Down Under: The Bloomfield Bridge Troll

Silhouette of the Polish Hill troll, Pittsburgh, PA

Under the bridge, up in the sky. The Bloomfield Bridge Troll.

Every bridge should have a troll. Some may even deserve a couple.

It hadn’t ever occurred to this blogger that there was room for more than one of the creatures under any given bridge. That is, until he surveyed the fiefdom of The Bloomfield Bridge Troll. Down under that high span, on the steep incline of the Polish Hill side, it is obvious that there is room enough for neighboring Bloomfield to host their own troll to guard his or her side of the deep Skunk Hollow ravine in-between. The two “bridge buddies” may never even get to meet!

Boxy head with top hat of the Polish Hill troll, Pittsburgh, PA

Hard-headed, but well-dressed. The Bloomfield Bridge Troll in top hat.

Perhaps every bridge having its own troll is a little fanciful. Who’d want to get stuck under one of those featureless highway overpasses with a busy interstate rushing by and the only decoration being the reliable Trust Jesus graffiti? Not this bridge-under-hanger-outer, I can tell you that.

On the opposite end, consider some little footbridge over a culvert or babbling brook–no troll with any self-respect is going to hole-up in a hovel s/he can’t even stand upright in.

The Polish Hill troll and concrete support for the Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

The Bloomfield Bridge Troll and concrete bridge support, decoration by paint pellets

The Bloomfield Bridge is no great architectural marvel, but its span is so long and its gulf so deep that those with a fear of heights (ahem) can get a little nauseous just looking down on the long walk over it. From the bridge deck you can see sights in all directions: tall buildings downtown, The Strip District, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Schenley Heights, Oakland’s Cathedral of Learning.

Under the bridge is just as interesting: there are train tracks in heavy use, the East busway, and an assortment of the old industry buildings that dot the single road, which amazingly has three names*. It’s hard to get lost in a place that’s one-way-in/one-way-out, but Skunk Hollow will do its best to accommodate.

The Polish Hill troll with Bloomfield visible in the distance, Pittsburgh, PA

A troll’s eye view of Bloomfield across Skunk Hollow

Pittsburgh famously calls itself the “City of Bridges,” with varying counts putting us at one of the top four in total quantity for the world**. Given that we have between 446 and 2000 bridges, depending on who’s counting–and how–it stands to reason that we’d have an enormous troll population.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Aside from the uninspired Troll’s Restaurant*** (not quite under the 31st Street Bridge on Washington’s Landing), the Bloomfield Bridge Troll is the only one this blogger has encountered thusfar.

Cut out steel placard on the Polish Hill troll's concrete pedestal, Pittsburgh, PA

Prescription: Cisko. Steel placard on the troll’s pedestal.

In any case, hats off to whomever fabricated and installed the iron and/or steel Bloomfield Bridge Troll–an adjacent cut steel placard with the name “Cisko” may be a clue to that. With its jaunty chapeau, skeletal rib cage, defiant stogie, and drink-holder left hand (it was grasping a full water bottle when we visited–who says trolls only want to party?), the troll is a welcome surprise addition to always-mysterious Polish Hill.


* Lorigan Street > Neville Street > Sassafras Street.
** This is a major issue of debate among the bridge-counting set. Other cities vying for the title of most bridges include Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Venice.
*** Troll’s also has the bizarre status of being one of only a handful of dining establishments to actually take advantage of a position on one of the rivers.

