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.

Row House Romance: Double the Fun OR Twins Gone Wild!

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

Lawrenceville

Identical twins, born of the same womb. The exact face, height, and profile. Some are from the side-streets–tough, working-class, gritty, without pretension. Others, their high-brow peers; raised mere blocks away, but praised for their natural beauty, elegant stature, and enviable position in life. To the former, these may as well have been from the moon.

No matter how much each pair of siblings may appear as perfect duplicates at birth, time has a way of imprinting itself on every living creature in radically different ways: an unwise tattoo or regrettable fashion choice, the scar from a near-death collision or the catastrophe of an ugly divorce. Given a hundred and twenty years or so, a lot can happen.

pair of brick row houses painted aqua blue and olive green, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

matched pair of row houses painted red and pink, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of matching row houses with many exterior alterations, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Consider the humble row house. Two up, two down; squat stoop; a single shared chimney stack; window-window, window-door. Some are boxy and flat-topped, but most have clean, peaked roofs–almost always with a dormer inserted right in the middle.

For the most part, Pittsburgh wasn’t built with the kind of block-long identical row houses you see filling entire neighborhoods of Baltimore or Philadelphia. More often, we ended up with pairs–mirror-image houses sharing a common wall. So much so, Pittsburgh has its own term for duplex: double house. Sometimes these twins are built into long blocks of other row houses in various designs; often, thin walkways separate the next-door neighbors.

exterior of brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

pair of row houses with very different exteriors, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

What’s so interesting about these–and perhaps all–twins is the divergent paths their lives inevitably take. Different paint jobs, added siding, fake stone and tile. Historical markers: windows cut down during the energy crisis, consolidated into one central pane, or removed completely. Entire doorways bricked-over or made unusable by nonexistent steps.

In one house, a third-floor addition with an out-of-place mansard roof; another, a post-op porch rebuild–but only across half the façade. A set of tin-slatted awnings here, window boxes and gingerbread paint details there. An extant old-school TV aerial, never bothered to remove after cable was introduced in the ’80s.

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of mirror-image row houses with many cosmetic differences, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Imagined as life-long companions–and also inevitable rivals–the pairs take on their own personalities. These two dress alike–only he prefers hot red, she a cool aqua green. That one’s in the process of some cosmetic surgery; this one just broke his leg–that big cast will be on for a while. Another always has to outdo her sister–fancier clothes, more refined tastes, newer technology.

brick row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of brick row houses, both with many obvious alterations to brickwork and detail, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

… and then there are those that just kept doing their thing. Maybe she got some window awnings back in the ’60s and he added an air conditioner to cool the front bedroom; she enlarged the stoop, he stopped using the front door. But they basically stayed together, no one putting on any fancy airs, as one family unit.

These aren’t rare, but they’re more exception than rule. The ability to get along with one’s neighbors is crucial in a tight, city neighborhood–even more so in one of these conjoined, paired double houses. But if you do it right, you end up with a better price on a re-roof, full house paint job, or new aluminum siding.

side-by-side row houses with dingy aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

matched pair of row houses with fake brick siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of dilapidated row houses in Sharpsburg, PA

Sharpsburg

In these polarized times, a picture of neighbor-working-with-neighbor cooperation feels like the kind of rosy-eyed, optimism that’s been banished from the earth–but it hasn’t. It’s still here in the compressed side streets and awkward alley houses all over the city. All it takes to find it is a little row house romance.


A note to the Orbit’s readers in the Mexican War Streets, Spring Garden, Southside flats, Hill District, and all the other row house neighborhoods and boroughs: we’ve neither forgotten nor forsaken thou. This topic deep and wide and we intend to explore it over time. We’ll get to you.

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.