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.

Fish On My List: Holy Angels vs. St. Maximilian Kolbe

fish sandwich with three breaded fillets of fish from church fish fry

The holy grail: Holy Angels Parish panko-crusted triple-decker fish sandwich

Editor’s note: When Orbit cub reporter Lee Floyd pitched the idea of a one-lunch back-to-back fish vs. fish showdown comparing two of the area’s finest, we thought he was crazy…crazy like a fox! Here’s Lee’s take on the day.

Pittsburgh may not be known for seafood, but we can deep fry a frozen filet as well as any city with a coastline. I’ve ordered fish in several states that couldn’t hold a candle to the piping-hot deliciousness served up by volunteers at churches and firehalls around the Steel City. The solemnness of the Lenten season is completely lost on The Orbit as we seek out Friday lunch like wide-eyed, salivating animals.

table covered with homemade desserts for sale at church fish fry dinner

Dessert table, Holy Angels

The fourth day of Spring, sunny with a high in the mid-60s, was perfect weather for a bicycle-based culinary tour. I pedaled against the wind to meet today’s dining partner (and Orbit editor) for a double dose of our most-beloved sandwich. I was determined to impartially judge two of my local favorites because, while every local news outlet and their mother has a fish fry guide or a basketball-style bracket for the best fish, it is really just a popularity contest. I even take my own opinion with a dash of hot sauce unless I can compare two things back-to-back. So that’s exactly what we set out to do.

Catholic priest laughing with take-out from church fish fry

Jesus on the mainline: this priest is on a (take-out) mission

Our first stop was right in the middle of the lunch hour so we found Holy Angels Parish packed to the gills. We were greeted at the door, handed menus, and bid good luck in finding a seat. Once we were situated, we simply flashed a pink card and a server arrived to take our order. There was very little hassle or delay despite the size of the crowd, although you might disagree if you were looking for parking in Holy Angels side lot.

two men eat fish sandwiches in church basement fish fry

Bon appétit! Satisfied Holy Angels customers digging-in.

Let me tell you about that fried fish sandwich! Holy Angels dropped three generous panko-crusted Pollack filets into a standard hoagie bun and nothing was ever the same again. It was obvious these were express shipped to the table straight out of the fryer–I even burnt my finger after the photo-op.

Holy Angels also offers baked fish options, the standard sides (we tried the mac and cheese–gooey and good, but nothing special), two seafood-based soups, cheese pizza, and a tantalizing, largely homemade-by-parishioners dessert table.

stacks of boxed frozen pollack fillets on shipping pallets

2000 pounds of frozen pollack just delivered for next Friday’s fry, Holy Angels Parish

To protect the integrity of this story I scolded my editor: “Are you really going to put the hot sauce on your half before you taste it!?!” Our fellow fish-fiends/tablemates overheard and immediately began to relate their Lenten exploits (we added West Mifflin’s Holy Trinity to our to-eat list) and gloated that they know the best restaurant that serves fried fish year round–Rene’s (pronounced “REN-ees” or maybe “REE-knees“) in McKeesport. The conversation lasted longer than our meal and so I forgot about the (terrible but empirical) plan to pocket part of a sandwich so I could compare alternate bites at our second stop.

exterior of St. Maximillian-Kolbe Catholic church, Homestead, PA

St. Maximillian-Kolbe (aka “St. Max”), Homestead

After a combined three mile ride via river trail and Homestead side streets, a palate-cleansing flight of craft beer at Blue Dust, and one calf-straining climb up the hill to 13th Ave., we found ourselves locking up our bicycles next to the 24-foot-tall likeness of St. Joseph the Worker just outside St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish in Homestead.

At St. Max, you order and pay just inside the door before entering the hall. My editor-of-little-faith’s jaw hit the floor when he found out the good saint serves beer alongside scripture. By the time we finally got done picking it up, our food was ready.

fish sandwich with sides of haluski and potato haluski from church fish fry

Fish sandwich with sides of (traditional noodle) haluski and potato haluski served on a McDonald’s tray, St. Max’s

As Rick Sebak put it, “The bun is just a handle”, and never was he more on-point than at St. Max. The parish serves one absurdly long, flaky filet on an oversized–but still way too small–bun. It is not only substantial but also cooked and seasoned with a hand that we can only assume is heaven-sent. Loose, thin breading ensures the fish remains the star of the show.

