Looking for a Lost Little Italy in Larimer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The short version: there ain’t much left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possibly the last front yard Mary in Larimer?

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

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

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

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

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

Steelers dojo: Martial Arts Against Street Violence, Homewood

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

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

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

retail storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers storefront: Lawrenceville

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

Steelers storefront: McKeesport

diner storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers diner: O’Leary’s, Southside

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

Steelers sweet shop: Cutty’s Candy Store, Homewood

retail storefront painted black and gold, Homestead, PA

Steelers snack shop: S&S Food Mart, Homestead

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

Steelers barber shop: Ray’s, Shadeland

storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Three Rivers Martial Arts, Brookline

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

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

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

Steelers bar: Brownsville

black tavern door with gold trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers bar: Gametime Tavern, Spring Garden

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

Steelers roadhouse: Mellon’s Pub, McKeesport

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

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

house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers house: South Side Slopes

row house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers row house: Lawrenceville

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

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

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

Steelers porch: Beaver Falls

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

Steelers porch: East Liberty

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

Steelers porch: Sharpsburg

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

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

Steelers garage: Spring Hill

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

Steelers garage: South Side Slopes

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

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

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

Steelers dome: Dipcraft Mfg. Co., Rankin

small masonry building painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers used car lot: Lawrenceville

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

Steelers ex-secret society: Pythian Temple, Hill District

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sex. Money. Murder.” Lincoln Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A year earlier: Lincoln Way, February, 2017

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

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

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

hillside, retaining wall, masonry debris, Lincoln Way

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

broken toy soldier on street

sad toy on Lincoln Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Over-the-Wall Club: Mon Valley Mondrian

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

Composition in Four Quadrants, Large Avenue, Clairton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treat Yourself to the Best, Waddell Avenue, Clairton

mixed media/collage artwork by Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, “Magician,” 1959

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Layers, Large Avenue, Clairton

Jasper Johns stacked painting "Three Flags"

Jasper Johns, “Three Flags,” 1958

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

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

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

No Drugs, Mulberry Alley, Clairton

Burgoyne Diller's geometric abstraction "Second Theme"

Burgoyne Diller, “Second Theme,” 1949

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Incisor Edition: Dental Art

mural on brick wall of large tooth with crossed toothbrushes and the sign "Dentistry", Pittsburgh, PA

tooth & cross-brushes: Jeffries, Smith & Associates, North Oakland

Holy molars! Big teeth. Monster teeth. Heck–we’re in Pittsburgh–dinosaur-sized teeth dangle from storefront awnings, appear painted in exaggerated scale on wall advertisements, and light up the night in window-sized neon displays. The teeth often come to life in bizarre anthropomorphized versions of the real thing, complete with goofy smiles [a tooth with teeth!] and little arms bizarrely clutching their own teeth-cleaning tools.

Dental Art is genre you’ll likely not find represented at this year’s upcoming Carnegie International–and that’s a shame. Don’t let its everywhere and everyone populism lull you into thinking a happy, glowing, purple neon molar is anything less than the noblest of public-private art partnerships. Anyone may go in for the crown, but whether you make a bee line for the canines or you’re just bicuspid-curious, we’re all royalty in a realm this rich with tooth display.

neon sign of large tooth with smiley face advertising dentist, Ambridge, PA

Walko Family Denistry, Ambridge

neon sign of large white tooth in blue frame, North Side Dental, Pittsburgh, PA

Northside Dental

Why is dentistry unique among medical fields in advertising via super-sized versions of the body part being treated? We don’t find an equivalent mass of enormous feet outside podiatrists’ offices or giant schnozes at the ear, nose, and throat specialist. Sure, you’ll see some see a pair of big eyeglasses here or there, but optometrists don’t tend to lay out for sculpted, disembodied eyeballs. What gives?

