A Football Team That Wanted Him: Johnny Unitas and the Bloomfield Rams

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field, Pittsburgh, PA

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field (neé Dean’s Field), Bloomfield. Johnny Unitas’ Bloomfield Rams practiced here in the 1950s.

Editor’s note: Back in April, we wrote a piece for our cross-continental sister blog The Portland Orbit[1]. In exchange, Orbit poobah David Craig offered to file a story for us during football season. Here you go.

by David Craig

When I think about Johnny Unitas, I think Colts football, his battle against Namath, and the Super Bowl victory that cemented his reputation. The Colts’ overtime victory in the ‘58 league championship is known as “the greatest game ever played” and helped pro football gain its immense popularity. I didn’t know he was born in Pittsburgh and was surprised to find out that he initially broke into the league when he was drafted–and then cut–by the Steelers.

book cover for "Pro Football Heroes" by Steve Gelman

Cover star Johnny Unitas perfects the hand off. “Pro Football Heroes” by Steve Gelman.

It was a 99 cent purchase made at a Goodwill Store that led to another Unitas discovery. How I came to own the book Pro Football Heroes by Steve Gelman escapes me, but the book opens with a chapter on Unitas describing the detour on his road to football glory after the Steelers released him in 1955:

“Convinced now that he couldn’t get into pro football until the next year, Johnny took a job as a pile driver on a construction gang. Meanwhile, to stay in shape for his next pro football tryout, he began playing with a semi-pro team, the Bloomfield Rams.”

From my knowledge of Pittsburgh I recognized this as a city neighborhood. Reading more confirmed this:

“The Rams played every Thursday night at the Arsenal Street School playground in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh.”[2]

Arsenal Middle School in Pittsburgh PA with a large green playing in front.

Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville. The Bloomfield Rams played their home games on this field. Now more grass than glass.

It intrigued me that Unitas began his storied career in Bloomfield before becoming “pro football’s last hero,” as Lou Sahadi called him in his book Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback. From an early age, Johnny lived for football. In Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas by Tom Callahan, Unitas’ mother talked about returning from the funeral home after his father died to find her then five-year old son throwing a football with friends. It seemed especially poignant that he sought comfort in the game after the loss of his father.

childhood home of Johnny Unitas, Pittsburgh, PA

Unitas family home, Mt. Washington

Unitas confided in a substitute teacher at school that he wanted to be a professional football player when he grew up. His sights were set on an athletic career but after failing the entrance exam to the University of Pittsburgh and being turned away from his hometown school, Unitas knew his professional chances would be nonexistent if he didn’t play in college. Another failed entrance exam found him starting his college career at the University of Louisville on academic probation. He did what he had to do to keep his dream alive.

Getting sacked by the Steelers was tough but he had been in a no-win situation. There were three other quarterbacks in camp that year, the most notable being Ted Marchibroda, who had better job prospects as a coach than a quarterback. Unitas was never able to show what he could do in preseason. Cut too late to join another team, he was forced to sit out a season and remained in Pittsburgh working construction to pay the bills.

At Steeler training camp, Unitas conducted a lesson in the “Hail Mary.”

When his old friend Fred Zangaro asked Johnny to join him on the Bloomfield Rams, Unitas had concerns about getting hurt. The team needed a quarterback but he didn’t want anything to get in the way of playing professionally. Unitas conceded, and played what he described as “sand-lot ball.” Explaining in a 1959 Look magazine article, “it was football and I was able to keep in practice.”

In the books by Callahan and Sahadi, the authors emphasized subpar playing conditions. The field was more dirt, rock and glass than grass and had to be sprayed with oil and water to keep the dust down. The equipment was ratty. Unitas had to search through piles of old gear to suit up. Players wore army boots instead of cleats. Unitas faced derision for being a college boy, a Steeler’s draftee and someone who dared dream of playing in the NFL. In his ebook The Best There Ever Was, Roland Lazenby describes a team, like Def Leppard, playing without a full set of limbs:

“…a roster loaded with steel-mill workers, many of them disabled. The offensive line alone featured just seven arms.”

Unitas in a rare Bloomfield Rams photo when he played both offense and defense. Courtesy Chuck “Bear” Rogers.

Later in the Look article, Unitas described an improvisational game plan that sounded like plays were diagrammed in the dirt as the team huddled.  “You had to take punishment,” was his simple description of the challenge of receiving pass protection from 140 pound linemen. Unitas led the Rams on an eight game winning streak and a conference championship. He experienced the satisfaction of winning–something that hadn’t happened much in his college years. The Bloomfield Rams offered him a sense of championship football he brought to his NFL career.

The Rams played in the Steel Bowl Conference against teams like the Pittsburgh Cubs, Arnold A.C., and the Nanty-Glo Blackhawks, along with teams from Shaler and McKeesport. The financial aspects of the league were small by today’s standards[3]. Unitas was paid $6 a game–money he was happy to turn over to his wife for groceries. By the end of the season, his winning ways earned him a pay bump of $15 a game. Opposing teams liked playing the Rams at Arsenal Field because the games there attracted crowds of anywhere from a few hundred to 1,000 people, each paying a $3 admission which meant a $500 pay out. After expenses, Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers had a budget of about $350 to pay Ram’s players. His policy of fining players $3 for missing practice meant some guys had to play for free.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

In considering Unitas as the father of great Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks, I wondered if the others had idolized him. An obiturary/tribute to Unitas written by Chuck Finder for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed the always quotable (Beaver Falls native) Joe Namath had considered Unitas “my football inspiration, my hero.” I imagine that the other western Pennsylvania quarterbacks knew enough about Unitas to think that if he could make it, they also had a shot. Lou Sahadi made a case for the western Pennsylvania quarterbacks describing the mentality that fueled them:

“John was first of those lunch-bucket quarterbacks to come out of western Pennsylvania. Later on came Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath and Dan Marino. They were all the same. Guys who didn’t have anything. Guys who knew it was back to the steel mills or coal mines if they didn’t get the job done.”

