Black-and-Gold: Steeler Party Wagons

large RV with airbrush portraits of Steelers football players, Pittsburgh, PA

Third and loooonnng. Luxury Steelers party tour bus, Heinz Field

It ain’t like it was, let me tell you. Twenty years ago, a duck down any side street or upriver saunter and one was almost guaranteed to encounter a 1970s-era Econoline or decommissioned delivery truck, battered and weather-worn but still unmistakably decked-out in the colors and insignia of the Pittsburgh Steelers Football Club. Invariably, these vehicles were hand-painted by one or more fanatics who one imagines would otherwise never pick up brush and paint can in what anyone would consider art.

Sadly, in the pre-camera-in-your-pocket era, these fascinating objets d’art went largely undocumented–not just by your author, but by the world at large. This unlikely intersection between obsessed sports fandom and a kind of naive folk art was one of the prime inspirations for creating the Pittsburgh Orbit.

Chevy van decorated in celebration of the Pittsburgh Steelers

classic Steelers party van, North Side

Why, I remember a few specifics–a van on North Ave. in Millvale, just down from the Hardee’s; another on Rt. 51, just before you get to West Elizabeth; still another at a bend in a curve just uphill from the Bloomfield Bridge.

The vehicles dating from the Chuck Noll regime are all gone now. Rusted through, probably, but also possibly banished by a household that can no longer justify the second mortgage required for season tickets, or given-away when all those game-day sausages and Iron City pounders caught up with him or her … but let’s be honest: it was probably him.

old school bus decorated in celebration of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Blitzburgh Bus, Lawrenceville

old RV painted in Steelers black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Northside

Steeler Party Wagons are, of course, not entirely a thing of the past–we’ve got a pretty good set of closer-to-present-day photos right here. But man, it took this blogger six years of patient reporting, trips directly to the source–game days at Heinz Field–and slamming the breaks any time we crossed paths with one in the wild just to bring this meager assemblage to market. One photo never happened because I wouldn’t accept a beer bong challenge from a Lou Ferrigno dopplegänger, hopped-up and out-of-his-mind by 11 AM on game day.

cargo van painted in celebration of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Most Wanted Fine Art Steeler party van, East Liberty

cargo van painted for Pittsburgh Steelers

Most Wanted Fine Art Steeler party van, rear

The party wagons you see today are of an entirely different character. Often, they more resemble the kind of luxury vehicles touring musicians take on the road or fancy private airport shuttles. They’ve almost always been professionally painted with photo-accurate Steelers logos and player decals. Tricked-out with upholstered seating and tinted windows, they’re a far cry from the DIY minimal transport that once hauled die-hards into the city to see Bubby Brister and Walter Abercrombie in disappointing 7-9 seasons.

large Ford passenger van painted black and gold with Steelers logos and logo, Charleroi, PA

Charleroi

former delivery van now painted in Pittsburgh Steelers black and gold

Heinz Field

This year the region’s Steelers party wagons have a lot lighter schedule. Instead of the grueling 10 to 12 Sundays they might put in during a normal campaign, most will inevitably be idled by a COVID-stifled season. The games will go on (at least, that’s the plan) but spectator attendance is drastically limited.

But maybe we’ll still manage to see these black-and-gold hulks out and about. Perhaps the party busses will be rerouted to game-day celebrations outside taverns or to right there in the big pavement of Heinz Field’s many parking lots, where tailgating is presumably still allowed even if you can’t get in the gate. Maybe a few lucky wagoneers will even get into the limited seating for real human beings. We’ll see.

former school bus decorated with "Steelers", Pittsburgh, PA

Northside

former ambulance decorated with Pittsburgh Steelers team logos

Emergency! Heinz Field

collapsable camping trailer painted black and gold, West Elizabeth, PA

Steelers camper trailer, West Elizabeth

pontoon boat decorated with for the Pittsburgh Steelers docked in river

Steelers party boat, Allegheny River

airbrush painting of football players on side of large RV


See also:

Bugging Out to Schaefer’s Auto Art

large outdoor sculpture of yellow and black flying insect made with recycled parts

“The Bumblebee,” one of a dozen large sculptures created from recycled parts at Schaefer’s Auto Art, Erie.

A giant bumblebee, the size of a garbage truck, is perched and ready to strike. Canted forward on bent legs, two enormous antennae reach out into the thick air. A conical stinger stands alert like a warning beacon. From this vantage point it could plug directly into the telephone wires running overhead.

The big bee is a work of art living in the green grass of a large private yard. Its head is made from the fore-section of an old Saab; the thorax looks like the tumbler from a cement mixer. Spindly legs, delicate wings, and all the insect’s other features have been similarly fashioned from junkyard effluvia. It’s one of a dozen or so works at Schaefer’s Auto Art.

outdoor sculpture of fantasy flying machine created with recycled parts

flying machine

sculpture of giant multicolor spider with Volkswagen Beetle as the body

“The Spider”

It’s a stretch to consider the city of Erie within Pittsburgh’s orbit. Lying a hundred miles due north of us, “The Flagship City” is well outside the about-an-hour’s-drive metric we usually use for such classification and it has a history and population great enough to warrant its own speculative, hyper-local blog of regional ephemera.

