Walk This Way: Jeremy Raymer’s One-Man Arts District

mural of Andy Warhol and peeled pink banana by artist Jeremy Raymer

Peel slowly. Warhol/electric banana mural by Jeremy Raymer, Mulberry Way, Lawrenceville

We can still go for a walk.

These are–take your pick—strange, scary, stressful, uncertain, even apocalyptic times. But we all know a daily dose of leg-stretching and fresh-air-breathing is crucial to both our physical and mental health during even the best of days. Make no exception now; you need those things more than ever.

The daily constitutional also happens to be one of the few things we can still do–outside of the home–that is just as freely available now as it was a month ago, before the plague set in.

mural of cartoon horse wearing suit by artist Jeremy Raymer

Log! Mulberry Way

Don’t look for any streets signs marking Raymer Way; you won’t find it on any maps. That’s just our name for it. But there exists a three-block stretch of lower Lawrenceville that fully deserves one of those ceremonial placards, like the zoo’s One Wild Place or Amazing Kids Way in Squirrel Hill.

It’s there, on two long stretches of Mulberry Way, an alley running parallel with Butler Street, plus another short block of 35th Street, where rock-and-roll mural artist Jeremy Raymer has created a one-man, open air arts district. It’s yours for the perusing any time there’s enough daylight to read the (often very dark) wall surfaces–and you won’t encounter enough other people to worry about social distancing.

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

The house that started it all. Chez Ray, 35th Street

Jeremy Raymer, over email, describes the evolving process:

The entire thing started from the previous owner of the warehouse at 35th and Charlotte seeing me painting my house [across the street] and asking if I wanted to paint on his warehouse. I said yes and started covering the [35th Street] side with the heart, eyes, and Hedy Lamarr murals first, then wanting more space and moving into the [Mulberry Way] alley.

Once this was covered I did want more space, so a few months back, I approached the owner of Morcilla and asked about doing a small piece on the alley entry to the restaurant, so I did that and then I wanted to see about more space, so I approached the Perlora warehouse and after a little bit of convincing (from me and some of their employees who are fans), they agreed to give me free reign on the alley portion of their warehouse. The initial intent was just a practice space for me and its just organically grown into what it is now.

mural of man's face on service entry to restaurant

David (?), Morcilla back entrance, Mulberry Way

If you’ve spent any time in Lawrenceville, the Strip District, or central North Side, you know Raymer’s work. Think of the giant image of (super hero) Magneto along AAA Scrap Metal’s Penn Avenue building and fence, the full wall Roberto Clemente on Verdetto’s Bar in Spring Garden, or the big Deutschtown Sasquatch. There are also a ton of smaller pieces–of sports figures, wild animals, and art references–that turn up on commercial storefronts, restaurant interiors, and pocket parks around the city.

If those are the final, big marquee commissioned pieces, Raymer Way is the sketch pad, the studies and scribbles. “I am basically allowed to do whatever I please,” Raymer says of his agreement with the Lawrenceville property owners, “I am given permission, but no sponsorship and it has all been on my accord and at my own cost.”

Mural of human heart on cinderblock wall by Jeremy Raymer, Pittsburgh, PA

Purple heart, 35th Street

Raymer’s murals fall clearly in the world of pop art. They’re big, over-saturated with electric color, using spray paint–the medium of choice for street art–that often has a certain airbrushed quality, and focus on subject matter around celebrity, movie characters, cartoons, and visual puns. He also has a particular affinity for the color purple.

At their best, Raymer has an incredibly deft hand and soft touch with a can of Krylon. He’s got a great color sense for what’s going to pop from a cinderblock wall or read through the roll-up mechanism of a retail security door. His portraits of real people are arresting, vivid, and fill the walls with an obvious holistic vision that treats the space as a broad canvas to be considered in toto. Raymer’s goofier stuff shows that he’s got a sense of humor and doesn’t take any of this too seriously–something altogether missing from so many artists.

Jeremy Raymer mural on cement block wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Purple Hedy Lamarr, 35th Street

mural of large mouth in purple by artist Jeremy Raymer

Big purple mouth, 35th Street

mural of man's face by artist Jeremy Raymer

Purpleish man, Mulberry Way

mural of purple witch painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Purple witch, Mulberry Way

mural of purple bunny by artist Jeremy Raymer

Big purple bunny, Mulberry Way

mural of block of blue cheese painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Blue cheese blues, Mulberry Way

Now, I’ll be the first to say I don’t love all of Raymer’s murals. Do we really need wall-sized portraits of the green Ghostbusters slime monster, Simpsons characters, or–sorry, Star Wars fans–Yoda? A matched pair of Buffalo chicken wings with a halo is kind of funny … kind of.

But let me say this: I have tremendous respect for anyone who goes out there and does their thing and gets this much stuff done, over and over again. To spend one’s free time–not to mention money–on materials, in negotiating with landlords, and decorating the alley backsides of anonymous buildings, is a tremendous gift to Lawrenceville and the city at large.

