Animatronically Correct: Hopping Down Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane

elaborate diorama of Easter bunnies at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

big bunnies at Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage

Flowers pop in full bloom way ahead of schedule as fairies mingle with enormous fuzzy caterpillars. Giant Easter eggs dangle from tree limbs while an array of butterflies lift off in a spectacularly-coordinated squadron. An indoor forest is filled with the world’s most cuddly cavalcade of bunnies and geese, pigs and lambs, bears, owls, and raccoons.

Existing somewhere between the topsy-turvy psychedelic overload of the Wonka Chocolate factory and the kind of über-wholesome family entertainment one would see in a Christian cartoon program, Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane is an avenue like no other.

elaborate diorama of yellow flowers in bloom at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

spring flowers and besuited geese

elaborate diorama of fairies and flowers at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

fairy scene

Kraynak’s, located 70 miles north of Pittsburgh in the town of Hermitage, has created its own little empire since it first opened in 1949. We don’t know what it was like back then, but today the large site on State Street includes an enormous retail store selling just about any frivolity one can name, a lawn and garden center, and soon-to-be-hopping six-bay plant nursery.

The store’s commerical jingle–an ear worm that makes “It’s a Small World” sound like Stockhausen–claims “It’s always Kraynak’s time of year.” That may be true, but they really put on the dog for the two big Christian holidays. That’s what brought us up north, our eyes all aglow with pre-resurrection fever, to Easter Bunny Lane.

elaborate diorama of nocturnal animals at night at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Dump n’ Dine

elaborate diorama of Sesame Street characters at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Sesame Street

You get to Easterland–yes, it goes by both names–through Kraynak’s retail store; the entrance is by the massive toys, games, and novelties section on the righthand side of the space. Arrive on a weekend and you’ll likely encounter a line of people stretching nearly to the front doors waiting to get in.

Don’t worry, the line moves and there’s a lot to look at even before you get inside. Once there, the big displays are on both sides of the aisle and each takes up maybe 20 feet of visible space, offering lots of angles and view points to take in all of the visual spectacle. Even this ne’er-do-well photojournalist had the time to snap plenty of pictures and still get out of everyone else’s way.

elaborate diorama of cartoon characters in camping scene at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Bigfoot Fan Club annual campout

elaborate diorama of farm scene at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Petal’s Pig Farm

Not only does Kraynak’s sponsor the free 300-foot indoor panoply of blinking, oscillating, electric dioramas, but the elaborate displays are completely redesigned and made anew each Christmas and Easter, surely guaranteeing yearly repeat visits from the faithful. Through the magic of YouTube, the armchair egg hunter is able to virtually tour Easter Bunny Lane for a number of its more-recent incarnations. The images are really something else.

Many of the characters and environments we encountered are easily recognizable in the videos from years past. Those same bunnies, flowers, colored lights, and Easter eggs appear over and over, but in different arrangements and altered landscapes. Here, they’re in a cotton candy fantasia; the year prior, the fuzzy crew arrived in a polar wonderland, as habitués of woodland cabins, or partying underwater with technicolor clams and arms-in-the-air octopi.

That said, organizers of Kraynak’s holiday displays clearly want to keep current with nods to popular culture. We see scenarios featuring The Mario Brothers running a pizza shop, My Little Pony, bears dressed in superhero costumes, those little yellow creatures from Dispacable Me, and a cosmic Sesame Street/Star Wars mash-up. [Side note: who knew Oscar the Grouch was in that R2-D2 tin can all along?]

elaborate diorama of oversized candy at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Candyland

life-size model of Jesus riding a donkey at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

… and then there’s Jesus

Sadly, good things must come to an end. Kraynak’s lets you know the party is over when all the color, fun, and movement drains away and we’re left with a starkly-lit somber Jesus on the back of a donkey. This was just the first of three different Sunday school-inspired dioramas reminding the visitor that the holiday is not all chocolate bunnies and glazed ham.

While this atheist dutifully spent time with each of the eat-your-oatmeal religious displays, I can tell you that I was the only one who did so. Like getting past the accident scene on a clogged highway, the formerly busy weekend crowds dispersed entirely as they made bee-lines to the exit gate, skipping the tail end of the exhibit.

elaborate diorama of nocturnal animals at night at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

night scene with nocturnal animals

elaborate diorama of child in treehouse at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Honeycomb hideout/treehouse

Editor’s confession: We couldn’t not run this story on Easter Sunday, but alas, the timing is as cruel as it is appropriate. For any reader inspired to hop down the bunny trail, you’re too late. Kraynak’s is closed today for the holiday and will be packing away Easterland, likely kicking off the process to design next year’s epic display.

