Waiting to Go Off: In the Street, On Target, and Under the Bus with Off Hole

Perhaps the world’s finest “off hole”: bus lane, downtown Pittsburgh. [Photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

They had, the joke goes, one job … but it wasn’t this one. In this case the specific task was probably something pretty important: keeping electric power running between buildings; telephone and Internet connectivity; making sure the sewer system doesn’t back up into your basement.

What the job clearly didn’t involve is paying too close attention to how exactly the door was closed when the real work was done and the crew packed up to move on or go home.

switch symbol off hole, North Side [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

Despite this relatively minor detail in the grand scheme of things, those of us top-side get the tiniest evidence that work was occurring under city streets in the form of manhole covers, striped in accordance with road markings and put back not quite where they ought to be. It’s a stretch to say these patterned cast iron discs tell us a story–or really anything–about what was happening below the surface, but we do know something was going on down there.

The effect on the visual landscape is more notable. Each of these little displacements creates a subtle but striking schism in the very regular, ordered, and predictable world of thoroughfare infrastructure. These are known as off holes.

it’s not easy finding a green off hole, Downtown [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

“As a very neat person that needs everything in order, I couldn’t fathom how utility workers didn’t put the covers back in the correct direction,” says Greg Lagrosa, “I would never be able to do that–it would drive me crazy!”

Indeed, it would take someone with more than a little obsessive-compulsiveness to notice–let alone photograph, publicize, and catalog–the city’s off-kilter manhole covers.

If you’ve never noticed the phenomenon, you definitely haven’t been looking. Off holes–the name was coined by Pittsburgh artist Kirsten Ervin–are everywhere. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that every intersection in the city, along with plenty of spots in-between, have manhole covers smack dab in the middle of cross-walks and lane markings. Many of these have gotten worked-on and most of them didn’t get put back in line with their paint jobs.

So close! Single yellow stripe off hole, North Side [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

“To me it’s all about your worldview,” Lagrosa says about the Off Hole project, “There are all of these small things happening in our city. Taking the time to notice the minutiae is a way of interacting with the city in a tangible and human way. Workers are obviously using the manhole covers–that’s why they’re there–we just barely ever see it happen. This is a window into how things work and those lives and stories.”

Lagrosa is regular bicycle rider who commutes from his home in Stanton Heights to a job downtown. As a self-described person that “hates driving and walks and bikes around as much as possible,” he began noticing off holes everywhere he travelled.

classic “waxing gibbous” off hole, Oakland

After studying the random occurrences of off holes throughout Pittsburgh, Lagrosa started studiously photographing each specimen–both as a straight down top view and a broader-context “in the wild” shot. The location and other details are logged in a spreadsheet and one photo a day gets posted to the @off.hole Instagram account.

Nearly half a year into the process, Lagrosa describes some favorite patterns or types of off holes that have emerged:

In my opinion, the best off holes are the clean ones. Just one or two painted lines across the hole, the paint is still really clear and it’s just off. Something like this:

middle double-yellow off hole, Oakland [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

The off holes I wasn’t sure about the most are where the old line is off but it’s been repainted and the new line is still on. At the end of the day I decided this was fine too:

off hole with repainted line, Lower Marion, PA [photo: Off Hole contributor @hottenrottb]

There are the ones where multiple lines have been painted and they are all off:

multi-lined off hole, Friendship [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

And finally, some of them just create cool designs that I like:

pie-slice off hole, Strip District [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

The concept is still a relatively new thing, but Lagrosa has considered expanding into other Internet platforms and possibly going full-on Off Hole IRL in the form of an art show or t-shirt. [Editor’s note: sign me up for a men’s XL!]

For now, though, the focus is mainly on collecting and expanding the Off Hole community. While Lagrosa lives here in Pittsburgh, he accepts–and encourages–submissions from anywhere with pavement and manhole covers. (See details, below.)

a collection of off holes submitted by Orbit staff photographers

When the robot work crews take over, off holes will likely disappear forever. Heck, there are probably industrial designers working right now to try to solve this “problem.”

