Lift/Off: Kirsten Ervin’s Air Portraits Take Flight

Passenger Portrait Project installed in glass case at Pittsburgh International Airport

Kirsten Ervin’s Passenger Portrait Project at Pittsburgh International Airport

The third floor of Pittsburgh International Airport’s “land-side” terminal is a single, high-ceilinged, wide-open space devoted exclusively to ticketing and baggage check-in. It hasn’t gotten the deluxe terrazzo floor re-do the “air-side” received a couple years ago, so you’ll still find a dated, early ’90s color scheme in the floor’s clickety-clack tiles.

Appearing like a glowing apparition rising from the dull gray is a an enormous illuminated display case that nearly spans the entirety of the north wall. Inside the glass is a series of hand-drawn, brightly-colored, chalk pastel portraits. The subjects are young and old, of all complexions and hair colors, smiling and noncommittal, dressed in business attire and printed t-shirts. Together they’re all part of the Passenger Portrait Project.

collage of 9 chalk pastel portraits created by Kirsten Ervin

Some of the 65 portraits created for Kirsten Ervin’s Passenger Portrait Project

From the late summer through mid-fall, Pittsburgh artist Kirsten Ervin spent every Thursday at the airport. She wasn’t flying anywhere, nor was she there to drop-off or pick-up an air traveler. Ervin’s reason to make the trip each week was to meet strangers passing through the airway’s concourses. Those with an open mind and a few minutes to spare would have an original artwork created of them, right there on-the-spot.

“With passengers in a place like the airport you get such a wide cross-section of people, going different places, from many different cultures,” Ervin says, “It’s more diverse than, say, your average shopping mall.”

Artist Kirsten Ervin working on an "Air Portrait"

Kirsten Ervin in action at the terminal gate [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

The process began with three simple questions: Where are you going today? What’s the best trip you ever took? and If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? The participants’ answers to these are included alongside the final portraits.

From there, both artist and traveler/model were off on the brief but intense relationship that is a one-on-one, up-close drawing session.

“I really love the kinds of conversations that happen with people as you draw their portraits,” Ervin says, “You’re literally paying attention to every aspect of their face, their affect. You’re paying attention to every detail in a way that you don’t do with photography or other art forms.”

woman with dyed red hair holding partial portrait of herself

Passenger with in-process portrait [photo: Kirsten Ervin]

Ervin is a multidisciplinary artist who’s worked in paint and collage, hooked rugs and embroidery, puppetry and theater, as instructor and consultant. In previous work drawing “furries” at Anthrocon and an ongoing project having her Lawrenceville neighbors sit for her, Ervin is not new to quick-study figure drawing, either. That said, the Passenger Portrait Project is by far the biggest of these ventures, so far.

“Drawing or painting a portrait is a very deep meditation on another person as a human being,” says Ervin, “You have a very directed focus on a person for a period of time.”

male/female couple with partial portrait of themselves

Newlywed passengers with in-process portrait [photo: Kirsten Ervin]

The majority of the airport drawings were done in short 15-20 minute bursts when early-arriving passengers had some extra time at the gate before boarding. A photo was taken of each participant with their in-process sketch. Later, the 11″ x 14″ drawings received after-the-fact touch-ups, extra details, and filled-in backgrounds at home in Ervin’s studio.

The drawings preserve the rough, immediate energy in which they were created. They’re neither photo-realistic, nor cartoon or caricature. Instead, the subjects appear amused and disarmed, visibly pleased at the delight of this unexpected airport encounter and inevitably excited to be both engaging with a friendly face at the often-impersonal transit spot and embarking on a new adventure or returning home from a business trip.

Artist Kirsten Ervin with portrait subject at Pittsburgh International Airport

Ervin with portrait subject [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

You may have seen Tobey Fraley’s Robot Repair Shop and assorted other installations throughout the space, but that original artwork is created within the airport–expressly for exhibition there–may come a surprise.

In fact, Pittsburgh International Airport has an arts and culture manager (Rachel Rearick) and the Office of Public Art has a project manager (Derek Reese) who works in the space. PIT is among a very small group of international airports that support a full-time artist-in-residence program, complete with studio space at the terminal.