That said, especially this time of year, Pittsburghers of many persuasions routinely find themselves trundling up I-79 to sink bare feet into the closest patch of warm, sun-soaked beach sand available, make the long loop around Presque Isle, get some Greek sauce at a dinor (sic.), and gaze out across the great lake. Orbit staff, in need of the safest of getaways in this summer of isolation, are no exception.

large outdoor sculpture of a rocket made recycled parts

“The Rocket”

sculpture of man created with auto parts

“Automan”

The next time you’re headed on that Lake Erie trip, get hip to this kindly tip. Mere minutes from the interstate highway is a magical space well worth the slight detour. On an enormous front yard, just outside Erie city limits in McKean Township, is a sculpture garden/outsider artist environ of fantasy flying machines and movie monster creatures, a welcoming “auto man” and evil eye-in-the-sky tree robot.

They’re all the work of one Richard Shaefer who, the web site informs us, “is an Erie native who first became interested in ‘auto art’ in 1988. He utilizes welding and fabricating techniques and basic automotive knowledge learned from his father.”

sculpture of dinosaur with two heads made from recycled auto parts

“The Two-Headed Dinosaur”

sculpture of cannon made from wagon parts and bowling balls

patriotic cannon

Schaefer’s Auto Art is clearly a work-in-progress–and hopefully it always will be. While the big front yard/display area has a dozen or so final, completed works, it runs directly into a collection of other … source material? works-in-progress? A motorcycle sits atop a tall elevated pole that must have at one time held a billboard or seen-from-the-highway road sign. The front halves of two 1970s-era Lincoln Continentals have been fused together, but not yet decorated or placed into the collection. An older pickup truck appears to be in cold storage, just waiting for the Schaefer treatment.

mailbox painted with insects and the words "The Buzz Box"

The Buzz Box

sculpture of robot-like orb hanging from tall pine tree

tree robot/eye in the sky

The finished pieces are a hoot. They’re fun, imaginative, and glow with their creator’s unique vision. The collage of junkyard auto parts and bound-for-the-scrap heap metal bits and bobs have been granted an incredible new life no one would have expected. Together, they paint a fantasy portrait of the world that’s equal parts Godzilla and Buck Rogers, Dr. Seuss and Willy Wonka.

Needless to say, Schaefer’s Auto Art is well worth the day trip. You’ll probably be headed up that way soon enough.

two 1970s Lincoln Continental front ends joined together to make a single art car

“Two-Face” Lincoln Continental and motorcycle-on-a-pole

sculpture of man's head made from car parts

Automan (detail)


Getting there: Schaefer’s Auto Art is at 3705 Hershey Road in Erie, PA, 16506. Note that this is a large front yard of a private home and while guests are encouraged and invited to visit the artwork, one should respect the private property. Parking is available via a small pull-off area right in front on Hershey Road. Don’t use or block the private driveway.

Also: this story can’t help but remind us of the terrific Meadville Penn-DOT road sign sculptures. They are right on the way to Erie and make a great two-fer auto(-related) art road trip to points north.

A Secret Sanctuary, Seldom Seen: Pittsburgh’s Secret Greenway

train trestle through woods covered in graffiti

Seldom seen but oft-graffiti’d. The “secret place” graffiti trestle at Seldom Seen Greenway, Beechview.

It’s not an easy thing to do–hiding a 22-acre green space right in the middle of a city. But that’s just what seems to have happened here.

On the one hand, Seldom Seen Greenway seems incongruously named. The medium-small park is at a collision between the steep wooded hillsides on southwest side of the city and a criss-crossing of old urban infrastructure. What remains has been graffitied and tagged-up; footpaths are littered with the broken glass of a hundred beer bottles. Go there on a sunny Sunday, like we did, and you’ll encounter casual hikers canoodling and doobie-smokers cave-huffing. In short: enough folks have managed to visit and leave their traces that this place is at least somewhat seen.

wide creek through woods

Sawmill Run through Seldom Seen Greenway

By any other measure, though, Seldom Seen is legitimately a secret among its peers in the city parks system. There’s no signage to point you to an entrance and getting here is neither either easy nor obvious. A placard near the tiny parking lot states Est. by the City of Pittsburgh, 1985 and Given by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy but neither entity wants to claim it.

The CitiParks web site lists several dozen–maybe a hundred–different parks in city limits. These range from gigantic Frick, Schenley, and Riverview down to individual basketball courts and corner-lot playgrounds, but it makes no mention of Seldom Seen. The Greenway is just as invisible on the WPA Conservancy site.

Technically in Beechview, Seldom Seen is really nowhere–off-road along an anonymous stretch of Rt. 51, downhill from Mt. Washington, and just east of the West End. I’ve been in Pittsburgh for 24 years and yet I don’t know anyone who’s been there. It was time to go check it out.

stone arch over creek and footpath

The Seldom Seen Arch, 1902

Acting as both entrance gate and its most prominent single feature, the Seldom Seen Arch, a creek-spanning stone-and-brick railroad bridge, is worth the trip all by itself. A Pittsburgh History & Landmarks plaque informs us the arch was constructed in 1902 and features the kind of masonry craftsmanship one worries has been banished from this earth.

The particular design has a series of tiered, stair step-like half rings that are each offset from the previous layer by a width of two bricks at the base. At the point directly overhead, everything flattens out; by the opposite wall, the layer order has reversed. It’s really a remarkably beautiful construction for something as mundane as the underside of a small railroad bridge in the woods. I’m afraid no single photograph will do it justice, so if you like this kind of thing you really need to go see it in person.

detail of intricate brickwork in arched stone and brick train trestle

Detail, Seldom Seen Arch brickwork

Infrastructure around train tracks is something of a theme at Seldom Seen. There are at least three different trestles the visitor walks under/around in the relatively short span of a hike here. Neither of the others are as spectacular as the arch, but they all offer great thing-in-the-woods scenery, dramatic shadow forms, and opportunities for exploration.

underside of old steel and wood train trestle

Trestle-view

cement and steel train trestle in the woods

Shadowplay. Train trestle and walking bridge.

