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

An Urban Hike: William Street, Mount Washington

downtown Pittsburgh seen through silhouetted trees

Ghost City. Downtown Pittsburgh as seen through trees on William Street, Mt. Washington.

If Rod Stewart is to be believed, every picture tells a story. This one’s a doozy.

In the photograph, the camera lens is roughly eye level with the tallest buildings in downtown Pittsburgh. They’re not “skyscraper” material, but we’ve got a collection of 40-, 50-, and 60-story towers that can legitimately feel “big city” if you pick just the right block to look up in. But here, it’s hard to actually see them–the distant office buildings of Grant and Smithfield Streets are heavily obscured by a foreground scrim of silhouetted trees clustered awkwardly, bent by nature, and leaning with no perceptible pattern.

The city scene is so background, washed-out, and featureless behind the crisp black tree line that it’s nearly unrecognizable if you don’t know what to look for. The storyline writes itself–Pittsburgh: the illusion of a big city within the reality of Appalachia.

single-lane road surrounded by trees in Pittsburgh, PA

big city living: William Street, about half way up

The bummer in taking a hike–if there is one–can be just getting there. As a person who’d rather not be in a car, the irony that one must drive to take a walk is befuddling and frustrating. It’s like purchasing new trash bags to just put them straight in the waste bin. Sure, you could live in a mountain cabin and hike right out the front door, but then you’d have to get in the car to buy your provisions–what a mess!

Not so in Pittsburgh. There are, of course, terrific woodsy trails in the city parks (especially Riverview and Frick), but one needn’t stop there. Between the up-and-down topography and relative sparseness of the hilltop communities, there are ample urban hikes just a bicycle ride or bus transfer away.

hand-painted road sign with multiple curves, Pittsburgh, PA

they ain’t kidding: curves ahead on William Street

Like the old joke, “I went a to a fight and a hockey game broke out,” we arrived at William Street  last week on journalistic assignment and a hike happened. We were up on Mount Washington to track down and photograph the childhood home of [bygone football hero] Johnny Unitas. [For more on that, see last week’s story “A Football Team That Wanted Him: Johnny Unitas and the Bloomfield Rams” by David Craig.] Oh, we located the house–but we found so much more too.

sun coming through trees in Grandview Park, Pittsburgh, PA

uphill to Grandview Park

There would have been a lot more homes up here in young Johnny U’s day–frankly, it’s a bit of a surprise the Unitas house is still standing. William Street, which descends as a snake-slithering one-lane/one-way from Boggs Ave. down to Arlington Ave., has few remaining buildings today. A 1901 map, however, shows us how many homes once stood along the road. Whether that’s because the residential plots were requisitioned to create the surrounding park land or if it just got too difficult and expensive to maintain houses in a holler on the side of a mountain is unknown. Maybe one was a convenient excuse for the other.

In any case, the signs of life are still here. Like any self-respecting city steps hike, the amateur archeologist is rewarded with nature-without-man trees growing through basements, layered stone foundations, felled chimneys, and still extant front steps edging right up to the roadside–all this as the sun’s halo casts a rich, dappled light through the lush greenery of Grandview Park.

stone steps and house foundation on hillside in Pittsburgh, PA

forgotten foundation and entry steps, lower William Street

detail of William Street from a 1901 map showing many former houses on the south and east sides of the street

detail: lower William Street c. 1901 showing many former houses on the south and east sides of the street (G.M. Hopkins & Co. map collection)

There’s a line that every Pittsburgher has a favorite view of the city–the West End Overlook, Grandview Avenue, or St. John’s Cemetery in Spring Hill, for example. The richness of options on this one little path make a fair case for William Street as two or three different best views.

Near the top, there’s a unique look north-northwest to the side of Mount Washington proper–the big broadcast tower at the end of Grandview is an easy beacon. You also get the oddball collection of both traditional and uber-modern houses on little Cola Street in the foreground, plus a glancing shot at downtown and The Point. In the same general area, one can bag a nice sight line across the Smithfield Street bridge to the whole of downtown.

