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

It was a 2007 article in a magazine called ReadyMade that introduced her to Braddock. Relaxing at a yoga retreat, she read about the heavily tattooed mayor in shorts who was trying to revitalize a forgotten town. As someone who also had chosen to live and work in a town that many had written off, she felt a connection.

Gisele and John Fetterman on their wedding day in 2008. The couple eloped to Burlington, Vt., and picked a justice of the peace out of the phone book. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

“It stayed in my head,” she said, and so she wrote a letter to the borough about the work she was doing and how it might translate to Braddock. Impressed that somebody had actually taken the time to put pen to paper, Mr. Fetterman called and asked her to visit. She accepted, and a month later they were exchanging strategies and ideas at a reception at the library.

It wasn’t quite love at first sight. But there was something about the 6-foot-8 man that just felt … right. Mr. Fetterman felt it, too.

“She charmed everybody,” he said, including his parents, who were in town visiting.

Braddock, Ms. Fetterman decided, was nothing like the sad, abandoned town she’d read about. “It just needed more love.”

Their relationship blossomed, and they eloped to Burlington, Vt., in June 2008, picking a justice of the peace out of the phone book. On their wedding night, they discovered they were having a baby. Karl is now 10, and they also have Grace, 7, and August, 4.

To those who don’t know them, they make a most unlikely pair, and not just because the differences are so visually striking.

She easily tears up and is constantly kissing babies. He rarely cracks a smile in public.

Stylish, with a weakness for boots, she has amassed an enviable wardrobe of thrift store and sales rack finds that ensures she looks chic even when she’s handing out diapers. He wore cargo shorts to their wedding.

She was raised vegetarian and their kids don’t eat meat either. He loves a good cheeseburger.

And she’s happy to be the front woman for her many projects and events. An introvert, he’d much rather work quietly behind the scenes.

What makes the relationship work, they said, is a shared commitment to lending a hand to those who need it and passion for social justice. “He’s just good,” Ms. Fetterman said of her husband.

“She’s the real leader,” he insisted, adding, “I’m jealous everyone loves her, for good reason.”

A FRIEND TO EVERYONE

Gisele Fetterman, with her daughter Grace, then 4 months, attends a 2011 protest to support breastfeeding in public. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

It’s virtually impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about Ms. Fetterman.

“She just says ‘yes’ without thinking about what she’s committed us to?” offered Ms. Michaels, who worked with her on the Hello Hijab project at For Good Pittsburgh, which makes tiny hijabs for Barbie dolls to teach kids about religious and cultural differences.

Gisele Fetterman circled this tweet on her Instagram story to show some people’s reaction to her childhood as an undocumented immigrant. (Courtesy of Gisele Fetterman)

David Esch of Aspinwall said he learned everything he needed to know about Ms. Fetterman last year, when her Free Store volunteers won the Jefferson Award for Public Service Team. Rather than go up on stage with her team to accept the award, she stayed in the shadows, allowing them to bask in the limelight. “It’s just how she’s wired,” he said of her generosity.

On social media, she fields a lot of vitriol from posters criticizing the fact she’s an immigrant, he said, adding that it’s unbelievably offensive and hurtful. But after many tears, she’s learned not to take it personally, he said. Instead, she tries to get her detractors to understand her point of view. “She just wants to do her projects.”

Leonard Hammonds got to know her through the nonprofit Hammonds Initiative, which offers mentoring programs to at-risk youths.

He can’t wait for the rest of Pennsylvania to become acquainted with her as she looks to expand her programs as the state’s second lady. Free Store 15104 has already inspired nine spinoff locations, and she also is interested in criminal justice reforms, especially making children’s visits to inmate parents less traumatic by allowing them to wear street clothes and meet in a warmer visiting room.

She also supports her husband’s 67-county recreational marijuana listening tour and has made no bones about being a participant in the state’s new medical marijuana program because of her own back pain caused by two herniated discs. She tweeted on Feb. 15, “I was one of the 83,000. Thank you, @GovernorTomWolf.”

She doesn’t care if you hold the highest title or are homeless, Mr. Hammonds, of Penn Hills, said. “She treats everyone the same and looks for nothing in return.”

