Q: Who Can Take a Rainbow and Make the World Taste Good? A: The Randyland Can

elaborately painted former storefront, now Randyland, in Pittsburgh, PA

All the colors, all the time: Randyland, Arch Street, North Side

Even on one’s second, third, or fourth visit, there is still a lot left to take in. Dangling fruit and topiary flora; psychedelic pattern-over-pattern detail and wooden animals spinning their wings in the breeze; funhouse mirrors elongate space and disembodied mannequin heads make sure someone’s looking out for you at all times.

With all these competing attention-grabbers, what will stay with you most are the colors. The phrase “every crayon in the box” comes to mind–but it’s not quite accurate here. You’ll find no dour grays or bland beiges, nor any ugly browns or heavy black. The colors are more like an exploded rainbow dipped in a dream: big, bright, and bold, fully saturated with no restrictions on theme or palette.

wooden backyard arbor decorated with plastic fruit at Randyland

Arbor fruit and psychedelic stairs

By now, Randyland needs (almost) no introduction. The North Side house of many murals, its open-to-the-public garden art environment, decorated fences, adjoining buildings, and extending-to-the-street pole art have been featured in travel sites, airline magazines, city visitor guides, and a zillion Instragram selfies.

That level of publicity usually takes a location out of our purview … usually. But Randyland is also such a special place–so individual, fun, giving, personal, positive, and, yes, colorful that we also can’t not include it in The Orbit‘s broader map of Pittsburgh’s you need to see this cultural high points. Plus, we’ve been negligent on including a Mexican War Streets story and it’s high time we right that wrong.

map of the North Side of Pittsburgh rendered as 3-D mural at Randyland

3-D Central North Side map (excerpt)

However it happened, Pittsburgh’s North Side ended up with an outsize share of the city’s big name cultural and tourist attractions. The Andy Warhol Museum, National Aviary, Children’s Museum, and Carnegie Science Center are all within (long) blocks of each other, as are the ball parks for both The Steelers and Pirates. The North Side also hosts slightly less name-brand amenities like The Mattress Factory, St. Anthony’s Reliquary, The Hazlett Theatre, Bicycle Heaven, and the newish (but terrificish) Alphabet City. It would be negligent to not mention that that the city’s only casino also ended up on the far “North Shore.” (Sigh.)

direction signs outside Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

All roads lead to Randyland

So it is entirely fitting that Randyland is right here, on Arch Street, at the absolute geographical center of The North Side. This place–both visionary and as grass roots and down-to-earth as they come–seeks to be a welcome beacon to all of Pittsburgh’s disparate citizens, as well as all of her visitors. Those who come to our fair city and ignore the Land of Randy in favor of a roll on the slots or pre-game beers in a parking lot do so at their own peril. You’ve been warned.

handmade welcome signs in many different languages at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Section of “The largest international welcome wall in America”

Whether The largest international welcome wall in America can really claim that honor is probably up for debate. Regardless, Randyland has the interior of the Arch Street fence fully decked out with hand-painted arrows that bienvenidosmurakaza nezaüdvözöljük, and haere-mai visitors from around the world into Randy’s little corner of it.

The property’s side shed is well-stocked with shelves full of blanks ready for visitors to decorate with new welcome messages. A sign by the project mentions the creator’s welcome message  “must be your ancestry,” suggesting a United Nations-like visitor count has already made Randyland a stop on their American adventure.

wooden painted cutout of a musician playing a horn at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Play, baby, play … and then dream big

Around the east and south sides of Randyland, facing Arch and Jacksonia Streets, are big sections of wooden picket fence. It’s likely the first thing you’ll see after the Randyland pseudo-storefront right on the corner. Like everything else on the property, these are decorated in multiple layers of swirling psychedelic bubbles, little round fish eye mirrors, and spinning whirligigs on off-kilter poles.