historical plaque honoring Johnny Unitas that reads "(1933-2002) Pittsburgh native & Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, 1979. Here Unitas quarterbacked semi-pro Bloomfield Rams to a Steel Bowl Football Conference championship, 1955. Signed with Baltimore Colts, 1956, leading them to an NFL championship, 1958.

historical plaque in front of Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville

At this point this post should have the feel of a very late night AM radio sports talk broadcast. Imagine bursts of static and a distant echoing theremin whine as I sermonize about the early playing days of the great Johnny Unitas. I focused so much on his brief time in Bloomfield that I never got around to exploring the rest of his playing career. My sense is, if only on a subconscious level, his brief foray in semi-pro football offered a foundation that made him the player he became. No matter the pressure, weather, or game situations he faced, he could always draw on the challenges of his primitive Bloomfield days.

The experience must have given him an appreciation for quality teammates, decent equipment and reasonable practice facilities but it’s important to remember the Bloomfield Rams were there when Unitas needed them. He expressed this in Lou Sahadi’s book explaining that what had mattered most about playing for the Rams had been the feeling that there was a football team that wanted him.

I’ll leave it up to the Pittsburgh Orbit‘s head honcho Will Simmons to track down the Bloomfield Rams old 1955 Steel Bowl Conference trophy. I’m imagining his relentless pursuit in knocking on doors as he looks up players from the ’55 Ram’s roster, guys like Jim Deglau, Jacko Cray, Red Celender, Fred Zangaro, or even Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers, if he’s still around, to get the full story of what it was like to play football with Johnny Unitas in Pittsburgh. That will have to wait until next season.


[1] “The Louie Files: The Greatest Moment in Rock-and-Roll,” Portland Orbit, April 6, 2017.
[2] Of course, this was actually down the hill in Lawrenceville at what is today Arsenal Middle School on Butler Street. There’s a historical plaque there to prove it.
[3] Editor’s note: This pay rate may actually not be that different from present-day. If any members of the [currently-active semi-pro teams] Passion, Rangers, Colts, or Wildcatz would like to comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Bibliography:

Tom Callahan, Johnny U The Life & Times of John Unitas, Crown Publishers
Lou Sahadi, Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback, Triumph Books
Roland Lazenby, Johnny Unitas: The Best There Ever Was, Triumph ebooks
Steve Gelman, Pro Football Heroes, Scholastic Book Services

Vex Ed: Designs for a New Pittsburgh Flag

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob" with abstracted design based on Pittsburgh's three rivers

“Three Rivers”, Goob

In a word, rivers. That’s what people–at least, the people who took up The Orbit‘s flag redesign challenge–thought most represented the City of Pittsburgh. Map-perfect renderings of the Mon, the Allegheny, and the Ohio are colored a fantasy blue we’ll never actually see in the murky waters around here. Rivers represented by the most simple wavy-lined icon-style rippling wave forms got there too.

Last month, we introduced a contest to see if readers could come up with a new Pittsburgh flag that would avoid some of the design woes and visual no-nos in our current banner while having a bit of fun thinking about what other options might be on the table. The deadline has passed, those submissions are in, and we’ve got the results for you–right here and right now.

All the flag designs we received are good, but we really love Goob’s[1] “Three Rivers” (above)–a perfect abstracted layout of Pittsburgh’s waterways in broad gold strokes on a solid black field. It’s not city hall official, but the design is so simple and powerful that we could totally imagine this as a sort-of alternate “people’s flag” sold in street stalls in the Strip next to Cleveland Still Sucks and Heath Miller Time: The Champagne of Tight Ends t-shirts.[2] At least, we’d happily fly a version of this from the front porch of Chez Orbit.

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Ian Finch with gold triangle and black river waves imitating the Pink Floyd "Dark Side of the Moon" album cover

“Dark Side of the Mon”, Ian Finch

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Erik Schauer with blue river river design on existing black/gold/black tri-color background

current flag, enhanced by rivers, Erik Schauer

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with blue wavy river lines

“Argent, a pall wavy issuing from sinister azure, within a bordure checky or and sable”, Ray Strobel

Several of our entrants also mind-melded on the idea of abstracting the general path and arrangement of the rivers as well as the division of the North Side/South Side/East End land masses as angular trapezoidal geometry.

Of these, River Dolfi’s submission is particularly effective as a simple, highly graphic three-color affair with an interesting symbolic narrative. Dolfi explains:

“A flag incorporating the traditional Pittsburgh black and gold. The area of the flag is split into three sections, reflecting the way the three rivers split the real city. These divisions also represent the past/our steelmaking heritage (black), the present golden triangle (the golden triangle), and our blank-canvas future (white).”

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by River Dolfi featuring gold triangle with black and white other sections

Pittsburgh past/present/future, River Dolfi

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with black lines to represent the three rivers and three black hypcycloids on a gold field

“Or, between a pall issuant from sinister, three hypocycloids sable”, Ray Strobel

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with blue lines representing the rivers

“Argent, a pall issuing from sinister azure, within a bordure checky or and sable”, Ray Strobel

Ian Finch, a graphic designer by day and apparent Pittsburgh ex-patriot, has turned in three cheeky numbers that are all fun. “Dark Side of the Mon” (above) falls into the river category by parodying Pink Floyd’s similarly-titled 1973 stoner/headphone classic. In Finch’s hands, the original album’s prism and light rays cover art becomes a golden triangle separating two bodies of water–one placid; the other gentle rippling waves.

“Mount Worshington” manages to jag on Pittsburgh pronunciation, one of the city’s iconic hilltop neighborhoods, and an old-school patterned tea towel to dry your hands off after all that worshing up.

While Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker have put 1993’s Striking Distance long in their rearview mirrors, Pittsburghers conjure it every time they “take Bigelow” or lead the police on a high-speed chase that ends up taking out a truckload of Iron City beer barrels. Finch’s tribute is a little harder to parse–and probably not what we as a city want to hang our hat on–but still gets marks for its clever use of the golden triangle blended with police/military stripe imagery.

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Ian Finch with black and gold triangle mountain and cloth-woven border in blue, red, and gold

“Mount Worshington”, Ian Finch

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by Ian Finch of military-looking gold triangle and angled black stripes

“Striking Distance”, Ian Finch

“We all know that Pittsburgh is about many things, but little separates us from other towns like our abundance of bridges and pierogies,” says Paul Schifino about his pierogie-bridge flag. “Is it a bridge? Is it a pierogie? The answer is yes. My goal was to create something graphic with a simple message: We Are Pittsburgh.”

Also in this other category is another entry from Goob–this one taunting us with Pittsburgh’s history of great streetcar lines, mercilessly ripped-out in the 1960s and ’70s to everyone’s continued dismay. Sigh. Oh yeah, maybe it’s also a Mr. Rogers thing.

Ray “Ain’t Gonna Happen” Strobel thinks Pittsburgers would rather look at a big-ass insect than the current city flag. But, like Ian Finch, he’s really just riffing on the Pittsburghese n’at / gnat … we think.

proposal for Pittsburgh city flag by Paul Schifino with image of pierogie shape and bridge elements

“Is it a bridge? Is it a pierogie? The answer is yes.”, Paul Schifino

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob", with silhouetted trolley car against existing black/gold/black tri-colored background

“Trolley”, Goob

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with a drawing of a gnat on a gold field

“Or, a gnat proper. (Say it. C’mon… say it. Get it? Get it??)”, Ray Strobel

The over-achieving Goob turned in two additional entries, both working from Pittsburgh’s 1925 city ordinance that brought us the current design.[3] “Three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted Or,” reads the passage which describes this general arrangement of antique golden coins on a black, triangular background.

These two of Goob’s entries are probably the most legit as far as satisfying the original flag definition and something you could actually imagine hanging in the courthouse. That said, we still don’t have either the “fess chequay Argent et Azure” or the “triple-towered castle masoned Argent” that got us into this mess in the first place. So the powers that be would probably throw these entries out on a technicality, but we like them.

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob", with gold eagle-fronted coins on black triangle on gold field

“Triangle Coins I”, Goob

proposed Pittsburgh city flag by "Goob", with gold eagle-fronted coins on black triangle on existing black/gold/black tri-colored background

“Triangle Coins II”, Goob

One thing about getting into vexillology: you’re going to learn some new vocabulary. We’ve already tripped across bezant (an old Roman/Byzantine coin), sableargent, and or (the heraldic colors black, white, and gold, respectively).

Ray Strobel, who in the high-stakes poker game of Vexillology Stud saw Goob’s four designs and raised that another two, drops this kind of lingua flaga with wild flag-bearing abandon. While it would take a whole glossary to get through descriptions like “Sable, in fess on a hypocycloid or a penguin proper, two leg bones in saltire argent,” the world-wise Orbit reader will get the idea with just a good look at the pictures.

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with combined logos of Pittsburgh sports teams

“Sable, in fess on a hypocycloid or a penguin proper, two leg bones in saltire argent”, Ray Strobel

design sugestion for new Pittsburgh flag by Ray Strobel with seven gold hypocycloids in rows of four/one/two on a black field

“Sable, seven hypocycloids or, four, one, and two”, Ray Strobel

Finally, Brett Yasko turns in a design that reads like a Zen koan and breaks every rule of flag design. [Brett: don’t you know not to put words on a flag? how’s that thing going to read when it’s 50 feet in the air and there’s no breeze to stretch it out??] That said, what red-blooded cat owner doesn’t like animated gifs?

This one probably stands zero chance of reaching a city council floor vote, but that doesn’t mean we don’t agree with the sentiment. It’s the ones we love that can make us uniquely insane. For anyone–perhaps everyone–who’s grown up in, spent time around, or committed-to Pittsburgh, you’ll probably share some level of understanding how the city drives you crazy because you care about it so much.

The Orbit is doing its thing–and you may well be reading about it–because we love the city that much. Whatever flag you may be flying for the city of Pittsburgh–literally or figuratively–let’s raise it high.

flag that just includes the text ""Sometimes I really hate Pittsburgh because I love it so much" by Brett Yasko

“Sometimes I really hate Pittsburgh because I love it so much”, Brett Yasko

Many thanks to all who participated in the flag redesign challenge–this was really fun. Maybe we’ll do another one along these lines in future.


[1] Presumably not his or her real name, but the anonymity has been preserved at the request of the entrant.
[2] Goob: you and me are going to make so much money! [But we’ll need a real name to make the checks out to.] [Maybe we could do one of things where I drop a manilla folder full of cash into a trash can in the park and you send an innocent rube to pick up the “drop”.] [Ahh, I don’t know if that will really work, but don’t worry–we can figure out the details.]
[3] Flag of Pittsburgh, Coat of Arms and Seal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Pittsburgh#Coat_of_arms_and_seal

The Orbit’s Summer Vacation, Part 2: Coming Home

hillside covered with green vines, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh in the summertime: one big green blanket. Oakland house and hillside (from Panther Hollow).

The grass, it turns out, was a lot greener back home.

Summers out West are well-known to be sunny, beautiful seasons. Even still, Portland was going on fifty-nine straight days without rain by the time this blogger touched down last month. In his eight days in Oregon, there was just one light sprinkle to break the streak. Like a Zen koan, it happened over night when there was no one even awake to witness it. The rare grass patch that wasn’t bone dry and scorched pale yellow had to be getting daily attention from a hose-wielding lawn-obsessed gardener.