Baby shower volunteer Cathy Welsh of Turtle Creek pointed to her knack for organizing and getting community members to work as a team. She orchestrated the event in just a matter of days because she has such a large network of supporters and has a reputation for building bridges.

The Fettermans, from left, Karl, 9 at the time this photo was taken, John, Grace, 7, Gisele and August, 4, take a walk Jan. 8 on the Westmoreland Heritage Trail in Trafford. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Not that it’s always about getting stuff. Ms. Fetterman also is very aware of people’s feelings and emotional needs, Ms. Welsh said, “even if it’s just a hug.” She got plenty after her 16-year-old son Jerame Turner was killed in a double shooting in November 2017.

Gisele Fetterman wears a pin that reads “Immigrant” before John Fetterman’s swearing-in ceremony Jan. 15 in Harrisburg. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Living in the lieutenant governor’s mansion in Fort Indiantown Gap, about 20 miles northeast of Harrisburg, Ms. Fetterman said, would not have been appropriate for their family. So her husband is commuting back and forth. It’s been tough to squeeze in much “us” time between her volunteering and the kids’ various activities. Just the other day, Mr. Fetterman said, they slipped away for a lunch of summer rolls from Green Mango in Wilkins. “But we ate in the car,” he said.

There’s no defined role or handbook for the second lady of Pennsylvania, a title Ms. Fetterman playfully refers to as SLOP. So it’s hard to say what’s to come in 2019. She’d like to see a more honest dialogue about what it means to be an immigrant in the U.S., of course, so people won’t see her and others like her as “that illegal.” Greater opportunities for the residents of Braddock and other underserved, marginalized communities are also paramount.

And she’d like to affect the food environment legislatively, so no one ever has to go hungry.

“If she’s got it to give, she’s going to give it to you,” said Free Store volunteer Jeanette Embry. “She’s teaching us all how to be a better person.”

Superior Motors demonstrates “Braddock is a destination”

Chef Kevin Sousa, owner of Superior Motor Restaurant, pours liquid nitrogen as he and his staff begin to start serving in the restaurant Thursday, July 26, 2018 in Braddock. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

On what some thought would be the one-year anniversary of its failing, Superior Motors in Braddock is humming along on all cylinders.

Even before the 80-seat restaurant across the street from Edgar Thomson Works celebrated its first birthday on July 15, it was named one of the best new restaurants of 2018 in the country by Food & Wine magazine. Chef Kevin Sousa’s exquisite modern American cuisine also has earned accolades from The New York Times.

In the process, the restaurant has created traffic jams on a once-desolate stretch of Braddock Avenue and put much-needed tax dollars into the borough’s coffers. It has made it less scary for others to do business there, too.

Patrons walk to Superior Motors in Braddock Thursday evening.(Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Just down the street, Crazy Mocha is developing a cafe and other food operations in the long-vacant Cuda Building. Brew Gentlemen continues to go gangbusters. The Mexican food truck Brassero now shares a home with Studebaker Metals in several connected structures that once housed the Braddock Free Press newspaper and Guentert’s Bakery. And just this month, Kristen Michaels of Edgewood and Gisele Fetterman, the wife of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, opened The Hollander, an incubator and co-working space for local women entrepreneurs in the old Hollander pharmacy building.

“Things are happening,” says Patrick Jordan, whose Barebones Black Box theater shares space with Superior Motors in a former Chevrolet dealership.

“It’s been a triple win for everyone,” John Fetterman agrees. “It demonstrates Braddock is a destination.”

Kevin SousaKevin Sousa, owner of Superior Motors, front, and sous chef Jack Martin, prepare dishes in the Braddock restaurant.(Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Pittsburghers might have doubted that the restaurant would succeed in such an unlikely location. Investor Gregg Kander, an attorney from Squirrel Hill who ended up raising money needed to get the project back on track after some bad press and countless construction problems, says he, too, would have hesitated but for the restaurant’s social mission.

In addition to hiring locals and giving borough residents 50 percent off meals, Mr. Sousa made good on his promised career training for Braddock townspeople. Four residents are taking part in a nine-month program that started in January, and he hopes to have an even bigger class next year.

