Alms Race: The Front Yard Marys of Beaver County

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

ghost Mary, New Brighton

Mary. We’ve already talked about the blessed virgin/most famous mama’s ability to get around. This week, Mary makes it clear her home-anointing juju doesn’t stop at the Allegheny County line. No, not content to let metro Pittsburgh have all the fun, Beaver County enters the escalating alms race with a shock and awe campaign of heavy-duty religion and hardcore beatitude.

You’ll find her Maryness all over Allegheny County’s western neighbor–from Harmony to New Galilee, Shippingport to Vanport, Raccoon to Big Beaver. There are so many likenesses of Mary in the front yards, porches, and gardens of homes across Beaver County that each of its larger towns could easily supply a post’s worth all on its own. That’s an intriguing opportunity for the Mary-obsessed, but let’s face it–sometimes there’s just too much Mary…even for dedicated Orbit readers.

Like The Bible and Catholic mass, this post is going to be long on pictures and short on words, so let’s get down to it. Here’s a random sampling of but a few of Beaver County’s unlimited supply of front yard Marys.

Mary statuette in front of house with large aerial antenna, New Brighton, PA

Our Lady of Perpetual Reception, New Brighton

Mary statuette on front porch of house, Beaver Falls, PA

front porch autumnal Mary, Beaver Falls

statue of Mary on pedestal in front yard, Ambridge, PA

chain link Mary, Ambridge

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

patriotic Mary, New Brighton

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

New Brighton

Mary statuette in front of house, Monaca, PA

Monaca

Mary statuette in back yard of house, Monaca, PA

voyeuristic Mary, Monaca

Mary statuette in front of house, Eastvale, PA

Eastvale

brick house with Mary statue in front yard, Baden, PA

Baden

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

New Brighton

Mary statuette and dog statuette in front yard, Ambridge, PA

Mary with pet pooch, Ambridge

house with Mary statuette in front yard, Baden, PA

Baden

Mary statuette on front steps of brick house, Ambridge, PA

Ambridge


Further reading:

Show’s Over: Ex-Theaters, Part 1 – Mourning the Recently Departed

former Plaza Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA

Plaza Theatre [now Starbucks Coffee] (1917-1998), Bloomfield

For years–ten of them, to be precise–the scene on West Liberty Avenue was unchanged. There, as the street rises just past Dormont’s little downtown business district, was a true last-of-its-kind (for Pittsburgh, at least) cast in the amber of its final waking moment. The old Cinema 4 (neé Harris/South Hills Theatre) was a classic American neighborhood movie house. Built in 1927 to seat 1200 and later sectioned into four smaller screening rooms, the theater–when it was still open–had enough old glamour, oddball kitsch, and weird juju to make any goofy second-run feature a fun experience.

Those opportunities ran out abruptly when the theater closed forever in 2001. For the following decade, Cinema 4’s giant, façade-spanning marquee pathetically clung to the plastic letters advertising its final program: Morgan Freeman in  Along Came a Spider, the drug-dealing/using drama Blow, and, permanently etched in this blogger’s brain, Paul Hogan gettin’ it done one last time in Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles[1]. [Side note: will America ever understand what a real knife looks like?!?] Alas, no departing staff ever bothered to update the marquee with a final “Closed. Thanks for 74 great years.” message.

former Cinema 4 movie theater, Dormont, PA

Cinema 4, sometime in the oughts, Dormont (1927-2001; demolished 2010) [photo: cinematreasures.org]

Though the theater stayed dark for all that time, somehow it always felt like it would be return to life. The building was too impressive, too unique, too important to let go. Those giant multi-story glass windows! The gleaming chrome–likely added in the ’50s or ’60s–reflecting along the sidewalk entrance! The big, reach-out-over-the-street neon marquee! Seven decades of South Hillsian memories, popcorn debris, garish paint jobs, and sticky floors.

