They leapt right out, wheels in full motion, from a bicycle seat all the way across the river. There, beneath the on-ramp to the Fort Duquesne Bridge, along the thick concrete barrier walls by Gateway Center, stretches a new(ish) blocks-long mural (or series of murals, whichever way you see it). Even from a significant distance and shaded by the ramp structure above, the painting reads as a great collection of wild flora. It begged for further investigation so we legged it up over the bridge, around the park, and down to the river’s edge.
Pittsburgh Orbit has spilled its share of virtual ink looking backwards. We’ve devoted an entire series of “Orbit obits” to things that aren’t there any more and when you fetishize ghost houses and ghost signs and graffiti as much as we do, well, you’re not really thinking about your future.
So we thought we’d start 2016 off right with a fresh-faced forward-looking story on something new to us and nearly brand new to Pittsburgh: this terrific blocks-long series of murals decorating the Allegheny side of the downtown riverwalk.
The murals are actually half a year old at this point, making this blogger wonder where the hell was I? Though he’s bragging about eagle-eying the paintings on this ride, he had to have been down this stretch of riverbank dozens of times without ever seeing them, nor did we catch any coverage in the local news last summer. So let this post be another reminder to get out there and keep the peepers scanning!
Though entirely uncredited at the site (as far as I could tell), The Orbit can Google with the best of them. The giant piece is the vision of artist Kim Beck and titled Adjutant (a fancy word pulled from a Henry David Thoreau quote). A team of some 150 volunteers organized by Riverlife Pittsburgh executed the work during the Three Rivers Arts Festival last June. Two blog posts on the Riverlife site give all the pertinent background and details [see links below].
If you ever used this section of the riverwalk–the stretch that runs between the northeast corner of Point State Park and the slender Allegheny Riverfront Park that picks up around the Clemente (née Sixth Street) Bridge–you don’t likely remember it for its charms. The passageway was perfectly utile and never felt dangerous (at least in daylight), but walking or bicycling through always seemed like traveling where one wasn’t supposed to–fairly lawless and designed to dock giant barges, not facilitate pedestrian traffic. Corners under the bridge often contained the sleeping bags, tarps, and cardboard boxes of the population that lived down there. Discarded liquor bottles, beer cans, and snack wrappers pointed to late night boozers and early morning fishermen who hung out under its private, protected shelter.
So the project to create the 850-foot (approximately three to four city blocks) mural is both a very welcome beautification of an extremely cold, hard, and dark urban space and also seems to be a wholesale cleanup effort to make the passageway a truly inviting link between the parks on either end.
Not only was this stretch scrubbed for the mural’s creation during the arts festival, but it amazingly seems to have stayed that way some six months on. The pedestrian section of the walk is remarkably litter-free and either Pittsburgh’s taggers have decided to leave these walls alone or the city’s graffiti removal crew does spot-on repair work (I’d bank on the former).
That’s all great, but “cleaning up” part of a city is always a loaded term–especially when it involves human beings. As nice and inviting as the new space is, we can’t help but think about those who were displaced (we assume?) in its transition. We’ve noticed homeless camps pushing farther out from town in a way that suggests you have to go that far to not get hassled by the man. We inadvertently ran into one such group in the Christmas Under the Bridge piece a couple weeks back.
The murals are large-scale depictions of common weeds that appear along Pittsburgh’s riverbanks, rendered in the lean palette of black, white, and a couple shades of gray. Artist Kim Beck informed us that the palette was dictated by the commissioning agency. They look great, but we can’t help but think the addition of some real color would warm the space up considerably and “pop” dramatically against the drab surroundings. That said, we’ll take what we can get, and this is a big improvement on the visual space.
Pittsburgh Orbit’s Pennsylvania wildlife consultant and resident deep woodsman Tim Tomon came down from the trees long enough to identify dandelion, goldenrod, mulberry, pearly everlasting, thistle, wild peppergrass, and wood sorrel among the silhouetted weeds.
Beck’s re-casting of weeds as giant expressions of beauty is certainly an exciting and inviting vision for this just-recently prettified stretch of town. The bright green of the real weeds that peek out from the cracks between foot surface and retaining wall are the only elements of color one sees (save for the bright yellow bridge deck above). Both serve as sweet reminders that a “weed” is purely a situational notion. These all look pretty good to me.
- “Mayor Peduto, Riverlife announce public art project for downtown riverfront”, Riverlife Pittsburgh, http://www.riverlifepgh.org/blog/mayor_peduto_riverlife_announce_public_art_project_for_downtown_riverfront/
- “Watch the #TBD mural grow under the Fort Duquesne Bridge”, Riverlife Pittsburgh, http://www.riverlifepgh.org/blog/watch_the_tbd_mural_grow_under_the_fort_duquesne_bridge/