Atop all this are a series of life-size, 2-D wooden cutouts of musicians and dancers. Wearing fabulously groovy patterns, caught mid-stride and in full blown-out jam mode, they seem to all be at a swinging good-time party no one would want to miss. Among all the eccentric oddball entries scattered about Randyland, these painted cutout figures are a really incredible collection of work that would stand on its own in any environment.

hand-painted cut-out of man playing long trumpet at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Play, smile, laugh, dance, love, believe, grow

Messages painted directly on the figures’ body parts, clothes, and instruments are a not-too-subtle thesis for Randyland writ large. Dream Big, reads the bell of a saxophone; Believe U Can, the inscription on a dancer’s necktie. A cubist trumpeter with a punk rock hairdo implores us to Play, Smile, Laugh, Dance, Love, Believe, Grow. The message on a frenetic dancer’s long flowing dress is simply Be Happy.

metal letters spelling L-O-V-E in sand at Randyland

We IOVF Randyland! Love letters in the sand.

That kind of relentlessly earnest optimism and you-can-do-it positive encouragement is both a rare thing in this age of cynicism and easy to dismiss as hopelessly naive. It may also be a tough nut to swallow for those suffering from a blues that can make tossed-off statements like “be happy” feel like either an insufferably shallow temperature reading or an insurmountable obstacle to achieve in a real world outside the boundaries of Randyland.

art robot with outstretched arms

HUG-BOT 2.0

But…that’s why Randy created the HUG-BOT 2.0–and a garden’s worth of oversize art flowers, goofy takes on where to hang one’s lawn furniture, and how to look at the sky in its mirror opposite. If you can manage to visit Randyland, take your time speculating on the preposterous occasion of a suit of armor with a necktie, giant flies on telephone poles, mannequin heads in sunglasses and lip gloss and still not feel any better about the state of the world, well, you may just need to turn around, look at that wall of arrows one more time, and know that this is a place where you’re always welcome to try again.

collection of mannequin heads wearing sunglasses at Randyland

Here’s lookin’ at you! The future’s so bright, even the mannequins gotta wear shades.


Getting there: Randyland is located at 1501 Arch Street in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood of the North Side. It’s free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to dusk pretty much every day.

Art Walk: The Pipe Cleaner Fern Frames of Lawrenceville

pipe cleaner fern frame

Consider it a wild weekend with woebegone weeds or First Fridays for forgotten ferns. Heck, this may even qualify as the Make a Wish Foundation for misunderstood moss. Whatever you call it, there’s a new street-level contemporary art walk on exhibit now–for what may be a very limited run–in Central Lawrenceville.

pipe cleaner fern and moss frame

Someone has taken the fascinating step of constructing simple colorful rectangular frames from mismatched pipe cleaners and attached them to an old stone retaining wall along 45th Street, bordering St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.

Their placement on the soot-blackened stones is no haphazard act of vandalism or careless littering–no, they’ve been very precisely curated to frame and highlight the kind of the minute nature dioramas that appear around us everywhere, all the time, but usually go unnoticed. In lieu of anything more witty, we’re calling these fern frames.

popsicle stick fern frame

Nature is an absolutely amazing thing–and one that we can reasonably trust to outlive and survive the appetite-for-extinction behavior of the human race. In every sidewalk crack, a burst of life; on each block of pavement, itty-bitty creatures scurrying around, just doing their thing. And yes, in the thin vertical spaces between wall stones and mortar joints there exist tiny blasts of green in the form of soft fuzzy moss, delicate miniature weeds, the spindly leaves of little ferns.

pipe cleaner moss frame

We have no idea what motivated the person or persons responsible to construct and place the fern frames–they come with neither attribution nor artist statement. So we’re left to speculate on what’s going on with these simple displays. Are they a goofy stunt with leftover crafting materials? Psychological experiment? Candid Camera-style prank where The Orbit is the butt of the joke?

