Row House Romance: Have You Seen the Back?

back sides of several joined row houses
Brick/collage: the back side of a row house block with a lot going on. Lawrenceville

Don’t tell Ms. Orbit, but your author has had a long-running affaire d’amour going on decades now. My paramour is lovely—and complicated—but always a surprise. A fellow makes his clandestine visits early in the morning and late at night—sometimes even sneaking in for a Rupert Holmes-style lunch hour. Just like Lionel Richie and the gang, she’s quite literally a brick house … but is still mighty mighty when she dresses down in casual wood frame and siding. Yes, I’m in a legit Row House Romance and here to tell you a fire that burns this hot ain’t going out any time soon.

side-by-side row houses, seen from the rear, with very different backyards
A tale of two backyards, Lawrenceville

We’ve talked in this virtual pages about how terrific row houses appear when they’re close-quartered odd couples, as twins gone wild, and dressed alike, side-by-side. Those collections all contemplate the street-side views of this uniquely urban design.

So today, we move around to the alley backsides of row house blocks where so often the true variations on this theme get amplified. Here—with less people looking and a little more room to make choices—homeowners let these birthed-from-the-same-womb siblings go their own ways.

She joined the fencing team, maybe, and likes to wear false eye … err, window lashes. His waistline expanded with a new addition and dresses like a pile of clothes when he can’t keep his siding straight.

rear view of two row houses
Row house cubism, Lawrenceville
rear of row houses seen over wooden fence
On—and over—the fence. Lawrenceville
rear view of three row houses
Squeezed together, Lawrenceville
side-by-side row houses with similar siding, seen from the rear
Little pink houses, Bloomfield
alley view of brick row houses painted red and pink, Pittsburgh, PA
Split personality, Lawrenceville
rear view of three row houses
Three amigos, Lawrenceville
rear view of brick row house showing differences between two halves
Better fences, Lawrenceville
rear-view of house and garage
Green scene, Millvale

Big Sky Rooflines

Maybe it’s cheating to include so much big blue sky in a photo that’s supposed to be about buildings, but when you’ve got it—and yes, it’s not all that often in Pittsburgh—a photographer will work it like a rented mule. Lit up like billboards and shining like new pennies, even humble row houses are elevated against a perfectly blue sky. It gives the picture a deep, mystical contrast we can’t resist. They just look so darn good—even from the back side.

three similar-looking row houses with white siding, seen from the back
Bloomfield
alley-facing exterior of row houses in Pittsburgh, PA
Lawrenceville
alley view of row houses, Pittsburgh, PA
Lawrenceville
rear view of three row houses
Lawrenceville
alley-facing exterior of row houses in Pittsburgh, PA
Lawrenceville

Attend Me: Collage Dropout in Deutschtown

colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Detail from large collage installation on East Ohio Street, Deutschtown

Attend me, hold me in your muscular flowering arms,
protect me from throwing any part of myself away.

These words, from self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde, are printed and duplicated—silk-screened, most likely—in an ornate, curlicue typeface and accented by fronds of unknown origin.

The cut-out text is layered atop a riot of dozens, hundreds maybe, of other screen-printed elements. Torn paper with the same couplet printed over and over again; images of skulls and boxers, eyeballs and ghostly figures; photographs cut from magazines bedazzled with after-market patterns and paint jobs.

They’re all part of a new(ish) installation on the North Side that, by its very nature, won’t be around for too long. Just like Ms. Lorde, attend it while you can.

colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Collage (detail) including Audre Lorde quotes, Moravian Way
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Ghost boxer

The 400 block of East Ohio Street has seen its fair share of change, even in just the last few years. Google Streetview reminds us the retail storefront at 404 E. Ohio was Ike’s Barber Shop and then Mosley’s Barber Shop until going vacant in 2015. The larger building at the corner was the old Peanutz Bar & Grill, which closed by 2016. In between the two, Alex’s Ice Cream held on longer, but seems to have become a victim of the pandemic lockdown just two years ago.

The most recent time Google documented the street, in August, 2021, it included another interesting detail. 408-410 E. Ohio hosted a large, double-door-sized collage piece on the temporary plywood covering the entrance. This is unmistakably the work of the same artist(s).

two vacant retail storefronts in disrepair
406-410 East Ohio Street, most recently Alex’s Ice Cream and Peanutz, in August, 2021 [photo: Google Streetview]

As observers, curiosity-seekers, speculators, we naturally look for meaning and theme when a piece this elaborate is exhibited—and there is plenty to work with here, if that’s your bag. Black icons Jack Johnson and Audre Lorde are an obvious entry point as are reverent photos of everyday folks and revolutionaries, updated with kente cloth, polka dots, and leopard skin patterns.

There’s also plenty of grim, foreboding imagery here. The repeated use of skulls, a menacing monster-like figure with its giant jaw agape, what may or may not be a nuclear blast, and the Virgin Mary in a hostage-taker’s ski mask.

colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront

We’ll not make the mistake of assigning any specific message to the collection. The artist (or artists)—there is no attribution on any of the pieces that I could find—kept themselves anonymous (although, we have our suspicions). So there’s no one to go to for clarification, which is fine.

Update (March 19, 2022): Following initial publication of this story, Pittsburgh Orbit was informed that the artists involved are Quaishawn Whitlock, Bekezela Mguni, and Darrell Kinsel. The three have a current show called Alchemical, created as part of their residency at AIR: Artists Image Resource on nearby Foreland Street.

colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Collage (full), Moravian Way

Whether we’re supposed to think anything at all about a stirring work, heavy on the iconography, or just enjoy the blast of layered color from a voracious screen-printer cleaning out his or her workspace is missing the point.

