What if you could redesign your own neighborhood? For Isaac Bunn, this is an especially interesting challenge. Sitting in the shadow of a steel mill, his family’s home is the only structure left on the block on which he lives.
Bunn was born on Ninth Street in Braddock, Pennsylvania, in his family’s home, which they have owned since 1949. Featured in Topic’s documentary series Braddock, PA, Bunn is an activist and the founder of a nonprofit called the Braddock Inclusion Project, but his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father all worked at the Edgar Thomson mill right down the street—part of the black workforce relegated to do the hardest, deadliest jobs, and without the same union support enjoyed by white steelworkers. The mill smoke looks “white now, but back then it was black as coal,” says Bunn, 49. One of his chores growing up was to shovel off the ash that would accumulate on the curb. “The cars [on our street] would have a shiny tint on them. We had to brush that stuff off. And we were breathing it in, too.”
As Bunn recounts it, his family was able to buy property at a lower cost as compensation for an accidental death at the mill. At the time it was part of a leafy and well-developed working-class neighborhood. But now, instead of other homes and yards surrounding the Bunn family property, there is … nothing. Their house is the only structure on a “superblock” of 5.17 acres. The rest of the block is taken up by a massive, fenced-in, completely unused lot.
There were still a few blighted, abandoned homes on the block in the early 2000s, when Bunn decided he wanted to acquire some of the other land around the home and put it to use. But, he says, he was blocked by the county, which then decided it wanted to do the same. “They bought everyone else out for pennies on the dollar,” he says. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m not going anywhere.’”
We wanted to know what it would like if Bunn’s dream to redevelop the block came true—if it were turned back into a bustling community, as it once was. To find out how this might happen, we asked Urban Design Associates, an urban design and architecture studio based just down the river in Pittsburgh, to visualize Bunn’s block in three stages: past, present, and one possible (and optimistic) future.
UDA urban designer Nika Mirrafie started out by visiting the site and finding historic aerial views of Bunn’s block on Google Earth and Penn State’s online library. The view from 1956 on which this drawing is based shows a block of single-family homes, whose inhabitants almost certainly worked at the mill next door. “Once the steel mill declined, the majority of them, unfortunately, were displaced,” says Mirrafie. “The block structure started to drastically change. And that’s understandable, when the neighborhood is dependent on a large employer.”
David Csont, the UDA chief illustrator who produced these drawings, says the houses shown on Bunn’s block in 1956 were typical of the kind that might’ve been built by the steel company itself in the 1920s and ’30s (which is when Bunn believes his home may have been built, too). Pittsburgh-area steel production reached its peak during World War II, producing more than 50 percent of American steel. But demand declined, and local steel mills failed to keep up with changing technology. “Between 1950 and 1960,” Csont says, “the lynchpin was pulled out almost completely.” By the next decade, he adds, most of the area’s mills would be obsolete.
In 1956, Bunn’s block lay at the junction between eras: Braddock was no longer a burgeoning steel town, but it had not yet entered its period of decline. By the late 1960s, however, almost all the houses on the block would be gone—excluding, of course, the Bunn family’s.
The site of Isaac Bunn’s family home is shocking to behold: it’s a single, well-kept house on a massive, uninterrupted superblock, without a single road or alley to divide its mass.
When he was growing up, Bunn says, most of the people who still lived in Braddock were black, as most white families had moved to nearby towns that were further from the mill. He believes that, at that point, every family on the block owned its own home. “When I was coming up, there were still signs of life. There were still things there,” Bunn says. “As I got older and older, things vanished.” And, eventually, “it was just left abandoned. It was just really, really, really horrible.”
Between 1956 and when Bunn was born in 1969, an industrial building intruded into the formerly residential block. According to aerial views of the site, that structure would later be removed, and a few new homes would be built there; but the neighborhood waned again over following decades. By 2008, it was official: the Bunn home was not only the last home standing, it was the last structure on the block.
“When I was coming up, there were still signs of life. There were still things there. As I got older and older, things vanished.”