Ervin’s “air portraits” were created through the Art in the Airport program, which makes regular  calls for artists that provide visual art for several different display areas in the facilities as well as weekly live performances.

artist Kirsten Ervin looking at Pittsburgh airport's arrival information board

Kirsten Ervin at the estimated times of art board [photo: Pittsburgh International Airport]

Full disclosure: Pittsburgh Orbit has thrown out all journalistic integrity on this particular post. Kirsten Ervin is more than just some artist whose project we like. Over the years, she’s been a contributor, editor, and sounding board for the blog. Oh–and “Mrs. The Orbit” is married to one of our junior reporters.

That said, it’s safe to say we’d jump at reporting this story even if we weren’t living under the same roof. Kirsten’s excitement at engaging with strangers is infectious, as is her desire to skip the politics and get down to what’s really important–making connections between human beings. If that’s not what art–let alone air travel–is all about, well then maybe we should all just stay home.

Artist Kirsten Ervin in front of chalk pastel portraits of airport passengers

Kirsten Ervin with her Passenger Portrait Project installation

The Passenger Portrait Project will be up through late February, 2019. If you’re traveling by aeroplane between now and then, do yourself a favor and leave an extra few minutes early to check out the full display for yourself.


Follow Kirsten Ervin on Instagram @kirstenervinart and check out her web site kirstenervin.org

One More Time for the Skyline

painting of Pittsburgh skyline on retail storefront

ye olde city: Arnold’s Tea House, Northside

Close your eyes. No, wait–open them back up. You’ll need them for the rest of the piece.

Imagine the view of downtown Pittsburgh, straight-on, looking due east. You know the scene, even though few of us actually see the city from this middle-of-the-confluence angle. There are the spiky towers of PPG and Fifth Avenue Place in the foreground, Grant Street’s tall buildings farther back, various middle-height apartment and office buildings. The Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne bridges bookend the whole display.

This is remarkable because–unless you’re a riverboat captain or Canada goose–you probably never see the city from this viewpoint. Sure, you can get a slimmed-down approximation standing near the fountain, looking back across Point State Park. But unless you end up on one of the Gateway Clipper party boats or happen to take a canoe out on the water to just the right spot, you won’t see the real thing.

That image, though, is instantly recognizable because we see it so often in so many places.

In this, the third collection of Pittsburgh skyline art, we’ll round up the latest findings. Links to the earlier stories in the series are included as well, below.

Ciminelli Property Management Services van with image of Pittsburgh skyline

Cinemascope city: Ciminelli Property Management Services van

Ciminelli Property Management and Arnold’s Tea House (above, top) have remarkably similar renderings of the downtown skyline. Both are from that same midde-of-the-rivers perspective with wide cinematic dimensions and both use the device of representing depth via shifting color values within the same palette.

Arnold’s has a folksier appeal as it’s clearly been painted by hand, directly to the tea shop’s wooden façade. Whereas Ciminelli is a pro job reproduced for the company’s maintenance vans (and likely other corporate materials). We’re fans of both.

artist rendering of Pittsburgh skyline in restaurant

glowing city: Railroad Grill & Tap Room, Bridgeville

The décor for Bridgeville’s Railroad Grill & Tap Room includes this innovative flat skyline in black silhouette, backlit by glowing yellow-orange lights. It’s a nice touch that likely goes unnoticed for many of the restaurants’ patrons inevitably dazed by the dozen or so sports-focused televisions. Yeah, The Orbit would proudly eat the onion rings and quaff the porters and brown ales at an all-skyline tavern. For now though, we’ll live with Railroad Grill’s hip height offering at the host station.

storefront window image including Pittsburgh skyline

pop art city: storefront skyline, Bloomfield

Pretty sure this one is gone now, so be glad The Orbit was there to remember it for you.

Über-stylized green and blue bubblegum clouds hover over downtown, appearing in crisp black silhouette in the wordless logo for an unknown Bloomfield business. This one is interesting in that we’re looking at town from the Hill District, facing west (with PPG on the left hand side) or the installers just chose to place the image on the inside of the office’s glass window making their customers see the inverse. If that’s the case, somebody goofed. Maybe that’s why this business isn’t around any more.

service van for Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling with Pittsburgh skyline

hot and cold city: Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling logo

Greater Pittsburgh Plumbing doesn’t fool around with city iconography. The company logo–repeated on three sides of the crew’s work van–features a giant golden triangle, black-and-gold color scheme, and a spot-on downtown skyline. We can’t attest to how well GPPHC can snake a drain or run a new service line, but they get a triple-A rating for hometown pride.

retail store sign for Pittsburgh Custom Ceramics with outline of Pittsburgh's skyline

grout city: Pittsburgh Custom Ceramics, Sharpsburg

Pittsburgh is famously the Steel City and thanks to Alcoa, PPG, etc. we could also legitimately claim to be Aluminum City, Glass City, and/or Paint City–although none of those sound quite as cool. [Also, Cleveland might have a better claim to that last one.]