But…you already know where this is going. In 2010, Dormont felt it needed a fancy new drug store more than a derelict movie house that had sat empty for the last decade. Cinema 4 was razed and West Liberty Avenue got a brand new CVS franchise with plenty of surface-level parking. Not only won’t you be able to see the latest Crocodile Dundee for a dollar, but the borough lost another local business at the same time–CVS ultimately made it impossible for Your Hometown Pharmacy (just down the hill) to compete and now they’re gone too. Sigh.

wooden ornament of apothecary mortar and pestle, Dormont, PA

Ghost apothecary. All that’s left of Your Hometown Pharmacy, Dormont

In the mid-1990s, greater Pittsburgh was awash with bargain movies. I know this very very well. As a new transplant to the city with neither television nor friends [don’t worry–I would pay dearly for both, later] this movie nut would go out three or four nights a week to feast on the unbelievable buffet of discount/second-run movies operating in the glorious cinematic salad days that ended way too early. I’d go see everything–some Wesley Snipes shoot-’em-up, dumb rom-coms, The Spice Girls movie. To this day, I’ll stand by the philosophy that any picture is a worth a buck on a the big screen–but try finding a movie that cheap any more!

Aside from the Cinema 4, Dormont also had the Hollywood (which is still sort-of operating?). There was the two-screen Bellevue Theatre (now a Family Dollar), four or five screens out in Cheswick (since demolished), and a similar number in a Penn Hills strip mall (amazingly still open and still half-price!). There was one obscure little theater in Whitehall or Brentwood that I only made it to a couple times (current status: unknown) and there were the big bargains of suburban sprawl: Northway Mall’s Super Saver Cinemas 8 with its sci-fi/spaceship looking gangways (closed 2007) and the completely generic $1.50 monster multiplex at Century III Mall (closed for a while, then reopened and rebranded as Century Square Luxury Cinemas).

Family Dollar store with the marquee of the former Bellevue Theatre, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue Theatre [now Family Dollar] (1920s-2002), Bellevue

The most painful loss was The Plaza–mainly because it was just so close to where I was living. Bloomfield’s little $2.00 second-run house was evidently a totally charming single-screen, 500-seat neighborhood theater when it opened in 1917. It went through a series of ups and downs including a substantial closure during the 1970s and eventual re-opening and reconfiguration as a two-screen bargain theater.

The layout was nuts. Typically when an old theater gets subdivided, they either figure out a way to cut the space down the middle or the balcony becomes one theater and the ground floor the other. For The Plaza, some genius came up with the idea to make one theater larger than the other using a bizarre L-shape that necessitated projecting the film from such a severe angle the screen was a perpetual trapezoid with only about half the frame in focus. A substantial portion of the seats couldn’t actually see the left hand side of the screen.

ornate stone building in Pittsburgh, PA

King’s Court/Beehive [now Noodles & Company/T-Mobile] (1965-1990s), Oakland [2]

When you start digging, it’s a history that will break your heart. It’s astounding how many nickelodeons, dance halls, opera houses, and movie palaces Pittsburgh–and pretty much every other place–once had. Three or four or five different theaters on every commercial drag in every part of town. A whole lot of those buildings–like the Cinema 4–are just gone forever. But an amazing number of them survive today and they’re mostly not what you’re expecting.

former movie theater in Pittsburgh, PA

Princess Theatre/Beacon Theatre/Guild Theatre [now Friendship Circle] (1937-1979), Squirrel Hill

If the building’s owners let the marquee stand, you’ve got a pretty obvious clue to what was once there. Most visitors to Squirrel Hill have probably noticed the big sign for Friendship Circle (and for decades before that, Gullifty’s restaurant) on Murray Ave. [See photo, above.] That, and the clean, art-deco design are a dead giveaway for the building’s past life as a movie theater. The Warner Centre, downtown, has its exterior so well preserved that you’d assume it still is the grand movie palace it was built as a hundred years ago. You’d be wrong.

façade of former Warner Theatre, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Grand Theatre/Warner Theater [now Warner Centre shops] (1918-1983), downtown

This is a big topic with a fascinating history. We went from one story about the rash of (somewhat) recently-closed movie houses to digging into all of the various places that used to be theaters and performance halls. There is plenty of documentation out there about the lovely, ornate old theaters of yore [the web site cinematreasures.org is an invaluable resource] but what really interested The Orbit were the places that have held on–not as the handful of still-operating theaters, but a building’s transformation from nickelodeon to retail space, 200-seater to neighborhood bar, community theater to taxi stand.