At this stop, we chose to sample both types of haluski on the menu–egg noodle and the more traditional potato dumpling–which were part of the largest church menu I’ve ever seen. The extended offerings also include baked and fried fish, crab cakes, shrimp, pierogies, haluski, linguini, pizza, stewed tomatoes, deli salad sandwiches, and more–in addition to the standard sides and dessert table.

piece of puff pastry in plastic wrap on disposable plate

Puff pastry, wrapped in plastic, St. Max’s

So…who wins? In my opinion, the breading and service really makes Holy Angels’ fish stand out from all the other places we’ve visited. On the other hand, the generous, quality filet at St. Max hasn’t been rivaled either (it may be enough for two meals, but I’ll devour it all at once, thanks). If you like fish, you’ll not be disappointed with either choice! Since the fish was so difficult to call, we’ve got to contrast other factors:

  • If you plan to arrive by bicycle along the Great Allegheny Passage trail, then Holy Angels is much more accessible–it’s just a short, easy ride up from the break under the Glenwood Bridge.
  • If your sweet tooth is what gets you to leave the house, Holy Angels wins the dessert table by a nose for its homemade bringings-in. That said, St. Max’s had some of parishioner Shirley’s cream puffs that blew our mind.
  • If you enjoy the chance to share a table with strangers, either location will probably do, but Holy Angels is known for being packed to capacity. The crew at our table were a particularly lively bunch that couldn’t wait to share and compare info on other fish fries.
  • The cheese pizza at either location should keep the children quiet, but if you need to order for diverse tastes, then perhaps the larger more-ethnic menu at St. Max will make you the hero of the office.
  • If you like to get canned-up on domestic brews at dive bar prices with the option to confess it all in one convenient location, then St. Max’s “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere” bar is your spot.
  • If you’re ordering to go and have a fear of soggy breading, then St. Max is my recommendation.
small bar in church basement decorated with flag and banners

The “It’s 5:00 Somewhere” bar, St. Max

Winner winner, fried fish dinner.

It’s said that difficult decisions are so because there simply is no right answer. What’s clear from this attempt to pit parish vs. parish, panko vs. batter, Lucy’s cheesecake vs. Shirley’s cream puffs is that when it comes to the fish on The Orbit‘s list, we’re all winners…except maybe the fish. The fish are probably not the winners here, but the rest of us are winners. Eat well.

author Lee Floyd posing on "Fish Fry Today" sign outside church

The author, Holy Angels Parish, Hays


Getting there:
Holy Angels Parish: 408 Baldwin Road, Hays.
St. Maximilian Kolbe Parish: 363 W 11th Ave, Homestead.
Both serve fish Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent, 11 AM – 7 PM…or until the fish runs out.

Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 2: A Beautiful Friendship

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Gross

Nevertheless, the bird persisted.

Call the little guy flighty, fragile, scrawny, left-leaning (or, at least, always left-facing), single-minded–heck, even a broken record! Sure, he could stand to put on a few ounces and what’s with that damn flipper-flapping all the time–give it a rest! Whatever you do, though, you’ll not call Clarence the Bird anything less than thorough.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Stack Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Choate Way

When last we left the little fellow [Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 1: Millvale and Beyond, Pittsburgh Orbit: March 19], Clarence’s spring fever was in overdrive, nesting his feathers and pointing his beak throughout Bloomfield–down Millvale Ave., in the warren of cattywumpus alley-streets west of Edmond, and up by the Penn Avenue Aldi.

