Sew the Vote: Pole-2-Polls

Pole-2-Polls coordinator Penny Mateer

Penny Mateer with one of Pole-2-Polls’ handmade “Vote!” yard signs

A large table is covered in distinct, ordered piles. Scraps of fabric are chosen from every imaginable eye-popping design–striped and polka-dotted, neon pink and electric orange, fuzzy patterned and criss-crossing plaid. The selected swaths are inspected, stenciled, marked-up, and cut out with fabric shears. Final shapes are stacked in neat towers that form the distinct 3-D message V-O-T-E.

“It’s our power. It’s our voice–we can’t afford to waste it,” says artist and activist Penny Mateer of the group Pole-2-Polls, “Democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s our civic duty. People have died for the right.”

It, of course, is the simple act of voting for elected officials. The right to cast one’s ballot is the absolute bedrock of democracy; participating in biannual elections is every (of age) citizen’s bare minimum civic engagement.

Fabric V-O-T-E letters on cloth sewing board

Fabric V-O-T-E letters cut out and ready to sew [photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

But–you know where this is going–the number of eligible voters who actually show up on election day is depressingly low.

In 2016 , just over half of the country’s electorate [55.4%, according to CNN] cast votes for the big one–the next president of the United States. Pennsylvania, along with other “battleground” states, clocked-in slightly above average [we had 61.26% in 2016, per Statista]. Four out of ten voters in super-important media-saturated Pennsylvania still don’t care about who will become president? It boggles the mind.

When it gets down to primaries at the state and local level, the numbers drop off the cliff. I couldn’t locate an exact figure, but multiple sources have Allegheny County turnout for the 2018 May primary at “around 20 percent.” Ask the Costas if midterm primaries matter.

handmade "Vote!" yard sign on chain link fence

[photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

Pole-2-Polls began before anyone was talking about Access Hollywoodme too, Stormy Daniels, “The Mooch,” or Bart O’Kavanaugh. In 2013, the amazing–and completely non-political–Knit the Bridge project had gone up and come down over the course of one magical month at the end of summer. The organizers cleaned and donated the large, blanket-sized knit and crochet panels to homeless shelters but were left with miles of black acrylic yarn used to coat the railings of the Andy Warhol Bridge, downtown.

Andy Warhol Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh decorated with colorful knit panels

Knit the Bridge, August, 2013

So in advance of the 2014 midterms, an informal group–many fiber artists, all “excited about positive action”–met to recycle the material into yarn-bombed banners. The creations would go up just prior to the November election, temporarily attached to utility poles (hence the group’s name). The message would be simple, non-partisan, and direct: VOTE!

For 2016, the group changed their medium to fabric. Bulk-purchased at the yearly Salvation Army sale, the oddball hard-on-the-eyes, itchy-on-the-skin patterned polyesters would likely find few more appreciative homes. In the hands of Pole-2-Polls group members and volunteers, cloth is transformed into the ubiquitous political yard signs we see every October–just with a lot more love and a lot less detail to remember.

handmade "Vote!" yard sign in bed of fall flowers

[photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

“We’re not political scientists,” says Penny Mateer, “but any reminder of voting is a good thing. It’s good civic engagement. We’re makers, we love to make stuff. It’s a combination of the making and making it together–if you come [to one of the group Make a Sign, Take a Sign events] you can see for yourself.”

did come to the October 6 event and while I stupidly didn’t budget enough time to actually, you know, “be helpful,” I can tell you it’s a fun group and a great feeling to make something.

In addition to the group’s informal Make a Sign events, Pole-2-Poll has engaged with students at Duquesne University for a set of workshops and inspired offshoot groups in Montana and California. We should be seeing the fruits of all these efforts on front lawns, highway berms, and porch railings very soon.

handmade "Vote!" yard sign in large front yard of old home in Pittsburgh, PA

[photo courtesy Pole-2-Polls]

This blogger will admit to some skepticism over the ability of such a simple message to transform much larger societal apathy toward the political process. But one also hopes that maybe if instead of the generic red, white, and blue, mass-produced signs we’re used to glazing over every fall, Pole-2-Polls handmade banners offer a welcome alternative. The signs won’t yell at you, but just offer the encouraging suggestion of a good friend: Your voice matters. Vote. You can do it!

Whether we can convince America of it or not, these things are all true. The Orbit applauds Pole-2-Polls and all the other great activists and “craftivists” out there spending their Saturday mornings trying to convince your lazy ass to make one little detour on November 6.

collage of Pole-2-Polls volunteers holding handmade "Vote!" yard signs

Pole-2-Polls volunteers at an early October event [clockwise from top left: Kirsten Ervin, M.J. Shaw, Natalie Sweet, Delli Speers]

Pole-2-Polls will have one more group Make a Sign, Take a Sign event on Saturday, Oct. 27, 11 AM – 3 PM at the Brew House on the Southside. All are welcome. No experience necessary.