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, north view: downtown, Smithfield Street Bridge, Cola Street

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, view north-northwest: Grandview Ave. (with broadcast tower), houses on Cola Street, downtown

Further down, as William bends to more of an east-west layout, there are vantage points looking directly down the Liberty Bridge and off-angles from either side. Here, you’ll get eyes on the jail, Uptown, Duquesne University, and all the way across two rivers to Troy Hill and Spring Hill on the north side of the Allegheny.

view of downtown Pittsburgh from Mt. Washington

William Street, view north-northeast: Liberty Bridge, jail, and Uptown

William Street is not without its perils. One big section of the road has begun to crumble off the hillside. Other parts are so narrow there’s not a lot of margin for error. These are mainly concerns for the motorists rolling the dice as they travel downhill, but you’ll want to keep your wits about you.

Citizen-hikers should take note: William is an active city street and cars will slowly edge by you while pumping their brakes. That said, it’s just not that busy–in the full climb up and back on a Saturday morning, we probably encountered less than ten vehicles.

wooden steps descending to wooded trail, Pittsburgh, PA

entrance to Emerald View Trail from William Street

The street even provides for the folks who don’t consider a walk on pavement to be a “real” hike. Climbers have the option to sneak off the asphalt and into the woods near the top of the hill. There, the terrific Emerald View Trail runs right across the street on its route from Bigbee Field/Grandview Park above to the woods around McArdle Roadway below.

These are Pittsburgh’s salad days. Crisp, jacket-weather mornings followed by lush, unrelenting blue sky afternoons full of turning leaves, pumpkin-spiced and decorative gourd fall fantasias, plus a seeming mass conviviality we never quite achieve the rest of the year. Get out there and enjoy it.

A Splendid Day in Esplen

view of McKees Rocks, PA from Pittsburgh neighborhood of Esplen

Esplen: Gateway to McKees Rocks. View of downtown McKees Rocks from the end of Radcliffe Street.

This blogger ain’t too proud to admit he had to look it up. Where the heck is Esplen? Well, it turns out we’d been there–or, at least, driven past–plenty of times and just didn’t even know it. You probably have as well.

The little boomerang-shaped neighborhood sits at the far western edge of the city, bounded by the Ohio River, Chartiers Creek, and a set of train tracks. There is no welcome sign. If you don’t live in the area, you’ve still probably whizzed by on West Carson Street/Rt. 51 as it heads out toward McKees Rocks, Neville Island, Coraopolis, and points west. In fact, from several Esplen dead-end streets there are some quite fine, elevated views across the creek to Chartiers Ave., downtown McKees Rocks’ main drag[1].

small cinderblock building with "Lab" over front door, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery Lab

A visit to Esplen won’t take you all day. With ten or twelve very short streets, plus a similar number of alleys and block-long connectors–may be a couple hundred total houses–you can probably tour the entire neighborhood and still have time for the Sunday crossword all before lunch.

Esplen is largely zoned commercial/industrial and is home to several small factories, a trucking center, some kind of chemical plant with its own mystery “Lab”, two different plumbing and heating outfits, etc. All this and the only actual retail business is a single Sunoco station. Presumably, Esplenites cross the creek to shop in the Rocks’ business district just blocks away.

statuette of Mary with white flowers, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary with flowers, Oregon Street

statuette of Mary on pedestal of bricks, Pittsburgh, PA

She’s a brick house Mary, Oregon Street

Esplen is a tiny neighborhood–among the smallest in the city both in acreage and population–but it still has a bunch of our favorite Pittsburgh things. There is a fine pair of front yard Marys at two different Oregon Street houses, some rugged untamed hillsides–one with a couple weird tunnels (storm drains from uphill Sheraden? former sewers?)–and a set of houses built on the face of a rock wall so steep there are two flights of steps to get to the front doors. A hand-painted sign informed us the mail is delivered milkman-style via the Caledonia Way alley behind the houses.

hand-painted sign reading "Mail Box Side Porch", Pittsburgh, PA

“Mail Box Side Porch”, Caldonia Way

two frame houses with long sets of steel steps to reach the front door, Pittsburgh, PA

This is why the mail is delivered via the back alley/side porch, Oregon Street

There is no official art gallery in Esplen, but one Poplar Way cinderblock garage has its exterior wall stocked with an odd assortment of recycled signage, plus the grill from a truck, and a sun-bleached portrait of Elvis. In a pinch, it’ll do.

