Skyline Fine Time: Eight Probably Isn’t Enough

rough painted metal with Pittsburgh skyline and text "City of Champions"
Worlds collide! Sheet metal pole art skyline, Hill District

In the wild hillside that runs between Bigelow Blvd. and The Middle Hill, there is an oasis of street art (err … steps art? tree art?) clustered in the forgotten land around one particular set of city steps. There are sculptures and collages, weird art photos and paintings on wood. Our favorite tin can pole artist has a whole trove of terrific pieces here.

Maybe we’ll do a story on the whole thing at some point, but it was one particular piece, nailed to a utility pole, that caught the attention on this day. In it, the artist has taken a discarded piece of sheet metal and painted a rough but unmistakable black silhouette of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline. There are the spiky towers of PPG and the peaked triangles of The Gulf Tower and Koppers Building. The artwork is inscribed with the simple throwback message City of Champions.

store window display of artist painted iconic buildings of Pittsburgh with light bulbs
Bright lights, big city. AlphaGraphics, Downtown

Mere minutes–OK, it was probably a couple hours–after posting our last trip down skyline way, there it was again. The artist who hand-painted the storefront for the old Yinzers in the Burgh didn’t have a lot of vertical room to work with, but made the most of what s/he did have. In city official black-and-gold–but squashed as if in the footpath on one of Godzilla’s benders–the downtown Pittsburgh skyline is still undeniable.

So, here you go, Pittsburgh: another couple dozen+ graphic renderings of the downtown skyline coming from storefronts and retail signage, community groups and folk art. Like that famous body part/Van Patten, eight of these collections should be more than enough, but this is a gift that just keeps on giving. I’m sure we’ll be back with #9 in the series soon enough.

closed storefront of Yinzers in the Burgh with hand-painted Pittsburgh skyline
Squashed city. Yinzers in the Burgh, Strip District
Turner's Tea van with graphics of the Pittsburgh skyline parked in front of ornate church
Debatable number of “T”s/teas city. Turner’s Iced Tea truck, Bloomfield
box truck with painted with mural including the Pittsburgh skyline and the word "Reggae"
Iriesburgh. The Reggae supply truck, Hill District
mural detail of downtown Pittsburgh buildings with eyes
The city has eyes. Spirit, Lawrenceville
signage for My Dogz on the Run food truck including silhouette of Pittsburgh skyline
Big mouth city. My Dogz on the Run food truck
logo for Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters including skyline of downtown Pittsburgh against red/black/green colors
Red, black, and green city. PURR: Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters logo (electronic)
mural on brick wall featuring cartoon-like painting of downtown Pittsburgh
Birds and bee city. LaScola’s Italian Ice and Custard, Highland Park
simple line painting on brick of downtown Pittsburgh buildings and bridge
Simple city. Rolling Pepperoni, Lawrenceville
mural on restaurant's exterior wall showing bridge and downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Bridge city. Rumi Grill, North Oakland
stone hand painted with logo for Ketchup City Creative including silhouette of the Pittsburgh skyline
Condiment city. Ketchup City Creative, Sharpsburg
pickup truck with graphic of downtown Pittsburgh buildings
Clean city. Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership Clean Team
panel truck advertising Rivertown Brewing with silhouette of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline
River city. Rivertowne Brewing truck
logo for Pittsburgh Window Film including downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Sunrise city I. Pittsburgh Window Film
real estate for sale sign including logo with Pittsburgh skyline
Sunrise city II. Aishel Real Estate
logo for Pittsburgh Kids Foundation featuring stylized downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Jagged city. Pittsburgh Kids Foundation, Downtown
window sign for Pulse including abstracted downtown Pittsburgh skyline
8-bit city. Pulse, Garfield
logo for City Collision featuring outline of the Pittsburgh skyline
Outline city. City Collision, Strip District
sign for Pittsburgh Truck & Tow including silhouette of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Tow city. Pittsburgh Truck & Tow, Sharpsburg
car with wrap advertising for Pittsburgh Property Remodelers
Gray city. Pittsburgh Property Remodelers car wrap, Stanton Heights
yard sign for Bill Peduto as Pittsburgh city mayor including the downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Shades of a blue city. Peduto for mayor yard sign [Note: not a posthumous endorsement, just reporting here]
window sign for City Grows featuring downtown Pittsburgh buildings as growing grass
Green infrastructure. City Grows, Lawrenceville
sticker with silhouette of downtown Pittsburgh skyline and text "Paris of Appalachia"
Paris of Appalachia sticker (Commonwealth Press)
outline of downtown Pittsburgh skyline spray painted on cement walkway
Graffiti city. Ft. Duquesne Bridge
pro-vote sign taped to street sign
Black-and-gold city. VOTE, Hill District
sticker for "Dabsburgh" including stylized downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Dabsburgh sticker, Bloomfield
vinyl sign for Tessaro's restaurant including stylized downtown Pittsburgh skyline
Flame-grilled city. Tessaro’s, Bloomfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Over-the-Wall Club: Searching for Wall Quarters

exposed formerly interior wall showing three paint colors in perfect quarters
One of humankind’s most glorious examples of wall quarters. Inside-outside wall, Wellsville, O.