Of course, the real attraction of a place like this is the open nature one gets to explore and Seldom Seen has that in abundance. Little Sawmill Run flows slowly on a crooked course through the venue. Here in Pittsburgh’s dry season, it’s obvious the water is at a low point, allowing easy walks out into the middle of the slow creek on various stone patches. Likely the full width of the creek spreads out considerably in rainier times.

woman standing by creek in woods

Mom of Orbit (MOO? OK, maybe not)/Orbit Mom (OM? better) in the stone-filled, low water Sawmill Run

While north of the creek is relatively flat land where a couple short hiking paths lead through the woods, the other side tells a different, more dramatic, story. Rising up from the water’s edge is a steep hillside that appears to go straight up for at least a hundred feet–all of which is covered in a thick wood.

layers of graffiti on cement wall

Layers of graffiti

Together, Seldom Seen Greenway is a beautiful collection of elements that feel uniquely Pittsburgh: steep hillsides, lush deep green overgrowth, industrial history, a kids-in-the-woods/troublemaker paradise, and nature-without-man benign neglect. Its status as no one-wants-to-claim-us park/not-a-park only makes it moreso.

It took me 24 years to make it here–heck, it took me 20 years just to hear about the place! You know about it too (at least, now you do) and there’s never been a better time to check out a place where you’ll encounter few other humans and lots of fresh air.

salt dome by busy two-lane highway

Getting there: turn at the Rt. 51 salt dome!

Getting there: The first rule is don’t rely on Google’s directions! If you do, you’ll end up at a small industrial drive surrounded by the wares of an apparent flag merchant. This is interesting in its own right, but it’s not the Seldom Seen Greenway.

Sadly, you do need a car* because one has to drive on the highway. There will be no road signs for the Greenway. You can only get there from the south-east-bound lane of Rt. 51/Sawmill Run Blvd. Just before you get to Woodruff Street, there’s a BP station and then the tell-tale DPW salt dome. Take the little turn-off and there will be a small parking lot with a little sign telling you you’re in the right spot. You won’t miss the arch.

* Perhaps one could walk from the back side of Mt. Washington (Woodruff Street), but it ain’t recommended.

wooded hillside and creek

Sawmill Run through Seldom Seen Greenway

Cut Up: The Secret Collage Work of Artist Mark 347

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including comic book characters, the devil, and patterned background

“Archie Gets Some Strange,” Detail of collage by Pittsburgh artist Mark 347.

If you’re headed uphill, in the evening, through Central Lawrenceville, look up. There’s one particular well-kept brick rowhouse where the light in the third floor window is reliably lit–its occupant compulsively at work with a stack of discarded magazines and product packaging, comic books and office supplies, an X-Acto knife and bottle of glue.

It is refreshing to know an artist like Mark 347 (not his given surname–“That’s my nom de Arte…from my pretentious, ’80s industrial roots”). In the me me me world of Internet self-promotion, Mark has been quietly making art–specifically collage–for decades, with next-to-no interest in anyone ever seeing it.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with strange face mask

“(Un)Consciousness”

It took well over a year of badgering before Mark showed up in my backyard one evening with a surprise gift-wrapped package containing dozens of his postcard-sized paper collages. The pieces are funny and beautiful, poignant and absurd. One can read a little or a lot into any of these little artworks and every one of them tells a story–maybe even a few.

We’re honored that Mark is letting us share his work with Orbit readers and that he agreed to discuss his background and method with us. As he says below, the work is entirely personal–both “therapy” and “self-medication,” so not generally for wider consumption. We also learned the word sigil from this piece. What started as a Q&A turned into Mark delivering a fully-realized process statement. We’ve to chosen to present that in toto here.

All original collage artwork and the text below by Mark 347, with permission of the artist. Mark has, reluctantly, entered the Internet age, so for more of his work or to get in touch, you can follow him on Instagram at @arbuswitkin.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including colonial-era figure with glass of milk and fez hat

“The Invention Of Headphones”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with giant megaphone and crazed cartoon head

“Killing the Messenger”

Collage began as a childhood game. Bored at Grandma’s, you grab some old magazines and start cutting. No one cared that you had a pair of enormous scissors in your hand, your mouth was shut and that was enough. I don’t remember actually gluing these things together, but moving the pieces around, making strange creatures and odd scenes morph into a soup.

Later on, my interest in art expanded with a voracious exposure to books, music, and film. The pre-Internet searching revealed a true web where threads connected and one artist led me to a film that influenced their work or a book that they read several times or an LP that changed their lives.

Complicating my education was my attraction to dark, underground outsiders, whose works were harder to get my paws on. The lesson learned was that truth and purity lie beneath the surface. What’s under the rock I find far more interesting than the qualities of the rock itself–no offense to rocks. Words for these abstract thoughts came from Kurt Schwitters, who proclaimed EVERYTHING is Art and William Burroughs’ declaring life to be a cut-up.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including three disembodie mouths, each with a cigarette, and the word ENJOY

“Enjoy”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including faces of Archie comics characters, crucifix, and Godzilla

“Juggie’s Bum Trip”

I believe everything is art and the constant stream of more and faster, bombarding every sense with stimuli is the cut-up, aka collage. We take every second and create memories of perceived reality that are, in fact, collages.

