The Missing Link: Making the Connection via the Mon Wharf Switchback

Mon Wharf walkway in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mon Wharf Landing, looking east towards the Smithfield Street Bridge, downtown

One glorious day–and a Sunday at that! Deep blue skies, whispy cirrus clouds, bright sunshine, and seasonally optimistic temperatures requiring only a long-sleeve shirt. Those who failed to leave the indoors on this 24-hour reprieve between Thanksgiving’s elongated drizzly gloom and the following Monday’s snow-filled temperature plunge should feel all the guilt and remorse they deserve.

Just jaggin’–no judgment, here. This blogger, however, wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. The Orbitmobile was sprung from its hutch, tires inflated, and chain oiled. We were off to town on a mission to check out the brand new Mon Wharf Switchback.

Mon Wharf Switchback bicycle/pedestrian ramp in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

The new Mon Wharf Switchback Ramp, downtown

It’s been said that Pittsburgh is the only city with a front door. Indeed, the approach from the morass of Parkway West suburbia/airport/I-79 to the awestruck oohs and aahs emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel into a seeming city from nowhere is truly spectacular, unparalleled, and–I can attest, twenty-some years on–never gets old.

That said, one can only reach that front door with a motor vehicle. For those arriving in our fair city by bicycle–and yes, thanks to the Great Allegheny Passage trail, plenty of newcomers get here on two wheels–it’s a less dramatic entrance. That changed, at least a little bit, with the completion of this last connection point allowing car-free passage into town from the Smithfield Street Bridge.

bicycle/pedestrian ramp to Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

ramp to Point State Park

As of now, the incoming cyclist may exit the Smithfield Bridge to be gently guided down to the previously-existing, but hard-to-get-to Mon Wharf Landing parklet hugging the riverbank. The method is a long, graceful switchback ramp connecting 40 or 50 vertical feet from bridge deck to walkway below.

The park a lovely open space with a wide walkway, stone resting spots–they’re not quite benches–and a thin strip of green grass. Native maple trees–presumably planted back at the park’s opening in 2009–have managed to cling to their deep red fall leaves long after wimpier peers dropped all outerwear weeks ago.

bicycle/pedestrian entrance to Point State Park via the Mon Wharf trail in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

gateway to Point State Park

The new ramp doesn’t just connect downtown with the South Side. One can now, in theory, ride continuously from Point State Park all the way to our nation’s capital without having to contest with any car traffic. Three hundred and thirty-five miles, in fact, as the crow dodges and weaves, crosses the Alleghenies, ducks through tunnels, and follows the curling banks of various old rivers.

That is one hell of an accomplishment for long-distance, intrastate bicycle recreation[1], but the new ramp that allows connection from the upriver side of the Smithfield Street Bridge through to Point State Park–is likely going to be much more useful to the city’s cyclists for their around-town commutes and pleasure cruises.

We’ll spare the particulars, but if you’re a city cyclist, you know getting from, say, Penn Avenue to the South Side was a pain in the ass. Thanks to this new infrastructure, one can make that ride safely and with a spectacular 360° tour of all three rivers.

traffic sign reading "Motor vehicles only: no pedestrians" on Mon Wharf bicycle/pedestrian path in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

The Mon Wharf bicycle/pedestrian route: “Motor vehicles only: no pedestrians”

Though the ramp has been publicly accessible for a week or two, the opening will be made official with an event this Tuesday. As of last weekend, there are still some final touches to the overall route we hope they’ll eventually get to.

Most notable is the lack of signage directing the connection-curious to and from Point State Park. From the latter, one must–on blind faith–go under the bridge ramp overpass, pass a maintenance vehicle parking lot, along the thin connection beside a highway ramp, and then down the fairly steep ramp to the Mon Wharf. This only-possible route takes the walker/bicycle rider directly under a (roadway) sign with the confusing message MOTOR VEHICLES ONLY: NO PEDESTRIANS (see photo, above). [This is a minor quibble that we assume city crews will get to–and may already have.]

Mon Wharf path in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mon Wharf Landing, looking west towards the Fort Pitt Bridge

The Mon Wharf Landing and switchback ramp are projects from Riverlife and the City of Pittsburgh. The commitment both have shown toward making the city bike- and pedestrian-safe, friendly, and accessible should absolutely be recognized and praised. From the (mostly) bicycle-based Orbit staff, a very big thank you–we’ll be putting the new route to use as often as we can.