Whether or not you can make it on the 27th, Penny encourages everyone interested to get in touch via the Pole-2-Polls web site, FaceBook page, or Instagram.

Need information on your voting status or a look at the November 6 ballot? There are obviously a ton of resources out there, but the great Vote Save America site is a pretty solid one-stop shop.

Live, Worship, Eye-Pop: In Bellevue, Anonymous Welcome Art

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue’s *other* welcome sign, Ohio River Boulevard

A quick blast of psychedelic color might be all you get. From the corner of the eye, a riot of blue and purple swirls, orange and yellow stripes, irregular, jagged boxes. Maybe you don’t see it at all, but just sense something alien and alive at the side of the road. Blink and you’ll miss it, the tired phrase goes–but it’s absolutely true in this case.

Bellevue. The old, down-river trolley suburb prides itself on its community, faith, and bargain retail. So much so, the borough’s most salient feature is a giant, glowing, boomerang modern entrance sign proudly announcing these civic strengths.

So it was no small surprise to discover Bellevue’s other, more humble, and completely anonymous welcome marker.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue welcome art [detail]: windmill, church, apartments

The piece appears to be entirely created from recycled parts. A section of fencing forms the supporting backdrop. It is painted like an impressionist aurora borealis the good citizens of Bellevue are unlikely to witness in real life. Attached to the wooden slats are a haphazard collection of scrap wood, snipped tin, and other assorted bits and bobs. Some have been spray painted through crude stencils; others are just rough, raw lumber.

It’s loose, for sure, but there’s no mistaking the composition as a street-level view of a small town. The specifics are really up to the beholder, but it’s safe to say the artwork could easily represent Lincoln Avenue, Bellevue’s main street, just a couple blocks up the hill.

The town’s live / worship / shop principles are represented in multi-story apartment buildings, a pair of cross-and-steeple churches–even a taco shop. A factory-looking structure, well off the main drag, down by the river, might be ALCOSAN. I don’t know that Bellevue actually has a windmill, but there’s one of those here, too.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue welcome art [detail]: apartment buildings, taco shop, church

Heading outbound/westward on Ohio River Boulevard, one leaves the city as s/he crosses the little unnamed bridge over Jack’s Run. Within the length of a couple blocks, the Bellevue sprawl–a collection of fast food joints, no-tell motels, and oddball old-school holdouts–comes into view.

It is exactly at this point–when one is least expecting it, but perhaps most in need of it–where the colorful blitz of this alternate, wordless Welcome to Bellevue flashes by through the passenger-side window. I’m telling you now: you might encounter it this way–but you won’t actually experience it at 40 miles an hour.

Park the car. Better yet, get to it Orbit style: it’s a terrific, easy bicycle ride from anywhere in Pittsburgh. [Just don’t try to ride on the highway!] Get up close, sit on a stump, and let the passing big rigs rustle your hair, Bellevue-style.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Water’s edge: ALCOSAN possibly?

There’s no information provided with Bellevue’s welcome art, no signature to decipher on the back. It exists on an improbable tiny dirt lot right along busy Rt. 65. So we don’t know who created and placed the artwork or what the motivation was. It’s unlikely borough elders would commission something this folksy–and they’d probably have installed it in a more central spot if they had–but that’s just a guess.

So here, in a total void of facts, is where we lean on pure speculation. It feels very much like the work of someone who just loves his or her borough. Enough to take the time to create a heavy, wall-sized tribute to the town, truck it down to a miniature vacant lot, and hoist the piece up on a set of tree stumps for passing motorists to glimpse as they whiz by.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

In context: Bellevue’s welcome art along Ohio River Boulevard

The artist may want to supply townsfolk with a pleasant image as they arrive home from work in the city. Perhaps it was actually a commissioned job from the owner of one of the nearby houses or businesses. Maybe someone just had a spousal ultimatum to get the damn thing off the porch.

Regardless, we like to think the artist was hoping some visitor might actually slow down and take a deeper look–maybe even bicycle all the way out just to see it. It’s not every day you run across a terrific little public objet d’art installed in a dirt lot next to Discount Tire Center, but it should be, and it can be. That is, if you take the time to live, worship, and/or eye-pop in Bellevue.

Black-and-Gold: Just for the Hel-o-met

1950 Willys Jeepster decorated in tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers

“The Helmet,” Ray Kasunick’s 1950 Willys Jeepster Steelermobile

The hood ornament is a six inch goal post. It’s planted right where it ought to be, just past the end zone of the white-lined football field spread across the hood of the car. Side mirrors are housed inside enameled half footballs and you’ll find bottle openers mounted on each of the rear fenders. A polished, functioning pony keg is bracketed to the back bumper.

