The Rust Belt Revival: What's Happening in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Welcome to the home of the baron of biodiesel and a mayor who brought hope to a depressed town.

Asa Watten of Fossil Free Fuel

Asa Watten of Fossil Free Fuel


Unlike many of his classmates at Carnegie Mellon University, Asa Watten never planned to abandon the Rust Belt after graduation in search of start-up riches in New York or San Francisco. "I've always wanted to help rebuild these old cities," says the 27-year-old renewable-energy entrepreneur, who grew up in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, outside Detroit. "They're still cheap and wide open—a great place to prove something." He got his chance to do just that in 2010 when he became CEO and part-owner of Fossil Free Fuel, a fledgling company in Braddock, Pennsylvania, that collects used cooking grease from local food outlets and purifies it for use in diesel vehicles. For the past two years he's driven around the Steel Valley in a converted '94 Ford flatbed, pitching eco-ethics to food purveyors and persuading them to let him take their used kitchen grease for free rather than sell it to companies that use it for hog feed. Watten is also working with local metal fabricators to design a plant that will be able to convert 2 million gallons of grease a year. "When the Steelers do well and chicken-wing consumption rises," Watten quips, "that's when we collect big!"



Braddock's Harvard-educated, tattooed, 360-pound mayor, John Fetterman, has become the unlikely face of urban renewal in America. Since taking office in 2006, the 42-year-old Pennsylvania native has brought urban agriculture, new businesses, a community center, and even an art gallery to his depressed town outside Pittsburgh. Levi's took notice, making Braddock the centerpiece of its 2010 "Ready to Work" campaign, and cities in similarly desperate straits across the country are now following Fetterman's lead.


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