Another Oregon Street house (not pictured) will be fully decked out for the holiday–you name the holiday–complete with both a prominent rebel/Confederate flag and a framed poster of (black athlete) Bo Jackson on the front porch. Esplenites are clearly comfortable with dichotomy on this matter.

garage decorated with "Peace on Earth" letters, stop signs, "School Bus" sign, and mounted photograph of Elvis Presley, Pittsburgh, PA

Poplar Way garage gallery

cement retaining wall in hillside with two tunnels, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery tunnels, Esplen Street

Should you add Esplen to your must do list? As pro-Pittsburgh/gotta-see-it-all as The Orbit is, it’s hard for even us to lobby this one. It’s a cheap date, for sure–you’re only out the couple bucks for a Sunoco coffee and the gas to get you over the McKees Rocks Bridge[2]–but Bicycle Heaven is free! If our time was worth anything, would we be blogging?

That said, there’s just not much for even the most easily-amused to poke around and ponder upon. Esplen is essential if you’re trying to visit/report on every one of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods (we are), but we still recommend you take your out-of-towners to more A-list attractions like the Rising Main steps, Howard Street, or the ex-atom smasher first.

Garage door with painting of two toddlers looking in their diapers and the words "There IS a difference in plumbing", Pittsburgh, PA

Sex ed, Esplen-style


[1] Our first visit–when we took all these photos–was back in late winter when the trees were still bare, exposing views of McKees Rocks that may not exist during the lush months of summer.
[2] The western neighborhoods of Pittsburgh are not easily accessible by bicycle from the rest of the city, so yes–we drove to Esplen. If any Orbit reader has a safe, bicycle-friendly route out that way, please let us know.

The Front (and Back) Yard Marys of Bloomfield, Part 2

statuette of Mary in grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Ella Street

“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” – James 1:14

When first we reported on The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield (Pittsburgh Orbit: June 26, 2016), this blogger naively believed he’d bagged them all. But oh, like James, how The Orbit was lured and enticed by its own desire.

It wasn’t that we weren’t thorough. No, the way we’d figured it, every thoroughfare, side street, and back-alley was meticulously criss-crossed in a slow-motion two-wheel scan for Herself*. In this quest, we found The Blessed Mother, again and again, peering back at us from stoops and yardlets, porches and grottos all over the neighborhood.

Mary statuette seen through chainlink fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Chain link Mary, Idaline Street

statuette of Mary lying face down in backyard dirt, Pittsburgh, PA

That’s no way to treat a lady! Face-down Mary and homemade snow plow grotto, Carroll Street

But Mary–or, Marys–still managed to elude us. They clung to the shadows, behind fences, and deep in private spaces. How many more? It makes a blogger insane. Should we blow the entire Orbit budget on drone aviation/surveillance just to spy into the secluded no-access recesses of inner Bloomfield? No–that would be creepy, weird, and extreme. How many more? Should we deploy guises in our mission? The stock Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness costumes probably won’t get us far in this case, but how about dressing as “backyard inspectors” who “just need to take a few pictures” because “it’s regulation”? That could get us quick glimpses into those most private of sanctums. How many more?

Statuette of Mary in grotto of row house side yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Row houses, chain link, grape vines, Mary-and-grotto: that looks like Bloomfield to me, Torley Street

statuette of Mary by red brick rowhouse, Pittsburgh, PA

Ella Street

In The Orbit‘s defense, the Marys that did manage to emerge in the (nearly a) year since that initial post are not obvious. They’re deep cuts, B-sides, studio outtakes only fit for super fans who already own all the official releases. We’re talking a camouflaged Mary two backyards and three fences deep off tiny Mott Way; Mary face down in soggy dirt; an empty grotto your average Joseph–or customer on the way to Shur-Save–wouldn’t bat an eye at.

homemade Mary grotto without statuette in back yard of small house, Pittsburgh, PA

Empty Mary grotto, Ella Street

Mary statuette against garage wall behind chain link fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Camo Mary, Mott Way

For the obsessive collector, it’s all about the pursuit, but any hunt must be sustained by the occasional kill–[choice of words]–blessed encounter to keep up both morale and momentum. It’s fine if we haven’t bagged them all–we never will and (keep telling ourselves) that’s OK! Regardless, you’ve still got to bring something home for supper or the whole family goes hungry.

Like our old boss always said, “there’s a lot of good eating in Bloomfield”. If what they’re serving up is Mary–low-milage, sun-dried, and salt-cured–we’ll go back for seconds. Oh yeah, we’ll go back for more.

statuette of Mary in wooden backyard flower box, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary of the flower boxes, Carroll Street

two statuettes of Mary in a row house backyard, Pittsburgh, PA

Row houses, chain link, grape vines, and a pair of Marys, State Way


* Every street except Ella, whose two different front demi-yard Marys were inexcusably missed the first time around, but are captured here.