The giant wall holds a lot of history–and likely not a few secrets. Two tall stories high and spanning the full depth of the lot–from the sidewalk on Wellsville’s Main Street all the way back to the service alley–this space did a lot of living. Demolition on the building that used to be here exposed a (former) interior wall that is an archeological treasure our shallow American memory will have to substitute for “real” finds like Sutton Hoo or Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The plaster walls still cling to a rich palette of battered colors. Each room had been painted in an entirely different scheme and what remains are beautiful antique reds, pale yellow-greens, and deep melancholy blues. There are channels on the surface where we see clear outlines of the old building’s load-bearing interior walls, a staircase, plumbing lines, slotted holes in the brickwork for tall floor joists.

With all this, it is one particular section of the wall surface that intrigues more than the rest. In it, we see the intersection of three colors, each scarred, smeared, and pockmarked with age but still brimming with verve. A strong yellow line runs due north-south and gives the whole thing the composition of a modernist painting. Everything exists in perfect right angles.

cinderblock and plaster wall with loose bricks
The wall that started it all. Forest Hills

The obsession with wall quarters began way back in 2015 with a reporting trip to Forest Hills. We were there to commune with the ex-atom smasher and later found ourselves by another, similar, inside-outside lot. Amongst the rubble of felled bricks and illegally-dumped housewares were four squares within a larger square: the right side faded green-blue, the left a dirty white; plaster above, cinderblock below. The section lines could not have been more precise.

It was perfect: balanced and meditative, color, material, and texture arrayed in transcendent harmony. It’s the kind of lightening bolt that may only land once in a generation–heck, once in a lifetime if you’re lucky.

brick and masonry wall sectioned into four colors, Pittsburgh, PA
Strip District

But, wall-watching naifs that we were back then, the hard truth wasn’t fully understood. It seemed obvious that we’d run into more big, glorious, quad-sectioned walls just as soon as the mind was opened to them. Why, once you set the controls for Marys or Steelermobiles or The Dog Police you see them everywhere–wall quarters must be just as easy … right?

brick wall with loose bricks
Bloomfield

Well, you know where this is going. No, it is not easy to locate a perfect wall square–and this poke-down-every-alley and look-inside-any-abandoned-property keister is here as a material witness. Six years later–six years of looking for these things!–and we’ve come up with merely a handful of specimens. A lot of them aren’t even that good!

But if you take the collection we did manage to cobble together and throw in a (good-sized) set of bonus/pseudo-wall squares, we end up with a pretty nice haul. Hopefully they’re as pleasing to Orbit readers’ eyes as they are for staff to deep focus on when we’re destressing in Chez Orbit’s salt cave. Breathe in, breathe out, close our eyes and say it until we believe it: everything is going to be all right.

cinderblock wall sectioned into rough quarters by paint, Pittsburgh, PA
South Side
section of plaster and marble wall divided into four distinct quarters
Millvale
detail of brick wall where different paint layers have made distinct geometric sections
Bloomfield

Row House Rejoinders

I’m not going to lie, The Over-the-Wall Club has some purists who frown on the relatively easy wall quarter pickins found in row house blocks. While it took us half a decade of constant scouring to come up with just the few “real” quarters (above), any Sunday stroll through the South Side Flats or the Mexican War Streets will reward with a bounty of these interfaces between next-door row houses.

With brickwork and foundations in a continuous plane, it just takes neighboring homeowners with different color preferences and a little bit of luck (steps, stoops, porches, and downspouts all get in the way; sloping hillsides break a lot of linear connections) to get really nice, perfectly squared-off intersections.

detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
closeup of bricks meeting foundation of two rowhouses, forming equal square quandrants
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville

No Room for Squares

As with life, things on a wall don’t always line up perfectly. One shouldn’t let that diminish the shear ecstasy of a beautiful mixed-media surface, though. An extra drain pipe here, foundations that don’t line up there–we’re all better off to roll with these as … not imperfections, but rather elements that broaden the depth of the final composition. Ain’t nobody perfect, but a wall with a whole lot of problems sure might come close.

detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of retail storefront where colored glass joints have made distinct geometric shapes
Vandergrift
brick exterior wall of row house painted in multiple sections
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
wall surface with geometric shapes formed by paint colors, siding, drain pipe
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make geometric pattern
Lawrenceville
detail of row houses where paint colors make four perfect squares
Lawrenceville
detail of brick retail storefronts where paint choices have made distinct geometric shapes
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville
detail of painted row house walls and foundation showing distinct square quarters of different shapes and colors
Lawrenceville

Let’s Put the X in Six: The Graphics of Coronavirus

stickers and sidewalk stencils marking 6 feet distances during coronavirus
Six feet by two feet: some of the ubiquitous six-foot social distance waiting markers found on sidewalks

One day this will all be over. With vaccines going into arms as we speak and new alternatives arriving from just-approved sources, it’s not that unrealistic to see a day in the near-ish future when we’ll be able to see friends again, to go out to theaters and rock-and-roll shows, to have the freedom to travel, throw a party, or just quaff a beverage at the tavern.

