Looking for a Lost Little Italy in Larimer

red, white, and green painted storefront for Henry Grasso, Co. Inc. Pittsburgh, PA

Last of the red, white, and green: Henry Grasso, Co. Inc., Larimer Ave.

There’s a scene early on in Striking Distance where police captain Nick Detillo (Dennis Farina in full cop mustache and salt-and-pepper wave) downplays his career aspirations. Asked by Bruce Willis’ Detective Tom Hardy if he’s bucking for advancement in the force, Detillo responds humbly, “Not me kid. I’m just a Larimer Avenue dago.” [Please pardon the ethnic slur. We’re quoting–and it’s important to the story.]

Writer, director, and Pittsburgh native Rowdy Herrington peppered the movie’s dialog and mise en scène with local references, so it’s no surprise the Italian-American Detillo clan gets fleshed-out with a nod to the old neighborhood. But why not choose one of the more obvious Little Italys–say, Bloomfield, Panther Hollow, or South Oakland?

movie still from "Striking Distance" with character Nick Detillo's line "Not me, kid. I'm just a Larimer Avenue dago."

Who’s the best cop? Dennis Farina as Capt. Nick Detillo in “Striking Distance”

In record geek terms, it’s a deep cut–one that Rowdy Herrington gets much respect for including.

Dennis Farina was born in Chicago in 1944. Like every other member of the Striking Distance cast, he made no attempt to replicate a Pittsburgh accent for the movie–but the dates line up. From the early part of the 20th Century until some time in the 1960s, Larimer was the Little Italy for Pittsburgh. A neighborhood with any random block holding a majority of Italian surnames; the location where The Italian Sons and Daughters of America was formed; an enclave hosting the Pittsburgh Italian Hospital. [Yes: that was thing–it’s now a vacant lot at the corner of Paulson and Maxwell.] It is entirely likely that the fictional Detillo family could have all grown up in Larimer.

The amateur anthropologists and wanna-be archeologists of Pittsburgh Orbit like any challenge that invites bicycle-based poking down alleys and remorseless nebbing into empty retail windows. We set out with the loose goal of seeing what–if any–traces of Detillo-era, Italian-American Larimer we could still find today.

detail from 1924 platte map showing two blocks of the Larimer neighborhood with a majority of property owners having Italian surnames

Larimer, 1924. Map detail of two blocks between Larimer Ave. and Ashley St., Mayflower and Meadow. [source: G.M. Hopkins Company Maps]

The short version: there ain’t much left.

By our count, there are exactly two extant businesses in the neighborhood that date from the old days. Henry Grasso’s Italian foods shop on Larimer Ave. (see photo, top) is still, as the sign says, original manufacturers of the Italian sausage and capicollo. Dressed for the part in the red, white, and green colors of the Italian flag, Grasso’s is the picture of an old American neighborhood butcher/grocer you’ll see few other places.

On the other side of the neighborhood, Stagno’s Bakery no longer staffs their retail storefront, and the corner of Auburn and Lowell suffers for it. But they’re very much still baking up Italian bread in their two big cinderblock buildings. You’ll find the product on bakery shelves and restaurant bread baskets all over the city. [Side note: one of Stagno’s old blue delivery vans even gets a cameo in the Striking Distance chase scene. Coincidence?]

run down exterior of former retail shop for Stagno's Bakery, Pittsburgh, PA

Still making bread…just not selling retail. Stagno’s Bakery, Auburn Street.

The former Our Lady Help of Christians still stands on the corner of Meadow and Turrett Streets. With its attached school building, the massive Roman-Catholic church basically takes up an entire city block and reaches four or five stories into the sky.

Built in 1897 (rebuilt 1905), Our Lady Help is a crumbling beauty. The multiple copper domes remain, gleaming in even the dappled sunlight of last weekend, but since the church closed in 1992, a crew has clearly gone through and stripped anything of value. The stained glass, statuary, and thick oak doors are all gone, replaced with temporary protective plywood. Ivy climbs the exterior walls and weeds have breached the joints in the stone front stairs. Perhaps inevitable, a blue condemned notice is stapled to the front door. Sigh.

view of 1905 Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic church, now abandoned and condemned, Pittsburgh, PA

(former) Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic Church, Meadow Street

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s page on Our Lady Help details the deep Italian roots of the church:

Our Lady Help of Christians was established in 1898 as an Italian parish. The origin of the parish can be traced to the rise of immigrants from Italy in the late nineteenth century.  In 1895 the Italian Franciscan Fathers were invited to come to Pittsburgh. They took charge of the Italian parish in the Hill District, St. Peter. In 1894, the Italian residents of the East Liberty area petitioned the bishop for permission to form their own parish. This petition was denied. To meet the needs of the East Liberty Italians, the pastor of St. Peter began visiting the area to celebrate Mass.  The first Mass for Italians celebrated in East Liberty took place in February of 1895 in the school hall of Ss. Peter and Paul parish. From that point, a Mass was celebrated almost monthly for the Italians.

