The Over-the-Wall Club: Mon Valley Mondrian

brick wall with many styles and paint colors, Clairton, PA

Composition in Four Quadrants, Large Avenue, Clairton

One needn’t be an art connoisseur to recognize Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black. The 1929 oil-on-canvas painting is a simple geometric abstraction consisting of heavy black lines separating different-sized rectangular spaces. The three primary colors make cameo appearances, but the vast majority of the canvas is plain white.

Even if you don’t know this particular artwork, the piece is typical of Mondrian’s late-career shift that would define him. The easy-to-imitate style would be nicked for everything from textiles to housewares to TV game show sets; we still see plenty of it today. Three years ago, the original Composition No. III sold at auction for a record $50.6 million dollars[1].

Piet Mondrian's painting "Composition No. III, with-Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black"

Piet Mondrian, “Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black,” 1929

You can buy a three-bedroom home in the City of Clairton, around 15 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 30 thousand dollars[2]. Clairton’s story is a familiar one to its sister (ex-)mill towns in the Monongahela Valley–a boom for the first half of the 20th century following the massive growth of the steel industry, gradual exodus to the suburbs as families bought cars and became more mobile, then the steep decline with the collapse of Big Steel in the ’80s. Today, Clairton’s population is around a third of its peak in the 1950s[3].

That’s left a lot of vacant real estate. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the sale price of this one little artwork–Composition III is just 20 inches, square–every for-sale property in Clairton could be purchased, many times over[4].

cinderblock wall painted red and blue with a white stripe, Clairton, PA

Lavender over Dark Red with White Stripe, Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimal abstract painting "Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray)" by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, “Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray),” 1961

While it’s unlikely anyone in Clairton owns an original Mondrian, the fine residents of the “City of Prayer” have a trick up their collective sleeve–they just have to look out the window or walk down the block. There, for public view on the side streets and little alleyways, is an accidental, but absolutely spot-on survey of 20th century modern art.

Stewart Alley, just a block or two from the center of town, has a dead ringer for Mark Rothko’s soft-form, two-color ambient abstractions. Clairton’s version is rendered in deep red and light purple on the cinderblock wall of a commercial backside. The artist has upped the ante with a jaunty high-level racing stripe just under the roofline.

brick with layers of "ghost signs" overlapping, Clairton, PA

Treat Yourself to the Best, Waddell Avenue, Clairton

mixed media/collage artwork by Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, “Magician,” 1959

Just a couple blocks away and across a grassy vacant lot, sits the long side wall of an empty retail storefront. The wall features a riot of overlapping ghost advertisements–for Gold Medal Flour, some kind of tobacco, and others faded beyond recognition. The drywall and peg board from an ex-next-door neighbor are included in the collage, as is the yellow after-market siding protecting the apartment residences above. [Note: not all of this made it into the photo detail.]

Together, the life-imitating-art-imitating-life tableau made up a composition that spoke to the mixed-media/assemblage work of Robert Rauschenberg. Here, some stray, recycled text; there, paint smears, crumpled forms, jagged angles, and overlapping imagery.

exterior wall built in multiple styles of brick and cinderblock, Clairton, PA

Komposition von mehreren Mauerwerk (Composition of Multiple Masonry), Miller Avenue, Clairton

Karl Peter Röhl's geometric abstraction "Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat"

Karl Peter Röhl, “Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat (Composition with Resting Square),” 1924

Nearby, a wall so exquisite it quite figuratively took our breath away. Four interlocking, independent types of masonry–six patterns when you add in the squeeze of mortar and one stray white square–form such a simple, perfectly-balanced arrangement that it’s hard to fathom how the wall could have ended up that way by chance…or maybe it didn’t?

An older garage on Large Avenue features unique multi-tiered depth around its single, truck-sized garage door, a weathered two-tone paint job, and a bricked-over window that inserts an unexpected vertical box into the façade. That shape plays against the stair step drama of the doorway for a feeling that’s both harmonic and unresolved, balanced and weighted all wrong.

brick wall with worn paint job in several different levels, Clairton, PA

Five Layers, Large Avenue, Clairton

Jasper Johns stacked painting "Three Flags"

Jasper Johns, “Three Flags,” 1958

The Over-the-Wall Club held the latest of its infrequent, haphazard meetings in Clairton and we couldn’t have selected a finer set of public verticals. The small city has been through a lot, and contrary to the old saw, these walls do talk. They speak volumes, in fact, on growth and change, weather and time, industrial might and D.I.Y. ingenuity.