What you’ll notice first, however, is the enormous dome-like roof. In every way–from the rounded ear-protecting extensions, windshield eye cutout, face mask, and team logos*–it is a Steelers football helmet fit for a giant.

grill and hood of 1950s era Willy's Jeepster decorated in tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers

Goal post ornament perfectly placed for the hood football field

“The Helmet,” Ray Kasunick’s ultimate Steelermobile, came about by a series of chance events.

The Willys-Overland Motors Company ceased to exist more than 50 years ago. Their convertible Jeepster model was produced for just three years, between 1948 and 1950. In the world of classic cars, the Jeepster is a rare breed.

It’s not every day that you inherit three of them all at once. But that’s exactly what happened when an old friend of Kasunick’s moved out-of-state and couldn’t take his trio of classic Willys carcasses with him. So Ray ended up with the lot. Having already resuscitated a pair of pre-war Fords into slick, chopped hot rods, Kasunick seemed like an ideal candidate to bring one of the Jeepsters back to life.

detail of 1950s era Willy's Jeepster showing "HELMET" personalized license plate and mounted bottle opener

The Helmet’s personalized license plate and one of two rear fender mounted bottle openers

By this point, Kasunick’s friend Joe Grimm had converted a mid-60s Plymouth Belvedere into a certified black-and-gold flag-waving Steelermobile. Seen in an undated photograph, the two-tone paint job cleverly outlines the boxy squared-off shapes of the Plymouth. The car’s crowning glory, quite literally, was an oversized Steelers helmet placed squarely at the center of the roof.

The die was cast, the gauntlet thrown down. Kasunick and a small crew of friends spent the next couple years filling his North Hills garage/workshop with paint fumes and bent steel, wood frames and blown fiberglass. The Helmet was on.

two classic cars decorated in tribute of the Pittsburgh Steelers

The Helmet with one its inspirations–Joe Grimm’s mid-60s Plymouth Belvedere Steelersmobile [photo courtesy of Ray and Kathi Kasunick]

Rehabbing an old car from bare metal is plenty of work all on its own. Constructing a high-concept, functioning, street-legal football helmet roof is quite another challenge.

Kasunick, working with his friend Ed Staley, created the form from arched quarter-inch steel rod, chicken wire, foam rubber, and finally a blown-on fiberglass shell. The rough black surface comes from pickup truck bed liner. Paint job details for the Steelers logo and football field on the hood were applied by a very steady, dedicated hand.

polished half beer keg mounted onto back bumper of car painted in tribute to Pittsburgh Steelers

Rear bumper working keg/cooler

The rest of the features–including two rear seats from Three Rivers Stadium, team-specific interior fabric upholstery, and a football-shaped translucent rear window–all fell into place, friends chipping in where they could. The split football side mirrors come from a donated trophy, cut in half and bracketed to the window frames.

A number of the design elements–most notably the shiny keg, but also the twin Penn Pilsner tap handles on the front bumper, mounted bottle openers, and inside door decorations–all point to Kasunick’s past life. If the name is familiar, you probably remember Kasunick’s eponymous beer distributor on East Street, Northside. He recently retired after forty years in the business.

roof of Kasunick Steeler car signed by Frenchy Fuqua

“I’ll never tell.” The Helmet signed by #33 Frenchy Fuqua

Today, Ray and his wife Kathi enjoy taking The Helmet out–to games, to car cruises, and tailgate parties–often including nursing or retirement homes. “Anywhere it can bring a smile to someone’s face,” Kasunick says.

So far, The Helmet has been signed by one Dynasty-era Steeler, Frenchy Fuqua, who included the teaser “I’ll never tell.” Michigan native Fuqua reportedly told the couple, “I need a picture with you to show them how you do it back in Detroit.” The Kasunicks would love to get additional Steelers to autograph The Helmet.

two seats from Three Rivers Stadium used as back seats in a Steelers tribute car

The Helmet’s back seats came from Three Rivers Stadium. Its rear window is a translucent football.

No matter where you stand on boofing, ralphing, summer skiing, and the devil’s triangle, it’s been a rough week all around. It feels a little like the whole country got beat up and no one’s recovered yet. So it’s probably a little pollyanna to focus on sports fandom when there are much more important national discussions going on.

But one of the great things about sport is its ability to unify in a way few other things do [the weather, maybe? is it Friday yet?]. Not everyone likes professional football–and there’s a lot to take issue with–but every type of person does. In this time of such great division, the simplicity of one antique car, lovingly turned into a fantastic, goofy game-day oddity feels like just what we need. Why? Well, just for the hel-o-met.