Pittsburgh Custom Ceramics, operating out of a small storefront on Sharpsburg’s main drag, throws in one more raw material by rebuilding downtown in 6″ x 6″ tile. Here, the familiar skyline is rendered in a single continuous outline that seems to cycle through all colors of the rainbow.

neon sign for Heineken Beer including Pittsburgh skyline

neon city: some bar Downtown

In the most gestural of today’s offerings, Pittsburgh is simplified down to three tall buildings–Fifth Avenue Place, the U.S. Steel tower, and PPG–plus two bridges and the fountain at Point State Park. It’s all been created in neon light for a Heineken Beer sign in the window of bar that may or may not still exist. Count it.

terrazzo tile floor of Pittsburgh International Airport with rendering of Pittsburgh skyline

terrazzo city: Pittsburgh International Airport

Anyone visiting the airport in the last four years has noticed the massive floor project. Gone are the dated old clackety-clack tiles, replaced with a truly gorgeous terminal-wide terrazzo floor depicting four large-scale scenes.

One of these includes the downtown skyline, cast in amber hues from that same looking-east vantage point. It’s not as pretty as the radiant blue skies and stylized cloud forms elsewhere in the design, but the nods to legit downtown buildings–you know which is which by now–make this a winner, too.

painting on wood of Pittsburgh skyline

erotic city: Strip District

You’ve been past this one a zillion times, but it may never have registered. Heck–this blogger circumnavigated the whole building–an otherwise nondescript windowless warehouse on Liberty Avenue–which is decorated with a dozen similar-styled paintings, and I still can’t tell you what the damn place is.

Regardless, the downtown skyline–plus a silent worker, wind farm, and nuclear reactor–look great in their various shades of purple. Over at The Portland Orbit, the crew was Johnny-on-the-spot last year with a Prince tribute to his signature color. If we had been thinking, this would have been Exhibit A.


Got a tip on a cool version of the Pittsburgh skyline? Hook us up!

See also:

The Missing Link: Making the Connection via the Mon Wharf Switchback

Mon Wharf walkway in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mon Wharf Landing, looking east towards the Smithfield Street Bridge, downtown

One glorious day–and a Sunday at that! Deep blue skies, whispy cirrus clouds, bright sunshine, and seasonally optimistic temperatures requiring only a long-sleeve shirt. Those who failed to leave the indoors on this 24-hour reprieve between Thanksgiving’s elongated drizzly gloom and the following Monday’s snow-filled temperature plunge should feel all the guilt and remorse they deserve.

Just jaggin’–no judgment, here. This blogger, however, wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. The Orbitmobile was sprung from its hutch, tires inflated, and chain oiled. We were off to town on a mission to check out the brand new Mon Wharf Switchback.

Mon Wharf Switchback bicycle/pedestrian ramp in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

The new Mon Wharf Switchback Ramp, downtown

It’s been said that Pittsburgh is the only city with a front door. Indeed, the approach from the morass of Parkway West suburbia/airport/I-79 to the awestruck oohs and aahs emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel into a seeming city from nowhere is truly spectacular, unparalleled, and–I can attest, twenty-some years on–never gets old.

That said, one can only reach that front door with a motor vehicle. For those arriving in our fair city by bicycle–and yes, thanks to the Great Allegheny Passage trail, plenty of newcomers get here on two wheels–it’s a less dramatic entrance. That changed, at least a little bit, with the completion of this last connection point allowing car-free passage into town from the Smithfield Street Bridge.

bicycle/pedestrian ramp to Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

ramp to Point State Park

As of now, the incoming cyclist may exit the Smithfield Bridge to be gently guided down to the previously-existing, but hard-to-get-to Mon Wharf Landing parklet hugging the riverbank. The method is a long, graceful switchback ramp connecting 40 or 50 vertical feet from bridge deck to walkway below.