[1] Between the GAP and C&O, the two trails run through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Row House Romance: Double the Fun OR Twins Gone Wild!

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Identical twins, born of the same womb. The exact face, height, and profile. Some are from the side-streets–tough, working-class, gritty, without pretension. Others, their high-brow peers; raised mere blocks away, but praised for their natural beauty, elegant stature, and enviable position in life. To the former, these may as well have been from the moon.

No matter how much each pair of siblings may appear as perfect duplicates at birth, time has a way of imprinting itself on every living creature in radically different ways: an unwise tattoo or regrettable fashion choice, the scar from a near-death collision or the catastrophe of an ugly divorce. Given a hundred and twenty years or so, a lot can happen.

pair of brick row houses painted aqua blue and olive green, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

matched pair of row houses painted red and pink, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of matching row houses with many exterior alterations, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Consider the humble row house. Two up, two down; squat stoop; a single shared chimney stack; window-window, window-door. Some are boxy and flat-topped, but most have clean, peaked roofs–almost always with a dormer inserted right in the middle.

For the most part, Pittsburgh wasn’t built with the kind of block-long identical row houses you see filling entire neighborhoods of Baltimore or Philadelphia. More often, we ended up with pairs–mirror-image houses sharing a common wall. So much so, Pittsburgh has its own term for duplex: double house. Sometimes these twins are built into long blocks of other row houses in various designs; often, thin walkways separate the next-door neighbors.

exterior of brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

pair of row houses with very different exteriors, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

What’s so interesting about these–and perhaps all–twins is the divergent paths their lives inevitably take. Different paint jobs, added siding, fake stone and tile. Historical markers: windows cut down during the energy crisis, consolidated into one central pane, or removed completely. Entire doorways bricked-over or made unusable by nonexistent steps.

In one house, a third-floor addition with an out-of-place mansard roof; another, a post-op porch rebuild–but only across half the façade. A set of tin-slatted awnings here, window boxes and gingerbread paint details there. An extant old-school TV aerial, never bothered to remove after cable was introduced in the ’80s.

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of mirror-image row houses with many cosmetic differences, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Imagined as life-long companions–and also inevitable rivals–the pairs take on their own personalities. These two dress alike–only he prefers hot red, she a cool aqua green. That one’s in the process of some cosmetic surgery; this one just broke his leg–that big cast will be on for a while. Another always has to outdo her sister–fancier clothes, more refined tastes, newer technology.

brick row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of brick row houses, both with many obvious alterations to brickwork and detail, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

… and then there are those that just kept doing their thing. Maybe she got some window awnings back in the ’60s and he added an air conditioner to cool the front bedroom; she enlarged the stoop, he stopped using the front door. But they basically stayed together, no one putting on any fancy airs, as one family unit.

These aren’t rare, but they’re more exception than rule. The ability to get along with one’s neighbors is crucial in a tight, city neighborhood–even more so in one of these conjoined, paired double houses. But if you do it right, you end up with a better price on a re-roof, full house paint job, or new aluminum siding.

side-by-side row houses with dingy aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

matched pair of row houses with fake brick siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of dilapidated row houses in Sharpsburg, PA

Sharpsburg

In these polarized times, a picture of neighbor-working-with-neighbor cooperation feels like the kind of rosy-eyed, optimism that’s been banished from the earth–but it hasn’t. It’s still here in the compressed side streets and awkward alley houses all over the city. All it takes to find it is a little row house romance.


A note to the Orbit’s readers in the Mexican War Streets, Spring Garden, Southside flats, Hill District, and all the other row house neighborhoods and boroughs: we’ve neither forgotten nor forsaken thou. This topic deep and wide and we intend to explore it over time. We’ll get to you.

Looking for a Lost Little Italy in Larimer

red, white, and green painted storefront for Henry Grasso, Co. Inc. Pittsburgh, PA

Last of the red, white, and green: Henry Grasso, Co. Inc., Larimer Ave.

There’s a scene early on in Striking Distance where police captain Nick Detillo (Dennis Farina in full cop mustache and salt-and-pepper wave) downplays his career aspirations. Asked by Bruce Willis’ Detective Tom Hardy if he’s bucking for advancement in the force, Detillo responds humbly, “Not me kid. I’m just a Larimer Avenue dago.” [Please pardon the ethnic slur. We’re quoting–and it’s important to the story.]