“It fills my heart that it’s really working,” Mr. Kander says. “You just see diversity. And the staff has learned skills and” and has opportunities to go to other places.”

Superior Motors has dished up some pretty impressive meals in the process. The late Anthony Bourdain included it in a Pittsburgh episode of “Parts Unknown” on CNN, and Food & Wine magazine honored the restaurant in April.

Mr. Sousa never doubted it would be a success because of its history-making Kickstarter campaign in January 2014, which raised more than $310,000 in 33 days. That’s even when building problems put the brakes on construction —  it took three years — and drove up the cost to $1 million.

“What we’re doing is so ballsy [that] people just want to see it,” says Mr. Sousa, 44.

Most restaurants, he says, see their numbers level off after the initial hype of opening. Superior Motors does upward of 700 covers in a week, and many of his guests are repeat customers. Most are locals, but it’s not uncommon for some diners to drive more than a hour to get there; just last week, a couple drove in from Annapolis, Md., for dinner.

The restaurant’s success, Braddock Council President Tina Doose says, has helped to shed a different light on the community.

“It’s made it more inviting to some who would never have thought of it as a place for dinner,” the longtime resident says. And it’s added to the town’s growing artistic and cultural vibe, drawing newcomers into the community.”

Now, she adds, “investors know that Braddock exists.”

Count Mr. Kander among them. For his second project, he’s remodeling the former Ohringer’s furniture store building at Seventh Street and Braddock Avenue into housing for 35 artists. He also is raising money to create studio space and programs for artists in a second location.

“There’s a lot of buzz along Braddock Avenue, and Superior Motors was key in that,” he says.

Most of the Barebones’ audience eats at the restaurant before or after seeing a show, so for Mr. Jordan, it has been an especially good reciprocal relationship.

“We have each other’s backs and a true appreciation for what makes each business special,” he says.

The restaurant will celebrate its one-year anniversary Tuesday in its new courtyard with a “gratitude” party from 6 to 11:30 p.m. Tickets cost $65, and will include tacos and wood- roasted clams and mussels, multiple live music acts and a water-balloon toss. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Braddock Free Store, which was opened by Gisele Fetterman.

It precedes another neighborhood celebration. On Braddock Community Day on Aug. 11, the Braddock Civic Plaza at the intersection of Braddock Avenue and Fourth Street officially will open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m. Equipped with free Wi-Fi and tables and chairs, the 1.1-acre green space will serve as a gathering space for residents and will accommodate farmers markets, food trucks and music shows.

Despite Superior Motor’s meteroic rise, Mr. Sousa has no plans to further expand or open a second restaurant. His only goal, he says, is to build equity and make guests’ dining experiences even better.

Leading a tour of the new courtyard, which houses the Braddock Community Bread Oven along with outdoor seating for the restaurant, the chef reflects on the past year.  He still gets choked up when he steps outside after dark, he says, and watches as hot blue flames shoot from the steel mill’s smokestacks into the night sky.

“I feel instantly transported to another time,” he says.

The backdrop of the hulking, belching mill, he concedes, might not be for everyone. But those who get it probably also feel chills.

“We worked really hard. More than ever, I’m proud to be part of it,” he says.

Braddock mayor turns rehabbed warehouse into home

 

John Fetterman has never been what you’d consider a wallflower — 6-foot-8, with a shaved head and ginormous black tats running up and down his arms, Braddock’s mayor stands out in a crowd.

Nor is he afraid of a challenge. When he was elected by a single vote in 2005, this steel town lay nearly in ruins, a sad maze of boarded-up storefronts, vacant lots and decaying homes — hardly the most promising place for an out-of-towner to start a political career.

So it follows that the loft-style home he’s created with his wife, Gisele, in an abandoned warehouse on Library Street is as bold and colorful as the man himself.

A hip marriage of old and new, the three-story residence speaks to the town’s past while looking to its future. Much of it was refashioned with architectural goodies discovered at Construction Junction or originally found in the building, which dates to the 1950s and has large windows overlooking the historic Carnegie Library. But it’s modern, too, with a sweeping open floor plan, super-high ceilings and exposed ductwork that define today’s urban lifestyle.