You won’t get that in Pittsburgh where a walk in the summer can often feel like swimming standing up. But the off-the-charts humidity here sure does make the grass–and tomatoes, raspberries, trumpet vine, knotweed, sunflowers, and everything else with a leaf and a root–grow like it’s been fertilized by nuclear worms. That lush, unbroken carpet of green was the first thing we noticed from the tiny cabin window during the decent to Pittsburgh airport.

statue of mythical man of steel Joe Magarac in front of US Steel Edgar Thompson Works, Braddock, PA

Myth-maker: Joe Magarac, Man of Steel, Braddock

Pittsburgh and Portland share a lot more than they differ. Both are mid-sized, post-industrial, suddenly-on-the-national-radar cities. Given that, we can’t help but compare them–plus, it’s a good excuse for an Orbit story.

Last week, we looked back on this recent trip with both respect and envy for some of Portland’s nuts-and-bolts urban accomplishments and comfortable living [at least, if you don’t have to come up with the rent check].

This week: the corollary. It’s easy to get caught up in the newness and romance of a vacation spot, but what did we appreciate all over again coming back home?

onion domes of St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church, Homestead, PA

There is power in an onion. St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church, Homestead

Recently, we rode the Orbitmobile from the mingling hoards of off-their-nut Steelers fans down at the stadium up to the Polish Hill home of Simeon Larivonovoff, the last in a line of Russian icon painters going back 659 years. In between and en route, we purchased one of Sunseri Brothers’ enormous “atomic” pepperoni rolls–an $8 expense that supplied three ample, mindbendingly-delicious meals (and one minor case of heartburn).

One of these endpoints was indeed a reporting trip [more about this, later]. Regardless, it only occurred after-the-fact how typically Pittsburgh the whole experience was. Our compact little city, where nearly everything can be navigated by bicycle in 15- or 20-minute jaunts, is filled with and over-abundance of strange histories, brilliant views, criss-crossing cultures, bargain thrills, and intense civic boosters–yes, especially when it comes to sports. There they were, all wrapped up in one little happenstance mile-and-a-half ride.

city steps nearly overgrown with knotweed, Pittsburgh, PA

Public transit, Pittsburgh-style. 57th Street city steps and overgrown hillside, Lawrenceville

The thing is, it could have been any day, heading in any direction. Pittsburgh’s infrastructure–designed by billy goat, operating under the Department of Cattywumpus–ensures we all get to negotiate the jumble of weird streets, steep topography, and the dead-ends of benign neglect almost anywhere within the city. Without even trying, pretty much any detour, reroute, or casual exploration is going to get strange.

Pittsburgh is both geographically and culturally at the exact midpoint between East Coast, Midwest, and Appalachia–and yet it’s none of these, really. But for the people who live here, that’s probably a fair cross-description of personality stereotypes. Generally, Pittsburgh people are warm, funny, goofy, nebby, fired-up, and attitude-free. Yes, we are also legendarily cheap and–to the chagrin of some–football-obsessed.

two men wearing black-and-gold kilts and Steelers jerseys at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh

Terrible kilts, great people. Steelers fans, Heinz Field.

And what about that city-to-city comparison? Portland is a really fine town whose biggest problem seems to be self-inflicted–it’s a victim of its own success. So what did we miss about Pittsburgh? What have we got going for us?

In a phrase, it’s a sense of place. Pittsburgh has it in such many and deep ways that we’ve dedicated this entire web site to celebrating and documenting our unique city. This turned into a terribly difficult piece to write, just because the subject is too near and dear, too much to discuss, too hard to boil down.

I’m going to drown you with pronouns now. Somewhere along the way in that trip out West, I found myself feeling like there just wasn’t the kind of there there that we have here.

map of America depicting use of "you guys", "y'all", and "yinz"

[graphic: The Internet]

Portlanders speak with no discernible accent–except possibly a vague California LiteTM upspeak. Pittsburgh is home to a unique American dialect that is so hyper-local it really only extends to the Allegheny County line. There’s a whole lexicon (famously, “yinz,” “redd up,” “sweeper,” “gumband,” “jumbo,” etc.), unique accent, inflection, and the dropping of that pesky verb to be.

Portland is a foodie town where everything is “locally sourced” and comes with a narrative that would sooth the Brontës. Yet no one could name a weirdo regional food equivalent to the steak salad, city chicken, Primanti’s sandwich, Lenten fish, or The Devonshire. Brestensky Meats will sell you a seven-pound kielbasa in the shape and size of a regulation football–complete with laces. Heck, we’ve got a whole series going on weird pizza.

fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski from church fish fry

Both sides now: Lenten fish sandwich with haluski and potato haluski, St. Maximillian Parish, Homestead

Like Pittsburgh, Portland has plenty of defined neighborhoods, but frankly, they’re really indistinguishable. Everything east of the Willamette River is basically flat and adheres to the same approximate giant street grid. Nearly every lot has a single detached house with its own yard. The locals don’t even seem to bother–everything is just referred to by its off-bias quadrant: “Northeast”, “Southwest”. Apparently one quarter of the city’s educated white liberals are more snobby and another’s are more laid back, but man, I’m telling you–it’s a stretch.

sign reading "Witamy do Polish Hill", Pittsburgh, PA

Witamy do (Welcome to) Polish Hill

In Pittsburgh, when you go between neighborhoods, you know it. There’s a new street system (if there’s any pattern at all), the block sizes and architecture all change, the names and faces go from Italian to Polish, Jewish to African-American, students to old-timers. You probably crossed a bridge or climbed a steep hill to get there. A couple areas are fancy-fancy; others have more vacant lots than standing buildings.

Outside the city, it’s a whole other layer of distinct. The old industry towns carry the same fascinating boom-and-bust history, but are now so hauntingly beautiful and heartbreakingly tragic that we feel honored and lucky to be witness to what often feels like the last gasps of their painful denouements.

entertainer Frankie Capri in Elvis-style dress with electric guitar, keyboard, and conga drum

High culture. Frankie Capri, performing at the Original Oyster House, 2016.