Ray and Kathi Kasunick in front of their 1950s era Willy's Jeepster painted in tribute to the Pittsburgh Steelers

Ray and Kathi Kasunick in the home garage where The Helmet was built, North Hills


* Yes, The Helmet (the car) has Steelers logos on both sides; the team has the unique helmet design where the logo only appears on one side. The Orbit failed to ask Kasunick about this design decision, but it looks great.

Looking for a Lost Little Italy in Larimer

red, white, and green painted storefront for Henry Grasso, Co. Inc. Pittsburgh, PA

Last of the red, white, and green: Henry Grasso, Co. Inc., Larimer Ave.

There’s a scene early on in Striking Distance where police captain Nick Detillo (Dennis Farina in full cop mustache and salt-and-pepper wave) downplays his career aspirations. Asked by Bruce Willis’ Detective Tom Hardy if he’s bucking for advancement in the force, Detillo responds humbly, “Not me kid. I’m just a Larimer Avenue dago.” [Please pardon the ethnic slur. We’re quoting–and it’s important to the story.]

Writer, director, and Pittsburgh native Rowdy Herrington peppered the movie’s dialog and mise en scène with local references, so it’s no surprise the Italian-American Detillo clan gets fleshed-out with a nod to the old neighborhood. But why not choose one of the more obvious Little Italys–say, Bloomfield, Panther Hollow, or South Oakland?

movie still from "Striking Distance" with character Nick Detillo's line "Not me, kid. I'm just a Larimer Avenue dago."

Who’s the best cop? Dennis Farina as Capt. Nick Detillo in “Striking Distance”

In record geek terms, it’s a deep cut–one that Rowdy Herrington gets much respect for including.

Dennis Farina was born in Chicago in 1944. Like every other member of the Striking Distance cast, he made no attempt to replicate a Pittsburgh accent for the movie–but the dates line up. From the early part of the 20th Century until some time in the 1960s, Larimer was the Little Italy for Pittsburgh. A neighborhood with any random block holding a majority of Italian surnames; the location where The Italian Sons and Daughters of America was formed; an enclave hosting the Pittsburgh Italian Hospital. [Yes: that was thing–it’s now a vacant lot at the corner of Paulson and Maxwell.] It is entirely likely that the fictional Detillo family could have all grown up in Larimer.

The amateur anthropologists and wanna-be archeologists of Pittsburgh Orbit like any challenge that invites bicycle-based poking down alleys and remorseless nebbing into empty retail windows. We set out with the loose goal of seeing what–if any–traces of Detillo-era, Italian-American Larimer we could still find today.

detail from 1924 platte map showing two blocks of the Larimer neighborhood with a majority of property owners having Italian surnames

Larimer, 1924. Map detail of two blocks between Larimer Ave. and Ashley St., Mayflower and Meadow. [source: G.M. Hopkins Company Maps]

The short version: there ain’t much left.

By our count, there are exactly two extant businesses in the neighborhood that date from the old days. Henry Grasso’s Italian foods shop on Larimer Ave. (see photo, top) is still, as the sign says, original manufacturers of the Italian sausage and capicollo. Dressed for the part in the red, white, and green colors of the Italian flag, Grasso’s is the picture of an old American neighborhood butcher/grocer you’ll see few other places.

On the other side of the neighborhood, Stagno’s Bakery no longer staffs their retail storefront, and the corner of Auburn and Lowell suffers for it. But they’re very much still baking up Italian bread in their two big cinderblock buildings. You’ll find the product on bakery shelves and restaurant bread baskets all over the city. [Side note: one of Stagno’s old blue delivery vans even gets a cameo in the Striking Distance chase scene. Coincidence?]

run down exterior of former retail shop for Stagno's Bakery, Pittsburgh, PA

Still making bread…just not selling retail. Stagno’s Bakery, Auburn Street.

The former Our Lady Help of Christians still stands on the corner of Meadow and Turrett Streets. With its attached school building, the massive Roman-Catholic church basically takes up an entire city block and reaches four or five stories into the sky.

Built in 1897 (rebuilt 1905), Our Lady Help is a crumbling beauty. The multiple copper domes remain, gleaming in even the dappled sunlight of last weekend, but since the church closed in 1992, a crew has clearly gone through and stripped anything of value. The stained glass, statuary, and thick oak doors are all gone, replaced with temporary protective plywood. Ivy climbs the exterior walls and weeds have breached the joints in the stone front stairs. Perhaps inevitable, a blue condemned notice is stapled to the front door. Sigh.

view of 1905 Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic church, now abandoned and condemned, Pittsburgh, PA

(former) Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic Church, Meadow Street

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s page on Our Lady Help details the deep Italian roots of the church:

Our Lady Help of Christians was established in 1898 as an Italian parish. The origin of the parish can be traced to the rise of immigrants from Italy in the late nineteenth century.  In 1895 the Italian Franciscan Fathers were invited to come to Pittsburgh. They took charge of the Italian parish in the Hill District, St. Peter. In 1894, the Italian residents of the East Liberty area petitioned the bishop for permission to form their own parish. This petition was denied. To meet the needs of the East Liberty Italians, the pastor of St. Peter began visiting the area to celebrate Mass.  The first Mass for Italians celebrated in East Liberty took place in February of 1895 in the school hall of Ss. Peter and Paul parish. From that point, a Mass was celebrated almost monthly for the Italians.