… and that gift is yours, whenever you’re ready to take that walk.

mural of Yoda painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Hrmmm, on walls he paints. Yoda, Mulberry Way

mural of green monster by artist Jeremy Raymer

Bustin’ makes me feel good! Mulberry Way

mural of chicken wings with an angel's halo painted by artist Jeremy Raymer

Chicken wings/halo, Mulberry Way

mural by Jeremy Raymer including a heart with keyhole and key

The key to your heart, Mulberry Way

mural of multicolor skull by artist Jeremy Raymer

Skull, Mulberry Way

Getting there: The Raymer Way murals are on Mulberry Way, lower Lawrenceville, between 34th and 36th Streets, as well as 35th Street, between Mulberry Way and Charlotte Street. There are plenty of other Raymer murals in near walking distance throughout Lawrenceville and The Strip District. There’s even a map of locations on his web site.


Follow Jeremy Raymer on Instagram at @jeremyMraymer or @raymerarttours. For contact information and a map of his Pittsburgh murals, see jmraymer.com.

Related: see also “An Orbit Obit: Where the Buffalo Roamed,” Pittsburgh Orbit, Dec. 12, 2015.

Something From Nothing: Remembering Artist DeVon Smith with Filmmaker David Craig

artist DeVon Smith with sculpture of UFO in front of his home in Wampum, PA, 2001

“He created something out of nothing,” artist DeVon Smith in front of his home in Wampum, PA, 2001

Editor’s note: In these social distancing/life-during-wartime days, one’s opportunities to responsibly poke around wildly are substantially compromised. However, this pre-Orbit era story of Western Pennsylvania outsider artist DeVon Smith comes from a time that feels like another planet: when no one was blogging, no one (I knew) had a cell phone or a digital camera, and we all just sat around waiting for Mark Zuckerberg to give us something to click on. DeVon Smith, though, is absolutely the kind of guy that made me excited about writing, picture-taking, exploration, and adventure … even if there was no outlet for it.


Twenty years ago your narrator found himself abnormally focused on the intense activity of an older gentleman, down on his hands and knees, fidgeting with a snarl of electrical cords, blinking lights, and repurposed oscillating fans. It was there, by the entryway of The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, that DeVon Smith was fussing with a “family” of six human-sized art robots, two of whom were to be wed in a ceremony at the museum later that same day.

DeVon spoke in a fascinating stream-of-consciousness blur that intermixed is-this-guy-for-real? anecdotes of a wild life of round-the-world hitchhiking, bizarre health prescriptions, and an absolute dedication to the life of his creations that felt as legit as anything in, you know, the “real world.” It turned out that DeVon had come to the museum from his home in Wampum, PA, just up the road from Pittsburgh, in Lawrence County. He invited me to visit any time.

art robots created by DeVon Smith

The World’s First Family of Robots, part of the permanent collection of The American Visionary Art Museum [photos: Dan Meyers]

I got to know DeVon just a little bit, visiting him at his DIY compound in Wampum, helping transport his robots in a flatbed truck to the opening of a new Wal-Mart, and buying him a real lunch at a nearby King’s Family Restaurant where he insisted he would have been just as happy with a no-cost meal of “ketchup soup.”

Filmmaker David Craig and I met with DeVon in the late winter of 2001, which is where he captured DeVon doing his thing while I acted as unprepared interviewer. A link to the short video that came out of that appears below and is highly recommended. The photos I took–you can hear my old 35mm snapping away at various points–appear lost to time; at least, I can’t find them anywhere. (Sigh.) But you’ll get the idea.

David Craig was kind enough to do a little Q&A about his recollections of the visit and making the short film.

Q: How did you first hear about DeVon Smith?

Let’s say it’s all a bit murky. I went to AVAM (American Visionary Art Museum) regularly–every time there was a new show–so if the robots were there I saw them, but there was always so much other stuff I was interested in seeing, like which Howard Finster piece they were showing. You had talked up DeVon. You and [Ms. The Orbit] offered up some suggestions for the public access show I was doing. I mean if you said anything like, “There’s a guy in the country who makes robots,” I was there.

In the original video I set it up by showing us going down this long stretch of winding road and in the narration, using this world-weary tone, saying, “Here we are setting out to find another folk artist.” That wasn’t really the case. Coming out of the zine world and doing some writing, I was always interested in checking things out. But with the show I had more of a reason to seek out stuff to cover. I don’t recall having any particular expectations but you probably built up a little bit of a legend about DeVon. Ultimately the visit was your idea and you had to figure out where he lived. I just brought the camera.

front window of DeVon Smith's home in Wampum, PA with six robot sculptures on display

World’s 1st Family of Robots–the 1st Recycled Family on display at DeVon Smith’s home, Wampum, PA, 2001

Q: Tell us about the visit to Wampum, PA where you filmed him.