Why, if every neighborhood gastroenterologist and gynecologist had massive public art-sized scale models of the digestive and reproductive systems in front of their buildings, we’d all learn something with a stroll down the sidewalk or drive-by trip to the grocery store. Cardiologists could light up terrific neon hearts, the stop/start blinking lights crudely simulating blood pumping through ventricles. Why is this kind of action only acceptable for dentists? To all the doctors in the Orbit’s readership: how can we make this happen?

large plastic tooth painted gold hanging in front of dentist's office, Pittsburgh, PA

gold tooth with big cavity: Affordable Dentistry, Shadyside

large 3-D sign with large mouth and toothbrush for Select Dental, Millvale, PA

pop-art dentist: Select Dental, Millvale

We can probably answer our own question here. Kids start out terrified of the dentist, and it only goes downhill from there. You think braces are bad? Try getting a double root canal!

As intimidating as a visit to the doctor’s office or hospital clinic can be, there is something about the dentist’s chair that inspires a level a dread like no other (routine) medical procedure. The forced-open mouth, novocaine injected straight into the gums, instruments of torture clinically laid out to aggressively scratch the enamel from our defenseless chompers. And then there’s Hobson’s choice, incisor edition: wintergreen or tutti-fruitti?

Oh, and how about that squeal when the drill is engaged–changing from ear-piercing ultra-high pitch to an oppressive grind as we helplessly watch smoldering tooth shrapnel spray on the protective lenses of all present. The whole experience gives this sometimes sweet tooth the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it.

anthropomorphized smiling tooth with toothbrush and toothpaste from a sign for McKees Rocks Dental, McKees Rocks, PA

this tooth could use a cleaning: McKees Rocks Dental

dental office sign with anthropomorphized tooth holding giant toothbrush, Clairton, PA

David S. Shoaf, DDS, Clairton

So it makes sense in a profession that invokes sheer terror in the minds of a significant portion of its clientele that the conscientious dental professional would do everything in her or his power to lighten the mood. These are not cruel people; we just perceive them that way. Bring on the bright colors, the big smiles, the pop art oversized toothbrush, lips, and pearly whites.

My Oakland-based dentist [no tooth sign, but she gets a pass because the office is in a big building] has some kind of custom, ad-free music channel clearly designed to be as inoffensive and restful as possible. While a doped-up hour with James Taylor, Enya, and John Mayer could be considered its own version of Hell, no one will actually be driven to rage.

What lies ahead may not be fun, these accommodations all seem to say, but we’ll do our best to make it all right. Much respect to all the dentists and all their big teeth.

wooden dentist's sign in the shape of a tooth, Pittsburgh, PA

wooden tooth: South Side Dental Pavilion, Southside

wooden sign for Dr. Petraglia & Associates dentist office, Pittsburgh, PA

ye olde toothe: Dr. Petraglia & Associates, Bloomfield

hanging sign with silver tooth in circle advertising dentist's office, Ambridge, PA

no words needed: Dr. Sooky Arpad, Ambridge

large tooth-shaped sign reading "Premier Family Dentistry welcomes Dr. Broring", Baldwin Borough, PA

Premier Family Dentistry, Baldwin Borough

logo for Munhall Dental of capital letter D intertwined with outline of tooth

Munhall Dental [photo: Lee Floyd]

logo for Merit Dental of a combined bridge and tooth

bridge work, Pittsburgh Oral Surgery, East Liberty

neon sign with tooth shape in dentist's office window, Bridgeville, PA

David Regine, DMD, Bridgeville

Tales of the Trail: The Rutkowski Shoe Memorial

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Township

As memorials go, it’s a strange one. At a small clearing along a bicycle trail sits a rectangular raised plot, bordered by river stones, about the size of a modest backyard garden. The ground is staked with 18 short lengths of white PVC pipe. Each has an article of decommissioned footwear firmly attached, its sole turned toward the sky.

None of the shoes match and they appear to come from a variety of sources. There are women’s dress shoes with chunky heals, rubber-soled trainers, and comfortable sneakers. Though most are adult models, some of the shoes are sized for a small child, while others would fit a still-growing youth. All have been decorated with after-market paint jobs, now disintegrating after years (?) exposed to the elements.

The center of the memorial is a large, engraved stone with the text In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, “Always put your best foot forward.”

green ladies' shoe attached to PVC pipe

Kimberly Rutkowski’s obituary features just the bare minimum information. Her residence was listed as South Fayette, a large suburban township just west of where the memorial lives now. She was survived by a husband and two children. As the stone tells us, Ms. Rutkowski died in January, 2005. She was just 43.

