Born Again: The Babyland Totems

sculpture of black plaster head with fake white hair and flowers attached to utility pole

street totem by twilight

Those eyes! Wide open, wild as the wind, staring straight back at–no, through–you. The steely glare cuts right into the cold, dark, February night. Evocatively–as if arranged by set designers on a commercial shoot–the ice blue of those peepers echoes the color of rain-slicked Negley Avenue reflecting the deep indigo sky above. It’s only just six o’clock, but it may as well be midnight.

sculpture of black plaster head with flowers attached to wood

bean baggie baby on board

The Babyland Totems don’t always look quite so startling. But even in broad daylight they’re an exciting and unnerving collection of figures to come across purely by accident. Most of the little objets d’art feature plaster cloth-formed humanoid faces, painted either black or brown, and decorated with curly hair, red lips, and, of course, those pale blue eyes.

Each of the softball-sized heads projects from a bundle of colorful fake flowers within a decorative cloth wrap that serves as the little icon’s body. Random accessories–a beanbag, plastic barrettes, a toy army tank–make their appearances, too.

sculpture of black plaster head with fake flowers

verbena tiara

The effect is very much that of the youngest babies, released from the womb, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and surrounded by the magic and love of a new life. It’s hard to tell how content these little fellows are–some appear to be smiling, for sure, but others are mid-scream. We’ve all seen real-life infants taking the same wide range of emotions.

plaster head with fake flowers resting on brick window ledge

window ledge widow’s walk

At the same time, one cannot help but think of these as memorials. Close one eye, tilt your head, and almost every one of the totems takes the form of a simple cross. That familiar shape, the reverent individual attention, and those pink, white, and purple flowers remind us of fresh decorations on grave markers or the all-too-common roadside crosses that appear seemingly out-of-nowhere on the berms of highways and grassy undergrowth along busy through-streets.

The Orbit has spent enough time in and around graveyards to know that grounds crews routinely flush these kinds of plastic flowers–along with the accumulated teddy bears, deflated balloons, and past-date holiday decorations–a couple times a year. If some of Allegheny Cemetery’s fall cleanup ended up here–instead of the landfill–well, we can’t think of a better (re-)use of the material.

skull and bell attached to utility pole

skull’s out for summer

Babyland, the all-things-newborn supply shop, served Pittsburgh’s East End for over sixty years[1]. For anyone who was in the area before, say, the late oughts, you’ll not soon forget the circular cartoonish images of babies pulling their own diapers down that used to decorate the outside brickwork. Those were replaced by actual photos of super cute tykes not too long before the business closed in 2012. The squat retail space at the corner of Penn and Negley has been sitting vacant ever since.

Unlike some places in town, this will inevitably change fast–in fact, it’s amazing the little building at this prominent intersection hasn’t been razed for the next set of Legoland condos or a fluorescent-lit fast casual chain restaurant already. Development has come loud and hard to East Liberty and the Penn Avenue corridor and we all know there’s plenty to memorialize even where it hasn’t actually happened…yet.

sculpture of black plaster head with golden hair and flowers attached to utility pole


The other obvious–and most important–side to all this is the continuing story of displacement and eviction of East Liberty’s population. From the old Babyland location, one merely has to look east, across Negley Ave., to see a completely denuded landscape where the big Penn Plaza apartment complex stood for the last 50 years. The fallow ground is now an otherworldly red-brown as crushed brick mixes roughly 50/50 with barren soil.

Had the Babyland artist wished to eulogize Penn Plaza instead, he or she couldn’t (at least, not in the same way)–there’s nothing left to even hang a piece of artwork on. [In fairness, there is one set of steps, their handrails, and a full perimeter of chain link fence–but you get the idea.]

stairway leading down to large empty lot

former Penn Plaza apartments lot, East Liberty

In the last two years, Penn Plaza has gone from a large, lived-in pubic housing complex to a mountain of upturned brown brick to the big muddy field it is today. For those of us who didn’t live there, the transformation may have been startling, but we see this kind of ruthless, scorched-earth demolition and redevelopment happening all over.

But for the S’Libertarians whose friends and loved-ones moved away, who saw their community disintegrate, or worst of all–personally suffered the loss of a family home–the upscaling/gentrification/whitewashing (take your pick) of East Liberty has got to pack the same savage punch as a hurricane or tornado blowing through other parts of the world, dismembering the lives in its path.

sculpture of black plaster head with plastic toy tank attached to wood

Babyland: tanks for the memories

Without any better information to work from[2], all we can do is speculate and enjoy the Babyland totems while they’re still around–and they probably won’t be here for long. Like the former retail building they’re installed around or the old Penn Plaza apartments, something will take them sooner or later. Whether that’s a designated city clean-up crew, street art souvenir hunters[3], or just a heavy blast of rain, we can’t predict. But it’s another of life’s constant reminders that everything–even a big multistory brick and steel apartment complex–is really just here for a snap of the fingers or a blink of one of those haunting baby blue eyes.

playing cards wrapped in twine hanging from cowbell

the old Babyland, hanging by a thread

A note on the photos: These pictures were all taken on Feb. 13 (daytime) and Feb. 14 (evening), 2018. We have it on good authority that at least one more totem was part of the original installation, but it had disappeared by the time we got on the scene. Within a few days of the 14th, the two pieces from the plywood over Babyland’s Penn Ave. entrance [“bean baggie baby on board” and “tanks for the memories” (our labels), above] were also removed.

sculpture of black plaster head laying on wet sidewalk concrete

head down to Babyland! [4]

[1] “Longtime East Liberty business Babyland to close and move”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 8, 2012.
[2] In the course of reporting this piece, we located the artist who created the Babyland totems and made several offers to discuss the work. The artist declined to be interviewed for this story and since there’s no attribution on the individual pieces, we’ve decided to preserve that anonymity.
[3] The Orbit adheres to a strict code of preservation of street art so we do not condone taking pieces such as these for personal consumption.
[4] After finding this lost noggin on the sidewalk, we did our best to reattach it to the rest of the piece using a twig to join the two. How long that lasted is unknown.

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