In a word, Pittsburgh is just kooky. I’m really happy to live in a place where stair steps disappear into vacant hillsides so overgrown they’re impassible. A place so comfortably out-of-touch that stirrup pants and Zubaz will always be in fashion. I want to live where there are five ways to get anywhere, and they’re all wrong. Where names like Zatwernicki, Freyvogel, Scoglio, Kusmircak, Blosl, Czegan, Fabijanec, and Walkowiak seem normal–the Smiths, Jones, and Williams are the weirdos.

I hope this is always a place you can buy kluski and pretzel salad from older ladies with blue hair and babushkas in Catholic church basements, where children win national marbles championships year-after-year, where strangers hug, high-five, share beers, and tell tall tales because they’re all wearing black-and-gold. Pittsburgh, I’m glad to be home.

exterior of Bestwick Auto & Truck Service company with graffiti "I [heart] Pittsburgh"

Yeah, me too. I [pretzel heart] Pittsburgh.

The Orbit’s Summer Vacation, Part 1: Considering Portland

yellow bungalow house in Portland, OR

Portland in the summertime: green trees, parched yellow grass, cute craftsman bungalows on large flat lots

Let’s get something straight: the stereotypes are all basically true. Young people–tattooed, time-warped, and tricked-out–cavort at each neighborhood’s stock of ethnic-inspired food trucks and to-the-point microbreweries. Seemingly every home comes equipped with a strand of Tibetan prayer flags or a Black Lives Matter window sign. [Whether or not you’ll actually encounter any black lives is another matter.] The “Rose City” is aglow with its totem flower–albeit often shriveled and water-starved in the sun-baked late summer drought. Everything is “locally sourced.”

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam, The Egg Carton (food cart), SE Portland

Portland, Oregon. Like Austin and Seattle in the ’90s–or Brooklyn a decade later–it is the current generation of twenty-somethings’ hip organic indie destination-du-jour…and that makes a lot of sense. There are a ton of things to do, inside and out. Every flavor of culinary and sensory offering is available just a Square-swipe or Subaru sidle away. There’s just enough grit (if you look hard enough) to locate the handful of still-remaining rough edges from the city’s industrial past, but with the outsized young/white/educated/leftie population to feel more like a giant college town where everybody plays in a band, jams for the roller derby squad, and works part-time at the coffee shop while working on their novel.

We went to Portland to hang out with friends, ride a bicycle around the city, see the big rocks on the coast and the lovely waterfalls in the gorge. We did all that (thank you, again, most generous hosts and tour guides!) but also had the terrific experience that all travel should reward us with: the perspective on what is–and what could be–back home.

new condo under construction behind older used car lot, Portland, OR

Boomtown: condo rising, North Portland

This, of course, is the Pittsburgh Orbit. So we’re not so interested in creating a travel piece for a city 2500 miles away. Plenty of that hype has been generated already. So much so that Portland has some very opposite problems from Pittsburgh: skyrocketing housing prices, the “damn Californians” pouring into the city, and a not-too-successful campaign to Stop Demolishing Portland! (to construct hated condos).

There were a whole bunch of things we liked–the number of old junkers parked on the streets, all the great craftsman architecture, gardening nuts planting their front yards, “zombie RVs”, some great street art, and, yes, the food cart “pods” and ubiquitous microbreweries. That said, we’re more interested in just a few really basic city things that impressed us in the trip and how we’d like to see some of these emulated back here, in Pittsburgh.

small house with front yard planters made from a toilet, dresser drawers, wooden boxes, Portland, OR

Plant your front yard! North Portland

Bicycle Heaven

To call Portland Nirvana on two wheels is a stretch–it’s just too flat and too gridded for that. But, it’s absolutely heaven for the commuter or basic point-to-point traveler. There is an unbelievable amount of infrastructure in place nearly everywhere in the city–well-marked bicycle lanes, directional and distance signage every few blocks, dedicated street-crossing and curb cuts, and the concept of “neighborhood greenways”: dedicated streets that prioritize through-routes for cyclists and pedestrians. Further, motorists have a great deal of respect for bicycle-riders and the two seem to co-exist very comfortably.

street signage specifically for bicycle riders including directions, time, and distance to various locations, Portland, OR

Friendly bicycle signage: directions, distances, neighborhood greenway markers

North Williams Avenue–running from the central East Side up to North Portland–resembled a full-on cycling highway with non-stop two-wheel traffic every time we headed home. Plus, since the majority of the city is basically flat[1], you can ride all day and never get tired[2]. Throw in a climate that rarely gets hot enough for you to sweat and even less often do riders have to deal with snow and ice, and you’ve really got no excuse for not living on two wheels.

street crossings and integrated turn lanes for bicycle riders, Portland, OR

Bicycle infrastructure: street crossings, integrated turn lanes, NE Portland

We can’t do anything about our climate, but Pittsburgh has come a long way in its bicycle-friendliness in the last ten years. [Thank you, Mayor Peduto/Bike Pittsburgh!] We’re gaining new bicycle lanes all the time, have a terrific advocacy community, lots of hardcore riders, and are finally working out the nightmare of traveling through central Oakland on a bike. I think we (Pittsburgh) may actually have a better trail system than Portland within the city [it’s also entirely likely we just didn’t get to see Portland’s trails], but it’s limited to the riverfronts and a couple other through-passages.

All that said–as we’ve written in these virtual pages before–cyclists are still second-class citizens in Pittsburgh who all too often have a combative relationship with motorists and councilwoman Darlene Harris. It was remarkable to see how good it could be. We’ve got some major room to improve here.

exterior of indoor/outdoor bar called Tough Luck, Portland, OR

Adaptive reuse: Tough Luck, NE Portland

Adaptive Reuse

Tough Luck, a months-old bar and restaurant in NE Portland, is housed in a 1960s-era building that probably started life as a garage, or a laundromat, or maybe a dry cleaners–it really doesn’t matter. It was an underwhelming little big box design to begin with. But with some imagination, tasteful rehab, and the conversion of a half-dozen parking spots into relaxed outdoor seating, it’s aged gracefully as a terrific little addition to the Woodlawn neighborhood.