Anything’s possible, but to the imaginative mind what these little pieces seem to say echoes Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s famous couplet I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree. You can put a lot of effort into painting a picture, singing a song, or–gulp–writing a blog post, but you’re not going to top Mother Nature. Look around! Keep those peepers open! The world is a wonderful and mystifying place.

It can be really hard given the news of the day–you name the day–and, yes, people have all kinds of heaviness they’re dealing with. But what these little fern frames seem to say is, don’t just stop and smell the roses–those sell-outs already get enough attention!–put your schnoz right down in between the cracks in the sidewalk and up against the stones in the wall. There is so much beauty all around us, but sometimes it takes an anonymous stranger with a couple pipe cleaners to point it out to us.

pipe cleaner weed and moss frame

Art All Night 2019: A Roundup with Reflections on 22

artists from Creative Citizens Studios, “Pittsburgh,” (detail) mixed media

There she is: perhaps the most famous character the Brothers Grimm brought to world. Most of us came to her doe-eyed, perfectly-behaved acquaintance care of Walt Disney Studio’s classic animated film.

Only here the princess is no angel. She’s accessorized in rock-and-roll sunglasses and huffing a cloud of gray smoke through a makeshift pipe. It’s a scene that would leave Cheech and/or Chong gasping for fresh air. The crudely-painted artwork is titled Snow White Smoking Weed from an Apple.

lildoodoobutt, “Snow White Smoking Weed from an Apple”

Through the years, we’ve seen Art All Night grow up. We were there when the very literal all-night, anything-goes community event masquerading as art show learned to crawl, built its first set of plywood S panels, and went from a four-month planning cycle to an incredibly-efficient four-week execution. [Full disclosure: this author was neck-deep in volunteering for Art All Night for at least ten years; this year he just pulled a late-night, keep-your-eyes-open shift.]

So it is with strange comfort that we see this onetime oddball event grow up to be the same kind of goofball grass-roots institution we might have hoped for. The longevity of this all-volunteer event–last weekend was its 22nd yearly happening–and the continued commitment to no jury / no fee / no censorship is about as resolutely pure and accurate as one could hope from an organizational constitution.

Paul Feight, “4 Nudes Walking with Koi fish,” acrylic on canvas

Alexander Sands, “Diablo Blanco,” acrylic on canvas

There are a few other nos we could tack onto the Art All Night credo: no curation, no restraint, and no questions asked. These are, of course, 100% in the spirit of the event and give it a great I don’t need your rulesstick it to the man vibe–but that can present its own set of challenges for both participant and spectator.

Like being the introvert at a raucous New Year’s Eve gala or a vegetarian at a pig roast, the more subtle artworks are absolutely invited and welcome to be there, but may have a hard time feeling like they came to the right party.

Petey Miceli, “The Red Death,” acrylic on canvas

Exhibition at Art All Night favors big and loud, jokey and profane–that’s just the reality of an environment where the hanging is a shotgun blast of random collisions on dull fiberboard. There’s no way a sensitive portrait in graphite, delicate fabric embroidery, or miniature collage can compete side-to-side with a painting like The Red Death (above). That three-foot acrylic-on-canvas fantasy by artist Petey Miceli stars a giant demon-creature in flowing red cloak walking through turbulent seas with an enormous coffin under his arm.

Steven Walker, untitled, mixed media

Steven Walker’s untitled mixed media (self?) portrait of a young man staring straight back at the viewer (above) features actual barbed wire looped around the painting and a molded plastic eyeball exploding through the canvas in a gruesome bloody mess. It’s a lot to take in.

Ditto that for Universally fucked (below)–a kind of stoned joke come to life in the form of an orgasmic scary clown rogering a duck against a backdrop of the swirling psychedelic cosmos. There are elements of Jeannine Weber’s pen/pencil/acrylic artwork that I like–but I’m not going to hang this in the living room.