There are a lot of reasons why (local) Catholic churches are having a hard time. Overall, Pittsburgh has lost half its population and people just don’t attend mass like they did in the old days. And then there’s the whole, horrific priest sex abuse (and cover-up) business.

But when a entire congregation this large relocates to the suburbs of Penn Hills and Plum, Forest Hills and Churchill, the Latin scripture reads pretty clear on the old plaster walls.

painted sign for Fiore's Home Dressed Meats on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign for former Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats (now State Senator Ferlo’s local office), Larimer Ave.

Beyond this handful of obvious touchstones, we’re really left grasping at straws.

Vacant lots outnumber buildings on Larimer Avenue today, but there are may be a dozen surviving retail storefronts on the old main drag. One of these features a ghost sign for Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats, but that’s really the only clue to what any of the businesses in these pre-war two- and three-story brick buildings once were.

While there’s still plenty of open space in the neighborhood, Larimer’s housing has fared better overall than its commercial structures. There is a particular type of after-market tin-slatted porch and window awning you see all over Pittsburgh (and elsewhere)–we imagine some door-to-door salesman made a killing hawking these in the 1950s.

There’s no way to prove this, but anecdotal evidence points to the popularity of red-and-white (and to a lesser extent, green-and-white) color combos in certain locales. There are still a bunch of these Italian-colored tin awnings throughout Larimer. [Note: You don’t have to tell this blogger–you want us to cry over tin awnings? No: but it’s all I got.]

small house with tin awning and green paint, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a stretch, but the red-and-white awning with a green paint job look familiar. [Bonus points for the pair of old-school aerial antennas!]

Oh, and what about Mary? Every old Catholic neighborhood worth its rosaries has a couple dozen houses sporting ceramic statuettes of The Blessed Virgin doing her palms-out thing on the front lawn or nestled up against the porch. There are even more Marys relaxing in people’s back yards–but it’s harder to get the invitation to visit up close.

I’m telling you, the Orbitmobile criss-crossed Larimer a dozen times, rolling down every street and just about every alleyway coming and going. In those rides, we spotted exactly one extant front yard Mary outside a unique frame house that appears to at one time have been a pair of separate, conjoined buildings.

older wooden house with statue of Mary by the front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

Possibly the last front yard Mary in Larimer?

That home, on a short dead-end of the aptly named Orphan Street, is at a little horn-shaped peninsula forming the very northeast corner of Larimer. In front of the house, the steep drop-off down to Washington Blvd.; behind, dense greenery all the way over to Highland Park.

We don’t know who lives here–if they’re black or white, hard core Catholic or just enjoy a quirky lawn ornament–but this little icon living on the most precarious of properties feels very much like the last representative of a disappeared people.

Times and places change, people move on–these are unalterable truths. But it’s comforting to think that if Nick Detillo were to make it back to the old neighborhood today, he could still get a pound of capicollo from Henry Grosso and still say a prayer to Mary.

Black-and-Gold: To the House! Steelers Structures

brick building with trophies in the window painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Martial Arts Against Street Violence, Homewood

To paraphrase a well-trod cliché, if you build it, they will paint it black and gold.

What’s the point of owning your own diner, butcher shop, or martial arts studio if you can’t serve up those eggs and home fries or break lumber with your bare feet in a building faithfully decked-out in the home team colors? Firing the boss and doing what you want is the American dream! And just like those other local goals–one for the thumb, cracking open a six-pack, and, yes, stairway to seven–dreams really do come true*.

Today, for the start of the 2018 campaign, The Orbit salutes the über-fans who’ve gathered up brushes and tarps to decorate the façades of storefronts and residential exteriors in tribute to their favorite professional football team. Collectively, we’re calling these Steelers structures.

retail storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers storefront: Lawrenceville

empty retail storefront with cutout of Pittsburgh Steelers football player, McKeesport, PA

Steelers storefront: McKeesport

diner storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers diner: O’Leary’s, Southside

Sign for Cutty's Candy Store that includes the Pittsburgh skyline and a version of the Steelers logo with the word "Cutty" added

Steelers sweet shop: Cutty’s Candy Store, Homewood

retail storefront painted black and gold, Homestead, PA

Steelers snack shop: S&S Food Mart, Homestead

exterior of Ray's Barber Shop, Pittsburgh, with two homemade Steelers emblems

Steelers barber shop: Ray’s, Shadeland

storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Three Rivers Martial Arts, Brookline

There are plenty of Steelers bars out there–pretty much every decent-sized American city has one (or more). Why, from Mugs ‘n Jugs in Clearwater, Florida to The Peanut Farm in Anchorage, Alaska, there will be no problem with Pittsburgh ex-pats catching the exploits of Antonio, Juju, and the gang any time soon. [There’s a semi-complete list up at SteerersBars.com.]