As obituaries tend to do–or not do, as is the case–there is no real personal detail to go on. We don’t know what Ms. Rutkowski cared about or did for fun, what she dreamed of or was made crazy by. We don’t even know what she looked like. But for those of us who never got to meet Kimberly Rutkowski, we can at least share the abstract experience-by-association of putting our best foot forward through the loving, humorous, and thought-provoking memorial in Collier Township.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Panhandle Trail starts or ends (your pick) in Rennerdale, just a few miles past Carnegie. It runs 30 miles due west to the outskirts of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a lovely, easy ride through gentle, rolling hills, lush full summer overgrowth, and comes replete with all manner of scurrying creatures, circling hawks, babbling brooks, and eye-popping wildflowers.

It also features a number of human-created attractions, including a bunch of small towns and country hamlets the former Pennsylvania Railroad used to serve before the tracks were replaced with trail. Along the way is a former quarry, a congenial bicycle shop, and enough little restaurants to sate trail-generated hunger almost anywhere along the line. Bike-to-beer fanciers will find the newish Helicon Brewery right along the route in Oakdale.

These are all wonderful accompaniments to a thoroughly-enjoyable bicycle trek, but it was the Rutkowski memorial that kept the Orbit office buzzing for days after we finished the ride.

engraved stone with the text "In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, 'Always put your best foot forward'"

“In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, ‘Always put your best foot forward'”

Like all great art, the shoe memorial asks more questions than it answers. Was “always put your best foot forward” such a repeated catch-phrase that Ms. Rutkowski’s friends and/or family needed to take it to the next level? Was the deceased herself in on the design? How and why did the creators select this plot of trailside ground? We just don’t know.

So we’re left to wonder and come up with our own personal interpretations.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

There was a time in this blogger’s early life when 43 would have seemed like a ripe old age. Those days–just like that particular birthday–have long since passed. Forty-three is young! Or, at least, it’s what we think of as middle-aged. We know we’re not owed anything in this life, but in one’s early forties we hope to still have nearly as many tomorrows as we had yesterdays.

So, the next time you find yourself on The Panhandle Trail [yes, make sure there is a next time] take the opportunity to pause for Kimberly Rutkowski and her tribute of second-hand pumps and discarded jogging shoes. We’ve only got so much time on this earth–make sure to not only put your best foot forward, but wear those shoes to the nub when you’re doing it.

memorial with shoes nailed to PVC pipe planted in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Twp.

Getting there: The Panhandle Trail has its own web site with maps and all the relevant information on trailheads and route. The Rutkowski shoe memorial is on the eastern end of the path, between Rennerdale and Oakdale.

Take Bigelow! “Striking Distance,” 25 Years Later, Part 2: The Chase Scene Then & Now

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of a city bus colliding with a beer truck

Some things never change: PAT bus into loose-packed Iron City Beer wagon

If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for any recent amount of time–say, the last ten years, maybe just five would do it–the rate of change can seem extraordinary. Entire neighborhoods–East Liberty, Lawrenceville, The Strip District, to name the most obvious examples–have been radically transformed, downtown has a couple new skyscrapers, rents and home prices are finally starting to match other metro areas, gone are one-dollar beers and big red sauce Italian joints. So it can be comforting to us old-timers when we’re reminded that not everything is changing quite so fast.

As 2017 rolled-over to 2018, we got the idea to honor the 25th anniversary of Striking Distance–the Pittsburgh-set police action film that spawned an unexpected local meme. [For more on this, see last week’s Part 1 of the story.] The idea was to take the opening high-speed car chase through the city, find all the actual filming locations, and then take a look at how they appear today, 26 years later. [The movie was actually shot over the summer of 1992.]

If you haven’t seen that epic chase–or even if it’s just been a while–rectify that now, in the original French. See what you recognize and what you don’t. And if you really want a challenge, try to name the main filming locations–they’re (almost) all right in town. Bigelow Boulevard is, of course, a “gimme,” and you shouldn’t have any problem with the downtown shots, but after that it gets a little trickier.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Striking Distance chase scene, then and now:

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Mount Troy Road, Troy Hill, 1992

empty street with distant view to downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mount Troy Road, Troy Hill, 2018

For the opening of the sequence, father and son cops Vince and Tom Hardy head out in full dress regalia toward the Policeman’s Ball, presumably at the Point (based on the “two years later” setting elsewhere in the film). The locations team could’t have picked a more Pittsburgh scene, replete with cross-river views, the downtown skyline, and a short barrier wall before a steep drop-off. Not that it matters, but Troy Hill/Reserve Township even seems like a believable cop neighborhood.