Someone created this, and it’s beautiful. It’s also unexpected, fun, head-scratching and gets us out of our heads and into the world. It’ll also be gone before you know it. The wheatpasted paper is already peeling at the corners and between unpredictable Pittsburgh weather and a property manager trying to rent the spaces, the whole thing will disappear before you know it.

Protect me from throwing any part of myself away feels like it might be a way of life for whoever did this. Embrace the piece by holding its visage in your muscular flowering arms, err … thoughts, dreams, and travels.

colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
The noses know this
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Mind/blown
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Mary Maskstillon
colorful collage of printed paper images layered on plywood covering vacant storefront
Collage installation at 406 East Ohio Street

Look Out Loretto, Part 3: Ovdje Počiva Zaboravljeno Groblje*

broken grave marker in untended cemetery
Crucified and cut in two. Marija Stosic’s grave marker is one of dozens in a no-longer-maintained section of Loretto Cemetery, Arlington

It’s a striking image. Marija Stosic’s grave marker has deep-chiseled text that casts stark shadows in the day’s bright sunlight. The minimal epitaph, Ovoi počiva u miru bozjem, is—if Google Translate is to be believed—Croatian for Rest in the peace of God. Above, we see the familiar empty oval cutout where a ceramic portrait of Ms. Stosic would have been inset when the stone marker was first installed.

The design of the monument features a carved cross at the top with an image of Jesus in relief. Sometime over the last 94 years, the top has broken off leaving the Beloved Son not only crucified but bisected at the waist. Marija Stosic’s tombstone rests with another couple dozen (at least) fellow graves in a plot that’s now overgrown with the kind of scrubby barbs that will make this place difficult to negotiate by the time spring returns.

grave marker covered by thick overgrowth
Elizabeth Floros

To be honest, we didn’t think Loretto Cemetery would produce another Orbit story. Our two-parter, from way back in 2016, on Loretto’s fine collection of pre-war photo graves and the ones that just about slipped away seemed like all we’d be able to squeeze out of such a small memorial park.

This time though, with a return trip on a lovely full sun midwinter day, we went all the way to the back and the bottom. The cemetery has an L-shaped extension that reaches down the hillside and runs out where the closely-clipped grass meets untamed snags and prickly bushes … but the cemetery doesn’t actually end there.

cemetery with clearly-defined sections where grounds are still tended vs. overgrown
Loretto’s lost cemetery below; still-tended cemetery above

Come springtime, it’s unlikely anyone would even have the sight lines into this extra, lost, forgotten—take your pick—section of the cemetery. We imagine the winter’s long grasses and denuded vinery will produce the same sort of thick greenery that envelopes every square inch of untended, asphalt-free Pittsburgh making this parcel all but invisible to Loretto’s visitors.

broken grave marker in untended cemetery
Mary Pavicič

The obvious question: why did this section of the cemetery—a plot maybe a few acres large, containing grave markers almost entirely with Croatian names, deceased in the 1920s and ’30s—stop receiving the care the rest of the park has? In lieu of any real journalism, we’re left to speculate.

grave marker knocked over by fallen tree
Mathilda Goralczyk

Theory 1: Cost savings for the cemetery. The geography of the hillside is just too severe and Loretto’s management decided they couldn’t justify the expense of sending their grounds crew into an untamable wild to tend a set of grave markers so old they rarely—if ever—receive family members.

Theory 2: This was never a part of Loretto and instead it was a separate, independent cemetery. We find these tiny cemeteries—often associated with a particular church, faith, or national origin—all over the place. They’re also often immediately adjacent to larger cemeteries. Perhaps the Hilltop’s Croatian community purchased or sub-leased this plot of land back in the 1920s with their own maintenance agreements that Loretto is not responsible for.

broken grave marker in untended cemetery
Matija Kalicanac

A wander through the cemetery—any cemetery—always brings up questions of permanence. Grave markers—cut from granite, weighing hundreds of pounds, placed on land with this specific purpose—carry the unrealistic expectation that they will exist in this state forever. But we know it ain’t going to play out like that.

In our previous story on Loretto’s photo graves we discuss the irony that some of the ceramic photos on grave markers have outlived the carved text, such that we don’t even know the names of people whose images we still have—and it’s been less than a hundred years.

Loretto’s forgotten cemetery takes that and says hold my beer. You’re not even guaranteed a reasonable way for visitors to access your plot—and it may have been that way for decades.

eroded grave marker in untended cemetery
Anna ? (Genz?)

You’re still reading this? The rambling rarely stops, but here we are.

If you do want to check out Loretto’s forgotten cemetery, we recommend doing it before the poison ivy, viney overgrowth, and legit jaggerbushes come back to life.

grave marker in untended cemetery
Otec Janko Sculac

* That should be something like Here rests the forgotten cemetery.

Won’t You Be My Neighborhood Welcome Sign? Part 2

welcome sign for the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh
Manchester, where the greatness of its neighborhood welcome sign is matched only in its cotton candy skies

Thanksgiving’s back, baby! The good news is that last year’s cancellation has been repealed and, by Thursday, families will reunite to resume the polite political discourse, subtle lifestyle judgements, and long-unresolved childhood issues they so dearly missed last year. Sure, the inevitable post-holiday spike in coronavirus cases spreading throughout our union won’t be pleasant, but how will we get to the mu or omicron variants if we don’t all do our share?