It was March, 2001, around St. Patrick’s day. I know it was the week before he took the robots to Wal-Mart. The one thing that was interesting–that I had forgotten until I looked at all the video footage again–was we arrived fairly early that morning. No one was around. It was his compound with some sheds and a trailer and the robots out in the open behind a long glass window. I shot some video and then we went to New Castle where you scored a thrift store art painting of a horse. It was beautiful. We went back, still no one.

I think we came real close to calling it a day when DeVon’s junk truck rolled up. Then that was it. DeVon was totally accommodating, willing to talk and hang out. I had that thing where there was only one battery so we went inside his place to recharge it for awhile. It was all about keeping the camera rolling. The quotes were great and he introduced us to the “family.”

“Devon Smith, Robot Man”

Q: Nowadays, Orbit readers can watch your short video on the Internet, but what was the purpose/outlet for these kinds of videos in a pre-YouTube world?

The piece was produced for my public access show Odds & Ends in Fairfax County, Virginia. Back then if you wanted people to watch you had to reel off a list of random days and times but it would be screened other times too, not that it wasn’t cool to have a show on TV. I was more into the idea of channel surfers stumbling onto things like the Robot Man.

When I moved to Portland, OR about nine years ago, I edited it again as a calling card, proof that I was a “filmmaker.” I had it at a couple of local screenings and it even won an award at the Teeny Tiny Film Fest in Estacada, Ore. When I first moved to Portland, I was in a Lance Armstrong P.S.A.(!) and a guy asked me if my stuff was online and I was like, “Ah, no.” I realized in order to network I needed to put my videos online. Robot Man was the first thing and with it being close to ten minutes long it may have been too long for YouTube at that time so it was originally posted in two parts.

filmmaker David Craig with video camera

Filmmaker David Craig at St. Nicholas grotto, North Side, c. 2000

Q: I understand the American Visionary Art Museum has contacted you about the short DeVon Smith video you produced. How did that connection happen and what will they be doing with the films?

I was contacted by AVAM through my YouTube channel so maybe they were doing a search. I had sent them a copy, possibly VHS, years ago. They’ve been really complimentary about the film and I’m honored because I was a big fan of the museum. I’m hoping they show it on a loop. DeVon really comes alive. All I had to do was turn the camera on. It wouldn’t have worked to have him talk to the camera so I’m glad you were there to keep him talking, which was not hard, but a lot of times you’d ask a follow up so he’d elaborate.

He was more comfortable talking to someone than at a camera. He was a great subject because he was willing to tell us his whole story. He had all kinds of time for us. Looking over all the footage, I think there some more material that could be a separate piece. I think the film was the right length and my instincts were good. I just loved the old style, 1950’s Jimmy Stewart way DeVon talked and I hope to share more of the outtakes at some point.

artist DeVon Smith in front of his home in Wampum, PA

“A big coffee drinker, about 8 cups a day,” DeVon Smith

Q: Do you have any other lasting memories of DeVon Smith that you’d like to share with Orbit readers?

It’s still about the way he said stuff, the way he stretched out his words and his excitement, his spirit and his energy. In the movie he talks about doing stuff under the worst conditions possible and I think about that because he had his trailer and his robot family and maybe some other family around but he survived. He was a junk man and seemed to be into tinkering with stuff and getting by on very little. So he’s an inspiration.

I think you asked but we found out DeVon was a big coffee drinker, about 8 cups a day. I always have that in my mind as some kind of benchmark. Being a part of his legacy is really cool because I’m not sure how many people shot video of him and his home. That’s the thing, as folk/outsider artists go he wasn’t the most prolific or famous but he had a charm and the Robot family and that “double wedding of Robot offspring” is hilarious. I think his story would make anyone feel good.

He created something out of nothing. I think it’s important to know you can create with very little. He was working on a book, one of those crazy, handwritten autobiographies and I wonder if that ever came out. [Editor’s note: it did. Amazing Amusing Adventures of World Traveler DeVon Smith was self-published shortly before Smith’s death in 2003; we’ve never found a copy to read.] I feel like I lucked into documenting something that’s important regardless of how many people know about it but people at AVAM are the niche audience for sure. I think it goes back to your suggestion and AVAM’s interest in DeVon, which you were aware of, that sparked this whole thing.

artist DeVon Smith talking in front of his home in Wampum, PA, 2001

“Willing to tell us his whole story,” DeVon Smith

Postscript: We hipped journalist Julie Mickens to DeVon’s story around this time and she wrote a terrific piece for Pittsburgh City Paper called “DeVon Inspiration.” That May, 2001 article is sadly not available in CP‘s online archive, but Mickens’ obituary for DeVon Smith, from June 12, 2003, is.


David Craig is a writer, filmmaker, musician, and runs our sister blog The Portland Orbit. All video still photos provided by David Craig.

Humble Pei: A Pi Day Salute to I.M. Pei’s City View Tower

City View (originally Washington Plaza Apartments) designed by I.M. Pei, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden hour on the lower Hill: City View (neé Washington Plaza) Apartments, Centre Ave.