Sure, walking into a nice brand new construction brings a bunch of modern amenities and the rehab and reuse of older buildings is terrific. But there’s so much…not world history, but the people’s history in an old wall that often gets lost when the paint rollers and drop cloths come out.

brick wall with handmade "no drugs" painting on wood, Clairton, PA

No Drugs, Mulberry Alley, Clairton

Burgoyne Diller's geometric abstraction "Second Theme"

Burgoyne Diller, “Second Theme,” 1949

Sometimes club members–like faithful parishioners waiting on the Rapture–get hung up on what’s on the other side. Clairton’s walls tell us to look right here, right now, at the intense beauty we can see in front of our eyes without going anywhere. We can reach out and touch it without the tantalizing prospect of a jackpot lottery payout or taking out a loan on the house. And it makes us value the moment–if history is any guide, these will be gone before you know it.

In fact, old Clairton is coming down hard and fast. An entire block of the St. Clair Avenue main drag has been torn down and planted with fresh grass seed since the last time we were in town. The Treat Yourself to the Best ghost sign was only exposed from a similar pair of demolitions on Miller Avenue. You’ve only got a limited window on these lovely old time-worn and tale-telling walls before they’ll either be meeting the paint brush (hopefully) or, more likely, the wrecking ball (sigh). Consider it your one shot at a traveling exhibit. Take the opportunity to see it and say goodbye while you still can.

10-speed bicycle leans against a weathered cinderblock wall, Clairton, PA

10-Speed (The Orbitmobile), Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimalist painting "Series #14 (White)" by Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman, “Series #14 (White),” 2004


[1] Source: https://www.christies.com/features/In-The-Saleroom-Piet-Mondrians-Composition-No-III-6090-3.aspx
[2] Source: https://www.zillow.com/clairton-pa/
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clairton,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] The irony of Clairton is that it still hosts one of the few operating mills in the region: U.S. Steel’s massive Clairton Coke Works dominates the entire curling riverfront downhill from all parts of town. It’s a cliché, but if you’re anywhere in the area you can’t miss it.

Heavy Living: Cement City, Donora

2-story cement house with large side yard, Donora, PA

Cement City, Donora, PA

Spoiler alert: Cement City is neither. No, the lovely little residential neighborhood consists of a combined 80 single-family homes and larger duplexes lining just a few streets on a hilltop at the south end of Donora. With its 360-degree views across several different valleys, glorious green lawns, and kid’s bicycles left carelessly on front sidewalks, this is hardly the picture of urban life.

That name, though–Cement City. It’s industrial, brutal–fantastic even–like the fictional world created for a shoot-’em-up video game or dystopian science fiction. One might imagine each resident of Cement City as some version of Snake Plissken or Sarah Connor–an eyepatch, leather wristbands, and heavy weaponry required for the epic quest just to make it out alive.

Rest assured, though, nothing could be further from the truth. That said, Cement City does have a certain retro-futurism in its very interesting past.

row of cement houses in Donora, PA

houses on Walnut Street

In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, the Borough of Donora, 30 miles south-southeast/upriver from Pittsburgh, grew like crazy. It went from incorporation in 1901 to reaching its peak population just 20 years later. That was all on the boom of the American Steel & Wire Company. With its integrated blast furnace, open hearth, and ancillary industries in zinc smelting and product finishing, the U.S. Steel subsidiary was the local employer in this prototypic company town. We learned all about these in our tour of the terrific Donora Smog Museum over the winter.

Twice a year, the same folks from the historical society throw a terrific combined educational lecture/walking tour of Cement City, a hundred-year-old housing development borne of the perfect storm of new innovation, high-demand for middle-management lodging, and a massive corporate entity that could take the whole project on and manage it after its completion.

wooden door detail showing 30 small window panes

original arts and crafts-style wood door

Today, Cement City doesn’t look that different than many other neighborhoods of pre-war, detached, American four-square houses–each with its own concessions to time. Here, a mismatched garage addition or fresh paint job, there, some buckling stucco or an obvious collapse in the fascia. Many houses have decorated with lawn statuary (including a generous number of front yard Marys) and ornamental landscaping; in others, the grill is lit, children’s toys are scattered in the yard, and bass-heavy party music blasts from open windows on this perfect Spring day.

There’s one big difference, though. Under the wide eaves and behind the technicolor paint jobs live skeletons of pure concrete. [Yes: concrete, not cement.] When industrial America needed to grow the most, Thomas Edison was trying to figure out what to do with all the concrete he’d been tinkering with. As a building material, concrete seemed perfect: it was cheap, wasn’t going anywhere, the termites wouldn’t touch it, and–most importantly in a pre-fire code America–it was impossible to burn down.

detail of cement ceiling in home in Donora, PA

basement ceilings reveal the original cement forms

We’ll not go into the whole history here–it’s just too much for one little blog post and we’d get the facts wrong anyway. But if you can go on the tour, D.H.S. president Brian Charlton will spin an engrossing yarn in a history that blends the often at-odds interests of Big Steel, quality-of-life, architectural design, and Age of Innovation new technology[1].