That story–the adaptive reuse of one aesthetically-challenged building or discarded vacant lot into something useful, vibrant, welcoming, and fun was something we saw all over the city in a ton of different impressive ways–a used car lot turned outdoor dining park, cinderblock workshop-to-brewery, old social hall to new performance space.

Former Pizza Hut building, now vacant, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Pizza Hut, East Liberty, Pittsburgh

There is a former Pizza Hut that’s been sitting vacant for years in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. This is nothing remarkable–we’ve got empty buildings all over the place. But the fact that it’s a hundred yards from Duolingo’s headquarters on Penn Ave. and maybe a half mile from Google’s big Pittsburgh office is. Right now–for good or bad–there is a lot of money flowing through this part of town. That this runty little shack sits idle is a shame. The building itself is nothing special, but its location and the vast city lot it sits on sure are.

In Pittsburgh, it can really feel like all the nice design and construction happened by the 1920s. We are fortunate to still have a lot of that stuff. But if there’s something of the vintage of Tough Luck or Pizza Hut–and there are plenty in and around–probably no one cares and it will sit there until the roof caves in or someone knocks it down for another parking lot. We’d love to see entrepreneurs take up the challenge of turning some of the city’s many architectural eyesores and discarded structures into welcoming, creative uses of fallow ground.

exterior of ornate Hollywood movie theater, Portland, OR

Hollywood Theater: one of many terrific neighborhood movie houses in Portland

Main Streets

Lastly, I’ll say that I was totally jealous of how every neighborhood seemed to have its own healthy business district, amazingly each supporting both a record store and still-operational movie house to go with the requisite cutsie retail, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

This is likely an effect of that thing most cities have where there are actually more people living there than there were sixty years ago[3]. Sometimes humanity can be a real pain the ass, but it certainly makes it easier to populate the storefronts of Main Street.

terra cotta building facade for former theater, Pittsburgh, PA

former Atlas Theatre, Perry Hilltop, Pittsburgh

To pass through [Pittsburgh city neighborhoods] Perry Hilltop, Spring Garden, Morningside, Uptown, parts of the Hill District, etc. and see the obvious former business districts that are currently somewhere between under-utilized and totally vacant is a real bummer. Oh! to bring back the New Grenada Theater or a real grocery in Homewood or anything on Observatory Hill. Sigh.

Next up: It was a nice place to visit–and under different circumstances, we could see the appeal of living there–but coming home pointed out so many things that we love about Pittsburgh. We’ll look at those comparisons next week.


[1] Portlanders: by contrast, a huge amount of Pittsburgh looks like the hilly area just above your downtown. Here, it’s nearly impossible to avoid hill climbs unless you stick entirely to the river trails–and even then you still have to get home.
[2] The positive spin on this is that every bicycle ride is both a commute and a trip to the gym.
[3] While the greater region has grown, the city of Pittsburgh has been losing population ever since 1950, when it was more than twice its current size. [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh#Demographics]

Thin Blue Line: Millvale’s “Watermark”

blue line painted on cement support for highway, Millvale, PA

“Watermark” (detail), Route 28 underpass, Millvale

The thin blue line is painted on sidewalks and bridge supports, climbs up onto brick walls and relaxes in the park. It’s also broken into sections, appearing to duck into storm drains, slip down side-streets, and leap across intersections.

Like a giant spool of yarn knocked to the floor, unwound, and batted about by mischievous cats, you’re likely to come across Watermark somewhere in the middle and wonder what’s going on. The piece–part large-format public artwork and part community-engagement project–is doing its thing right now, in Millvale.

blue line painted in front of Millvale Upholstery, Millvale, PA

Millvale Upholstery, Grant Ave.

The line follows a loose path and it’s no hurry to get anywhere. It starts, or maybe it ends–your choice–at the big concrete support for the north end of the 40th Street Bridge in Millvale’s Riverfront Park. From there, it winds a jagged, herky-jerky route out along the jersey barrier retaining wall by the park’s bicycle trail, crosses the town’s busiest intersection, and winds its way up through the Grant Avenue business district. The long blue strand finally concludes in a glorious, unruly tangle in the little Grant Avenue Pocket Park at the top of the street.

blue line painted on jersey barrier retaining wall, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

The Watermark line is around two-thirds of a mile long, as the crow flies, and has the good sense to meander through much of downtown, effectively becoming a guide to a sort-of Tour d’Millvale. Along the way, it winds past Cousin’s Lounge, the upholstery shop, library, and Yetter’s Candy.

This record fiend can’t visit Millvale without poking his black plastic-sniffing schnoz into Attic Records, but the blue line decided to skip to the other side of street to avoid such temptation. Clearly not into model railroading or macaroons, the end of the line happens just before rounding the corner to Esther’s Hobby Shop and Jean Marc’s French bakery.

blue line painted on sidewalk, Millvale, PA

Grant Ave. sidewalk

Watermark is the work of Ann Tarantino, one of six artists participating in Neighborhood Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot. Tarantino tells us the goal of the piece is to “connect the community to water–to link the riverfront to the rest of town.” The GAPP park, along with other buildings in downtown Millvale, was built right on top of the Girty’s Run stream that can be seen flowing through its raised concrete flood walls both above and below the business district. Its influence is felt–if not expressly stated–by the shape, color, and general direction of the blue line.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Scott's Barber Shop, Millvale, PA

Scott’s Barber Shop, Grant Ave.

It’s a tall order, connecting Millvale town to its riverfront. Anyone who’s ever attempted to negotiate the ugly six point intersection where Grant and E. Ohio join the Route 28 on-ramps as either pedestrian or cyclist knows how harrowing the experience can be. Will a thin, painted line actually get riverfront bicycle-riders and cookout cornhole-tossers up to Panza Gallery or happy hour beer-drinkers down to the river? This blogger could only guess…but it got him to follow the trail all the way, just to see where it would go.

blue line painted on brick walk, Millvale, PA

Sheridan Street

The project is not yet complete. Tarantino informs us the blue line itself will still have some more painting and “connectivity” points added, but the major additions will be descriptive signage at both ends and an installation/”final experience” to be installed in the GAPP park. The Orbit will have to wait to check that out just like everyone else, but we were teased that it will involve both sound and light and should be installed later this Fall.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Millvale, PA

Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Grant Ave.

We talked to a few folks sitting on front stoops along Grant Ave. during an otherwise entirely vacant, bright sunny Labor Day holiday and it’s obvious the explanatory signage will be a benefit. “What does it mean?” said one befuddled hanger-out. His buddy: “It don’t mean nothin’.”

Unlike these critics, however, The Orbit is perfectly happy to live in a world without all the answers and can therefore take a more piqued approach to the abstract project. After a couple visits now, we find the loose, playful, follow-the-blue-line curiosity to be appealing on a number of fronts and begs several enticing questions: Where is it going? Who did this? Why is it here?

blue line painted on asphalt parking lot, Millvale, PA

parking lot, Grant Ave.

Hopefully having the answers to some of these in the convenient electronic format in front of them now won’t dampen our readers’ interest in checking out Watermark for themselves. If so, that would be a shame. The way to see the piece is on your feet, walking the cement and brick sidewalks of Millvale, headed for some of P&G’s mind-melting, Michelle Obama-approved hotcakes or a piece of Dutch apple pie from the legendary hands of Frank Ruzomberka at the Grant Bar.

Is Watermark great art? I don’t know about that. But it’s a simple, low-tech (at least, until we get that sound and vision experience), and effective conversation-starter. We think it also succeeds at making any side-walker or stoop-sitter both active participant in and art critic of an odd little curio traipsing through their borough. Those are interesting challenges to rise to and we had a fine time chasing its long blue tail.

blue line painted in front of Wild at Heart Body Arts, Millvale, PA

Wild at Heart Body Arts / Tattoo, Grant Ave.

Love it or hate it, the whole thing will disappear in 2019. Watermark, like the other Neighborhood Allies projects in this series, is temporary. It is scheduled to have just a two-year lifespan. Tarantino tells us the line was created with a type of paint that can be rinsed with a cleaning solution and power-washed away like it was never there at all.

blue line painted on cement of Grant Avenue Pocket Park, Millvale, PA

Grant Avenue Pocket Park

Watermark is a project sponsored by Neighbor Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot and the Office of Public Art. It is funded by Heinz Endowments and Hillman Foundation and supported by community-based organizations Millvale Community Development Corporation, Millvale Community Library, and the Society to Preserve the Murals of Maxo Vanka.

Tarantino will continue to update news of the project at her website. You can follow her on Instagram at @anntarantino.

Black-and-Gold: Here We Go / Random Acts of Fandom

car painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

black-and-gold car, Heinz Field

With as bold a stroke as the custom paint job on a classic car–or as subtle as the jimmies on your doughnut–sides are taken and armament drawn. For it is here, dangling from front porches and stacked in the pop & chip aisle of Giant Eagle, that the enemy is engaged, troops fortified, and the City of Pittsburgh prepares for its annual fall campaign toward world dominance on the turf and sod battlefields of the AFC North.

doughnut with black-and-gold jimmies

doughnut with black-and-gold jimmies, Dunkin Donuts

Today it begins. Families bid tearful goodbyes to the husbands, brothers, and sons they’ll not see for the next four to five months–depending on how things go in the playoffs–as living rooms and finished basements are converted into makeshift bunkers where the foot soldiers of Coach Tomlin’s standing army perform isolation drills, practice daylight depravation exercises, and go on full intravenous diets of molten cheese and malted barley.

matching graves with Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Steeler graves, Allegheny Cemetery

Yes: ladies will be there, too–right to the end. We haven’t forgotten the mothers, sisters, and daughters who populate these same bleachers, tailgate parties, and La-Z-Boys of conflict. According to one well-passed-around story, “Pittsburgh has, by far, the largest base of NFL fans who are women”*. But–and this is just a hunch–we think most of those women will have the good sense to go back to the rest of their lives after the clock runs out on Sunday afternoon. Men? Not so much. We’ll see you guys in February.

one gold and one black lawn ornament flamingos, Pittsburgh, PA

black and gold flamingos, Woods Run

Oh, sure, the guys on the field getting paid the big bucks get all the credit, but who’s really winning these championships, huh? I’ll tell you, who, jack. It’s the lady who locates one black and one gold yard flamingo for the little grass patch in front of her house in Woods Run–no alarm system needed.

It’s the fourth-grader that spray-paints a set of tin cans black and then carefully strings them together as a mummy-wrapped Steeler robot. In New England they probably just buy pre-assembled Bradybots from China because everyone cheats anyway.

robot ornament made from tin cans, painted black with Steelers logo, New Kensington, PA

tin can porch robot, New Kensington

You want to talk about a Steeler fan? Just look up on the hillside, there’s a house there with yellow-gold painted walls and black trim on the roofline, window and door frames. Yeah, there’s probably a Jeep or maybe a big Ram pickup in the driveway with the same color scheme. No one drives a car that’s orange and brown. Those are loser colors.

house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

black-and-gold house, South Side Slopes

standpipe connector on apartment building painted black with gold Pittsburgh Steelers cap covers

standpipe connector, Shadyside

A Steeler fan has a long, long memory–one that goes way back to the cold, bleak pre-Noll era when Sundays weren’t so optimistic, and Cleveland [shutters] might still have a chance to make the playoffs. There’s the ex-pat–now relocated to Virginia–who has to contend him- or herself with the occasional drive home in a dynasty-era black Cadillac. The Rock probably had one like this before he had to hock his Super Bowls rings in the divorce settlement. The vehicle’s other ornament is a cryptic custom license plate that’ll only make sense inside Pittsburgh radio range: DUBL YOI.