Until then, you’ve–gulp–got Christmas to look forward to. Kraynak’s promises the Yuletide dioramas will be jing-jing-jingling at you by September 10. That’s a couple seasons away, but, you know, at “your store for all seasons” it’s always Kraynak’s time of year.

exterior sign for Kraynak's store, Hermitage, PA

Kraynak’s “Store for all Seasons,” State Street, Hermitage

elaborate diorama of Sesame Street characters at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Sesame Street

Getting there: Kraynak’s is located at 2525 East State Street in Hermitage. It takes an hour and change to drive up from Pittsburgh.

In Search of Special Sauce: A Visit to the Big Mac Museum

statue of Jim Delligatti, inventor of the Big Mac, at the Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

Statue of McDonald’s franchise owner Jim Delligatti with his most famous creation, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon

As inventions go, it pales in importance to, say, the polio vaccine or alternating electric current. Nor is it as fun as the Ferris Wheel, movie theater, baseball stadium, or broadcast radio–all of which Pittsburgh likes to take credit for…if not inventing, at least getting there first.

When it comes to food, we’ll argue the innovation of French fries injected into salads and sandwiches is an altogether superior achievement and Pittsburgh’s many weirdo regional pizza varieties are unique and different enough to warrant their own series on these electronic pages.

Despite all these other advancements to society, it is McDonald’s flagship double-decker hamburger alone that gets a dedicated visitor center. That’s what brought us to The Big Mac Museum.

display model of Big Mac toaster in Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

“Big Mac Toaster used from 1970-1997”

Truth is, the Big Mac wasn’t actually created here. At least not right here in the city–where it appears on numerous famous things from Pittsburgh lists–nor here in the exurb of North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, where its eponymous museum was constructed along Route 30.

No, the Big Mac’s two paddies, three buns, pickles, cheese, and yes, “special sauce” were first concocted in a North Hills McDonald’s and served to the public some 50 miles south in the small Fayette County city of Uniontown.

display of Big Mac sauce and gun, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

Big Mac sauce and gun

It was there, in 1967, that early franchise owner Jim Delligatti went rogue. In an act of corporate insurrection that would likely get an operator slapped with a brand-violation lawsuit in today’s world, Delligatti took the same basic ingredients–plus a special double-cut bun–and made a bigger hamburger. With that one action, the restauranteur simultaneously created a local sensation, invented super-sizing, and put him on anyone’s short list for induction to the McHall of McFame.

One of many different historical displays, this one featuring video interviews with Jim Delligatti

By the next year, the informative display at the museum tells us, the Big Mac had been introduced nationally with a TV commercial called “Big Attraction.” In that minute-long spot a host guides the viewer through the elaborate layering of the sandwich.

The escalating excitement in the narrator’s voice is truly infectious: we start as passive participants in an emotionless guided tour but are soon sucked-in by the surprise elements of a “club slice,” “another hamburger!” and “a little more sauce, just for good measure.” It’s also worth noting the flavor-enhancer here is referred to as “our own secret sauce.” That sauce would become “special” by some point in the early 1970s.

The Big Mac Museum was opened in 2007 to honor Delligatti’s 50th anniversary as a McDonald’s franchisee and visitors should know that it’s housed in the dining room of a working McDonald’s restaurant–so there may be some challenges getting around to all of the display items at peak dining hours.

In fact, in order to bring our readers the full experience, Orbit photographers had to wait out some chit-chatting customers who were finishing breakfast. The couple was installed at the obvious power-broker table, right in the middle of the restaurant with its custom rounded upholstered seats, sitting under the bronze statue of Delligatti–one hand making the OK gesture, the other holding a Big Mac (photo at top).

Some of the Big Mac packaging through the years, plus one novelty transistor radio

While it’s not The Carnegie or Heinz History Center, The Big Mac Museum offers a lot to see–and, you know, the price is right. There is a bank of historical photos with a timeline of pivotal events in the life of the sandwich, a video installation featuring an interview with Delligatti, photos and a Delligatti family tree, equipment used in the restaurant, an array of packaging through the years, and plenty of novelty items.

Rock the McVote ’86! Various items from the Big Mac Museum.