Suffice to say, it’s not easy to build a community of houses out of concrete–even more so on the slanted hillsides of Donora in 1916. Making the project cost-effective proved to be the biggest challenge of all. It takes an entirely different building model to pour in place the walls and floors of any construction. You need elaborate forms, a mobile mixing and delivery system, accounting for multi-day cure times, and then back-filling all the various trades that complete a home.

several cement houses on a hill in Donora, PA

Cement City houses on Bertha Ave.

Regardless, it all got done and the homes remain charming to this day. Eventually, the one-time company village grew from identically-maintained, corporate ownership to being sold off to individuals with the surrounding tennis courts and playground lots redeveloped into newer housing. Early photos show the neighborhood denuded of all vegetation as the land was clear-cut for build-out. Today, hundred-year-old sycamores line the sidewalks and reach way above the rooflines on Bertha and Ida Avenues as flowering dogwoods and manicured cypress decorate front yards.

All of Cement City’s original houses are still standing, largely occupied and in good shape. A remarkable number of other features–including original sluiced backyard storm drains and locally-made Ellword woven wire fencing–persist as well. There are similar Edison-era collections of concrete houses all over the Northeast and upper Midwest, but Donora’s set of 80 homes makes it the second-largest development of its kind.

detail of Ellwood woven wire yard fence made by American Steel & Wire Co.

hundred year old Ellwood woven wire yard fence, made locally by American Steel & Wire Co., in a Cement City backyard

Like we saw with Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington, the transition from high-concept, mass-produced worker housing to present day free-market community is an interesting one. Were they alive to see them today, the after-market shutters, dish TV hook-ups, dangling gutter systems, and quaint lawn ornamentation would probably have given Edison and American Steel & Wire fits.

But the fact remains that good design endures, even if the humans that come along later monkey with the architects’ master vision of clean lines and a uniform presentation. It speaks volumes that 100% of Donora’s original concrete houses remain today–a hundred years after they were constructed–in a town that has lost more than two-thirds of its population in the same time frame[2].

cement house in Donora, PA with lawn statuary and porch modifications

Lived-in. Cement City house on Walnut Street with lawn statuary and porch modifications.

The next time you’re in Donora–and yes, make sure there is a next time–you’ll have to take in the classic McKean Ave. twofer of the Smog Museum and Anthony’s Italiano. Grab a hike up to St. Nick’s if you get a chance, too. But then consider making the short drive south and up the hill for a post-pizza constitutional around Cement City’s handful of streets. You’ll not be sorry you did.

concrete house in Donora, PA's Cement City

Cement City house on Ida Avenue

The Donora Historical Society will offer the next Cement City lecture/walking tours the weekend of Saturday, Sept. 22 and Sunday, Sept. 23. at 1:00 p.m. both days.

RSVP by calling 724-823-0364 or email donorahistoricalsociety@gmail.com


[1] Brian Charlton literally wrote the book (or, at least, detailed article) on Cement City. His article “Cement City: Thomas Edison’s experiment with worker’s housing in Donora,” appeared in the Fall, 2013 issue of Western Pennsylvania History.
[2] Donora’s current population is around 4,600 people, down from 14,000 in 1920. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donora,_Pennsylvania

Show’s Over: Ex-Theaters, Part 1 – Mourning the Recently Departed

former Plaza Theatre in Pittsburgh, PA

Plaza Theatre [now Starbucks Coffee] (1917-1998), Bloomfield

For years–ten of them, to be precise–the scene on West Liberty Avenue was unchanged. There, as the street rises just past Dormont’s little downtown business district, was a true last-of-its-kind (for Pittsburgh, at least) cast in the amber of its final waking moment. The old Cinema 4 (neé Harris/South Hills Theatre) was a classic American neighborhood movie house. Built in 1927 to seat 1200 and later sectioned into four smaller screening rooms, the theater–when it was still open–had enough old glamour, oddball kitsch, and weird juju to make any goofy second-run feature a fun experience.

