Valentino and reader Linda Smith both turned in some terrific found hearts for our Valentine’s Day challenge. Graffiti, murals, street art, nature, and even that plague of public works crews: the “love lock”–they’re all there. To the rest of you slackers: show a little love next time!
It’s heart season–pink and red, gooey and sugary, frilly and fragrant. Yes, Valentine’s Day is upon us again. Dropped strategically at the apex of winter blahs and spaced weeks–months even–from the next closest chocolate-and-champagne retail opportunity, we know it’s here because it’d be a gray ghost town without it.
Even as cynical as this “holiday” can feel, love–in all its many forms–is a wonderful thing to be celebrated. Whether or not Cupid is out to get you or you’re just hanging with the philias at the Love Moose, The Orbit has collected a season’s worth of found-on-the-street hearts. Consider them our Valentine to you.
I. The Return of the East End Dangler
Things had gone quiet on Centre Avenue. Spring turned to summer, and then summer rolled over to autumn with nary a bustle in our hedgerow. It was enough to make the few who experienced it believe the whole thing had been a strange dream.
Cue: soft focus and shimmering harp glissando. A line of fish, each one tied to the next by a length of twine knotted around their tail fins. The little garlands, suspended from branches of mid-sized street trees, gently swaying in the breeze like decorations for a strange holiday. Did that really happen?
Oh yes, it was for real–and serious as a heart attack. Even more, after an apparent six- to ten-month dormancy, this dang-là vu is happening all over again. The East End Dangler is back–and this time, he or she isn’t fooling around*.
We know these things about The East End Dangler:
- The Dangler has a ready supply of small children’s toys and decorative plastic fruit.
- The Dangler regularly traffics on upper Centre Avenue in East Liberty (nearish Whole Foods).
- The Dangler loves all-you-can-eat Asian seafood buffets.
That’s about it.
To catch you up: starting in 2017, Orbit staff began to notice strands of toys hanging from the limbs of street trees in East Liberty. What first felt like a one-off goofy prank soon revealed itself as full-on, serial hanging-around. We’ll not rehash the whole series of events here, but that initial story unwound in “Something Fishy: Angling for the East End Dangler” [Pittsburgh Orbit, May 13, 2018].
As mentioned in the intro, a quiet period followed this initial rush of dangling–too quiet, as the cliché goes. Indeed, after some period of months Orbit beat reporters spotted brand new dangles in the same approximate locations starting up in the late fall.
In an attempt to smoke out the assailant, the crew settled in for that most grueling part of detective work: the stake out. Between the salt-and-pepper squid and wood ear mushrooms, “crazy roll” sushi and cheese wontons, kielbasa and garlic bread, all eyes were trained on the handful of trees just above Hokkaido Seafood Buffet’s parking lot on Browns Hill Road. Why, assuming we weren’t up re-loading another platter of pork shumai and seaweed salad, cotton candy ice cream and banana pudding, the focus was unrelenting. But–unlike the case of heartburn that hit a little later that afternoon–The Dangler didn’t show.
We do see some new media this time around–The Dangler has moved on from a strict palette of Happy Meal toys and rubber fish to now including decorative plastic fruit. All other signatures are entirely consistent.
II. The Hunt for The Dangler
Not content to just sit on our collective keister while a mad prankster was stringing up their next trophies, we decided to send The Dangler a little message.
Borrowing from our own arsenal of cast-off Hot Wheels and sandbox-encrusted earth movers, co-assistant to the mailroom intern Lee baited the hook by assembling his own strings of pearls. These were taken to the same general batch of street trees along high Centre Ave. and placed for maximum effect to catch The Dangler’s attention.
And then we waited.
Now, we know correlation is not causation, but let’s just say we set a trap…and The Dangler stepped in it. Sure enough, the ol’ tree stringer came a-runnin’ as if mom or dad had served up supper in the sycamores of Danglerville. Or, at least, the R.S.V.P. we mailed out on a whim was answered with a bouquet of plastic grapes hung high in the branches at Centre & South Euclid.
The Dangler also went on to bomb several more trees in the same pair of previous locations. Our serve was returned with a volley that could only be read as a challenge. Well played, Dangler.