Along with this, it’s easy to predict “after times” celebratory events that ritualistically destroy the physical reminders of the year+ we’ve all lived in some level of coronavirus lockdown. Mass bonfires of face masks seem like the most obvious expression, but outworn sweatpants and pajamas, abandoned first novels and knitting projects are likely targets in the same group exorcism.

sidewalk stencils marking 6 feet distances during coronavirus
animal tracks

The collective scar on the nation’s forehead signifying the half a million (and counting) human lives lost will not be forgotten any time soon–nor should it. The shuttered storefronts of businesses of both the mom & pop and big box varieties will ultimately be rented to new merchants, but unswept sidewalks under For Lease signs will be with us for a while.

One of the most obvious visual elements of the coronavirus pandemic is the stencils applied to sidewalks, stickers on retail floors, and makeshift duct tape delineations to mark pedestrian traffic flow and spaced six-foot waiting points. These ubiquitous graphic additions to the landscape all popped up overnight early in the pandemic and then seemed frozen in time after this single application.

Despite the obvious advertisement for the incredible adhesive tenacity to survive a very snowy Pittsburgh winter, these markers are, by definition, temporary. When bars and restaurants are allowed to open at full capacity and mask orders are finally lifted, shop stewards will peel back the big round decals and scrape off the gaffer’s tape once and for all. [Pro tip: forget GameStop–invest in Goo Gone now!]

collage of six foot markers made from black tape on cement sidewalk
six feet/two tone

It is this moment when historians should be alert to these soon-to-disappear markers of a time we think we’ll never forget. Fear not: we will. Humans have famously lousy memory and we’re hardwired to move onto the next thing. Your author has been laughed-at for still using a five-year-old iPhone–you think this society is going to be thinking about six-foot distance markers in a few years? A new generation of Covid deniers will inevitably force the narrative that the whole thing was a collective fever dream. Heck, in ten years we’ll probably have no one left that can still bake sourdough bread.

collage of tape markings on sidewalk in multicolor duct tape
the colors of coronavirus
collage of Xs made with tape on sidewalks
let’s put the X in six
stickers and sidewalk stencils marking 6 feet distances during coronavirus
six feet [includes photo contributions from Michele Timon]
arrow made of black duct tape on cement sidewalk
this way out

When Orbit readers Alyssa Cammarata Chance and Michele Timon submitted photos of some of the big round floor decals we see all over, we first scoffed at these as “corporate coronavirus.” No, they’re neither as creative or interesting as original stencils, nor as randomly oddball as the tape directives. But with a little reflection and a whole lot more re-examination, they make for their own unique experience worth documenting. We’ve included the best of them here.

collection of coronavirus six feet distance markers on pavement
please stand here [includes photo contribution from Michele Timon]
collection of social distance markers on brick sidewalk
Condado Tacos: winner of corona-variety award [includes photo contribution from Alyssa Cammarata Chance]
collection of coronavirus social distancing decals on sidewalks and retail floors
and even more! [includes photo contributions from Alyssa Cammarata Chance, Lee Floyd, and Michele Timon]
coronavirus decal advertising hand washing
wash up!

Special thanks to The Orbit’s co-executive assistant to the mailroom intern Lee Floyd for suggesting this fascinating topic.

If you’ve got some good photos of six-foot separator markers–or anything that speaks to the last year in lockdown–let us know and maybe we can include it in a follow-up story.

Skyline Fine Time: The Pittsburgh Skyline in Seventh Heaven

shop sign for Pittsburgh Beauty Bar including silhouette of the city skyline

Beauty City. Pittsburgh Beauty Bar, South Side

Last fall, we watched with disbelief as a tenant finally moved into the empty retail space at Penn & Main and opened its doors for business. That prime corner had sat unoccupied for at least two decades*, and El Sabor Latin Kitchen inexplicably added another Mexican restaurant to the same block as Los Cabos during a global pandemic. Let’s just say the whole thing was front page news at Chez Orbit. But when those big Penn Avenue windows came dressed in a decal with an original logo of the Pittsburgh skyline embedded in a hot pepper, well, let’s just say it made the last twenty of years of head-scratching make a lot more sense. The landlords were just looking for the right tenant all along.

logo for El Sabor restaurant with the Pittsburgh skyline inside a hot pepper

Hot Pepper City: El Sabor, Bloomfield

The downtown Pittsburgh skyline–spiky towers at PPG Place, Highmark’s pointed angle, the big block of the USX (neé US Steel) tower, a couple of bridges if we’re lucky–just won’t be contained. Here it is, the Orbit‘s seventh trip down this particular road and we’ll no longer be foolish enough to think we’ve bagged them all. You get a new restaurant today and there will always still be an untapped pizzeria, plumber, real estate agency, or left-in-the-woods slate stencil art tomorrow.

