Animatronically Correct: Hopping Down Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane

elaborate diorama of Easter bunnies at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

big bunnies at Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage

Flowers pop in full bloom way ahead of schedule as fairies mingle with enormous fuzzy caterpillars. Giant Easter eggs dangle from tree limbs while an array of butterflies lift off in a spectacularly-coordinated squadron. An indoor forest is filled with the world’s most cuddly cavalcade of bunnies and geese, pigs and lambs, bears, owls, and raccoons.

Existing somewhere between the topsy-turvy psychedelic overload of the Wonka Chocolate factory and the kind of über-wholesome family entertainment one would see in a Christian cartoon program, Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane is an avenue like no other.

elaborate diorama of yellow flowers in bloom at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

spring flowers and besuited geese

elaborate diorama of fairies and flowers at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

fairy scene

Kraynak’s, located 70 miles north of Pittsburgh in the town of Hermitage, has created its own little empire since it first opened in 1949. We don’t know what it was like back then, but today the large site on State Street includes an enormous retail store selling just about any frivolity one can name, a lawn and garden center, and soon-to-be-hopping six-bay plant nursery.

The store’s commerical jingle–an ear worm that makes “It’s a Small World” sound like Stockhausen–claims “It’s always Kraynak’s time of year.” That may be true, but they really put on the dog for the two big Christian holidays. That’s what brought us up north, our eyes all aglow with pre-resurrection fever, to Easter Bunny Lane.

elaborate diorama of nocturnal animals at night at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Dump n’ Dine

elaborate diorama of Sesame Street characters at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Sesame Street

You get to Easterland–yes, it goes by both names–through Kraynak’s retail store; the entrance is by the massive toys, games, and novelties section on the righthand side of the space. Arrive on a weekend and you’ll likely encounter a line of people stretching nearly to the front doors waiting to get in.

Don’t worry, the line moves and there’s a lot to look at even before you get inside. Once there, the big displays are on both sides of the aisle and each takes up maybe 20 feet of visible space, offering lots of angles and view points to take in all of the visual spectacle. Even this ne’er-do-well photojournalist had the time to snap plenty of pictures and still get out of everyone else’s way.

elaborate diorama of cartoon characters in camping scene at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Bigfoot Fan Club annual campout

elaborate diorama of farm scene at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Petal’s Pig Farm

Not only does Kraynak’s sponsor the free 300-foot indoor panoply of blinking, oscillating, electric dioramas, but the elaborate displays are completely redesigned and made anew each Christmas and Easter, surely guaranteeing yearly repeat visits from the faithful. Through the magic of YouTube, the armchair egg hunter is able to virtually tour Easter Bunny Lane for a number of its more-recent incarnations. The images are really something else.

Many of the characters and environments we encountered are easily recognizable in the videos from years past. Those same bunnies, flowers, colored lights, and Easter eggs appear over and over, but in different arrangements and altered landscapes. Here, they’re in a cotton candy fantasia; the year prior, the fuzzy crew arrived in a polar wonderland, as habitués of woodland cabins, or partying underwater with technicolor clams and arms-in-the-air octopi.

That said, organizers of Kraynak’s holiday displays clearly want to keep current with nods to popular culture. We see scenarios featuring The Mario Brothers running a pizza shop, My Little Pony, bears dressed in superhero costumes, those little yellow creatures from Dispacable Me, and a cosmic Sesame Street/Star Wars mash-up. [Side note: who knew Oscar the Grouch was in that R2-D2 tin can all along?]

elaborate diorama of oversized candy at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Candyland

life-size model of Jesus riding a donkey at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

… and then there’s Jesus

Sadly, good things must come to an end. Kraynak’s lets you know the party is over when all the color, fun, and movement drains away and we’re left with a starkly-lit somber Jesus on the back of a donkey. This was just the first of three different Sunday school-inspired dioramas reminding the visitor that the holiday is not all chocolate bunnies and glazed ham.