Almost nothing in this particular panorama has changed in the last 26 years. There are more wires on the telephone poles as high-speed Internet arrived in the between-time and the trees have definitely been allowed to grow up, but that’s about it. Downtown does have some new features to its skyline (we’ll get to those in a bit)–but you can’t really see them from this angle.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Ridgway Street, Hill District, 1992

two-lane hillside road with house, Pittsburgh, PA

Ridgway Street, Hill District, 2018

There is no possible way to take Bigelow from Troy Hill, so the Hardys are magically transported across the Allegheny to Ridgway Steet, at the far eastern/upper end of the Hill District, for their careening entry to that fabled cross-city byway.

Just like we saw on Mt. Troy Road, the tiny starter saplings on Ridgway in 1992 have grown to legit shade-producing coverage today–in fact, we couldn’t even get the same angle as the Striking Distance shot because we’d be buried in shrubbery–chalk one up for Mother Nature! Other than that, we can see the city replaced the old wooden street light pole and the homeowner appears to have had some porch work done. No idea what happened to the Silverado in the driveway.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of busy street intersection in Pittsburgh, PA

Bigelow Blvd. at Bloomfield Bridge, 1992

empty street intersection with large building, Pittsburgh, PA

Bigelow Blvd. at Bloomfield Bridge, 2018

Striking Distance filming closed a pretty major east-west artery for the Hardys’ high-speed pursuit of The Polish Hill Strangler and the crew made the most of the opportunity. The approximately half-mile stretch of Bigelow from the the Bloomfield Bridge to the intersection at Herron is run backwards and forwards, crossing lanes and milking busy intersections. The movie viewer is rewarded with a lot of quick-cut chances to see the road and its pedestrian overpasses.

The biggest change here is the old Geyer Printing building, which was sold and converted into a self-storage place a while back. Gone are the big G-E-Y-E-R letters on the roof and instead we’ve got the imagery of self-storage plastered over the former windows. The whole intersection got a heavy-duty resurfacing (in cement) a few years back and still looks like it’s brand new.

Side note: I wanted to bag one of those Stagno’s Bakery trucks in the wild, but couldn’t actually find one now that I was looking. Sigh.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of alley in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Strawberry Way, Downtown, 1992

alley turned pedestrian way in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

“That’s my boy!” said our model Walter Lee Robinson on recognizing Bruce Willis in the YouTube clip I showed him. Strawberry Way, Downtown, 2018

OK, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Little Strawberry Way, the single-lane alley that runs parallel between Sixth and Seventh Streets, Downtown, has had perhaps the most dramatic makeover of our locations.

Starting maybe ten years ago, the long, lower block of Strawberry between Smithfield and Liberty started getting dressed up with temporary art installations. More recently, the city went all-in on Strawberry’s conversion from car-friendly alley to pedestrian hang-out zone. Currently, there are two blocks entirely closed-off to traffic, including the short stretch from Grant to William Penn Place where the Hardys dash down in a shortcut to intercept The Strangler on William Penn Place. These are nicely appointed with colorful street painting, tables and chairs, potted plants, and special lighted signage.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of downtown street in Pittsburgh, PA

Cherry Way, Downtown, 1992

city street in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Cherry Way, Downtown, 2018

Starting to sound like a broken record (1993)/streaming audio loop (2018), but the 400 block of Cherry Way, Downtown looks pretty much the same as it did when Pittsburgh’s finest chased that ’89 Ford. Based on the green lights in both lanes, we assume traffic was still one-way (the other direction) in 1992 which would have made this a difficult escape route for the Strangler.

What’s changed the most in this scene is a building you feel more than see. Kaufmann’s–Pittsburgh’s original, longest-standing downtown department store–was still open and operating by that name in the 1990s. I know–I bought business casual khakis there. The building still straddles little Cherry Way, forming a tunnel the filmmakers shot through for the chase scene. The downtown Kaufmann’s would be rebranded to a Macy’s in 2006 and then closed for good in 2015[1]. Currently, the elegant, 12-story building is undergoing renovation to become fancy apartments.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of Armstrong Tunnel, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel, Uptown, 1992

interior of Armstrong Tunnel, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel, Uptown, 2018

You’re thinking, what could possibly have changed in the Armstrong Tunnel? The answer, it turns out, is more than you’d expect. First off, the tile work looked a lot better in 1992–so much better we wonder if it had recently gotten a rehab treatment. Today, there are big chunks of the white ceramic that have separated and disappeared, leaving a pock-marked, water- and oil-stained surface throughout.

More interesting, though, is the tunnel’s apparent change from a two-way, bi-directional route (note the double yellow line in the earlier picture) to its current configuration with separate, dedicated inbound and outbound tubes. We have to wonder what was happening with the other tunnel in ’92. Maybe it was just a temporary closure to fix up the tiles? Who knows!

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of police car exiting fire-filled tunnel in Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel entrance, Uptown, 1992

exterior of Armstrong Tunnel with rising highway structure above, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel entrance, Uptown, 2018

You’ll be happy to know the fire in the Armstrong Tunnel was safely put out some time in the last couple decades, making the daring dash through burning police cruiser wreckage no longer required in passage from Forbes to Second Ave.

Fire or not, Steelers fans will remember this south end of the tunnel as the dangerous intersection where Ben “Why would I wear a helmet? I’m not playing football.” Roethlisberger almost ended both his life and career in a motorcycle accident in 2006. Like all the principal characters in Striking Distance (but not all the extra roles!) he made it out alive.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of downtown street and bridge in Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street and Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, 1992

empty street in downtown Pittsburgh

Smithfield Street and Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, 2018

This is another one where the real action is just out of the frame. On the near side, Point Park University continues to expand, gobbling up, restoring, and repurposing much of “First Side” downtown as it goes. Had the filmmakers chosen almost any other block in the area, we’d have a more obvious contrast.

On the other side of these buildings, every cyclist will tell you Smithfield Street Bridge is the gateway to South Side bicycle-riding as the easiest, farthest, western-most entrance to the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail (which goes from here all the way to Washington, D.C.). The town end of the bridge also has a semi-new dedicated bicycle passage to connect cyclists to the Jail Trail and a brand new switchback ramp from the bridge will take you down to The Mon Wharf and Point State Park, traffic-free. [That opens…next month?] … but you can’t see any of that in this picture.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street Bridge, 1992

ornate iron entryway to Smithfield Street Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street Bridge, 2018

The Smithfield Street Bridge, a “lenticular truss bridge,” completed in 1883 and designed by Gustav Lindenthal[2] is certainly one of the city’s most iconic crossings. The castle-like porticos on either end and gorgeous sine wave interlocking curves are about as perfect and classic as one could hope for from such a structure.

By the time this blogger arrived in Pittsburgh–just a few years after Striking Distance–the Smithfield Street Bridge had undergone a massive rehab including a new paint job of yellow-gold on the entrance ways and deep blue for the curving truss sections.

But back in 1992, the bridge was still a dingy steel gray with a tree apparently growing out of the lane separator on the south end. It also had two-way car traffic on one half and train track on the other [see previous then photo]. Today, the re-do colors remain, but they’re faded, rusted, and graffiti-scarred; the tree is gone. It may be about time for yet another paint job on this old beauty.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of city streets in Pittsburgh, PA

Intersection of Carson and Arlington, Southside, 1992

Intersection of Carson and Arlington streets, Pittsburgh, PA

Intersection of Carson and Arlington, Southside, 2018 [Note the bonus Class A Steelermobile!]

Pittsburgh’s modern light rail line (“The T”) was set up in the 1980s. Though largely running on vestigial trolley tracks through the South Hills, the newer, elevated stretch of rail connecting to the Panhandle Bridge remains the dominant presence at the intersection of Carson and Arlington on the Southside as it did in the early ’90s.