Because he also wanted it to reflect the aesthetic of Braddock, he invited some of its youth to “tag the place up” by spray-painting graffiti on the cinderblock walls. Yet the most visually arresting detail is a narrow circular staircase fashioned by John Walter of Iron Eden. Situated dead-center in the main living space, it winds its way, rather precariously, to Mrs. Fetterman’s yoga studio on the roof — a visionary space Dutch MacDonald and Jen Bee of EDGE Studio created out of two empty cargo containers.

Post-Gazette photos

Like to see the space for yourself? On Dec. 8, the Fettermans will host to a pig roast/cocktail party fundraiser for 100 guests with chef Kevin Sousa of Salt of the Earth. Proceeds will be used to buy winter coats and Christmas gifts for Braddock’s youth through the nonprofit Braddock Redux, which the mayor created in 2006 to empower its young people through hands-on learning experiences. (Tickets cost $100; for reservations, call Salt at 412-441-7258 or email unionpgh@gmail.com.)

“It’s a great way to come out and experience the community,” he says.

A York native with a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University, Mr. Fetterman came to Pittsburgh in 1995 to work as an AmeriCorps volunteer in the Young Fathers and Mothers program at Hill House Association in the Hill District. He moved to Braddock in 2001 and by the time he was elected mayor four years later, he had become one of its biggest cheerleaders.

“It’s the perfect combination of the people, history and the opportunity to be useful,” he says.

Mr. Fetterman paid just $2,000 for the 2,000-square-foot warehouse in October 2003, but it was hardly a bargain: full of debris and “all kinds of awful stuff,” it would take months to clear, clean and transform into livable space. Luckily, he’d found a brave contractor friend of a friend who agreed to take the project on.

By the time the mayor moved in the following March, Ron Sprow of Gibsonia had put on a new roof, replaced all of the wiring, installed windows, refinished original pine floors that could be saved and installed an HVAC system. Total cost of the renovation: about $42,000.

The funky (and sustainable) third floor came later after his marriage five years ago to Gisele, a holistic nutrition activist and third-generation vegetarian. She came to Braddock with hopes of starting a program for kids after reading a story about the town at a yoga retreat.

“I drove in and loved it. I felt an immediately connection,” she says. “Then I met John and never left.”

It took a guy with a crane and “ice in his veins” just six hours to hoist the water-tight containers onto the rooftop frame. One-half of the finished space is used as a yoga studio; the other serves as a giant walk-in closet.

Before the containers went on, Mr. Fetterman used to like to sit on the roof and watch the smoke rise from the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in the distance. Today, there’s a small vine-covered deck for sitting in the sun.

The first floor originally was an art gallery. After the arrival of the couple’s son, Karl, and daughter, Gracie — both born in the house with help from a midwife — they converted it into bedrooms and a play area.

Although it’s just 20 feet wide and 50 feet deep, the loft feels incredibly roomy, thanks to the 12-foot ceilings and a surfeit of sunshine. Its charm comes from the small details. One of Mr. Fetterman’s favorite design elements is a framed collection of old postcards of Braddock; also decorating the walls are a also dozen or so grainy black-and-white streetscene photographs Mr. Fetterman shot with a disposable camera.

From Construction Junction came the three metal cornices that dress up the windows, as well as an old confessional that serves as a headboard in the guest room. The kitchen has a modular center island with blackboard sides that shares the stage with an old gateway greeting sign spray-painted with the word “crips.”

Any coziness comes from a small fireplace nestled between two windows. If you’re standing in front of it, you’re apt to look out as Mr. Fetterman loves to do.

“The fact I live across the street from the first Carnegie Library is amazing,” he says. “Andrew Carnegie literally stood across the street on the steps.”

Cool digs, to be sure. But the mayor sees his home as a small metaphor for the Braddock itself: With equal measures hard work and creativity, anything is possible.

“It shows what the potential of the community is.”

 

 

Braddock looks to new Kevin Sousa restaurant as urban renewal project

First in an occasional series on Magarac, Kevin Sousa’s new restaurant in Braddock, Pa.