A space like Cinema 4 could really only serve one purpose–and that’s probably what would ultimately doom it. Others, though, were far more humble in design–baked into retail blocks with apartments or office spaces above and storefronts bookending their entranceways. These seem to have survived much better than their great single-use siblings and have the intriguing quality of hiding in plain sight, masquerading as health clubs and laundromats, juice bars and dentists offices.

marquee of former Squirrel Hill Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA

Squirrel Hill Theatre (1940-2010), Squirrel Hill [3]

There are some bright spots, too. We’d intended on including a photo of the old Denis Theatre in Mt. Lebanon, but it’s currently getting rehabbed to be a new community-run theater/art space. North Side’s Garden Theatre is undergoing similar treatment and Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville likes to claim it’s the first new, single-screen theater built in America in the last 50 years (or something like that).

We’ll get to all this as the series unspools. Until then, just like Siskel & Ebert, we’ll see you at the movies.


[1] There is no indication why only three films were listed on the marquee of the four-screen theater. Perhaps technical difficulties precipitated Cinema 4’s ultimate closing or maybe souvenir-hunters just scavenged the lowest-hanging set of removable marquee letters. We’ll probably never know.
[2] Obvious in the photograph, the old King’s Court was not originally a theater. It was built as a police station and only converted into a movie theater some time in the 1960s. As we’ll see–especially when we get into the nickelodeons–this is not an uncommon practice.
[3] Squirrel Hill Theatre, along with the Denis, were both first-run theaters, so not included in the bargain buffet discussion. At the time it closed, the rumor was that the whole block was going to be razed and redeveloped along with the Poli plot, but that hasn’t happened and there’s a For Sale sign on the theater now, so keep your fingers crossed on this one.

Art Opening: Garage Door Murals

garage door murals of giant cat head and abstract lines and stars, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Garages, man. The mythological backyard birthplaces of great art and invention–from Thomas Edison making light bulbs to The Kingsmen banging out those three chords to Steve Jobs and “The Woz” inventing Pac-Man (or whatever they did).

While little structures to park your car in exist everywhere, there is something quintessentially and uniquely American about the garage. Our obsession with the automobile, along with the affluence to afford the extra real estate–let alone, the sport SUV–and America’s young history, unencumbered by precious Medieval ruins, ancient bazaars, or sacred bones–makes all land fallow ground for building home for our cars.

While the three-bedroom split-level house with its integrated two-car garage has become synonymous with twentieth-century suburbia, there are plenty of interesting alleyway garages serving retail storefronts, row houses, and gingerbread Victorians all over the city. It is this collision of circumstances that, uh, opens the door (sorry) to great garage murals.

garage door covered with plywood painted with colorful bridge and hills, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

Mural painted on garage door of man on motorcycle with the Pittsburgh skyline behind him and a banner reading "Gone but not Forgotten"

Gone but not forgotten, Homewood

Some of these many retractable, roll-up doors have been gloriously decorated with large-form artwork. That makes perfect sense–the garage door is such a nice, big canvas–sixty square feet at the minimum; much much more when you get into two-car widths and double-door arrangements. Plus, the street- (or, more often, alley-) facing arrangement guarantees an audience of neighbors, scavengers, and garbage collectors as they trundle down the hill, possibly to or from their own garages.

garage door mural of heart and flowers with text "Bienvenidos a Brookline", Pittsburgh, PA

Bienvenidos a Brookline, Brookline

colorful abstract mural on garage, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship

It’s an interesting opportunity. Most property owners don’t paint such wild, loose scenes on the exterior brick and stucco walls of the main house. But the garage seems to have a different set of rules–no one considers it sacred space, crucial to the visual integrity of the home. The neighborhood may look like Peyton Place from the street, but it’s Dazed and Confused in the back alley.