Dilettante that I am, I’ve been more or less cooperative with drawing, painting, sculpture, and assemblage, but I compulsively return to collage. I can’t stop accumulating raw material to play with juxtaposition, perception, and the complete destruction of context–and it is play. It’s also quite serious.

Collages are practical sigils, charged with enough energy from their creative process to manifest the will of their creator. (Be careful, kiddies. You get exactly what you want.)

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including photograph of Jackie Kennedy and man with skull head

“Camelot”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including disk jockey with a horse's head

“Music For Horses”

At the beginning of 5th grade, OCD came to stay and it feeds on control, order, and perfection, which, unfortunately, aren’t on the menu. I believe I do collage compulsively because it supplies control and order and…precision, but not always perfection. Two out of three ain’t bad. It’s therapy. Self-medicating with paper, scissors, and glue. (Digital collage can kiss my ass.)

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including checkerboard, Ace playing card, and woman listening through headphones

“Unorthodox Methods”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including patterned background, three-legged devil, skull, candle, and the letters IMI and E

“Witchdoctor Saturday Night”

Source materials come from anywhere and everywhere: junk mail, old comic books, vintage porn, true crime journals, advertising, trash, cereal boxes, and random packaging…anything. If it appeals to me on some expressive level, into the morgue it goes.

A two-drawer filing cabinet stuffed with various files holds my archive of appropriated ephemera. Categorized generally, for instance Heads or Medical, it reflects the chaotic puzzle with no box that might be created, the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or, it’s just a collection of bits and pieces to manipulate like a dictator.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including woman's hand holding a flower and packaging label reading "As Seen on TV"

“Not Available In Stores”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with red dots on his bare back

“Affliction (Catholic Guilt)”

I spend anywhere from minutes to hours every day starting, working on, or finishing a collage. No matter what else I’m doing at the time, scraps get fiddled with. While working on one, I’ll get an idea and start another. Some itch is being scratched and it relieves pressure like a martini after work…or three. I have no processes beyond chaos, chance, and magick. I’m anti-equipment and anti-technique, largely from ignorance, preferring to use discards and junky supplies to the finest canvas and a $300 spatula.

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including alien figure and the word REVOLT

“The Future Is Revolting”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including crosses, wooden figure, and abstract painted background

“Tent Revival Love Affair”

I never plan ahead. but let my fingers do the walking, starting in any direction. It may lead somewhere illuminating or to a high cliff. Meaning and message create themselves. I’ve never sat down to create a specific, themed, or intentionally didactic piece, but if that’s what results, the means and the end can fight it out. Some, ultimately, present purposeful ideas, but I make things for me in my own time. If this were my job, it would lose all it’s goofy charm and I’d live for weekends.

portrait of artist Mark 347

Mark 347 at home [photo: Paul Schifino]

paper collage by artist Mark Janicko including layers of overlapping shapes and patterns

“Rock, Paper, Scissors”

If viewers enjoy my work, terrific, but most of it has never been seen and probably never will be. For them to be amused, intrigued, confounded or disoriented by its presence would be the highest compliment, but I’m not fishing. I just can’t help myself.

If there’s anything else to glean from collage, I’d stress that nothing is what it seems to be, head scratching is permitted, and, as Austin Osman Spare so aptly put it, “What does not matter, need not be.”

paper collage by artist Mark 347 including man with chicken head and the word OFF

“Off”

Deflated and Kicked to the Curb: Sad Toys, Balls to the Wall Edition

worn medicine balls left in alley

medicine balls, Strip District

It’s unfair to call the big balls lonely because, after all, there are three of them bound in this particular predicament–but they’re definitely sad. A trio of old-school medicine balls, each a different circumference and weight, has been left out in the alley behind a small Strip District gymnasium. The leather (?) bound skin of the two larger objects is ruptured at the seams from an excess of exercise, revealing loose fabric like blood gushing from a knife wound.

street football, Oakland

green play ball on the curb of highway

green ball, kicked to the curb, North Side

In the world of Sad Toys, there are a clear pair of winners in the sweepstakes of human pathos. Nothing can really touch the head-shaking, waterworks-inducing reaction to a beloved teddy bear or perfect princess dress-up doll dropped from a stroller, dismembered and/or face down in roadside mud. Nevertheless, we persist in a pursuit of those lesser, sleeper categories of lost playthings.

In this quest, one should not discount the intangible loss experienced by what could have been. Consider a group of playground kickball teammates, the outcome of their match against cross-school rivals forever in limbo when a dramatic home run is kicked over the fence and down the hillside. Alternately, imagine bragging rights at an annual family reunion volleyball showdown left unresolved for an entire year as cousin spikes against uncle, jettisoning the ball deep into the surrounding woods; the contest abruptly ended before barbeque chicken and potato salad ever makes it to festooned picnic tables. Oh, the humanity!

yellow rubber kickball in storm drain, California-Kirkbride

flat volleyball left in dried leaves

volleyball, Mt. Washington

So, in this time when next-to-no sports are happening, either at a professional or recreational level, and children are forced to limit their playtime to backyards and rigidly-regulated playground trips, we salute these strange vestiges of a pre-Covid-19 world: the sad toy balls of an earlier, more free and open era that existed as recently as just this past winter.

