If there is a single image that captures both the dedication to this awkward space and the keeper’s ability to warm up, beautify, and humanize the most lifeless of urban landscapes, it may be found in a tiny row of marigolds. The flowers are planted in a thin channel–there’s maybe five inches of arable soil–between the cement curb and an imposing retaining wall, scarred with decades of cracks, pockmarks, and vestigial stains.
Those tiny flowers, spaced neatly in a freshly-mulched bed, offer just a hint at what the first-time visitor will encounter in the next couple hundred feet, but they sure let you know someone is paying attention back here. What lies ahead is the most magical transformation of a mundane alleyway you’ll encounter anytime soon.
“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” says Carl Remly of his effort to clean up the little street that runs behind his house. Remly is a self-described workaholic who lives on the block and is “not too good at sitting around.” We believe him.
The combined do-good spirit and boundless energy led Remly from weeding to gardening (“I was never what you’d call a green thumb”) to decorating his tiny front yard with an oddball collection of dinosaur models, tiki figures, and bric-a-brac.
When he turned his sights on the back alley, though, Carl Remly managed to convert what was a typically ignored minor passageway into an incredible outdoor, curated art environment that is both magical and comical, wacky and serene. Don’t look for it on the map, but we’re going to refer to this highly-recommended destination as Remly Way.
Miller Street is a three- or four-block-long, one-way alley that runs behind a stretch of century-old row house blocks in north Wilmerding. From gaps between the long buildings, you can look straight out across Turtle Creek (the creek itself, not the town named after the creek) and see several giant old Westinghouse factories. One imagines many of the folks who originally lived in these tight worker homes must have spent their days in the big brick Air Brake Machine Shop.
By chance, Miller Street also appears to be the only section of the borough Google didn’t (or couldn’t) make it down to photograph for their StreetView feature. Perhaps Remly’s work will bring the crew back for another well-deserved drive-through.
Part visionary garden, part art environment, and part open-air museum, Remly Way has at least four distinct stages. Each is approximately a half-block long following the contours of the big retaining wall holding up the Tri-Boro Expressway, above.
Section I: A Curious Entree (our name) is that single row of marigolds (and other flowers) at the far eastern edge where Miller Street meets Short Alley. One needn’t begin the exploration here–and if you’re in a car, you can’t (it’s a one-way, going the other direction)–but The Orbit recommends you walk it from that starting point for maximum dramatic impact.
In Section II: Christmas in June, the space between curb and wall expands just a little to give Remly the room to house larger plants, figurines, statuary, and a recycled artificial Christmas tree about every 10 feet. “A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop,” Remly says of his favorite decoration source.
Up until now, the alley has been a pleasant side trip–a creative way one neighbor is making the most of a thin sliver of neglected space. That all changes when we get to Remly Way’s third stage: The Museum. Here, Carl Remly’s genius for design and composition come into full form and the minds of passers-by are forever blown in the process.
On the PennDOT-sponsored shelving created by heavy steel corrugated wall sections, Remly has converted the negative space into intricate, curated collections of oddball figurines, decorative items, and topiary. There is a section containing nothing but model ducks; another with animals cast in brass and a frog fantasia. Still another groups together bald eagles, their wings reliably spread as if in imminent lift-off.
“You read the Sunday paper and somebody in Upper Saint Clair gets the garden of the year because they paid a lot of money,” Remly says, “I just wanted to show that little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of dollars.”
In addition to being a workaholic, Remly also confesses to being a shopaholic who makes frequent trips to flea markets, junk stores, thrift shops, and Home Depot’s post-seasonal sales.
“I have two garages that are supposed to be for my (commercial door installation) business,” Remly says, “But now they’re the holding area for all my stuff.”
By the time you reach Remly Way’s final phase, Section IV: Re-entry/The Coming Down, one needs to give the peepers a rest after the eye-popping density of the previous collections. That comes in the form of a tiny parklet at the only space along the alley that will permit it–a small alcove of green grass, shaded by a bank of short trees above.
Here, Remly has included–you guessed it–more Christmas trees, plus big freestanding cartoon character decorations, a seating area in purple wicker, at least one light-up Big Foot cut-out, and a homemade sign that reads Stay Safe and Healthy. The sign is decorated with drawings of airplanes and battleships fighting the coronavirus by Remly’s grandchildren.
More than a few times in our short conversation Carl Remly mentioned the desire to brighten the spirits of his neighbors and other visitors to the alley. He puts up a Christmas display every year, but with the arrival and uncertainty of everything around the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for a spring/summer pick-me-up was especially strong.
I’m here to tell you, it works. There’s a kind of magic in that little alley–a sense that if someone cares this much about his neighbors and fellow human beings that things just have to work out somehow. The experience is beautiful and surprising, free and accessible. It’s also exactly what we need more of right now.
Like the sign in Remly parklet says, stay safe and healthy, y’all.
Getting there: Our recommendation is to park somewhere around the 300 or 400 block of Middle Ave., Wilmerding (look for Fan Club Sports Bar), walk to Short Alley (note: there’s no street sign), and then left at the concrete wall (to Miller Street aka Remly Way)–you’ll see the flowers.