It is a beautiful (and sunny!) day out there. Go out and find your own Pittsburgh skyline.

[Special thanks to Greg Lagrosa who is working the micro-beat of food trucks with the Pittsburgh skyline temporarily parked in Verona hard.]

Pittsburgh Sandwich Society food truck with Pittsburgh skyline made from sandwiches

Sandwich City. Pittsburgh Sandwich Society food truck, Verona [note: skyline made of *sandwiches*!] [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

 

PGH EATZ food truck logo including silhouette of the Pittsburgh skyline

Eatz City. PGH EATZ food truck, Verona [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

 

Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic logo including the Pittsburgh skyline inside an animal's paw print

Paw City. Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic

 

Pollack Real Estate sign including outline of Pittsburgh skyline

Sale City. Pollack Real Estate sign, South Side

 

sign for Your Town Realty including the Pittsburgh skyline

Your Town City. Your Town Realty

 

for rent sign including the Pittsburgh skyline

Big A City. Arkham Realty & Property Management

 

logo for Pops & Son Pizzeria including Pittsburgh city skyline on crust of pizza slice

Cheese City. Pops & Son Pizzeria, Brighton Heights [photo: Kristen Sarver]

 

downtown Pittsburgh skyline as part of Shop'n'Save's Downtown Deli sign

Deli City. Shop’n’Save, Lawrenceville

 

sign for bar including silhouette of the Pittsburgh skyline

All Day City. Alioto’s, Etna

 

stencil of Pittsburgh skyline with word "Peace"

Skyline stencil on piece of slate left under a mysterious Christmas tree along Emerald View Trail City. Mt. Washington

 

window painting including Pittsburgh skyline inside rainbow heart

Pandemic Rainbow Heart City. Key Bank, Downtown


* There was a brief (like, maybe three months) period in the mid-oughts when someone had set up the space for phone-banking or telemarketing or something involving folding tables and cheap landlines–this hardly counts.

Walk This Way: Millvale’s Art Crosswalks

crosswalk mural of woman with wild multicolor hair

Wild hair. Crosswalk mural at Sedgwick Street and Grant Ave., Millvale

While no one wants to be a doormat, we might all wistfully hope to be a crosswalk. At least, we would if we were rendered this lovingly.

Standing on the corner, the woman in the street is quite the vision. With a plain face and porcelain skin, she is more antique doll than real flesh and blood. It is her hair, though–a psychedelic swirl of curled pinks, mauves, and orange locks spread out across a technicolor rainbow backdrop–that gets the well-deserved focus here.

The mural is painted across Sedgwick Street, in Millvale. It is one of a couple dozen similar murals painted last summer directly on top of existing crosswalks in the borough’s great little downtown business district. We don’t know who the individual painters are [artists: please get in touch so we can credit you!] but various reports have the murals loosely associated with the group that puts on the annual Millvale Music Festival. That free weekend turn-every-business-into-a-music-venue hootenanny, along with everything else, just couldn’t happen last year.

street crosswalk mural of large fish in water

Something fishy (Grant & Sherman)

street crosswalk mural of books on a shelf

BIG free library (Grant & Sheridan)

While the show wasn’t able to go on, Millvale’s civic spirit continued unabated. The murals are 100% focused on the community, with almost all of them containing unnamed but sly references to the small businesses that exist in the immediate proximity.

There are a pair of collections of disembodied haircuts near Shear Timing and Salon 22; a lineup of dancing tacos, hot peppers, and salsas by Baby Loves Tacos’ North Ave. location; a firehose dowsing a raging flame in front of the fire department. A row of books is just down from the public library; stacks of Pamela’s glorious crepe-like pancakes at the P&G Diner; happy kids and chocolate bunnies by Yetter’s Candy Shop.

As waistline-watching, model-building, music fiends, we’re wondering how Jean-Marc’s French bakery, Esther’s Hobby Shop, and The Attic Record Store slipped through cracks here, but perhaps those are all in the works for this coming summer.

details from different murals painted in crosswalks, all of haircuts or scissors

Curl up and dye (details) (Grant & Sedgwick; North & Lincoln)

street crosswalk mural of fire and water hose

Firehouse (Lincoln & Sedgwick)

At present, Millvale’s downtown community is at a real high point of healthy livability. Its storefronts are occupied with businesses from the mundane to the sublime: there are a couple fancy things, a lot of nice-to-haves, and plenty of nuts-and-bolts. Those of us looking at (and regularly walking across the bridge to) Millvale from across the river in Lawrenceville can tell you all about the slippery slope from this zenith of sensible sustainability to drowning in condos, Thai rolled ice cream, and weekend partiers arriving by the Uber-load.

The crosswalk murals that celebrate Millvale’s community point all this out beautifully, without ever needing to rub your face in it. This little borough with its candy shops and laundromat, diners, dive bars, and videotape rental, church-turned-concert hall and ex-Moose Lodge to trattoria Sprezzatura, has so much to offer right now–even in the depths of Covid-induced ghost towns everywhere–that we should appreciate what we’ve got and how we can keep it just like it is.

street crosswalk mural reading "Millvale"

Gateway to Millvale (North Ave.)

details from murals painted in street crosswalks

Happy kids! Beer-making icons! (Grant & Sedgwick; Grant & Sherman)

street crosswalk mural of Mexican food

Taco town! (Grant & North)

street crosswalk mural of stack of pancakes

That is a LARGE stack (detail) (North & Lincoln)

street crosswalk mural of bubbles

Tiny bubbles (Grant & North)

crosswalk mural of garden scene

Garden scene (detail) (Grant & Butler)

Going Nativity: A Crush on the Crèche OR Blown Away by the Manger

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Three wise men AND Three Stooges. Full-on residential nativity scene, Ross Township.

We’re not too proud to admit it: we’ve got a crush on the crèche, make major maneuvers for the manger, and take any opportunity to go nativity when the opportunity arises. That occasion presents itself early, often, and with no remorse on any trip around Bethle…ahem–metro Pittsburgh.

‘Tis the season for plastic lawn decor, strings of dollar store lights, and more baby Jesuses than you’d think a monotheistic society would care to advertise–but that’s what we do. For the atheist, it’s a weird internal conflict–I don’t believe any of this hokum, but man do I love it. If only this country had more wise men, myrrh out the yin-yang, a livestock petting zoo by every newborn and a kneeling camel in every cul-de-sac. Heck, we can dare to dream.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a spine-tingling Krampus to all and may The Orbit‘s diaspora have the good frankincense to stay safe until Santa can hook us up with the vaccine.

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Cinderblock crèche, Polish Hill

Christmas nativity scene missing baby Jesus

Wait…where’s the kid? Millvale *

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Forget the frankincense and myrrh, who brought the 24″ Weber? Monessen

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Major manger, Reserve Township [Note: bonus cracked Mary!]

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Three wise men, two nutcrackers, AND Troy Polamalu (+ “A Christmas Story” sexy leg lamp!), Reserve Township

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

White Christmas, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Christmas behind bars, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene in row house window

Row house crèche, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

That’s not the baby Jesus! Marshall-Shadeland

Christmas nativity scene in retail store window

O Hummel town of Bethlehem, Merante’s Gifts, Bloomfield

Christmas nativity scene in front of small factory

Diamond Wire Spring, Ross Township

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Cement circle crèche, Glassport

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Bloomfield

Christmas nativity scene with plastic Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus decorations outside home

Front porch crèche, Lawrenceville


Orbit Instagram user @danko_pgh explains this as “The Baby Jesus figure should never be displayed until very late on Christmas Eve.” That certainly makes sense once’d you think about it, but clearly isn’t followed universally.

Onions and Rabbit Ears: Pulling the Strings on The Dragon of Polish Hill

puppeteers Dave English and Will Schutze

Puppets of Masters: Dave English and Will Schutze, co-creators of the new puppet film “The Dragon of Polish Hill”

The only constant, “dark” philosopher Heraclitus was wont to say, is change. This prescient statement–issued a couple thousand years before anyone thought about a designated hitter, Kardashian regime, or beer sales in Pennsylvania grocery stores–is proven true over and over again. From macro tectonic shifts of global climate change and computer technology wiping out entire industries to weeds breaking through pavement in the back alley, we are all powerless against the gale force winds of change affecting things big and little, anywhere and everywhere.

That basic tenet–times will change and so do the people and places that exist within them–forms one of the themes running through The Dragon of Polish Hill. The puppet play-turned-puppet film experienced its own radical reimagining as the global coronavirus pandemic shut down a just-getting-started theatrical production and eventually spawned a no one-planned-it-this-way feature-length movie.

The story is very Pittsburgh: it’s got polka, old timers clashing with punk rockers, at least one urban legend, and of course it’s set in perhaps Pittsburgh’s most Pittsburgh of neighborhoods–Polish Hill.

In lieu of lots of busy schedules, we were limited to an electronic Q&A with co-creators Dave English and Will Schutze in advance of the film’s debut (online) screenings this week. They graciously answered The Orbit’s questions and provided all the great behind-the-scenes photos included here.

Full disclosure: publishing The Orbit is a labor-of-love; we pay the rent by scoring puppet shows. Orbit staff were involved with creating some of the music used in The Dragon of Polish Hill.

puppeteer with marionette on stage set including city buildings and smoke

Smoky city [photo: Renee Rosensteel]

Tell me about The Dragon of Polish Hill. Where did the idea come from? Is there a dragon in Polish Hill? How has the story changed since its original conception?

Dave English: The Dragon of Polish Hill is a 120-minute puppet movie based on a play written by Dave English and co-produced with collaborator Will Schutze. English a native of Pittsburgh and planted the roots of this show almost two decades ago in doodles of old Polish Hill residents, then further developed the concept as a Brew House Distillery Resident Artist back in 2010. The story combines reality and fantasy to create a post-industrial folklore where an old man made from onions and a rabbit-eared hipster punk get into a fight in coffee shop and then become buddies. The story has evolved over the years to include the pre-existing character, Willy James, a product of Schutze’s imagination and a puppet with his own life prior to playing the antagonist in this show. It also began as a play for a live audience but was canceled due to the pandemic. Now it has since been reimagined as a film. Yes: there was once a dragon in Polish Hill. The last time anyone saw it was 1964.

Will Schutze: The idea came from Dave. I believe that at its conception–years before I met Dave, Stanley Onion wasn’t an onion man. He was a regular guy who ran a livery service. The story was more focused on the end of a neighborhood. Now Willy James, a puppet I made gets to play the antagonist (in a way). Dave completely blew my mind when he sent me the script.

puppet stage set including four model buildings

Old Pittsburgh. Polish Hill street set.

The story deals with the sometimes ugly subjects of generational clash, gentrification, and displacement. Is there hope for the future?

DE: The story touches on gentrification, elder neglect, racism, and other typical power distortions because that’s what I saw everywhere. I wrote this whole thing years ago and revised it in 2017. It’s weird how many things in the play gained new relevance since then. What a time to write a play with a pandemic reference in it … before the pandemic happens.

Is there hope? Yes. I think the play ends hopefully. I am a hopeful person. I study history and I see trends and cycles. I see examples of the world being worse off than where we are right now. I have hope because I work with kids and I’m giving them the message they need to be better people than me. I have hope also because I believe in magic and miracles. Not as a nerd or a lunatic, but because that shit is real. Me and my buddy make little creatures come to life. We make people laugh and live insane lives. We’re lucky. We pulled off a puppet movie during a pandemic. But I shouldn’t be surprised because puppetry has already survived many plagues, so we’ll survive this one.

WS: Definitely. People get real with each other. They are forced to communicate just to make it through the day. We gotta figure it out.

puppeteers Will Schultze and Dave English costumed as butchers

Puppetry ain’t pretty–but it sure tastes good. Schultze and English butchering “The Dragon of Polish Hill.”

Why puppets? Why polka?

DE: We’re puppeteers because it is in our DNA to make puppets. Both of us have some underlying evolutionary motivation to make inanimate objects come to life. Puppets are fantastic and allow you to tell stories that go to stranger places.

Why Polka? As a style and a theme polka is generally associated with an older population who largely moved away from urban ethnic neighborhoods in the mid to late 20th century. I live in Polish Hill and my neighbor blasts polka radio shows every Sunday afternoon. I also grew up going to polka events with my parents and their friends when I was a kid, I genuinely like polka.

WS: I think I can speak for Dave a bit as well and say that it’s what we are passionate about. We’ve chosen/been chosen by the puppets. It’s a mysterious thing. I actually gotta leave it at that.

puppet performance areas in large theater

“The Dragon of Polish Hill” film set at New Hazlett Theater

This started as a theatrical/live-action puppet show and has necessarily turned into a puppet movie (because of the pandemic). How has the transition between media been? Has anything in the story substantively changed?

DE: Some things have changed but nothing major. The butcher shop scene and the intro music were going to be a pre-show delight for a live audience finding their seats, That doesn’t work any more. The introduction of the dragon is very different. Overall we had to rethink a lot of things and continuously remind ourselves that the format is changed. It wasn’t easy but it happened surprisingly smoothly. I have to credit the talent around me.

WS: The story is the same, and actually, there was already a video element Dave wrote into the show early on. Dave and I had done some shows in the past using video projection behind live marionette performance. Dave included that technique in the script and Joe Serkoch and I both captured many video elements for the first installment of this show. I had already edited all the pre-recorded audio, which included amazing original music created by The Upholsterers. Dave wrote all the lyrics. I did some songs. So much stuff was prerecorded and, although intended for a live theatrical performance, it actually is going to totally work out in the filming and editing process.

It’s weird–like really strange that in the show, a central part of the plot is Stanley’s story having the potential of being turned into a movie. I could go on and on and on discussing the super deep meta-ness of this show and the way it’s coming together, but I’ll hold back. We are so grateful for the recorded voice work that was done on this show at such early stages when we were just beginning to put the pieces together. I was blown away by coming to this town from Texas and seeing the communal support friends, artists, and creators of all kinds engage in to make beautiful things happen. It happens in other places I’ve lived, but I have now had the privilege of collaborating with someone, Dave, who has put in the work to really know how to bring people together for a positive experience that is hopefully enriching for all involved. I’m so glad we’re at this point.

detail of puppet stage with marionette sitting in home setting

Sometimes a banana is just a banana

Is there anything else you’d like Orbit readers to know about the show?

DE: If you want to cancel culture us that’s fine but you shouldn’t have waited until the world was ending.

WS: It’s really good. It hasn’t been easy, but nothing has for anyone recently. It has definitely been fun and rewarding, and we hope that our puppet/music/theater/video alchemy yields something rewarding for all who watch.

puppeteer Will Schutze working on computer

Schutze at work, video editing “The Dragon of Polish Hill”

What’s next for the show? For each of you as puppeteers/artists?

DE: It is hard to say what is next for anyone these days. Our lives hinge between a global pandemic, a new social revolution, and a madman election that could lead to the end of our democracy. A puppet show like ours is a feather in the wind against these forces. We’re magical weirdos who feel damn lucky and privileged to even be doing any of this right now. So many other people had shows canceled and that was it. Too bad. But we got to finish the damn show and somehow ended up with a full length puppet movie. Our plan was to shop it to theaters all around the country and do a tour–the whole thing is built to fold up and be transportable–but theaters are closed. Audiences are reluctant. I don’t blame them. So now we don’t have a live show to shop around. Now we have a movie and for me that is new territory. So we’re shopping a movie around.

WS: This show has already gone through so many stages and permutations. I will be extremely happy once we complete the film and share it with folks. I truly believe it is going to have a good life. I definitely look forward to more adventures with Dave and I am so glad to be making these connections with all yinz too.

stage shot of marionette on film set

The outlaw Willy James

To watch any of the upcoming free (donations accepted) screenings of The Dragon of Polish Hill, register ahead of time here: https://www.crowdcast.io/newhazletttheater

There are three scheduled screenings:

  • Thursday, Sept. 24 at 8 PM
  • Friday, Sept. 25 at 11 AM
  • Friday, Sept. 25 at 8 PM

All photos courtesy of Dave English and Will Schutze, except where noted.

Black-and-Gold: Steeler Party Wagons

large RV with airbrush portraits of Steelers football players, Pittsburgh, PA

Third and loooonnng. Luxury Steelers party tour bus, Heinz Field

It ain’t like it was, let me tell you. Twenty years ago, a duck down any side street or upriver saunter and one was almost guaranteed to encounter a 1970s-era Econoline or decommissioned delivery truck, battered and weather-worn but still unmistakably decked-out in the colors and insignia of the Pittsburgh Steelers Football Club. Invariably, these vehicles were hand-painted by one or more fanatics who one imagines would otherwise never pick up brush and paint can in what anyone would consider art.

Sadly, in the pre-camera-in-your-pocket era, these fascinating objets d’art went largely undocumented–not just by your author, but by the world at large. This unlikely intersection between obsessed sports fandom and a kind of naive folk art was one of the prime inspirations for creating the Pittsburgh Orbit.

Chevy van decorated in celebration of the Pittsburgh Steelers

classic Steelers party van, North Side

Why, I remember a few specifics–a van on North Ave. in Millvale, just down from the Hardee’s; another on Rt. 51, just before you get to West Elizabeth; still another at a bend in a curve just uphill from the Bloomfield Bridge.

The vehicles dating from the Chuck Noll regime are all gone now. Rusted through, probably, but also possibly banished by a household that can no longer justify the second mortgage required for season tickets, or given-away when all those game-day sausages and Iron City pounders caught up with him or her … but let’s be honest: it was probably him.

old school bus decorated in celebration of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Blitzburgh Bus, Lawrenceville

old RV painted in Steelers black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Northside

Steeler Party Wagons are, of course, not entirely a thing of the past–we’ve got a pretty good set of closer-to-present-day photos right here. But man, it took this blogger six years of patient reporting, trips directly to the source–game days at Heinz Field–and slamming the breaks any time we crossed paths with one in the wild just to bring this meager assemblage to market. One photo never happened because I wouldn’t accept a beer bong challenge from a Lou Ferrigno dopplegänger, hopped-up and out-of-his-mind by 11 AM on game day.

cargo van painted in celebration of the Pittsburgh Steelers

Most Wanted Fine Art Steeler party van, East Liberty

cargo van painted for Pittsburgh Steelers

Most Wanted Fine Art Steeler party van, rear

The party wagons you see today are of an entirely different character. Often, they more resemble the kind of luxury vehicles touring musicians take on the road or fancy private airport shuttles. They’ve almost always been professionally painted with photo-accurate Steelers logos and player decals. Tricked-out with upholstered seating and tinted windows, they’re a far cry from the DIY minimal transport that once hauled die-hards into the city to see Bubby Brister and Walter Abercrombie in disappointing 7-9 seasons.

large Ford passenger van painted black and gold with Steelers logos and logo, Charleroi, PA

Charleroi

former delivery van now painted in Pittsburgh Steelers black and gold

Heinz Field

This year the region’s Steelers party wagons have a lot lighter schedule. Instead of the grueling 10 to 12 Sundays they might put in during a normal campaign, most will inevitably be idled by a COVID-stifled season. The games will go on (at least, that’s the plan) but spectator attendance is drastically limited.