III. A New Clue?
Just as it’s naive to assume our solar system is the only one in the universe sustaining life, we should sooner hand over our quasi-journalistic credentials than think we’ve cornered every possible dangle. No, Pittsburgh is a big city–at least, in terms of square miles and tree coverage–the idea that unassisted Orbit staff would have just randomly tripped across the only two locations of serial dangling would be foolish. The Dangler must have struck elsewhere, right?
That seems not only plausible, but a sure thing. However, if true, the dangles remain in tree limbs so far un-spotted.
That may have changed with one additional clue at the beginning of this month. The statue of William Shakespeare in front of the combined Carnegie Music Hall/Library in Oakland was updated to include a single red plastic apple, hanging from The Bard’s neck.
It is absolutely not The Dangler’s style to suspend single objects from public statuary. And yet, there are enough obvious similarities here to send us into a certified tizzy. Is this the work of a brazen copycat? Coincidental pranksterism? Or has The Dangler decided to taunt his victims in an obvious act to goad us into making an impulsive mistake?
Pittsburgh Orbit cannot answer these questions…yet. But Dangler, if you’re reading this, know that we’re onto you like a strand of fish in a street gingko. We’re putting the pieces together and we’ll not rest until your dangling ways are understood.
If you have any additional information on The East End Dangler or other dangled targets, please contact our anonymous tip line. We need all the help we can get on this important case.
* Actually, he or she probably is fooling around.
When you start collecting sidewalk stamps, you can bag all of Pittsburgh’s greatest hits in one decent-sized stroll through any neighborhood: Ciriello, Santo, and Spano, Baleno, Scotti, and Pucciarelli. Trust me: you’ll pick these up right away, without even really trying.
Those guys, of course, are just the B-team. If you can make it down any residential block without stepping over a DiBucci–the Elvis, Beatles, and Micheal Jackson of local masonry*–you’ve found a rare, naked block, indeed.
Start to take a few more walks, look at little farther afield, and you’ll get into the hack-lineup album tracks: Didiano, Regan, Langell, and Colucci. These are great pick-ups, but not so unique that a person needs to, you know, lose it over their first Lucente. Relax, kid–you’ll see another.
Here at the Orbit, we’ve been counting stamps for a couple years now, and we’re down to the deep cuts. These are the serious outtakes, rarities, and B-sides for only the hardest of core collectors. We’re talking live bootlegs sold in the parking lot from the trunk of a LeBaron after the show.
The sidewalk stamps included in today’s post are mason’s markers that we’ve only spotted one–and only one–extant tag for. That doesn’t mean this example is the only one that exists, but with the amount of staring at the pavement we’ve done over the last couple years, we can tell you they’re rare. Enjoy.
* There are so many varieties of the DiBucci stamp/plaque that co-assistant to the cub reporter Lee Floyd has suggested trying to collect all the permutations. This is a journey we believe even the most dedicated of Orbit readers may not follow us on. That said, there are more ways to measure success than with web analytics, so perhaps we’ll go down that road, err…sidewalk, alone.
The little stars are made from glitter and felt, plastic and wood, popsicle sticks and laminated paper. They’re tied to the tiniest branches of street trees with ribbon, wire, and bailing twine; they rest lazily in boxwood hedges. The stars commune with other memorials left on handrails and steps, safety gates, and police barricades.
Overwhelmingly, though, each of the small totems–a six-pointed Star of David with a heart at its center–has been knit or crocheted by hand and attached to utility poles throughout central Squirrel Hill. When you pass down Wilkins or Shady, Forbes or Negley, you’ll not miss the stars fluttering–dancing, even–in the breeze.
October 27, 2018 may well go down as Pittsburgh’s 9/11–the remember-exactly-where-you-were date for a generation’s most horrific local atrocity. Me, I was in Bellevue, dressed in a stupid outfit, holding a trombone, and standing in the cold rain at the tail end of the borough’s Halloween parade.
The relentless weather that morning pretty much kept all of the expected crowd home, leaving just us obligated parade marchers to get the news all at the same point. I remember feeling useless and helpless–milling around on the vacant, closed-to-traffic main drag before heading home without even saying goodbye.
By now, America has sadly gotten plenty of practice grieving for the victims of mass shootings and violent hate crimes. Even if you didn’t make it up to the Tree of Life synagogue in the days following the massacre, you know what the outside scene inevitably looked like. The victims here were all adults–so it didn’t feature quite so many teddy bears as your, yes, average school shooting–but the scene of an overflowing buffet of flowers and personal notes, photographs and mementos set against protective barriers and caution tape was all there.