There are a lot of reasons why (local) Catholic churches are having a hard time. Overall, Pittsburgh has lost half its population and people just don’t attend mass like they did in the old days. And then there’s the whole, horrific priest sex abuse (and cover-up) business.

But when a entire congregation this large relocates to the suburbs of Penn Hills and Plum, Forest Hills and Churchill, the Latin scripture reads pretty clear on the old plaster walls.

painted sign for Fiore's Home Dressed Meats on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign for former Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats (now State Senator Ferlo’s local office), Larimer Ave.

Beyond this handful of obvious touchstones, we’re really left grasping at straws.

Vacant lots outnumber buildings on Larimer Avenue today, but there are may be a dozen surviving retail storefronts on the old main drag. One of these features a ghost sign for Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats, but that’s really the only clue to what any of the businesses in these pre-war two- and three-story brick buildings once were.

While there’s still plenty of open space in the neighborhood, Larimer’s housing has fared better overall than its commercial structures. There is a particular type of after-market tin-slatted porch and window awning you see all over Pittsburgh (and elsewhere)–we imagine some door-to-door salesman made a killing hawking these in the 1950s.

There’s no way to prove this, but anecdotal evidence points to the popularity of red-and-white (and to a lesser extent, green-and-white) color combos in certain locales. There are still a bunch of these Italian-colored tin awnings throughout Larimer. [Note: You don’t have to tell this blogger–you want us to cry over tin awnings? No: but it’s all I got.]

small house with tin awning and green paint, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a stretch, but the red-and-white awning with a green paint job look familiar. [Bonus points for the pair of old-school aerial antennas!]

Oh, and what about Mary? Every old Catholic neighborhood worth its rosaries has a couple dozen houses sporting ceramic statuettes of The Blessed Virgin doing her palms-out thing on the front lawn or nestled up against the porch. There are even more Marys relaxing in people’s back yards–but it’s harder to get the invitation to visit up close.

I’m telling you, the Orbitmobile criss-crossed Larimer a dozen times, rolling down every street and just about every alleyway coming and going. In those rides, we spotted exactly one extant front yard Mary outside a unique frame house that appears to at one time have been a pair of separate, conjoined buildings.

older wooden house with statue of Mary by the front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

Possibly the last front yard Mary in Larimer?

That home, on a short dead-end of the aptly named Orphan Street, is at a little horn-shaped peninsula forming the very northeast corner of Larimer. In front of the house, the steep drop-off down to Washington Blvd.; behind, dense greenery all the way over to Highland Park.

We don’t know who lives here–if they’re black or white, hard core Catholic or just enjoy a quirky lawn ornament–but this little icon living on the most precarious of properties feels very much like the last representative of a disappeared people.

Times and places change, people move on–these are unalterable truths. But it’s comforting to think that if Nick Detillo were to make it back to the old neighborhood today, he could still get a pound of capicollo from Henry Grosso and still say a prayer to Mary.

The Donora Smog Museum

miniature models of blacksmith shop tools in the Donora Smog Museum

miniature blacksmith tools by Joseph Hostenske, Donora Smog Museum

The big display case has a plate glass front, top, and interior shelf like you might see showcasing diamond necklaces or gold earrings in a jewelry shop. In fact, it may well have done just that in a previous life. Inside, though, is a different type of treasure.

Tiny replicas of an entire blacksmith shop–work benches, heavy tongs, hammers, wrenches, pick axes, and pliers; wheelbarrow, anvil, shovel, and coal bin–have been rendered in perfect miniature by hands that could only have known the real thing. An ink-calligraphed placard on a repurposed photo stand informs us the collection of pieces was created by Joseph Hostenske, “the first blacksmith to learn his trade in Donora, Pa.”

model of blacksmith tools, Donora Smog Museum

miniature blacksmith set made by Joseph Hostenske, the “first blacksmith to learn his trade in Donora”

The Hostenske collection exists somewhere within the realms of folk art, personal history, and–for anyone who’s ever wanted to see Barbie and Ken really get down to hard labor–the world’s most grueling set of doll house accessories. How fascinating would it be if we all reduced the most memorable of life’s possessions to 1:12 scale?

The little blacksmith set is also among the most interesting array of items in a room full of very stiff competition. That space is The Donora Smog Museum.

mannequin with majorette uniform, Donora Smog Museum

majorette mannequin in Donora Dragons black-and-orange

Any way you slice it, little Donora has had a tough run. Like its fellow Mon Valley (ex-)steel towns–Clairton and Duquesne, Monessen and McKeesport–Donora experienced the familiar boom and bust of big industry setting up shop right at the turn of the 20th century, building a massive economic engine that provided thousands of good-paying local jobs, a thriving community and business district, and then ultimate collapse under the weight of newer, more-efficient technology and changing global economics.