Writer, director, and Pittsburgh native Rowdy Herrington peppered the movie’s dialog and mise en scène with local references, so it’s no surprise the Italian-American Detillo clan gets fleshed-out with a nod to the old neighborhood. But why not choose one of the more obvious Little Italys–say, Bloomfield, Panther Hollow, or South Oakland?

movie still from "Striking Distance" with character Nick Detillo's line "Not me, kid. I'm just a Larimer Avenue dago."

Who’s the best cop? Dennis Farina as Capt. Nick Detillo in “Striking Distance”

In record geek terms, it’s a deep cut–one that Rowdy Herrington gets much respect for including.

Dennis Farina was born in Chicago in 1944. Like every other member of the Striking Distance cast, he made no attempt to replicate a Pittsburgh accent for the movie–but the dates line up. From the early part of the 20th Century until some time in the 1960s, Larimer was the Little Italy for Pittsburgh. A neighborhood with any random block holding a majority of Italian surnames; the location where The Italian Sons and Daughters of America was formed; an enclave hosting the Pittsburgh Italian Hospital. [Yes: that was thing–it’s now a vacant lot at the corner of Paulson and Maxwell.] It is entirely likely that the fictional Detillo family could have all grown up in Larimer.

The amateur anthropologists and wanna-be archeologists of Pittsburgh Orbit like any challenge that invites bicycle-based poking down alleys and remorseless nebbing into empty retail windows. We set out with the loose goal of seeing what–if any–traces of Detillo-era, Italian-American Larimer we could still find today.

detail from 1924 platte map showing two blocks of the Larimer neighborhood with a majority of property owners having Italian surnames

Larimer, 1924. Map detail of two blocks between Larimer Ave. and Ashley St., Mayflower and Meadow. [source: G.M. Hopkins Company Maps]

The short version: there ain’t much left.

By our count, there are exactly two extant businesses in the neighborhood that date from the old days. Henry Grasso’s Italian foods shop on Larimer Ave. (see photo, top) is still, as the sign says, original manufacturers of the Italian sausage and capicollo. Dressed for the part in the red, white, and green colors of the Italian flag, Grasso’s is the picture of an old American neighborhood butcher/grocer you’ll see few other places.

On the other side of the neighborhood, Stagno’s Bakery no longer staffs their retail storefront, and the corner of Auburn and Lowell suffers for it. But they’re very much still baking up Italian bread in their two big cinderblock buildings. You’ll find the product on bakery shelves and restaurant bread baskets all over the city. [Side note: one of Stagno’s old blue delivery vans even gets a cameo in the Striking Distance chase scene. Coincidence?]

run down exterior of former retail shop for Stagno's Bakery, Pittsburgh, PA

Still making bread…just not selling retail. Stagno’s Bakery, Auburn Street.

The former Our Lady Help of Christians still stands on the corner of Meadow and Turrett Streets. With its attached school building, the massive Roman-Catholic church basically takes up an entire city block and reaches four or five stories into the sky.

Built in 1897 (rebuilt 1905), Our Lady Help is a crumbling beauty. The multiple copper domes remain, gleaming in even the dappled sunlight of last weekend, but since the church closed in 1992, a crew has clearly gone through and stripped anything of value. The stained glass, statuary, and thick oak doors are all gone, replaced with temporary protective plywood. Ivy climbs the exterior walls and weeds have breached the joints in the stone front stairs. Perhaps inevitable, a blue condemned notice is stapled to the front door. Sigh.

view of 1905 Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic church, now abandoned and condemned, Pittsburgh, PA

(former) Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic Church, Meadow Street

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s page on Our Lady Help details the deep Italian roots of the church:

Our Lady Help of Christians was established in 1898 as an Italian parish. The origin of the parish can be traced to the rise of immigrants from Italy in the late nineteenth century.  In 1895 the Italian Franciscan Fathers were invited to come to Pittsburgh. They took charge of the Italian parish in the Hill District, St. Peter. In 1894, the Italian residents of the East Liberty area petitioned the bishop for permission to form their own parish. This petition was denied. To meet the needs of the East Liberty Italians, the pastor of St. Peter began visiting the area to celebrate Mass.  The first Mass for Italians celebrated in East Liberty took place in February of 1895 in the school hall of Ss. Peter and Paul parish. From that point, a Mass was celebrated almost monthly for the Italians.