In the two months since the Tree of Life shooting, most of these memorials have been relocated. But by mid-November a second-wave tribute–beautiful in its decentralization, variety, and spirit–arrived throughout pedestrian Squirrel Hill.
Right now, thousands of handmade Stars of David decorate nondescript public spaces and street-facing hedges and gates in the neighborhood. They radiate out from the Tree of Life synagogue and populate Squirrel Hill’s business district along Forbes and Murray Aves.
The stars are the work of an impromptu online group called Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh, started by two “craftivists,” Hinda Mandell and Ellen Dominus Broude, both from separate parts of Upstate New York. The Post-Gazette has an article and short video detailing that effort.
Likely, most of those who experience the Tree of Life stars will only see them as brief flashes of color, twiddling in the breeze through the passenger-side window–their forms may not even be recognizable at any speed. The Orbit recommends ditching the car and taking a long contemplative walk around middle Squirrel Hill’s wide streets as the best way to inhabit the diffuse tribute.
Perhaps it should be no surprise but the totality of the experience is incredibly moving. The first, gut reaction to these handmade, intersected symbols of Judaism and love, sent from supportive crafters from around the world, is the most obvious.
“There is more good in the world than evil,” says Ms. Broude in the P-G video, “An assault against one is an assault against all.” That message–something terrible happened here, but there is way more love than hate in the world–comes though loud and clear, ringing out from the branches and telephone poles.
But it doesn’t stop there. So many of the knit stars–hung from a single point, stretched out by gravity, and curled in the weather–end up taking on unexpected anthropomorphic qualities. [Yes, there is one extra appendage in this representation.] The little bodies appear alternately huddled and triumphant, at rest and in play, lifted and weightless in the wind.
This atheist goy had to Google “Jewish belief in an afterlife.” While the religion isn’t nearly as hung up on the notion of heaven as Christianity–preferring instead to value and emphasize life here on earth–it’s also not without its post-mortal coil fallback options. This description, from the Chabad site, seems to sum up the philosophy:
There isn’t anything after life, because Jews believe that life never ends. It just goes higher and higher. In the afterlife, the soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to her source than ever before.
Sure, it was a windy day when we visited and took these photos, but the rapturous lifting of these little forms–literally higher and higher off of their twig and twine moorings, flying up towards the sun–felt like liberation. Hopefully, for the victims, family, and friends of the Tree of Life shooting, they’ll find some peace in this beautiful expression of love.
 … and supposedly elsewhere. (But we’ve only seen them in Squirrel Hill.)
 Organizers estimate “around 2000” stars. Source: https://www.post-gazette.com/news/faith-religion/2018/11/17/Jewish-Stars-of-David-Tree-of-Life-Pittsburgh-volunteers-knit-crochet-twelve-countries-crafts-facebook/stories/201811170055
Keep on truckin’. The ’60s-era catch phrase of hippie can-do optimism was popularized by R. Crumb’s iconic cartoon of an easy-striding, big-shoed dude. Here, a sticker that’s appropriated both the slogan and image decorates the side panel of a model 18-wheeler. The little big rig has been put on display in a street-level front window of an Upper Lawrenceville row house.
Though it doesn’t explicitly say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, with a backdrop of picturesque snow-covered small town buildings, circled by carolers and snow people, colored lights and a tiny train, it’s impossible not to read the truck’s red cab as a modern update to Santa’s sleigh–those 400 horses a well-deserved upgrade to yesteryear’s eight tiny reindeer. Forget that other Snowman, if anyone’s got a long way to go and a short time to get there, it’s Ol’ Saint Nick on his yearly delivery run.
Christmas. For some, as the song goes, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year” full of decadent–if generally wholesome–holiday parties, comforting tradition, and good cheer. To others, Christmas is a loathsome six weeks of commercialized sentimentality, forced mirth, obligation, and disappointment.
Here at The Orbit, we fall somewhere in the middle. I’ll admit it: I like the smell of a real spruce tree and the warm glow of colored lights; time off to do jigsaw puzzles, visit with friends, and sleep late; the collective goofiness of stuffed antlers added to minivan rooftops, white elephant gift exchanges, and a full movie house crowd gleefully roaring at Hans Gruber’s entrance in Die Hard.