front grill of a 1970's Cadillac with "DUBL YOI" Virginia license plate

deep cut: DUBL YOI, Schenley Park

steelers ornaments in front yard of home, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers frogs / Steelers logo mosaic garden stone, Mount Washington

Whether today is the first of a season of Sundays spent with your keister on the couch or you couldn’t give a hoot about the galoots in the boots, The Orbit hopes you can still enjoy the annual spectacle of your friends, neighbors, and country(wo)men flying those most glaring of high-contrast hues, losing their minds over a fake-punt, dropped catch, or blown coverage, and head-bobbing to the throbbing monotony of this year’s re-write of “Here We Go”.

May all your towels be terrible and may we still get three points off Chris Brown’s toe. Let’s go out there and teach Cleveland a new lesson in losing.

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

Pythian Temple doorway brick-over, Hill District


* “Pittsburgh leads nation in female NFL fans”, NFL.com, Sept. 12, 2007.

See also:

Vex Ed: A Contest for a New Pittsburgh City Flag!

flag of the City of Pittsburgh

(Current) flag of the City of Pittsburgh. Can we do better?

The flag–any flag–should be a glorious, triumphant emblem that trumpets the twin messages this is who we are and you’re here now. It’s raised high above government buildings and hangs formally inside legal chambers. And–if you get it right–the public takes the flag into their own hands.

With a good flag, loyalists adopt its design as their own–flying it freely from front porches and attaching plastic decals of it to windows and bumpers; they paint it on garage doors and wear it in the form of track suits. Kindergarten teachers will instruct young patriots in the art of creating facsimiles from finger paint and popsicle sticks.

American flag made from recycled wood, Apollo, PA

No one makes these for the city flag. Homemade 28-star American flag, Apollo

When we talk about the flag of the City of Pittsburgh, we’re clearly not at this level of either fandom or familiarity. Do you know anyone not named “the mayor” who owns a Pittsburgh city flag? Do you ever see it flown in your neighbors’ yards or waved at public events the way people hoist the rainbow flag, Steelers banner, or the Jolly Roger? If we hadn’t included the image Pittsburgh’s flag [above] would you even be able to describe what it looks like?

My guess is you’ll answer no to each of these questions–and that’s a shame. Pittsburghers love their city and we should have a city flag we’re equally proud of.

flag pole with miniature flags of Italy, USA, and Pittsburgh

Hey: somebody’s flying it! Flags of Italy, USA, and Pittsburgh, Panther Hollow

So what’s wrong with the flag we have? Let’s start with the colors. In Pittsburgh, we accept high-contrast black and gold as natural bedfellows–like french fries and ketchup, or french fries and sandwich meat, or french fries and salad greens. The extra addition, however, of the blue and white detail in the central checkerboard crest is what really sends this palette from reckless driving into fatal collision. Nowhere should these four colors intersect–not even in Cleveland.

While the background black/gold/black vertical sections are a nice, simple, bold presence, they’re directly at odds with the completely useless design-by-committee noise in the middle of the flag. Here, a cartoonish tri-turreted castle–looking like the packaging for a child’s play set–awkwardly either floats above or balances tenuously atop the curlicue formality of the city crest.

detail of the center design in Pittsburgh's city flag including three-tower castle and crest with eagles and blue-and-white checkerboard

Detail: “A triple-towered castle masoned Argent” and “a fess chequay Argent et Azure, between three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted”

Putting aside questions about why the City of Pittsburgh is represented by a medieval European-style fortress, its pairing with an embellished coat-of-arms inherited from William Pitt is particularly dissonant. [These are referred to as “a triple-towered castle masoned Argent” and “a fess chequay Argent et Azure, between three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted,” respectively.]

This combination creates chalk and cheese design elements that not only have nothing to do with each other and are scaled in odd proportion, but look like they were rendered by entirely different hands. Mercifully, there isn’t any text to not be able to read in the crest, but from any distance I dare you to find anyone who can make out those “eagle-fronted bezants” flapping in the breeze.

Less is more. Same flag, less crap.

Less is more. The same flag, without the crap.

Pittsburgh Orbit will never advertise itself as a design shop, but even without the background and very limited fake-Photoshop skills, the simple removal of the junk in this flag’s trunk–that being the ridiculous castle and crest–seems like an enormous win. We’d fly that thing off the H.M.S. Orbit with pride. Further streamlined down to the bare minimum square of one each black and gold halves may be even better.

flag of the City of Pittsburgh with center details removed and reduced to two vertical black/gold sections

Even less is even more…maybe. Two-tone black/gold square.

Something clearly needs to be done around here. There were grandiose plans: a design contest! with celebrity judges! a big-reveal gala event! we could even pitch it to the city! Meetings were taken with, you know, a media partner and real designers. But…ah, hell–that’s a lot of work and you try finding a local expert in vexillology. Heck, just try pronouncing it!

All that said, the simple goal remains to come up with a banner that Pittsburghers will recognize, identify with, and fly proudly from their eves and stitch to the seats of their pants.

SO, here’s where you, dear reader and creative acquaintances of dear reader, come in. We’d love to see your submissions for a redesigned flag for the City of Pittsburgh. This blogger has no idea whether The Orbit‘s audience would support such an effort, but we’re crossing fingers and, like Casey Kasem, keeping our feet on the ground, and reaching for the stars.


Note: This contest has ended, so we’ve removed the submission details. You can see the results at our follow-up story Vex Ed: Designs for a new Pittsburgh flag (Oct. 8, 2017).

proposed flag with gold planet on black field with text "ORBIT"

Hey, it’s an option!


Background/further study: