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]

Onion Dome Fever: The Domes of Lyndora

front face of Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Lyndora, PA

Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Evergreen Street

Had you told this blogger a simple detour on the way home would lead him on journey starting with old world immigrants and Eastern Orthodox religion and wind up exploring the themes expressed in Poison’s debut Look What the Cat Dragged In[1], well, in the words of C.C. DeVille, Rikki Rockett, and the gang, he’d have told you to cry tough.

Such is this journey we call Orbit.

front view of St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Lyndora, PA

St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Main & Chesapeake Streets

Frankly, little Lyndora didn’t even exist on The Orbit‘s mental map of the region. As it turns out though, the town–thirty miles north and basically a next-door adjunct to more name-brand Butler–is quite the destination for the onion dome-obsessed. Lyndora is a classic industry town, host to the AK Steel plant which occupies a tremendous amount of Connoquenessing Creekside acreage and continues to belch enough white smoke to tell us it’s still very much in operation.

Steel-making aside, Lyndora’s primary claim-to-fame seems to be the birthplace of Bret Michaels (née Bret Michael Sychak) of ’80s glam/hair metal band Poison. That’s all well and good, but we’d like to nominate it for its fine collection of old-school/high-style orthodox churches–all of which can be easily navigated in a fine little constitutional around the borough.

steeple view of St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Lyndora, PA

St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Penn Ave.

front view of 1906 St. Michael the Arcangel Ukrainian Catholic Church, Lyndora, PA

St. Michael the Arcangel Ukrainian Catholic Church, Hansen Ave.

We were actually headed home from points north when Lyndora’s four-pack of tell-tale gleaming ornaments gave themselves away–or perhaps, yelled for attention. The silver globes reach into the sky and beckon the wobegone traveler to re-route him- or herself off Highway 8 and up into the town’s inviting hillside clutches. Come to us they seem to whisper, a secret awaits. Obey their trance-inducing powers we did.

While every rose may indeed have its thorn[2], it’s safe to say not every town of 6,000 has four glorious orthodox Catholic churches–two of them (St. Michael the Arcangel and Saints Peter & Paul) are enormous Ukrainian Catholic churches, which tells us a fair amount about the Big Steel-era immigrants who first populated this particular borough.

wooden tent sign advertising "Today Pirohi Sale", Lyndora, PA

Sadly, Peter & Paul’s pirohi sale was not happening the day we visited [it appears to be every other Friday, 8-4–but not sure on that one].

rear view of St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Lyndora, PA

St. Andrew Orthodox Church, Penn Ave.

Long before siring the author of “Unskinny Bop” and “Talk Dirty to Me”, the Sychak family were Carpatho-Rusyn immigrants to Western Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. It’s quite possible young Bret actually worshipped at St. Andrew during his earliest years in Lyndora. A Huffington Post article by Megan Smolenyak[3] actually discusses this:

Was Bret Sychak one of us? [Carpatho-Rusyns] It took a little digging, but I discovered that his great-grandfather, Vasil Sychak (spelled a frustrating number of ways) claimed in his naturalization record to have arrived in New York in July 1905. Vasil’s wife to be, Anna Daňo, had arrived in Baltimore the month before, and by September of the following year, they had met and married in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh.

A quick inspection of his passenger arrival record revealed that he was actually a bird of passage–a term used for those who came to America several times. These were generally men who didn’t really intend to stay here, but instead planned to come, work and go back home to live comfortably as the richest fellow in the village. Vasil had first arrived in 1899, meaning that he was about 16-17 the first time he made the journey. This was a common age for Rusyn immigrants since many of them were seeking not only to escape poverty, but also to avoid the draft.

cornerstone for 1914 St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic church, Lyndora, PA

St. Andrew’s cornerstone. The English side reads “St. Andrew Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church”

After marrying, Vasil and Anna lived for a while in McKees Rocks, then briefly in Sharon, and finally in Lyndora, Pennsylvania where they remained for the rest of their lives. Most Rusyns worked in either the coal or steel industry, and Vasil was no exception, working for Armco (American Rolling Mill Company). [Editor’s note: the former Armco plant is now AK Steel-Butler Works.]

If there was any doubt that Vasil was Rusyn, a number of documents pertaining to his life list him as Ruthenian or Russniak, both alternative terms used for this ethnic group. He and his wife also attended a Greek Catholic Church–one of the telltale signs of a Rusyn–and were born in Habura and Kalinov, respectively. Both are in Slovakia less than 15 miles from the town that claims Andy Warhol.

The “Greek Catholic Church” Smolenyak mentions is undoubtably St. Andrew’s on Penn Avenue. Its cornerstone reveals it as formerly “Russian Orthodox/Greek Catholic”. The handsome octagonal silver tri-crossed cupola was the first thing we spotted from the highway across the creek.

mosaic detail of Mary and baby Jesus, St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church, Lyndora, PA

Detail from mosaic above St. John’s entryway

side view of St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church with wooden signs for upcoming Easter fair, Lyndora, PA

Open up and say…paska! St. Michael the Arcangel’s Easter Fair is coming up April 7-9.

The very end of winter: a gloomy day, cold drizzle, deserted streets, no one home to let a loitering blogger poke around the icons, candles, and gold-leaf relics. And yet what a privilege to have these beautiful bits of tangible near-history ours for the poking, available on-demand as leg-stretching scenery and lazy drive ponderables.

As Bret Sychak [we really wish he hadn’t felt the need to Anglicize his name] would remind us back in 1988–and I’m pretty sure he was talking about Peter & Paul’s pirohi–don’t need nothin’ but a good time, how can I resist?

front view of Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Saints Peter & Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church

Getting there: Lyndora is straight up Route 8 from Pittsburgh. It takes about 50 minutes to get there. Butler (right next door) amazingly has two brew-pubs and is also well worth a poke-around.


[1] For the record, these are (according to Wikipedia): ambition, lust, sexual frustration, love lost, and anti-social behavior.
[2] Whether every cowboy sings his sad, sad song is not confirmed.
[3] “Bret Michaels: The Rusyn Roots of the Rock of Love”, Megan Smolenyak, Huffington Post, May 21, 2010.

Hold the Cheese: A Pi Day Salute to Ghost Pizza

neon sign reading "IZZA" (the letter "P" is burnt out), Natrona Heights, PA

unknown, Natrona Heights

What’s not to like? Fresh-baked bread–right out of the oven–some kind of sauce, a lake of molten cheese. There are umpteen different things you can throw on top for more flavor–and each one has its defenders and cynics–but these are almost superfluous. Pizza–Hot, Fresh, & Delicious, as if the standard-issue paperboard box needed to remind us of it–is (unofficially) America’s national dish[1].

Pizzerias are a classic formula that’s never needed to be updated–order a single cut for a quick lunch or a whole pie for a group dinner. They get dressed-up in fancy toppings and elaborate food narratives one day, but it still tastes great as greasy street food the next. Pizza places are future-proof: utilitarian as gas stations and lusty as saloons. No one wants Internet pizza.

All that said, not every pizza joint is going to have the long-term endurance of Beto’s or P&M. So on this Pi Day, we celebrate some of the fallen soldiers on pizza’s long campaign to win the hearts, minds, waistlines, and cholesterol counts of America. Buon appetito!

hand-painted sign for Venice Pizza on cinderblock wall, covered in vines, Pittsburgh, PA

Venice Pizza I, Lawrenceville

cinderblock wall with mural for former Venice Pizza & Pasta, Pittsburgh, PA

Venice Pizza II, Lawrenceville[2]

Brick commercial building with green, white, and red storefront, Clairton, PA

unknown[3], Clairton

glass storefront windows painted with the name of DeSalla's Pizza and running pizza delivery man, Pittsburgh, PA

DeSalla’s, Allentown[4]

rear of commercial building with hand-painted sign reading "Astro Pizza", Pittsburgh, PA

Astro Pizza, East Liberty

freestanding brick restaurant with Italian red, green, and white awning and "For Sale" sign, Monongahela, PA

unknown[3], Monongahela

empty glass storefront with the word "Pizza" on glass, Pittsburgh, PA

Potenza Pizza & Pasta, North Oakland

glass storefront window with hand painted image of a bear eating pizza, Pittsburgh, PA

Pizza Bear, DeSalla’s, Allentown


[1] The United States has no official “national dish”. The obvious rivals for this title–hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie, and the like–could make strong counter-arguments, but this blogger thinks you’re fooling yourself if you buy them.
[2] That’s Amore pizza now occupies this building, but the obvious paint-over of the Venice name still qualifies the original tenant as ghost pizza.
[3] We can’t be sure the storefronts in Clairton and Monongahela were pizzerias, but the tell-tale green/white/red color scheme suggests they were either that or more full-on Italian restaurants.
[4] An Orbit reader from Allentown informs us that “DeSalla’s is not closed!” That may be true, but it sure looked like it the day we were there and they’ve got a prominent For Sale sign in the window, which suggests it won’t be long either way.

Into the Forgotten: Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood

abandoned house with spray-painted graffiti "Into the forgotten", Clairton, PA

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Gone windows. Collapsed porches. Crumpled forms. Roof lines slant, flex, wheeze, and implode. Thin trees grow straight up through foundations and strangle outside walls. Nature crowds in from all sides as small single-family homes and squat double-houses are enveloped by vines, moss, weeds, and debris. The only signs of human life are the stray household items jettisoned by families forced to move and the spray-painted graffiti added by miscreants in their wake.

In a few cases, only the exterior walls remain. Former kitchens and living rooms are reduced to piles of layered rubble. For the most part, though, the two- or three-dozen parcels here are still recognizable as houses–but like Elvis working that milk cow, they’re just real real gone.

abandoned house with porch roof collapsed, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with only exterior walls remaining, Clairton, PA

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It’s no secret: The Orbit makes a living off ghosts. It’s a strange way to earn a buck, but business is good. Oh sure, we love to run stories on weird religion, city steps, egg hunts, and the like. But you try to pay the rent covering some street artist who won’t call your ass back!

Since the beginning, so-called ghost signs and ghost houses have been stock-in-trade for us and Orbit faithful snack on them like funnel cakes at the county fair. We’re already licking our lips for the ghost pizza we’ll never get to eat in an upcoming Pie Day feature. One ghost bike made these pages, but mercifully, cycling deaths have been rare enough to not warrant follow-up stories…yet. All that said, Clairton’s Lincoln Way ghost neighborhood is something altogether more dramatic.

abandoned house with only rear exterior walls still standing, Clairton, PA

abandoned double-house with roof collapsed, Clairton, PA

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Speeding south, the billowing white smoke of U.S. Steel’s Clairton coke plant is already on the horizon. Not a care in the world–next stop, Donora! But then, all of the sudden something flashes through the passenger-side window. With just the quickest of glances, we see it’s a pair of burned-out and bummed-out houses on a thin residential street just off the main road. They’re alarming, but sadly not that all that unique in the depopulated Mon Valley.

On the way home, Swiss-cheese-for-brains has already forgotten the sighting mere hours beforehand. But when a mirror-image of the earlier picture pops through the windshield, it’s deja vu all over again. This time breaks squeal, the Orbitmobile is stashed on a muddy berm, and we hoof it back up the road to see what’s going on.

abandoned house covered in bare trees, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with only exterior walls remaining, Clairton, PA

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What’s going on is pretty intense. An entire residential street–not long, but still the equivalent of maybe five or six city blocks–with every single home abandoned, crumbled, collapsed, gutted, scarred, and mocked. Lincoln Way is a hollow between steep rising hills on either side with no outlet streets or other exits, so there’s literally no visible habitation that isn’t in this shape.

The scene is one that could be interpreted as anything from a Love Canal-style environmental disaster to world-without-us post-apocalypse. [That hasn’t happened yet, right?] This was clearly not the result of any single house fire or the general tough economics of the Mon Valley–every inch of Lincoln Way was vacated for a reason.

masonry walls from otherwise collapsed houses, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with spray painted graffiti "I am the antichrist", Clairton, PA

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Though we found it all on our own–by accident–The Orbit was not the first cop on this particular beat. Once one fires up The Google Machine, he or she finds out Lincoln Way has been documented by sources from the mainstream/”dishonest” press (“Clairton fire decimates ‘ghost town'”Post-Gazette, April 11, 2015) to paranormal support groups (wikinut.com’s “The Mystery of Clairton’s Abandoned Lincoln Way”)–and I’m sure every teenager at Steel Valley High.

Most terrifically, though, the great Architectural Afterlife blog covered Lincoln Way back in 2015 with an astoundingly great collection of photographs taken through a pair of visits in both winter snow and summer’s lush, full overgrowth. Unlike this need-to-get-home-for-dinner blogger, AA’s Johnny Joo wasn’t afraid to risk falling through the floorboards and got some beautiful, heartbreaking inside shots as a result. His piece is highly recommended–and the contrast with The Orbit‘s recent photos show how fast Lincoln Way is returning to cinder.

abandoned house with graffiti "That's all she wrote", Clairton, PA

“That’s all she wrote” is about right


Update (September, 2018): We’ve gone back to visit Lincoln Way a year-and-a-half after this original post. To see what it looks like today, check out “Only the Stones Remain: A Follow-up Visit to Clairton’s ‘Ghost Neighborhood'” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Sept. 2, 2018.)

On Making America Great … Again

President John F. Kennedy addresses a large outdoor crowd in Monessen, PA, Oct. 13, 1962

President John F. Kennedy speaking in Monessen, Oct. 13, 1962 [photo: Cecil W. Stoughton/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum]

The scene is likely one of–if not the–most remembered days in Monessen history. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, stands at a lectern on a stage erected in the parking lot of an A&P supermarket. There, he addresses a sea of faces as far as the camera can trace them in the distance. Dressed in business suits and Sunday best, the crowds peer from windows and crane from behind the stage and up the adjoining streets. The Post-Gazette reports there were an estimated 25,000 people–more than the entire population of the small city[1]–crowding in to be a part of it.[2]

Attendees carry signs of support: Hail to the Chief! and Monessen Welcomes Our President and Hello Hello JFK. Tri-color bunting hangs from buildings and lamp posts. Behind the president are billboard-sized welcome signs from the Croatian Hall, Italian Society of Mutual Aid, Ukrainian Club, and others. A banner fifty feet long stretches under the third floor windows of the Duquesne Hotel: Thank you Mr. President for signing our pay bill – postal workers of Monessen, PA.

parking lot of Foodland grocery store, Monessen, PA

The same scene today, 6th and Donner Ave.

A lot has changed in the last fifty-five years. For one, it’s hard to imagine a crowd today dressing up to thank a politician two years into his or her term. More than that, though, Monessen and the rest of the Mon Valley have suffered as much as anywhere in the country during this time. As a result, the city looks radically different today.

There’s still a grocery store at the same Donner Ave. location [it’s a Foodland now] but gone is pretty much everything else in this scene. The collection of three-story turn-of-the-century buildings between 6th and 7th Streets has been replaced by a couple of nondescript commercial storefronts, plus one small parking lot.

3-story brick former EIS Manufacturing building with broken windows and roof caved-in, Monessen, PA

Former EIS Manufacturing plant, Schoonmaker Ave.

What’s changed more, though, are the opportunities for finding anyone to fill these spaces.[3] Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel employed thousands of people at solid, union wages until it ultimately shut its Monessen operation in the 1980s. A raft of other, smaller industries were based on the same giant swath of curling riverfront and thrived through most of the last century. Today, the city’s population of 7,500 is around a third of its 1930s peak.[1]

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the small city boomed in all possible ways. Monessen steel built the Golden Gate Bridge and helped defeat the Nazis in World War II. Cassandra Vivian’s Monessen: A Typical Steel Country Town describes a rich cultural environment where immigrants from dozens of countries (mostly eastern and southern Europe) both blended with each other and held onto the food and language, music and dance of the old world. I’m sure it was rough, but it must have been a fascinating place to grow up.

late Victorian wood frame 4-square house, vacant and dilapidated, Monessen, PA

When you lose two-thirds of your population, you end up with a lot of these. Vacant home on Reed Ave.

The slogan Make America Great Again is an easy one to write off cynically as reactionary, nationalistic, resentful, even hate-filled–it’s that appended again that really twists the knife. When, exactly, was America “great” the first time? Was it back before we could conceive of a black president? When a woman’s place was safely in the kitchen? When we pretended that gay people don’t exist? Or was it just when white men were reliably in charge of everything?

The industrial towns and small cities of the Mon Valley suggest such a different reading of this phrase that it’s important to try to see the appeal not on social or cultural terms, but as pure economics. Towns like Charleroi, Donora, Monogahela, and Monessen are achingly beautiful and heartbreakingly vacant. The valley’s need for something better is palpable.

three-story late Victorian retail/apartment building, vacant and dilapidated, Monessen, PA

A picture of Health, Donner Ave.

The commercial districts of these towns share a common general design: compact, late 19th/early 20th century two-, three- and four-story brick façades built to support a workforce of thousands who commuted on foot to the local mills and small factories just blocks away.

Those big commercial stretches obviously once thrived with green grocers and dry goods, butchers, bakers, theaters, and hardware–you can still see some of it in the ghost signs fading on brick walls. Today, though, the ghosts are often all that’s left on blocks and blocks of vacant storefronts, empty lots strewn with debris, cracked windows, and caved-in roofs.

ghost sign for Brooks Department Store, with text "Everything for Everybody, chinaware, oil cloth, millinery, cloaks & suits", Monessen, PA

“Everything For Everybody” sounds pretty appealing, almost like a campaign promise…hey, wait! Ghost sign, Donner Ave.

Like Kennedy, Donald Trump (and, notably, not Hillary Clinton[5]) also visited Monessen during his presidential campaign last year. It was for an invite-only crowd of just 200, where he was photographed in front of a bunch of crushed aluminum[4]. Whatever. Eighty percent of life is showing up, right?

Those of us who inhabit the “liberal bubble” may cringe at the pandering macro-jingoism of Make America Great Again and the pathological lies and hate-filled rhetoric it came with. But to look closely at the desperate mill towns upriver from Pittsburgh, it’s not hard to hope Monessen has a brighter future than its fading present. Whether honest or not [we’ll go with not], in that way Trump was ultimately selling the same thing as Barack Obama eight years earlier, Hope.

Old drug store window with word "Prescriptions" painted on glass, Monessen, PA

We’re going to need a bigger pill. Former drug store, Donner Ave.


See also:
* “24 Hours with JFK and Teenie Harris”, Kerin Shellenbarger, Carnegie Museum of Art blog, Nov. 22, 2013. A great account of JFK’s full two-day, five-stop campaign swing through the area in 1962 with terrific photos from Teenie Harris.


Notes:
[1] Wikipedia lists Monessen’s population at 18,424 for the 1960 census.
[2] “In Monessen, in 1962, JFK was one of the people”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 16, 2013.
[3] In fairness, both replacement buildings appear to be currently-occupied (by a daycare center and pair of professional offices), but there are many more in downtown Monessen that are not.
[4] “Trump campaign rolls through Monessen”, TribLive.com, June 28, 2016.
[5] That Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign in Monessen–or any individual town–is no crime, but it’s pretty clear that ignoring much of the industrial North hurt her vote significantly in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Onion Dome Fever: St. Nicholas Orthodox, Donora

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora

The Orbit may be cheap, but at least we love a bargain.

Like a cat’s mad scramble at the first wafts of eau d’tuna fish floating up the stairwell, throw a couple of glorious onion domes in the sky and get out of the way. The Orbit will come a-runnin’, leaving scratches in the wood floor and taking out everything on the end table as collateral damage.

Pair the steeple spectating with a nice (if too short) city step climb–its attendant views of town and the curling Monongahela River no small bonuses–and you’ve just served up an all-you-can-blog super buffet in Orbitville. Like Roger Daltrey, this blogger would call that a bargain–one of the better ones he’s seen lately.

foreground sign with removable letters saying "Sunday service 10" with St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in background, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church rises at the top of the short hill that bridges Donora’s McKean Ave. business district on the flats with the residential neighborhoods up above. It is fully accessible from numerous paved roads, but a short hike on the 8th Street city steps takes the visitor straight up the hillside to the base of ol’ St. Nick’s eponymous way. The calves aren’t quite done yet, as you’ve still got another solid block-length walk uphill to the reach the church itself. The South Side Slopes, this ain’t, but the six or eight vertical stories will do in a pinch.

view up city steps to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

On a typically gray mid-winter day–we weren’t encumbered by any of that bothersome sunlight–the otherworldly green shapes of the church’s oxidized copper spaceship ornaments are both the brightest thing you’ll see and the most distinct forms on the horizon. Visible from pretty much anywhere in town, the big emerald orbs poke out over commercial storefronts and through bare trees, as halos on wooden homes and antennae to the aether. Come to me they seem to whisper from afar, and heed their siren song we always do.

mosaic of St. Nicholas above entryway to St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

St. Nicholas has such a traditional, classic look that it was a little surprising to find out it had been erected in the early 1950s, replacing a smaller, 1916 structure just down the hill*. This blogger takes his sight-seeing seriously and is currently working off the demerits for failure to scrutinize (let alone photograph) the symmetrical pair of cornerstones on either side of the building’s face.

Typically, such arrangements seem to contain the same information, inscribed in English on one stone and the congregation’s original language on the other. This seems like it would be Carpatho-Russian Cyrrilic, but we’ll have to wait for the inevitable return trip make-good to verify.

Oh…and there will be a return trip. We can hear St. Nicholas calling even now…

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA


* http://stnicholasorthodoxdonora.org/history.html

Fairywood: The World Without Us

fire hydrant in field of tall weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Broadhead Manor public housing project, Fairywood

Fairywood. Has any place as bucolic a name? One would assume it could only exist in fantasy–within Narnia or Neverland or, at least, New Zealand. Fairywood must be a land of eternal mist, riddle-spinning toadstools, magick staffs hewn from gnarled bentwood, spellcasting. It is where banshees live, and yes, they do live well. But one need not cross the Misty Mountains nor the darkest depths of Mordor[1]–it’s right here in the City of Pittsburgh.

If one were to set out for Fairywood, she or he might also optimistically hope to encounter pixies, gnomes, gremlins, griffins, or unicorns along the journey. Such other-worldly creatures simply must exist in the forest faerie realm. Alas, that was not this blogger’s experience.

empty street with jersey barriers at entrance of former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Entrance from Broadhead Fording Road

Look up Fairywood and you’ll likely come across some bad press. At this point, the peninsular neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s far southwestern border [it is surrounded on three sides by non-city boroughs] is mainly associated with two things: colossal ex-urban warehouses and off-the-charts crime.

The former is easy to see–along the south and west perimeters are huge distribution centers for UPS, ModCloth, Amazon, and Giant Eagle/OK Grocery. The hum of their idling 18-wheelers and beeps of reversing forklifts are omnipresent even from a great distance.