The Rt. 30 McDonald’s is one of those jumbo versions with an indoor play area for the tykes. This is also where you’ll find the world’s largest Big Mac. The 14-foot sculpture of the signature burger on a decorative stand reads as both over-the-top pop art and weirdly hyper-realistic. It’s also so big that it would look great as a legit out-in-the-elements roadside attraction. For now, though, visitors will need to park the car and come inside to see it.

enormous sculpture of Big Mac, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

This is one BIG Mac. “World’s largest Big Mac” sculpture.

On the one hand, The Big Mac Museum is just classic goofy roadside America–not that far off from World’s Largest Ball of Twine and the like. [In fact, Roadside America (the web site) already beat us to the museum.] Despite me not really giving a hoot about McDonald’s, I found the story of Jim Delligatti, his family’s fast-food empire, and a time when one franchisee could influence change at the corporate level to be really interesting.

On the other, though, there is a lot that could be said about American values when we immortalize a factory-farmed, mass-produced, unhealthy-in-every-way double hamburger–literally putting its tribute on a pedestal–displayed in a soulless highway strip. This, while a lot of Pittsburgh will never forgive Mayor Peduto for adding bicycle lanes. Sigh.

Big Mac Christmas ornament, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

‘Tis the season. Big Mac Christmas ornament.

The inevitable question: is it worth the trip? If you’re already out east, along Rt. 30, and you’ve got an extra 20 minutes, by all means. Also, if you just love either local (recent) history, McDonald’s, or roadside kitsch, yes–you’ll not be disappointed.

For everyone else, maybe we could put the ol’ hive noggin together and dream up an alternative, grass roots and for-the-people yin to the Big Mac Museum’s yang–say, The French Fry Museum, Pierogi Palace, or–be still, my heart–The Western Pennsylvania Pizza Hall of Fame. We’ve got a few nominees for the inaugural class.

highway sign for McDonald's/Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

The McDonald’s/Big Mac Museum sign on Rt. 30, North Huntingdon

Getting there: The Big Mac Museum is on Rt. 30 in North Huntingdon, very close to the PA-Turnpike exit. Look for the big McDonald’s sign and you can’t miss it. Admission is free and the museum is open whenever the restaurant is.


Sources:

Step Beat: The Steps of California-Kirkbride, Part 2: Hyena and Marvista

street with old houses and city steps climbing hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

Hyena Way alley and steps, California-Kirkbride

Apparently, the Internet informs us, North America once hosted its very own hyena. The Chasmaporthetes ossifragus managed to cross the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, make its way south to present-day Arizona and Mexico, and then east to what’s now Florida. There’s no mention of the big cat up here in the Northeast. This smaller, faster hyena seems to have gone extinct around one million years ago.[1]

So how did a little North Side alley and dramatic flight of 166 city steps end up with the name Hyena Way? We have no idea. But the loosey-goosey manner with which Pittsburgh ended up naming its back alleys would make for a near endless supply of Orbit fodder–if only we knew how to figure out the explanations.

view from the top long set of public city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

looking down from the top of Hyena Way with view of downtown Pittsburgh and Mt. Washington

When last we left you, Team Orbit was ascending the cluster of vertical streets on the eastern half of California-Kirkbride. The North Side neighborhood is small, but hosts an outsize number of both steps and viewpoints. Today we head just a couple blocks west to the thrilling pair of steps that meet at the end of the paved section of Hyena Way.

Visible from the main road as a straight climb right up the hillside, Hyena Way begs for a visit from anyone glancing in from California Ave. and excited about such things. We are powerless against this siren call, and thus continued the journey up, over, around, and down.

view from the top of long set of public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

looking down from the top of Marvista Street

All that mumbo-jumbo last week about how you can see so much more before the leaves come back to the trees really makes sense on these two stretches. Both flights have tall spindly trees right up to the handrails and it’s obvious they’ll generate a thick canopy over the walkways soon enough. That’ll be beautiful in its own right, but it behooves the step-hiker to catch these long views while she or he can.

From Hyena, you’re looking almost due south, over the railyards and Manchester, across rivers to downtown and Mount Washington. It’s a lovely, long scope that encompasses many great landmarks in the city all from one vantage point.

Marvista is perpendicular to Hyena and therefore faces west as one looks out from the top. There are fewer name-brand attractions in this direction, but it’s no less a pleasure to take in the landscape all the same.

public steps climbing the hills of Pittsburgh, PA

At the intersection of Marvista Street and Hyena Way, a network of steps and ghost steps

Where Marvista and Hyena meet is a fascinating cluster of still-in-use city steps (the two main flights) plus obsolete connectors and spurs–often terminating at empty foundations and tree-filled lots. The complexity of steps at this junction speaks to those same refrains we think about on most of these hikes: how this once-dense city neighborhood lost the vast majority of both its population and housing stock in the 140-or-so years since it was laid out and the fact that no one really needs to hike down the hillside every day to get to work. This gruesome one-two punch make any like them endangered species.

