Brownsville is located in southwestern Pennsylvania, along the banks of the Monongahela River. An hour’s drive away from Pittsburgh, Brownsville made its mark as an economic center in the region during the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century as a transportation hub for travelers venturing into the Ohio Valley. Flat boat construction and later steamboat manufacturing were major industries in the area until railroads became the preferred choice for transport and shipping.
With the transition to railroads, Brownsville suffered an economic decline, only to make a comeback with the rise of the steel industry in the region during the twentieth century which led to decades of prosperity. However, challenging times once again hit Brownsville and other industrial towns in the 1970s and 80s, resulting in job loss, outmigration, and general disinvestment in the community. Brownsville’s current population is around 2,300 – a quarter of what it was in the mid-twentieth century. Historic buildings downtown are boarded up, trash piles up in illegal dumping grounds, and the streets are often silent.
For teenagers living there today, the image of Brownsville as a prosperous industrial town exists only in the stories they hear from older generations. “My grandfather owned a shop in the main part of town and he would tell me stories about the booming city – the way people would overflow the sidewalks, the endless shops and sights, or the countless trains passing through. As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that things have unfortunately changed,” says Brownsville Area High School (BAHS) senior Franchesca Legros.
Chelsea Gump, also a senior at BAHS, says that her own family’s recollections inspired her to become more involved in her community, particularly after listening to her grandmother and mother, “whose stories gave me the vision of when Brownsville was a thriving community.”
Inspired by their town’s past and their own family members’ recollections of a better time, Chelsea, Franchesca, and other BAHS students have embarked on a project to breathe new life into the community by planning, designing, and advocating for a park and performance stage in downtown Brownsville. With the support of their school, elected officials, local businesses, the local community development corporation, residents, and other groups, the students are striving to make their community a place they are proud to call home and where many hope to return after college.
Click the links below to learn more about the students’ efforts in Brownsville, best practices learned from the experience, and student interviews:
This case study is part of NADO’s “Youth with a Voice” case studies series, which highlights small towns and rural communities that are effectively engaging young people in planning and community development projects. By recognizing and valuing the tremendous energy and optimism students bring to local development efforts, these communities are building stronger and more lasting bonds between young people and their hometowns. For more information, contact Brett Schwartz at [email protected].
The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under an award with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government.