Those opportunities ran out abruptly when the theater closed forever in 2001. For the following decade, Cinema 4’s giant, façade-spanning marquee pathetically clung to the plastic letters advertising its final program: Morgan Freeman in  Along Came a Spider, the drug-dealing/using drama Blow, and, permanently etched in this blogger’s brain, Paul Hogan gettin’ it done one last time in Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles[1]. [Side note: will America ever understand what a real knife looks like?!?] Alas, no departing staff ever bothered to update the marquee with a final “Closed. Thanks for 74 great years.” message.

former Cinema 4 movie theater, Dormont, PA

Cinema 4, sometime in the oughts, Dormont (1927-2001; demolished 2010) [photo: cinematreasures.org]

Though the theater stayed dark for all that time, somehow it always felt like it would be return to life. The building was too impressive, too unique, too important to let go. Those giant multi-story glass windows! The gleaming chrome–likely added in the ’50s or ’60s–reflecting along the sidewalk entrance! The big, reach-out-over-the-street neon marquee! Seven decades of South Hillsian memories, popcorn debris, garish paint jobs, and sticky floors.

But…you already know where this is going. In 2010, Dormont felt it needed a fancy new drug store more than a derelict movie house that had sat empty for the last decade. Cinema 4 was razed and West Liberty Avenue got a brand new CVS franchise with plenty of surface-level parking. Not only won’t you be able to see the latest Crocodile Dundee for a dollar, but the borough lost another local business at the same time–CVS ultimately made it impossible for Your Hometown Pharmacy (just down the hill) to compete and now they’re gone too. Sigh.

wooden ornament of apothecary mortar and pestle, Dormont, PA

Ghost apothecary. All that’s left of Your Hometown Pharmacy, Dormont

In the mid-1990s, greater Pittsburgh was awash with bargain movies. I know this very very well. As a new transplant to the city with neither television nor friends [don’t worry–I would pay dearly for both, later] this movie nut would go out three or four nights a week to feast on the unbelievable buffet of discount/second-run movies operating in the glorious cinematic salad days that ended way too early. I’d go see everything–some Wesley Snipes shoot-’em-up, dumb rom-coms, The Spice Girls movie. To this day, I’ll stand by the philosophy that any picture is a worth a buck on a the big screen–but try finding a movie that cheap any more!

Aside from the Cinema 4, Dormont also had the Hollywood (which is still sort-of operating?). There was the two-screen Bellevue Theatre (now a Family Dollar), four or five screens out in Cheswick (since demolished), and a similar number in a Penn Hills strip mall (amazingly still open and still half-price!). There was one obscure little theater in Whitehall or Brentwood that I only made it to a couple times (current status: unknown) and there were the big bargains of suburban sprawl: Northway Mall’s Super Saver Cinemas 8 with its sci-fi/spaceship looking gangways (closed 2007) and the completely generic $1.50 monster multiplex at Century III Mall (closed for a while, then reopened and rebranded as Century Square Luxury Cinemas).

Family Dollar store with the marquee of the former Bellevue Theatre, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue Theatre [now Family Dollar] (1920s-2002), Bellevue

The most painful loss was The Plaza–mainly because it was just so close to where I was living. Bloomfield’s little $2.00 second-run house was evidently a totally charming single-screen, 500-seat neighborhood theater when it opened in 1917. It went through a series of ups and downs including a substantial closure during the 1970s and eventual re-opening and reconfiguration as a two-screen bargain theater.

The layout was nuts. Typically when an old theater gets subdivided, they either figure out a way to cut the space down the middle or the balcony becomes one theater and the ground floor the other. For The Plaza, some genius came up with the idea to make one theater larger than the other using a bizarre L-shape that necessitated projecting the film from such a severe angle the screen was a perpetual trapezoid with only about half the frame in focus. A substantial portion of the seats couldn’t actually see the left hand side of the screen.

ornate stone building in Pittsburgh, PA

King’s Court/Beehive [now Noodles & Company/T-Mobile] (1965-1990s), Oakland [2]

When you start digging, it’s a history that will break your heart. It’s astounding how many nickelodeons, dance halls, opera houses, and movie palaces Pittsburgh–and pretty much every other place–once had. Three or four or five different theaters on every commercial drag in every part of town. A whole lot of those buildings–like the Cinema 4–are just gone forever. But an amazing number of them survive today and they’re mostly not what you’re expecting.

former movie theater in Pittsburgh, PA

Princess Theatre/Beacon Theatre/Guild Theatre [now Friendship Circle] (1937-1979), Squirrel Hill

If the building’s owners let the marquee stand, you’ve got a pretty obvious clue to what was once there. Most visitors to Squirrel Hill have probably noticed the big sign for Friendship Circle (and for decades before that, Gullifty’s restaurant) on Murray Ave. [See photo, above.] That, and the clean, art-deco design are a dead giveaway for the building’s past life as a movie theater. The Warner Centre, downtown, has its exterior so well preserved that you’d assume it still is the grand movie palace it was built as a hundred years ago. You’d be wrong.

façade of former Warner Theatre, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Grand Theatre/Warner Theater [now Warner Centre shops] (1918-1983), downtown

This is a big topic with a fascinating history. We went from one story about the rash of (somewhat) recently-closed movie houses to digging into all of the various places that used to be theaters and performance halls. There is plenty of documentation out there about the lovely, ornate old theaters of yore [the web site cinematreasures.org is an invaluable resource] but what really interested The Orbit were the places that have held on–not as the handful of still-operating theaters, but a building’s transformation from nickelodeon to retail space, 200-seater to neighborhood bar, community theater to taxi stand.