The Sad Toys of Homewood’s “Killing Fields”

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

The sad toys of “The Killing Fields”, Homewood South

Against deep blue sky and thick green long-overgrown grass, the fuzzy little bodies pop from the chain link fence they cling to. Tigers, monkeys, floppy-eared dogs and bunny rabbits fill the ranks, as do a lion, zebra, and giant duck. We didn’t know dinosaurs could be cuddly and furry, but there’s one of those too.

Overwhelmingly, though, the majority in this population is the teddy bear. Dozens of bears hang from the fence and nearby telephone pole: in a bow tie and with a Valentine’s heart, dressed in a Scotsman’s plaid and with matching Christmas hat and scarf, still buoyantly wide-eyed awake and drooping limply with the weight of the world.

telephone pole decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas garland, Pittsburgh, PA

The long, east-west alleys of Homewood are, like many sets of children born to the 1970s, group-named with a common initial letter: Ferdinand, Fletcher, Fuchsia, Fielding, Forest, Felicia, Fleury. Heading south, the very last of these–before you cross Hamilton Avenue and both street grid and naming scheme change–is Formosa Way.

The little alleyway is typical of many old Pittsburgh backstreets–a single lane, weedy, cracked, and stained with decades of practical use and a typically low seat on the Department of Public Works priority list for maintenance. Formosa Way runs parallel between Kelly Street and Hamilton Ave. and (at least at one time) was the main entrance for many row houses that fronted the alley for blocks in either direction.

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

All things considered, the 7300 block of Formosa Way looks a whole lot better than many Pittsburgh alleys. There’s next-to-no litter, nor signs of illegal dumping. The backyards of the row houses facing the adjoining streets may be untamed, but are now lush, tall-grassed expanses that bring welcome deep green open space to what at one time must have been dense blocks of brick worker housing.

What’s not so expected is the stretch of thirty-some feet of chain link fence, now bordering an overgrown vacant lot, plus one service pole across the alley. Attached to the intertwined steel strands and lashed to the wooden pole are scores–a hundred or more–soft children’s playthings along with assorted pinwheels, holiday decorations, and Christmas garland. These tributes have clearly been here for some time: their synthetic fur is matted, gnarled, and bleached white in years’ worth of sun, rain, frost, and thaw.

boarded-up row houses and chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a strange realization that the small patch of earth one has bicycled-through mere hours before is known locally as The Killing Fields…or, at least, it was at one time*. That particular name arrived during the crack-fueled gang violence of the 1990s, but persisted (we understand) until quite recently. Right here at Formosa and Collier, several blocks of derelict housing were razed in 2012*. A short set of five boarded-up row houses immediately adjoining the fence appear headed for the same fate.

That said, on this fine, bright sunny Sunday early afternoon, the blocks around Formosa Way feel much more like the Sunday-go-to-meetin’ fields or the wash-the-car-with-the-radio-on fields. Those activities, along with stoking up big barrel charcoal grills and neighbors swapping gossip on front porches are the most obvious occupations to the peddle-by blogger.

telephone pole decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas garland, Pittsburgh, PA

No label is attached to the fence of sad toys, there is no description for the installation, and attribution for the collection is not given. But what’s here seems obvious enough for even the densest of outsiders to put two and two together. This pair of diametrically-opposed and inseparably-linked events–decades of street violence and the impromptu memorial to lost innocence–say so much about the deep loss generations of Homewood families must have felt.

If each stuffed animal on the Formosa Way fence represents just one casualty in the neighborhood’s struggle, it is a weight no single community should have to bear. It’s more likely that not every victim received a tribute here–that a suitable memorial may need to be twice, three or more times greater to accurately represent the actual loss. For now, we can only hope the collection of playthings stops right where it is.

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

Final note: While most Pittsburgh Orbit stories sit just fine in the quasi-legitimate world of “speculative journalism”, this one does not. It’s crying out for more information from the Homewood community, the creators of the fence, residents of Formosa Way, etc.–we know this. Time and schedule wouldn’t allow that kind of “real journalism” for this week’s post, but we absolutely plan on continuing the story.

If you live in Homewood or have information on the Formosa Way fence, we would love to hear from you.


“Demolition gives Homewood residents hope”, Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 5, 2012 and “The ‘killing fields’ demolished in Homewood”New Pittsburgh Courier, 2012.