The park a lovely open space with a wide walkway, stone resting spots–they’re not quite benches–and a thin strip of green grass. Native maple trees–presumably planted back at the park’s opening in 2009–have managed to cling to their deep red fall leaves long after wimpier peers dropped all outerwear weeks ago.

bicycle/pedestrian entrance to Point State Park via the Mon Wharf trail in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

gateway to Point State Park

The new ramp doesn’t just connect downtown with the South Side. One can now, in theory, ride continuously from Point State Park all the way to our nation’s capital without having to contest with any car traffic. Three hundred and thirty-five miles, in fact, as the crow dodges and weaves, crosses the Alleghenies, ducks through tunnels, and follows the curling banks of various old rivers.

That is one hell of an accomplishment for long-distance, intrastate bicycle recreation[1], but the new ramp that allows connection from the upriver side of the Smithfield Street Bridge through to Point State Park–is likely going to be much more useful to the city’s cyclists for their around-town commutes and pleasure cruises.

We’ll spare the particulars, but if you’re a city cyclist, you know getting from, say, Penn Avenue to the South Side was a pain in the ass. Thanks to this new infrastructure, one can make that ride safely and with a spectacular 360° tour of all three rivers.

traffic sign reading "Motor vehicles only: no pedestrians" on Mon Wharf bicycle/pedestrian path in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

The Mon Wharf bicycle/pedestrian route: “Motor vehicles only: no pedestrians”

Though the ramp has been publicly accessible for a week or two, the opening will be made official with an event this Tuesday. As of last weekend, there are still some final touches to the overall route we hope they’ll eventually get to.

Most notable is the lack of signage directing the connection-curious to and from Point State Park. From the latter, one must–on blind faith–go under the bridge ramp overpass, pass a maintenance vehicle parking lot, along the thin connection beside a highway ramp, and then down the fairly steep ramp to the Mon Wharf. This only-possible route takes the walker/bicycle rider directly under a (roadway) sign with the confusing message MOTOR VEHICLES ONLY: NO PEDESTRIANS (see photo, above). [This is a minor quibble that we assume city crews will get to–and may already have.]

Mon Wharf path in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mon Wharf Landing, looking west towards the Fort Pitt Bridge

The Mon Wharf Landing and switchback ramp are projects from Riverlife and the City of Pittsburgh. The commitment both have shown toward making the city bike- and pedestrian-safe, friendly, and accessible should absolutely be recognized and praised. From the (mostly) bicycle-based Orbit staff, a very big thank you–we’ll be putting the new route to use as often as we can.


[1] Between the GAP and C&O, the two trails run through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Ten Reasons to be Thankful Amazon Kicked Us to the Curb

goats eating weeds

Reason #1: Green as far as the eye can see. Goats eating knotweed, South Side Slopes.

It’s official. On the figurative eve of the Thanksgiving holiday, Amazon made known what seemed inevitable all along. Despite Pittsburgh reaching the second round of the tech giant’s really real real estate reality show–even seeming a legit top contender by making the first cut/Top 20–we didn’t get it. The company announced last week that “HQ2” would in fact be HQs 2 and 3, occurring in slightly less name brand sections of New York City and Washington, D.C.

Good for them, I suppose. Even better, though, that it didn’t turn out to be us. While the flood of jobs and money and tax-paying citizens were clearly irresistible for the legion of mayors and civic leaders out there who swung wildly for the fences, Pittsburgh–like Anchorage, Alaska, Hickory, North Carolina, and Woonsocket, Rhode Island[1]–ultimately fell short on … whatever Amazon was looking for. Location? Population? Hip factor?

Hell if we know. But for the last half year, when Amazon’s dangling proposition was the talk of the town, it was a terrifying concept to consider. On the one hand, we’d probably get some nice stuff out of it–a major boost to public transit or a bunch more direct airline flights, say–but on the other, it just felt like Pittsburgh’s heart would inevitably have been ripped out, tossed in the dumpster, and replaced with a featureless approximation.

Here then, for the Thanksgiving holiday, are ten reasons to be grateful Amazon dissed and dismissed Pittsburgh in its selection for company expansion.

older wood frame house in McKeesport, PA

House, McKeesport

Affordable Housing. Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the closet and into my car. Forever, it seemed Pittsburgh real estate would just stay stuck in the post-steel crash where you could buy a home pretty much anywhere for the price of a new car.

That’s not so true anymore–especially if you’re looking in much of the gentrified East End. But with a median home price of $125,000, Pittsburgh still ranks as one of the cheapest markets in the country for home ownership[3].

The rest of this post is pure speculation, but any economist would tell you that dropping another hundred thousand people[3] in the area–basically increasing the size of the city by 25% overnight–would jack rents and home prices like we’ve never seen. If you can afford living in Pittsburgh today [and no, not everyone can] be thankful that should still be true next year.

graffiti manger scene painted on former steel mill, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas scene, ex-mill, Lawrenceville

Ex-Mills. You don’t miss your water ’til it’s gone. If Amazon came to town, all those people would have needed places to lay their heads and rehabbing hundred-year-old row houses in Hazelwood, West Homestead, and the Hill District would likely not be on the table. You can totally imagine the monster brick and corrugated steel sheds that still lurk on the riverbanks in Lawrenceville and the South Side, McKees Rocks and Millvale razed and the land redeveloped into Lego-style anonymous luxury condominiums.

detail from sign for Weiner World hot dog shop, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Weiner World, Downtown

Weiner World. (And Frankie’s, Primanti’s, Ritter’s, O’Leary’s, etc.) Have you seen Bakery Square? Techies like their food overpriced, in sterile environments, delivered by national chains, wrapped in cultural narrative, and totally devoid of character. Had Amazon landed in the newly-rebranded “Hazelwood Green,” we can totally envision gradually saying goodbye to every old-school, greasy lunch spot in favor of slick restaurants with heart-healthy menus, online ordering apps, and prominent ampersands in their logos.

singer Randy Galioto performering at Bloomfield Little Italy Days, Pittsburgh, PA

Randy Galioto, The Italian Elvis, Bloomfield Little Italy Days

The Italian Elvis. Sure, Randy Galioto isn’t going anywhere, but try booking a gig when tastes have shifted to catstep, solipsynthm, and electro-Qawwali [look them up!]. This blogger likes weirdo music just about as much as anyone, but still wants a place where The Italian Elvis can bring down the house with his “It’s Now or Never”/”O Sole Mio” medley. For Frankie Capri, Bloomfields’s “Boss,” and Dick Tady & D.T.O., you’re still right at home.

illustration of cartoon burglar

Keeping petty crime legit

Petty Crime. That’s right: bring in a bajillion new tech types and criminal activity would be forever altered. Say goodbye to “broken window” vandalism, street-level dealing, and building code violations. Instead, we’d be stuck with land grabs and insider trading, trademark infringement and mass evictions. The first time a case of wholesale government graft broke, you’d be begging for some miscreants to urinate on your petunias or spray paint a wang on the back fence.

metal folding chair on street in front of row house in Pittsburgh, PA

Parking chair, Lawrenceville

Parking Chairs. If you think a product manager making six-and-a-half figures is going to accept your old dinette seat holding a parking place, you need to, you know, delete your account. The software engineer moving to town from San Francisco or Boston is going to jump straight on the horn to Johnny Law and call your ass in for illegally blocking a public space faster than you can say hypertext transfer protocol. If you love great D.I.Y. parking reservations, be glad Amazon will be taking up space elsewhere.

large fried fish dinner on plate

Lenten fish supper, Church of the Assumption, Bellevue

Lenten Fish Fries. Sure, this is a stretch, but hear me out. All the kooky Catholic stuff–from priests gambling bottom shelf liquor at church-sponsored fairs to polka mass and cinema races–is on the chopping block already. Most of us just don’t go to church like people once did. But the collision of a godless technozenti with carb-conscious foo foo tastes spells the end of deep-fried breaded cod with sides of haluski and cole slaw. You’re laughing now, but we’d be all be crying next March.

fursuit costume of white dog with purple features, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Anthrocon fursuit parade, downtown

Anthrocon. Teenagers making minimum wage at their jobs as fast food cooks and retail clerks would never be able to afford the inevitably jacked-up rates the convention center would be charging. No, with all those computer geeks holding court, the giant downtown space would be in constant use between Ruby programmers and flash memory engineers, systems administrators and web marketers. The fursuited wolves, cheetahs, and were-bears flying and bussing in from Smalltown, U.S.A. would be forced to move on to some cheaper market. We love you, furries, and we hope you keep bringing Anthrocon back to Pittsburgh for many years to come. Woof.

Woman with homemade Stanley Cup, Pittsburgh Penguins 2016 victory parade

Penguins fan with D.I.Y. Stanley Cup

Football/Hockey Fandom. If the teams could survive the economic crash of the steel industry in the 1970s/80s, surely they would be embraced by a larger hometown fan base, right? Don’t be so sure! You can totally imagine Jeff Bezos importing alternative professional sports–think lacrosse or soccer, competitive snowboarding or–I don’t know–“e-sports.” That alone wouldn’t necessarily be a death knell for the other squads, but what happens when a routine mid-season Steelers-Bengals game gets preempted for the Super Bowl of Ultimate Frisbee? It’s a slippery slope!

gravestone with Pittsburgh Steelers football helmet, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers’ fandom’s not dead! … yet, Steelers grave, Allegheny Cemetery


[1] Source: https://qz.com/1119945/a-nearly-complete-list-of-the-238-places-that-bid-for-amazons-next-headquarters/.
[2] Source: https://www.kiplinger.com/tool/real-estate/T010-S003-home-prices-in-100-top-u-s-metro-areas/index.php
[3] That’s the promised 50,000 jobs at Amazon plus the estimated equal size of additional family, ancillary workforce, etc.

Color Me In Presston: The Front Yard Marys of McKees Rocks, Part 1

statuette of Mary with deer statue in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Going stag: Mary and uni-antlered deer on a front lawn in the Presston neighborhood of McKees Rocks.

You’ll not accidentally find yourself in Presston. No, those making the trip to the tiny residential neighborhood at the northernmost end of McKees Rocks either live there, are visiting someone who does, or–in the case of your particularly wayward author–are just dying to find out what’s on the other side of all those big factory buildings along the riverfront.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Mary and friends

The journey to Presston–yes, that’s spelled correctly with two S’s–involves a circuitous route over the little bridge at Chartiers Creek, down River Avenue, past Lane Steel and Six Star Service, and through the McKees Rocks “bottoms” [not “flats” like everywhere else] with its rows of worker housing and glorious trio of onion-domed Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches*.

From there, one must locate the only point to breach the massive concrete base of the McKees Rocks Bridge on Helen Street, hang a left on George, and then straight down Nichol Ave. You’ll run parallel with train tracks on one side and see the kind of enormous industrial buildings that don’t really exist in the city proper (at least, not anymore) on the other. This giant footprint is currently home to McKees Rocks Fabrication and Penn Waste Systems, PVS Nolwood Chemicals and Cargill Salt.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Our Lady of Perpetual Gas Service: Meter Greeter Mary

Finally, tucked away at the end of this half-mile of corrugated steel, guard booths, and security fencing, is a pair of dead-end residential streets. Each is lined up and down with matching two-story wood frame double-houses. Behind you lie factory buildings and train tracks; ahead is brownfield and the Ohio River. You’ve ended up–the only way you possibly can–in Presston.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

A historical plaque on the site informs us the neighborhood was built as worker housing by the Pressed Steel Car Company–which is presumably where it gets its name and double-S spelling. The uniform duplexes had been built by 1909 when there was a workers strike leading to the “‘Bloody Sunday Uprising’ where at least 11 people died.”

Pennsylvania state historical marker for Presston

Presston historical plaque

The marker goes on to state that the company sold the houses–we assume to private individuals–after Pressed Steel Car ceased operation in 1949. Like we saw at Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington and Donora’s Cement City, things get a lot more interesting when the company lets go of control and people get do to do their own thing with the houses they own.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Ain’t that aMARYca: patriotic Mary and big baby Jesus

We don’t know what the houses looked like when they were sold off in 1949, but now, seventy years later, there’s been a predictable divergence in styles and updates, adaptations and repair. Aluminum siding has been added to all but a just a few of the wood houses, porches reconfigured into front rooms, a couple of the duplexes were merged into single, larger homes. There are a few empty spots where fire or neglect have claimed some of the old houses, but for the most part, almost every lot is full.

What really impressed this outsider is how Presston’s residents have gone nuts with yard decoration. The little space in front of each house may only be a hundred square feet or so–that’s just not enough real estate to warrant keeping up a grass lawn. In a neighborhood where everyone simply must know everyone else, it also seems unlikely either theft or vandalism is a problem.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Squirrel Mary

At least that’s The Orbit’s hypothesis for why, house-for-house, Presston has an off-the-charts quantity of front yard ornamentation: tiny angels and garden gnomes, holiday displays and concrete statuary, repurposed toys and patriotic signs. It’s an exaggeration, but it feels as if nearly every one of Presston’s hundred-and-fifty-or-so little houses had stepped up to make a front-facing effort to greet the neighbors and express itself to the world.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Mary, garden gnome, and autumn friend

… which brings us to Mary.

Yes, the quantity of holy mothers standing guard and blessed virgins decorating and protecting the front porches, steps, and sidewalks of Ohio and Orchard Streets is staggering. The über-pious residents of Bloomfield and South Oakland–not to mention McKees Rocks proper–likely put in extra hail Marys just to try to keep up with the blue-robed wave of tiny Presston.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

We’re gonna paint the blessed mother pink! Little pink house for Mary and me.

Why, it kills a nebby blogger that between the ticking of the clock, a lack of connections, and the fear of getting a boot in the keister, he just couldn’t make it around to check out the alley-side view of these houses. Given the opportunity, we may have found just as many–or more–Marys holding court around back as they had pointing street-side.

Sigh. The thought of another dozen loose Marys–getting it done between the charcoal grill and patio set, next to the garden hose, or in the shadow of the tool shed–is almost too much to bear…almost.

statuette of Mary in gravel front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

White stone Mary

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Shy Mary

To the good citizens of Presston: we’re hooked. We know your collection of street-facing Marys is only one small detail in the rich story of a neighborhood that doesn’t just have a unique spot on the map, but promises a fascinating history–complete with strikes and conflict, economic upheaval and population change, pressed steel cars and, yes, a whole lotta Mary.

If you’ll have us, we’d love to know more about that history. Give us a holler. Until then, color The Orbit impressed with Presston.

statuette of Mary on front porch of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Hiding in the corner Mary

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Solar light Mary


* In fairness–depending on which direction you’re coming from–one may skip these first steps by taking the Helen Street exit off the McKees Rocks Bridge. That wasn’t how we got to Presston, and it’s still one-way-in/one-way-out no matter how you get to Nichol Avenue.

Election Special! Meme the Vote: Fourteen More Reasons to Pull the Lever on Tuesday

Closed offices of The News-Tribune, Beaver Falls

Failing media–SAD! Closed offices of The News-Tribune, Beaver Falls

The Orbit has absolutely no idea who browses its electronic pages. But if our readership is at all statistically similar to the rest of America, at least half of you don’t vote regularly. That cruel reality absolutely flips the wig of this blogger–and lifelong voter. I just don’t get it.

If you really don’t care about your fellow human beings, government accountability, or the future of the planet we’re all leaving your children–let alone your own self-interest–maybe then you shouldn’t be voting. But for everyone else, there’s just no reasonable excuse.

We’re not going to get in the business of telling anyone who to vote for. Rather, we’ll toss out a handful of things to consider, meme-style. The following issues–and plenty others–are on Tuesday’s ballot. The photos–all pulled from the Orbit archives–hopefully point out Tip O’Neill’s old quip that “all politics is local.”

Please consider getting your keister down to the voting booth on Tuesday … and nag your friends, family, and co-workers to do the same. It’s really important.

small mode of the Statue of Liberty, Burgettstown, PA

Ladies: rise up! Statue of Liberty, Burgettstown.

empty storefronts in Monessen, PA

A picture of health. Downtown Monessen could use some affordable care.

handmade diorama depicting history of the EPA, Donora Smog Museum, Donora, PA

Diorama on Donora’s role in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency, Donora Smog Museum

homemade anti-drugs sign on brick wall, Clairton, PA

There are better methods of addiction treatment out there. Anti-drug message, Clairton.

screen capture of scene from movie "Striking Distance" with dialogue "Stupid is almost as good."

Hell, let’s try “smart” for a change. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bruce Willis in a scene from “Striking Distance.”

portrait of supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on front door of house in Braddock, PA

Portrait of supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Braddock

woman holding handmade fabric "Vote" sign

Someone needs to save us, and it ain’t going to be dudes. Delli Speers, volunteer for Pole-2-Polls.

Artist Charlie Wallace and his piece "Freddie Mercury and Darth Vader," Pittsburgh, PA

If they can do it, so can we! Artist Charlie Wallace and his piece “Freddie Mercury and Darth Vader,” Vault Gallery, Garfield

faded decal of map of America with text "See All of America, the Beautiful"

There are no red states and there are no blue states. There are only peeling-off states. Winnebago decal, East Liberty

Colorful garage door mural with message "Bienvenidos a Brookline", Pittsburgh, PA

Have a corazon. Garage door mural, Brookline.

tattoo of Italy on man's leg

Let’s give nationalists the boot. Leg tattoo, Little Italy Days 2018, Bloomfield.