A space like Cinema 4 could really only serve one purpose–and that’s probably what would ultimately doom it. Others, though, were far more humble in design–baked into retail blocks with apartments or office spaces above and storefronts bookending their entranceways. These seem to have survived much better than their great single-use siblings and have the intriguing quality of hiding in plain sight, masquerading as health clubs and laundromats, juice bars and dentists offices.

marquee of former Squirrel Hill Theatre, Pittsburgh, PA

Squirrel Hill Theatre (1940-2010), Squirrel Hill [3]

There are some bright spots, too. We’d intended on including a photo of the old Denis Theatre in Mt. Lebanon, but it’s currently getting rehabbed to be a new community-run theater/art space. North Side’s Garden Theatre is undergoing similar treatment and Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville likes to claim it’s the first new, single-screen theater built in America in the last 50 years (or something like that).

We’ll get to all this as the series unspools. Until then, just like Siskel & Ebert, we’ll see you at the movies.


[1] There is no indication why only three films were listed on the marquee of the four-screen theater. Perhaps technical difficulties precipitated Cinema 4’s ultimate closing or maybe souvenir-hunters just scavenged the lowest-hanging set of removable marquee letters. We’ll probably never know.
[2] Obvious in the photograph, the old King’s Court was not originally a theater. It was built as a police station and only converted into a movie theater some time in the 1960s. As we’ll see–especially when we get into the nickelodeons–this is not an uncommon practice.
[3] Squirrel Hill Theatre, along with the Denis, were both first-run theaters, so not included in the bargain buffet discussion. At the time it closed, the rumor was that the whole block was going to be razed and redeveloped along with the Poli plot, but that hasn’t happened and there’s a For Sale sign on the theater now, so keep your fingers crossed on this one.

Art Opening: Garage Door Murals

garage door murals of giant cat head and abstract lines and stars, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Garages, man. The mythological backyard birthplaces of great art and invention–from Thomas Edison making light bulbs to The Kingsmen banging out those three chords to Steve Jobs and “The Woz” inventing Pac-Man (or whatever they did).

While little structures to park your car in exist everywhere, there is something quintessentially and uniquely American about the garage. Our obsession with the automobile, along with the affluence to afford the extra real estate–let alone, the sport SUV–and America’s young history, unencumbered by precious Medieval ruins, ancient bazaars, or sacred bones–makes all land fallow ground for building home for our cars.

While the three-bedroom split-level house with its integrated two-car garage has become synonymous with twentieth-century suburbia, there are plenty of interesting alleyway garages serving retail storefronts, row houses, and gingerbread Victorians all over the city. It is this collision of circumstances that, uh, opens the door (sorry) to great garage murals.

garage door covered with plywood painted with colorful bridge and hills, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

Mural painted on garage door of man on motorcycle with the Pittsburgh skyline behind him and a banner reading "Gone but not Forgotten"

Gone but not forgotten, Homewood

Some of these many retractable, roll-up doors have been gloriously decorated with large-form artwork. That makes perfect sense–the garage door is such a nice, big canvas–sixty square feet at the minimum; much much more when you get into two-car widths and double-door arrangements. Plus, the street- (or, more often, alley-) facing arrangement guarantees an audience of neighbors, scavengers, and garbage collectors as they trundle down the hill, possibly to or from their own garages.

garage door mural of heart and flowers with text "Bienvenidos a Brookline", Pittsburgh, PA

Bienvenidos a Brookline, Brookline

colorful abstract mural on garage, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship

It’s an interesting opportunity. Most property owners don’t paint such wild, loose scenes on the exterior brick and stucco walls of the main house. But the garage seems to have a different set of rules–no one considers it sacred space, crucial to the visual integrity of the home. The neighborhood may look like Peyton Place from the street, but it’s Dazed and Confused in the back alley.

mural of colorful furry cartoon character painted on garage door, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

garage door painted with crowd of people, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

garage door opening covered in plywood and stenciled with birds and birdcages, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship [1]

brick wall over former garage painted with elaborate tag, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