But if your local tavern runs the Steelers games on flat screen and imports a case of Iron City Beer for homesick fans, know they’re just doing the bare minimum. Real Steelers bars call to you from the street, wearing their own form of black-and-gold uniform or come bemuraled in crude renderings of trademark-safe generic football players frolicking on the gridiron.

brick building with first floor bar exterior painted black and gold, Brownsville, PA

Steelers bar: Brownsville

black tavern door with gold trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers bar: Gametime Tavern, Spring Garden

exterior of roadhouse bar painted black and gold, McKeesport, PA

Steelers roadhouse: Mellon’s Pub, McKeesport

The fully-committed football fan doesn’t just enjoy a couple dozen games a year. No no no. He or she wants to live football–through the long, cold off season, the extended draft weekend, mini-camp, and boring preseason exhibitions.

One can literally inhabit the football lifestyle in a full-on Steelers house. Why fool around? Let’s go foundation-to-roofline in black-and-gold! The house will pop from the snow and bare trees in winter; in the fall, you’ll be conveniently camouflaged in your game-day jersey.

house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers house: South Side Slopes

row house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers row house: Lawrenceville

Not every homeowner is willing to go all-in on the black-and-gold, which leads to phenomena of the Steelers porch. This very much feels like a keep-the-peace compromise between one super fan and the rest of his or her (but who are we kidding? it’s probably his) family. That, or said supporter just didn’t want to do the hazardous second- and third-floor work on the extension ladder.

Either way, these awkward “business inside, party on the porch” houses get much respect…but probably not from the home decorati.

frame house with black-and-gold porch, Beaver Falls, PA

Steelers porch: Beaver Falls

house with brick porch painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers porch: East Liberty

house front painted Steelers gold with black trim, Sharpsburg, PA

Steelers porch: Sharpsburg

Ma won’t even let you paint the porch? Well, there’s still an opportunity for a Steelers garage out back or around the side. The industrious football fan  can decorate a two-car shed in a bye-week afternoon. (Or even more time if his buddies “help”.) There’s no ladder work involved and they’ll look great housing your Steelermobile.

older 2-car garage with doors painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: Spring Hill

2-car garage painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: South Side Slopes

At this point, the casual Orbit reader may justifiably assume Steelers structures exist only in the spheres of retail storefronts, watering holes, and home improvement.

And you’d be wrong again! Make no mistake: you’ll have no problem locating the region’s favorite color scheme on factory buildings, car lots, and at least one (former) secret society.

ornamental dome painted black and gold on Dipcraft Manufacturing Company building, Rankin, PA

Steelers dome: Dipcraft Mfg. Co., Rankin

small masonry building painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers used car lot: Lawrenceville

brick building with cinderblock doorway painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers ex-secret society: Pythian Temple, Hill District

For those wishing to further pursue additional Orbit coverage of Steelers fandom, see also:


* No, a seventh Super Bowl win has not come to Pittsburgh…yet.

Only the Stones Remain: A Follow-Up Visit to Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood

stuffed animal hung from its neck by caution tape on telephone pole, Clairton, PA

The scene of the crime. Lincoln Way, Clairton, Summer, 2018.

Sex. Money. Murder. That thin plot outline pretty much describes every episode of Law & Order–or maybe a particularly raging bar mitzvah. In this case, though, we found the three words in faded spray paint on the crumbling single-lane blacktop of a dead-end street. The cryptic message, along with a set of orphaned telephone poles, a couple out-of-place retaining walls, and the world’s eeriest sad toy, are about all that’s left of Lincoln Way, Clairton’s “ghost neighborhood.”

single lane paved road with words "Sex. Money. Murder." spray-painted on surface. Clairton, PA

“Sex. Money. Murder.” Lincoln Way

The plight of little Lincoln Way, a former residential street maybe a half-mile long on the north end of Clairton, has sparked a remarkable amount of interest in ye olde Orbite. Our story from early last year surveying the couple dozen remaining structures on the street has somehow made its way into the most read Orbit story, month-over-month, for the year-and-a-half since we originally ran it. [If you missed that one, read it here.]

Given the collective interest of both readers and writers, we thought we owed Lincoln Way a return visit to see where it is now, what’s left, and what it looks and feels like today.

single lane road leading into empty valley surrounded by trees, Clairton, PA

Today: entrance to Lincoln Way from State Street/Rt. 837.