Jeannine Weber, “Universally fucked,” pencil/pen/acrylic

Kailee Greb, untitled (detail)

Kathie Hollingshead’s Peep All Night (below) takes the created-for-the-occasion approach to a whole new level. As one of the organizers of the event, her insiders-view recreation of Art All Night in miniature–with leftover Easter peeps standing in for attendees and volunteers–is a kind of meta joke-within-a-joke that blew this blogger’s already fragile noggin.

The piece–complete with faithful models of the plywood exhibition panels in cardboard and popsicle sticks–has so many great nods to Art All Nights past that we really have to salute this as some kind of high-water mark in art history. The tiny Etch-a-Sketch? The little Three Sisters bridge photo? Portraits of peeps? If you’ve been to Art All Night–any Art All Night–you’ll recognize these tropes. That’s it, man–game over.

Kathie Hollingshead, “Peep All Night,” mixed media

There’s long been a debate in Art All Night’s inner circles as to whether the work of younger artists should be segregated into a safe zone. The proponents argue that this way junior’s finger painting doesn’t end up hanging next to something really offensive; those opposed feel like it puts the kids in the often looked-over ghetto of “children’s art.”

Personally, I love to be surprised when the piece that pops out from a full panel has Age: 14 (or whatever) on the info tag. But I’m not a parent and don’t have to answer not-ready-for-it-yet questions like “why is that man doing that to that lady?”

Regardless, the under-18 panels always yield great stuff–too much to include here–but we loved Faith Little’s Daniel Ceaser, a mixed-media bas-relief in cut cardboard with stray scattered phrases like “Japanese Denim,” “Death & Taxes,” and “Street Car” that must be meaningful…but we can’t make the connection.

Faith Little, “Daniel Ceaser,” mixed media

Elias Grim, “Building a Wall”

As always, Art All Night is a place for some folks to, as Mrs. The Orbit says, “get their freak on.” From the days of The Rubber Men, The Cardboard Cowboy, and Sailor John Art All Night always brings out a who’s-who of where are these people the rest of the year?

The event has been around long enough for some of these folks to now be exhibiting in the great gallery in the sky. Rest assured, there’s a new crew of regulars–that guy with the electric blinking lights fuzzy jacket, Most Wanted’s crushed art cars, too many costumed characters to name, a naked lady!

We also enjoyed this too-late-for-the-party-but-I’m-showing-up-anyway tribute collage to the Golden Girls (below) which appears to just be a drop-off/leave-behind. We don’t know what Blanche, Rose, Sophia and the gang would have thought about Art All Night, but they’d be welcome here too.

anonymous drop-off art, “Golden Girls” collage

They’re not the only ones. If Art All Night teaches us anything, it’s that the human spirit to create, delight, surprise, and humor is deep and wide, strong and alive. That behind every row house awning and within every apartment bedroom there may be an artist, paintbrush in hand, shoving a fake bloody eyeball through a canvas just because he or she wanted to communicate…something…to the world.

lildoodoobutt, the artist behind the Snow White piece, would likely have a hard time finding gallery sponsorship elsewhere. We might assume the same for the vast majority of Art All Night contributing artists. That said, Ma and Pa doodoobutt can rest assured their kid will always have a home at Art All Night.

Katy Dement, papier mache/chia seed

Step Beat: The Steps of California-Kirkbride, Part 2: Hyena and Marvista

street with old houses and city steps climbing hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

Hyena Way alley and steps, California-Kirkbride

Apparently, the Internet informs us, North America once hosted its very own hyena. The Chasmaporthetes ossifragus managed to cross the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, make its way south to present-day Arizona and Mexico, and then east to what’s now Florida. There’s no mention of the big cat up here in the Northeast. This smaller, faster hyena seems to have gone extinct around one million years ago.[1]

So how did a little North Side alley and dramatic flight of 166 city steps end up with the name Hyena Way? We have no idea. But the loosey-goosey manner with which Pittsburgh ended up naming its back alleys would make for a near endless supply of Orbit fodder–if only we knew how to figure out the explanations.

view from the top long set of public city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

looking down from the top of Hyena Way with view of downtown Pittsburgh and Mt. Washington

When last we left you, Team Orbit was ascending the cluster of vertical streets on the eastern half of California-Kirkbride. The North Side neighborhood is small, but hosts an outsize number of both steps and viewpoints. Today we head just a couple blocks west to the thrilling pair of steps that meet at the end of the paved section of Hyena Way.