Regardless, the city of Pittsburgh will welcome visiting friends and family members when and however they get here. We can collectively cross our fingers that enough folks have been boosterized to handle all the close-quarters jawboning and cross-table finger-pointing that ensues.

neighborhood welcome sign for Fineview, Pittsburgh painted on retaining wall
Fineview

Said visitors will be arriving to a changed city … at least, somewhat. The last two years have been ones of big investment and a little growth. There are plenty of new Legoland™ condos and not a few painful demolitions. But we’ve also seen the creation of some exciting new public spaces and a lot of renewed neighborhood pride.

Why, Fineview’s big retaining wall welcome mural, on Warren Street (photo above), didn’t even exist during Thanksgiving 2019. We like to think the Orbit pointing out the neighborhood’s previous, underwhelming sign had something to do with that, but perhaps it was just coincidence. (For reference, see our first story on this subject from 2018.)

neighborhood welcome sign for Garfield, Pittsburgh painted on side of small market
The Garfield gator!

Whatever prompted neighborhood do-gooders to take up brush and paint, wood and brick to celebrate the pride they have in their corners of the city, we love it. Here then is Part 2 of our neighborhood welcome sign roundup where the casual sign-spotter can enjoy some great new additions to the streetscape, check in on old favorites, and peek at a couple Easter eggs. Sit back with the popcorn … er, turkey sandwich, and watch as Deutschtown and Lawrenceville continue their welcoming open arms race for the most total signage.

A final note:Yes, we’re still missing plenty of place/signs—the southern neighborhoods are woefully underrepresented so far—so there will be a Part 3. Until then, be understanding, try to avoid the petty squabbles, and leave some room for dessert.

mural for Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh including praying hands and angels
Praying hands. Manchester
mural on brick wall for Allentown neighborhood of Pittsburgh
All the colors. Allentown
long brick wall painted with mural of setting sun under river bride and the text "Lawrenceville Alive!", Pittsburgh, PA
Lawrenceville Alive!
mural on side of row house with Sasquatch and "Deutschtown" (neighborhood name), Pittsburgh, PA
The Deutschtown Sasquatch!
mural of woman with flowers in her hair for the Deutschtown neighborhood of Pittsburgh
Ja, die Deutschtown Fräulein ist sehr schön
Homewood
sign for West Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh reading "This ain't Uptown! Welcome to West Oakland: birthplace of pop artist Andy Warhol"
This ain’t Uptown! Welcome to West Oakland, birth place of pop artist Andy Warhol
welcome sign for the South Side neighborhood of Pittsburgh
South Side. Come and sit here.
Welcome to Spring Garden
cinderblock with stencil image of pig climbing stair steps and text "Troy Hill," Pittsburgh, PA
The Troy Hill welcome cinderblock (since removed)
(Love) Friendship

While The Orbit will always prefer the touch of the human hand, we’d be negligent to not include professionally-produced welcome signs. Some of these are obvious custom jobs and others look mass-marketed. The signs for Stanton Heights and Morningside each look like they were ordered from welcomesigns.com (see below). C’mon, gang! Follow Fineview’s lead and hire a couple artists to work on a nice street-facing retaining wall!

large welcome sign for the Deutschtown neighborhood of Pittsburgh
Welcome to Deutschtown: a national historic district
neighborhood welcome sign for Larimer, Pittsburgh
Larimer. Welcome to our neighborhood.
neighborhood welcome sign for Greenfield, Pittsburgh
Greenfield welcomes you
neighborhood welcome sign for Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh
Welcome to Squirrel Hill
large welcome sign for the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh
Lawrenceville [By the way, The Pilgrim is back at GetGo. We hear you’ll be thankful for every bite.]
neighborhood welcome sign for Stanton Heights, Pittsburgh
Welcome to Stanton Heights neighborhood. Hopefully our homes are better weather-proofed than our welcome sign.
neighborhood welcome sign for Morningside, Pittsburgh
Welcome to Morningside where the echinacea runs free

See also: Won’t You Be My Neighborhood Welcome Sign? (Pittsburgh Orbit, June 10, 2018)

Hail, Mary! The Marys of South Oakland and Oakland Square

ornate shrine to Mary including large brick and masonry grotto, statue of Mary on a stone pedestal, urns with flowers, candles, and angel statues
The (blessed) mother of all South Oakland Marys. Shrine of the Blessed Mother aka “Our Lady of the Parkway.”

Welcome to South Oakland: childhood home of Dan Marino, Andy Warhol, and Bruno Sammartino. At least, that’s what the welcome sign on Frazier Street, at Dan Marino Field, tells us.

Those were the days, huh? One’s mind wanders to a time before Oakland’s tight, pre-war homes had mostly been converted into student housing. When it was still a neighborhood with a large Italian-American community full of workers who’d commute not to the current nearby ginormous eds and meds employers but instead south, down the hill, to the massive Jones & Laughlin steel mill occupying both banks of the Mon.