Storefront window with faded image of cupid, Clairton, PA

Love may be fading, but it ain’t gone. Storefront window, Clairton.

Office of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz with bouquets of flowers outside, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield office of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, killed last weekend at the Tree of Life Synagogue.

October Surprise! Halloween at Thunberg Acres

large wooden bat hanging from a tree

Hangin’ around for Halloween: one of Gary Thunberg’s wooden bats.

[Cue: creepy pipe organ soundtrack, thunder clap, and dramatic lightning strike.]

Ghosts–with their eyes closed, tongues derisively throwing a Bronx cheer–lurk in the bushes. Black bats hang from branches and clothes lines. Spiders as big dinner plates creep up beside you. Gravestones fill the vegetable garden and a doghouse-sized haunted mansion rests on the front lawn. Dozens–it feel like hundreds–of jack-o-lanterns decorate walkways and yard passage, shrubs and tree limbs.

Halloween is alive and well at the Thunberg household, just like it’s been for the last forty-five years.

wooden Halloween decorations of ghosts and jack-o-lanterns

Ghosts! Pumpkin shrubs!

It’s just a fact: Autumn, in all its leaf-crunching, cider-drinking, sweater-wearing, gourd-decorating, hay-riding, apple-bobbing, technicolor fantasia, is the best season.

Summer’s unending parade of tortures–is over. Yes, the infernal heat and sunshine, insects and poison ivy, frolicking youths and unfulfilled expectations, are all safely in the rearview mirror. It is only then, in the melancholy gloom of turning leaves, crisp air, frequent drizzle, and solid cloud cover–that the world feels at one again.

wooden Jack-o-lantern ornaments hanging from bare tree limbs

Tiny jack-o-lantern tree ornaments.

Elongated to four or five weeks, Halloween is no mere one-evening oddity, but rather autumn’s peak and a legitimate season of the witch. By late September, tombstones and skeletons are popping up in suburban front yards. Little row house porchlets are decked-out in cobwebs and purple light. Preposterously fake stray body parts dangle from windows; creepy mannequins glower in side yards. In Allegheny Cemetery, family members are lovingly decorating real graves.

wooden Jack-o-lantern ornaments hanging from tree limbs

Lighted shrub pumpkins.

Gary Thunberg is truly a man for all seasons. When last we visited Beaver’s house of holidays, it was on the eve of Independence Day, 2017. Gary and his mother Doris could not have been more excited about showing off the red, white, and blue handmade eagles, stars, and fireworks blasts around the house, along with the volumes of guest books signed by visitors from around the world. After that encounter, we vowed to return and experience more Thunberg holiday displays in future.

handmade wooden Halloween decoration in back yard, Beaver, PA

Doris Thunberg and friend.

It will take a bunch of trips out Rt. 65 to see them all. The Thunberg home, on Third Street in Beaver, is in a perpetual state of rolling seasonal displays. The year’s lawn decoration starts with Valentine’s Day, which bleeds into St. Patrick’s, Easter, spring awakening, etc.

By late September, Gary Thunberg is all-in on Halloween season. The orange and black has taken over all surfaces of lawn, porch, bushes, and trees. Glowing orange lights are strung through the pumpkins in the shrubs and the handful of big, store-bought inflatables are plugged-in and stumble to life.

collage of homemade wooden lawn art for Halloween

Peanuts! Ghost house! Curious George!

two wooden spider ornaments hanging in a tree

Crawled up beside her: tree spiders.

Alas, Gary Thunberg’s work schedule doesn’t always line up with The Orbit‘s reporting availability, so we missed him on this trip out. But we got to see the house and grounds fully decked-out, the spirit of Halloween vividly present anywhere you look.

We learned from Doris that Gary is getting close to retirement which means our chances of getting a personal tour again will go way up. It also means Gary will finally have the opportunity to take this part-time hobby and put it into high gear. We can only hope.

Happy Halloween, y’all!

collage of four wooden Jack-o-lanterns

Pumpkin patch: some of the many wooden jack-o-lanterns created by Gary Thunberg.