blue toy ball left on curb of brick street

blue ball, McKees Rocks

yellow ball left in dried leaves

yellow ball, Mt. Washington

green ball left in alley

green ball, Lawrenceville

deflated toy ball left on street

discarded and deflated: purple spiky ball, Shadeland

flat basketball on empty macadam

basketball, Lawrenceville

tiny soccer ball and downspout, Lawrenceville

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2020

artwork shaped like large claw hammer painted in red, white, and blue

hammer/flag, Mars

A six-foot tall wooden sculpture of a claw hammer is mounted in the arched brickwork of a turn-of-the-century commercial building in Mars, Butler County. It is both uniquely American in its roadside kitsch oversized scale and patriotic red, white, and blue but is also tasteful, fits the unique space, and manages to subtly advertise Pfeifer Hardware without any text at all.

There is plenty of subtext, however, if one chooses to go down that particular rabbit hole. Is America the land of tools, of ingenuity, where anything can be built and anything can get done? Or is it the love it or leave it country where we either worship the stars-and-bars or feel the hammer come down?

Probably the creator of Pfeifer’s big hammer had none of this in mind. He or she may have just wanted to build a big hammer and decided to paint it in an obvious color scheme. While the jingoist use of the American flag always makes us feel a little queasy, the spirit of people taking a paint brush and star stencil to garage doors and retaining walls, porch art and–of course–discarded shipping pallets is something we’ll always get behind.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

wooden doorway painted like an American flag

door flag, Swissvale

One year, we’ll celebrate with a post entirely composed of that evergreen of folk-art patriotism: the pallet flag. Their complete dominance of greater Kittanning/Ford City’s lawn art scene suggests we could even go hyper-local with coverage from Armstrong County alone.

shipping pallet painted like the American flag

pallet flag, Mars

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Kittanning

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Ford City

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Kittanning

shipping pallet painted like American flag

pallet flag, Beaver

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

political pallet flag, Kittanning [note: just reporting here–Pittsburgh Orbit does NOT endorse these candidates!]

brick residential house with prominent American flag decoration

flag house, Kittanning

brick residential house with prominent American flag decoration

flag house, Kittanning

faded mural of bald eagle with American flag

eagle/flag mural, Marshall-Shadeland

section of wall mural including American flag

Allentown neighborhood mural

mural painted on cinderblock wall including American flag stars and stripes

Dougherty Veterans Fields, Etna

Row house window displays are reliably full of red, white, and blue this time of year, but The Plague has us mostly staying at home, tending vegetables in the backyard. Despite the lack of nebbing, we still managed to bag a few of these Old Glory old friends.

window with American flags

flag window, Lawrenceville

window with American flags

flag window, Lawrenceville

large plastic dinosaur lawn ornament with American flag in its mouth

dinosaur flag, Lawrenceville

skeleton decorated with green hat, Christmas garland, and American flag

multi-holiday decoration, Etna

Halloween skeleton decoration wearing long dress and red, white, and blue tie

America’s not dead … yet. Patriotic skeleton, Lawrenceville

Jeep grill made to look like American flag

grill flag, Lawrenceville

handmade sign reading "Honor the American flag"

pallet flag sign, Kittanning

Budget Christo: The Woodwell Street Streamers

house decorated with colored streamers

An electric aqua-blue shaft of light shoots from the heavens, down through thick tree tops, and ricochets from short rods pounded into the earth. The visible energy is focused and transformed back to a tree trunk, a brick pillar, a front porch fixture. Down the block, a full spectrum of color blasts overhead, making direct contact with a low hedge at the front of another house. The phenomenon continues up and down the street and around the corner–reconfigured, alternately arranged, and impressively coordinated so that no two homes appear at all similar.

In each case, the colored lines have the magical quality of both rays of light, frozen into fixed, timeless position, but also fluttering ever so slightly in the soft breeze as to trick the eye into seeing a bewildering array of subtle hues from even a single one of these mass-extruded plastic streamers.

house front yard decorated with colored streamers

Woodwell Street is a single, long residential block in North Squirrel Hill. Its tidy array of pre-war four squares and arts & crafts double houses are reliably well-maintained with groomed, flowers-a-poppin’ front yards and neighbors intensely tending to their hedge rows and raised vegetable gardens. The number of Bernie for PresidentAll Are Welcome Here, and Black Lives Matter yard signs says much about the demographics of its residents. [Whether any black lives actually, you know, own property here is a separate question.]

house decorated with colored streamers

The phrase keeping up with the Joneses has such a derogatory slant, but feels applicable here. One imagines the arrival of a new Prius or enameled 24″ Weber as front-page news on a street as uniformly kempt and free-of-strife as Woodwell. Neighbors appear loathe to allow the green grass any more than three inches in height before a regularly-scheduled haircut; there is neither peeling paint nor discarded litter anywhere to be seen. Good luck finding a statue of Mary.

So the introduction of bright plastic colors, freeform conceptual art, and public expression–if only within a tight set of coordinated parameters–seems like it must represent some kind of seismic shift in the community landscape of Woodwell Street. Each household must ask the inevitable existential question: are we traditionalists or are we with the color revolution?

house front yard decorated with colored streamers

“Surreal environmental installation artist” Christo passed away on May 31 at the age of 84. The Woodwell Street streamers were well under way by this point, so at best, we can consider these works a prescient or coincidental tribute to the artist who, along with his wife and creative partner Jeanne-Claude, achieved fame by creating elaborate, grand-scale works redecorating nature. The two covered an island in pink polypropylene, ran fabric fencing into the ocean, and constructed 7,500 safron-colored gates throughout New York’s Central Park in the dead of winter, among many other projects.

house decorated with colored streamers

While it’s tempting to title an article with the cheeky name Anti-Christo, that would do both the lawn decorators of Squirrel Hill and the namesake a disservice. These pieces are imaginative, fun, and achieve exactly what Christo and Jeanne-Claude were after: they get the visitor to look at both the built environment and the flora that surrounds it in new and different ways. They also manage to achieve that with the cheapest and most accessible of materials. For this, we’re going with Budget Christo.

tree decorated with colored streamers

While any time is the right time for fun walkabout/drive-by public art, it seems especially appropriate right now. We all want to get out and there’s nowhere to go; we all want to help out and that means staying home. By creating a no-contact, anyone-can-join-in open air art environment, the Woodwell Street neighbors have taken the challenge and created something beautiful from it. [Editor’s note: see last week’s story on Remly Way, the “Alleyway of Magical Delights,” for a similar but different project.]

Needless to say, Woodwell Street is looking good right now and the streamer houses are really something special and well worth a visit. By its very nature, this a temporary installation at best, so take the opportunity and walk on by.

house decorated with colored streamers

house front garden decorated with colored streamers

Getting there: Woodwell Street runs between Dallas and Barnsdale in north Squirrel Hill. You’ll find most of the streamer-decorated properties there, but also make sure to check out the neighboring, parallel streets Ridgeville and Kinsman, where there are more.

Thanks to Orbit reader and inveterate neighborhood walker Lisa Valentino for the tip on this fine project.

tree decorated with colored streamers

The Alleyway of Magical Delights: Remly Way

long retaining wall decorated with hundreds of organized objects

“Little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of dollars.” Remly Way, Wilmerding

If there is a single image that captures both the dedication to this awkward space and the keeper’s ability to warm up, beautify, and humanize the most lifeless of urban landscapes, it may be found in a tiny row of marigolds. The flowers are planted in a thin channel–there’s maybe five inches of arable soil–between the cement curb and an imposing retaining wall, scarred with decades of cracks, pockmarks, and vestigial stains.

Those tiny flowers, spaced neatly in a freshly-mulched bed, offer just a hint at what the first-time visitor will encounter in the next couple hundred feet, but they sure let you know someone is paying attention back here. What lies ahead is the most magical transformation of a mundane alleyway you’ll encounter anytime soon.

cement retaining wall with thin row of marigold flowers planted along the curb

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” marigolds and cement

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” says Carl Remly of his effort to clean up the little street that runs behind his house. Remly is a self-described workaholic who lives on the block and is “not too good at sitting around.” We believe him.

The combined do-good spirit and boundless energy led Remly from weeding to gardening (“I was never what you’d call a green thumb”) to decorating his tiny front yard with an oddball collection of dinosaur models, tiki figures, and bric-a-brac.

When he turned his sights on the back alley, though, Carl Remly managed to convert what was a typically ignored minor passageway into an incredible outdoor, curated art environment that is both magical and comical, wacky and serene. Don’t look for it on the map, but we’re going to refer to this highly-recommended destination as Remly Way.

brick row house with many lawn decorations

“It started with the dinosaurs in the front yard” Carl Remly’s house on Middle Street, Wilmerding

Miller Street is a three- or four-block-long, one-way alley that runs behind a stretch of century-old row house blocks in north Wilmerding. From gaps between the long buildings, you can look straight out across Turtle Creek (the creek itself, not the town named after the creek) and see several giant old Westinghouse factories. One imagines many of the folks who originally lived in these tight worker homes must have spent their days in the big brick Air Brake Machine Shop.

By chance, Miller Street also appears to be the only section of the borough Google didn’t (or couldn’t) make it down to photograph for their StreetView feature. Perhaps Remly’s work will bring the crew back for another well-deserved drive-through.

Christmas decorations in alley with view of former Westinghouse factory

View of the old Westinghouse factory from Remly Way

Part visionary garden, part art environment, and part open-air museum, Remly Way has at least four distinct stages. Each is approximately a half-block long following the contours of the big retaining wall holding up the Tri-Boro Expressway, above.

Section I: A Curious Entree (our name) is that single row of marigolds (and other flowers) at the far eastern edge where Miller Street meets Short Alley. One needn’t begin the exploration here–and if you’re in a car, you can’t (it’s a one-way, going the other direction)–but The Orbit recommends you walk it from that starting point for maximum dramatic impact.

In Section II: Christmas in June, the space between curb and wall expands just a little to give Remly the room to house larger plants, figurines, statuary, and a recycled artificial Christmas tree about every 10 feet. “A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop,” Remly says of his favorite decoration source.

concrete retaining wall decorated with artificial Christmas trees, flowers, and other items

“A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop.”

row of Christmas decorations against retaining wall in long alley

Christmas in June. Remly Way should ideally be experienced both during the day and all lit up at night.

Up until now, the alley has been a pleasant side trip–a creative way one neighbor is making the most of a thin sliver of neglected space. That all changes when we get to Remly Way’s third stage: The Museum. Here, Carl Remly’s genius for design and composition come into full form and the minds of passers-by are forever blown in the process.