Setting aside the pesky reality of belching smoke stacks that blackened the sky and rained soot on everyone and everything, it must have been a pretty great place to grow up. The Carnegie museums, library, and concert hall an easy half-mile walk; Schenley Park, even closer; downtown Pittsburgh a mere trolley ride away. Football at Pitt Stadium (R.I.P.), boxing and hockey at The Gardens (ditto). Backyards overgrown with grape vines and fig trees; the intoxicating aroma of stewing marinara wafting from kitchen windows.

statue of Mary in grotto enclosure on pedestal in special attachment to front porch
On a porch of her own Mary

… and Mary. Oh! The mind reels at the thought of all those good Catholics sacrificing a half-week’s pay for a quality statue of Her Blessedship–blue-cloaked, head down, and palms out. Maybe she’s posed in a bathtub-shaped grotto or up on a pedestal–or both! In our gauzy rose-colored nostalgia-by-proxy, a saunter down Dawson, Ward, or Juliet was so rife with statuary that the stray houses without a holy figure stand out … but that’s probably just the imagination running wild, like usual.

statue of Mary in grotto with additional ivy grotto in front of house
Ivy grotto Mary

South Oakland and adjacent Oakland Square are an entirely different scene now. Great neighborhoods still, mind you, with all the same location advantages. Heck, around Chez Orbit, the area has crucial pins on the step-trek and cycling maps as entry point to the great Romeo & Frazier steps and gateway to the Panther Hollow trail. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine either neighborhood as childhood home to many kids today.

With the ever-gobbling-up of greater Oakland by the twin goliaths of Pitt and UPMC, Oakland’s demographic has shifted decidedly from working families to student transients. A stroll anywhere and you’ll see all the tell-tale signs of off-campus living: ratty porch couches, Tibetan prayer flags, Pitt banners, card tables laden with last night’s party debris. Religious iconography? Not so much.

Mary statuette in front yard flower garden, Pittsburgh, PA
Urnin’ a living Mary

But if you spend a little time, look around a bit, you’ll still find Mary doing her thing. She’s flanked by urn-styled flower pots and nestled between hedges. Mary peeks out from behind blooming flowers and serves her country under a patriotic flag-filled fantasia.

The (blessed) mother of all South Oakland Marys is, of course, The Shrine of the Blessed Mother (aka “Our Lady of the Parkway”) (photo at top). Installed on a beautiful hillside nook where one can both relax in the solace of the space, take in its terrific view across the river, and pretend the unrelenting Parkway traffic below is just rushing water on a boisterous river … with random bursts of road rage. Yes, we’re obliged to do a whole story on the Shrine at some point.

statue of Mary in front of gas meter
Lovely Mary, meter maid

Until then, steps-seekers, park wanderers, and the Mary-obsessed alike can bask in the glow of The Blessed One’s dimmed, but still radiant aura emanating from the dozen-or-so figures and still-potent empty grottoes visible from Oakland’s sidewalks. If only we could peer into all those backyards! Untold riches almost certainly hide in these private spaces. For that, we’ll have to look to the heavens, say a little prayer, make the sign of the cross, and thank the Lord we can party with Mary whenever she’ll have us.

statue of Mary behind small hosta plant with solar light
Hosta mañana, baby! Mary is (solar) lit!
Mary statuette in front flower garden, Pittsburgh, PA
Peepin’ through the flowers Mary
Mary statue in front of brick porch with many American flags, Pittsburgh, PA
Patriotic Mary in coffin grotto
statue of Mary in front of brick house with hanging flower baskets
Mary of the Hanging Baskets
Mary statuette encased in brick and glass on front porch of house, Pittsburgh, PA
Still in the closet Mary
large empty brick enclosure meant for statue of Mary
Maybe Mary fell out? Leaning/empty grotto
empty masonry grotto built into brick front porch of house in Pittsburgh, PA
You grotto be kidding! Empty grotto
homemade brick Mary grotto with Jesus figurine and toys, Pittsburgh, PA
Former Mary grotto, re-inhabited by squatters

The Magic Garden: A Visit to Pittsburgh’s Central Park

sculpture with many bowling balls on long rods
A galaxy of wonders awaits you in Pittsburgh’s Central Park, West Oakland

In what was once an overgrown hillside, there is now an inviting oasis of beauty, love, creativity, and wonder. A lovely tree canopy shades maybe a half-acre of lush green grass, glowing groundcover, sculpted walking paths, and picture-perfect spots for repose.

The park is centered around a fantastic constellation-like sculpture created from repurposed bowling balls suspended on metal rods. The space offers educational placards, an outdoor cooking and dining spot, and the most impressive little free library you’ve yet seen. It’s also right in the heart of the city and almost no one knows about it.

entrance to Pittsburgh's Central Park with ornamental gate and flower garden
Central Park entrance gate and flower garden

Even the most hardcore of Pittsburgh’s many ramblers, nature freaks, and urban explorers can be excused for never having visited Central Park. The tiny off-the-books greenspace has no directional signage from nearby Fifth Avenue and exists at the back of a one-way-in/one-way-out single block of row houses.

The neighborhood is technically West Oakland (at least, that’s what a D.I.Y. welcome sign tells us), but it’s really in the void. The area does have the claim to fame that Andy Warhol was born here–the house has since been demolished–but it’s still not on anyone’s way to anywhere. Just past the tail end of Uptown, downhill from The Hill, and around the bend from (West) Oakland proper, little Moultrie Street exists in a world of its own.

sign for West Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh reading "This ain't Uptown! Welcome to West Oakland: birthplace of pop artist Andy Warhol"
This ain’t Uptown! West Oakland neighborhood welcome sign on Fifth Ave. near Moultrie Street
little free library modeled on Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library
Central Park’s little free library, modeled on the Oakland/main branch of the Carnegie Library

“This is an illegal art exhibit,” says Joseph Szabo about the vision-turned-reality he’s worked on for the last eight or ten years. The ambitious project converted overgrown vacant land across the street from his home into the magical pocket park it has become. “Central Park in New York City is my favorite place in the world. I created this as an homage to it.”