It must have felt like a dream. At the crest of Centre Avenue, mere blocks above the hubbub of downtown Pittsburgh and the still-smoldering remains of the lower Hill, twenty-four stories of clean, sharp concrete and grid-patterned windows shot from of the earth like a dramatic rock formation or the liftoff armature of a rocket ship, just launched into space.

City View (originally branded Washington Plaza) wasn’t Pittsburgh’s first large-scale, post-war modernist building–there are a handful of big office towers built downtown in the 1950s that meet that description–but its position standing alone, at the top of its hill and with eyes cast out in all directions, had to have felt like something completely different. The future–whether Pittsburgh really wanted it or not–was here right now.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, southeast side

This speculative journalist has driven and/or biked past the City View towers a hundred times and seen its cold concrete form from every direction imaginable–it’s hard to miss if you’re anywhere nearby. But I’ll be honest here, if you’d asked me a year ago, I would have just considered it the anonymous big ugly apartment building uphill from the hockey arena.

signage for City View Apartments featuring simplified graphic version of the building's shape

City View Apartments signage with abstracted/graphically-simplified version of the building’s design

And thenI.M. Pei died.

Pei, if you’re not a design geek or a regular crossword-puzzle-doer, is one of the giants of modern architecture who planned marquee office towers and airline terminals, art museums and corporate headquarters all over the planet. In his long career–he was 102 when he passed last year and worked most of those decades–Pei designed projects from Beijing to Bloomington, Doha to Denver, Paris to … well, you guessed it.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

Old vs. … not quite so old. City View Apartments, seen from Fifth Ave.

The Washington Plaza Apartments arrived in 1964 at the height of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal efforts, the tail end of the razing of the lower Hill District,[1] and just a few years before the real boom in downtown glass-and-steel skyscrapers would hit. With its climate-controlled interiors and uninterrupted 360-degree views, moving from a cramped city row house into a brand new Washington Plaza apartment, mere steps from downtown, must have satisfied many a jet-age urban fantasy.

On this come-for-the-pun, stay-for-the-dessert Pi/Pie Day, we thought we’d add Pei Day to the ramshackle who’s-driving? feel of the occasion. (Just know that the name is actually pronounced PAY.[2]) In this version of the “holiday” we celebrate the master architect’s sole Pittsburgh project and give ourselves the opportunity to really take a good long look at the building, from a bunch of angles across different seasons, and see if its tan concrete and wall-of-windows would whisper its secrets of the modern age to us.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, north face

And … I guess it worked out that way. Perhaps it was because we’re so easily swayed by star power or maybe it was just taking the time to actually look at the place–to set aside a bunch of prejudices and commune with Pei’s big apartment building at street level[3]. Either way, we found that enough time spent walking around the place, looking up, picture-taking, and photo-editing made all that concrete warm up, wave back to us, and glow against several different impossibly-blue skies.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, east face

Look: there are no plans for us to leave our decidedly old-world row house with its boxy quarters and interior windows looking straight out on the neighbor’s brick wall. But there are times–up on the ladder, re-patching cracks in the same 140-year-old horsehair plaster one “fixed” not that long ago–that the mind wanders to an easier, simpler, more modern existence–big on sunlight and small on crumbling sandstone foundation dust. Yesterday’s modernists may have really had something there, and that’s how we ended up here, at Pei Day.


[1] The story of the destruction of the Lower Hill and forced displacement of its (largely black) resident/business community in the name of “urban renewal” is an extremely important one, but not the subject of this piece.
[2] The temptation to call this piece Pei Day Loans or Pei The Man or some such foolishness was strong, but for everyone (like me) who previously thought the name was pronounced PIE, that just wouldn’t make sense.
[3] The Orbit was escorted from City View’s lobby by security before we could either get a good look at the interior or any photographs. We’re not holding a grudge.

Barbie’s Dream Cult

collection of Barbie dolls displayed on chain link fence in the sunshine

Fun in the sun. A handful of the hundreds of dolls in Barbie’s Dream Cult, Polish Hill.

If you were a kid that played with dolls and ever wondered whatever happened to them, now we know. They ended up here, on an overgrown former basketball court in Polish Hill.

Barbie dolls are everywhere[1]. Placed into tree branches and tied to fencing, dangling from a basketball hoop and performing headless yoga in the buff. They appear in clustered groups large enough to field a sports team and as loners cast off into the mud. Some look joyful–in relaxed repose, absorbing the morning sunshine–others have been abused and contorted, stripped bare and dismembered.

And then, rising from the twisted, haphazardly-tossed little bodies at the rear of the space, is the motherlode. At least a hundred dolls–probably more–forming the shape of a giant Valentine’s heart across a wide section of chain link fence.

large number of Barbie dolls hung on a chain link fence in the shape of a heart

Big love. The heart at the center of Barbie’s dream cult.