On the PennDOT-sponsored shelving created by heavy steel corrugated wall sections, Remly has converted the negative space into intricate, curated collections of oddball figurines, decorative items, and topiary. There is a section containing nothing but model ducks; another with animals cast in brass and a frog fantasia. Still another groups together bald eagles, their wings reliably spread as if in imminent lift-off.

retaining wall with many model ducks

“I have a little bit of a theme to everything,” the duck display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Brass/frog display

“You read the Sunday paper and somebody in Upper Saint Clair gets the garden of the year because they paid a lot of money,” Remly says, “I just wanted to show that little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of  dollars.”

In addition to being a workaholic, Remly also confesses to being a shopaholic who makes frequent trips to flea markets, junk stores, thrift shops, and Home Depot’s post-seasonal sales.

“I have two garages that are supposed to be for my (commercial door installation) business,” Remly says, “But now they’re the holding area for all my stuff.”

retaining wall with many model bird figures

Bird display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Bunny/cat/rooster display

By the time you reach Remly Way’s final phase, Section IV: Re-entry/The Coming Down, one needs to give the peepers a rest after the eye-popping density of the previous collections. That comes in the form of a tiny parklet at the only space along the alley that will permit it–a small alcove of green grass, shaded by a bank of short trees above.

Here, Remly has included–you guessed it–more Christmas trees, plus big freestanding cartoon character decorations, a seating area in purple wicker, at least one light-up Big Foot cut-out, and a homemade sign that reads Stay Safe and Healthy. The sign is decorated with drawings of airplanes and battleships fighting the coronavirus by Remly’s grandchildren.

small parklet decorated with Christmas trees and lawn decorations

Remly Way parklet, Miller Street

cut-out Big Foot figure wrapped in Christmas lights

Light-up Big Foot, Remly Way parklet

More than a few times in our short conversation Carl Remly mentioned the desire to brighten the spirits of his neighbors and other visitors to the alley. He puts up a Christmas display every year, but with the arrival and uncertainty of everything around the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for a spring/summer pick-me-up was especially strong.

I’m here to tell you, it works. There’s a kind of magic in that little alley–a sense that if someone cares this much about his neighbors and fellow human beings that things just have to work out somehow. The experience is beautiful and surprising, free and accessible. It’s also exactly what we need more of right now.

Like the sign in Remly parklet says, stay safe and healthy, y’all.

back porches of row house with elaborate decorations

Memorial to Carl Remly’s late wife Wannitta and other decorations

porch lit with elaborate light display

The flying unicorns at night


Getting there: Our recommendation is to park somewhere around the 300 or 400 block of Middle Ave., Wilmerding (look for Fan Club Sports Bar), walk to Short Alley (note: there’s no street sign), and then left at the concrete wall (to Miller Street aka Remly Way)–you’ll see the flowers.

Skyline Fine Time: Six Ways to Sunday

hand made multicolor sign reading "Heroes at Work" over rainbow over downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Rainbow city. UPMC Children’s Hospital, Lawrenceville

There are only so many ways a blogger can say, man, does this city we like to include its downtown skyline on stuff or what? But as long as graphic designers are abstractifying and color-blocking the recognizable shapes of US Steel tower, PPG’s spiky glass horns, the Highmark building’s hypodermic needle, etc., we’ll be there to take the pictures and do our best at pithy photo captioning.

In this, The Orbit‘s (gulp) sixth time returning to this seemingly-inexhaustible well, those general building blocks, often bookended with the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne bridges, appear in business logos, commercial signage, product packaging, and even one delightful 3-D rendering as tribute for the Heroes at Work essential workers at Children’s Hospital.

Keep well, y’all. To paraphrase the great Casey Kasem, keep your feet on the ground and keep looking at the skyline!

tavern window with reflection of city buildings above a skyline silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh

Skyline on skyline. Howlers, Bloomfield

logo for New City Commons featuring silhouetted buildings from the Pittsburgh skyline

Venn diagram city[1]. New City Commons, Downtown

University of Pittsburgh bus decorated with skyline of downtown Pittsburgh

A city on the move. University of Pittsburgh bus, Oakland

metal logo for Legends of Pittsburgh gym with weightlifter holding barbell with the city of Pittsburgh skyline on it

Clean and jerk city. Legends of Pittsburgh gym, Pittsburgh Mills mall

mural on art supply store with the downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Air conditioner city. Artist & Craftsman Supply, Squirrel Hill

logo for Metro Club featuring silhouetted buildings from the Pittsburgh skyline

Blue city. Metro Club, Downtown

tent sign for For for Thought deli including the Pittsburgh skyline

Black and gold city. Food for Thought deli, Oakland

logo for Pittsburgh Potty including the downtown Pittsburgh skyline and slogan "We run on natural gas"

Fart joke city. Pittsburgh Potty

window sign for Smokestack Glass including the Pittsburgh skyline

Glass city. Smokestack Glass, Lawrenceville

logo for Iron Lung vape shop that features the Pittsburgh skyline inside a pair of red lungs

Smoky/smoking city. Iron Lung, Bloomfield

label for bag of Pittsburgh Pasta rotini including a drawing of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Pasta city. Pittsburgh Pasta, Bloomfield Shur-Save

Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing van decorated with two different versions of the Pittsburgh skyline