The rest of the space has occasionally been used as miscellaneous storage space; Bunn recalls that at one point it held only massive bags of old tires (captured in a 2015 photo by his friend the photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, who is probably Braddock’s best-known artist). But now the lot is fenced-in and empty, a tarp running along the outside.
When Mirrafie went to visit the site, the first thing that hit her was not only the mill’s massive scale and its smoky, chemical smell, but also the sound: Edgar Thomson is unbelievably noisy. And without a buffer from other homes or trees, the Bunn home is vulnerable to all of this. (Although Bunn himself does not currently live in the house—he lives in another house nearby—several of his close relatives do.)
“It was so odd to me [to see it standing there alone],” she says, “but it was interesting that Isaac had stood so proud to make sure his family home was preserved. It is standing strong. It is very prominent, and in great shape.”
Bunn’s block is not easy to design for: the soil may be too toxic to grow crops. The mill emits constant noise and smoke. And it’s hard to recover from a legacy of abandonment and neglect. “Once the critical mass of people who lived in these kinds of communities are gone, it’s very hard to rewrite that,” Csont says. This design was about making use of land that was “good enough,” and making sure it reflected Bunn’s wishes for the site.
Bunn already knew what he wanted for the block. He founded the Braddock Inclusion Project four years ago, in response to his frustrations with the county and his mother Virginia Bunn’s loss in the 2005 Braddock mayoral race (to current mayor John Fetterman, by one vote). He aims to use the organization to start educational and entrepreneurial programs in his hometown, and would like his block to include buildings that could house an incubator space. He envisions the Inclusion Project partnering with nearby colleges and giving locals a place to get their business ideas off the ground. Bunn emphasizes that the entrepreneurial and educational enterprises it would house should begin as majority black. “We’re still at 87 percent African American [in Braddock],” he says, “and we want to be an example of how black communities can be rebuilt to reflect the population.”
For their proposal, UDA designers started by adding things that they knew from experience were easy to kick off in towns that need to recover. Mirrafie says one of the biggest challenges was that, with two sides of the block bordered by a steel mill and a chemical plant, there were really only two streets where people would want to enter the block or hang out. “Since we were very limited when it came to street frontage, it was important to split that interior structure,” she says. UDA’s solution was to add an interior pedestrian path down the middle. They imagine it hosting block parties, a farmers market—maybe for the produce from nearby Braddock Farms—and other kinds of programming.
“Once the critical mass of people who lived in these kinds of communities are gone, it’s very hard to rewrite that.”
An earlier plan for the site included a community garden, inspired by Braddock Farms, but Bunn nixed that idea right away. (Between the particulates from the mill and the chipped lead paint from old houses, the soil on the site is not exactly garden material.) The designers compromised by adding greenhouses, which could be enclosed and contain raised beds for planting. On the streets with usable frontage, they added multiple buildings that could function as live/work spaces: maybe there could be shops on the ground floor, with living space upstairs. There are also what Mirrafie and Csont call “flex buildings,” which are open, lofty structures that could house the kinds of tech incubators Bunn dreams of.
The biggest question was what to put on the streets facing the mill and the chemical plant. UDA’s solution was to add a multiuse playing field on one of these sides, and parking lots on the other. The trees planted between the field and the mill would act as a buffer, both visual and auditory. “It was never an option in my mind to not utilize the whole site due to the mill and current limitations, because today’s limitations might not exist tomorrow,” Mirrafie explains, adding, “It is our responsibility as designers to plan and design not only with the considerations of today, but also for the potential the future holds.”
But nothing is going to happen on the lot unless Bunn and his nonprofit can raise the money and persuade the county to let them buy the land and turn it into something new. “I feel that it’s definitely within reach,” Bunn says. He cites Braddock resident Summer Lee’s race to become southwestern Pennsylvania’s first black woman state representative as a sign that he and other locals can finally make progress in revitalizing Braddock. For now, he wants to start his activities on the property he already owns, by building on the place where his family’s other house once stood. He believes that for all it’s been through, his family’s home should be designated a historic site. It deserves a placard out front. “I want to build around it, because I want it to stay there,” he says. “I want it to be a symbol of African American steelworkers.”
NOTE: This article originally appeared and was published in the August 2018 edition of TOPIC MAGAZINE