Visible from the main road as a straight climb right up the hillside, Hyena Way begs for a visit from anyone glancing in from California Ave. and excited about such things. We are powerless against this siren call, and thus continued the journey up, over, around, and down.

view from the top of long set of public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

looking down from the top of Marvista Street

All that mumbo-jumbo last week about how you can see so much more before the leaves come back to the trees really makes sense on these two stretches. Both flights have tall spindly trees right up to the handrails and it’s obvious they’ll generate a thick canopy over the walkways soon enough. That’ll be beautiful in its own right, but it behooves the step-hiker to catch these long views while she or he can.

From Hyena, you’re looking almost due south, over the railyards and Manchester, across rivers to downtown and Mount Washington. It’s a lovely, long scope that encompasses many great landmarks in the city all from one vantage point.

Marvista is perpendicular to Hyena and therefore faces west as one looks out from the top. There are fewer name-brand attractions in this direction, but it’s no less a pleasure to take in the landscape all the same.

public steps climbing the hills of Pittsburgh, PA

At the intersection of Marvista Street and Hyena Way, a network of steps and ghost steps

Where Marvista and Hyena meet is a fascinating cluster of still-in-use city steps (the two main flights) plus obsolete connectors and spurs–often terminating at empty foundations and tree-filled lots. The complexity of steps at this junction speaks to those same refrains we think about on most of these hikes: how this once-dense city neighborhood lost the vast majority of both its population and housing stock in the 140-or-so years since it was laid out and the fact that no one really needs to hike down the hillside every day to get to work. This gruesome one-two punch make any like them endangered species.

But as infrastructure of pleasure–recreation, meditation, and speculation, not to mention a history lesson in every walk–the steps of Hyena Way and Marvista Street are just about as exciting and beautiful as anywhere in the city. Some–certainly those who prefer solitude and exploration–will argue they’re even more valuable than their well-dressed and more popular peers along the riverfronts or up on Grandview Ave.

hillside with city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Marvista Street

There was a plan to include a map and suggested walking route for all the steps in California-Kirkbride. But as we plotted it out on paper, there was just no obvious loop to bag all the steps and get you back to where you started. It was going to end up being a confusing figure-8 or something and the truth is that it’s just not that hard to come up with your own plan if you’re so-inclined.

The trees are budding, so you won’t have these views for long. Get up there, stretch your gams, and keep your eyes open–maybe you’ll even spot one last hyena.

concrete public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

ghost steps, lower Marvista Street

Step Beat is an occasional series where The Orbit describes interesting features of Pittsburgh’s 700+ sets of public city steps.


[1] Source: Brian Switek, “North America Used to Have its Very Own Hyena,” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 3, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/north-america-once-had-hyena-its-very-own-180960673/

Step Beat: The Steps of California-Kirkbride, Part 1: Sunday Sunny Sunday

view of downtown Pittsburgh from public city steps

B Street, with view of downtown Pittsburgh, California-Kirkbride

In a few weeks (fingers crossed) everything will look different. The signs are all there: we’ve crossed the vernal equinox, birds are chirping their beaks off, full daylight exists before and after work, the first purple and gold crocuses are nudging their little flower heads from packed earth and sad-looking grass.

But for now, Pittsburgh still exists in its foliage-free late-winter monochrome of gray-brown. Bare trees are just spindly brown stalks. Hillsides have been reduced to impenetrable rats nests of last year’s dried up knotweed, tall grass, and loose vines. Grassy patches have typically turned into either a boggy mess or–in the case of this relatively dry winter–parched yellow straw.