Impressive, for sure, but those sightings were merely the appetizer for the grand buffet that is Clarence’s A Beautiful Friendship campaign.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Ella

tiny paper drawing of Clarence the Bird stapled to tree stump, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Ella and Dupont Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dupont Way

From the dense row house heart-of-Bloomfield all the way out to where Friendship Avenue becomes Friendship neighborhood, Clarence has left a bread crumb trail in cardboard and paper stock, fine-tipped ink pen and crude Sharpie. The tiny original artworks have been stapled, tacked, faded, torn, and (I’m sure) disattached and absconded-with. But the pieces still hanging-around–and there are a lot–look great covering (nearly) every single block up and down the long street.

Here then is the latest from The Orbit‘s Clarence Tracker 2000TM logging of Mr. The Bird’s Friendship Avenue activity, starting on the Penn Avenue/Children’s Hospital end and working east as far as South Pacific.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Taylor

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dryden Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dryden Way

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pearl

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pearl

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Edmond

Clarence the Bird original artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship Park

Clarence the Bird original artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Mathilda

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Mathilda and Edmond

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Millvale

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Winebiddle and Gross

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle (partial)

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Evaline

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pacific

Note: There are even more Clarence the Bird “droppings” on the eastern end of Friendship Ave., between Pacific and Roup (at least), but the ones we found there were previously reported on in our story Birdwatching: Clarence the Bird Watching [Pittsburgh Orbit: Jan. 5, 2017].

Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 1: Millvale Ave. and Beyond

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

South Pacific Ave.

Talk about a one-track mind! Freakin’ Clarence the Bird–him with his beaky-ass schnoz and big pointed wings looking more like fur than feathers. You try changing out of your gym clothes in that get-up–young fowl are merciless! Ah, Hell–he’ll get over it. All the dude has on his tiny noodle is trying to make the world a little nicer place, and he’s not afraid to tell you that…over and over and over again.

Clarence may be thinking big picture, but he sure follows through by, as they say, acting local. Lately, the little guy has been choosing to spend most of his time in just a short one-mile stretch of Bloomfield and on towards Friendship.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

We first caught wind of his latest pole-tagging spree down at the south end of Millvale Avenue, right by Sonny’s Tavern and the bridge to Oakland. It turns out Clarence was working his way north with almost one occurrence every block up to Dog’n’Burger. A second jag took Ol’ Big Wings down Friendship Avenue, even stopping for a tiny taste of sidewalk stump. (A stump!) Yes, a stump. [We’ll get to Clarence’s full-on assault of Friendship Ave. in part 2.]

There’s not a lot more for this blogger to say, except Clarence: we’re with you, dude. Keep on doing your world-beautiful avian thing. We’ll keep looking out for you and you know The Orbit‘s got your little bird back.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

cardboard Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

paper Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Torley Street

cardboard Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Elk Way

Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

State Way & Lima Way [note the bonus back yard Marys!]

Clarence the Bird art on telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Edmond Street

All the wing-flapping and telephone pole loitering must work up a mighty hunger–even a tiny bird’s gotta eat too, right? C. the B. must have the same hankering for foo-foo brunch every other hung-over dog-chewed playboy and day-glow choreographer seems to get. Hey–eating seed is for the birds! Whatever.

We spotted a couple-a-three recent-ish Clarences down on Lawrenceville’s main drag, including a pair of very nice two-color (black-and-white) drawings on brown bag (?) and one of his rare, text-only Make the world beautiful signs. Go ahead and get you another plate off the buffet, Your Birdness–it’s been a busy couple months and this gloomy world could use a fresh coat of paint.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Butler Street

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Butler Street

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Butler Street


See also:

Water’s Gone Cold: An Elegy for Tea Bags

brick wall painted with logo for Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Side wall of Tea Bags with logo/mural (and painted-over tag line), Lawrenceville

Once, I’m told by my lifelong Lawrenceville neighbor, Butler Street included a bar whose sign advertised No TV, but a fight every night. Mark claims the message was no exaggeration–just pure statement of fact. That space is now V3 personal (fancy) pizzas. There’s still no television, but it’s doubtful there’s an equal amount of trouble.

Another friend talks about a saloon in Michigan called The Home Bar, so named because “no matter what you did, you can always come back”. The Home Bar is apparently still around, allowing Kalamazoo’s citizenry back in some thirty years on.

