Won’t You Be My Neighborhood Welcome Sign?

Brighton Heights neighborhood welcome sign as three threes with the name spelled out across the greenery, Pittsburgh, PA

Brighton Heights

It may be an exaggeration to say everyone in Pittsburgh has a Mister Rogers story, but even if you don’t know it, you’re probably just one degree of separation from someone who does.

In the thirty-two years Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was in production (1968-2000), there were umpteen hundred (thousand?) puppeteers, production assistants, on-screen guests, and live studio audience members in WQED’s Oakland facility. Add to that the personal appearances, meet-and-greets, school visits, outreach, and set tours, and you’ve got a very large number of people with some sense of personal connection to Fred Rogers and/or his very special television creation. Mr. McFeely (David Newell) is still out there, getting it done on the regs. If you haven’t gotten a speedy delivery from the world’s most famous letter carrier, that’s on you.

mosaic neighborhood sign for Uptown, Pittsburgh, PA

Uptown

In honor of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the new feature-length documentary film on Rogers released this week, we thought we’d dig further into that most Pittsburgh of things–its neighborhoodliness.

Not every one of the city’s ninety defined neighborhoods has a welcome sign, but an amazingly large number of them do–plenty with more than one–and the variety is terrific. There are so many signs, in fact, that there’s just no way to fit them all into one post. So, Orbit readers from Brookline, Spring Hill, etc., we haven’t forgotten about you and we’ll try get to as many as we can next time. [Please let us know if there’s one we might miss!]

So, just like the world’s most famous cardigan and Keds, let’s get on with it. Here’s our survey of city neighborhood welcome signs and here-you-are murals.

neighborhood welcome sign for Homewood-Brushton, Pittsburgh on train track overpass

Homewood-Brushton

neighborhood welcome sign for the Southside Slopes, Pittsburgh, PA

Southside Slopes

full wall mural for Deutschtown neighborhood of Pittsburgh

Deutschtown

Lawrenceville neighborhood welcome sign painted as a mural on a retaining wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

mosaic neighborhood sign reading "Welcome to Troy Hill", Pittsburgh, PA

“Welcome Troy, to Hill”, Troy Hill

Allentown neighborhood welcome sign with ceramic penguins, Pittsburgh, PA

penguin perch, Allentown

neighborhood sign for Bloomfield, "Pittsburgh's Little Italy"

“Pittsburgh’s Little Italy,” Bloomfield

mural on retaining wall showing various neighborhood people in Southside, Pitttsburgh, PA

Southside/Southside Slopes

sign reading "Witamy do Polish Hill", Pittsburgh, PA

“Witamy do” (Welcome to) Polish Hill

wooden sign reading "Welcome to FINEVIEW", Pittsburgh, PA

Fineview

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

Duck Hollow, Population: “Just Enough”

brick and mosaic neighborhood welcome sign for Perry Hilltop, Pittsburgh, PA

Perry Hilltop

mural with directions pointing to Pittsburgh neighborhoods Greenfield, Hazelwood, The Run, and Lincoln Place

Bonus neighborhood directional mural!

Tin Can Pole Art, Part 2: A Date with Some Little Devils

tin can lid painted with sad devil and the words "She's gone", Pittsburgh, PA

Hell & Oates[1]: “She’s Gone”, Bloomfield

Farewell to all these smiling angels….I’ve got a date with some little devils.

That auspicious message, artfully paint-penned to the cut lid of a large-size steel can, is nailed to a wooden utility pole on South Aiken Ave. in Friendship. Immediately above it appears one half of another can lid, cocked upright, suggesting a single bunny ear–its mate either removed after-the-fact or just never made it to the pole the first time.

However nutty this inscription might seem, little devils are absolutely on the loose in the greater East End. And while pious Christians worry about getting right with God or facing Lucifer’s pitchfork in the keister for all eternity, the city’s devils clearly have their own concerns to stress over. Indeed, the red one appears on a couple different poles both broken-hearted and teary-eyed.

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“Farewell to all these smiling angels….I’ve got a date with some little devils,” Friendship

She’s gone were the only two words Messrs. Oates and Hall really needed as shorthand to heartbreak–that, and close falsetto harmony over a slinky Fender Rhodes groove. Here, the simple message is a clue to the devil’s distress (above).

A cat-like devil has an inverted pink heart for a nose and a topsy-turvy screwed-up mouth (below, top). Those sad eyes may say just as much with no words at all. There’s one more teary-eyed devil, this time with cupid’s arrows literally piercing his visible heart (below, middle).

steel can painted with sad devil and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

sad devil, Friendship

painting of devil with arrows piercing his chest, nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship [photo: Susan Peake]

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I try momma…”, Friendship

I try momma… implores a blue devil, rendered in stark silhouette and levitating an electric martini with one hand, the other raised in salutation (above). A different pole devil clutches the circle-A anarchy flag while waving to friends (below)–no doubt shopping for bargain Clancy’s chips at the nearby Aldi.

This same common imagery of devils, hearts, anarchy, and martini glasses showed up a couple times in our first story on tin can pole art earlier this year. These were clearly no coincidence as the themes get even more of a workout this time around.

metal can lid painted with devil holding anarchy flag nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

anarchy devil, Friendship

tin can lids painted and nailed to a utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“So lost … pray for me, I’m down,” Garfield

Somebody needs to get this guy into therapy! Or maybe we all just need to be better friends to the devils we know. Whatever it is, she’s gone and the plea to appease momma aren’t the only cries for help on the city’s telephone poles.

So lost…pray for me, Mom, I’m down reads a Garfield alley two-fer (above); the simple message Struggle, along with a fire-dancing, heart-balancing devil, turns up on a nice, rust patina’d single-color piece in Shadyside (below).

small painting of devil with heart on tin can nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Struggle, Shadyside [photo: Lee Floyd]

While that’s a lot of devils clinging to East End telephone poles, they’re far from the only specimens in this tin can pole art roundup. We also spotted a number of other pieces with the same stylistic DNA as the devil-doer dealt–we’re talking about the tell-tale cryptic calligraphy, hearts, flowers, martinis, and anarchy.

BUT…[yes, there’s always a big but] there are some outliers in the collection, too. We’ve seen the swirling, psychedelic television/VCR combo scrawled on all sorts of walls and dumpsters, as well as turned into back-of-sign decals. But this nice, two-color paint can lid outside The Glitterbox Theater (below) feels like a giant leap forward–even if the perpetrator still can’t get his or her mind off the TV.

tin can lid painted with TV and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

North Oakland

steel can with painting nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I try to stop…and smell the flowers (in life too),” East Liberty

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“My worst enemy has always been time, 2001,” Friendship

tin can lid painted with abstract face and nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

can lid painting of flower with crying face, Pittsburgh, PA

sad flower face, Bloomfield

tin can lid painted with the message "It's all I know", Pittsburgh, PA

“It’s all I know,” Bloomfield

tin can lid painted with indecipherable image and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside [photo: Lee Floyd]

tin can painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside (partial) [photo: Lee Floyd]

While asking one’s mother for her prayers may or may not be common practice, doing so via painted kitchen tool on side-street telephone pole seems an especially unlikely way to share one’s feelings.

As if parenting weren’t difficult enough, kids are always coming up with new ways to communicate. First SnapChat, now GreatChee. “How’s our youth doing, honey?” We imagine a clueless Dad asking, “Why, not so good,” the response from Mom, “Haven’t you checked East Liberty for cheese graters?”

painted cheese grater nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

cheese grater pole art! “Mom – pray for me”, East Liberty

There are also a couple more of these giant, five-gallon driveway sealant drum lids, tagged-up and screwed-into poles/trees along Spring Hill city steps. The pair clearly begs for a deeper investigation of the neighborhood’s walkways as we’re guessing these aren’t the only two out there[2].

steel can lid painted and attached to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I am home 16” / “free Rakan” / “R.I.P. Syzer”, Spring Hill

large metal can lid painted and nailed to a tree, Pittsburgh, PA

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Basin Street steps, Spring Garden/Troy Hill

Finally, a couple pieces that are absolutely metal and pole art, but don’t have their material origin in discarded soup cans. They’re a little off-topic, but we’re not going to sit on these waiting for a collection of stray non-tin can-but-still-metal pole art.

The triptych of embossed blank verse into sheet metal that hangs on a Harriet Street utility pole (below, top) gets high marks for its innovation in the genre, but the execution feels a little, you know, “smoke a little dope, skip a little rope”… but maybe this blogger just doesn’t get it, man.

Similarly, A boy from Frankford… (below, bottom) really feels like somebody who doesn’t know what he’s trying to do. Then again, I guess he says it right there: like anyone in the tin can pole art game, this “boy” is just trying to find his way.

metal sheets stamped with words and painted, nailed to utility pole in Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship

metal sheet painted, lettered, and screwed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“a boy from Frankford … trying to find his way,” Spring Hill

Thanks to Susan Peake for tipping us off to a number of the Friendship pieces and co-assistant cub reporter Lee Floyd for his work in Shadyside.


[1] Thank you, Chris Caldwell.
[2] Greater Spring Hill: if you spot more of these, let us know!

Something Fishy: Angling for the East End Dangler

boy with tree twig and strand of toy fish

The littlest Dangler angler with another clue from the trail, East Liberty

It started, as these things do, with just a single incident. Back in the early fall, out on an afternoon constitutional, the crew came across a curious sight. Tangled in the mid-level branches of a street tree on Centre Avenue was a six-inch plastic tiger shark, hanging by a length of rough twine tied around her tail fin. Following the string led to a purple dolphin, then a starfish, and so forth. Six miniature sea creatures in all, very much out of water, and awkwardly tossed into the leafy undergrowth just above head level.

strand of plastic toy fish tied together with twine and hanging from tree branches, Pittsburgh, PA

exhibit #1 aka “two sharks,” as found in East Liberty, Sept. 2017

As we’ve mentioned before, Orbit staff maintain a strict do-not-disturb policy when it comes to street art, pranks, and other happenstance findings in the public sphere. Our interns do not always abide by the same code of conduct.

Such was the case on this day, as cub reporter Lee extracted the string of toys from the overhead branches and brought it back home for further examination. While that felt very much like disturbing the scene of a crime way back in September, it would prove eerily prescient. It was only just recently that we became aware this was no isolated incident.

That’s right: Pittsburgh has a repeat offender on a loose and he, she, or they have struck enough times to warrant serial status. The East End Dangler walks among us, covertly decorating the city’s flora with strange garlands of (mostly) plastic fish.

6 plastic sea creature toys connected by twine

exhibit #1 aka “two sharks,” found on Centre Ave., East Liberty

Nearly seven months after that initial encounter, we were certainly in for a surprise. Walking back to the office on a chilly early spring afternoon–the belly still reeling from a lunch of huevos con chorizo con tortillas con frijoles con arroz y unlimited chips–to see a tiny die-cast aeroplane poking its propeller schnoz out of the newly-cut grass. On retrieval, we found the same tell-tale twine knotted around the plane’s tiny tail and rudder. It wasn’t until just this moment that the connection between aircraft design and sea life anatomy became so perfectly clear–but let’s stay on topic.

Our very same cub reporter not only identified the toy as “Dusty Crophopper” from Disney’s Planes but also spotted a tiny rubber fish nearby. The squishy little fellow was dislodged from the strand when its tail broke off, but in an unlikely and gruesome turn of events, the dismembered body part was still caught in the twine to confirm the relationship.

toy airplane on string of twine

exhibit #3 aka “Dusty Crophopper,” (partial) found on Centre Ave., East Liberty

The revelation that the string of sharks was not a one-time deal would have–should have–been enough, but we were in for a couple more shocks. Mere feet away–O.K., maybe one or two hundred of them–was another bare tree with another set of dangling fish. In this case, two bug-eyed, cartoonish blue fish and one tiny red-orange fellow. Unlike the previous two marks of The Dangler, this trio was connected by wire (not twine) and thrown way up high, out of arm’s reach, but well within eyesight.

plastic fish toys strung together with wire and hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

exhibit #4 aka “blue fish,” as found in East Liberty, April, 2018

Attentive readers are already yelling at their mobile devices, hopefully not in public restrooms. How did you jump from exhibit #1 to exhibits #3 and #4? What kind of amateur-hour investigation are your running around here?

Ah–that’s where the plot thickens! Lee had already bagged exhibit #2 (aka “orange fish”) and just never filed his paperwork. Way out of the relatively-small perimeter we were working, this yang to “blue fish’s” yin [three fish, the little one in the middle, single color scheme, wire connector–orange and blue are even opposites on the color wheel!] hung from a tree along Browns Hill Road, miles from Centre Avenue.

three plastic fish hanging from wire in a bare tree

exhibit #2 aka “orange fish,” as found on Browns Hill Road, April, 2018 [photo: Lee Floyd]

Like Ed Gein and Ted Kaczynski, Rudy Giuliani and Pauly Shore, we may never know what motivates The East End Dangler to do what they do. In lieu of any hard evidence on the person behind the dangling, we’re left with just the physical items: toys–specifically fish toys–and location.

On that first point, one popular theory holds that the perp is a parent, the child or children having aged out of their fish phase and into teenage alienation. What to do with those leftover sharks, goldfish, and neon tetras but string them up and throw them in city trees? A little goofy, but more unlikely events happen around us every day.

3 toy fish connected by wire

exhibit #4 aka “blue fish”, found on Centre Ave., East Liberty

These may also be the work of a prankster or frustrated conceptual artist. The nearby Goodwill on Centre likely offers an ample supply of second-hand toys at by-the-pound prices. If decorating trees with Happy Meal castoffs is your thing, it can be done easily and at bargain rates. As art? Well, it beats spray paint tagging.

A third opinion holds that we’ve got deeper symbolism here–something very specifically fish-related. All three of the Centre Ave. finds are within rock-tossing distance of the East Liberty Whole Foods; “orange fish” was spotted adjacent to the Hokkaido Seafood Buffet restaurant. It doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to connect these particular dots. Whether the Dangler might be addressing mercury in the food chain or the Pacific Ocean’s plastic vortex is unclear, but lines can certainly be drawn.

3 toy fish connected by wire

exhibit #2 aka “orange fish,” found on Browns Hill Road

We may never know…or this may just be the beginning of the conversation. If you’ve noticed the work of The East End Dangler (literally) hanging around a tree you frequent, please let us know. Until then, to paraphrase Casey Kasem, keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the fish in the trees.


BREAKING NEWS: On the eve of going to press, The Dangler dropped another bombshell on us. There, in those same Centre Avenue street trees hangs yet another dangled concoction. This one appears to be just two toy airplanes, one a bulbous, cartoonish propeller; the other, a second Dusty Crophopper. As of this writing, the dangled bits remain tree-side.

toy airplane hanging from wire in tree limbs

exhibit #5 as found in East Liberty, May, 2018

Art Opening: Garage Door Murals

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

Lawrenceville

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

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

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

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

Garfield

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

Gone but not forgotten, Homewood

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

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

Bienvenidos a Brookline, Brookline

colorful abstract mural on garage, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship

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

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

Lawrenceville

garage door painted with crowd of people, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

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

Friendship [1]

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

Garfield

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

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

B-94 ‘N Sync mural, Aliquippa [2]

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

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

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


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

Sci-Fi Sidewalks and Apparitions in the Alley: Fantasy Stencils

stencil image of Frankenstein's monster painted on steel door, Pittsburgh, PA

Frankenstein, South Side Slopes

There he is: deep-set eyes shaded under the world’s most famous supraorbital ridge. The giant cranial dome, smashed-flat schnoz, and lifeless mouth could only be one…humanoid. Yeah, it’s ol’ bolts-for-brains, Frankenstein–or Frankenstein’s monster, if you must–but we’re all friends here, right?

Mary Shelley’s enduring science project-run-amok turns up here in Pittsburgh at least a couple times–on the South Side Slopes and back-alley Bloomfield. It’s nice to fantasize this is a bicentennial tribute–Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was first published in 1818[1]. We’re pretty sure that’s merely a coincidence, though–these spray paint portraits go back at least a couple years.

Regardless, Frankenstein finds himself in good company. He’s but one member of an impressive rogue’s gallery of desperate monsters, enormous insects, gun-toting pandas, faeries, robots, and one flaming Eye of Providence.

stencil image of Frankenstein's monster painted on concrete wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Frankenstein, Bloomfield

stencil image of monster's head painted on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

monster, Garfield

stencil image of man's face painted on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

refugee from the planet Krylon (or maybe Lou Reed?), Garfield

Someone in greater Bloomfield/Garfield–maybe a whole gang of people–is real handy with an X-Acto knife, stiff card stock, and enough shook-up cans of Rust-Oleum to color most of the spectrum. There are a ton of little stenciled artworks decorating or defacing (your pick) the East End’s alleyways, retaining walls, street signs, and retail backsides.

The majority of these pieces are a single layer, allowing the underlying surface to provide random background color–red brick, silver aluminum, and whatever color the utilitarian cinderblock wall happened to get painted. There are also some really impressive two- and three-color jobs that show a real deft of craft in both preparation and execution in the medium.

stencil image of a flea painted to the back of a street sign, Pittsburgh, PA

“Flea Apparitions”, Bloomfield

stencil image of pink tyrannosaurus rex painted on concrete wall, Pittsburgh, PA

hot pink T-Rex, Oakland

graffiti stencil of bear standing up with a pistol in each paw, Pittsburgh, PA

“This is a stickup, give me all your honey.” Panda bear with pistols and Hawaiian shirt, Strip District

… but is it art or public menace? One the world’s most un-answerable perennial questions! How I’d love it if some street-wise Séraphine dressed-up our alley fence with a long-locked faerie or ambivalent robot. At the same time, if some stupid spray paint smear were to cross the front of the house, I’d be irate–what a hypocrite! Decorate every alley, sheet metal warehouse, and fast food restaurant and I’ll be happy man, but keep your nozzle off the nice brickwork of private homes and old institutions.

They’re not listening to The Orbit–that’s for damn sure–but stencilers seem to have pretty sound judgement in what subjects are fair game, and where to lay off. The targets here are almost all vacant, unseen spaces and discarded infrastructure. That may be as self-serving as it is respectful–people are just a lot less-likely to take action on a trash-strewn alley behind Family Dollar or the former entrance to a condemned building.

stencil image of fairy painted on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

faerie, Strip District

stencil image of cartoon robot painted on bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

robot, Millvale Street Bridge

graffiti stencil of astronaut giving "OK" hand signal, Pittsburgh, PA

astronaut OK, Strip District

stencil image of pyramid with eyeball on fire painted on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

flaming Eye of Providence, Strip District

The Eye of Providence–the mystical cyclops pyramid image that shows up on the dollar bill–supposedly represents God watching over humanity[2]. We don’t know what it means when it’s on fire. Regardless, God seems to give passes to all these back-street Basquiats and cinderblock Cézannes who ply the paint and stencil the swine right under his or her watchful eye.

If it were up to The Orbit [it is not] the lord or lady who tattooed the anonymous wall behind an electrical transformer with an out-of-control, Hawaiian shirt-wearing panda bear–two pistols raised in a threatening display of firepower–would get the bee line straight to heaven, no judgement from above. Whether these particular stenciled artifacts do that for their creators, we don’t know–but we’re cheering for you.

graffiti stencils of skull and crossbones and pig heads on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

skull & crossbones/pig heads, Bloomfield

stencil image of person cradling a bomb painted on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

stop worrying and love the bomb, Bloomfield


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_of_Providence

Born Again: The Babyland Totems

sculpture of black plaster head with fake white hair and flowers attached to utility pole

street totem by twilight

Those eyes! Wide open, wild as the wind, staring straight back at–no, through–you. The steely glare cuts right into the cold, dark, February night. Evocatively–as if arranged by set designers on a commercial shoot–the ice blue of those peepers echoes the color of rain-slicked Negley Avenue reflecting the deep indigo sky above. It’s only just six o’clock, but it may as well be midnight.

sculpture of black plaster head with flowers attached to wood

bean baggie baby on board

The Babyland Totems don’t always look quite so startling. But even in broad daylight they’re an exciting and unnerving collection of figures to come across purely by accident. Most of the little objets d’art feature plaster cloth-formed humanoid faces, painted either black or brown, and decorated with curly hair, red lips, and, of course, those pale blue eyes.

Each of the softball-sized heads projects from a bundle of colorful fake flowers within a decorative cloth wrap that serves as the little icon’s body. Random accessories–a beanbag, plastic barrettes, a toy army tank–make their appearances, too.

sculpture of black plaster head with fake flowers

verbena tiara

The effect is very much that of the youngest babies, released from the womb, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and surrounded by the magic and love of a new life. It’s hard to tell how content these little fellows are–some appear to be smiling, for sure, but others are mid-scream. We’ve all seen real-life infants taking the same wide range of emotions.

plaster head with fake flowers resting on brick window ledge

window ledge widow’s walk

At the same time, one cannot help but think of these as memorials. Close one eye, tilt your head, and almost every one of the totems takes the form of a simple cross. That familiar shape, the reverent individual attention, and those pink, white, and purple flowers remind us of fresh decorations on grave markers or the all-too-common roadside crosses that appear seemingly out-of-nowhere on the berms of highways and grassy undergrowth along busy through-streets.

The Orbit has spent enough time in and around graveyards to know that grounds crews routinely flush these kinds of plastic flowers–along with the accumulated teddy bears, deflated balloons, and past-date holiday decorations–a couple times a year. If some of Allegheny Cemetery’s fall cleanup ended up here–instead of the landfill–well, we can’t think of a better (re-)use of the material.

skull and bell attached to utility pole

skull’s out for summer

Babyland, the all-things-newborn supply shop, served Pittsburgh’s East End for over sixty years[1]. For anyone who was in the area before, say, the late oughts, you’ll not soon forget the circular cartoonish images of babies pulling their own diapers down that used to decorate the outside brickwork. Those were replaced by actual photos of super cute tykes not too long before the business closed in 2012. The squat retail space at the corner of Penn and Negley has been sitting vacant ever since.

Unlike some places in town, this will inevitably change fast–in fact, it’s amazing the little building at this prominent intersection hasn’t been razed for the next set of Legoland condos or a fluorescent-lit fast casual chain restaurant already. Development has come loud and hard to East Liberty and the Penn Avenue corridor and we all know there’s plenty to memorialize even where it hasn’t actually happened…yet.

sculpture of black plaster head with golden hair and flowers attached to utility pole

totem/pole

The other obvious–and most important–side to all this is the continuing story of displacement and eviction of East Liberty’s population. From the old Babyland location, one merely has to look east, across Negley Ave., to see a completely denuded landscape where the big Penn Plaza apartment complex stood for the last 50 years. The fallow ground is now an otherworldly red-brown as crushed brick mixes roughly 50/50 with barren soil.

Had the Babyland artist wished to eulogize Penn Plaza instead, he or she couldn’t (at least, not in the same way)–there’s nothing left to even hang a piece of artwork on. [In fairness, there is one set of steps, their handrails, and a full perimeter of chain link fence–but you get the idea.]

stairway leading down to large empty lot

former Penn Plaza apartments lot, East Liberty

In the last two years, Penn Plaza has gone from a large, lived-in pubic housing complex to a mountain of upturned brown brick to the big muddy field it is today. For those of us who didn’t live there, the transformation may have been startling, but we see this kind of ruthless, scorched-earth demolition and redevelopment happening all over.

But for the S’Libertarians whose friends and loved-ones moved away, who saw their community disintegrate, or worst of all–personally suffered the loss of a family home–the upscaling/gentrification/whitewashing (take your pick) of East Liberty has got to pack the same savage punch as a hurricane or tornado blowing through other parts of the world, dismembering the lives in its path.

sculpture of black plaster head with plastic toy tank attached to wood

Babyland: tanks for the memories

Without any better information to work from[2], all we can do is speculate and enjoy the Babyland totems while they’re still around–and they probably won’t be here for long. Like the former retail building they’re installed around or the old Penn Plaza apartments, something will take them sooner or later. Whether that’s a designated city clean-up crew, street art souvenir hunters[3], or just a heavy blast of rain, we can’t predict. But it’s another of life’s constant reminders that everything–even a big multistory brick and steel apartment complex–is really just here for a snap of the fingers or a blink of one of those haunting baby blue eyes.

playing cards wrapped in twine hanging from cowbell

the old Babyland, hanging by a thread

A note on the photos: These pictures were all taken on Feb. 13 (daytime) and Feb. 14 (evening), 2018. We have it on good authority that at least one more totem was part of the original installation, but it had disappeared by the time we got on the scene. Within a few days of the 14th, the two pieces from the plywood over Babyland’s Penn Ave. entrance [“bean baggie baby on board” and “tanks for the memories” (our labels), above] were also removed.

sculpture of black plaster head laying on wet sidewalk concrete

head down to Babyland! [4]


[1] “Longtime East Liberty business Babyland to close and move”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 8, 2012.
[2] In the course of reporting this piece, we located the artist who created the Babyland totems and made several offers to discuss the work. The artist declined to be interviewed for this story and since there’s no attribution on the individual pieces, we’ve decided to preserve that anonymity.
[3] The Orbit adheres to a strict code of preservation of street art so we do not condone taking pieces such as these for personal consumption.
[4] After finding this lost noggin on the sidewalk, we did our best to reattach it to the rest of the piece using a twig to join the two. How long that lasted is unknown.

Groundhog Gonzo! Fur and Clothing on the Punxsutawney Groundhog Trail

homemade hat with stuffed groundhogs

The world’s coolest…er…coldest fashion show: Groundhog Day at Gobbler’s Knob

Everything you think you know about Groundhog Day is wrong. It’s not about predicting the weather or keeping up some quaint old world tradition–though both of those definitely do happen. It’s not even really about the namesake woodland creature, but you can be excused for thinking so. If most of your information comes from the eponymous Bill Murray/Andie MacDowell movie, I’m afraid you’ve been even further deceived.

man with groundhog mask and Bill Murray hand sign

Who knew Punxsutawney Phil was a “Stripes” fan?

O.K. Maybe “everything you know is wrong” is an exaggeration. I’ll speak for the rest of the world in saying the basic facts outsiders understand are that on February 2 each year, a committee of local citizens pulls a groundhog (always named “Phil”[1]) from a stump in Punxsutawney, Pa. in an attempt to predict–in the vaguest possible terms–the end of winter and coming of spring. Inexplicably, the season’s future hinges on whether or not the little guy “sees his shadow.”

The Groundhog Day tradition goes back well over a hundred years–even longer if you consider its German roots–and is regular fodder for end-of-broadcast feel-good chuckles between hosts on the evening news. This much is all true.

Man with custom-made Groundhog Day hat

“This is my 11th year!” Super fan from Youngstown, Ohio.

Of the many things Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis’ 1993 feel-good fantasy/comedy, gets wrong[2] is that Bill Murray’s cynical weatherman Phil Connors can’t just roll out of bed at 6:00 AM, chit-chat with Ned Ryerson, and amble across the town square to file his report.

No no no. First of all, you can bet the local network affiliate isn’t ponying up for surge-priced B&B rates on the single day when every lodging in greater Punxsutawney has been sold out for a year. When our crew arrived at 2:00 AM, there was an imposing fleet of satellite-equipped TV trucks already camped-out in the parking lot. All the major networks were there, along with a handful of cable new outlets, plus The Weather Channel and AccuWeather. Big engines were humming and news crews had clearly napped–as best they could–right there in their bucket seats and were already mainlining black coffee to get through the long morning.

news reporter and cameraman filming segment at Groundhog Day, 2018

Phil Connors never got up this early. News crew “doing it live” around 4 AM.

More importantly, though, the movie–filmed not in Western Pennsylvania, but in Woodstock, Ill.–makes it out as if the event takes place in the center of town, on a square surrounded by local businesses. There, a couple hundred people gather to watch Phil do his thing in the broad daylight.

The real Gobbler’s Knob is around a mile–as the crow flies–from Punxsutawney’s equally-charming, but differently-shaped downtown. It sits in the basin of a wooded area–sort of a natural amphitheater–with a large stage and some unobstructive railing to keep the crowds from pushing in too close when things get crazy.

There is not nearly enough parking to accommodate the mass of Phil faithful, so participants arrive through the night and into the early morning on one of a non-stop series of school buses literally moonlighting as town-to-Knob shuttles. The hardier and/or more impatient hoof it up a curling back road from the east side of Punxsy.

Groundhog Day has become a massive draw for little Punxsutawney. The town of around 6,000 attracts way more visitors than that number to the event. Varying estimates put recent crowd sizes between twelve and thirty thousand people[3].

large crowd assembled at Gobbler's Knob for Groundhog Day, 2018

View from the stage, around 6:45 AM. Umpteen-thousand “hog heads” at Groundhog Day, 2018

Groundhog Day may be the world’s coldest, darkest D.I.Y. fashion event. This first-time visitor had no idea that so much of the audience would arrive in various degrees of groundhog attire and tribute. There were groundhog masks and groundhog puppets, groundhog t-shirts and super-fan signage, stuffed groundhogs, and full-body groundhog suits.

woman holding groundhog cutout labeled "Erika"

Who’s Erika? Lady groundhogs with colorful skirts.

But it is the hats that really mark this festival. Custom-made toppers of all designs–stacked hog heads like faces on a totem pole and dainty scenes of Phil frolicking in a bed of feathers, pearls, and wispy notions. There are countless renditions of The Punxsutawney Prognosticator either emerging-from or sitting atop his stump and all manner of knit caps featuring cartoonish eyeballs, buck teeth, and little ears.

How many of these are fan-created vs. purchased in downtown Punxsutawney’s groundhog gift shops we do not know (yet!) but any way you slice it, the sheer breadth of Phil-themed headwear was incredible. Orbit staff did its best to get around and document what we could[4], but please realize the photos included here are but a tiny proportion of the actual outfits.

two women with custom-made Groundhog Day hats

“We go everywhere in costume.” Friends and first-time attendees from Virginia with made-for-the-occasion hats.

two men wearing novelty top hats with light-up "PHIL" letters for Groundhog Day

Phil Heads

woman with groundhog hat

Ain’t that America. Patriotic Phil and stump hat.

two women with groundhog hats holding homemade signs for Groundhog Day

Fans from Ft. Lauderdale and Chicago.

five young people with homemade signs for Groundhog Day.

Signs o’ the times. Young fans.

two women holding a sign reading "Smitten with Phil from the Michigan mitten" at Groundhog Day

Sister-fans from Michigan in front of the Groundhog Club’s Philmobile.

Women dressed in colorful Hawaiian shirts, skirts, and leis for Groundhog Day party

The Phil-ettes Dancers before their 5 AM hula routine.

… and then there’s daybreak. My goodness, you’ve never experienced the glory of a sunrise until you’ve spent an entire evening in 12-degree blackness. It was as if natural light did not exist. The feeling of the first rays of a new dawn filtering through spindly tree trunks of a snowy, Jefferson County wood are to be born again, to be showered in light, to feel the absolute glory of being alive.

It is at this precise moment–the event is tightly coordinated to apex at daybreak–that The Inner Circle makes its solemn approach. Twelve (fifteen, maybe?) men [yes: they are all (white) men] in black top hats, long coats, pants, and dress shoes take the stage and perform a variation on the same Groundhog Day ritual that goes all the way back to 1887.

Five men dressed in black pants, long coats, and top hats walk through winter woods

Members of The Inner Circle make their approach at daybreak.

That makes the whole thing sound overly serious–it’s not. There’s a little razzle-dazzle, some corny jokes, and a bunch of good-natured playing-to-the-crowd shenanigans. Phil proceeds to tell us all our future–at least the next six weeks’ worth–relayed through an Inner Circle member who “speaks Groundhogese” with the aid of a weathered walking cane allegedly passed-down from generations of previous Inner Circle insiders.

This is important: it is completely unclear where the whole “sees his shadow” bit comes from. Phil was presented not with options toward and away-from the low-angle morning sunlight, but instead with two tiny scrolls, unfurled, read aloud for the audience, and laid out before his discriminating paws. It turns out the groundhog is not some freaked-out wimp, scared of his own shadow, but instead one who appreciates the winter as a good time to catch up on his reading and make a thoughtful decision.

Punxsutawney Phil raised aloft in Groundhog Day ceremony

Phil’s moment in the sun [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

The uninitiated cynic–especially one from a warmer, more sun rich environ–might imagine Groundhog Day as a group of shivering bumpkins, inanely praying for a rodent’s divination to the end of their long, cold suffering. Move to Florida! they smugly think to themselves, resting their sunglasses to tend the hibachi. But that shallow reading misses everything.

No, the holiday is not a prayer for sunshine; rather, it’s a defiance of winter. Participants don’t just go out in the cold for fun–as skiers or Christmas shoppers might–but rise in the middle of the night, staying out through the longest, darkest, and coldest hours of the year in total communion with the groundhog. It’s flaunting woodchuck fashion with signs asking for–nay, demandingmore winter!

The roar of applause that greets the news of six more weeks of the cold stuff is a hardy people’s collective nose-thumbing (note: not middle finger–this event is as wholesome as they get!) at the notion that fun is inextricably bound to sun.

It is not. The clean-cut, hopped-up, groundhog-crazy crowd at Punxsutawney proves exactly that. To Ol’ Man Winter–just like Phil, George W. Bush, and that fleet of Hollywood cheerleaders before us, we say, bring it on.

Two men wearing groundhog hats in front of Gobbler's Knob stage on Groundhog Day

A couple Phil Phanatics, post-announcement

woman with groundhog hat

In line for a photo with Phil

Getting there: Punxsutawney is about an hour and a half drive northeast of Pittsburgh. The gates to Gobbler’s Knob open to the public at 3 AM on Groundhog Day, February 2 of each year. In 2019, this will conveniently fall on a weekend–just sayin’.


[1] The legend goes that there is only one Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog imbued with everlasting life–but this is a subject way to broad to cover in this post.
[2] For the record, this blogger still thinks Groundhog Day is a terrific movie–it’s just not factually accurate to the experience in Punxsutawney.
[3] In fairness, the high attendance at Groundhog Day (the event) over the last 25 years is largely attributed to the lasting popularity of the movie. Crowd sizes in 1993 (and earlier) were likely much smaller than today.
[4] No thanks to our cub reporter staff! Thirteen other people in The Orbit‘s posse and not a one turned in a hat photo. Don’t come looking for recommendation letters, you slackers!