The sky usually doesn’t help matters. A thick blanket of gray clouds casts its pall across the landscape more often than not; the absence of Vitamin D a severe depressant for the sun-deprived this time each year.

public city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

B Street, from Lamont

But not on this day! Last Sunday the blue above was so iridescently deep and rich, the sun so full and bright, and clouds just picture-perfect cotton balls, that it seemed to kick in the door of spring a week early, even if the plants hadn’t gotten the message.

You don’t have to tell this blogger twice: it was step-climbing weather if there ever was such a thing. So we lit off for the little North Side neighborhood of California-Kirkbride, home to a smattering of getting-fixed-up row houses, some terrific views, and–depending on how one counts them–five or six or seven great sets of city steps.

public steps on hillside in Pittsburgh, PA

St. Ives Street (foreground) and Sunday Street (in back)

Now, truth be told, we’d just been to the neighborhood 24 hours earlier–though admittedly, unenlightened and on a tighter timeline. The previous day was all of the above–chilly, desolate, and bleak. On that occasion we only got as far as the intersecting steps of St. Ives and Sunday streets and their eventual top-of-hill conclusion at Oriana. The latter parallels the old stone wall surrounding Union Dale Cemetery.

From the top of the steps, the day hiker is rewarded with interesting views both across the roofs of Manchester to downtown and over the river to Mount Washington. Turning the other direction, we can see right into the headstones and treetops of the looming cemetery.

Little B Street–connecting Lamont to Morrison–is well worth your time while you’re over there. It’s just a block long, but dramatically steep and featuring a pair of accessible-only-by-steps row houses. There’s another nice view at the top.

public steps and view of North Side, Pittsburgh, PA

a day earlier: gray view from top of Sunday Street

Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about a (late) winter step trek: you get to see so much more! Yes, soon enough this entire scene will be filled with lush green as Pittsburgh’s chronic humidity will prompt every bare patch of earth to sprout life, spread outward, and reach up into the sky.

All that overpowering tree, shrub, vine, and weed growth is a wondrous and beautiful thing, but it sure cuts down on the available sight lines. Every step trekker knows it’s a four-seasons hobby; in winter, we get the longest views.

public steps on sidewalk with hillside cemetery above, Pittsburgh, PA

Oriana Street steps and Union Dale Cemetery

Now, at this point, astute Orbit readers and chronic step-walkers are either rabid with anticipation or out-and-out screaming into their electronic devices. What about the rest of the neighborhood? They might say, You’re totally missing the best parts!

Fear not, dear reader. California-Kirkbride doesn’t have the largest quantity of steps in the city, but it still has too many to cover in just one post. We’ve also got a part 2 wherein the crew scales the deep hollow steps on the western side of the neighborhood. Hopefully we’ll see you on the steps.

view of Pittsburgh from city steps

view from lower Sunday Street


Step Beat is an occasional series where The Orbit describes interesting features of Pittsburgh’s 700+ sets of public city steps.

Higher and Higher: Star-Gazing in Squirrel Hill

sparkle Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David + heart on Forbes Ave.: one of two thousand, in and around Squirrel Hill

The little stars are made from glitter and felt, plastic and wood, popsicle sticks and laminated paper. They’re tied to the tiniest branches of street trees with ribbon, wire, and bailing twine; they rest lazily in boxwood hedges. The stars commune with other memorials left on handrails and steps, safety gates, and police barricades.

Overwhelmingly, though, each of the small totems–a six-pointed Star of David with a heart at its center–has been knit or crocheted by hand and attached to utility poles throughout central Squirrel Hill[1]. When you pass down Wilkins or Shady, Forbes or Negley, you’ll not miss the stars fluttering–dancing, even–in the breeze.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

October 27, 2018 may well go down as Pittsburgh’s 9/11–the remember-exactly-where-you-were date for a generation’s most horrific local atrocity. Me, I was in Bellevue, dressed in a stupid outfit, holding a trombone, and standing in the cold rain at the tail end of the borough’s Halloween parade.