But as infrastructure of pleasure–recreation, meditation, and speculation, not to mention a history lesson in every walk–the steps of Hyena Way and Marvista Street are just about as exciting and beautiful as anywhere in the city. Some–certainly those who prefer solitude and exploration–will argue they’re even more valuable than their well-dressed and more popular peers along the riverfronts or up on Grandview Ave.

hillside with city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Marvista Street

There was a plan to include a map and suggested walking route for all the steps in California-Kirkbride. But as we plotted it out on paper, there was just no obvious loop to bag all the steps and get you back to where you started. It was going to end up being a confusing figure-8 or something and the truth is that it’s just not that hard to come up with your own plan if you’re so-inclined.

The trees are budding, so you won’t have these views for long. Get up there, stretch your gams, and keep your eyes open–maybe you’ll even spot one last hyena.

concrete public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

ghost steps, lower Marvista Street

Step Beat is an occasional series where The Orbit describes interesting features of Pittsburgh’s 700+ sets of public city steps.


[1] Source: Brian Switek, “North America Used to Have its Very Own Hyena,” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 3, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/north-america-once-had-hyena-its-very-own-180960673/

Step Beat: The Steps of California-Kirkbride, Part 1: Sunday Sunny Sunday

view of downtown Pittsburgh from public city steps

B Street, with view of downtown Pittsburgh, California-Kirkbride

In a few weeks (fingers crossed) everything will look different. The signs are all there: we’ve crossed the vernal equinox, birds are chirping their beaks off, full daylight exists before and after work, the first purple and gold crocuses are nudging their little flower heads from packed earth and sad-looking grass.

But for now, Pittsburgh still exists in its foliage-free late-winter monochrome of gray-brown. Bare trees are just spindly brown stalks. Hillsides have been reduced to impenetrable rats nests of last year’s dried up knotweed, tall grass, and loose vines. Grassy patches have typically turned into either a boggy mess or–in the case of this relatively dry winter–parched yellow straw.

The sky usually doesn’t help matters. A thick blanket of gray clouds casts its pall across the landscape more often than not; the absence of Vitamin D a severe depressant for the sun-deprived this time each year.

public city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

B Street, from Lamont

But not on this day! Last Sunday the blue above was so iridescently deep and rich, the sun so full and bright, and clouds just picture-perfect cotton balls, that it seemed to kick in the door of spring a week early, even if the plants hadn’t gotten the message.

You don’t have to tell this blogger twice: it was step-climbing weather if there ever was such a thing. So we lit off for the little North Side neighborhood of California-Kirkbride, home to a smattering of getting-fixed-up row houses, some terrific views, and–depending on how one counts them–five or six or seven great sets of city steps.

public steps on hillside in Pittsburgh, PA

St. Ives Street (foreground) and Sunday Street (in back)

Now, truth be told, we’d just been to the neighborhood 24 hours earlier–though admittedly, unenlightened and on a tighter timeline. The previous day was all of the above–chilly, desolate, and bleak. On that occasion we only got as far as the intersecting steps of St. Ives and Sunday streets and their eventual top-of-hill conclusion at Oriana. The latter parallels the old stone wall surrounding Union Dale Cemetery.

From the top of the steps, the day hiker is rewarded with interesting views both across the roofs of Manchester to downtown and over the river to Mount Washington. Turning the other direction, we can see right into the headstones and treetops of the looming cemetery.

Little B Street–connecting Lamont to Morrison–is well worth your time while you’re over there. It’s just a block long, but dramatically steep and featuring a pair of accessible-only-by-steps row houses. There’s another nice view at the top.

public steps and view of North Side, Pittsburgh, PA

a day earlier: gray view from top of Sunday Street

Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about a (late) winter step trek: you get to see so much more! Yes, soon enough this entire scene will be filled with lush green as Pittsburgh’s chronic humidity will prompt every bare patch of earth to sprout life, spread outward, and reach up into the sky.