mural of colorful furry cartoon character painted on garage door, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

garage door painted with crowd of people, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

garage door opening covered in plywood and stenciled with birds and birdcages, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship [1]

brick wall over former garage painted with elaborate tag, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

An interesting sub-genre of the garage door mural shows up in these artifacts from a long-over radio station contest around pop group ‘N Sync. I was unable to locate any mentions of this on the computer Internet, but from our small sample size, it looks like participants were required to paint a garage door in tribute to both the singers and [defunct radio station] B-94, with the names of on-air personalities John, Dave, Bubba, Shelley and band members spelled-out. The one from Aliquippa (below) is particularly great for its crude renderings of Justin, Lance, J.C., and the gang.

garage door painted by fans of N*Sync for radio contest, Aliquippa, PA

B-94 ‘N Sync mural, Aliquippa [2]

The B-94/’N Sync murals would make a great subject for its own post, but we have no confidence we’ll ever see any more of these. [If you know of any, hook us up!] The contest probably ran right around 2001 at the height of ‘N Sync’s popularity and while it may have had many teenagers decorating the family car park back then, turn-of-the-millennia middle/high school students are now in their 30s and should have moved out of the house by now. We imagine even the most supportive and/or nostalgic parents took the opportunity to whitewash over these alley-facing memories.

garage door painted for radio station content as tribute to N*Sync, Munhall, PA

B-94 ‘N Sync mural, Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]


[1] Given the quantity of both the stenciled bird and birdcage images around town, this particular artwork was likely not created by the property owner–nor is it a full mural. Regardless, it’s still garage door art, so we included it here.
[2] Shelley’s name is partially-covered in plywood and otherwise faded/worn away in the bottom row of panels.

Stamp Collecting: Even More City Sidewalk Stamps

sidewalk stamp for Sam Nicoletti, Pittsburgh, PA

Sam Nicoletti, Perry Hilltop

Who doesn’t like an egg hunt? The literal ones are hard to come by, but luckily we’ve got an inexhaustible supply of figurative eggs to bag.

If you’re The Orbit, one of these hunts puts you on your hands and knees, on someone else’s sidewalk, whisking the effluvia of the streets from the shallow impressions made by the city’s long-gone concrete masons and parsing out their disappearing names.

For Easter this year, we’re going to keep it real simple. The next (perhaps final?) installment in our continuing series on sidewalk stamps is almost all pictures with none of the boring blah blah blah to wade through. Honestly, there’s just not that more to say on this subject and we know our busy readers have bunnies to rustle and glazed hams to consume.

Happy Easter, y’all!

sidewalk stamp for Tory Baiano, Pittsburgh, PA

Tory Baiano, Greenfield

sidewalk stamp for E. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

E. Putch, Oakland

sidewalk stamp for Edward W. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

Edward W. Putch, Concrete Construction, Oakland

sidewalk stamp for Guy Orlando, Pittsburgh, PA

Guy Orlando, Oakland

sidewalk stamp for Jos. Crimeni Paving, Pittsburgh, PA

Jos. Crimeni Paving, Oakland

sidewalk stamp for mason John Ferrante, Pittsburgh, PA

John Ferrante, Shadyside

sidewalk stamp for "Jerry", Pittsburgh, PA

Jerry, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for August Didiano, Pittsburgh, PA

August Didiano Construction Inc., Friendship [photo: Paul Schifino]

sidewalk stamp for Sal Berardi Construction, Pittsburgh, PA

Sal Berardi Construction, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for Benito Moscatiello, Pittsburgh, PA

Benito Moscatiello, Greenfield

How did Lent become fish fry season?

fish sandwich on styrofoam plate

Week 3: Fish sandwich bathed in the Italian flag-colored light of the Regina Elena Club, Sharpsburg

The plate is a standard-issue, eight-inch disposable picnic platter. On it is a large sandwich bun flipped open, both sides up. Across this bed of bread and extending way off its edges lies a gigantic piece of codfish, reclining leisurely like the most relaxed den dweller on a chaise lounge.

The filet is coated in a thick layer of Panko breadcrumbs, deep-fried until golden brown, and still-sizzlin’ as it approaches the table with its partner plate of macaroni & cheese. As is customary, there are no vegetable toppings for the sandwich but the supplies of tartar and hot sauce are ample.