Here at the Orbit, we love off holes–and Greg’s got the clogged In box to prove it! The phenomenon is another example of the superiority of randomness over hyper organization, faded paint that tells a story to a crisp line’s empty page, and the indefatigable human desire to leave work early and get on to Miller Time. We can all learn something from this.

Friend of the streets. Off Hole’s Greg Lagrosa with a new find, North Side.

Postscript: If there’s a moral to the story it’s that sometimes the cloud may actually be its own silver lining. When asked if on holes were more or less satisfying since commencing the project, Lagrosa responds resolutely, “On holes are just future off holes. I definitely take notice of painted holes in unusual spots and wait for them to go off.”

Think about that for a minute: the guy with self-described OCD who would be “driven crazy” by a misaligned lane stripe actually looks forward to a disruption in his space-time continuum. Whatever you say, that’s progress.


To submit an off hole you’ve found, email photos to off.hole.pittsburgh@gmail.com or direct message the @off.hole Instagram account.

Per Lagrosa, “I like to get two pictures for each hole, an overhead shot and one that shows the hole in context. The overhead is the money shot and is the most important. I also need the location, date, time, and your Instagram username so I can credit you.”

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2019

Stars and bars for cars and, uh … more cars. Parking garage flag, Sharon.

No tanks. No flyovers from the Blue Angels. No fireworks, baseball games, or charcoal-grilled hot dogs. Not even a damn sparkler!

No, when it comes to Independence Day, The Orbit is all about the American flag—and flag-like red, white, and blue things—hopefully created by human hands and not too picky with its star count.

We’ll not blah, blah, blahbiddy, blah about the strange folk craft of shipping pallet flags or the ethical paradoxes of letting one’s most patriotic symbol peel paint or get covered in mold. Instead, it’s just wall-to-wall flags. Happy birthday, America!

patriotic dresses, J. Jones Evening Wear, Weirton, WV

pallet flag, Lawrenceville

pallet flag, Oakdale

flag/football, Steubenville, O.

porch flag, Oakdale

porch flag, Charleroi

yard flag, Follansbee, WV

yard flag, Buena Vista

play set flag, Buena Vista

wall flag, Blawnox

window flag, State Farm Insurance, Bloomfield

Uncle Sam: patriot/grill master, State Farm Insurance, Bloomfield

flag window, Bloomfield

Oakdale: America’s Home Town

Fourth of July Savings painted poster, Giant Eagle

flag, row houses, Lawrenceville

patriotic fountain, Follansbee, WV

Thi$ i$ American street art, Garfield

The Collectors: KISS and Tell with Bruce Gleason

KISS super collector Bruce Gleason in his New Kensington home

The collection is called The Elder’s Closet of Heroes. One enters through a short half flight of steps, past walls of signed album covers from the likes of Heart and Linda Ronstadt, Belinda Carlisle and Cher. This alone would be an impressive attraction for the memorabilia-curious but for the imposing, intriguing, and attention-grabbing feature mere feet away at the foot of the steps.

The stout wooden door looks like it came from another world. It is a standard size for an interior space in the quaint, pre-war bungalow that houses it, but everything else about the structure suggests the darkest depths of Mordor or a final line of defense against banshees.

What a knocker! Entrance to Gleason’s KISS collection modeled on album cover art for “Music from ‘The Elder'”

The door is strengthened with gridlike cross braces, an array of irregular brass tacks hammered in for folksy verisimilitude. The giant ornate iron knocker is placed just so, where the visitor’s first visual detail is an inscribed brass plaque with a verse from a KISS song called “A World Without Heroes” from their 1981 album Music from “The Elder”:

A world without heroes
Is like a world without sun
You can’t look up to anyone
Without heroes.

cover art for KISS’s 1981 album “Music from ‘The Elder'”

KISS, the bombastic stadium rock act whose over-the-top antics and Kabuki-meets-Stan Lee stage personas helped define American popular culture in the 1970s, is still going strong today. For the past four-and-a-half decades, the band is also likely the most merchandised musical group to ever accept your Visa or Mastercard. There are KISS-branded t-shirts, posters, books, and concert videos, of course, but the marketing goes way beyond the standard collection of musical ephemera.