The latter is not so obvious. On a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon, we barely encountered a single living soul–and the ones we did meet were real nice! The sum of residential Fairywood is contained in four or five streets of pre-war frame houses and Baby Boom-era pill boxes and split-levels, plus one former project-turned-gated community. Only around a thousand people live here. Who’s committing all this crime?

cul-de-sac in former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Cul-de-sac

Alan Weisman’s 2007 best-seller The World Without Us detailed the ways in which the built environment would inevitably deteriorate in the absence of human beings. I’ll confess I haven’t actually read the book, but Mrs. The Orbit did and relayed its projections of houses collapsing and cities overtaken by nature as I was suddenly getting much more aware of cracks in the plaster ceiling and loosening of our mortar joints.

By far, the most prominent feature of Fairywood today is the enormous negative space created by what was at one time the Broadhead Manor public housing project. In its absence is a massive plot of land–its footprint similar in size to a junior college campus or suburban shopping mall (including all the parking). The actual housing blocks have been razed and removed, but the infrastructure–several curling roads that terminate in dead-ends, street lights, sidewalks, fire hydrants, an absurd children at play road sign–all remain.

handrail and concrete sidewalk to urban prairie, former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Handrail, sidewalks

Between these few remaining stretches of concrete, nature has come back hard and fast. It’s a very un-Pittsburgh landscape–almost completely flat (although you can see hills in the distance in any direction) and dominated not by trees, but instead with scrubby waist-high bushes, weeds, and wildflowers–much more midwestern than Appalachian. Nationally, these kinds of spaces have been coined urban prairies for a reason–they’re not quite nature without man, but they’re decidedly not city (as most tend to think of it) either.

That Broadhead Manor should or should not have been razed is a conversation for those who actually lived in and around it[2]. With no personal connection, it does strike me as a classic built-to-fail situation: warehousing people in closed-circle public projects at the most distant edge of the city in a neighborhood with neither business district nor many transportation options[3]. What could go wrong?

Man in winter clothes against chain link fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Mr. Ro Ro (note his wizard’s staff)

We met Mr. Ro Ro camped out on a folding chair, waiting for a bus on Prospect Avenue. A wizard’s staff was casually propped against the chain link fence. Mr. Ro Ro told us he’s lived in Fairywood for fifty years and said of Broadhead Manor, “Roosevelt built them after the war.” President Roosevelt’s connection is unknown, but Broadhead Manor was indeed former military housing, purchased by the city in 1946[4].

As the only human wandering through the strange dystopian landscape of an ex-neighborhood with all its buildings removed–now almost completely reclaimed by nature–the irony of the phrase “after the war” was ringing in the air. More than anything else, this huge section of Fairywood feels like what’s left after the nuclear winter has finally subsided and an entirely new form of nature begins again on the bones of the civilization that destroyed the old one. Let’s hope we get it right this time.

dead end street in former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

The end of the road


[1] It is telling that The Orbit‘s knowledge of Middle Earth comes more from Houses of the Holy than The Player’s Handbook.
[2] A post in the Abandoned, Old & Interesting Places – Western PA FaceBook group shows some of the housing after the residents had been moved but pre-demolition. It includes many comments–both positive and negative–including quite a few former residents who speak glowingly of their time at Broadhead Manor in the 1960s.
[3] Port Authority’s 27 bus route serves Fairywood and nearby neighborhoods with a link to downtown Pittsburgh.
[4] Fairywood Fact Sheet (date unknown) http://digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=550317

Castle Damas

retaining wall on hillside constructed to look like medieval castle, Pittsburgh, PA

Castle Damas, Spring Hill

Rick Sebak’s inevitable future Pittsburgh history documentary Great Retaining Walls of Allegheny County should begin right here, in Spring Hill.

Castle Damas[1], a medieval fortress whose turrets and battlements were formed from mortar and stone rises with a spectacular view of the lands it holds dominion over–through the valley, down to Spring Garden, and across the river to the Strip District.