“Part Marwen, part Jonestown Massacre,” was artist Lisa Valentino‘s brief description after coming across the collection of Barbies on one of her WATSOP (Walk All the Streets of Pittsburgh) hikes. That enticing teaser, plus a handful of photos, was all it took to send the Orbit on a mad dash to see for ourselves.

You could accurately call this little out-of-control diorama a Pink Plastic Crime Scene or maybe Return to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s both the oxymoronic street art in the woods and an exploded American fantasy. Ultimately, between the Druidic imagery of The Wicker Man and the visions of The Peoples Temple, Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate lingering in the cranium, we settled on Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Welcome-to-the-Cult Hostess Barbie

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence with wooden hex symbol

High Druid Priestess Barbie

Barbie has done a lot of things in her 60+ year history. Why, the Mattel Corporation is not so tone deaf here in the 21st century as to ignore expanding their flagship brand into all manner of dress-up outfits. One can now purchase Barbie the trial judge, astronaut, entomologist, astrophysicist, and robotics engineer. On her time off from drilling cavities and performing root canals at the dentist’s office, Barbie, D.D.S., enjoys beekeeping, pet-grooming, baseball, art, and tending chickens in the backyard. The list goes on and on.

That’s all great … but none of these focused, career-minded young ladies ended up here. No, among the hundreds of dolls scattered about, we spotted exactly one roller-skater, one Jazzerciser, and one apparent employee of Pizza Hut wearing a cropped t-shirt and miniskirt combo that almost certainly fails to meet the restaurant chain’s dress code.

Despite the wide array of careers and avocations Barbie is now free to pursue, the cult clearly appeals most to a more conservative–or, at least, traditional–young lady, almost entirely white and blonde, whose sartorial preferences lean toward pink party dresses and formal evening gowns[2].

dolls dressed in Pizza Hut shirt and roller skater gear

Sent-Home-With-a-Warning Barbie / Roller Skater Barbie

collage of Barbie dolls in fancy dresses

Formal dress Barbies

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that these are just plastic dolls that happened to end up the way most of their fellow children’s toys do: played-with, dropped in the dirt, broken-apart, and left behind. We find them in the street all the time.

That said, it has to be noted that today, in the #MeToo era, the image of so many post-adolescent/not-quite-fully-adult young women, lifeless, often stripped bare, and dramatically discarded in the woods, is somewhere between disconcerting and hardcore creepy. Hopefully you’ve never come across anything like this in real life, but watch any episode of Law & Order or Broadchurch–let alone the evening news–and it will often feature a similar-looking tragic young victim as Plot Point 1.

collage of blond Barbie doll heads on pavement

Heads-a-poppin’ Barbies

Barbie dolls dressed in bathrobe and exercise outfit

Rough Morning Barbie / Jazzercise Barbie

If Jan and/or Dean are still fantasizing over the mythical Surf City’s two-to-one gender ratio, they’ll completely flip their noggins when they arrive at Barbie’s Dream Cult. Kens do make  appearances here–both in the big Barbie art heart and tossed around the premises–but they’re easily outnumbered ten- or twenty-to-one.

If you’re a Ken, that’s the good news. (I guess?) The bad news is the Kens have been brutalized as much as any of the Barbies. Missing limbs, heads, and all/most of their clothes, Kens are found covered in dirt, with their pants around their ankles, buck naked, and frozen into ice. Maybe Surf City was a better plan after all.

collage of Ken dolls resting on dirt

Hey, ladies! Pants-Around-the-Ankles Ken / Which-Way-to-the-Phish-Concert Ken

collage of Ken dolls frozen in an icy creek

What a way to go. Two versions of You-Messed-with-the-Wrong-Barbie Ken

The obvious question: what are all these Barbie dolls doing here? For this we need to declare an official Spoiler Alert. We received some insider information, but if you’d rather not know and just let it remain a mystery, feel free to skip ahead.

We were lucky enough to get this short history from a Polish Hill resident, intimately involved with Barbie’s Dream Cult:

The Barbie heart story started originally with a guy in the neighborhood who bought all the Barbies to make an art car. Other people in the neighborhood felt the car was creepy and people started to say things on the Internet insinuating he was some kind of pervert and that they wished him harm. So, the gentleman took the Barbies off his car and well, what else do you do with that many Barbies? He graciously donated them to the abandoned courts.

In the beginning they were all in bags and rubber tubs and they sat there for a while. I took em out to write my name in Barbies and photograph it. Since then, they’ve been getting thrown all over the place. The heart was made by another human who wanted to remain mysterious about its origins and meanings.

collage of broken dolls found in the woods

Headless Yoga Barbie / Arm-Where-It-Shouldn’t-Be Ken / Whole-Lotta-Pink-Hair Barbie / Half-a-Horse

Barbie dolls placed in thick vine wood

Run for your life! Escape-While-You-Still-Can Barbies

Now, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone in the neighborhood considers leaving bags of Barbie dolls outside for public dismemberment is a “gracious donation.” From our vantage point, though, it’s an intriguing opportunity.

We can think of a lot worse things than this little abandoned corner of Polish Hill becoming a kind of ever-changing Barbie art park, outdoor creative space, or just another weird Pittsburgh thing to discover. It could also be a one-of-a-kind, no-questions-asked Barbie lending library: Need a Barbie? Take a Barbie. Have a Barbie? Leave a Barbie.

Barbie doll placed in a tree branch

Footloose, fancy-free, and hanging in a tree Barbie

Barbie takes a lot of well-deserved heat–for her does-not-exist-in-nature body proportions, reliably Aryan features, and dress-up-and-look-pretty career goals. This is a chance to counter that–to take a tiny amount of the world’s Barbies and do something new and innovative with them.

The last thing Marine Biologist Barbie or Wildlife Conservationist Barbie want is for the mountain of molded pink plastic the Mattel Corporation has brought into the world to end up casually thrown out, minced up, and washed out to sea for an even larger Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the real doctrine of Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Naked and not ashamed. Nudist Colony Barbie


[1] We’re using the names Barbie and Ken generically here. The dolls likely come from many different sources and are not necessarily all Barbie® brand toys.
[2] In fairness, many of the dolls have been stripped of all clothing, so it’s impossible to establish if these may have originally worn different outfits.

Reading the Road: Things Embedded in Paving Tar

white plastic figure embedded in road tar

white plastic figure, Oakland

By any measure, it’s a strange object to encounter in the middle of a crosswalk. Laying on its back, a pure white plastic humanoid figure stares straight up at you–not a care in the world–embedded in the road-paving tar of Fifth Avenue.

The little toy likely came into this world in a very different form. Perhaps the material was originally in full color, complete with hair and facial details painted on–the pure white merely a result of repeated sun-bleachings. A pair of matching holes on the torso suggest an optional attachment set of armor or wings or maybe a backpack. We can hope the little guy once had some clothes.

By now, though, it’s impossible to tell. Someone’s ex-plaything–jettisoned from a bumpy stroller ride or fumbled in a harried attempt to catch the Walk sign at Bellefield–wound up crushed under so many wheels of downtown-headed PAT buses and Oakland through traffic it’s become one with the street surface itself.

wire cap embedded in road tar

wire cap, North Oakland

machine screw embedded in road tar

machine screw, Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]

Now, that little plastic toy is an extraordinary thing to find preserved in the macadam of a city street, but it’s not alone. It turns out that–like much of life–with close inspection there is almost limitless variety of this naturally-occurring phenomena just about anywhere you look.

The objects have a certain continuity, though. They’re the kinds of things that fall out of pockets and off of vehicles; worth little enough to neither require securing in place nor retrieval after they hit the pavement. None is of any value for a passer-by to bother picking up. Each must be so small that it can be subsumed into a thin layer of road tar.

zipper pull embedded in road tar

zipper pull, North Oakland

broken reflector and metal pin embedded in road tar

reflector, metal pin, Oakland

Like those fragments of household pottery or scraps of tanned buckskin preserved in historical collections, the objects we find fused in the road don’t have any intrinsic value. [Although we did find one small unit of U.S. currency (see below).] No, this is the flotsam of a population on the move, building, buying, wearing-out, and discarding the ephemera of modern life.

One needn’t look too far in the past to imagine a time when a penny wouldn’t be dropped absentmindedly and an eighth-inch drill bit would be worth the effort to retrieve from a job site. But today we live in a mechanized, mass-produced, disposable culture–one where the value of a single wire cap, machine screw, or even a kid’s toy is so little that no one would think twice when it is dropped on the pavement.

penny embedded in road tar

penny, Oakland

bottle cap embedded in road tar

bottle cap, Oakland

bottle cap embedded in road tar

bottle cap, North Oakland

These public, open-air excavation sites are a bonanza for the amateur archeologist. When we see the incredible skeletons of dinosaurs on display at the Carnegie Museum it’s obvious they are literally the one-in-a-million chance creatures that managed to collapse into just the right environment to preserve their bones intact for millennia, remain undisturbed for all that time, and managed to be recovered by the fossil-hunters of the early 20th century. Few among us can hope to participate in a real dig for T-Rex.

But anyone can be his or her own Howard Carter or Kathleen Kenyon on the morning walk to work or an afternoon constitutional. Like those pterodactyl-hunters before us, we imagine all of the bottle caps that didn’t happen to get stuck in a hot patch of road tar, the fractured reflector pieces swept down the sewer in the next big rain, the plastic detritus of America washed downriver and out to sea. It’s a lot to take in.

metal bracket embedded in road tar

metal bracket, Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]

drill bit embedded in road tar

drill bit, Oakland

aluminum flashing embedded in road tar

aluminum flashing, Oakland

aluminum flashing embedded in road tar

aluminum flashing, Oakland

tooth flosser and bobby pin embedded in road tar

tooth flosser/bobby pin, Lawrenceville

ketchup packets embedded in road tar

ketchup packets, Bloomfield

One final observation: There is a unique related-but-different subset of the embedded-in-road-tar category of items. These are things that were actually baked into the road material itself at the time of construction. (Rather than appended to the street surface, later.) The fact that we came across two different full-sized red bricks melded with street tarmac does not a pattern make, but it’s an interesting double-occurrence.

How did these bricks get here? What were they doing in a batch of freshly cooked-up street surfacing? Were they laying on the denuded substrate or did they get mixed in with the goop pre-pour?

So many questions. But … that’s why we’re reading the road.

brick embedded in road tar

brick, Marshall-Shadeland

brick embedded in road tar

brick, Bloomfield

Always + 4EVA: Valentine’s Day Hearts, 2020

deteriorated paper heart stapled to black wall

ing T en Hom Safe, Lawrenceville

If Pittsburgh has a ground zero for human pathos, it may well be at the southeastern edge of downtown, exactly at the point where the “Jail Trail” (aka Three Rivers Heritage Trail) earns its nickname.

There, on the thick concrete supporting The Parkway east and right along the bicycle/walking path, is a stretch of wall surface where loved ones leave messages scrawled in sidewalk chalk for the inmates at the county jail.

The text is reliably heartbreaking, often written in a child’s hand, and is clearly aimed at the missing parent or family member who, incarcerated somewhere on the floors above, may or may not have one of the river-facing windows to actually see what’s been left at ground level outside. Whether or not anyone residing in the big house overhead can actually read these hand-written tributes is beside the point; here, it’s the thought that counts.

chalk written message including two hearts and the message "BM + BM: always + 4EVA"

Recycled heart, BM + BM: always + 4EVA, Jail Trail

One day, we’ll do a full story on this wall as it’s got a zillion tales to tell. Until then, though, we’ve got this pair of artfully-rendered hearts, full of multicolor shading and texture, with circular connecting arrows that echo the message from BM + BM (no snickering!): always + 4EVA.

Depending on one’s relationship status and/or sentimental capacity, Valentine’s Day can be a dicey affair. But from the mass of hearts we run across all the time–red, white, pink, and yellow, spray painted on cinderblock and scrawled on dumpsters, embedded in concrete and taped to electrical boxes–it’s clear there’s a lot of love (or, at least, hoping for it) out there.

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all!

mural by Jeremy Raymer including a heart with keyhole and key

The key to your heart, Lawrenceville [mural by Jeremy Raymer]

heart images made from red and yellow tape on electrical box

Tape hearts, Bloomfield

graffiti image of combined tooth and heart

The rare electric tooth heart, Lawrenceville

sign for Valentines Day heart-shaped pizza at Amato's Pizza, Etna, PA

Heart-Shaped pizza: Amato’s, Etna

graffiti of two hearts with "S+V" written in them

Royal hearts, S+V, Millvale Street Bridge

heart-shaped sidewalk stamp from Allegheny Concrete Co.

Sidewalk heart #1. Sidewalk stamp by Allegheny Concrete Co., Brighton Heights

graffiti hearts painted on sidewalk

Sidewalk hearts #2, North Side

imprint of two hearts in sidewalk cement

Sidewalk hearts #3, Friendship

small painted heart on chunk of concrete

(Ex-)sidewalk heart #4, Friendship

graffiti written on green dumpster with the names "Hesh" and "Paul" in a white heart

Hesh + Paul dumpster heart, Strip District

graffiti painted heart on cinderblock wall

Chemtrail heart, Hazelwood

stencil images of hearts with wings on brick wall

Flying hearts, Bloomfield

large red heart painted on cinderblock wall

Cinderblock heart, East Liberty

small pink heart painted on cement retaining wall

Pink heart, California-Kirkbride

large spray-painted pink heart on garage door

Garage door heart, North Oakland

The Scarlet Letter: Saying Goodbye in New Kensington

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

X marks the spot. Former Penn Washer & Appliance Service building (c. 1910) on 10th Street, tagged for trouble.

The three-story, brick structure stands alone on a block surrounded by vacant lots. It’s got the obvious profile of many turn-of-the-century urban downtown buildings: a big storefront on the ground floor, apartments upstairs, ornamental brickwork at the crown, and the date of construction, 1910, etched into a stone header.

Most recently, the little building on 10th Street was the home of Penn Washer & Appliance Service. But between the age of the hand-painted sign and the amount of viney overgrowth consuming the façade, it’s probably safe to say no one’s had their Kenmore serviced here for some time.

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

4th Ave.

Every time we visit New Kensington, there’s a little less of it there. It’s not that the hillsides are eroding or the river is rising or municipal properties are being sold off to neighboring boroughs. No, the land is holding tight, but the city is losing its downtown buildings at an alarming rate.

In other places, you might see official Condemned paperwork stapled to the front of a “dead building standing” or maybe there’s no warning at all–one day it’s there; the next there’s a pile of rubble. But in New Kensington, derelict buildings are literally marked as living on borrowed time with a big red X crudely painted across a white square of plywood nailed to the front door.

small wood frame house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

5th Ave.