Over the years, you could purchase KISS garbage cans, flying model rockets, bubble gum trading cards, and a knock-off Rubik’s Cube. There was a KISS pinball machine made by Bally in 1979; a KISS board game, checkers set, and jigsaw puzzle from the years prior. There are KISS sneakers, bedspreads, pillowcases, neckties, and sunglasses. If one wanted a giant teddy bear made up like The Catman or Space Ace, that is available, as are KISS Pez dispensers, lava lamps, die-cast miniature stock cars, HO scale model railroad trains, and a LEGO set depicting the band on stage.

Hello Kitty, meet The Catman

Not content to live in the past, KISS has totally gone totally Merch 2.0 with branded earbuds, thumb drives, mouse pads, and insulated travel mugs. Famous teetotalers both, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons are happy to supply you with KISS wine, ornate German-style beer steins, champagne flutes, shot glasses, bottle openers, and beer koozies.

And then of course there are the figures of KISS band members. Like the superhero characters they’re modeled on, Paul, Gene, Ace, and Peter have been turned into collectable dolls/action figures from six inches in height to several feet tall; adorned in various faithful touring costume iterations; rocking out in concert stage sets and alone with their thoughts; mythologized as Grecian gods in ornamental busts and as faces carved into a mini-Mount Rushmore.

On the other side of that incredible entrance door, Bruce Gleason, KISS super collector, has every single one of these–and a whole lot more.*

LEGO KISS stage set

Let’s put the “X” in Xmas: KISS ornaments

More precisely, Bruce has four of each. “The trouble with collecting KISS,” Bruce Gleason sighs, “Is that there’s never just one of anything–each band member has to get their own.”

While that’s not always the case–KISS M&Ms, condoms, and Christmas ornaments, for example, seem to be group-branded–for the most part it’s true. This results in many linear feet of Bruce’s basement shelf space, repurposed retail display racks, and enormous grab baskets devoted to individually-packaged figures nestled neatly side-by-side like the world’s most specialty of oddball boutiques.

KISS figures, Matchbox cars, soft blocks

one of two baskets overflowing with KISS plush toys

The packaged/made-for-the-collector’s-market items are impressive for both their volume and breadth [who knew the world needed KISS plush toys or a KISS skateboard?] but Bruce has a number of handmade pieces created by friends who understood how much he would appreciate them.

“My handmade pieces are my favorites,” Bruce says, “They’re all one-of-a-kind, but the most important reason is that friends have taken time to create something for me that I will absolutely love. I can purchase KISS items, which I love to do, but I can’t purchase someone’s creativity and thoughtfulness. These pieces are priceless to me.”

Plaster Casters: handmade, life size Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley figures

I haven’t met Bruce’s friends, but you can tell a lot about a person by the kinds of gifts he or she gives. You’ve got to love someone an awful lot to create all six-foot-something of a life-sized, tongue-waggling, codpiece-wearing Gene Simmons model or individually placing ersatz curly chest hairs on Paul Stanley’s likeness. Rest assured, full-size Ace and Peter, complete with the same tiny white repurposed jewelry model hands, are in Bruce’s basement as well.

handmade KISS nutcrackers

There’s a general truth that if it’s got a face, probably someone has slapped KISS makeup on it at some point. Let’s call it Beth’s Law.

That said, the handmade KISS nutcracker and marionette sets Bruce received from friends are truly some next-level fantasy-come-to-life. While they lack the sheer terror invoked by the trifecta of clown-like makeup, mannequins, and Gene Simmons, they make up for it in creativity and oddity.