There are a lot of reasons why (local) Catholic churches are having a hard time. Overall, Pittsburgh has lost half its population and people just don’t attend mass like they did in the old days. And then there’s the whole, horrific priest sex abuse (and cover-up) business.

But when a entire congregation this large relocates to the suburbs of Penn Hills and Plum, Forest Hills and Churchill, the Latin scripture reads pretty clear on the old plaster walls.

painted sign for Fiore's Home Dressed Meats on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign for former Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats (now State Senator Ferlo’s local office), Larimer Ave.

Beyond this handful of obvious touchstones, we’re really left grasping at straws.

Vacant lots outnumber buildings on Larimer Avenue today, but there are may be a dozen surviving retail storefronts on the old main drag. One of these features a ghost sign for Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats, but that’s really the only clue to what any of the businesses in these pre-war two- and three-story brick buildings once were.

While there’s still plenty of open space in the neighborhood, Larimer’s housing has fared better overall than its commercial structures. There is a particular type of after-market tin-slatted porch and window awning you see all over Pittsburgh (and elsewhere)–we imagine some door-to-door salesman made a killing hawking these in the 1950s.

There’s no way to prove this, but anecdotal evidence points to the popularity of red-and-white (and to a lesser extent, green-and-white) color combos in certain locales. There are still a bunch of these Italian-colored tin awnings throughout Larimer. [Note: You don’t have to tell this blogger–you want us to cry over tin awnings? No: but it’s all I got.]

small house with tin awning and green paint, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a stretch, but the red-and-white awning with a green paint job look familiar. [Bonus points for the pair of old-school aerial antennas!]

Oh, and what about Mary? Every old Catholic neighborhood worth its rosaries has a couple dozen houses sporting ceramic statuettes of The Blessed Virgin doing her palms-out thing on the front lawn or nestled up against the porch. There are even more Marys relaxing in people’s back yards–but it’s harder to get the invitation to visit up close.

I’m telling you, the Orbitmobile criss-crossed Larimer a dozen times, rolling down every street and just about every alleyway coming and going. In those rides, we spotted exactly one extant front yard Mary outside a unique frame house that appears to at one time have been a pair of separate, conjoined buildings.

older wooden house with statue of Mary by the front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

Possibly the last front yard Mary in Larimer?

That home, on a short dead-end of the aptly named Orphan Street, is at a little horn-shaped peninsula forming the very northeast corner of Larimer. In front of the house, the steep drop-off down to Washington Blvd.; behind, dense greenery all the way over to Highland Park.

We don’t know who lives here–if they’re black or white, hard core Catholic or just enjoy a quirky lawn ornament–but this little icon living on the most precarious of properties feels very much like the last representative of a disappeared people.

Times and places change, people move on–these are unalterable truths. But it’s comforting to think that if Nick Detillo were to make it back to the old neighborhood today, he could still get a pound of capicollo from Henry Grosso and still say a prayer to Mary.

Won’t You Be My Neighborhood Welcome Sign?

Brighton Heights neighborhood welcome sign as three threes with the name spelled out across the greenery, Pittsburgh, PA

Brighton Heights

It may be an exaggeration to say everyone in Pittsburgh has a Mister Rogers story, but even if you don’t know it, you’re probably just one degree of separation from someone who does.

In the thirty-two years Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was in production (1968-2000), there were umpteen hundred (thousand?) puppeteers, production assistants, on-screen guests, and live studio audience members in WQED’s Oakland facility. Add to that the personal appearances, meet-and-greets, school visits, outreach, and set tours, and you’ve got a very large number of people with some sense of personal connection to Fred Rogers and/or his very special television creation. Mr. McFeely (David Newell) is still out there, getting it done on the regs. If you haven’t gotten a speedy delivery from the world’s most famous letter carrier, that’s on you.

mosaic neighborhood sign for Uptown, Pittsburgh, PA

Uptown

In honor of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the new feature-length documentary film on Rogers released this week, we thought we’d dig further into that most Pittsburgh of things–its neighborhoodliness.