The short answer is everything has changed. Gone are all of the dilapidated, burned-out, falling-down houses that lined both sides of the street. In their place is flat earth, newly reseeded with fresh grass that competes against wildflowers and knee high weeds in the most literal of turf wars.

The former houses of Lincoln Way were modest, two-up/two-down pre-war single-family homes and duplexes. But in their absence we get to see how large the lots actually were–especially on the upper part of the block as the valley dog-legs around to the right. A wide plain of greenery expands on either side of the remaining street surface, ending abruptly in tree-covered hillsides.

single-lane residential street with abandoned houses, Clairton, PA

A year earlier: Lincoln Way, February, 2017

The absolute lush green overgrowth of summer in the Mon Valley is stark contrast to the February day we visited a year-and-a-half ago. There was no snow on the ground, but every other telltale mark of winter was there: bare gray trees, threatening storm clouds blocking all sunlight, cold howls of gusty wind.

We mourn the loss of the compact little neighborhood we never got to know in its heyday, but on this hot afternoon with the sun out, birds chirping, critters buggin’, and deep deep green as far as the eye can see, it feels like nature (by way of the Redevelopment Authority of Clairton) may just do all right in this exchange.

overgrown hillside with retaining wall and masonry debris, Clairton, PA

hillside, retaining wall, masonry debris, Lincoln Way

The elephant in this particular room–err, empty valley–is the lives that were inevitably disrupted (at best) when residents relocated out of the neighborhood. Information on why Lincoln Way was abandoned is sketchy. There are plenty of empty houses in Clairton all on their own, but folks have also mentioned a planned connection of the Mon-Fayette Expressway to Rt. 837, which kind of makes sense. A 2015 Post-Gazette story mentions both natural abandonment, arson, and the city’s safety and redevelopment concerns.

broken toy soldier on street

sad toy on Lincoln Way

Regardless, most of the signs of (human) life we found in our last visit are all gone. That said, the demolition crews weren’t going through the weeds picking up every bit of effluvia wafted by the belch of a house with (possibly) generations of leftover, discarded stuff. A couple mangled toys, a scattering of broken records [oh! the humanity!], and that phosphorescent stuffed animal strung up by the neck with caution tape all made for creepy reminders that this quiet spot wasn’t always so placid.

street blacktop bordering overgrown weeds with broken records, Clairton, PA

Like a broken record. 45s among the many household items left at Lincoln Way.

No, people lived here. They worked, played, danced, swayed, and sung along to those 45s here. They grew up, grew old, and eventually moved-on from this little street in Clairton, one way or another.

These things are important. But when you’ve got a dead-end street, completely cut-off from the rest of town, full of dilapidated housing with both fire and safety concerns for the community–and then there’s that whole sex/money/murder thing–we’re pretty sure the City of Clairton made the right choice here.

For Lincoln Way, we can only hope the bright new beginning it’s received will invoke the prosperous future this little street–and all of Clairton–deserves.

former cul-de-sac surrounded by overgrowth, Clairton, PA

The end of the road: Lincoln Way’s terminal cul-de-sac

The Over-the-Wall Club: Mon Valley Mondrian

brick wall with many styles and paint colors, Clairton, PA

Composition in Four Quadrants, Large Avenue, Clairton

One needn’t be an art connoisseur to recognize Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black. The 1929 oil-on-canvas painting is a simple geometric abstraction consisting of heavy black lines separating different-sized rectangular spaces. The three primary colors make cameo appearances, but the vast majority of the canvas is plain white.

Even if you don’t know this particular artwork, the piece is typical of Mondrian’s late-career shift that would define him. The easy-to-imitate style would be nicked for everything from textiles to housewares to TV game show sets; we still see plenty of it today. Three years ago, the original Composition No. III sold at auction for a record $50.6 million dollars[1].

Piet Mondrian's painting "Composition No. III, with-Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black"

Piet Mondrian, “Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black,” 1929

You can buy a three-bedroom home in the City of Clairton, around 15 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 30 thousand dollars[2]. Clairton’s story is a familiar one to its sister (ex-)mill towns in the Monongahela Valley–a boom for the first half of the 20th century following the massive growth of the steel industry, gradual exodus to the suburbs as families bought cars and became more mobile, then the steep decline with the collapse of Big Steel in the ’80s. Today, Clairton’s population is around a third of its peak in the 1950s[3].

That’s left a lot of vacant real estate. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the sale price of this one little artwork–Composition III is just 20 inches, square–every for-sale property in Clairton could be purchased, many times over[4].

cinderblock wall painted red and blue with a white stripe, Clairton, PA

Lavender over Dark Red with White Stripe, Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimal abstract painting "Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray)" by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, “Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray),” 1961

While it’s unlikely anyone in Clairton owns an original Mondrian, the fine residents of the “City of Prayer” have a trick up their collective sleeve–they just have to look out the window or walk down the block. There, for public view on the side streets and little alleyways, is an accidental, but absolutely spot-on survey of 20th century modern art.