Bruce tells us that KISS actually went on to market their own set of nutcrackers later on (surprise, surprise), but these predated that move. The marionettes are redecorated and bedazzled from a collection of puppets purchased in Mexico. The selection of Ace Frehley to be the one with the tequila bottle-turned-space beverage is a clever touch.

handmade KISS marionettes

handmade Gene Simmons marionette

This is all small potatoes compared to the elaborate big ticket items you’d expect to see in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame … err, Hard Rock Cafe, at least. There are eight sets of giant silver and black platform boots–exact likenesses of KISS stage gear for two different costume iterations; a dozen signed, framed replica gold albums; cymbals and drumsticks; Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons limited edition electric guitars.

“I would love to own an original record player from the ’70s in mint shape,” Bruce tells us, “I have seen them but have never let myself justify spending the amount of money they are worth. Other things I’d love to have: an original pinball machine and an original Ace Frehley signed guitar. His is the only signed guitar I do not have.”

Bruce goes on to say that he doesn’t actually have room in the basement for a pinball machine [your author can attest to this] and he’s got a strict rule that the collection doesn’t breach the main living floor of his house.

Strutter: Gleason’s collection replica platform boots

KISS collectables including signed gold record, Gene Simmons figurine, and four-headed ornament

Asked about his hopes for the collection, Bruce shares a dream that seems to cross all fandom–to be able to meet one’s heroes as equals:
My hope for my collection is that those who have seen it can appreciate the collection for what it shows and not what’s included–and that’s my love for this group of guys who have been a huge part of my life.  They have given me my sparks of creativity, my love for music of all kinds, my love of live music, and that’s it’s OK to be different and unique as long as you’re being yourself.
I would love for Gene, Tommy, Eric Singer, Eric Carr,  Paul, Ace, Bruce and Peter–all eight–to take a walk through my stage, without their boots, costumes, and makeup, just as eight regular guys. Then sit around my table and let me point out the things–toys, records, posters, or whatever–that meant something very special to me at the time and why.

Dark Light: rotating KISS lamp

It’s been said that one spends the first half of his or her life acquiring things and second half trying to get rid of them. On the ride home, Bruce’s ultimate fan archive sparked a, dare I say, existential conversation about the nature of collecting.

Why do we collect? Is the enjoyment in the possession or is it in the chase? Who do we share the collection with? What do we hope will happen to all our stuff?

Heavy questions, indeed, and not ones we’ll answer here. But if there’s anything that KISS can teach us it’s that you go big or go home. And, sweet Jesus, if you’re going big, you’d better shout it out loud.

Watchin’ You: busts of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss

The Collectors is a new series documenting people with extraordinary personal collections. If you are, or know of, someone with an interesting set of stuff, we’d love to know about it.


* Bruce doesn’t actually own one of the KISS pinball machines–more about this later in the piece.

Let’s Get Small: Big Ideas, Tiny Doors

tiny candy shop by Anne Mundell

If you arrived in Pittsburgh in the 1980s or ’90s, the narrow storefront at the corner of Liberty Ave. and Tito Way (neé 8th Street) held a second downtown outpost of The Original Oyster House. Such was the popularity of their fried fish sandwich, breaded oysters, and buttermilk chaser that the business could sustain multiple restaurants mere blocks from each other. The Oyster House left Liberty Ave. some time in the early oughts; the space is a Crazy Mocha coffee shop today.

A generation earlier, 801 Liberty Ave. was a sweets shop. The Internet offers very little information on Dimling’s Candy, but it appears the local company was big enough in the 1950s to purchase competitor Reymer Brothers[1], whose massive 1906 Romanesque factory building still stands Uptown. A ghost sign in the back alley, complete with the “It’s Fresher” tag line, shows us that the Liberty and 8th retail space previously held one of Dimling’s stores. The company was out of business by 1969. Candyrama, the multi-location heir to the downtown sugar market, is gone now too. Sigh.

