Braddock Mayor John Fetterman has been nationally recognized for efforts to revive his adopted hard-luck mill town, not least with art. The project has already birthed a gallery, UnSmoke Art Space, where artists also inhabit studios upstairs in the former St. Michael’s Catholic School.
The building houses studios for a few writers, too. And so Fetterman says he had another idea, one he expresses in a way you won’t hear too many mayors utter: “I just figured, ‘Hey, let’s do a residency.’” An annual one, for writers, that is.
He got help from Marc Nieson — a writer with studio space at UnSmoke — along with local fiction writer Sherrie Flick, of the Gist Street Reading Series, and UnSmoke director Jeb Feldman. And they picked a building: the renovated former convent next door to UnSmoke, both right across Braddock Avenue from U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Plant. The residency is called Into the Furnace.
And on Sept. 10, novelist, short-story writer and educator Josh Barkan (pictured) moved in to two furnished rooms and got to work. You can meet him, and hear him read, at Gist Street’s annual Wood-Fired Words event, this Sat., Oct. 1.
“I like a kind of urban, gritty environment,” says Barkan, 42. He was recruited by Nieson, who knew him from the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. While Barkan had never been to Pittsburgh, he has lived all over: as a kid, thank partly to parents who were globe-trotting academics, he called Califronia, Tanzania, Kenya, Paris and India home. As an adult, he’s taught in Japan, and he came to Braddock straight from two years in Mexico City.
Interviewed by phone less than three weeks into the nine-month residency, Barkan sounded like he’s enjoying his stay.
The old convent (owned by Fetterman’s nonprofit group) is nicely refurbished. (Visiting artists often stay there.) Barkan is sharing it with a few other tenants, including three young AmeriCorps volunteers.
While most writer residencies last no more than six weeks, Flick says, Into the Furnace is nine months long, so the resident will “actually have time to be part of the community.” Nearby are Braddock’s urban farm, an apiary and the town’s revived Carnegie Library.
Barkan has dived right in, and not just by writing. He likes the fact that he’s actually meeting local folks, not just residency staffers. “It’s much more personal than what I see in other places.”
“He’s a great cook, too,” adds Fetterman. “He cooked dinner for about 20 of us. He started a tradition where Monday is family dinner night.”
Barkan’s credentials include a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and teaching stints at Harvard, NYU and Boston University. He’s known for his short-story collection Before Hiroshima (The Toby Press) and the novel Blind Speed (Northwestern University Press).
Barkan says living in Braddock reminds him of the eight years he spent in Boston, another city with a lot invested in its history. “That’s one thing that’s really striking me here, that sense of historic rootedness,” he says.
Admittedly, history is hard to escape living in an old convent in the shadow of Andy Carnegie’s first steel mill.
Barkan also likes how art projects like murals and mosaics combine with things like a new playground to create positive energy in Braddock. “You can see the difference.”
But Barkan says Braddock hasn’t crept into his writing yet: He usually doesn’t start writing about a place until he leaves it. In fact, he’s now working on stories about Mexico City.
Saturday, Barkan will read from Blind Speed. The 2008 novel’s protagonist is a former member of a formerly almost-famous rock band who now teaches American studies at a Boston community college; the book begins with his fiance getting shot (not fatally) by a Revolutionary War historical re-enactor.
In good communitarian fashion, Wood-Fired Words also has food (pizza from the outdoor community brick oven next to UnSmoke) and a BYOB policy; art, with painter John Fleenor’s exhibit Meet the News Team; music, by The Emily Pinkerton Trio; and more, including a pop-up used-book store by Lesley Rains.
Admission is just $5. The feeding begins at 7 p.m., the reading at 8 p.m.
UnSmoke (unsmokeartspace.com) is located at 1137 Braddock Ave., Braddock.