All that overpowering tree, shrub, vine, and weed growth is a wondrous and beautiful thing, but it sure cuts down on the available sight lines. Every step trekker knows it’s a four-seasons hobby; in winter, we get the longest views.

public steps on sidewalk with hillside cemetery above, Pittsburgh, PA

Oriana Street steps and Union Dale Cemetery

Now, at this point, astute Orbit readers and chronic step-walkers are either rabid with anticipation or out-and-out screaming into their electronic devices. What about the rest of the neighborhood? They might say, You’re totally missing the best parts!

Fear not, dear reader. California-Kirkbride doesn’t have the largest quantity of steps in the city, but it still has too many to cover in just one post. We’ve also got a part 2 wherein the crew scales the deep hollow steps on the western side of the neighborhood. Hopefully we’ll see you on the steps.

view of Pittsburgh from city steps

view from lower Sunday Street


Step Beat is an occasional series where The Orbit describes interesting features of Pittsburgh’s 700+ sets of public city steps.

The Pizza Chase: Mon Valley Red Top at Anthony’s Italiano

pizza cooked Mon Valley red top style from Anthony's Italiano, Donora, PA

Mon Valley Red Top: an Extraordinary pizza from Anthony’s Italiano in Donora

Yes, it’s that good. A good enough excuse to prompt the hour-or-so scenic drive down Route 837. Good enough for the inevitable extra miles you’ll need to walk it off when you’re through. Good enough for this food-fancier to say, if you love pizza, you need to try one of these.

Crusty on the knotted edges, gooey in the thick multi-layer center, steaming hot, and managing to exist as both ultimate comfort food and a shock to the senses. It is red top pizza and unless you’ve spent some time in or around the mid-Mon Valley, you’ve probably never had anything like it.

pizza maker cinching top and bottom layers of a red top pizza

cinching top and bottom layers of a red top pizza

Google “red top pizza” and The Internet is going to point you north and west, to Detroit. That city’s native style is cooked in small rectangular deep-dish pans, super pillowy on the inside, crusty on the edges, and yes, finished with a post-bake ladling of tomato sauce across the top.

Detroit-style pizza must be “having a moment” (forgive me) as two different purveyors specializing in the (not our) regional style have popped up in Pittsburgh in the last year or two: Iron Born and Michigan & Trumbull. I can only attest to the latter, but it is spectacular–if a little precious and pricey.

Mon Valley red top is an entirely different thing. It also appears to be completely off the wider pizza map.

pizza chef pulling cooked pizza from oven

the eponymous Anthony, pulling our red top from the oven

On the one hand, a red top pizza has exactly the same stuff you’ve been eating all your life: risen white flour dough, spicy marinara sauce, grated mozzarella cheese, your choice of standard toppings. On the other, though, the script–and ingredients list–have quite literally flipped. That makes all the difference here.

There are two medium-thin crusts in a red top pizza. Between them, several handfuls of mozzarella cheese. The edges of the two layers are rolled up, curled around, and crimped together to seal the package like a giant ravioli. A hole is poked in the center–presumably so it doesn’t blow up in the oven–and red sauce is ladled out and spread across the domed surface.

In its purest form, the pizza has no additional toppings–Anthony says about half the time people get them this way–but it’s common to add pepperoni, sausage, or whatever you like.

excited customer watches as red top pizza is served from platter

red top: big hit

Doubters, whiners, and ye of little imagination will poo-poo the pie as just another pizza–but they’re wrong. We know how the thinking goes: the sauce is on top, the cheese in the middle, there’s a lot of bread–what’s the big deal?

Here’s the big deal: with a red top, the delicate chemistry of the pizza has been inverted–up is down, day is night, and there’s a sauce party on the roof while the cheese is doing the grunt work in the basement.

handmade wooden sign for Anthony's Italiano restaurant in Donora, PA

Anthony’s Italiano: come for the pizza and air conditioning; don’t expect a salad bar.

Pizza is a lot cheaper than therapy, but you’ll leave Anthony’s Italiano both fulfilled in the belly and with a new perspective on existence. The realization that all our lives we’ve been lied to–told the marinara was but a minor flavor element in a melted cheese and risen crust world–may be a metaphorically tough pill to swallow, but it tastes great going down.

With the sauce brought up front and on top it’s allowed to sizzle under the direct heat of the oven, thickening and caramelizing. The cheese at the center of the pie is the exact opposite–a molten core that oozes and massages the overall flavor; it’s felt as much as tasted.

slice of red top pizza on plate

red on top, gooey in the middle, delicious all over

Anthony’s Italiano has been making pizza in Donora since 1977, but you don’t need to have the history to see that Anthony knows what he’s doing. The shop came to our attention from a tip by the guys at the Donora Smog Museum, just-down-the-block. As we said in that piece, the crust on Anthony’s basic pizza (i.e. not the red top) has a ciabatta-like crackle and chewiness that just totally knocked our socks off. Get one of each or come back–and bring your friends this time.