An interesting sub-genre of the garage door mural shows up in these artifacts from a long-over radio station contest around pop group ‘N Sync. I was unable to locate any mentions of this on the computer Internet, but from our small sample size, it looks like participants were required to paint a garage door in tribute to both the singers and [defunct radio station] B-94, with the names of on-air personalities John, Dave, Bubba, Shelley and band members spelled-out. The one from Aliquippa (below) is particularly great for its crude renderings of Justin, Lance, J.C., and the gang.

garage door painted by fans of N*Sync for radio contest, Aliquippa, PA

B-94 ‘N Sync mural, Aliquippa [2]

The B-94/’N Sync murals would make a great subject for its own post, but we have no confidence we’ll ever see any more of these. [If you know of any, hook us up!] The contest probably ran right around 2001 at the height of ‘N Sync’s popularity and while it may have had many teenagers decorating the family car park back then, turn-of-the-millennia middle/high school students are now in their 30s and should have moved out of the house by now. We imagine even the most supportive and/or nostalgic parents took the opportunity to whitewash over these alley-facing memories.

garage door painted for radio station content as tribute to N*Sync, Munhall, PA

B-94 ‘N Sync mural, Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]


[1] Given the quantity of both the stenciled bird and birdcage images around town, this particular artwork was likely not created by the property owner–nor is it a full mural. Regardless, it’s still garage door art, so we included it here.
[2] Shelley’s name is partially-covered in plywood and otherwise faded/worn away in the bottom row of panels.

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.

The Over-the-Wall Club: A Winter Meeting

weathered brick and sheet metal factory wall, Etna, PA

factory, Etna

Every inch of the wall tells a story. Consider just the thick steel doors, rusted so far that a firey red is bleeding through the darker brown surface as if the earth’s crust was finally giving way to its molten core. Miscreants have scratched their tags and in-jokes into its surface and an off-the-shelf safety placard warns us about what we already know–DANGER lies on the other side.

Surrounding this lone entry point are a patchwork of industrial building materials: brick of a couple shades, cinderblock, concrete, sheet metal, corrugated fiberglass, PVC pipe, blue light bulbs suspended in a strand, and thick, high-voltage electrical wire.

There is but a single design detail committed for its aesthetics. Within one of the red brick surfaces, the mason has crafted an off-bias diamond that interrupts the stacked pattern in the gentlest of ways. Otherwise, this place is all business.

roofline with several commercial buildings, Charleroi, PA

roofline, Charleroi

If you’re tired of writing, the old wisdom goes, then you’re tired of living.

For The Over-the-Wall Club, there’s a similar mantra: if you’re tired of walls, then you’re really just tired of seeing. Put those eyes away–into a box in the bottom drawer, or send them off to the thrift shop so someone else can use them at a cut-rate price.

When last we met, the Over-the-Wall Club was pondering that old stand-by of the Dumpty clan, what’s on the other side? But let’s not ignore the trees for the forest. What’s right here in front of us may actually be the more interesting subject. Just because it’s blocking the view of those other things we think we’d rather be looking at doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

brick wall painted green and aqua with homemade address sign, Pittsburgh, PA

row house apartments, Oakland

Walls. America loves talking about them, and–gosh darn it–Mexico loves building them…at least, that’s what we’re told. But try to convince the federal government to put up a two-tone, aqua-on-lime green splotchy brick wall along the Rio Grande and see how far it gets you. In fairness, it’s a color scheme that maybe even Enrique Peña Nieto might get behind–but we still doubt he’s going to pull out the nation’s wallet any time soon.

alley wall with ghost signs and many materials, Butler, PA

ghost signs, ghost windows, ghost paint job, Butler

Another entry in the wall-as-modern art category. This geometric bricolage of styles and materials in a Butler alleyway competes with Etna’s factory row (above) in sheer density of visual stimuli. Two different mid-century Firestone Tires ads have ghosted themselves almost out of readability against a field of brick and stone, tin and particle board, paint and ash. If you can’t imagine a century’s worth of narratives playing out against this scenery, you’re not trying very hard.

tiled wall with cross and mountain, Pittsburgh, PA

ex-church, West End

If these walls could talk, they say–but some do! How does a former house of worship manage to preserve its midcentury terra cotta Jetsons cross and mount with but a few cracks and crumbles and still shed the loose bricks around it like tears at a funeral? I know, I know–it’s God’s way, or something like that, but there may be an equally fascinating or boringly prosaic reason. No matter how much church we go–or skip–we’ll probably never know.

facade of building with shadows of telephone pole and wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Industri l Engi & S p ly, Homewood