Tea Bags bar logo of anthropomorphized tea bag with sunglasses and toothy grin, Pittsburgh, PA

Advertising one’s establishment as a source of a certain amount of calamity seems like a strange business model, but it obviously works…enough.

Always in hot water has been Tea Bags goofy salacious tag line for at least a couple decades. It used to be featured in big scrolling letters under the rest of the bar’s alley side mural, but was sadly painted over a few years ago*. The slogan remains etched into the custom behind-the-bar mirrors, but they won’t last long…and you probably can’t get in to see them anyway.

The Main Street Lawrenceville/Bloomfield corner bar has yelled its final last call, packed up its Cherry Master machine, green bar stools, large jars of alcohol-soaked cherries, and loaded them into a box truck directed to who-knows-where. The process to transfer Tea Bags liquor license to new owners is well underway.

mirror behind bar with "Tea Bags - Always in Hot Water" logo, Pittsburgh, PA

A well-stocked bar: soaked cherries, potato chips, Handi-wipes, paper plates.

The new, yet-to-be-named business taking over the space [assuming all the paperwork goes through] will be a fair departure from Tea Bags’ nuts-and-bolts no-frills corner bar. From Bloomfield Development Corp.’s posting of the business plan:

“The bar/restaurant is a price friendly location for those who seek educated bar-man ship (sic.) and well crafted cocktails, with an approachable yet notable beer selection, and easy yet technique driven menu items. Pop culture, art, music and skateboarding nuances will account for the subtle design details to create an easy feeling atmosphere that is appreciated by the local 25-35 age range.”

man and woman at bar with bartender looking on, Tea Bags, Pittsburgh, PA

Looks like somebody’s in hot water! The kind of typical skateboarding Millenials who will inevitably gravitate to the new bar’s “easy-feeling atmosphere”.

Call this blogger an old, non-skateboarding fuddy duddy**, but it’s painful to see oneself demographically excluded from a new place in the neighborhood before they’ve even selected a name.

It’s becoming a sad, repeated refrain–even right here in the virtual pages of Pittsburgh Orbit. The old place catering to every(wo)man closes from declining business or gets bought-out or someone just retires. The new owners want to get them some of that Google and Uber dough. Why eke out a living on dollar Jello shots when you charge six bucks for an I.P.A. and ten for a hamburger? It makes economic sense–if you can sell it–but feels like a little part of the city is dying with every one of these upsell transitions.

3-story brick building with Tea Bags bar on first floor, Pittsburgh, PA

Not an optical illusion: Tea Bags trapezoidal shape

This blogger won’t claim to have been a regular at the bar [so maybe I’m part of the problem!] but he’s slanted a few in its smoky, natural light-defying confines over the years. Along with Wilson’s Pharmacy, Sunoco, and the 54C, Tea Bags has been the most constant presence in the general Penn & Main crossroads for the last twenty years. I must have walked, ridden, and driven past the bar thousands of times by now–pretty much every single day. Even with that frequency, seeing the big-toothed grin on the sunglasses-wearing anthropomorphized tea bag never fails to bring a smile.

If it were up to Pittsburgh Orbit, we’d extract the entire Woolslayer Way mural wall and preserve it forever in a sacred, public place–just like Romare Bearden’s glorious “Pittsburgh Memories” mosaic in the Gateway Plaza T station.

That probably won’t happen, though. So take a little advice from us and get thee over to Main Street to check out Tea Bags’ smiling tea bags while you still can. The water’s cooling down mighty fast.

mural detail of anthropomorphized tea bag wearing sunglasses and with wide toothy grin, Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Grinning tea bag logo (detail)


* The reason is unknown, but we assume graffiti cover-up as the likely explanation.
** Not to mention grammar snob. Whoever wrote this business plan needs to learn how to deploy a hyphen correctly!

Just Enough: Duck Hollow

community of Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA

Duck Hollow (foreground)

To call the tiny neighborhood of Duck Hollow “cut off” is an understatement–there is only one way in or out. A short unnamed one-lane bridge spans the point where little Nine Mile Run creek spills into the river and acts as the sole gateway for motorists and pedestrians alike. The creek wraps around the neighborhood’s north and west sides; above it up the hill sits the suburban-feeling slag heap redevelopment Summerset. To the east, there is a steep hill and thick wood.