Pittsburgh chef Kevin Sousa stands in the Braddock space he will convert into a restaurant. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

Even more people are going to think chef Kevin Sousa is nuts: He’s not only opening his next restaurant in busted-down Braddock, he’s also moving his family there.

At a press conference June 19 at County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office, the multi-tasking co-owner of Salt of the Earth in Garfield — and Station Street Hot Dogs and Union Pig and Chicken in East Liberty — announced that he’s opening a restaurant in the former Cuda’s Italian Market building at Eighth Street and Braddock Avenue, a desolate corner in one of the region’s most desolate business districts.

As a sign of his commitment to this broke but the once-bustling borough on the Monongahela River, Mr. Sousa decided he’s going to live there, too, in the old Ohringer Building just down the street.

“A lot of people tell me I’m crazy,” he said last week while taking visitors on a tour of the squat corner market, which was marked for demolition until Mr. Fitzgerald stepped in with development money. “But they thought that about Salt being in Garfield, and a white kid doing BBQ and my opening a hot dog shop across the street from what used to be one of the worst projects in the city.”

Plans are still in the initial stages for the loft Massaro Corp. will construct for his wife and daughters in the former commercial space, built as a furniture store in 1929 and used for years as office space for Allegheny County’s Human Services Department.

But Mr. Sousa, a McKees Rocks native who currently lives in Polish Hill, expects to move in by the time the high-end restaurant is up and running in late 2013.

It will be called Magarac. The name — Croatian for donkey — honors the imaginary Croatian steel worker who is the Paul Bunyan of steelmaking, and is embodied in a statue at the hulking Edgar Thomson Steel Works in North Braddock.

The restaurant will seat between 100 and 120 people.

It will feature the works of local artists such as Iron Eden’s John Walter, who is crafting a 23-foot steel and iron tree to be its focal point. The dishware will be made across the street by potters in the library’s basement pottery studio.

“From the minute I walked around town, it just felt right,” said Mr. Sousa.

Braddock Mayor John Fetterman approached him about six months ago after another project in that space fell through.

“Braddock gives me the vibe,” Mr. Sousa said. “It’s on the cusp of something. It’s where Lawrenceville was 15 years ago.”

In hammering out a deal with Heritage Community Initiatives, the community organization that owns the building, Mr. Sousa will bring the town its first commercial kitchen since UPMC Braddock Hospital closed in 2010.

Financing for the $714,000 project, which will begin construction this fall, includes a $290,000 Community Development Block Grant received by Heritage five years ago through Dan Onorato’s county administration, along with a another grant and money raised by the community.

In addition, Mr. Fitzgerald’s office has secured a $50,000 grant to renovate building’s brick and stone facade.

Heritage originally received the grant to rehab another building into office space.

But when the hospital shut down, those plans no longer made sense, Heritage president and chief executive officer Michele Atkins said. When the building started to collapse, the county “graciously” transferred the funds to the Cuda building, which Heritage bought in 2007 for $2,150 with plans to turn it into housing.

Later Heritage decided to lease it to new businesses in an effort to breathe life back into Braddock Avenue.

Last spring, Mrs. Atkins said, there were plans for a coffee roaster to move in along with Springboard Kitchens, a Lutheran Services Society nonprofit organization that offers food job training. But the grant process took so long, the coffee roaster gave up and moved back to Minnesota.

It was back to square one.

Mr. Fetterman, though, isn’t the type to give up.

He remembers thinking: With an empty lot across the street on which to plant a garden and more than 10,000 square feet of open space, the Cuda building would be perfect for a restaurant.

The Cuda building in Braddock used to hold an Italian market but soon will be home to Chef Kevin Sousa’s new restaurant, Magarac. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

When he asked his friends who could pull it off, only one name came up: Kevin Sousa.

Many would be scared off by Braddock’s landscape, a town where 90 percent of its original buildings are in the landfill and the remnants are in desperate need of repair.

Mr. Sousa wasn’t one of them. He said he loves Braddock Avenue’s “open sky feeling.”