It’s the stories, man–the stories. The letters probably just fell off all on their own, but someone made a very conscious decision to block in those windows and repaint just one section in a warm, sun-baked yellow-orange that makes the whole mundane façade look like a poor man’s Mark Rothko. The criss-crossing shadows of a strong wooden utility pole and warped telephone lines decorate in the most abstract of ways.

interior of cinderblock warehouse with shadows of roof structure, Pittsburgh, PA

roofless warehouse, Strip District

Maybe there’s a set of parallel shadows that dance across the suddenly-exposed wall surfaces and make the whole scene light up like special effects at a discotheque or fancy lighting in a theatrical production. How many precious moments do we have before this old warehouse either gets a new roof or has the cinderblock walls felled to clear the lot? We can only wonder.

mural on outside retaining wall of fish and sunset, Penn Hills, PA

retaining wall mural, Penn Hills

…But that’s what The Over-the-Wall Club does best, wonderWhat’s on the other side? Sure. But also how did we get right where we are? And how can we stay just like this forever? If only it were that easy.

Until next time, we’ll see you over-, under-, roundabout-, and upside-the-wall.


See also:“The Over-the-Wall Club” (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 12, 2015)

The Orbit’s Summer Vacation, Part 1: Considering Portland

yellow bungalow house in Portland, OR

Portland in the summertime: green trees, parched yellow grass, cute craftsman bungalows on large flat lots

Let’s get something straight: the stereotypes are all basically true. Young people–tattooed, time-warped, and tricked-out–cavort at each neighborhood’s stock of ethnic-inspired food trucks and to-the-point microbreweries. Seemingly every home comes equipped with a strand of Tibetan prayer flags or a Black Lives Matter window sign. [Whether or not you’ll actually encounter any black lives is another matter.] The “Rose City” is aglow with its totem flower–albeit often shriveled and water-starved in the sun-baked late summer drought. Everything is “locally sourced.”

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam, The Egg Carton (food cart), SE Portland

Portland, Oregon. Like Austin and Seattle in the ’90s–or Brooklyn a decade later–it is the current generation of twenty-somethings’ hip organic indie destination-du-jour…and that makes a lot of sense. There are a ton of things to do, inside and out. Every flavor of culinary and sensory offering is available just a Square-swipe or Subaru sidle away. There’s just enough grit (if you look hard enough) to locate the handful of still-remaining rough edges from the city’s industrial past, but with the outsized young/white/educated/leftie population to feel more like a giant college town where everybody plays in a band, jams for the roller derby squad, and works part-time at the coffee shop while working on their novel.

We went to Portland to hang out with friends, ride a bicycle around the city, see the big rocks on the coast and the lovely waterfalls in the gorge. We did all that (thank you, again, most generous hosts and tour guides!) but also had the terrific experience that all travel should reward us with: the perspective on what is–and what could be–back home.

new condo under construction behind older used car lot, Portland, OR

Boomtown: condo rising, North Portland

This, of course, is the Pittsburgh Orbit. So we’re not so interested in creating a travel piece for a city 2500 miles away. Plenty of that hype has been generated already. So much so that Portland has some very opposite problems from Pittsburgh: skyrocketing housing prices, the “damn Californians” pouring into the city, and a not-too-successful campaign to Stop Demolishing Portland! (to construct hated condos).

There were a whole bunch of things we liked–the number of old junkers parked on the streets, all the great craftsman architecture, gardening nuts planting their front yards, “zombie RVs”, some great street art, and, yes, the food cart “pods” and ubiquitous microbreweries. That said, we’re more interested in just a few really basic city things that impressed us in the trip and how we’d like to see some of these emulated back here, in Pittsburgh.

small house with front yard planters made from a toilet, dresser drawers, wooden boxes, Portland, OR

Plant your front yard! North Portland

Bicycle Heaven

To call Portland Nirvana on two wheels is a stretch–it’s just too flat and too gridded for that. But, it’s absolutely heaven for the commuter or basic point-to-point traveler. There is an unbelievable amount of infrastructure in place nearly everywhere in the city–well-marked bicycle lanes, directional and distance signage every few blocks, dedicated street-crossing and curb cuts, and the concept of “neighborhood greenways”: dedicated streets that prioritize through-routes for cyclists and pedestrians. Further, motorists have a great deal of respect for bicycle-riders and the two seem to co-exist very comfortably.

street signage specifically for bicycle riders including directions, time, and distance to various locations, Portland, OR

Friendly bicycle signage: directions, distances, neighborhood greenway markers

North Williams Avenue–running from the central East Side up to North Portland–resembled a full-on cycling highway with non-stop two-wheel traffic every time we headed home. Plus, since the majority of the city is basically flat[1], you can ride all day and never get tired[2]. Throw in a climate that rarely gets hot enough for you to sweat and even less often do riders have to deal with snow and ice, and you’ve really got no excuse for not living on two wheels.