Officially, the red Xs don’t necessarily mean the site will be torn down, but rather it’s a warning for emergency crews and first-responders that the building is unoccupied and structurally unsound. X marks the spot where the roof–or the floor–could cave in at any moment.

Unofficially, it’s really hard to imagine anyone investing in the massive undertaking of saving–or at least stabilizing–any of these buildings in New Kensington. There’s just not that kind of money for such a limited demand. So while the X is telling us be careful, it’s really saying goodbye.

two brick retail buildings in downtown New Kensington, PA with second floor windows removed and plywood covering the storefronts

404-412 9th Street, Sept. 2018 [photo: Google street view]

The last time The Orbit was in town (some time in 2019) we noticed the red X’s across a pair of side-by-side commercial buildings on 9th Street, the main crossway through downtown if you’re coming straight off the Schmitt Bridge. Stupidly, no one took a picture then [note to self: always record!], but The Internet had our back[1]. (See photo from 2018, above.)

That last Google drive-by shows a pre-X-marked era when the once-charming pair of c. 1900 brick retail buildings are clearly not in a good place. All the windows have been removed, the big glass storefronts replaced by temporary plywood, and from the amount of daylight we’re seeing, it’s obvious one of the roofs is completely gone.

vacant lot where buildings have recently been demolished, downtown New Kensington, PA

404-412 9th Street, Jan. 2020

Returning to the scene just last month, 404-412 9th Street has been erased from the earth. Two buildings still stand on the block like bookends on an otherwise empty shelf. In between are 40 or 50 feet of vacant lot, reseeded with new fescue that is coming in nicely with all the recent rain. In the distance–across yet another vacant downtown lot–lies the suddenly-exposed side of a two-story brick building facing 4th Avenue.

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

5th Ave.

Throughout downtown New Kensington, you’ll see the tell-tale red Xs on buildings big and small, houses and commercial structures, on obvious death traps and others that look perfectly fine from the sidewalk right outside.

Take, for example, this yellow brick storefront on the 900 block of 5th Ave. (see photo, above) Aside from the obvious lack of a street-facing entrance door–which is a little weird, for sure–all the windows are intact, the redone masonry work on the first-floor façade looks perfect, and it’s even on a stable block with (literally) upstanding neighbors.

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

5th Ave.

Just a block away, still on 5th Ave., is half-block-long row of five single-story brick storefronts. A leftover hand-stenciled sign informs us that space #4 was most recently home to Bobby’s New York Fashion (see photo, above). Perhaps Bobby left New Ken for the five boroughs and that’s what started the whole exodus–either that, or Alcoa shutting down their massive riverfront plant.

Regardless, another etched stone inlay names and dates the structure as McDonough Bldg. 1916. While it’s tough for anyone to make a go of retail today, it’s easy to imagine this sweet set of five pocket-sized, pedestrian-friendly storefronts populated with quirky small retailers, a little art gallery, business or professional offices. Instead, ex-Bobby’s and the one next door are flagged with the scarlet letter.

former Syrian restaurant marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

Now, none of these downtown New Kensington buildings are the Sistine Chapel and when they reach the point where they could kill someone, something obviously has to happen.

But these kinds of stout brick-and-mortar urban spaces have an intrinsic value–historical, architectural, and aesthetic–that represent a period of expansive American opportunity. New Kensington built these places when our cities were growing like crazy, immigrants from all over the world were pouring into the country, America still made stuff, and things were built to last … and look good doing it. It was also before both the Depression and the automobile would come along and shut everything down and then move everyone out of town, respectively.

We’ll also throw in that shoe leather beats car tires; sidewalks and street trees beat parking lots. Downtown New Ken has its share of problems, but it’s still got a great, walkable core with the potential for just about anything.

wood frame house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

wood frame house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

brick house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

I don’t know what the answer is. It is a cruel irony that while much of metro Pittsburgh is–for the first time in generations–rapidly escalating its cost-of-living, there’s a fully intact little city just 20 miles up Rt. 28 that can’t find anyone to populate its nice little downtown. The fantasy urban planner in me imagines all kinds of possibilities, but the realist knows I wouldn’t want to take any of them on.

If you get a chance, though, get yourself up to New Kensington, check out Voodoo Brewery’s rehab of a gorgeous old art deco theater into its newest tap room and beer garden [note: not quite open just yet!], get a weird pizza from P&M [yes, that’s technically in next-door Arnold], an Ethiopian coffee from Kafa Buna, or a Reuben from Eazer’s. While you’re there, say goodbye to some new old friends–they’re already marked for you.

older buildings with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave. (rear)


[1] An earlier, undated, photo on New Ken’s wiki page shows the 404 9th painted white and there still appears to be an open business in 412 9th (at least). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Kensington,_Pennsylvania#/media/File:New_Kensington,_Pennsylvania_(8482190929).jpg