Not every one of the city’s ninety defined neighborhoods has a welcome sign, but an amazingly large number of them do–plenty with more than one–and the variety is terrific. There are so many signs, in fact, that there’s just no way to fit them all into one post. So, Orbit readers from Brookline, Spring Hill, etc., we haven’t forgotten about you and we’ll try get to as many as we can next time. [Please let us know if there’s one we might miss!]

So, just like the world’s most famous cardigan and Keds, let’s get on with it. Here’s our survey of city neighborhood welcome signs and here-you-are murals.

neighborhood welcome sign for Homewood-Brushton, Pittsburgh on train track overpass

Homewood-Brushton

neighborhood welcome sign for the Southside Slopes, Pittsburgh, PA

Southside Slopes

full wall mural for Deutschtown neighborhood of Pittsburgh

Deutschtown

Lawrenceville neighborhood welcome sign painted as a mural on a retaining wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

mosaic neighborhood sign reading "Welcome to Troy Hill", Pittsburgh, PA

“Welcome Troy, to Hill”, Troy Hill

Allentown neighborhood welcome sign with ceramic penguins, Pittsburgh, PA

penguin perch, Allentown

neighborhood sign for Bloomfield, "Pittsburgh's Little Italy"

“Pittsburgh’s Little Italy,” Bloomfield

mural on retaining wall showing various neighborhood people in Southside, Pitttsburgh, PA

Southside/Southside Slopes

sign reading "Witamy do Polish Hill", Pittsburgh, PA

“Witamy do” (Welcome to) Polish Hill

wooden sign reading "Welcome to FINEVIEW", Pittsburgh, PA

Fineview

wooden bed headboard with the text "Duck Hollow. Population: 'Just Enough'", Pittsburgh, PA

Duck Hollow, Population: “Just Enough”

brick and mosaic neighborhood welcome sign for Perry Hilltop, Pittsburgh, PA

Perry Hilltop

mural with directions pointing to Pittsburgh neighborhoods Greenfield, Hazelwood, The Run, and Lincoln Place

Bonus neighborhood directional mural!

Step Beat: Talking Missed Connections and Mis.Steps with Ms. Steps

bent street sign for the intersection of Lappe Lane and Shirls Street with downtown Pittsburgh in the distance

Only the street sign remains: where Lappe Lane used to end at Shirls Street, Spring Hill

Lappe Lane is one of the more fascinating throughways you’re likely to travel. Roughly equal parts city steps, paved road, and (non-existent) “paper street,” Lappe begins down in Spring Garden and then runs straight up and over the hill, back down the other side, through a cemetery (though you wouldn’t know it), and just keeps going.

If you like hiking the steps, there’s a decent chance you’ve already climbed Lappe Lane’s lower flights where the stairs intersect Spring Garden Ave. or Goehring Street and continue up to Yetta and St. John’s Cemetery at the top of the hill. These early sections offer great options to what entry-level step trekkers are after–steep vertical ascents, great city views, kooky between-house catwalks, and lots of nice here-to-theres with alternate options to get back down the hill.

Even so, you’ve probably never made it up here, where we are, at the very end. And that’s because–like some twisted Zen koan–even where Lappe Lane finally ends, it doesn’t actually go there.

hillside with staircase overgrown with weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Lappe Lane, from South Side Ave. to Fabyan Street, Spring Hill

Laura Zurowski has an ambitious goal: visit and document every one of Pittsburgh’s seven hundred and thirty-nine (known) sets of public steps. As if all the navigating, stair-climbing, and list-checking-off weren’t enough, Zurowski’s Mis.Steps project gets even more complicated. No mere exercise/sight-seeing venture, each and every steps visit is followed by an additional mixed media exploration via old-school/pre-digital instant photography, short prose, colored sidewalk chalk, print-making, and final distribution via the computer Internet.

We’ll get to all this. Today, though, we’re just trying to locate the very last two flights of Lappe Lane, at the far north end of Spring Hill.

woman taking photograph of weed-covered set of public stairs in Pittsburgh, PA

In the weeds: Laura Zurowski with her Polaroid Spectra 2 camera

“Pittsburgh chose me,” Zurowski says of her relocation from Providence, by-way-of upstate New York. The decision came six years ago alongside the desire to own a home in a place she could pursue more creative projects. “I asked myself, ‘What do I want life to be?’ and the answer was that I wanted to be open to ideas; to have a more robust, creative existence.”