Indeed, those familiar with that more famous Central Park can have a bit of fun matching some of its well-known features to Szabo’s landscaping work. As Szabo explains it, the plot of grass along the street, as well as an adjoining lot freshly planted with fruit trees, is The Great Lawn. Twisty pathways make up The Ramble. A D.I.Y. brick oven/grill and its nearby picnic table allow the visitor to simulate Tavern on the Green‘s al fresco dining and cooking experiences. Likewise, a mosaic garden feature with the word Imagine references a similar element of New York’s Strawberry Fields and Belvedere Castle is recreated through a cobblestone stairway leading up to an elevated veranda overlooking the full expanse.

handmade brick over/grill in Pittsburgh's Central Park
The brick oven/grill at Tavern on the Green
large ceramic piece reading "Imagine" surrounded by lush green groundcover
Strawberry Fields

As to the “illegal” nature of Central Park’s creation, it’s certainly true that Szabo began hacking away at the undergrowth without formal permitting or any of those pesky property ownership concerns. By now, though, it’s drifted into a much safer legal gray area.

Community group Uptown Partners provided huge assistance connecting the project with the city and grant funding. Szabo specifically cites U.P. former director Jeane McNutt as instrumental to the process. “Without her help and enthusiasm, Central Park would not be what it is.”

The city, in turn, removed the original jersey barriers that bordered the space and installed large stones used as seating around the central sculpture. City works crews also donated 1500 retired Belgian block paving stones that went into the creation of Belvedere Castle (and elsewhere).  

tiled outdoor veranda spelling the word "RENT"
Tribute to the musical RENT in Belvedere Castle

“This is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” says Linda Lewis, Szabo’s longtime next-door neighbor and partner in the project. The informal team of two doesn’t use titles, but Lewis describes herself as “A concerned neighbor of Moultrie Street who worked to develop and maintain the area for children to play; for families to have their annual Easter egg hunt; and for mothers to bring children to get a book or game from the free library. And, I love hearing the birds and seeing the deer.”

Beyond the zillion hours of hard work–after their full-time day jobs–Lewis says, “Joe and I developed this area and spent thousands over the years.” We can also verify that Lewis acts as the unofficial archivist tracking progress on the park. Linda produced way more photos than we can include here, but they show the development of Central Park from an out-of-control/nature-without-man thicket to its gradual clearing, sculpting, and building-out. It’s even become a venue for community events.

Central Park Pittsburgh creator Joseph Szabo
“The whole thing is an homage to New York’s Central Park,” Joseph Szabo in Belvedere Castle
Central Park Pittsburgh gardener/caretaker Linda Lewis
“This is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” Linda Lewis

“The Central Park project is never done, I’ll keep working at it for as long as I live, God willing,” says Szabo on whether the park is ever complete, “I would like to replace the main entrance with something more substantial. I’m thinking about the arch in Washington Square Park. The Romans built arches just for the hell of it–works for me.”

“I’ll hopefully connect the park to the hillside on Orr Street as Central Park East,” Szabo says of future plans, “This is where Andy Warhol was born. My idea is for a sitting area in a outdoor homage to his studio in SoHo, The Factory. I’m thinking a picnic table by the wall under Kirkpatrick Street, painted silver, and of course many of his silk screens hung on this wall. Andy Warhol’s family lived at 72 Orr Street for his first three years.”

pages from wild animal field guide mounted in Pittsburgh's Central Park
“We wanted to park to be educational too.” Szabo says they’ve never seen an American bison in Central Park, but visitors will be prepared to identify one if and when the time comes. One of several field guides in The Ramble.

To see Linda Lewis’ before pictures of the space after having experienced it in person is a shocking and awe-inspiring revelation. How could a person look at that untamable mass of bushes and trees, poison ivy and knotweed and think I could turn that into a mini-replica of Central Park?

Ms. Orbit, just as enthusiastic about Szabo’s grand vision, says of this thought process, “That’s the creative spirit in all of us–in order to create magic, sometimes you have to have preposterous instincts. It helps to let go of common sense and reminds us of what any of us can do: we can create magic.”

thick stand of small trees and brush with jersey barriers separating it from a residential street
Pre-magic. Before Joseph Szabo started work in 2013, Central Park was a hillside thicket bordered by jersey barriers [photo: Linda Lewis]
early work on Pittsburgh's Central Park including beginnings of footpath
The beginnings of The Ramble, 2015 [photo: Linda Lewis]
young girl cutting ribbon to open Central Park, Pittsburgh
Ribbon cutting, 2017 [photo: Linda Lewis]

The term hero gets thrown around a lot–probably way too much; visionary, slightly less so. But to this blogger, no one deserves those descriptors more than folks like Joseph Szabo and Linda Lewis. They’ve spent their precious free time, not to mention money, on a hard, physical, labor-of-love open for all of us to experience. That action converted a neglected hillside into a free-to-all public space virtually from thin air … er, from thick jaggers and stinging nettles. That creation is one full of nature, art, relaxation, and yes, magic.

Szabo’s use-what-you’ve-got aesthetic turned discarded bricks, leftover bathroom tile, and post-renovation kitchen cabinets into a Willie Wonka-goes-back-to-the-land-style fantasy world. If this isn’t the work of real American heroes, you show me what is.

small model ducks in pool of river stones
Ducks!

Getting there: Central Park is at the end of Moultrie Street in West Oakland/Uptown. Moultrie can only be accessed from Fifth Avenue. It’s very close to the north end of the Birmingham Bridge and even has a marker on Google Maps.

Whole Grotto Love: The Marys of Stanton Heights

cinderblock and brick residential wall with five different statues of Mary
Multiplying Marys. The (now) quintet of Marys (and friend) that greet visitors to Stanton Heights.