Up in Smoke: Ex-Snack Shops

mural of soft-serve ice cream cones in colorful silhouette, former Tastee Queen, Ambridge, PA

Tastee Queen, Ambridge

Scene: The freezer aisle at the Lawrenceville Shop’n’Save, 9:30 on a recent Sunday evening. An enormous man is paused, his buggy half-full with potato chips, Cheez Doodles, canned chili, two-liter pop bottles, the makings for deli sandwiches–there’s not a fruit or vegetable in sight. He’s dressed in the kind of long short pants that big men often wear and a t-shirt in the Rastafarian red/green/black/gold color scheme featuring a prominent marijuana leaf and the single word STONED. The man is engaged in a cell phone conversation communicating ice cream flavors to an associate: “They got rocky road, they got butter pecan, they got moose tracks, they got strawberry, they got double chocolate…”

former Coney Island Convenience store, McKeesport, PA

Coney Island Convenience, McKeesport

As fascinating as this was (would this guy keep naming flavors all the way down to the Ben & Jerry’s section? would the team consider sherbet, ice milk, and/or frozen yogurt? how about the add-ons: chocolate sauce, nuts, whipped-cream? what would the final decision be?) this eves-dropper can only pretend to peruse the Stouffer’s frozen dinners for so long–we needed to move along.

former Howze Corner Store, Wilkinsburg, PA

Howze Corner Store, Wilkinsburg

What’s a doobie smoker to do? Gone (for the most part) are the mom & pop corner convenience stores, replaced almost entirely by the one-two punch of supermarkets and gas & sips. Good luck finding a retailer with only one brand of potato chips or a single freezer for the ice cream. It’s a wonder we’re not all standing confused and on the help line right now trying to make an informed, intelligent decision on Funyuns vs. Fritos, Cheetos vs. Cheese Puffs, ridges vs. kettle-cooked. Somehow, we must all dig deep and make these most difficult of life’s decisions.

snack trailer with cartoon images and sign "Temporarily closed for remodeling"

unknown (snack trailer), Hill District

In central Lawrenceville, we lost our independent snack shop three or four years ago. Mrs. The Orbit always cites Star Discount* as the place where ladies of the evening could purchase undergarments and bingo freaks could stock up on daubers. Lottery tickets and cigarettes were likely paying the bills, but “Star’s” also carried Herr’s and Snyder’s chips and pretzels as well as Cotton Club pop. Everyone behind the counter was always smoking.

Star Discount was replaced by the trifecta of Row House Cinema, Smoke BBQ, and Bierport (née Atlas Beer)–all of which we’ve patronized and enjoyed–but even if they let you in the door, try getting a $1.99 bag of cheese puffs from Smoke!

former Haley's Market, Pittsburgh, PA

Haley’s Market, Lincoln

Growing up in southwest Virginia, the peaceful, gentle climb to Cascade Falls in the nearby national forest, followed by a celebratory post-hike soft-serve at Dairy Princess made for a fine afternoon. In collecting images for this story, it was nice to see the tradition of knock-off ice cream shops perpetuated in both Tastee Queen (Ambridge) and Tasty Queen (Bruceton Mills, West Virginia). Unfortunately, all three businesses seem to have met a similar fate**. At least we still have Tastee Queen’s glorious technicolor soft-serve silhouettes.

former Tasty Queen ice cream shop, Bruceton Mills, WV

Tasty Queen, Bruceton Mills, WV


* Star Discount would make a great Orbit obit, but we sadly never took the photographic record to do it justice.
** This blogger almost met an even more violent version of the same fate taking this photo of Tasty Queen.

Golden Babies: The Final Chapter?

golden baby hanging from electric line, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby #4 (aka “Clement Baby”)

Almost as soon as this blogger’s index finger migrated January’s More Golden Babies! post from “draft” to public record even more tips on the mysterious street art/prank started rolling in. Three of them, in fact, one right after the other. Another golden baby had been spotted just off Main Street in Bloomfield/Lawrenceville, a second over on The North Side, and yet a third down in the 10th Ward on Butler Street. That last one turned out to be duplicate report of Butler Baby (golden baby #3), but, as a famous realist–and entrée–once said, two out of three ain’t bad.

silhouette of baby doll dangling from electric line over row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden Baby #5 (aka “Sampsonia Baby”)

Oh, you can believe that chops were licked and hootenannies kicked into high gear to confirm these reports. Orbit readers who’ve already perused the included photographs will note that we were not let down in our pursuit.

