I almost skipped Ready to Work: Portraits of Braddock for fear that it was going to be an hour long infomercial about how wonderful Levi’s is and how it’s altruistically rescuing the Rust Belt city of Braddock, Pennsylvania. (Levi’s is prominently billed as sponsoring the film.) But really there’s very little of that, at least not overtly. The only time Levi’s is even mentioned in the film is near the end, when the mayor of Braddock John Fetterman notes that the company has provided the funds for one of the city’s revitalization projects.
By way of background on Braddock itself (this is based on what’s stated in the film, and some additional information I found online later about the city), it’s on the outskirts of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Its economy was very much dependent on the kind of steel and heavy industry jobs that have practically disappeared in recent decades. It is the site of the first of the thousands of libraries built with Andrew Carnegie’s money.
The population peaked in the low 20,000s in the 1940s or 1950s. One of the interviewees notes that the town started going downhill as early as the 1950s. But the collapse accelerated with white flight, the ruination of the steel-based economy in the 1970s, and a severe crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s. The current population is 2,600-2,700, so maybe 1/8 of its peak. It is now about 2/3 black (though maybe 3/4 of the people in the film are white). A good portion of the town consists of empty lots and buildings in shambles.
The format of this documentary is a series of interviews with current residents, talking about Braddock past and present, why they live in Braddock, what they expect for its future, etc. Mayor Fetterman figures prominently.
As one might expect, it’s mostly a positive, uplifting film about plucky folks persevering through hard times and rebuilding their community.
But it’s not as hokey a version of that as it could be. The people come across as real and quite likable. The mayor is particularly impressive—a no-nonsense tough guy who looks like someone you’d see walking out of a biker bar. Some of their stories are moving. They talk about what an empowering, energizing feeling it is to rebuild, to know that there are specific tangible things you can do to make your life and your community better and to do them. They have an impressive bounce in their step given that they live in a shithole, and it doesn’t come across as just some phony PR thing for the cameras.
Still, even if these folks mostly feel real, and even if the film doesn’t go overboard in being uplifting and positive, there are a lot of questions it either barely goes into or doesn’t go into at all.
Braddock’s demise is treated as if it were the result of some impersonal disaster that befell them, like an earthquake, that they’re now joining together to recover from.
While it’s certainly true that the devastation of Braddock was due to forces beyond the control of its people—especially its working class, regular folks—it didn’t happen as a result of some destructive act of God or nature that no one is responsible for. These things happen because specific people—mostly those with the most economic and political power in the town, the country, and the world—make specific decisions motivated by narrow self-interest, ideology, hatred, whatever it might be, that destroy communities.
Someone decided—or really lots of someones decided—that they would do X instead of Y because it would result in more money in their pocket, not knowing and/or not caring that people in places like Braddock would be killed or have their lives severely damaged as a result.
Nor does the movie say much about race. Presumably this town used to be majority white before most of them ran away rather than live close to blacks. What kind of specifically racial conflict has there been in the town’s history? What racial conflicts are there now?
The film stays away from anything political or social like that. This is just the story of these individuals starting gardens, remodeling houses, babysitting each other’s kids, and displaying a “can do” attitude.
Which people are not interviewed, though, is as important as which people are. If you really wanted an accurate picture of Braddock, you wouldn’t interview almost exclusively people who are maintaining positive attitudes and soldiering on against adversity and all that. Unless pretty much everyone is like that, which defies belief.
So where are the people who’ve given up hope, the people committing crimes, the people living irresponsibly, the people sick and dying due to inadequate health care, the angry people? For that matter, what about the 80%-90% of the people who are gone?
It’s nice to tell a story about how Braddock is full of well-intentioned, determined folks who have declared that this is their home and they’re going to be loyal to it and do whatever it takes to rebuild it. But you can only do that by being very selective about what you show and what you don’t.
Which maybe means in a more subtle way this is an infomercial for Levi’s after all. The film comes full circle, from Carnegie’s largesse to that of Levi’s, with the implicit theme being that corporations are there to provide a benevolent boost when plucky underdogs try to build or rebuild their town. When in fact it would be more accurate to depict the role of corporations and their “generosity” as akin to an invading army pillaging and plundering everything in sight, and then at some later point dribbling out a few dollars toward rebuilding after the devastation they caused.
One other tidbit that caught my attention pertains to the recent modest influx of artist types to the town. Mostly they seem like good people with good attitudes, and on the whole they’re presumably beneficial for the local economy and such. But I did find it rather interesting when one young woman artist remarked that what she treasured about Braddock was precisely the fascinating decay of it, how all the crumbling buildings and the like had such history and character, and that if the city did get back on its feet and rebuild she would probably just move on and look for another Rust Belt ghost town in which to be an artist.
I can understand why urban ruins are aesthetically or intellectually more intriguing to contemplate than whatever modest level of improvement is realistic for Braddock—a few more poorly paying jobs, some chain stores and restaurants—but we’re talking about human lives here. It’s like saying “If they ever did cure all these folks of cancer, I suppose I’d just have to hang out at some other hospital instead, because the cancer cells are just so cool looking under the microscope.”
On the whole, Ready to Work: Portraits of Braddock held my interest OK. I appreciated hearing the people’s stories, and I appreciated their attitudes. The mayor’s certainly a guy I’d want on my side. But I’m not going to say I was into the film in a big way.