While this atheist dutifully spent time with each of the eat-your-oatmeal religious displays, I can tell you that I was the only one who did so. Like getting past the accident scene on a clogged highway, the formerly busy weekend crowds dispersed entirely as they made bee-lines to the exit gate, skipping the tail end of the exhibit.

elaborate diorama of nocturnal animals at night at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

night scene with nocturnal animals

elaborate diorama of child in treehouse at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Honeycomb hideout/treehouse

Editor’s confession: We couldn’t not run this story on Easter Sunday, but alas, the timing is as cruel as it is appropriate. For any reader inspired to hop down the bunny trail, you’re too late. Kraynak’s is closed today for the holiday and will be packing away Easterland, likely kicking off the process to design next year’s epic display.

Until then, you’ve–gulp–got Christmas to look forward to. Kraynak’s promises the Yuletide dioramas will be jing-jing-jingling at you by September 10. That’s a couple seasons away, but, you know, at “your store for all seasons” it’s always Kraynak’s time of year.

exterior sign for Kraynak's store, Hermitage, PA

Kraynak’s “Store for all Seasons,” State Street, Hermitage

elaborate diorama of Sesame Street characters at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Sesame Street

Getting there: Kraynak’s is located at 2525 East State Street in Hermitage. It takes an hour and change to drive up from Pittsburgh.

Precious Metal: The Disappearing Legacy öf Hard Rock Graffiti

spray paint rendering of the British flag on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

All we’ve got is a photograph: Def Leppard (c. 1983), Sharpsburg

There was a time when giants walked the earth. Abbreviated to just single power words, their names are legend: ZeppelinPriestDokkenMaidenKrokusCrüe. Burnouts, D-20 rollers, and teenage hair-farmers alike analyzed Tolkien-meets-toking mysticism, tapped and plucked modal riffage on second-hand battle axes, and armored themselves in a suburban denim-and-studs couture. Umlauts döminated every pössible occasiön. Yes, it was the very best of times.

The penance for an enviable life rich in metal mullets, keg beer consumed by a river, double bass drums, and a perpetual soreness in the neck and ringing in the ears was to pay tribute to one’s idols in the most public, lasting, and respectful way: half-assedly spray-painting their names on dimly-lit concrete walls.

masonry window sill with graffiti "Led Zepp", Pittsburgh, PA

Communication breakdown: Led Zepp(elin) (c. 1980), Hazelwood

Blue Oyster Cult logo spray-painted on cement wall, New Brighton

This ain’t the summer of love: Blue Öyster Cult (hook and cross logo) (c. 1981), New Brighton

Existing somewhere between the cave paintings at Lascaux and ballpoint etchings committed by high school students into classroom desks and Trapper Keepers, metal/hard rock graffiti occupies a very particular place in modern cultural history.

In the city (at least), we see graffiti everywhere–to the point it becomes a kind of visual white noise, unnoticed for its omnipresence. Every alley, dumpster, and bus shelter is tagged-up; jersey barriers, concrete infrastructure, and the back sides of traffic signs bear a familiar scrawl and riot of puckering stickers. In some places you’ll see elaborate full-color wall-sized tags and in others, pithy sophomoric humor. But nobody–and I mean nobody–ever paints graffiti to praise rock stars–or any other musicians–anymore. You just don’t see it.

graffiti for metal band Iron Maiden in cement drainage tunnel, Munhall, PA

Caught somewhere in time: Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

spray paint graffiti "Ace of Space" on cement wall, New Brighton, PA

Ace of Spade (sic) (Motörhead) (c. 1980), New Brighton

Like Stonehenge and Chichen Itzá, these primitive tributes dating from the late Cold War have stood stalwart through the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. Indeed, twenty, thirty, even forty years on we still see their traces…if you know where to look.

The jean jacket alchemists who spun black vinyl into precious metal blazed the names and iconography of their heroes in the kinds of places teenagers hung out before anyone in the gang had a car and long before the Internet existed. Some of these remain, blessedly untouched by the hands of public works crews with more important things to take care of.

graffiti of "Judas Priest" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Judas Priest (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

graffiti reading "Iron Maiden" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

In Pittsburgh city limits, the obvious bridge railings, retaining walls, and industrial fencing has been tagged and painted-over in so many yearly cycles that almost nothing from this halcyon era survives. But dig a little deeper–or climb a little higher–and you can still find the names of goat-throwing deities carved into the handrails of underused city steps, scratched into train trestle underpasses, or spray-painted on stormwater runoff drains. Further afield, the spoils get richer.

spray paint graffiti for Deep Purple, New Brighton, PA

Deep Purple (c. early 1980s), New Brighton

faded graffiti reading "Led Zepplin rules" on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Led Zepplin (sic.) rules (c. 1980), Sharpsburg

This all begs the obvious question, where did it go? Or, more precisely, why did it stop? No, we don’t expect the youth of today to still be into ZZ Top and Deep Purple (we can dream, though!), but kids still like music, right? Why did the act of desecrating public infrastructure in the (literal) name of a favorite musical act simply amount to a two- or three-decade fad, basically gone by the turn of the millennia?

The Orbit has no clear answer for this–not even an educated guess. That said, it’s likely some combination of The Internet, overprotective parents, unlimited and ever-changing entertainment options, and…oh yeah, The Internet again. Why climb down in a culvert with a can of Rust-Oleum for some band no one will care about in six months when you could be Snapchatting with a stranger in Singapore?

spray paint graffiti on cinderblock wall for ZZ Top, Homestead, PA

ZZ Top (c. 1983), Homestead

graffiti for metal band Metallica spray painted on cement wall, Munhall, PA

0 for 2: Metalica (sic.) Alchoholica (sic.) (c. 1990), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

It’s all probably a good thing for the sake of our public spaces. Here at the Orbit, we report on graffiti when it makes sense, but we’re also not advocating for it. If young people have a deeper respect for our parks and sidewalks, private residences and commercial buildings that’s great…but I don’t really think that’s what’s going on.

With all its great opportunity, something definitely got lost when The Internet came to town. There was a deep connection that many of us had to a small number of artists–saving up weeks of paper route money to buy one record which then got played over and over. That’s no longer a practical necessity when the history of popular music is available right through the phone in your pocket. The opportunity is great; the connection and identification, not so much. Who’s going to risk a misdemeanor for […hold on while I Google the current pop/rock charts…] Ariana Grande or Panic! At the Disco?

[Side note: the irony that as we’re going to press Queen holds 13 of the top 25 “Hot Rock” tracks is not lost on this author.]

logo for hard rock band Twisted Sister scratched into cement, Sharpsburg, PA

Twisted Sister (c. 1984), Sharpsburg

graffiti tribute to Norwegian metal band Mayhem on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Mayhem (c. 1990s?), Mt. Oliver

Some notes on the photos and dates:

Sadly, The Orbit doesn’t have the proper resources to do the kind of carbon-dating and art preservation that these historical documents clearly deserve. That said, we consulted the expertise of metal scholars Dave Bjorkback, Ben Blanchard, and Lee Floyd in the course of reporting this story. We are indebted to their lifetime of study.

faded graffiti for metal band Korn on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Korn (c. 2000), Sharpsburg

  • We don’t know for sure that the rendering of the Union Jack (above, top) was in fact a tribute to Def Leppard, but they were the U.K. band who flew…err, sat on the British flag most prominently during this, their prime “ten-arm” Pyromania/Hysteria era–so it’s a reasonable guess.
  • The 1980s were way past Deep Purple’s early-’70s creative peak, but given the proximity to other specimens in New Brighton’s Big Rock Park [yes: that’s really the name of the place where this–and others–were found], we believe this is a more accurate estimate.
  • Faster Pussycat was an also-ran in the Sunset Strip hair metal scene of the late-1980s. The band was named after a Russ Meyer film, however, and the cryptic hobo tag on this boxcar (below) doesn’t really give us any clue as to what the writer was after. It’s still worth a mention.
graffiti cartoon of a vampire with "Faster Pussycat" written on his cloak, Neville Island, PA

Faster Pussycat, Neville Island

Let’s Get Small: Parvaneh Torkamani’s Abstraction in Miniature

detail from miniature painting by Parvaneh Torkamani

Stream of consciousness abstract art with no end.” Detail from one of  Parvaneh Torkamani’s “A Thread in the Night” paintings

Get in close. Even closer. No, I mean take your glasses off and push your schnoz right into the screen.

There, in tightly organized brushstroke rows are multicolor clusters of dits, dots, dashes, and squiggles; abstract shapes that appear like sentence fragments in the calligraphy of an exotic language; hieroglyphic messages encoded only for the in-the-know.

Pittsburgh artist Parvaneh Torkamani has been painting in this style of miniature “stream of consciousness abstract art with no end” for nearly thirty years. You’ve got a rare chance to see her work on display–with a dance performance, to boot–this Friday, during the monthly Unblurred art crawl in Garfield.

artist Parvaneh Torkamani with wall of paintings

Parvaneh Torkamani with paintings in her home studio

On a page of a pocket-sized notebook, Torkamani has detailed an elaborate painted storyline illustrated in just the smallest gestures committed in silver acrylic paint. It’s a setup that reads like ancient history–or mythology, perhaps–Slave and Queen abut Slave with Child and Husband King. The action really gets going when Kimono clad princess stands on the back of a servant being coached by head servant, supported by other servants.

Yes: there is a lot going on in this little space and one definitely needs to use her or his imagination to see it come to life. Is the first-time viewer really expected to get all of this? Torkamani explains:

The viewer will see whatever they will see. Sometimes they will experience what I was seeing, but the art is more abstract than not. The idea sometimes gets lost in the abstraction, but I try to create an atmosphere.

detail from notebook of Parvaneh Torkamani

notebook detail

Resident Persian, the title of Torkamani’s show–as well as her Instagram handle–is “an ironic reaction to being surveyed for being foreign.” It’s also a very literal description of the Iran-born, U.S.-matured artist who has one foot each in these two worlds. Fluent in the languages of both nations, Torkamani’s English is delivered in a soft-spoken voice with the gentlest of Middle Eastern accents. Bon mots on “the arch of an eyebrow, the bend of a shoulder” seem to echo the subtle, suggestive forms of each connection between tiny brushstroke and frizzled paper target.

To this curious outsider, it is the artwork that reads as the most obvious reference to Torkamani’s Persian heritage. The delicate brushwork is nonrepresentational, but in its ordered, linear presentation, it can’t help but resemble the beautiful curlicue scripts of handwritten Persian, Arabic, or Urdu. Iran has a long tradition of miniature painting, but, according to Torkamani, “I don’t have that training.” We’re not so sure she didn’t absorb it anyway.

detail from miniature painting by Parvaneh Torkamani

detail from “A Thread in the Night” painting

While the tiny works of art in the “A Thread in the Night” series–each Cinemascope-shaped painting in the current show is around four inches wide by eighteen inches long–reward a very very close reading, they also work from farther back.

Torkamani might be insulted by the suggestion of these original pieces as purely decorative artwork, but it’s undeniable that they’d look fantastic in reproduction. In their linear patterns, interlocking script and ornament, alternating color and space there is a hypnotic quality that one can’t help but wish were blown up to wrap walls and make textiles, decorate pretty paper and hip upholstery, animate motion graphics across screens big and small.

detail from miniature painting by Parvaneh Torkamani

detail from “A Thread in the Night” painting

Obvious passions for Torkamani are the intertwined causes of homelessness and food insecurity. For the the Boom Concepts show there will be an installation piece consisting of cardboard and brown paper. On one of these is a poem titled “On Homelessness” dealing beautifully and bluntly with that subject.

Blasting winds of winter / Breaths of Hades / Penetration beneath clothes under skin / You whisper death is about as harrowing an opening salvo as this poetry-curious blogger has ever tripped across.

detail of poem about homelessness painted on cardboard

detail from Torkamani’s poem/installation “On Homelessness”

Torkamani hopes to raise awareness for these issues with the show. “To do art is to have a cause; art in a vacuum is nothing but vanity. I hope people who care about these causes will come out and help me start something,” Torkamani says, “With the help of volunteers who would tell me about food insecure people they know and those who would carry the food to them, I plan to be there for this cause.”

These are noble and ambitious goals–and it’s not entirely clear how they would come together. Sometimes, however, to go big, you need to get small.

artist Parvaneh Torkamani holding a painted canvas

Parvaneh Torkamani with a recent painting


Parvaneh Torkamani’s Resident Persian Project opens this Friday, March 1, at Boom Concepts (5139 Penn Ave., Garfield). The opening runs 7-10 PM with a special dance performance by Torkamani at 8:00. The show will be up for the month of March.

Valentine’s Day Hearts 2019, Part 1: Wookin’ Pa Nub

hand painted window image of Cupid in retail store front window, Clairton, PA

Cupid and hearts, Clairton

It’s heart season–pink and red, gooey and sugary, frilly and fragrant. Yes, Valentine’s Day is upon us again. Dropped strategically at the apex of winter blahs and spaced weeks–months even–from the next closest chocolate-and-champagne retail opportunity, we know it’s here because it’d be a gray ghost town without it.

Even as cynical as this “holiday” can feel, love–in all its many forms–is a wonderful thing to be celebrated. Whether or not Cupid is out to get you or you’re just hanging with the philias at the Love Moose, The Orbit has collected a season’s worth of found-on-the-street hearts. Consider them our Valentine to you.

neon sign for Moose lodge in shape of heart, Irwin, PA

fraternal love: Moose lodge, Irwin

image of heart made from red tape on electrical box, Pittsburgh, PA

yes, love is full of red tape, Bloomfield

wood frame house with red heart painted on green siding, Pittsburgh, PA

heart house, Garfield

graffiti heart with names "Trump" and "Putin" inside

…sittin’ in a swing, C-O-L-L-U-D-I-N-G, Lawrenceville

handmade sign with heart and text "Friendship", Pittsburgh, PA

love and friendship, Friendship

blue hearts stenciled on concrete sidewalk

stencil hearts, Millvale Street Bridge

painted sign for New Life Assembly of God church on side of building, Brownsville, PA

Mon Valley agape, Brownsville

message taped to wall reading "I love you so much"

I love you stomach…err, so much, Squirrel Hill

graffiti image of heart painted on cement wall

bleeding heart, Mon Wharf

purple heart graffiti on concrete wall

purple heart, Millvale Street Bridge

Dang-là Vu: The Return of the East End Dangler!

plastic apples dangling from tree limbs

ripe (looking) apples hanging from bare tree limbs–The East End Dangler has returned!

I. The Return of the East End Dangler

Things had gone quiet on Centre Avenue. Spring turned to summer, and then summer rolled over to autumn with nary a bustle in our hedgerow. It was enough to make the few who experienced it believe the whole thing had been a strange dream.

Cue: soft focus and shimmering harp glissando. A line of fish, each one tied to the next by a length of twine knotted around their tail fins. The little garlands, suspended from branches of mid-sized street trees, gently swaying in the breeze like decorations for a strange holiday. Did that really happen?

Oh yes, it was for real–and serious as a heart attack. Even more, after an apparent six- to ten-month dormancy, this dang-là vu is happening all over again. The East End Dangler is back–and this time, he or she isn’t fooling around*.

plastic fruit dangling from tree limbs

apple, grapes, East Liberty

We know these things about The East End Dangler:

  1. The Dangler has a ready supply of small children’s toys and decorative plastic fruit.
  2. The Dangler regularly traffics on upper Centre Avenue in East Liberty (nearish Whole Foods).
  3. The Dangler loves all-you-can-eat Asian seafood buffets.

That’s about it.

plastic grapes hanging from tree limb

bunch of grapes, Hokkaido, Browns Hill Road

To catch you up: starting in 2017, Orbit staff began to notice strands of toys hanging from the limbs of street trees in East Liberty. What first felt like a one-off goofy prank soon revealed itself as full-on, serial hanging-around. We’ll not rehash the whole series of events here, but that initial story unwound in “Something Fishy: Angling for the East End Dangler” [Pittsburgh Orbit, May 13, 2018].

As mentioned in the intro, a quiet period followed this initial rush of dangling–too quiet, as the cliché goes. Indeed, after some period of months Orbit beat reporters spotted brand new dangles in the same approximate locations starting up in the late fall.

toys dangling from tree limbs

shark, cargo chopper, Hokkaido, Browns Hill Road

In an attempt to smoke out the assailant, the crew settled in for that most grueling part of detective work: the stake out. Between the salt-and-pepper squid and wood ear mushrooms, “crazy roll” sushi and cheese wontons, kielbasa and garlic bread, all eyes were trained on the handful of trees just above Hokkaido Seafood Buffet’s parking lot on Browns Hill Road. Why, assuming we weren’t up re-loading another platter of pork shumai and seaweed salad, cotton candy ice cream and banana pudding, the focus was unrelenting. But–unlike the case of heartburn that hit a little later that afternoon–The Dangler didn’t show.

We do see some new media this time around–The Dangler has moved on from a strict palette of Happy Meal toys and rubber fish to now including decorative plastic fruit. All other signatures are entirely consistent.

toy airplane hanging by wire in bare tree limb

plane wreck, Hokkaido, Browns Hill Road

II. The Hunt for The Dangler

Not content to just sit on our collective keister while a mad prankster was stringing up their next trophies, we decided to send The Dangler a little message.

Borrowing from our own arsenal of cast-off Hot Wheels and sandbox-encrusted earth movers, co-assistant to the mailroom intern Lee baited the hook by assembling his own strings of pearls. These were taken to the same general batch of street trees along high Centre Ave. and placed for maximum effect to catch The Dangler’s attention.

And then we waited.

toy cars hanging by string from tree limbs

Dangler bait #1: Hot Wheels high up

Now, we know correlation is not causation, but let’s just say we set a trap…and The Dangler stepped in it. Sure enough, the ol’ tree stringer came a-runnin’ as if mom or dad had served up supper in the sycamores of Danglerville. Or, at least, the R.S.V.P. we mailed out on a whim was answered with a bouquet of plastic grapes hung high in the branches at Centre & South Euclid.

The Dangler also went on to bomb several more trees in the same pair of previous locations. Our serve was returned with a volley that could only be read as a challenge. Well played, Dangler.

yellow toy trucks hanging by string in tree

Dangler bait #2: yellow trucks in low tree limbs

III. A New Clue?

Just as it’s naive to assume our solar system is the only one in the universe sustaining life, we should sooner hand over our quasi-journalistic credentials than think we’ve cornered every possible dangle. No, Pittsburgh is a big city–at least, in terms of square miles and tree coverage–the idea that unassisted Orbit staff would have just randomly tripped across the only two locations of serial dangling would be foolish. The Dangler must have struck elsewhere, right?

That seems not only plausible, but a sure thing. However, if true, the dangles remain in tree limbs so far un-spotted.

statue of William Shakespeare with plastic apple added

Carnegie Music Hall’s Shakespeare statue with appended apple–the work of The Dangler?

That may have changed with one additional clue at the beginning of this month. The statue of William Shakespeare in front of the combined Carnegie Music Hall/Library in Oakland was updated to include a single red plastic apple, hanging from The Bard’s neck.

It is absolutely not The Dangler’s style to suspend single objects from public statuary. And yet, there are enough obvious similarities here to send us into a certified tizzy. Is this the work of a brazen copycat? Coincidental pranksterism? Or has The Dangler decided to taunt his victims in an obvious act to goad us into making an impulsive mistake?

Pittsburgh Orbit cannot answer these questions…yet. But Dangler, if you’re reading this, know that we’re onto you like a strand of fish in a street gingko. We’re putting the pieces together and we’ll not rest until your dangling ways are understood.

If you have any additional information on The East End Dangler or other dangled targets, please contact our anonymous tip line. We need all the help we can get on this important case.


* Actually, he or she probably is fooling around.

Higher and Higher: Star-Gazing in Squirrel Hill

sparkle Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David + heart on Forbes Ave.: one of two thousand, in and around Squirrel Hill

The little stars are made from glitter and felt, plastic and wood, popsicle sticks and laminated paper. They’re tied to the tiniest branches of street trees with ribbon, wire, and bailing twine; they rest lazily in boxwood hedges. The stars commune with other memorials left on handrails and steps, safety gates, and police barricades.

Overwhelmingly, though, each of the small totems–a six-pointed Star of David with a heart at its center–has been knit or crocheted by hand and attached to utility poles throughout central Squirrel Hill[1]. When you pass down Wilkins or Shady, Forbes or Negley, you’ll not miss the stars fluttering–dancing, even–in the breeze.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

October 27, 2018 may well go down as Pittsburgh’s 9/11–the remember-exactly-where-you-were date for a generation’s most horrific local atrocity. Me, I was in Bellevue, dressed in a stupid outfit, holding a trombone, and standing in the cold rain at the tail end of the borough’s Halloween parade.

The relentless weather that morning pretty much kept all of the expected crowd home, leaving just us obligated parade marchers to get the news all at the same point. I remember feeling useless and helpless–milling around on the vacant, closed-to-traffic main drag before heading home without even saying goodbye.

crochet Star of David with heart on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

By now, America has sadly gotten plenty of practice grieving for the victims of mass shootings and violent hate crimes. Even if you didn’t make it up to the Tree of Life synagogue in the days following the massacre, you know what the outside scene inevitably looked like. The victims here were all adults–so it didn’t feature quite so many teddy bears as your, yes, average school shooting–but the scene of an overflowing buffet of flowers and personal notes, photographs and mementos set against protective barriers and caution tape was all there.

In the two months since the Tree of Life shooting, most of these memorials have been relocated. But by mid-November a second-wave tribute–beautiful in its decentralization, variety, and spirit–arrived throughout pedestrian Squirrel Hill.

wooden disc with Star of David hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David made from postage stamps hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Right now, thousands of handmade Stars of David decorate nondescript public spaces and street-facing hedges and gates in the neighborhood[2]. They radiate out from the Tree of Life synagogue and populate Squirrel Hill’s business district along Forbes and Murray Aves.

The stars are the work of an impromptu online group called Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh, started by two “craftivists,” Hinda Mandell and Ellen Dominus Broude, both from separate parts of Upstate New York. The Post-Gazette has an article and short video detailing that effort.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

Likely, most of those who experience the Tree of Life stars will only see them as brief flashes of color, twiddling in the breeze through the passenger-side window–their forms may not even be recognizable at any speed. The Orbit recommends ditching the car and taking a long contemplative walk around middle Squirrel Hill’s wide streets as the best way to inhabit the diffuse tribute.

golden wire Star of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Perhaps it should be no surprise but the totality of the experience is incredibly moving. The first, gut reaction to these handmade, intersected symbols of Judaism and love, sent from supportive crafters from around the world, is the most obvious.

“There is more good in the world than evil,” says Ms. Broude in the P-G video, “An assault against one is an assault against all.”[3] That message–something terrible happened here, but there is way more love than hate in the world–comes though loud and clear, ringing out from the branches and telephone poles.

crochet Star of David with heart on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

But it doesn’t stop there. So many of the knit stars–hung from a single point, stretched out by gravity, and curled in the weather–end up taking on unexpected anthropomorphic qualities. [Yes, there is one extra appendage in this representation.] The little bodies appear alternately huddled and triumphant, at rest and in play, lifted and weightless in the wind.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

This atheist goy had to Google “Jewish belief in an afterlife.” While the religion isn’t nearly as hung up on the notion of heaven as Christianity–preferring instead to value and emphasize life here on earth–it’s also not without its post-mortal coil fallback options. This description, from the Chabad site, seems to sum up the philosophy:

There isn’t anything after life, because Jews believe that life never ends. It just goes higher and higher. In the afterlife, the soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to her source than ever before.

crochet Stars of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Sure, it was a windy day when we visited and took these photos, but the rapturous lifting of these little forms–literally higher and higher off of their twig and twine moorings, flying up towards the sun–felt like liberation. Hopefully, for the victims, family, and friends of the Tree of Life shooting, they’ll find some peace in this beautiful expression of love.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA


[1] … and supposedly elsewhere. (But we’ve only seen them in Squirrel Hill.)
[2] Organizers estimate “around 2000” stars. Source: https://www.post-gazette.com/news/faith-religion/2018/11/17/Jewish-Stars-of-David-Tree-of-Life-Pittsburgh-volunteers-knit-crochet-twelve-countries-crafts-facebook/stories/201811170055
[3] Ibid.

Row House Romance: Christmas Window Roundup

window decorated with many winter scene buildings, Pittsburgh, PA

winter scene diorama, Lawrenceville

Keep on truckin’. The ’60s-era catch phrase of hippie can-do optimism was popularized by R. Crumb’s iconic cartoon of an easy-striding, big-shoed dude. Here, a sticker that’s appropriated both the slogan and image decorates the side panel of a model 18-wheeler. The little big rig has been put on display in a street-level front window of an Upper Lawrenceville row house.

Though it doesn’t explicitly say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, with a backdrop of picturesque snow-covered small town buildings, circled by carolers and snow people, colored lights and a tiny train, it’s impossible not to read the truck’s red cab as a modern update to Santa’s sleigh–those 400 horses a well-deserved upgrade to yesteryear’s eight tiny reindeer. Forget that other Snowman, if anyone’s got a long way to go and a short time to get there, it’s Ol’ Saint Nick on his yearly delivery run.

detail of winter scene including "Keep on Trucking" 18-wheeler, Pittsburgh, PA

Keep on Trucking (sic.): winter scene diorama (detail), Lawrenceville

Christmas. For some, as the song goes, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year” full of decadent–if generally wholesome–holiday parties, comforting tradition, and good cheer. To others, Christmas is a loathsome six weeks of commercialized sentimentality, forced mirth, obligation, and disappointment.

Here at The Orbit, we fall somewhere in the middle. I’ll admit it: I like the smell of a real spruce tree and the warm glow of colored lights; time off to do jigsaw puzzles, visit with friends, and sleep late; the collective goofiness of stuffed antlers added to minivan rooftops, white elephant gift exchanges, and a full movie house crowd gleefully roaring at Hans Gruber’s entrance in Die Hard.

But then there’s the dark side. The first time those jing-jing-jingling tunes preempt Casey Kasem on oldies radio–absurdly starting before Thanksgiving–it invokes such crushing, foreboding dread that it makes the whole holiday almost not worth it. Almost.

cat sitting in window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

candles, snowflake, attack cat, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

winking Santa, Lawrenceville

Love it or hate it, Christmas 2018 is over. But you wouldn’t know that from the residential streets in Lawrenceville. Say what you want about the neighborhood’s gentrification, but the Christmas display scene was (and still is) earnest and ample. Walk down any block and it can feel like every other house has got something up for the holiday: garlands on stoop railings, Santas on the front steps, and–most of all–decorations in the big front street-facing windows.

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Santa and Mrs. Claus, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

two Santas, Bloomfield

When you live in a row house–and I’m speaking from a couple decades of experience here–you get used to people looking directly into your life. It’s not weird or creepy or nebby–pedestrians and neighbors just can’t help but look in when the sidewalk is mere feet–often inches–from the front of the house.

That so many people end up using their street-facing windows as makeshift display cases for curated collections of figurines and little artworks, sports fandom and tchotchkes is perhaps something we could expect. But when our friends and neighbors orient their collections outward–specifically for the enjoyment of the world passing by on the sidewalk–well, that’s a beautiful thing and one that should not be taken idly. [Side note: Kirsten Ervin wrote a whole piece on this subject for Pittsburgh Orbit back in 2015.]

Krampus holiday decorations in row house window, Pittsburgh, PA

Gruss vom Krampus! Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

carolers, Troy Hill

One of the great pleasures of a daily constitutional around the neighborhood is getting to watch these window displays grow and evolve, get put away for the year and replaced in anticipation of the next turn of the calendar. Soon enough, the cotton-laden carolers and dangling snowflakes will be packed away to make room for Valentine’s Day hearts, St. Patrick’s clovers, Easter eggs and bunnies.

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow owl, Bloomfield

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow scene vignette, Bloomfield

If it’s not obvious, we went a little nutso with the Christmas window shopping this year–and, believe me, there are plenty more where these came from. This weekend is likely your last decent chance to catch any of these until the next Christmas season begins. Get out and walk around, take in what you can.

Anyway, Merry Christmas! (again)

windows decorated with Christmas stockings, Pittsburgh, PA

teddy bear stockings, Lawrenceville

window decorated with snow people and Christmas wreath, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people window, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people, wreath, and candles, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

deflated snow person, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

hot pink snow, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

candy canes, snow flakes, wreath, and candles, Lawrenceville

bay window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas’ greatest hits, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

manger scene, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas stickers, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

bells, candles, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Claus family, Lawrenceville

bay window decorated with Christmas dolls, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas automatons, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Santa window, Bloomfield