The Monongahela river forms the neighborhood’s southern border, but you can’t actually see it–train tracks elevated on an earthen berm block all direct access to the river. Walking in on little McCarren Road, a repurposed wooden headboard-turned-welcome sign informs visitors they’ve arrived: Duck Hollow, Population: “Just Enough”.

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

Population: “Just Enough”. Duck Hollow welcome sign.

single-lane bridge crossing Nine Mile Run creek, Pittsburgh, PA

One way in, one way out. Bridge to Duck Hollow.

“Just enough” is as subjective as terms come. It’s probably fair to say that for many fellow Pittsburghers, Duck Hollow wouldn’t really feel like city living. Those with a healthy penchant for walking can leg it up the 3/4 mile hill to reach the strip mall-like IHOP/dry cleaner/Hokkaido Seafood Buffet complex on Browns Hill Road, but there are no commercial buildings in Duck Hollow proper, nor is there evidence there ever were. We counted eighteen total houses (plus a number of freestanding garages, sheds, and outbuildings). What does that add up to–maybe sixty or eighty people at most?

Telephone pole with Christmas wreath and cardboard sign reading "Merry Christmas Duck Hollow", Pittsburgh, PA

Merry Christmas Duck Hollow

ceramic cherub figurine on garage roof, Pittsburgh, PA

The garage cherub of Duck Hollow

We’d heard tale of winter seagulls taking up residence in our fair city, but never having crossed paths with them, it felt a lot like urban legend. Well, it turns out Duck Hollow in January is the place to catch them.

Vastly outnumbering the human population of the neighborhood–not to mention the sizable collection of the hollow’s namesake ducks congregated on the loose riverbank–seagulls do their seagull things: standing around together all facing the same way and then getting excited and all taking to the air at the same time, singing their seagull songs.

I was told by more than one fellow bird-watcher these are “Lake Erie gulls” who fly south every winter when it gets too cold up there. Considering the particular non-winter we’re in, it seems like maybe they’re working off a calendar rather than a thermostat. Either way, we’re glad you guys made the trip down.

seagulls over the Monongahela River, Pittsburgh, PA

Seagulls of Duck Hollow

Monongahela River and Homestead Bridge from Duck Hollow Trail, Pittsburgh, PA

Monongahela River and Homestead Bridge from Duck Hollow Trail

Though small, Duck Hollow is not without its cultural amenities. There is an extremely high participation in lawn decoration–light-up deer, ceramic angels, cherubs, baubles. Figurines must outnumber people by a large margin. During our couple visits–the first on New Year’s Day and then again mid-January–the Christmas decorations, candy canes, and polar bears were out in full force.

A well-tended vacant lot sits at the center of the neighborhood and one imagines it as Duck Hollow’s town square. The rectangular plot features a flag pole that held no banner but does have a nice pole-sitting Mary statuette guarding its base and blessing The Hollow. Opposite is a strange arrangement of large river rocks topped by a discarded tire; the whole assemblage has been placed just-so and painted white. This blogger doesn’t know what he likes, but he knows art–and he thinks that’s what this might be…maybe.

green lot with flag pole and stone pile, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA

Duck Hollow town square with flag pole Mary and objet d’art

round metal lid painted with long string of text nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Pole art

Duck Hollow doesn’t even appear on the city’s list of officially-defined neighborhoods*. That’s probably because it’s just too small to qualify, so they’ve likely bundled it in with one of its nearest neighbors–presumably Glen Hazel or Greenfield.

But it is so not either of those places. It’s just too physically isolated–down the long twisting Old Brown’s Hill Road, through the Nine Mile Run green space, over the bridge. That seems like a long way to go when you’re still well within city limits. But then again, maybe it’s just enough.


* This hasn’t stopped Pittsburgh Orbit from including it as unique entity in the 90 Neighborhoods list/project.