The interest in the city steps only came some time after the move. Seeing the volume of empty houses in Pittsburgh was new, startling, and inspirational–but also melancholy. “Every one of those (abandoned) homes contained people’s lives, so seeing them empty is really sad,” Zurowski says, “With the steps–even if they’re in bad condition–I never feel sad like I do with empty houses.”

That, coupled with Bob Regan’s Orbit essential The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City (The Local History Company, 2004) was enough to send Zurowski on her mission.

woman marking public steps with sidewalk chalk

Chalk it up: Zurowski tags another completed set of steps with a Polaroid-sized chalk square.

We see one small boarded-up home, but for the most part, the houses on this block all appear both lived-in and loved. Lappe Lane’s thirty-or-so steps starting from South Side Ave. [Mis.Steps Trip #109] are easy enough to spot. There is no street sign at this intersection, but a familiar pair of red-brown handrails reaches out of the hillside and right down to the edge of the quiet residential road.

But try walking up these stairs and you’re quickly ensnared in wild jumble of weedy overgrowth, thorny bramble, and whatever those plants are that leave prickly stickers on your socks and pant legs. Even half-way up the short flight, it’s obvious you’ll not be going far. One of the uphill homeowners has–perhaps, illegally–built an elaborate A-frame treehouse directly blocking the public right-of-way. Even if someone wanted to, no one’s going anywhere on these steps.

Polaroid photo of overgrown city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Trip #109: Lappe Lane – S. Side Ave. Polaroid [photo: Laura Zurowski]

Zurowski fights her way through the thicket of tall grass, up past the first plateau, and on until nearly swallowed by the plant kingdom. There’s a shrugged acceptance this is far as these particular steps will allow, an untangling from the jaggers, careful descent back to the landing, and then hands dart into the backpack for the Polaroid camera. The single picture–there is only one per set of steps–is taken in an instant.

“My friend who’s a photographer said, ‘You’re going to have a really hard time coming up with 739 ways to take pictures of stairs’,” Zurowski says, “And it would be hard if they were all the same–but I haven’t come across two sets that look alike.”

“I look at the Polaroid [photos] like they’re portraits of people,” Zurowski continues, “If I were going to give human-like qualities to the steps, what would they be like? Hopefully the Polaroid captures the essence of what each flight of steps is all about.”

Polaroid photo of public staircase with trees and house behind

Late summer scene: Polaroid from Trip #61 – Harpster Street, Oct. 2017, Troy Hill [photo: Laura Zurowski]

The instant photograph is ejected from the camera, rested on a stair tread, and then the journals come out. There are two of them: one for “field notes”; the other, narrative impressions. With each visit, Zurowski includes a short meditation on the scene, which will be used later on.

Zurowski scratches a rough square, just about the size of a Polaroid picture, with sidewalk chalk on one of the stair risers. Mis.Steps super fans are undoubtedly taking selfies with chalk squares around town right now. Finally, the iPhone is used to snap one last picture summing up the whole scene.

With that, we’re on to Trip #110–the very end of Lappe Lane, just up the hill from where we are now. Here, Zurowski will do it all over again, but, just like every other one of those 739 sets of steps, this one is completely different from the one we just saw. For one, there aren’t any steps here (anymore).

autumn leaves on long set of public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

A blast of autumn past: Mis.Steps summary photo (including Polaroid and chalk square) from Trip #68 – Basin Street, Troy Hill/Spring Garden, Oct. 2017 [photo: Laura Zurowski]

That’s a lot of process–but it ain’t over yet! Back home, Zurowski completes the cycle with the publishing of each Mis.Steps adventure every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The narrative is honed, the Polaroid digitized, and the pairing of image + words goes out to the world via the Mis.Steps’ blog, Instagram, and Craig’s List “Missed Connections” page. That’s right: between “Kinky Dom Roleplay – m4m (Canonsburg)” and “Thanks for the hot time – m4m (McKeesport)” there’s a little story and photo about listening to birdsongs on the Morningside Avenue steps.

Risograph print of a Polaroid photo showing public stairs with a woman leaning on handrail

#20 Diulius Way, Central Oakland. Risograph print by Jimmy Riordan.