A final note to our readers in the Mon Valley: We are well aware that Anthony’s is not the only pizzeria that offers a red top. There are at least a couple others that make the same style (Marty’s in Donora and Armando’s in Charleroi/Monessen), but definitely let us know if there’s somewhere else we need to check out.

exterior of Anthony's Italiano, Donora, PA

Anthony’s Italiano on McKean Avenue in Donora since 1977

Getting there: Anthony’s Italiano is located at 557 McKean Ave. in Donora. It’s going to take you around an hour to get there from central Pittsburgh; slower if you stop for every roadside cross, loose limo, and objet d’dental artwork like we do.


The Pizza Chase is an occasional series where we document regional pizzerias that do something fundamentally different or extraordinary with ol’ cheesy.

Lights Out: The Slow Death of Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center

empty retail space in shopping mall, Baden, PA

One of dozens of former retail spaces now empty in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Beaver County

It’s a big room–maybe three thousand square feet. Where there used to be tile, the floor is now scraped clean, down to hard brown mastic. The walls and ceiling persist a very 1980s palette of hot mauve and battleship gray. Each side of the space still has one long set of track lighting, its bulbs intact, trained on the wall as if the space was most recently an art gallery or framing shop–possibly a dramatically-lit purveyor of boutique clothing or novelty gifts. At the back of the former store a single checkout island remains, its electric service dropped through conduit from the ceiling like a lifeline to the outside world.

This big empty space is a mystery–but it’s not alone. Pick a direction and there are many more like it: this one with colored tile and mirrored walls; that one with rectangular scars on the floor where heavy shelving used to be. An old A&P in glorious minty green and candy-apple red; an ex-Radio Shack with placards still advertising home theater, batteries, and wireless phones. In a former Chinese restaurant a grocery buggy is incongruously parked where diners used to eye up menu photos of Szechuan beef and General Tso’s Chicken.

interior of vacant, former grocery store in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

ex-grocery (A&P, probably?)

interior of vacant retail space in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

unknown

On November 1, 1956 an entirely new experience greeted citizens of the commonwealth. With some sixty-five retail spaces–many of them gigantic, sized for furniture or department stores–spread out over three separate, long, low-slung buildings and hosting free parking for four thousand automobiles[1], Northern Lights Shoppers City must have felt every bit of its believable claim as Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center.

The new uber-plaza wasn’t in Philadelphia or its expansive suburbs, nor did it serve metro Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, or Harrisburg. It was located twenty-some miles northwest of us in Beaver County.

interior of vacant retail space in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

The terrific all-things-Beaver County blog Ambridge Memories has a great post on the opening (and, seven months later, Grand Opening) of Northern Lights. In this pre-mall era[2], the “shoppers city” monicker (it would be renamed Northern Lights Shopping Center some time later) turns out to be remarkably on-target. Unlike indoor malls we’ve come to expect, Northern Lights opening array of retail reads like a quintessential Main Street for any small town in America.

In addition to mall staples like department stores, restaurants, shoes, clothing, cards and gifts, there were two pharmacies, three supermarkets (A&P, Kroger, and Star), plus a butcher, green grocer, and bakery. Northern Lights offerings also included a bank, furniture store, optometrist, appliances, laundromat, hardware, automotive, dry cleaner, and beauty salon.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

The little Ohio River town of Conway (pop. ~1,800 in the mid-1950s; a little larger today[3]) might seem a strange choice for the location of such a gigantic development. In fact, the footprint for Northern Lights is just about identical in acreage to Conway’s lower street grid. Imagine a shopping plaza equal in size to your entire home town, with parking for cars numbering twice the total population.

The location was inevitably aimed at drawing from the larger Ohio Valley region, then still booming with active mill towns. Conway sits just about half way between the substantially-larger Ambridge to the south and the quad cities of Rochester-Beaver-Beaver Falls-New Brighton to the north. Across the river and easily accessible are Aliquippa and Monaca.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

Today, it would be unfair to call Northern Lights a dead mall. There are definitely still enough open businesses to fill a lesser destination. Giant Eagle and a Wine & Spirits store alone make the location viable, but the shopping center also includes Dollar Tree, Napoli Pizza, and Avenue Boutique, a dialysis clinic, laundromat, a couple doctors’ offices, barber, and police substation.