But then there’s the dark side. The first time those jing-jing-jingling tunes preempt Casey Kasem on oldies radio–absurdly starting before Thanksgiving–it invokes such crushing, foreboding dread that it makes the whole holiday almost not worth it. Almost.
Love it or hate it, Christmas 2018 is over. But you wouldn’t know that from the residential streets in Lawrenceville. Say what you want about the neighborhood’s gentrification, but the Christmas display scene was (and still is) earnest and ample. Walk down any block and it can feel like every other house has got something up for the holiday: garlands on stoop railings, Santas on the front steps, and–most of all–decorations in the big front street-facing windows.
When you live in a row house–and I’m speaking from a couple decades of experience here–you get used to people looking directly into your life. It’s not weird or creepy or nebby–pedestrians and neighbors just can’t help but look in when the sidewalk is mere feet–often inches–from the front of the house.
That so many people end up using their street-facing windows as makeshift display cases for curated collections of figurines and little artworks, sports fandom and tchotchkes is perhaps something we could expect. But when our friends and neighbors orient their collections outward–specifically for the enjoyment of the world passing by on the sidewalk–well, that’s a beautiful thing and one that should not be taken idly. [Side note: Kirsten Ervin wrote a whole piece on this subject for Pittsburgh Orbit back in 2015.]
One of the great pleasures of a daily constitutional around the neighborhood is getting to watch these window displays grow and evolve, get put away for the year and replaced in anticipation of the next turn of the calendar. Soon enough, the cotton-laden carolers and dangling snowflakes will be packed away to make room for Valentine’s Day hearts, St. Patrick’s clovers, Easter eggs and bunnies.
If it’s not obvious, we went a little nutso with the Christmas window shopping this year–and, believe me, there are plenty more where these came from. This weekend is likely your last decent chance to catch any of these until the next Christmas season begins. Get out and walk around, take in what you can.
Anyway, Merry Christmas! (again)
Renowned veterinary doctor Theodore Nugent said it best: “I don’t know where they come from, but they sure do come.” Dr. The Nuge was speaking to a particular feline ailment, but he may as well have been consulting on web metrics.
‘Tis the season for reflection, year-end lists, and sitting on one’s keister instead of hitting the bricks in pursuit of new content. This is that one time per annum when we open the blogging master console and crunch the numbers on what people were actually reading this year.
It turns out that every single day we still get dozens of visitors coming in to read the years-old stories of Clairton’s ghost neighborhood (2017) and the wacky-terrifying antics of Bill Ansell and his Christmas cul-de-sac of nightmares (2016). Somebody from Reddit linked to our Twin Sycamores of Sheraden story (2015) for a page view spike we’ll likely never experience again.
These three non-2018 stories were our most-read of the year. So this time around we’re just going to go with the top articles that were actually published in the last twelve months. We’ll follow that up with our “staff picks” of favorite sleeper posts that showed up in the lower reaches of the list, but we believe deserve another chance at your eyeballs.
The Orbit will be off next weekend, so happy holidays and we’ll see you in 2019.
1. The People’s Poet: Billie Nardozzi (Jan. 28)
Rachel Ann Bovier aka Billie Nardozzi aka Billy Nardozzi (photo, top) came into our lives more than a decade ago via the ingeniously-D.I.Y. publishing method of running weekly poems in the Post-Gazette’s classified ads. Lately she/he [Bovier/Nardozzi: “I’m still figuring that out.”] has gone even more big time–quite literally–with a full-size billboard that you can’t miss on Bigelow Boulevard. Pittsburgh noticed.
2. Looking for a Lost Little Italy in Larimer (Sept. 23)
From a throwaway line in the movie Striking Distance (see following item), Dennis Farina kicked this Medigan’s gul into a block-by-block, alley-by-alley trolling through Larimer looking for any traces of what was once Pittsburgh’s largest “Little Italy.” The short version: there ain’t much left. But it was a lot of fun looking, researching, speculating, and hearing the community’s feedback.