All that said, for a very limited time you can relive the magic as a little–and I mean tiny–candy shop has opened its single door right on the backside of the former Dimling’s space, directly under the old painted sign. Technicolor lollipops and psychedelic swirling goodies are literally spilling out of the entrance, down the steps, and into the street below. They’re yours to enjoy … just don’t handle the merchandise.

in context: ghost sign for former Dimling’s Candy Shop with Anne Mundell’s tiny candy shop door at bottom right

“My door is a tribute to the different kinds of candy, real and metaphorical, that have passed through that alley,” writes Anne Mundell, CMU Professor of Scenic Design and the artist who created the candy shop for Tiny Doors PGH.

“There’s also a tribute to the theater and to how all things coexist on that corner. The candy spilling out hopefully suggests that the whole building behind it is filled with candy and we’re only seeing a tiny corner of it. The rats making off with candy are there to imply a darker side.”[2]

Mundell’s little candy shop is one of three “tiny doors” created for this year’s Three Rivers Arts Festival in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (on whose property all three doors are attached). The others, created by artists Sarah Zeffiro and Sasha Schwartz, are just around the corner at the Trust Arts Education Center (805-807 Liberty Ave.) and on the Theater Square Parking Garage (655 Penn Ave.).

“Pittsburgh is Color” technicolor dream door by Sarah Zeffiro, Liberty Ave.

Tiny Doors PGH was conceived by Stephen Santa; this is its first installation. “I come from a theater background as I’m a theater director. I’ve always been obsessed with the set models that designers create for me,” writes Santa, “It’s like being a kid again, moving the small parts around in the model. I also love playing with scale and this project does just that.”

“There is a tiny door revolution happening as many doors are popping up in cities around the country, most notably in Atlanta. I saw the success these doors were having in other cities and being born and raised in Pittsburgh, I’m always brainstorming ways to make our city a better place, and I knew this project could bring happiness and curiosity to our residents. I pitched the idea to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, they loved it and were on board.”

tiny house entrance by Sasha Schwartz, Penn Ave.

The tiny doors are a great project satisfying all manner of urbano-curiosa: art and architecture, history and exploration, humor and little things. Longtime Orbit readers know we also love an egg hunt. Our only greedy wish is that Santa had been able to sign up another dozen artists for more doors.[3]

Whether or not we’d have gotten all of Anne Mundell’s references to ghosts of the theater, the evolution of downtown Pittsburgh, and Liberty Avenue’s red light past is questionable. But if a piece of public art can make you stop in your tracks, get down on your knees, and squint through a tiny window door into a (literal) candy-colored dreamscape, someone’s doing something right.

The three tiny doors will be up through the end of July; get yourself down there to see them while you can.


[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reymer_Brothers_Candy_Factory
[2] That darker side is legit: by the time we got there, it seems someone had already made off with the rats. A subsequent report is that the door itself was stolen. This is why we can’t have tiny things!
[3] He wants to! Per Santa: “I’m certainly open to people, businesses, or artists reaching out with their concepts or location ideas for doors. To connect please write to me on Instagram @tinydoorspgh.”

Going Postal: The Cap Man Returneth

Cap Man #13, East Liberty

It’s all there: the non-plussed selfie stare, the upturned ball cap, the all-contrast Sharpie-on-postal label execution. Super fans already know where this is going, but for everyone else, these are the tell-tale traits and hallmark style of one of the city’s more mysterious and elusive serial street artists.

Cap Man #14, Friendship [photo: Lee Floyd]

When last we reported on the mysterious Cap Man, in the fall of 2017, it was with the strong accusation that “he’s likely left Pittsburgh entirely.” That may have been true–the backsides of the East End’s street signage and utility poles remained remarkably free of the behatted one’s visage through all of last year.

Well, he’s back, emerging some time in the late winter/early spring–slapping his little original sticker artworks on city infrastructure throughout a contiguous swath of East Liberty, Friendship, and Bloomfield. And this time…well, he’s fooling around just as much as he ever did.

Cap Man #15, Bloomfield

One of the assumptions made in prior stories was that Cap Man (the artist) was the author of both the Cap Man (the subject) (self) portraits and the similarly-styled “rogue’s gallery” drawings of (in)famous celebrities, media notables, and true crime figures.