Eleven months a year, this blogger stays away from religion, but he gives up atheism for fish fry season or, as the Catholics call it, Lent.

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

Fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski, St. Max’s, Homestead (2017)

Catholic? No. But Catholic-curious…sure. Fried cod, mac & cheese, individually-wrapped slices of pineapple upside-down cake or pretzel salad for dessert–a cold beer to go with it if we’re lucky? It’s freakin’ delicious and enough to bring even the most ardent pagan back into the welcoming arms of the church…basement…at supper time.

But isn’t the whole point of the season supposed to be penance and sacrifice? “Having” to eat a giant deep-fried fish filet with a side of haluski or pasta olio once a week hardly constitutes a war effort. If this is The Vatican’s idea of fasting, sign me up for the hunger strike.

front windows decorated for Lenten Fish Fry, Angelo's Pizza, Pittsburgh, PA

Angelo’s Pizza, Bloomfield

So how did we get here? Apparently this all goes back to Pope St. Leo who, in the fifth century, preached that the faithful must “fulfill with their fasts the Apostolic institution of the 40 days.” (Again with the 40 days!) Traditionally the fasting ritual was much more severe, allowing only a single evening meal every day of Lent (just like Ramadan), and the rules were much more restrictive disallowing all meats (including fish), eggs, sweets, and “other indulgences.”

In the intervening centuries, the church and congregation have come to a strange compromise with the laity seeming to hold all the cards. The concept of a fast has gone from eating only one penitential meal a day to merely cutting out meat on Friday. [That fish doesn’t count as “meat” is a whole other discussion.] This “sacrifice” just doesn’t seem that painful.

large fried fish dinner on plate

Week 4, part 2: Fish, haluski, and cole slaw: Church of the Assumption, Bellevue

A couple weeks back, this blogger pulled the “Lenten double”–a sort-of Stove Top Stuffing ruse for the fish-obsessed. First, there was an enormous sandwich from Giant Eagle’s seasonal “Fish Frydays” for lunch followed by a full dinner spread at Church of the Assumption. It’s no easy feat–the ridiculously early hours the church suppers keep really requires you shake a leg to pack it all in.

Let me tell you something: I’m going to need a serious weight-loss plan after all the fasting I’ve been doing the last few weeks. Catholics need to come up with a real season of penance and self-denial after the unhinged gluttony of Lent.

hand-made sign for fish fry, Church of the Assumption, Bellevue, PA

Of course, fish fry-hosting churches do a lot of their fundraising during the six Fridays of Lent and we see evidence of Churches consolidating and closing all the time. So in an era when the larger populace would no longer be described as “god-fearing” it’s an understandable economic necessity that churches need to relax some of the old-world doctrine and bring in some pew-filling carbohydrates.

catfish dinner from New Jerusalem Holiness Church, Pittsburgh, PA

Week 2: Even non-Catholics get into it! New Jerusalem Holiness Church, Larimer

Still, to stray so wildly from the original “reason for the season” (to borrow from another highly mutated Christian tradition) seems like a real lost opportunity–both for the church and its congregants. While it’s both bizarre and wonderful for us non-believers to look forward to Lent for its distinct church basement suppers, the tradition of voluntarily giving up something loved (or, at least, appreciated) to learn the value of sacrifice and everyday privilege seems like an extremely valuable exercise.

Maybe next year this blogger will have to give up all those fish fry calories, you know, for Lent.

fish sandwich with mac & cheese

Week 6: Harris Grill, Shadyside*


* The obvious addition of lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle slices would only come from a restaurant offering.

Sci-Fi Sidewalks and Apparitions in the Alley: Fantasy Stencils

stencil image of Frankenstein's monster painted on steel door, Pittsburgh, PA

Frankenstein, South Side Slopes

There he is: deep-set eyes shaded under the world’s most famous supraorbital ridge. The giant cranial dome, smashed-flat schnoz, and lifeless mouth could only be one…humanoid. Yeah, it’s ol’ bolts-for-brains, Frankenstein–or Frankenstein’s monster, if you must–but we’re all friends here, right?