Most people will blow right by without ever giving the place a second thought. The little post-war brick and cinderblock house sits a comfortable distance off Stanton Avenue, tucked behind a curve in the road, and probably won’t even catch your eye when you’re barreling up the hill. It’s not the house itself that’s so exciting here, but rather the miracle of the multiplying Marys that is taking place out front.

Five years ago, your favorite hyper-local electronic publication ran a story that attempted to round up some of our favorite Marys from all over the place. [See: Hail Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup (Nov. 27, 2016)] Yes, it was naive to bundle so many Marys from so many places together when seeking them out and collating them into location-based sets is so satisfying. Lesson learned.

Anyway, in that story, most of the way down, there’s a photo of this same Stanton Ave. address, but with merely three Marys against the aqua-blue foundation wall. If anyone is equipped for a miracle, it’s a woman who can conceive pregnancy with a holy ghost–so we shouldn’t put human cloning past The Blessed Mother. But this jump in the population begs so many questions: Can Mary immaculately replicate herself? Where do they all come from? Will there be more? Look, I’ve seen Multiplicity and things didn’t work out so well for Michael Keaton, so let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

statue of Mary in front yard of house
Whole grotto love Mary

Stanton Heights won’t bowl you over with its Marys. Between the neighborhood’s detached homes, large yards, big hedges, and fenced-in backsides, just locating a Mary here and there can feel like no small achievement. Rest assured, though–they’re around.

It takes a patient blogger who no longer sleeps to rise at the crack of dawn, trundle up the big hill, and criss-cross every block, each dead-end alley, and explore all the places, courts, and ways to get a thorough accounting of Stanton Heights’ Mary scene. [Side note: if you’re a Heights resident whose Mary was not found or you just think she deserves a better photo, please get in touch.]

That’s about all there is to say here. On this Mother’s Day 2021, we salute all the mommas out there from the O.G. Mother of All Mothers–you’re all immaculate in The Orbit‘s book!

statue of Mary among leafy groundcover
Our Lady of the rising groundcover
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Sunshine Mary and babies
statue of Mary in front of large hedges in residential front yard
Bustle in your hedge row Mary
statue of Mary on brick porch wall
Don’t jump! Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house
Oohooh Mary Blue, livin’ her life in a free-form style
statue of nun in front yard of house
Yeah, this looks more like a nun, but we’re going to count it
statue of Mary in back yard of house
Back patio Mary (looming, far right)
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Flower box Mary
statue of Mary under a tree in residential garden
Shade garden Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house with big yard
Perfect green blanket Mary
statue of Mary between flower garden and front porch
Mary Flowers-a-Poppin’
statue of Mary in front of house
Excited about the new city-issued recycling bin Mary
statues of Mary and Jesus by large bush
Big Mary and half-pint Jesus
statue of Mary against a cinderblock wall
Eyes on the door, back-against-the-wall Mary [yes, we need a longer lens]
small brick house with statue of Mary in front and no other decoration
No friends Mary

Beyond the Valley of the Doldrums: The Skunk Hollow Art Walk

paintings made from flattened tin cans nailed to a utility pole
“I’ll tell you what magic is … Love” / “The Hollow.” Unofficial tin can pole art welcome signage for the Skunk Hollow Art Walk.

There is a melancholy to the exhibition: themes of darkness, loneliness, one very literal cry for help. Among the images, you’ll find birds soaring in flight and stretched-out cats, abstractions and twinkling stars–but these are the exception.

If Orbit staff were laying out a catalog for the collection, our cover would feature the image of a single small piece installed on a utility pole. In it, a figure has been cut from a tin can lid and painted a rich spring green. The devil’s horns are bent and rusted and his eyes are cut out to make us believe we can stare right through the back of his cranium. In hand-lettered paint marker is a simple descriptor alluding to exactly that: A Lost Soul.

painting of devil made from cut steel can nailed to utility pole
A lost soul.

Elsewhere, there are instructions to Give yourself to the nite (sic.), a pair of unoccupied dinette seats, our favorite tin can pole artist’s tell-tale devils, martini glasses, hearts, and arrows. The artwork is made from recycled metal bits and bobs, a discarded cutting board, even the door from a standard-issue mailbox.

It is artwork from the trash bin, placed deeply out-of-sight–as if thrown into the void–and likely only ever experienced by fellow lost souls who hear the cryptic pieces whispering from cracks in the wood … or maybe that’s just the way it seems.

rusted painting on tin can nailed to utility pole
“Help me.” Ex-mailbox pole art.
painting on tin can nailed to utility pole
“All here (?) into the night.”

Skunk Hollow, the deep valley that separates Bloomfield from Polish Hill and North Oakland, won’t appear on any regional cultural guides; you’ll not find it featured in glossy magazines or listed among Pittsburgh’s next hottest neighborhoods. In fact, “The Hollow” doesn’t even show up on maps of the city (at least, not by that name). Its derisive title is merely a people’s collective dismissal of the out-of-sight/out-of-mind not-quite-a-real-neighborhood.