This theory is only bolstered by the simultaneous re-emergence of these types of drawings, inevitably committed by the same hand and distributed within the same vicinity as the Cap Man portraits. This time around, we can only positively ID slain rapper The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls, who arrived on a Bloomfield utility pole some time in the late winter or early spring. The recent offerings also include a dripping skull, a message of peace and love, and a couple renditions of one “Fro Bro.”

The Mysterious C.A.P. meets The Notorious B.I.G., Bloomfield

Bloomfield

Peace, Love, and a bunch of other stuff, Bloomfield

Fro Bro 1, East Liberty

Fro Bro 2, East Liberty

Finally, a legit street art miracle. Co-assistant to the mail room intern Lee Floyd spotted this loose, perhaps unfinished, drawing of a young woman on a Liberty Ave. pole after we’d snuck in one last Lenten fish fry on Good Friday. (See below.)

The figure’s head is turned to the right, her long hair unruly and wind-blown across her face. One eye is obscured, but the other stares with steely unease right back at you. It ain’t the Mona Lisa, but as much could be supposed on that head position, that glare as anything people read into Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

unknown woman, Bloomfield [photo: Lee Floyd]

So, imagine our surprise when mere days later the crew is on a rainy day stroll down Baum Blvd.–nearly a mile from the original light pole–and there she is again. Divorced from the steel pole and lying on a soaking wet sidewalk is … the same woman! Not just the same subject, but the same drawing!

unknown woman, East Liberty [photo: Lee Floyd]

Now, how that sticker came off one light pole completely undamaged and worked it’s way a mile down the road just to find the only two pair of people in the world who would care about it is something we have no explanation for–but it’s a doggone miracle!

If that’s not enough positive juju, coincidental mojo, and lightening striking twice for you, I don’t know what is. Most people have to steal their parent’s HBO password to get that kind of drama, but Cap Man is offering it to you for free, right here on the street.


Background on the continuing saga of Cap Man:

One Big Heart: Memorial Day 2019

Jordan Celovsky, 1988-2017, Rt. 837

Someone really loved Jordan Celovsky a lot; you can tell by the heart that’s been left behind. Attached to an otherwise nondescript stretch of highway guard rail is the most elaborate, and perhaps beautiful, model of a human heart we’ve ever come across.

The memorial sculpture–I think that’s the right term–is several feet wide, covered in rough burlap and then wrapped in an incredible tangle of green leaves and beet red roots. If you never made the connection between woodsy flora and coronary arteries before, you’ll never see them as independent again. We could only wish this past Carnegie International had anything either this imaginative or moving.

The 29-year-old Celovsky died two years ago in a head-on collision on Easter Sunday, 2017.[1] In that time, he’s already had three memorials created along Rt. 837. There was a beautiful hand-painted cross + Harley-Davidson stone left at the scene last year. [See our 2018 story Memorial Day: Roadside Crosses for a photo.] Now this heart and an entirely different cross, featuring what seem to be hand prints from the two children he left behind, have appeared back at the same location. [See photo, below.]

Jordan Celovsky, 1988-2017, Rt. 837

While this memorial is above-and-beyond in several different measures, it’s certainly not alone. Hopefully everyone has someone who cares about him or her the way that Jordan Celovsky’s loved-ones do. For those who die tragically and prematurely–in car crashes or accidents, suicide or as victims of gun violence–the rest of us hold onto a special kind of survivor’s guilt.

How many times have I driven that very same stretch of Rt. 837 in the Mon Valley? How about where other memorials are found along Ohio River Boulevard, McKeesport Road, or Munhall? Whatever the answer, we all know there’s been ample opportunity to end up with the same fate. It could have been me.

unknown, Strip District

This Memorial Day, we’re continuing with a theme we started one year ago: rounding up and focusing in on these very public, yet intimately personal, remembrances of a departed we’ll never get the chance to meet.