Stewart Alley, just a block or two from the center of town, has a dead ringer for Mark Rothko’s soft-form, two-color ambient abstractions. Clairton’s version is rendered in deep red and light purple on the cinderblock wall of a commercial backside. The artist has upped the ante with a jaunty high-level racing stripe just under the roofline.

brick with layers of "ghost signs" overlapping, Clairton, PA

Treat Yourself to the Best, Waddell Avenue, Clairton

mixed media/collage artwork by Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, “Magician,” 1959

Just a couple blocks away and across a grassy vacant lot, sits the long side wall of an empty retail storefront. The wall features a riot of overlapping ghost advertisements–for Gold Medal Flour, some kind of tobacco, and others faded beyond recognition. The drywall and peg board from an ex-next-door neighbor are included in the collage, as is the yellow after-market siding protecting the apartment residences above. [Note: not all of this made it into the photo detail.]

Together, the life-imitating-art-imitating-life tableau made up a composition that spoke to the mixed-media/assemblage work of Robert Rauschenberg. Here, some stray, recycled text; there, paint smears, crumpled forms, jagged angles, and overlapping imagery.

exterior wall built in multiple styles of brick and cinderblock, Clairton, PA

Komposition von mehreren Mauerwerk (Composition of Multiple Masonry), Miller Avenue, Clairton

Karl Peter Röhl's geometric abstraction "Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat"

Karl Peter Röhl, “Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat (Composition with Resting Square),” 1924

Nearby, a wall so exquisite it quite figuratively took our breath away. Four interlocking, independent types of masonry–six patterns when you add in the squeeze of mortar and one stray white square–form such a simple, perfectly-balanced arrangement that it’s hard to fathom how the wall could have ended up that way by chance…or maybe it didn’t?

An older garage on Large Avenue features unique multi-tiered depth around its single, truck-sized garage door, a weathered two-tone paint job, and a bricked-over window that inserts an unexpected vertical box into the façade. That shape plays against the stair step drama of the doorway for a feeling that’s both harmonic and unresolved, balanced and weighted all wrong.

brick wall with worn paint job in several different levels, Clairton, PA

Five Layers, Large Avenue, Clairton

Jasper Johns stacked painting "Three Flags"

Jasper Johns, “Three Flags,” 1958

The Over-the-Wall Club held the latest of its infrequent, haphazard meetings in Clairton and we couldn’t have selected a finer set of public verticals. The small city has been through a lot, and contrary to the old saw, these walls do talk. They speak volumes, in fact, on growth and change, weather and time, industrial might and D.I.Y. ingenuity.

Sure, walking into a nice brand new construction brings a bunch of modern amenities and the rehab and reuse of older buildings is terrific. But there’s so much…not world history, but the people’s history in an old wall that often gets lost when the paint rollers and drop cloths come out.

brick wall with handmade "no drugs" painting on wood, Clairton, PA

No Drugs, Mulberry Alley, Clairton

Burgoyne Diller's geometric abstraction "Second Theme"

Burgoyne Diller, “Second Theme,” 1949

Sometimes club members–like faithful parishioners waiting on the Rapture–get hung up on what’s on the other side. Clairton’s walls tell us to look right here, right now, at the intense beauty we can see in front of our eyes without going anywhere. We can reach out and touch it without the tantalizing prospect of a jackpot lottery payout or taking out a loan on the house. And it makes us value the moment–if history is any guide, these will be gone before you know it.

In fact, old Clairton is coming down hard and fast. An entire block of the St. Clair Avenue main drag has been torn down and planted with fresh grass seed since the last time we were in town. The Treat Yourself to the Best ghost sign was only exposed from a similar pair of demolitions on Miller Avenue. You’ve only got a limited window on these lovely old time-worn and tale-telling walls before they’ll either be meeting the paint brush (hopefully) or, more likely, the wrecking ball (sigh). Consider it your one shot at a traveling exhibit. Take the opportunity to see it and say goodbye while you still can.

10-speed bicycle leans against a weathered cinderblock wall, Clairton, PA

10-Speed (The Orbitmobile), Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimalist painting "Series #14 (White)" by Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman, “Series #14 (White),” 2004


[1] Source: https://www.christies.com/features/In-The-Saleroom-Piet-Mondrians-Composition-No-III-6090-3.aspx
[2] Source: https://www.zillow.com/clairton-pa/
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clairton,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] The irony of Clairton is that it still hosts one of the few operating mills in the region: U.S. Steel’s massive Clairton Coke Works dominates the entire curling riverfront downhill from all parts of town. It’s a cliché, but if you’re anywhere in the area you can’t miss it.