But take a walk around and it won’t feel like Northern Lights’ property owners see a lot of future here. The former Ames (which was a Hills before that; we don’t know what the space opened as) is being readied for demolition with all the construction fence and heavy equipment to prove it. A number of glass storefronts are covered in protective plywood. Looking through the windows of other spaces yields an eerie view–not of available retail space, but rather one that reads as closed-and-left-town-in-the-night, leaving a pile of junk behind.

vacant former Radio Shack store in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

ex-Radio Shack

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

There’s no one factor that led Northern Lights to this point. We know retail in general and shopping malls in particular have suffered for years. This is a national trend affecting city, suburb, and small town alike.

Northern Lights would have to deal with serious competition–first from the more modern Beaver Valley Mall (opened 1970), then The Internet. Couple that with the loss of thousands and thousands of well-paying steel industry jobs and the massive buying power they once provided all evaporating.in short order in the 1980s.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

Perhaps the cruelest plot point is that Northern Lights Shopping Center–itself a ruthless aggressor in the retail war with various Main Streets up and down the Ohio River Valley–was ultimately cannibalized by the same buy-cheap-and-convenient economic forces that brought it to life.

In 2014, WalMart opened a new megastore on the hillside just above the plaza, despite a major legal fight with Giant Eagle. The route to get there is a brand new road, created via eminent domain, right through the demolished space where J.C. Penny used to be[4]. If no one shops at Northern Lights anymore, at least they drive through its enormous parking lot to get to WalMart.

interior of vacant Chinese restaurant in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

ex-Chinese restaurant


[1] Source: http://ambridgememories.blogspot.com/2013/11/northern-lights-shoppers-city-opening.html
[2] Actually, Southdale Center, the “world’s first modern shopping mall,” opened in 1956–the very same year as Northern Lights–in suburban Minneapolis. Source: https://gizmodo.com/the-worlds-first-modern-shopping-mall-5114869
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] Source: https://archive.triblive.com/news/pittsburgh-allegheny/work-on-wal-mart-supercenter-set-to-begin-in-beaver-county/

Precious Metal: The Disappearing Legacy öf Hard Rock Graffiti

spray paint rendering of the British flag on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

All we’ve got is a photograph: Def Leppard (c. 1983), Sharpsburg

There was a time when giants walked the earth. Abbreviated to just single power words, their names are legend: ZeppelinPriestDokkenMaidenKrokusCrüe. Burnouts, D-20 rollers, and teenage hair-farmers alike analyzed Tolkien-meets-toking mysticism, tapped and plucked modal riffage on second-hand battle axes, and armored themselves in a suburban denim-and-studs couture. Umlauts döminated every pössible occasiön. Yes, it was the very best of times.

The penance for an enviable life rich in metal mullets, keg beer consumed by a river, double bass drums, and a perpetual soreness in the neck and ringing in the ears was to pay tribute to one’s idols in the most public, lasting, and respectful way: half-assedly spray-painting their names on dimly-lit concrete walls.

masonry window sill with graffiti "Led Zepp", Pittsburgh, PA

Communication breakdown: Led Zepp(elin) (c. 1980), Hazelwood

Blue Oyster Cult logo spray-painted on cement wall, New Brighton

This ain’t the summer of love: Blue Öyster Cult (hook and cross logo) (c. 1981), New Brighton

Existing somewhere between the cave paintings at Lascaux and ballpoint etchings committed by high school students into classroom desks and Trapper Keepers, metal/hard rock graffiti occupies a very particular place in modern cultural history.

In the city (at least), we see graffiti everywhere–to the point it becomes a kind of visual white noise, unnoticed for its omnipresence. Every alley, dumpster, and bus shelter is tagged-up; jersey barriers, concrete infrastructure, and the back sides of traffic signs bear a familiar scrawl and riot of puckering stickers. In some places you’ll see elaborate full-color wall-sized tags and in others, pithy sophomoric humor. But nobody–and I mean nobody–ever paints graffiti to praise rock stars–or any other musicians–anymore. You just don’t see it.

graffiti for metal band Iron Maiden in cement drainage tunnel, Munhall, PA

Caught somewhere in time: Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

spray paint graffiti "Ace of Space" on cement wall, New Brighton, PA

Ace of Spade (sic) (Motörhead) (c. 1980), New Brighton

Like Stonehenge and Chichen Itzá, these primitive tributes dating from the late Cold War have stood stalwart through the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. Indeed, twenty, thirty, even forty years on we still see their traces…if you know where to look.