The highway crosses and utility pole collections of stuffed animals have become a kind-of people’s park outside the cold formality of the cemetery; it’s the immediate, this-is-where-it-happened holy ground for a life cut short.

roadside memorial including painted cross, angel statue, inscribed stone, and solar garden light

Jessica Marie Lojak, 10-13-81 – 9-26-10, Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

roadside memorial cross for "CB"

CB, 1/21/59-3/27/15, Mon-Fayette Expressway

roadside memorial cross

Nick, Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

Eric, Glassport

Jazmere B. Custis, Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

roadside memorial made from inscribed wooden planks

Nicholas W. Marino, Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

unknown, McDonald

Linda’s Garden, Slickville

unknown, Bellevue

Derek Durand #23, Butler-Freeport Community Trail

road construction warning sign turned into memeorial

unknown (“We love U (?) … R.I.P.”), Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

It would be an incredible oversight to let the day go by without a mention of the lives lost in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. Unlike, say, traffic fatalities or suicide–which are sadly so common as to not really rate as news–that horrific hate crime has no parallel in modern America.

Back in January, we ran a story on the beautiful collection of handmade Stars of David that appeared throughout Squirrel Hill in the months following the massacre. [See “Higher and Higher: Star-Gazing in Squirrel Hill,” Pittsburgh Orbit, Jan. 13, 2019.] That display is just about as powerful a memorial as we can imagine.

The photo below, though, taken on the Monday morning after the attack at (Tree of Life victim) Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz’s office in Bloomfield, was its own kind of loving memorial. The spontaneous leaving of dozens of flower bouquets outside an office that may have been incapable of opening for the day says as much as the love and respect of this particular departed as anything else.

Office of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, Bloomfield

Finally, a personal connection. If you regularly walked Centre Avenue near the Giant Eagle you knew Roger. A constant positive spirit and kind soul who spent many of his days camped-out on the pavement, using black Sharpie markers to create goofy-faced pet rocks and elaborate dream worlds on discarded sheets of cardboard.

Working in the area, I got to know Roger a little bit–filling his coin cup now and again, along with buying him the occasional serving of take-out soup or fried chicken from the grocery store. The Orbit’s co-assistant to the mail room intern and spiritual time lord Lee did a lot better than me–regularly hooking Roger up with fresh fruit, cash money, and restocking his marker supply. I wish I’d have done more when I had the chance.

This Memorial Day, let’s all try to help each other get along in this life so we don’t live with any regret when they reach the next one.

R.I.P. Roger, Shadyside


[1] https://archive.triblive.com/local/allegheny/12202259-74/friend-family-remember-lincoln-place-man-killed-in-west-mifflin-crash

A Model City: Carnegie in Miniature

corner of West Main and Jefferson Street, downtown Carnegie, PA

There is a big hole in downtown Carnegie. Don’t worry—it’s nothing dangerous you might fall into. Rather, an enormous void is all that’s left in the 200 block of East Main Street. That’s where, just about a year ago, a massive fire erupted in the lovely three-story turn-of-the-century building that housed Papa J’s Ristorante for the last 26 years.

The fire damage was so extensive that the entire building has since been razed and the resulting pile of bricks and beams carted away. All that’s left is a large gravel-filled flat lot; a gaping missing tooth right in the heart of the borough’s business district.

York’s Appliance’s (sic.)

Liberty Theatre

The truth is, though, Carnegie—just like every small town and old commuter borough in America—had its share of challenges preserving the history and character of its main drag long before the fire last summer.

The automobile—with its distant reach and attendant expectation of acres of easy parking—big box retail, changes to shopping habits, and that demon Internet have all taken their pounds of flesh from Main Streets everywhere. When you then throw in the familiar one-two punch of big industry closing down and its resultant dramatic loss in population and buying power, there just aren’t even enough customers left over for many local retail businesses to make a go of it. Carnegie’s population peaked somewhere around World War II and it’s been slowly draining people ever since.

But—I’m guessing you know where this is heading by now—there’s a place where you can still see downtown Carnegie at its absolute zenith—and you don’t need a time machine to do it.

G.C. Murphy Co.