You’ll notice the same deep blue paint job the Smithfield Street Bridge received and an addition of one clearance height warning sign, but that’s all we’ve got here.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of police car standoff in Pittsburgh, PA

Second Ave., Downtown, 1992

empty street with girders for raised highway, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Second Ave., Downtown, 2018

A little tip for budding action movie makers: if you want to set your picture in gritty, urban America, make sure you’ve got an elevated highway and/or train line to film under. Pittsburgh has plenty of bridges, but the double-decker effect of Boulevard of the Allies rising over Second Avenue, Downtown, really only happens for a few blocks in this one location. Striking Distance writer/director (and Pittsburgh native) Rowdy Herrington wasn’t going to miss out on it.

The cagey quality of 1920s-era steel girders with its heavy shadows and rumble from auto traffic above makes this space still feel like an action set–even on a quiet, sunny, Sunday morning. The steel beams appear to have been newly-painted, parking rates have gone up, and the bail bondsman (just out-of-frame) is open for business 24-hours.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of car on street in front of downtown Pittsburgh, PA skyline

P.J. McArdle Roadway and downtown skyline, Mt. Washington, 1992

Pittsburgh city skyline as seen from Mt. Washington

P.J. McArdle Roadway and downtown skyline, Mt. Washington, 2018

Of course The Polish Hill Strangler would take P.J. McArdle Roadway up to very-accessible Grandview Avenue in his escape route! Mount Washington’s cobblestone streets, hairpin turns, and limited egress points are exactly what any clever criminal who “drive’s like a cop” would opt for. Regardless of the plot logic of this particular route, it leaves us with some great views of the Pittsburgh skyline…and that’s probably what Rowdy Herrington was really after.

The main difference today is that downtown Pittsburgh has been in a major construction boom for the last decade or so and it’s left us with two big additions to the skyline. The 23-story Three PNC Plaza and the 33-story Tower at PNC Plaza were completed in 2009 and 2015, respectively. Both are now clearly visible [and blocking the view of Gulf Tower!] from Grandview Ave.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington, 1992

street with large church and city view in PIttsburgh, PA

Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington, 2018

The lovely St. Mary of the Mount Catholic church still holds court at its prominent spot on Grandview Ave., its parishioners getting a glorious view of downtown Pittsburgh as they step out the big, oak front doors. We set up for our photo on the grassy lawn of St. Mary’s school next door, just like Herrington and the gang did back in the day–only, Orbit budget wouldn’t pony up for the crane shot and long lens. Regardless, it’s obvious the biggest difference from here is not what’s happening on Mt. Washington, but instead, what you can see across the river.

The so-called North Shore has had a dramatic–almost wholesale–re-envisioning since the late 1990s. Still visible in the Striking Distance scene is Three Rivers Stadium and the acres of surface-level parking surrounding it. The hallowed home to Steelers and Pirates world championships was imploded in 2001 after construction of separate dedicated venues for football and baseball had been built in the same approximate area. Our present-day shot doesn’t have the detail to show you those sportatoriums–but trust me: they’re there–as are the casino complex, Stage AE, and various other new infill.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Duquesne, PA

Center Street, Duquesne, 1992

steep Belgian block residential street in Duquesne, PA

Center Street, Duquesne, 2018

The holy grail of chase scene locations! Where is this camel back cobblestone road that launches all vehicles–from a toddler’s tricycle to a chain of police cruisers–off the street and into the air?

This one really pushed The Orbit’s research team. The only clue was the visible Oak St sign in the original clip, but it clearly wasn’t any of the Oak Streets Google Maps had to offer for Pittsburgh. IMDB listed some additonal filming locations, including both Monessen and Monongahela, but it was obvious none of those was the right place, either.

Never underestimate the combination of intuition, dumb luck, and Google Street View. We were finally able to ID the venue as Center Street in Duquesne. Center is still paved with the same hundred-year-old Belgian block, but it’s the terraced layout that really invites drama. The road flattens at each point where there’s a cross street or alley, giving it the feeling of a ramp with landings.

Now, I walked the four- or five-block length of Center Street, and while it is steep, no vehicles are leaping into the air all on their own–even going way over the speed limit. Herrington’s stunt coordinators must have installed extra jumps at each stage to launch the chase party so dramatically in the air, because that’s just not happening naturally. But then again, not happening naturally would describe how most screenings of Striking Distance take place.


[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaufmann’s
[2] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smithfield_Street_Bridge