Golden Baby #4 is (still) dangling from the electrical infrastructure on tiny Clement Way, just off Main Street, right next to The Shop and Liberty Beer. Golden Baby #5 was caught hanging loose in the Mexican War Streets on the very block where both The Mattress Factory and City of Asylum houses are. In both cases, the baby dolls seem to perfectly match their siblings: same gold paint, same white onesie, same dangle by the ankle.

The jump across the river for #5 was especially interesting as it meant our perpetrator(s) may be, you know, “city-wide,” rather than concentrated purely in the Penn and Butler stretches of the East End. How many more would there be? We’d just have to hang back, wait, and see what else turned up.

golden baby hanging from electric line over brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby, blue sky. Clement Baby

Well…the calendar turned from February to March, we ate a bunch of fried fish and mac & cheese, and now we’re half way into April and there’s been nary a peep from any more golden babies (or their spotters). The 1-800-ORBIT-ME hotline sits silent, phone bank operators idly twiddling their well-intentioned thumbs. We can’t get a grainy cell-phone baby photo tweeted at us to save our lives. Sigh.

Is this it? Is this the way it all goes down? If so, that’s O.K.–we had a good run. I’m tempted to say, like a famous minstrel–and heartbreaker–once did, don’t do me like that. But, you know, that ain’t how it is. No, Mr. or Ms. Golden Baby dangler, you did me pretty good. Yeah, you did The Orbit pretty darn good.

golden baby, electric lines, and sky, Pittsburgh, PA

Upside-down you’re turning me. Sampsonia Baby

The Sweet’N Lowdown: Three Theories on a Street Art Secret Stash

Tiny wooden picture frame containing a Sweet'n'Low packet

Street sweets

What makes a person frame a single Sweet’N Low packet and then hide the tiny objet d’art inside the metallic drain of an Oakland office building? Strange but true, The Orbit came across exactly one such exhibit earlier this week, on the side street face of one of Pitt’s off-campus buildings. Yes: conspiracy theorists are rampant, their evidence minimal, but the desire for truth is as strong as black coffee.

Theory: The framed packet as tribute to an artificial sweetening classic

This one comes from co-worker Rizzo, present at the discovery. I always say: if you want to know about something that pretends to be sweet, look no further than Rizzo. Sweet’N Low, though not the first artificial sweetener, owned that market for half a century. That’s not so true any more. Splenda, Equal, NutraSweet, Truvia, Sweet Leaf, and probably others, are all out there crowding the field. In Rizzo’s theory, the perpetrator has created a tiny tribute to that most famous saccharin-dextrose concoction whose time has come, wolves hopped-up on Splenda gathered at the door. One would hope for the honor of being memorialized in bronze and on public display, rather than hidden in a dingy side street hidey-hole, but if you’re Sweet’N Low, I guess you take what you can get.

Brick wall with bricks missing and metal opening containing tiny picture frame

A couple missing bricks and one secret hiding place

Theory: Sweet’N Low sachet as cruel “gotcha”

What if the tiny picture frame didn’t always contain a Sweet’N Low packet? How many works of fiction have placed stolen artwork in obscure secret stashes–often hidden in plain sight. Nothing quite gets the heart racing like a great heist film–cat burglars in berets and turtlenecks spiriting stolen canvases on thrilling guy wire runs between rooftops. In the best of these, the original owner of the artwork is always shown aghast the following morning with the discovery of the disappeared oil painting replaced by a cheap, comical substitute–the thief’s ultimate “you’ve been had.” Perhaps the tiny frame once contained a pocket Picasso or a miniature Miro, its present owner having slipped in the pink packet with a wink to let you know there’s no sugar here, but you can have one of these.