The relentless weather that morning pretty much kept all of the expected crowd home, leaving just us obligated parade marchers to get the news all at the same point. I remember feeling useless and helpless–milling around on the vacant, closed-to-traffic main drag before heading home without even saying goodbye.

crochet Star of David with heart on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

By now, America has sadly gotten plenty of practice grieving for the victims of mass shootings and violent hate crimes. Even if you didn’t make it up to the Tree of Life synagogue in the days following the massacre, you know what the outside scene inevitably looked like. The victims here were all adults–so it didn’t feature quite so many teddy bears as your, yes, average school shooting–but the scene of an overflowing buffet of flowers and personal notes, photographs and mementos set against protective barriers and caution tape was all there.

In the two months since the Tree of Life shooting, most of these memorials have been relocated. But by mid-November a second-wave tribute–beautiful in its decentralization, variety, and spirit–arrived throughout pedestrian Squirrel Hill.

wooden disc with Star of David hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David made from postage stamps hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Right now, thousands of handmade Stars of David decorate nondescript public spaces and street-facing hedges and gates in the neighborhood[2]. They radiate out from the Tree of Life synagogue and populate Squirrel Hill’s business district along Forbes and Murray Aves.

The stars are the work of an impromptu online group called Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh, started by two “craftivists,” Hinda Mandell and Ellen Dominus Broude, both from separate parts of Upstate New York. The Post-Gazette has an article and short video detailing that effort.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

Likely, most of those who experience the Tree of Life stars will only see them as brief flashes of color, twiddling in the breeze through the passenger-side window–their forms may not even be recognizable at any speed. The Orbit recommends ditching the car and taking a long contemplative walk around middle Squirrel Hill’s wide streets as the best way to inhabit the diffuse tribute.

golden wire Star of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Perhaps it should be no surprise but the totality of the experience is incredibly moving. The first, gut reaction to these handmade, intersected symbols of Judaism and love, sent from supportive crafters from around the world, is the most obvious.

“There is more good in the world than evil,” says Ms. Broude in the P-G video, “An assault against one is an assault against all.”[3] That message–something terrible happened here, but there is way more love than hate in the world–comes though loud and clear, ringing out from the branches and telephone poles.

crochet Star of David with heart on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

But it doesn’t stop there. So many of the knit stars–hung from a single point, stretched out by gravity, and curled in the weather–end up taking on unexpected anthropomorphic qualities. [Yes, there is one extra appendage in this representation.] The little bodies appear alternately huddled and triumphant, at rest and in play, lifted and weightless in the wind.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

This atheist goy had to Google “Jewish belief in an afterlife.” While the religion isn’t nearly as hung up on the notion of heaven as Christianity–preferring instead to value and emphasize life here on earth–it’s also not without its post-mortal coil fallback options. This description, from the Chabad site, seems to sum up the philosophy:

There isn’t anything after life, because Jews believe that life never ends. It just goes higher and higher. In the afterlife, the soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to her source than ever before.

crochet Stars of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Sure, it was a windy day when we visited and took these photos, but the rapturous lifting of these little forms–literally higher and higher off of their twig and twine moorings, flying up towards the sun–felt like liberation. Hopefully, for the victims, family, and friends of the Tree of Life shooting, they’ll find some peace in this beautiful expression of love.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA


[1] … and supposedly elsewhere. (But we’ve only seen them in Squirrel Hill.)
[2] Organizers estimate “around 2000” stars. Source: https://www.post-gazette.com/news/faith-religion/2018/11/17/Jewish-Stars-of-David-Tree-of-Life-Pittsburgh-volunteers-knit-crochet-twelve-countries-crafts-facebook/stories/201811170055
[3] Ibid.

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.