But maybe we’ll still manage to see these black-and-gold hulks out and about. Perhaps the party busses will be rerouted to game-day celebrations outside taverns or to right there in the big pavement of Heinz Field’s many parking lots, where tailgating is presumably still allowed even if you can’t get in the gate. Maybe a few lucky wagoneers will even get into the limited seating for real human beings. We’ll see.

former school bus decorated with "Steelers", Pittsburgh, PA

Northside

former ambulance decorated with Pittsburgh Steelers team logos

Emergency! Heinz Field

collapsable camping trailer painted black and gold, West Elizabeth, PA

Steelers camper trailer, West Elizabeth

pontoon boat decorated with for the Pittsburgh Steelers docked in river

Steelers party boat, Allegheny River

airbrush painting of football players on side of large RV


See also:

Bugging Out to Schaefer’s Auto Art

large outdoor sculpture of yellow and black flying insect made with recycled parts

“The Bumblebee,” one of a dozen large sculptures created from recycled parts at Schaefer’s Auto Art, Erie.

A giant bumblebee, the size of a garbage truck, is perched and ready to strike. Canted forward on bent legs, two enormous antennae reach out into the thick air. A conical stinger stands alert like a warning beacon. From this vantage point it could plug directly into the telephone wires running overhead.

The big bee is a work of art living in the green grass of a large private yard. Its head is made from the fore-section of an old Saab; the thorax looks like the tumbler from a cement mixer. Spindly legs, delicate wings, and all the insect’s other features have been similarly fashioned from junkyard effluvia. It’s one of a dozen or so works at Schaefer’s Auto Art.

outdoor sculpture of fantasy flying machine created with recycled parts

flying machine

sculpture of giant multicolor spider with Volkswagen Beetle as the body

“The Spider”

It’s a stretch to consider the city of Erie within Pittsburgh’s orbit. Lying a hundred miles due north of us, “The Flagship City” is well outside the about-an-hour’s-drive metric we usually use for such classification and it has a history and population great enough to warrant its own speculative, hyper-local blog of regional ephemera.

That said, especially this time of year, Pittsburghers of many persuasions routinely find themselves trundling up I-79 to sink bare feet into the closest patch of warm, sun-soaked beach sand available, make the long loop around Presque Isle, get some Greek sauce at a dinor (sic.), and gaze out across the great lake. Orbit staff, in need of the safest of getaways in this summer of isolation, are no exception.

large outdoor sculpture of a rocket made recycled parts

“The Rocket”

sculpture of man created with auto parts

“Automan”

The next time you’re headed on that Lake Erie trip, get hip to this kindly tip. Mere minutes from the interstate highway is a magical space well worth the slight detour. On an enormous front yard, just outside Erie city limits in McKean Township, is a sculpture garden/outsider artist environ of fantasy flying machines and movie monster creatures, a welcoming “auto man” and evil eye-in-the-sky tree robot.

They’re all the work of one Richard Shaefer who, the web site informs us, “is an Erie native who first became interested in ‘auto art’ in 1988. He utilizes welding and fabricating techniques and basic automotive knowledge learned from his father.”

sculpture of dinosaur with two heads made from recycled auto parts

“The Two-Headed Dinosaur”

sculpture of cannon made from wagon parts and bowling balls

patriotic cannon

Schaefer’s Auto Art is clearly a work-in-progress–and hopefully it always will be. While the big front yard/display area has a dozen or so final, completed works, it runs directly into a collection of other … source material? works-in-progress? A motorcycle sits atop a tall elevated pole that must have at one time held a billboard or seen-from-the-highway road sign. The front halves of two 1970s-era Lincoln Continentals have been fused together, but not yet decorated or placed into the collection. An older pickup truck appears to be in cold storage, just waiting for the Schaefer treatment.

mailbox painted with insects and the words "The Buzz Box"

The Buzz Box

sculpture of robot-like orb hanging from tall pine tree

tree robot/eye in the sky

The finished pieces are a hoot. They’re fun, imaginative, and glow with their creator’s unique vision. The collage of junkyard auto parts and bound-for-the-scrap heap metal bits and bobs have been granted an incredible new life no one would have expected. Together, they paint a fantasy portrait of the world that’s equal parts Godzilla and Buck Rogers, Dr. Seuss and Willy Wonka.

Needless to say, Schaefer’s Auto Art is well worth the day trip. You’ll probably be headed up that way soon enough.

two 1970s Lincoln Continental front ends joined together to make a single art car

“Two-Face” Lincoln Continental and motorcycle-on-a-pole

sculpture of man's head made from car parts

Automan (detail)


Getting there: Schaefer’s Auto Art is at 3705 Hershey Road in Erie, PA, 16506. Note that this is a large front yard of a private home and while guests are encouraged and invited to visit the artwork, one should respect the private property. Parking is available via a small pull-off area right in front on Hershey Road. Don’t use or block the private driveway.

Also: this story can’t help but remind us of the terrific Meadville Penn-DOT road sign sculptures. They are right on the way to Erie and make a great two-fer auto(-related) art road trip to points north.