Craig Hall, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: Craig Hall, home of the secret stash of tiny street art

Theory: Art scavenger hunt prize gone missing

It’s only a couple weeks past Easter, and we’ve still got egg hunts on the membrane. What if a cabal of clever art-gamers decided to stage a city-wide scavenger hunt for tiny hidden art pieces, each one identified by its common wooden frame? Maybe the Sweet’N Low portrait is just one that got away, left behind unclaimed. Somewhere out there, there’s a participant laying awake at night, replaying the one missed clue: At Craig on Craig, at the base of the leg, lies something pink, and something sweet. That’s the treasure hunt this blogger wishes he’d been invited to. Sigh. Add another one to The Orbit‘s big list.

We may never know lowdown on the Sweet’N Low, but then again, who really wants to know what’s in that pink packet anyway? The taste is good enough…isn’t it?

(No Longer) In The Mood

Pressure Chemical, Pittsburgh, PA

Mood Indigo: Pressure Chemical’s Lawrenceville plant

The story was a little too good: little Pressure Chemical was the home of the mood ring–and they had a wall of the objects as mementos in the offices of their Lawrenceville plant. But, as sophisticated Orbit readers know, don’t believe everything you hear.

It turns out, though, that the story is half true–or, at least, partially true. Pressure Chemical was indeed integral in the production of the mood ring, that most iconic groovy fashion fad/accessory of the 1970s–and it’s one that’s still available today, unlike the pet rock.

close-up of green mood ring

Mood ring. Green is alternately “normal,” “active,” “romantic,” or “jealous,” depending on the chart. [photo: the Internet]

When we want answers, you can bet we get them. The Orbit staked-out Pressure Chemical’s Smallman Street building and weren’t leaving until we could go all the way to the top. O.K., we actually just got really lucky and CEO Larry Rosen happened to walk out the front door before we could even get to the buzzer. Even on his way to a meeting, Rosen was friendly and took the time to answer all of this blogger’s questions about Pressure Chemical’s involvement with the 1970s fad, the legend of the wall of mood rings, and the building’s most recognizable feature, its multicolor flowing stripe.

detail of stripes painted on Pressure Chemical's building, Pittsburgh, PA

You’d be happy too. Pressure Chemical’s smiling stripes.

Rosen confirmed that yes indeed, back in the 1970s heyday of the fad, Pressure Chemical brewed the liquid crystal component that actually makes the rings’ color change. No mood rings were manufactured in the facility, nor is Pressure Chemical currently involved in producing material for the still-available accessories. And no: Rosen tells us there is no such thing as a wall of mood rings in the office. Sigh.

As for the Pressure Chemical building’s most recognizable decorative flourish, Rosen told us that a few years back the Lawrenceville Corporation was helping out with facade beautification grants and the company took the opportunity to paint the exterior of the building its present deep blue with the tri-color wave/stripe that wraps around the entire facility. He’d like to repaint the front, but the proximity of power lines make it an OSHA violation to paint while the electricity is live. The rest of the building has since been repainted.

detail of Pressure Chemical plant with American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

Ain’t that America: stars and stripes and stripes

So, in the end maybe we didn’t get to bag the great photo of a spread of mood rings mounted to Pressure Chemical’s waiting room wall. But we can still dream of a place where such a thing exists, each of their liquid crystal bits glowing in slightly different temperatures as if ghostly disembodied fingers fill them all at a grand family reunion. We’ll always be in the mood for that.

An Orbit Obit: Clemente Street Art

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium (detail), 2013

Today it begins. The period from now until the early dark eves of October is, for many sports fans, a restoration of when things feel right. It is a time of chin music and LOOGies, where men scratch their groins and spit sunflower seeds in concrete dugouts awash in discarded Gatorade cups. It is the season where contests are interrupted at the discretion of “managers” who summon pitchers and catchers at the mound for tense mid-game summits, runners in scoring position the imminent threat. Phrases like “O-and-two, the count,” “low and outside,” “check swing,” and “foul ball” will be repeated ad infinitum. Rivers of yellow mustard, sweet relish, and, yes, ketchup (heathens!) will adorn a non-stop parade of frankfurters. It is a time when spring’s inevitable showers send both players and spectators alike to huddle under whatever protection the park offers while radio announcers ramble on in aimless filibusters to occupy the dead air. It is baseball season.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2014

Wheel Emporium, a retail outlet and installation garage for what they used to call mag wheels, existed at the corner of Penn Avenue and 34th Street in Lawrenceville for years. The small shop was shuttered some time around 2012 (?) and plywood installed to protect the giant panes of glass in its showroom windows.