street crossings and integrated turn lanes for bicycle riders, Portland, OR

Bicycle infrastructure: street crossings, integrated turn lanes, NE Portland

We can’t do anything about our climate, but Pittsburgh has come a long way in its bicycle-friendliness in the last ten years. [Thank you, Mayor Peduto/Bike Pittsburgh!] We’re gaining new bicycle lanes all the time, have a terrific advocacy community, lots of hardcore riders, and are finally working out the nightmare of traveling through central Oakland on a bike. I think we (Pittsburgh) may actually have a better trail system than Portland within the city [it’s also entirely likely we just didn’t get to see Portland’s trails], but it’s limited to the riverfronts and a couple other through-passages.

All that said–as we’ve written in these virtual pages before–cyclists are still second-class citizens in Pittsburgh who all too often have a combative relationship with motorists and councilwoman Darlene Harris. It was remarkable to see how good it could be. We’ve got some major room to improve here.

exterior of indoor/outdoor bar called Tough Luck, Portland, OR

Adaptive reuse: Tough Luck, NE Portland

Adaptive Reuse

Tough Luck, a months-old bar and restaurant in NE Portland, is housed in a 1960s-era building that probably started life as a garage, or a laundromat, or maybe a dry cleaners–it really doesn’t matter. It was an underwhelming little big box design to begin with. But with some imagination, tasteful rehab, and the conversion of a half-dozen parking spots into relaxed outdoor seating, it’s aged gracefully as a terrific little addition to the Woodlawn neighborhood.

That story–the adaptive reuse of one aesthetically-challenged building or discarded vacant lot into something useful, vibrant, welcoming, and fun was something we saw all over the city in a ton of different impressive ways–a used car lot turned outdoor dining park, cinderblock workshop-to-brewery, old social hall to new performance space.

Former Pizza Hut building, now vacant, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Pizza Hut, East Liberty, Pittsburgh

There is a former Pizza Hut that’s been sitting vacant for years in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. This is nothing remarkable–we’ve got empty buildings all over the place. But the fact that it’s a hundred yards from Duolingo’s headquarters on Penn Ave. and maybe a half mile from Google’s big Pittsburgh office is. Right now–for good or bad–there is a lot of money flowing through this part of town. That this runty little shack sits idle is a shame. The building itself is nothing special, but its location and the vast city lot it sits on sure are.

In Pittsburgh, it can really feel like all the nice design and construction happened by the 1920s. We are fortunate to still have a lot of that stuff. But if there’s something of the vintage of Tough Luck or Pizza Hut–and there are plenty in and around–probably no one cares and it will sit there until the roof caves in or someone knocks it down for another parking lot. We’d love to see entrepreneurs take up the challenge of turning some of the city’s many architectural eyesores and discarded structures into welcoming, creative uses of fallow ground.

exterior of ornate Hollywood movie theater, Portland, OR

Hollywood Theater: one of many terrific neighborhood movie houses in Portland

Main Streets

Lastly, I’ll say that I was totally jealous of how every neighborhood seemed to have its own healthy business district, amazingly each supporting both a record store and still-operational movie house to go with the requisite cutsie retail, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

This is likely an effect of that thing most cities have where there are actually more people living there than there were sixty years ago[3]. Sometimes humanity can be a real pain the ass, but it certainly makes it easier to populate the storefronts of Main Street.

terra cotta building facade for former theater, Pittsburgh, PA

former Atlas Theatre, Perry Hilltop, Pittsburgh

To pass through [Pittsburgh city neighborhoods] Perry Hilltop, Spring Garden, Morningside, Uptown, parts of the Hill District, etc. and see the obvious former business districts that are currently somewhere between under-utilized and totally vacant is a real bummer. Oh! to bring back the New Grenada Theater or a real grocery in Homewood or anything on Observatory Hill. Sigh.

Next up: It was a nice place to visit–and under different circumstances, we could see the appeal of living there–but coming home pointed out so many things that we love about Pittsburgh. We’ll look at those comparisons next week.


[1] Portlanders: by contrast, a huge amount of Pittsburgh looks like the hilly area just above your downtown. Here, it’s nearly impossible to avoid hill climbs unless you stick entirely to the river trails–and even then you still have to get home.
[2] The positive spin on this is that every bicycle ride is both a commute and a trip to the gym.
[3] While the greater region has grown, the city of Pittsburgh has been losing population ever since 1950, when it was more than twice its current size. [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh#Demographics]