Because Heritage has worked out a deal in which he’ll pay no rent for the first two years, Mr. Sousa said he’ll be able to afford taking a few more risks than at Salt with his modern American cuisine. Already, he’s thinking about the things he’ll be able to do — including lots of exotic preserving — with the fresh organic produce he’ll get at Braddock Farms and also grow on the lot across the street.

While he’s counting on foodies to come from all over, he’ll also serve the local community, with lower-priced, more accessible foods.

“It’s not, ‘Let’s create this awesome restaurant where Kevin can stretch his legs,'” Mr. Fetterman said. “The bottom line is, he’s taking on the region’s most persistent and difficult food deserts.”

To that end, Glance & Associates will include in its design a small take-out window for Mr. Sousa’s barbecued chicken and ribs and gourmet hot dogs.

The site also should appeal to beer-lovers. Two men calling themselves The Brew Gentlemen will brew at least four craft beers, including a chai-spiced white ale, on a small system in the basement.

The third leg of the complex will be Springboard Kitchen, whose staff will share the restaurant’s kitchen to prepare meals for Meals on Wheels.

The process of opening a restaurant never is easy, Mr. Sousa said, but working in this project’s favor is the fact all of the players have a common goal: Bringing people back to this once-thriving steel town.

“I’m not going there just to turn a buck,” he said. “I believe in the project, and want to be part of something from the ground up. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Will customers come? To Braddock?

“That’s a fair question for which I don’t have an answer,” Ms. Atkins said. “But I suspect the young and hip crowd will be all over this. If Kevin is willing to take the risk, so are we.”

 

Bell’s, a tiny market in Braddock, keeps serving its community

This is the fourth “This Is Pittsburgh Food,” a series of stories and videos on local traditions by Gretchen McKay and videographer and photographer Steve Mellon.

 

The staff at Bell's Market in Braddock. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

 

Louis Greenwald was just 23 when, against his father’s advice, he bought Bell’s Market, a small butcher shop and grocery on Braddock’s main drag.

His father, Edward, had owned a meat business on Fifth Avenue in McKeesport when he was growing up, as had his paternal grandfather, J.B. Greenwald. Same with his grandfather on his mother’s side, who was a butcher in Jeanette.

At the time in 1967, this mill town along the Monongahela River bustled with dozens of mom-and-pop shops lining Braddock Avenue leading to the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, the hulking steel mill constructed by Andrew Carnegie in 1873, and for many years one of the town’s main employers. Who could blame a young entrepreneur for wanting to be part of the action?

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Forty-plus years later, the tiny shop at the corner of Braddock and Sixth, is still is open for business, one of a handful of independent retailers still standing in a town that just a few years ago was almost given up for dead. Its stubborn existence is a sign not just of Mr. Greenwald’s work ethic and driving personality — 11-hour days are still the norm for his staff of six — but also a testament to his commitment to the struggling community.

Times have been tough all over the Mon Valley, but especially so in Braddock, which during its heyday in the ’30s squeezed more than 20,000 people into its 0.6 square miles. Today, thanks to suburbanization and de-industrialization, it counts about 2,100 residents. A third of them live in poverty.

A smart businessman would have gotten out. Not Mr. Greenwald. In addition to providing the town’s sole full-service grocery, the 69-year-old runs a thriving wholesale meat business out of the one-story building, which has played an integral role in feeding Braddock’s residents since it was a dirt-floored store selling pickled and salted meat in the 1890s.

“I try to take care of my employees,” he says, most of whom have been with him for 20 or more years and are raising children and grandchildren. “That’s what it’s supposed to be about.”

It’s the same tradition of looking out for others that helped Mr. Greenwald when he was getting started. When Carl Osterholm, who owned Carl’s Tavern next door, discovered on a hot July day that his new neighbor didn’t have air conditioning, he not only sent his refrigeration guy over with a used A/C unit but also hooked it into his water tower. For free. Even better, Mr. Greenwald recalls, he gave him business — providing meat for his seven restaurants.