There are some good reasons for all this. Skunk Hollow hosts one of the more convenient spots in the city to illegally dump a La-Z-Boy recliner or an old television–plenty of people have chosen to do just that. The handful of businesses located along Neville Street are not what you’d call boutiques–they’re more of the rock-moving, general contracting, and looking-for-new-occupants varieties. Japanese knotweed has completely consumed the steep hillside and makes an effective trap for all of the blown-around street trash as it washes over Bloomfield’s banks.

rusted paintings on tin can nailed to utility pole
“And that nite, we raided the devils. Private stash needless to say.” / “We had a good ole time.”
collage of round-formatted street art attached to utility poles
Pole art in the round

So if the Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to pitch Skunk Hollow as a special place for out-of-towners to explore on their limited time in the ‘Burgh, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

But for those of us waking up ridiculously early, obsessively walking many mental health miles at daybreak, the Hollow is a welcome open air experimental art detour. Its randomly-curated works speak to the solitude of the early hour and themes of escaping into the night, tiny devils playing hell with our synapses, and you are not alone messaging make for a kind of communal balm for the disconnected.

paintings made from flattened tin cans nailed to a utility pole
“Life is good right now … thanks, Mom.”
small painting of camper trailer on wood screwed to utility pole
Camper trailer painting

The Skunk Hollow Art Walk is not what you’d call accessible. There is one big hill, one Y-shaped flight of city steps (we’ll get to those), and a road surface with no accommodation for pedestrians. Worry not, though, it’s unlikely you’ll see any other human beings–with or without vehicles–during the length of your visit. Walking in the street tends to work out just fine when you’re the only one there.

Viewing the environment on foot is an absolute requirement as all the little objets d’art are scaled for up-close examination and located in the kinds of niche spaces one must poke around thoroughly to see at all. One of the photos here (I loved kissing her in the rain, below) was achieved only by climbing up the hillside, bearhugging a utility pole with one arm, and then using the dumb selfie camera so I could get a photo of a tin can painting that I couldn’t actually see from my precarious position.

painting made from flattened tin cans nailed to a utility pole
“I loved kissing her in the rain.”
rusted painting on tin can nailed to utility pole
“Give yourself to the nite.”

For the directionally-challenged, don’t worry about getting lost in Skunk Hollow. There is only one road that traverses the short distance between Bloomfield’s backside and the old Iron City brewery. In typical Pittsburgh fashion, it goes by three different names–Lorigan, Neville, and Sassafras–in its approx. 3/4 mile run.

Most of the art is found along sloping Lorigan Street, from the Ella Street steps down to the bottom of the hill, so a greatest hits visitor could drop in for some tin can pole art and still make it to Tessaro’s for an early dinner. But really, why not go “full Hollow” and walk the length of it. It’s a little more spartan at the bottom, but by the end you’ll be rewarded with some great wheatpaste pieces on the old brewery.

City Steps with graffiti reading "Try" on every riser, Pittsburgh, PA
Ella Street (aka the “Try Try Try”) city steps
metal toy truck screwed into concrete steps
The “Try Try Try” steps metal truck

The last time The Orbit reported from Skunk Hollow we were on the step beat, there to check out the great Ella Street (aka the “Try Try Try”) city steps. We’ll not go over all that here, but this bit of you can do it self-affirmation infrastructure is totally of a piece with the collection of street art that surrounds it.

What’s been added to the steps (since that 2015 story) is its own terrific set of oddball ephemera. The bolted-on scrap parts truck (photo above) is thankfully still there, right at the lowest landing. It’s been joined by a tiny sculpture of simple chairs, placards, handrail ramblings, one repurposed wooden puppet-like thing, and a mystery mailbox.

sculpture of two chairs anchored into public steps
Tiny furniture, big steps
metal piece with text "Dream 1: You had a whole lot of fun with a comedian ..." attached to public steps
“Dream 1: You had a whole lot of fun with a comedian …” Steps koan
graffiti painted support on public steps of waving figure
Art on the “Try Try Try” steps

A fancy art museum, this ain’t–but then again, no one visiting The Carnegie gets to experience the thrill of risking both poison ivy and tetanus in their bloodthirsty pursuit of new tin can pole art. As combined art happening/aerobic workout, Skunk Hollow is hard to beat. Plus, the hours are great and the price is right.

Yes, attendees of the Skunk Hollow Art Walk will have to negotiate some broken glass and a few salty words committed in spray paint on the jersey barriers along the roadside–oh, there’s also that mystery odor. But, like poking through a thrift shop or digging through used records, a visit rewards the patience of the art lover willing to do a little work for a commensurate dose of oddball magic.

handmade masonry gates to Iron Eden, Pittsburgh
The Seussian gates of Iron Eden, Lorigan Street
wooden painted board that used to read "LOVE" with most of the middle section removed
Ouch! There is no middle ground in love. Vestigial cutting board art.
collage of protractors glued to various walls and signs
Yes, there are Pittsburgh protractors in The Hollow
graffiti on pink wall reading "Stuck in the rain for 20 minutes on a 1 year tour of the USA"
If JYK could make Skunk Hollow a part of his American tour, you can walk down the hill from Bloomfield.
metal piece with words "Rusty love" cut out nailed to utility pole
Rusty (and muddy) love

Row House Romance: Odd Couples Edition

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

The holy grail! Side-by-side row houses of different width, height, design, color, and modernization, Bloomfield

If there is a high–the dragon, if you will–that the  hardcore romancer chases, it is this. A pair of stout row houses, butting right up against each other like books on a shelf, but otherwise as unrelated as chalk and cheese.

He with the faded green aluminum siding, splotched with decades of not-quite-matching touch-up paint; she with a prim new black-and-white scheme on her brick façade, ready for the town in never-going-out-of-style two-tone. He made the regrettable decision to turn his windows into port holes; she’s left the nice big double-hung two-paners intact, and has the afternoon sunlight to prove it. He’s still lugging around the same set of heavy-lidded awnings he picked up after high school; she’s newly trimmed her detail work–all clean lines, tight accents, and graceful ornament.