Double skylines! Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing van[3]

sign for Steel City Line-X including the Pittsburgh skyline

Outline city. Steel City Line-X, Creighton

window painting for Civilization PGH including an abstract skyline

Vague notion of a city[2]. Civilization PGH, Lawrenceville

window sign for Steel City Craft Emporium featuring downtown Pittsburgh skyline

A city with a big heart. Steel City Craft Emporium, Strip District

printed sign for Pittsburgh Fitness Project gym including image of the downtown skyline

Domed city. Pittsburgh Fitness Project, Lawrenceville

sign for Bernard Dog Run with outline of downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Dogburgh. Bernard Dog Run, Lawrenceville

logo for C&M Roofing & Remodeling including image of downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Pittsburgh: the only city with a front door *and* a roof! C&M Roofing & Remodeling


[1] Not sure if this is intentional, but it’s been said that Pittsburgh sits at the Venn diagram between East Coast, Midwest, and Appalachia–and is none of them. If that was the goal with New City Commons’ design, we think it’s pretty clever.
[2] The outline depicted in Civilization PGH’s storefront window may or may not be taken from some neighborhood in Pittsburgh, but it’s certainly not downtown. Though we make it a policy to skip the generic/clip art cityscapes we come across all too often, we chose to include this one because … maybe it’s Pittsburgh?
[3] Orbit superfans will know we included Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing’s black-and-gold city skyline logo in a previous post, but this skyline-on-skyline double image was unique enough to warrant the re-up.

The Mother of All Mothers! A Mother’s Day Mary Super Round-Up

statue of Mary leaning against house

Leaning Mary, Bellevue

And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And does she want to see the stains, the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies, and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

– Tandyn Almer, “Along Comes Mary”

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Classic “blue robe” Mary, Brighton Heights

Whatever else Tandyn Almer did with the rest of his life[1], he’ll have forever authored one of the greatest bits of twisted sunshine pop and doobie entendre soft rock to harmonize and flute-solo its way onto Top 40 radio and prime time television.

Now, it’s probably safe to say the inspiration for The Association’s 1966 toe-tapper was not the mother of Jesus Christ–and likely not even a woman at all. I think we can all assume that Mary’s middle name is Jane.

But the Mary–the O.G., blessed virgin, greatest-story-ever-told, gettin-it-done-in-a-manger Mary–indeed comes along all over the place, just about any ol’ time. Every front yard is Mary’s potential domain; any porch her possible perch. The city’s backyards are so full of clandestine, hidden Marys that we’ll never have a true accounting of them all. [You don’t know how that keeps a speculative journalist awake at night!] It’s enough to drive a Mary-curious atheist into confession.

So on this Mother’s Day, we return to an old favorite Orbit subject: Mary, the mother of all mothers, in some of her various occasions around town. Links to earlier coverage appear below.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mommas out there. While your kids won’t be able to take you out to lunch, may your empty cups taste as sweet as the punch.

house with small statuette of Mary by front steps

Tiny Mary, Troy Hill

statue of Mary with feet buried in garden mulch

Quicksand Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary along alley

No Parking Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary and flowers in pot

Flower pot Mary, Burgettstown

statue of Mary in front of house with condemned notice

Condemned Mary, Garfield

all-white statue of Mary on front porch

Monochrome Mary, Bloomfield

statue of Mary in large garden bed

Garden Mary, Saltsburg

statue of Mary in grotto with other statuary wrapped in black plastic bags

She’s Mary, wrapped in plastic. Bloomfield

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Solitary Mary, Friendship

statue of Mary in front of wood frame house

Sunbathing Mary, California-Kirkbride

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

The last Mary in Larimer?

rear-view statue of Mary behind chain link fence

Have you seen the back? Mary, Bloomfield

Mary and friends

statue of Mary embedded in concrete in flower pot

Concrete shoes Mary, penguin, flag, Lawrenceville

statue of Mary with other lawn decorations

Gas meter Mary, et al., Millvale

front porch with multiple statues

Porch Marys (and friends), Lawrenceville

front yard decorated with many small statuettes, Pittsburgh, PA

Lighthouse Mary I, Morningside

front yard covered with decorative figurines, lighthouse, and Mary statuette, Donora, PA

Lighthouse Mary II, Donora

house with statue of Mary

Mary and daughters, Sharpsburg

house with statue of Mary among lawn decorations

Wagon wheel Mary, Reserve

Pedestal Marys

statue of Mary on pedestal in residential backyard

Backyard Mary, Mt. Washington

statues of Mary and angels in front yard

Bay window Mary, Lawrenceville

statuette of Mary on pedestal of bricks, Pittsburgh, PA

Brick pedestal Mary, Esplen

statue of Mary on cinderblocks in backyard

Up-on-blocks Mary, Lawrenceville

Christmas Marys

statue of Mary in front of house with Christmas decorations

Christmas Mary, Reserve

statue of Mary and large Christmas tree

Christmas/camouflage Mary, Millvale

Empty Mary Grottos

empty Mary grotto in front of brick house

Empty grotto, Brighton Heights

brick grotto created for statue of Mary

Repopulated grotto, Oakland

More Orbit Mary coverage:

statue of Mary painted silver

Mary of the berries, Chez Orbit


[1] Almer’s Wikipedia entry confirms that “Along Comes Mary” is indeed Almer’s biggest songwriting success, but that he “invented a waterpipe called the Slave-Master, described by Jack S. Margolis and Richard Clorfene in A Child’s Garden of Grass as ‘the perfect bong.'” So, you know, there were definitely some other hits.