Braddock's Community Oven: A Hot Way to Get PeopleTogether

About one evening a month in a working-class steel mill town a few miles outside Pittsburgh, residents gather 'round an outdoor oven. It's the work of a community activist who took bricks from abandoned homes and reworked them into a baking kiln -- the showpiece of what he hopes will be a kind of neighborhood center. The Allegheny Front's Katelyn Malongowski reports.

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About one evening a month in a working-class steel mill town a few miles outside Pittsburgh, residents gather 'round an outdoor oven. It's the work of a community activist who took bricks from abandoned homes and reworked them into a baking kiln -- the showpiece of what he hopes will be a kind of neighborhood center. The Allegheny Front's Katelyn Malongowski reports.

NAT. SOUND: [Door opening to outside, where steel mill can be heard]

MALONGOWSKI: Across the street from the huge Mon Valley Steel Works, Ray Werner pulls open the wooden door to a much smaller kiln -- the Braddock community oven. It's about eight feet tall, made mostly of brick and mortar. Werner, the mastermind behind the project, says ovens do more than just cook food, they bring people together.

WERNER: What happens in a community with a brick oven is what has happened over the centuries. People sit around the campfireÖ all of us have done thatÖ And what happens? You start to share songs, you start to share stories, you share hot dogs, and marshmallows.... And it doesn't matter where you come from, what you level of income is... what religion you are, none of that matters...It's always moments that you remember when you grow up.

MALONGOWSKI: The oven was first fired up last year. Since then, there have been public readings and photography exhibitions. There have even been opportunities for residents to try their hands at baking. Residents like Trevor Cruxson, who works in Braddock.

CRUXSON: I did try making a pizza, a gorgonzola cheese pizza...we thought we'd make pizzas and I learned that it's not as easy as it looks to just throw a pizza in there and have it come out looking and tasting right.

MALONGOWSKI: Cruxson says his pizza came out as a big, doughy blob because the oven wasn't hot enough. The oven takes a few hours to properly heat up. That's why today, Werner is giving a mock demo of the oven. Normally, it needs to be around 700 degrees for pizzas and breads... and around 1500 degrees for meats. He scrapes a large metal spatula on brick.

Nat. SOUND: Scraping.

WERNER: You need to constantly shift the pizza... only takes a minute or two.

MALONGOWSKI: The oven does more than make pizza. Braddock Mayor John Fetterman says the oven's presence revitalized a vacant lot full of weeds.

FETTERMAN: There was a dilapidated garage there before.

MALONGOWSKI: Fetterman was immediately supportive of having the oven. Within six months of Werner bringing the idea to Mayor Fetterman, it was constructed. Fetterman says it's made Braddock a better place, and it's a great feature, but it wasn't like all of the town's problems disappeared once it was erected.

FETTERMAN: Sure, its made an impact... but it's not a fix-all.

MALONGOWSKI: Fetterman says he would encourage any neighborhood to build a community oven. Between labor, clearing the area, and zoning approval... it cost their town around two-thousand dollars. The lot holding the Braddock oven also contains a fire pit, brick chairs, and a flower garden. Werner says the construction and use of the oven are like one big recycling project... since he burns discarded wood and uses no gas or electric energy. Werner and Fetterman both hope the oven concept catches on like in other communities, well, like wildfire.

WERNER: We think that it's a certain kind of glue for inner city communities. It's not expensive to do. They have the property, and they need it more than other communities in Pittsburgh.

MALONGOWSKI: Though community ovens are popping up around the country, and in chilly Toronto, Werner wants Pittsburgh to have a leading edge in the community oven scene. The effort does seem to be on the rise... with two ovens built in other city neighborhoods. For The Allegheny Front, I'm Katelyn Malongowski.