It was just about this time last year–an icy cold New Year’s Day, if this blogger recalls–when the idea came to retrace the Striking Distance “Take Bigelow” chase scene as a prompt for a then-and-now look at two views of Pittsburgh, separated by 25 years. Then we realized that to do it justice, we’d need to wait half a year until the trees were at full foliage and sun was out so that we could actually compare apples to apples.
No matter. That just led the dedicated Orbit staff to a springtime of repeated viewings of the library’s DVD, triangulating locations, and wondering what Jo Christman ever saw in John Hardy. Then Mario Zucca and his amazing original illustrations came into our lives. ‘Nuf said.
4. Heavy Living: Cement City, Donora (May 6)
Little Donora, 30 miles south-southeast/upriver from Pittsburgh, has had a rough run. The mills shut down a decade or more before its Mon Valley peers and it’s now remembered primarily for the deadly smog of 1948–an environmental disaster so severe it was a major factor in the formation of the E.P.A. [This history is all covered in the terrific Donora Smog Museum.]
But Donora has a fascinating history outside of air pollution and there is a small, but committed, group of local historians and preservationists who work hard to let you know about it.
There’s nowhere better to put those pieces together than Cement City–a retro-futurist development on the south side of town. The neighborhood was built just about a hundred years ago on technology pushed by Thomas Edison who saw poured-in-place concrete housing as the vision of the future. It didn’t turn out that way, but Donora still ended up with a great little neighborhood.
If you’ve never heard of Presston, you’re not alone. The little one-way-in/one-way-out neighborhood is just about as cut off from the world as a place could possibly be and still see the skyline of a (semi-)major U.S. city.
There are inevitably many great stories from this edge of McKees Rocks [Presstonians: we’re just waiting for the invitation!] but last month we dug into an old favorite: front yard Marys. Presston has just about as many–house for house–as anywhere we’ve been.
To live in Western Pennsylvania and not make the trip up to Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day–at least once–is a crying shame. The yearly event is as wholesome as they come and way goofier than we could have predicted. Orbit staff were there for the whole thing–2:00 AM to daybreak–and came away with an entirely new appreciation for groundhog fashion, “hog heads,” and the collective defiance of winter.
That this story–with some fine writing and fun pictures–didn’t get more attention was a bummer. Maybe people were just groundhogged-out by the following weekend. Now, we’re just in time to get the hype machine going for GHD ’19, so take this op to catch up.
There was a period in the early spring when it was all ex-(movie) theaters: combing through historical maps, cruising the Cinema Treasures site, mentally reconstructing radically-altered façades. That was all in the service of a planned series on what’s happened to all the old movie houses that used to line the commercial drags of every decent-sized town in America.
We got as far as the recently-closed theaters we could still remember from the 1990s–places like the old Plaza in Bloomfield and Cinema 4 in Dormont, Bellevue’s dirty double-screen and the street-straddling pair of Cheswick theaters. Hopefully we’ll get back to this series–heck, we’ll make it a resolution!–as there are just a ton of them out there.
Clint Burton was a teenager in the mid-1970s when Pittsburgh had its own squad representing the short-lived World Team Tennis league. He was there on the sidelines, hired by his uncle to be the team’s stats guy, when the Triangles won the league championship in 1975.
Clint’s first-hand account of seat-of-the-pants sports management in a fledgling league, a wide-eyed teenager hanging-out with world-famous sports stars, and filing game recaps to Super-Tiebreaker magazine is a great story we were very proud to tell.
Who takes the severed lid from a tin can, paints a tiny work of art on it, and then tacks that piece to a utility pole for public consumption? Why, angels must do it, right? And what do these haloed Robin Hoods choose as their subject? Devils!
O.K., the artist or artists involved in this particular genre of pole art may or may not be either divine or particularly pure of thought, but they sure do create interesting little specimens that make for a wonderful ongoing egg hunt.
Incisor Edition: Dental Art (Aug. 5)
If you haven’t been paying attention, you might have missed just how many giant teeth are out there in front of Pittsburgh’s–and the rest of America’s–dentists, orthopedists, and oral surgeons.
It’s a strange phenomenon that this one medical field chooses to advertise itself with large–often 3-dimensional–renderings of the body part to-be-worked-upon. You don’t see a similar number of outsized eyeballs, spines, feet, ears, noses, and/or throats. There is so much great dental art, we’re already most of the way to a sequel. Hopefully, that’ll give you something to look forward to in the new year.