Though this blogger would sooner, uh, put ketchup on his hot dog than pay money for fancy auto parts, we always enjoyed passing the little shop with its big windows and array of shiny chrome. But what we liked even more was what came after Wheel Emporium closed: the terrific pair of elaborate street art tributes to Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente.

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2013

A note to bloggers: always get an establishing shot! We sadly just took close-up photos of the artwork–and of course they’re now long gone*–so there’s not really a sense of how the pieces relate. For sure, though, we can say there were two nearly life-sized black-and-white enlargements of old photos wheat-pasted to Wheel Emporium’s protective plywood. In the first, Clemente is in his batting stance, left leg starting its lift in anticipation of the incoming pitch. The other–perhaps just seconds later–shows the batter watching the rocket he’s just launched sail from the park, his body twisted in the follow-through of the heavy swing. In both, the artist(s) applied shards of cut painted wood to the plywood which suggest waves of energy coming directly from Clemente.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2014

The tale of the Clemente art took a strange turn a year later. At some point in 2014, the colored wood pieces were all removed and the rest of the exterior plywood painted over in a deep blue color. Amazingly, though, whoever did this chose to preserve the wheat pasted photos, leaving an equally-effective alternate version of the previous year’s art. In these, we see Clemente’s two-tone image really “pop” against the monochrome blue background. It would have been fantastic to re-install the wooden additions on top of the blue, which would have looked far superior to the noisy graffiti’d wood grain, but we can’t always get what we want.

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium (full), 2013

Roberto Clemente is debatably the most beloved Pittsburgh Pirate for his prowess both in the batter’s box and out in right field (which helped the team win two World Series over his eighteen year tenure) and also for his charitable efforts off the field. His life ended tragically in a plane crash Clemente was on for a humanitarian relief mission to Nicaragua in 1972. For all of these reasons, he’s certainly a fitting subject for not just his bronze statue at PNC Park, but also the street art tributes that appeared in Lawrenceville. We’d love to see more of them.

That said, The Orbit would be equally enthusiastic about seeing similar street-level honors bestowed on other Pirate greats. Imagine a stenciled and spray-painted Honus Wagner or a 3-D “Pops” Stargell constructed from recycled materials. If you don’t see the opportunities in “Big Poison” and “Little Poison” (brothers/teammates Paul and Lloyd Waner), then you’re not trying very hard. Hell, why not create a new set of Greenberg Gardens in the city’s many vacant lots? I guess we need to quit yapping about it and start…planting about it.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District (current)

Addendum: We were so glad to see the tradition of Clemente wheat-pasting continue on a recent ride through the Strip District. This photo was taken just last week and shows what appears to be a relatively new photo of Clemente pasted to a vacant storefront on the 2700 block of Penn Avenue. In it, Clemente’s bat is pointed directly at the camera and he displays a look that’s both steely and also posed, perhaps stifling his characteristic smile to crack serious for the photographer.

bicycle lane marker of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Bicycle lane marker, Clemente Bridge

One final addition: over at The Portland Orbit, they recently ran a story called “The Beautiful People of the Bike Lane” about the terrific work of that city’s Board of Transportation to make customized, humorous bicycle lane markers. This cyclist was totally jealous and wished Pittsburgh would do something as fun and interesting. Well, it turns out that we do have at least a few these customized “bike guys.” You guessed it: they’re honoring the very same Roberto Clemente on the downtown bridge that now bears his name. It’s definitely Clemente art on the street, even if it’s not, you know, street art.


* The former Wheel Emporium was razed in 2015 and at present there’s a much larger building under construction that appears to be another combined retail/residential mixed-use space.