I know what you’re thinking: All this sounds great, but there’s nothing to hang on my wall or swap with friends! That’s where you’re sorely mistaken. Conveniently, Mis.Steps has taken the whole project out of the aether and fed it through a 1980s-era technology at the hands of Braddock printer Jimmy Riordan.

The result is a hard copy series of “trading cards” that further abstract the original murky Polaroid into ghostly, high-contrast 3-color art prints. In addition to the photographic image, the cards contain the Mis.Steps index number, street and neighborhood names, location, step count, and the city’s construction date (if known) on the front and the narrative text on the back. Card collections are available from the Mis.Steps website and Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill.

collage of nine Risograph prints made from Laura Zukowski's steps photos

No two alike: various Mis.Steps Polaroid-sized Risograph trading cards printed by Jimmy Riordan

If it’s not obvious yet, Laura Zurowski really loves Pittsburgh’s city steps–Orbit readers know we share an opinion on this matter. “If there’s an underlying goal,” Zurowski says of the Mis.Steps project, “It’s to get people to visit the stairs. I’d like to encourage people to look around, to check out other parts of the city, and to become connected with their neighborhoods.” We couldn’t agree more.

woman at top of long set of public stairs looking at a view of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Route with a view: Zurowski at the top of the Vinial Street steps, part of the “Spring Garden Stair Stepping” event, Troy Hill

Still not enough Mis.Steps for you? Well, you’re in luck. Zurowski has teamed up with Threadbare Cider for a series of combined guided city step hikes and cider house tours/tastings dubbed Spring Garden Stair Stepping (and Cider Sipping). You’re probably too late for today’s kick off hike–and it sold out way ahead of time anyway–but there will be a couple more chances with repeat events April 15 and May 20.

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

totem/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.

An Orbit Obit: The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern

mural for Frankowski family with people holding giant pierogie, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

It takes a village to raise a pierogi. Frankowski family coat-of-arms.

This one’s personal.

Over at Orbit headquarters, we wailed into the night over the loss of Chiodo’s–it with its dusty, historic underwear hanging from the ceiling and the Mystery Sandwich haunting our dreams. We took it easy with the Casio beats and flared collars of The Casual Approach (R.I.P.) who defied gravity every weekend at Dormont’s Suburban Lounge (also R.I.P.). Letter-writing campaigns begged our congressmen to turn The Chart Room into a national monument and there should have been so many more piano sing-a-longs at Moré. The days of dollar pints and four-bit “lady drafts” at bygone Lawrenceville watering holes like Michalski’s, A.J.’s, and Salak’s feel like ancient history–but it wasn’t actually that long ago.

The loss of these iconic, convivial, rowdy barrelhouses are all just eyewash to the earthquake that music-making/beer-drinking/pierogi-eating/squirt-gun-shooting Pittsburgh felt last week. The “Polish party house in the heart of Little Italy,” has bled the grease from its deep friers, removed the ceramic stein collection, carved wooden stage bear, and pictures of the pope. They’ve powered down the spotty PA system and shooed out the last late-night booze hounds. The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has closed forever.

gated front door for the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Closed forever, sigh.

[Cue: shimmering soft focus and a one-two polka beat.]

The year was 1996–some time in November. Arriving from The South with its still-turning mid-fall leaves and pleasant, temperate climate, Pittsburgh was soaking in several inches of days-old dirty street slush as a steady freezing rain dripped from the unrelenting overcast gray-black sky. Needless to say, this blogger-to-be had found a new home.

By pure chance–we’re talking pre-Internet tourism here–The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern was the very first place he spent a nickel. It was on a Polish Platter, and I’m pretty sure it still cost just $5.95 at the time. Carbs are pretty cheap in The South–but they don’t come with names like golabki and kluski. Although my middle-aged metabolism can’t demolish a plate like it used to, the food was as delicious just a few weeks ago as it was all the way back in the ’90s.

plate of Polish food including pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Oh, how I will miss you. The Polish Platter (“Red”): pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski

For the next, gulp, twenty-one years the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has been the most long-running, consistent presence in this transplant’s Pittsburgh experience. The doctor only prescribes Polish Platters a couple times a year [yes, I know: find a new doctor!] but it’s been rare to go more than a couple months without receiving an audio-visual screening from BBT’s musical stage.