Mary Shelley’s enduring science project-run-amok turns up here in Pittsburgh at least a couple times–on the South Side Slopes and back-alley Bloomfield. It’s nice to fantasize this is a bicentennial tribute–Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818[1]. We’re pretty sure that’s merely a coincidence, though–these spray paint portraits go back at least a couple years.

Regardless, Frankenstein finds himself in good company. He’s but one member of an impressive rogue’s gallery of desperate monsters, enormous insects, gun-toting pandas, faeries, robots, and one flaming Eye of Providence.

stencil image of Frankenstein's monster painted on concrete wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Frankenstein, Bloomfield

stencil image of monster's head painted on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

monster, Garfield

stencil image of man's face painted on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

refugee from the planet Krylon (or maybe Lou Reed?), Garfield

Someone in greater Bloomfield/Garfield–maybe a whole gang of people–is real handy with an X-Acto knife, stiff card stock, and enough shook-up cans of Rust-Oleum to color most of the spectrum. There are a ton of little stenciled artworks decorating or defacing (your pick) the East End’s alleyways, retaining walls, street signs, and retail backsides.

The majority of these pieces are a single layer, allowing the underlying surface to provide random background color–red brick, silver aluminum, and whatever color the utilitarian cinderblock wall happened to get painted. There are also some really impressive two- and three-color jobs that show a real deft of craft in both preparation and execution in the medium.

stencil image of a flea painted to the back of a street sign, Pittsburgh, PA

“Flea Apparitions”, Bloomfield

stencil image of pink tyrannosaurus rex painted on concrete wall, Pittsburgh, PA

hot pink T-Rex, Oakland

graffiti stencil of bear standing up with a pistol in each paw, Pittsburgh, PA

“This is a stickup, give me all your honey.” Panda bear with pistols and Hawaiian shirt, Strip District

… but is it art or public menace? One the world’s most un-answerable perennial questions! How I’d love it if some street-wise Séraphine dressed-up our alley fence with a long-locked faerie or ambivalent robot. At the same time, if some stupid spray paint smear were to cross the front of the house, I’d be irate–what a hypocrite! Decorate every alley, sheet metal warehouse, and fast food restaurant and I’ll be happy man, but keep your nozzle off the nice brickwork of private homes and old institutions.

They’re not listening to The Orbit–that’s for damn sure–but stencilers seem to have pretty sound judgement in what subjects are fair game, and where to lay off. The targets here are almost all vacant, unseen spaces and discarded infrastructure. That may be as self-serving as it is respectful–people are just a lot less-likely to take action on a trash-strewn alley behind Family Dollar or the former entrance to a condemned building.

stencil image of fairy painted on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

faerie, Strip District

stencil image of cartoon robot painted on bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

robot, Millvale Street Bridge

graffiti stencil of astronaut giving "OK" hand signal, Pittsburgh, PA

astronaut OK, Strip District

stencil image of pyramid with eyeball on fire painted on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

flaming Eye of Providence, Strip District

The Eye of Providence–the mystical cyclops pyramid image that shows up on the dollar bill–supposedly represents God watching over humanity[2]. We don’t know what it means when it’s on fire. Regardless, God seems to give passes to all these back-street Basquiats and cinderblock Cézannes who ply the paint and stencil the swine right under his or her watchful eye.

If it were up to The Orbit [it is not] the lord or lady who tattooed the anonymous wall behind an electrical transformer with an out-of-control, Hawaiian shirt-wearing panda bear–two pistols raised in a threatening display of firepower–would get the bee line straight to heaven, no judgement from above. Whether these particular stenciled artifacts do that for their creators, we don’t know–but we’re cheering for you.

graffiti stencils of skull and crossbones and pig heads on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

skull & crossbones/pig heads, Bloomfield

stencil image of person cradling a bomb painted on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

stop worrying and love the bomb, Bloomfield


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_Providence

Step Beat: Talking Missed Connections and Mis.Steps with Ms. Steps

bent street sign for the intersection of Lappe Lane and Shirls Street with downtown Pittsburgh in the distance

Only the street sign remains: where Lappe Lane used to end at Shirls Street, Spring Hill

Lappe Lane is one of the more fascinating throughways you’re likely to travel. Roughly equal parts city steps, paved road, and (non-existent) “paper street,” Lappe begins down in Spring Garden and then runs straight up and over the hill, back down the other side, through a cemetery (though you wouldn’t know it), and just keeps going.

If you like hiking the steps, there’s a decent chance you’ve already climbed Lappe Lane’s lower flights where the stairs intersect Spring Garden Ave. or Goehring Street and continue up to Yetta and St. John’s Cemetery at the top of the hill. These early sections offer great options to what entry-level step trekkers are after–steep vertical ascents, great city views, kooky between-house catwalks, and lots of nice here-to-theres with alternate options to get back down the hill.

Even so, you’ve probably never made it up here, where we are, at the very end. And that’s because–like some twisted Zen koan–even where Lappe Lane finally ends, it doesn’t actually go there.

hillside with staircase overgrown with weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Lappe Lane, from South Side Ave. to Fabyan Street, Spring Hill

Laura Zurowski has an ambitious goal: visit and document every one of Pittsburgh’s seven hundred and thirty-nine (known) sets of public steps. As if all the navigating, stair-climbing, and list-checking-off weren’t enough, Zurowski’s Mis.Steps project gets even more complicated. No mere exercise/sight-seeing venture, each and every steps visit is followed by an additional mixed media exploration via old-school/pre-digital instant photography, short prose, colored sidewalk chalk, print-making, and final distribution via the computer Internet.

We’ll get to all this. Today, though, we’re just trying to locate the very last two flights of Lappe Lane, at the far north end of Spring Hill.

woman taking photograph of weed-covered set of public stairs in Pittsburgh, PA

In the weeds: Laura Zurowski with her Polaroid Spectra 2 camera

“Pittsburgh chose me,” Zurowski says of her relocation from Providence, by-way-of upstate New York. The decision came six years ago alongside the desire to own a home in a place she could pursue more creative projects. “I asked myself, ‘What do I want life to be?’ and the answer was that I wanted to be open to ideas; to have a more robust, creative existence.”

The interest in the city steps only came some time after the move. Seeing the volume of empty houses in Pittsburgh was new, startling, and inspirational–but also melancholy. “Every one of those (abandoned) homes contained people’s lives, so seeing them empty is really sad,” Zurowski says, “With the steps–even if they’re in bad condition–I never feel sad like I do with empty houses.”

That, coupled with Bob Regan’s Orbit essential The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City (The Local History Company, 2004) was enough to send Zurowski on her mission.

woman marking public steps with sidewalk chalk

Chalk it up: Zurowski tags another completed set of steps with a Polaroid-sized chalk square.

We see one small boarded-up home, but for the most part, the houses on this block all appear both lived-in and loved. Lappe Lane’s thirty-or-so steps starting from South Side Ave. [Mis.Steps Trip #109] are easy enough to spot. There is no street sign at this intersection, but a familiar pair of red-brown handrails reaches out of the hillside and right down to the edge of the quiet residential road.

But try walking up these stairs and you’re quickly ensnared in wild jumble of weedy overgrowth, thorny bramble, and whatever those plants are that leave prickly stickers on your socks and pant legs. Even half-way up the short flight, it’s obvious you’ll not be going far. One of the uphill homeowners has–perhaps, illegally–built an elaborate A-frame treehouse directly blocking the public right-of-way. Even if someone wanted to, no one’s going anywhere on these steps.

Polaroid photo of overgrown city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Trip #109: Lappe Lane – S. Side Ave. Polaroid [photo: Laura Zurowski]

Zurowski fights her way through the thicket of tall grass, up past the first plateau, and on until nearly swallowed by the plant kingdom. There’s a shrugged acceptance this is far as these particular steps will allow, an untangling from the jaggers, careful descent back to the landing, and then hands dart into the backpack for the Polaroid camera. The single picture–there is only one per set of steps–is taken in an instant.

“My friend who’s a photographer said, ‘You’re going to have a really hard time coming up with 739 ways to take pictures of stairs’,” Zurowski says, “And it would be hard if they were all the same–but I haven’t come across two sets that look alike.”

“I look at the Polaroid [photos] like they’re portraits of people,” Zurowski continues, “If I were going to give human-like qualities to the steps, what would they be like? Hopefully the Polaroid captures the essence of what each flight of steps is all about.”

Polaroid photo of public staircase with trees and house behind

Late summer scene: Polaroid from Trip #61 – Harpster Street, Oct. 2017, Troy Hill [photo: Laura Zurowski]

The instant photograph is ejected from the camera, rested on a stair tread, and then the journals come out. There are two of them: one for “field notes”; the other, narrative impressions. With each visit, Zurowski includes a short meditation on the scene, which will be used later on.

Zurowski scratches a rough square, just about the size of a Polaroid picture, with sidewalk chalk on one of the stair risers. Mis.Steps super fans are undoubtedly taking selfies with chalk squares around town right now. Finally, the iPhone is used to snap one last picture summing up the whole scene.

With that, we’re on to Trip #110–the very end of Lappe Lane, just up the hill from where we are now. Here, Zurowski will do it all over again, but, just like every other one of those 739 sets of steps, this one is completely different from the one we just saw. For one, there aren’t any steps here (anymore).

autumn leaves on long set of public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

A blast of autumn past: Mis.Steps summary photo (including Polaroid and chalk square) from Trip #68 – Basin Street, Troy Hill/Spring Garden, Oct. 2017 [photo: Laura Zurowski]

That’s a lot of process–but it ain’t over yet! Back home, Zurowski completes the cycle with the publishing of each Mis.Steps adventure every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The narrative is honed, the Polaroid digitized, and the pairing of image + words goes out to the world via the Mis.Steps’ blog, Instagram, and Craig’s List “Missed Connections” page. That’s right: between “Kinky Dom Roleplay – m4m (Canonsburg)” and “Thanks for the hot time – m4m (McKeesport)” there’s a little story and photo about listening to birdsongs on the Morningside Avenue steps.

Risograph print of a Polaroid photo showing public stairs with a woman leaning on handrail

#20 Diulius Way, Central Oakland. Risograph print by Jimmy Riordan.

I know what you’re thinking: All this sounds great, but there’s nothing to hang on my wall or swap with friends! That’s where you’re sorely mistaken. Conveniently, Mis.Steps has taken the whole project out of the aether and fed it through a 1980s-era technology at the hands of Braddock printer Jimmy Riordan.

The result is a hard copy series of “trading cards” that further abstract the original murky Polaroid into ghostly, high-contrast 3-color art prints. In addition to the photographic image, the cards contain the Mis.Steps index number, street and neighborhood names, location, step count, and the city’s construction date (if known) on the front and the narrative text on the back. Card collections are available from the Mis.Steps website and Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill.

collage of nine Risograph prints made from Laura Zukowski's steps photos

No two alike: various Mis.Steps Polaroid-sized Risograph trading cards printed by Jimmy Riordan

If it’s not obvious yet, Laura Zurowski really loves Pittsburgh’s city steps–Orbit readers know we share an opinion on this matter. “If there’s an underlying goal,” Zurowski says of the Mis.Steps project, “It’s to get people to visit the stairs. I’d like to encourage people to look around, to check out other parts of the city, and to become connected with their neighborhoods.” We couldn’t agree more.

woman at top of long set of public stairs looking at a view of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Route with a view: Zurowski at the top of the Vinial Street steps, part of the “Spring Garden Stair Stepping” event, Troy Hill

Still not enough Mis.Steps for you? Well, you’re in luck. Zurowski has teamed up with Threadbare Cider for a series of combined guided city step hikes and cider house tours/tastings dubbed Spring Garden Stair Stepping (and Cider Sipping). You’re probably too late for today’s kick off hike–and it sold out way ahead of time anyway–but there will be a couple more chances with repeat events April 15 and May 20.