McCrory’s

Miniature Main Street is an incredible scale model of Carnegie’s business district as it existed in the 1940s. Block after painstakingly-accurate block were carved, painted, and glued by the hands of resident Walter Stasik. Stasik worked on this, his magnum opus, for the last ten years of his life, before passing in 2000.

The model buildings that make up Stasik’s recreation seem to clearly be a loving memory of the downtown he would have experienced in his youth. They’re now on permanent display at the Carnegie Historical Society.

Chartiers Plumbing & Electric Shop

Star Markets / Block’s / Sun Store

What Stasik crystalized in his elaborate, room-filling recreation is both humble and sublime. The Main Street Carnegie of the mid-twentieth century probably looked a lot like that of any other bustling town of the era. There were independent small businesses of all types filling the storefronts up and down: furniture and clothing stores, grocers and lunch counters, a plumber, insurance agent, beauty and cigar shops, a masonic hall and Moose temple. Downtown Carnegie had competing five-and-dimes and four different movie theaters.

Bale’s Restaurant / Harris / Isaly’s / Donahoe’s

diner interior

What’s fascinating about Stasik’s models is that they’re not just some nostalgia trip. Their scale—each floor is around eight inches in height—allow the visitor to get right down onto street level and look around in a kind of low-tech virtual reality experience without having to get wired-up to one of those goofy headsets.

Further, each model was constructed with a lift-off roof letting the visitor peer straight down into the little dollhouse-like worlds within. Stasik didn’t have the opportunity to complete the interiors of every building in the set, but the ones that did get finished have a fascinating level of playful detail: specials chalked onto the menu board at the diner; a wooden armchair in a projectionist’s booth at the movie house; a customer testing the feel of a mattress at York’s Furniture.

York’s Furniture and Appliances (interior)

movie theater interior

Stasik’s models aren’t Smithsonian perfect. There’s a rough, folk/outsider art quality to the construction and some visible wear-and-tear on the buildings—fragile signs and lifting wallpaper need to be glued back in place; dislodged doors and lamp posts reset. In some cases, Stasik used molded letter forms for his storefronts; in others, we see the obvious curlicue schoolboy handwriting of the creator in Sharpie-written business signs.

This isn’t to diminish the work, but rather to praise how beautifully and lovingly handmade the entire display is. The materials appear scavenged and the execution improvised. Rows of theater seats are carved from single spindly blocks of wood and plexiglass windows have been carefully nudged into place by Stasik’s aging fingers.

Walter Stasik, “Main Street Creator”

bank interior

If this blogger had been thinking ahead, he’d have bagged a photo of Stasik’s rendition of the turreted building at the corner of Broadway and Main that would eventually be home to Papa J’s Ristorante. That would have made an artful bookend to the narrative about loss and preservation, the real and the imagined, historical accuracy vs. artistic license.

But alas, sometimes l’esprit d’escalier even catches our hardest-working speculative journalists flat-footed. Besides, there are way more model buildings in this collection than we could possibly photograph for this piece—the enormity of the creation is hard to overstate.

That, and the friendly volunteers at the Historical Society distracted us with a side trip to the mini Honus Wagner museum-within-a-museum so we could absurdly pose in a batting stance with Wagner’s hundred-year-old baseball bat. [Yes: this is worthy of its own Orbit story.] Either way, it’s an excuse to tell you to go check out the full extent of Walter Stasik’s Main Street—and the rest of Carnegie’s great historical collection—in person the next time you’re craving Papa J’s.

I want you … to visit the Historical Society of Carnegie. Uncle Sam inside bank lobby

Postscript: One glass-is-half-empty reading of the above story may suggest that present-day Carnegie is down on its luck or has “seen better days.” Rest assured, Carnegie’s business district seems to be doing just fine—storefronts are occupied, people are out, there are hip-looking restaurants and boutiquey stores. Heck, there’s even a monthly art walk, experimental theater, and meadery. Next stop, gentrification!


The Carnegie Historical Society is located at 1 West Main Street. There are limited daytime hours Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free.