Typically, these are administered by local bands. [Full disclosure: the author is sometimes playing in one of them.] But despite BBT’s tiny size, cramped quarters, and DIY show-running [bands were responsible for collecting at the door, setting up the PA system, and running their own sound], the bar has played host to amazing run of touring players too numerous to list here.

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band at BBT, August, 2017

You think that’d be it, right? It’s a tavern: there’s beer, bar food, and weekend rock-and-roll–what else do you need? Well, you may not need much more, but the BBT plays into a legacy of Pittsburgh culture so deep we may take years–decades, even–to dig out from the loss.

Back in the day, then-city councilman Jim Ferlo held an annual Pittsburgh Marathon party in BBT’s side parking lot, complete with polka bands, a hot dog buffet, and cold beer. A highlight of the event was seeing exhausted runners, just hitting “the wall” at the marathon’s 23-mile point, veer straight off Liberty Avenue and plunge into the soft welcoming foam of a free Iron City Beer. Every local politician made it a point to stop by the BBT’s temporary parking lot stage to dole out cash “prizes” for things like “best dancer” and “cutest puppy”. Across the street, Foodland’s electronic weekly specials sign would be programmed to read the jingoist message Go runners. Beat Kenyans.

mural of Polish towns coats of arms painted on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish towns coats of arms, BBT parking lot

And then there are those murals. Dozens–maybe a hundred–different coats-of-arms of Polish towns you’ve probably never heard of. Crests with identifying names like Głowno, Szczecin, Gryfów Ślaski, and Żywiec ring the inside of BBT’s short concrete parking lot wall and come decorated in all manner of old world imagery–castles, bulls, red stags, and green griffins; kings, knights, mermaids, the sun & plow.

It’s gone now, but an earlier generation will forever associate the exterior of the bar with both the wonderful potted-flower Bloomfield mural/sign and [BBT founder/patriarch] Stan Frankowski’s wall-sized polemics attacking local politicians, anti-union foes, and corporate corruption. After Stan’s passing in 2005, his sons Steve and Karl took over the business. They kept up all the other traditions–including the annual day-after-Easter Dyngus Day party–but toned-down the see-it-from-the-suburbs politics. The updated red-and-white paint job, side screened porch/smoker’s lounge, and Polish falcons still look great.

coats of arms for Rodom and Radlin painted as murals on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Coats-of-arms from Rodom and Radlin

I didn’t make it out to the final night at the BBT–the body just wouldn’t let me. Luckily, Mike Shanley gave us all a pretty good scene report plus a slew of his own reminiscences in this week’s City Paper.

That said, news began to circulate about the (then-future) closing of the bar back in the late winter, so 2017 became a kind-of year-long living goodbye to venue. I played a last show there, saw a (different) last show there, and yes, ate a last Polish Platter. For the piece on his recent book of poetry, we interviewed Scott Silsbe over Strawb ambers in BBT’s breezy side porch on a lovely day in May.

mirrored wall behind the bar and patrons at Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

BBT near the end: bevelled mirror bar, blood red ceiling, and big cats on TV.

As much as I’ll personally miss the place, I don’t fault the Frankowski brothers one bit for the decision to move on. Running a bar has got to be really tough work full of long, late hours dealing with no small amount of jerks, deadbeats, drunkards, and bodily fluids. Hats off to anyone who can put up with all that and still keep smiles on their faces the way Stan, Steve, Karl, and Sheila always did.

The Orbit certainly hopes the Frankowskis find a good new owner for the building and business so they can finally relax on the weekends without the sound of electric guitars ringing in their ears. Hopefully, the next tenants at 4412 Liberty Ave. will understand the legacy and history they’re dealing with–maybe they’ll even keep up the outside murals.

exterior of Bloomfield Bridge Tavern with Polish red and white flag and logo, Pittsburgh, PA

Hallowed ground. Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

A final note. “New” Pittsburgh: if you’re out there listening and planning the next local, organic, hop-infused culinary venture, please–sweet Jesus–consider adding a Polish Platter to the menu. I’m sure I won’t be the only one pining for the taste and willing to pony up every chance I get–at least as much as the doctor allows.

metal window cover painted with message "The worst form of failure is the failure to try.", Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA