In North Braddock, a Derelict Church Offers Signs of Hope
In 2007, I was shown a church in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, a small town located in the lush hills of the Monongahela River Valley. Long derelict, the building was likely to be demolished within the coming year if something wasn’t done to stop the degradation of time and rain.
I have such a clear memory of looking up into the crumbling plaster of the vaulted ceiling, and out across the expanse of the main room and seeing in my mind’s eye what could be described as a room filled with ghosts of a very beautiful future.
This allure of pure potential was short lived. The rest of the story—longer, richer, more complicated—is what we’re unearthing and creating now.
One question that I often ask myself as we go about the work of turning this abandoned religious institution into something that will once again serve its community, is how we, as artists, and as a secular society, can create spaces that will fill the heart with awe—that will connect us with each other and become a part of building the social fabric of our lives in the same way that this church did in its heyday.
What is the role of beauty and wonder that was so well understood by the builders of these churches? What part of our lives go missing or silent when these spaces are gone?
Can we harness what they knew about making monumental architecture a central node of community, and take those lessons on in a new way? Make them our own?
This year, we’re starting Braddock Tiles, a ceramics workshop that will make 20,000 beautifully colored tiles to give the church a desperately needed new roof. In an area that has suffered so much from the loss of jobs and the loss of local industry, every problem becomes an opportunity to create meaningful work. And so, the roof will grow out of the tile factory, and the tile factory will, in turn, continue to support the repair of the building.
This past summer our renovation efforts continued. We gathered a mix of volunteers from out of town curious to see what’s happening with the church and lend a hand, as well as folks we know through the youth program and from working with our local partners Transformazium. Together we worked on changes that can be seen from the street, like brightly painted doors. We also completed work that remains mostly invisible, such as removing rubble and abating mold.
Seven years after I first stepped inside the church, it feels like the real work is finally beginning. In the images that accompany this essay, photographer Tod Seelie offers a brief pictorial history of the progress made since the project started back in 2010.
Earlier this year, I started the Heliotrope Foundation to give strength and structure to Braddock Tiles and its sister projects in Haiti and New Orleans. In September, we’re launching a Kickstarter campaign to make the Braddock Tiles ceramics workshop a reality.
So many people have been a part of this work so far, from the block of Jones and Hawkins, to people who have supported from afar, from all over the world, all of us connected by a deeply rooted desire to mend, repair, heal, regenerate, reinvent, turn to face the sun, and to help things bloom.
Neighborhoods is an ongoing series that explores community arts initiatives and grassroots artist-led projects in the Pittsburgh region and beyond.