The jean jacket alchemists who spun black vinyl into precious metal blazed the names and iconography of their heroes in the kinds of places teenagers hung out before anyone in the gang had a car and long before the Internet existed. Some of these remain, blessedly untouched by the hands of public works crews with more important things to take care of.

graffiti of "Judas Priest" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Judas Priest (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

graffiti reading "Iron Maiden" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

In Pittsburgh city limits, the obvious bridge railings, retaining walls, and industrial fencing has been tagged and painted-over in so many yearly cycles that almost nothing from this halcyon era survives. But dig a little deeper–or climb a little higher–and you can still find the names of goat-throwing deities carved into the handrails of underused city steps, scratched into train trestle underpasses, or spray-painted on stormwater runoff drains. Further afield, the spoils get richer.

spray paint graffiti for Deep Purple, New Brighton, PA

Deep Purple (c. early 1980s), New Brighton

faded graffiti reading "Led Zepplin rules" on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Led Zepplin (sic.) rules (c. 1980), Sharpsburg

This all begs the obvious question, where did it go? Or, more precisely, why did it stop? No, we don’t expect the youth of today to still be into ZZ Top and Deep Purple (we can dream, though!), but kids still like music, right? Why did the act of desecrating public infrastructure in the (literal) name of a favorite musical act simply amount to a two- or three-decade fad, basically gone by the turn of the millennia?

The Orbit has no clear answer for this–not even an educated guess. That said, it’s likely some combination of The Internet, overprotective parents, unlimited and ever-changing entertainment options, and…oh yeah, The Internet again. Why climb down in a culvert with a can of Rust-Oleum for some band no one will care about in six months when you could be Snapchatting with a stranger in Singapore?

spray paint graffiti on cinderblock wall for ZZ Top, Homestead, PA

ZZ Top (c. 1983), Homestead

graffiti for metal band Metallica spray painted on cement wall, Munhall, PA

0 for 2: Metalica (sic.) Alchoholica (sic.) (c. 1990), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

It’s all probably a good thing for the sake of our public spaces. Here at the Orbit, we report on graffiti when it makes sense, but we’re also not advocating for it. If young people have a deeper respect for our parks and sidewalks, private residences and commercial buildings that’s great…but I don’t really think that’s what’s going on.

With all its great opportunity, something definitely got lost when The Internet came to town. There was a deep connection that many of us had to a small number of artists–saving up weeks of paper route money to buy one record which then got played over and over. That’s no longer a practical necessity when the history of popular music is available right through the phone in your pocket. The opportunity is great; the connection and identification, not so much. Who’s going to risk a misdemeanor for […hold on while I Google the current pop/rock charts…] Ariana Grande or Panic! At the Disco?

[Side note: the irony that as we’re going to press Queen holds 13 of the top 25 “Hot Rock” tracks is not lost on this author.]

logo for hard rock band Twisted Sister scratched into cement, Sharpsburg, PA

Twisted Sister (c. 1984), Sharpsburg

graffiti tribute to Norwegian metal band Mayhem on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Mayhem (c. 1990s?), Mt. Oliver

Some notes on the photos and dates:

Sadly, The Orbit doesn’t have the proper resources to do the kind of carbon-dating and art preservation that these historical documents clearly deserve. That said, we consulted the expertise of metal scholars Dave Bjorkback, Ben Blanchard, and Lee Floyd in the course of reporting this story. We are indebted to their lifetime of study.

faded graffiti for metal band Korn on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Korn (c. 2000), Sharpsburg

  • We don’t know for sure that the rendering of the Union Jack (above, top) was in fact a tribute to Def Leppard, but they were the U.K. band who flew…err, sat on the British flag most prominently during this, their prime “ten-arm” Pyromania/Hysteria era–so it’s a reasonable guess.
  • The 1980s were way past Deep Purple’s early-’70s creative peak, but given the proximity to other specimens in New Brighton’s Big Rock Park [yes: that’s really the name of the place where this–and others–were found], we believe this is a more accurate estimate.
  • Faster Pussycat was an also-ran in the Sunset Strip hair metal scene of the late-1980s. The band was named after a Russ Meyer film, however, and the cryptic hobo tag on this boxcar (below) doesn’t really give us any clue as to what the writer was after. It’s still worth a mention.
graffiti cartoon of a vampire with "Faster Pussycat" written on his cloak, Neville Island, PA

Faster Pussycat, Neville Island