We could go on about how he’s put on a few pounds from all that sitting around, but that would just be cruel. No, we’re here to celebrate that great accident of residential architectural history–the side-by-side odd couple pairings one finds in Pittsburgh’s many row house blocks. Each evinces an anthropomorphic reaction to the unlikeliest of subjects: old-school worker housing.

There was enough commonality in some of these to group them into loose themes. Really though, this one’s all about the visuals, so we’ll quit yappin’. Whether you live in one (guilty!) or are just a drive-by wanna-be, happy row house romance to one and all!

To Peak or Not to Peak?

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural styles, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

3-story brick townhouse adjoining 2-story frame row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Big Buddy/Little Buddy

large brick row house next to small row house with aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

South Side

pair of row houses of different architectural styles, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Bloomfield

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

Lawrenceville

Brothers From a Similar—but Definitely Other—Mother

row houses of very different architectural designs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

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

Bloomfield

side-by-side brick and frame row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

exterior of wooden row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Brighton Heights

Mixed-Media

Victorian-era brick row house next to modern metal and glass row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

older brick row house next to under-construction house, Pittsburgh, PA

Deutschtown

pair of row houses with very different siding treatments, Pittsburgh, PA

Deutschtown

brick row house with flat roof next to wooden row house with peaked roof, McKees Rocks, PA

McKees Rocks

row house with collapsed roof next to row house with new siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Marshall-Shadeland

ornate brick Victorian row house next to plain designed row house, Pittsburgh, PA

Mexican War Streets

Budget Christo: The Woodwell Street Streamers

house decorated with colored streamers

An electric aqua-blue shaft of light shoots from the heavens, down through thick tree tops, and ricochets from short rods pounded into the earth. The visible energy is focused and transformed back to a tree trunk, a brick pillar, a front porch fixture. Down the block, a full spectrum of color blasts overhead, making direct contact with a low hedge at the front of another house. The phenomenon continues up and down the street and around the corner–reconfigured, alternately arranged, and impressively coordinated so that no two homes appear at all similar.

In each case, the colored lines have the magical quality of both rays of light, frozen into fixed, timeless position, but also fluttering ever so slightly in the soft breeze as to trick the eye into seeing a bewildering array of subtle hues from even a single one of these mass-extruded plastic streamers.

house front yard decorated with colored streamers

Woodwell Street is a single, long residential block in North Squirrel Hill. Its tidy array of pre-war four squares and arts & crafts double houses are reliably well-maintained with groomed, flowers-a-poppin’ front yards and neighbors intensely tending to their hedge rows and raised vegetable gardens. The number of Bernie for PresidentAll Are Welcome Here, and Black Lives Matter yard signs says much about the demographics of its residents. [Whether any black lives actually, you know, own property here is a separate question.]

house decorated with colored streamers

The phrase keeping up with the Joneses has such a derogatory slant, but feels applicable here. One imagines the arrival of a new Prius or enameled 24″ Weber as front-page news on a street as uniformly kempt and free-of-strife as Woodwell. Neighbors appear loathe to allow the green grass any more than three inches in height before a regularly-scheduled haircut; there is neither peeling paint nor discarded litter anywhere to be seen. Good luck finding a statue of Mary.

So the introduction of bright plastic colors, freeform conceptual art, and public expression–if only within a tight set of coordinated parameters–seems like it must represent some kind of seismic shift in the community landscape of Woodwell Street. Each household must ask the inevitable existential question: are we traditionalists or are we with the color revolution?

house front yard decorated with colored streamers

“Surreal environmental installation artist” Christo passed away on May 31 at the age of 84. The Woodwell Street streamers were well under way by this point, so at best, we can consider these works a prescient or coincidental tribute to the artist who, along with his wife and creative partner Jeanne-Claude, achieved fame by creating elaborate, grand-scale works redecorating nature. The two covered an island in pink polypropylene, ran fabric fencing into the ocean, and constructed 7,500 safron-colored gates throughout New York’s Central Park in the dead of winter, among many other projects.

house decorated with colored streamers

While it’s tempting to title an article with the cheeky name Anti-Christo, that would do both the lawn decorators of Squirrel Hill and the namesake a disservice. These pieces are imaginative, fun, and achieve exactly what Christo and Jeanne-Claude were after: they get the visitor to look at both the built environment and the flora that surrounds it in new and different ways. They also manage to achieve that with the cheapest and most accessible of materials. For this, we’re going with Budget Christo.

tree decorated with colored streamers

While any time is the right time for fun walkabout/drive-by public art, it seems especially appropriate right now. We all want to get out and there’s nowhere to go; we all want to help out and that means staying home. By creating a no-contact, anyone-can-join-in open air art environment, the Woodwell Street neighbors have taken the challenge and created something beautiful from it. [Editor’s note: see last week’s story on Remly Way, the “Alleyway of Magical Delights,” for a similar but different project.]

Needless to say, Woodwell Street is looking good right now and the streamer houses are really something special and well worth a visit. By its very nature, this a temporary installation at best, so take the opportunity and walk on by.

house decorated with colored streamers

house front garden decorated with colored streamers

Getting there: Woodwell Street runs between Dallas and Barnsdale in north Squirrel Hill. You’ll find most of the streamer-decorated properties there, but also make sure to check out the neighboring, parallel streets Ridgeville and Kinsman, where there are more.

Thanks to Orbit reader and inveterate neighborhood walker Lisa Valentino for the tip on this fine project.

tree decorated with colored streamers