Bell's Market at the corner of Braddock and Sixth in Braddock, Pa. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

To step into Bell’s is to step back in time: Crammed floor to tin ceiling with everything from cereal to frozen fish to spices to gallon-sized jugs of barbecue sauce, the store is so packed you almost have to crab walk to get to the meat cases. Shoppers have their choice of everything from steak, pork and chicken to salami and headcheese. For prices, look to the hand-lettered signs taped, along with hundreds of invoices, to the wall. Bell’s has a few specialty items, too, that appeal to its growing number of Jamaican and African customers, such as the goat meat butcher Dave Kennedy is carving into kebab-sized chunks on a recent Tuesday. A small selection of fresh fruits and vegetables sit in boxes at the front of the store, next to a dairy cooler.

It’s what mayor John Fetterman calls a “gem.”

“It’s a wonderful throwback to what used to be, with a guy who knows you and knows what you want,” he says. “We’re very fortunate to have it.”

You “can get a little of everything,” agrees Walt Andrews, who started working at the store 20 years ago, when he was just 18, and will carry your groceries to your car if the bag’s too heavy.

Working the cash register is his good friend Al Strozier. Originally from Penn Hills, he sweet-talked Mr. Greenwald into hiring him in 1990, after he was laid off from a refinery job in Wilkinsburg. His son, Lorrenzo, followed in 2000, when he was 13. Mr. Kennedy, the butcher, has been here 16 years, long enough to remember the days of “swinging” meat. It now comes to the shop in sections.

“We’re like family — everyone pulls together, ” he says.

Some days there’s just a trickle of customers. But there’s still enough folks who prefer the old-time feel of the shop to modern grocery stores that it often gets very busy, says Mr. Kennedy. Early in the month, lines can stretch all the way out the front door, and not just with locals.

Beatrice Jones, who’s been shopping at Bell’s for more than 20 years, makes the trek from Homestead at least once a week. Other Mon Valley communities also are well represented along with the city of Pittsburgh.

“I can get what I want here,” she says, which on this particular day happens to be bacon with the skin on it. “And it’s nice to talk to the proprietors.”

Given the hours they’ve spent together — some good, some bad — the men are as close as brothers. Mr. Strozier says of his friend, “You gotta have a right hand, and he’s my right hand.”

“Every day’s not a good day, but we keep each other’s heads on,” agrees Mr. Andrews. “We all got each other’s back.”

He’s extremely fond of his boss, too, likening their relationship to that of a father and son. “We fight all day, but it’s just work,” he says.

Mr. Greenwald has a soft spot for Mr. Andrews, too, as evidenced by a whimsical black-and-white mural he had painted on the side of the building two years ago to mark Mr. Andrew’s 18th year on the job.

He made the grand gesture, he says, because “Walt really loves the retail and the people and takes pride in it.”

Braddock has seen its share of sorrow over the years, and far too many buildings have been torn down, notes Mr. Andrews. “But I know one that ain’t goin’ nowhere,” he says. He points to the mural bearing his name.

“Lou’s here for us, to make sure we’re OK,” he continues.” We stood by him, so he’s standing by us.”

“He’s a pillar,” adds Mr. Fetterman. “He always has the community’s interest at heart.”


 

Lou’s Oven-roasted Brisket of Beef

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This is Louis Greenwald’s favorite way to prepare a beef brisket. You can substitute any root vegetable for the carrots.

  • 8-pound flat-cut beef brisket (trimmed)
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 8 yellow onions (about 4 pounds), peeled and thickly sliced
  • 18-ounce bottle barbecue sauce
  • 1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • A couple of carrots, peeled and sliced
  • A couple of potatoes, peeled and cubed

 

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Season raw brisket with salt and pepper. Place in a roasting pan. Add onions, barbecue and Worcestershire sauces and vegetables. Cover, and roast for 31/2 hours, or until fork-tender, basting every so often with pan juices. (If meat looks like it’s getting too dry, add a little water or stock.) When fork-tender, remove brisket from pan, reserving vegetables and juices. Allow to cool, then place in refrigerator overnight.

Place roasted brisket on a cutting board and slice thinly across the grain (the muscle lines) at a slight diagonal. Place meat with reserved vegetables and juices into a 325-degree oven, and heat until warm. Serve with a green salad or vegetable.

Serves 16 to 20 people.

 

— Louis Greenwald, Bell’s Market