That these impenetrable walls should stand just up the block from the Spring Hill spring is no accident. The first settlers of Damas Street wisely selected an optimal site for defense, visibility, quality of life, and its free-flowing supply of life-sustaining cleanish natural spring water[2].

house with retaining wall on hillside constructed to look like medieval castle, Pittsburgh, PA

The keep and battlements of Castle Damas

Given the news of the week, we can assume we’ll all be getting a little more familiar with wall-building. On our recent visit, we were fortunate enough to meet the lord or this particular manor, who’s probably got as much wall experience as anyone. This day, our regent was engaged in maintenance of the structure, giving his naves a precious Saturday off and pulling weeds from the parapets himself. Lord Damas [Swiss cheese-for-brains failed to record the homeowner’s given name] told us his hilltop house was built in 1926 and its first owner, a baker, began construction of the elaborate wall around 1933.

Perhaps because it hasn’t been around quite as long as its European cousins, the castle wall and its bungalow-style keep are in impressive condition. Our liege told us he’d had to rebuild the top left half of the battlements and after pointing it out, the different colored mortar makes that somewhat obvious–but there’s enough variance in the stonework that this masonry-challenged blogger probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

figure of an owl created with concrete and reflectors, Pittsburgh, PA

The owl of Castle Damas

Brendan Gill, (then) architecture critic for The New Yorker, famously wrote “If Pittsburgh were situated somewhere in the heart of Europe, tourists would eagerly journey hundreds of miles out of their way to visit it.”[3] This blogger’s about as crazy cuckoo coconuts on Pittsburgh as anyone, but even he can recognize hyperbole when he trips on it.

That said, when just any old anonymous hillside street gives us these cross-city views, this public spring, and a terrific faux castle/retaining wall overgrown in beautiful wildflowers and fall colors, birds–even a guard owl–well, who are we to argue?

retaining wall on hillside constructed to look like medieval castle, Pittsburgh, PA

Castle Damas


[1] “Castle Damas” is Pittsburgh Orbit‘s name for the construction–don’t bother looking it up (at least, not by that name).
[2] We’ll note that the construction of the uphill houses on Damas Street was considered a contributing factor to the discoloration and impurity of the sping’s water.
[3] In the same quote, Gill also claims “The three most beautiful cities in the world are Paris; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Pittsburgh,” but if the guy has never even been to Akron, take it with a grain of salt.

Ghost House: East Liberty Farmers Market

Ghost house with giant pumpkin mural, Pittsburgh, PA

Under the pumpkin moon. The Sheridan Ave. ghost house.

If, nay, when Pittsburgh creates the Ghost House Hall-of-Fame, the imprint on the side of the East Liberty Farmers Market building will certainly be in the very first class of inductees.

It’s just got everything: the perfect lines, the front porch and rear addition details, the unpainted red brick as negative space against the larger building’s long pale yellow wall, luscious green wall-to-wall shag…grass–even an antenna (?) pointing up from the back porch.

There’s not a lot left to the imagination here. Look around town and you can still see standing houses just like this one all over the place. The two-up/two-down design is a pretty standard Pittsburgh row house shape. This one clearly had the very common early flat roof additions off the back, usually to bring the kitchen indoors and provide a bath and extra bedroom upstairs.

ghost garage, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost garage

Was it Bob Vila or The Torch Marauder who said: have you seen the back? If the main house wasn’t enough to talk you into this beauty, let me remind you it comes with a fully-dysfunctional two-car ghost garage. It’s nothing fancy–one story tall with a flat roof–but the depth (basically equal to the entire house!) suggests you could park a couple LeSabres, LeBarons, LeMans, or LeCars in there and still have room for le beer fridge, le wood shop, le ping pong table, and some extra le storage for your Hallowe’en decorations.

I can see what you’re thinking–this a little too much of a “fixer-upper” for me–am I right? Granted, the house needs some work–like, pretty much everything–but just imagine the possibilities! That, and it couldn’t be more conveniently located for a rehab job. This ghost property is literally right across the street from Home Depot. You can be in and out in the blink of an eye…just like a ghost.

ghost house and garage, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house and garage