And then there’s the killer smog. Like Johnstown and Love Canal, Centralia and Hopewell, Donora is primarily known to outsiders as the site of a deadly environmental disaster. In October, 1948, a rare weather event called a temperature inversion caused an exceptionally low cloud ceiling over the Mon Valley that remained unmoved for five days. The deadly smoke produced by the Donora Zinc Works had nowhere to go and ended up poisoning thousands of locals, ultimately causing the deaths of twenty-six.

painting of historic sign reading "Donora: next to yours, the best town in the USA", Donora Smog Museum

“Donora: next to yours, the best town in the USA”

At one point, Donora had a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored welcome sign declaring it Next to yours, the best town in the USA. That deferential boast may be hard for an outsider to understand–even put in context that it was erected at the town’s economic peak, while the mill was still running and the streets and storefronts were full of people.

The original sign hasn’t survived–or, at least, no one knows where it is–but it’s made its way into Society for Better Living, a wall-sized painting of Donora history by Cal. U. associate professor Todd Pinkham. The big work hangs on the museum’s north wall and forms a kind of overture to all the museum will have to offer as well as hazy nostalgia for many small town things any Donoran would have internalized. There’s a parade float sponsored by the Zinc Works, steelworkers in wool caps, famous local residents, and, of course, the mighty blast furnaces of U.S. Steel’s Donora Works.

painting of images from Donora history overlapping, Donora Smog Museum

detail from “Society for Better Living,” Todd Pinkham’s Donora history painting

All those elements come alive in the Donora Historical Society’s museum. The Orbit was lucky enough to get a personal walk-through with museum curator/archivist/educator Brian Charlton and volunteer Mark Pawelec. To call what these guys do a “labor of love” would be underselling both labor and love.

Pawalec is a lifelong Donora resident who commutes way past Pittsburgh just because he can’t imagine leaving his home in the valley. Charlton clearly battles outsider status having grown up five miles away in Monongahela. There aren’t a lot of quantitative rewards to spending your Saturdays preserving the history of a town that frankly many of us down river couldn’t place on the map. But luckily there are more ways to measure success than with a calculator. The quick repartee this pair exchanges when they share names and dates, facts and figures is great to witness and the service they’re doing for the whole Mon Valley is immeasurable.

very old black-and-white panoramic photographs of Donora, PA

historic panoramic photos of Donora

On what is obviously the most threadbare of shoestrings, Charlton and his crew of volunteers have dug deep to illustrate the full scope of 20th century life in Donora. There are its claims to fame, for sure–U.S. Steel’s vertically-integrated operation, responsible for everything from the steel cables of the Golden Gate Bridge to your (grand)mother’s kitchen tongs; famous local athletes Stan “The Man” Musial and the Ken Griffeys (Junior and Senior); and, of course, that deadly smog.

But the museum–and the town of Donora–goes much deeper than these handful of historical bullet points. Donora was an immigrant landing spot that brought newcomers from all over the world. Those new residents founded dozens of local churches and a comparable number of ethnic social clubs–some of both survive today. While America was (and is) still very much racially divided, the museum includes photos of integrated company picnics, school sports teams, and local musical groups that existed before the civil rights movement took hold nationwide.

student display with smokestacks and dates around air quality legislation, Donora Smog Museum

air quality history display (detail)

For such a tiny entity–in a town of less than 5000 residents–The Donora Historical Society has made some impressive connections. The museum has joined The Heinz History Center’s History Center Affiliate Program and partners with California University of Pennsylvania for a series of student-led research projects and videos in their “Digital Storytelling” program, led by Christina Fisanick, associate professor of English.

The text- and photo-based displays that fill the center of the Smog Museum have originated from a combination of these sources. The Donora Historical Society’s web site hosts a terrific set of short documentaries from the same collection of sources.

display with news stories and photographs of the Donora smog of October, 1948

history of the Donora smog displays

The services offered by the DHS extend beyond the Smog Museum’s walls. The group offers regular tours of both Eldora Park and Cement City–an early housing development based on Thomas Edison’s design for efficient, fireproof, poured-in-place concrete construction. Donora claims one of the largest collection of Edison concrete homes in the country.

The museum features a collection of documents including the original blueprints for Cement City in their extensive archive of local history. The big, back room is filled with bookcases and file cabinets full of detailed town maps, photos, and glass negatives.

We’re booked for the April 22 Cement City tour so maybe you’ll see a follow-up story then.

blueprints for cement house, Donora Smog Museum

Cement City blueprints

The Smithsonian, this ain’t. The Donora Smog Museum doesn’t have the corporate endowments, government sponsorship, or turnstile receipts to have virtual reality experiences or interactive phone apps. Heck–other cultural institutions have gift shops larger than the entire Smog Museum.

But in this one turn-of-the-century former bank building–still retaining design elements from a past life as a Chinese restaurant–there is so much heart, love, and dedication to the history of its town that it does everything we can hope from such a place. The experience is eye-opening, educational, a little bit melancholy, a little bit wacky, and very thoroughly Orbit-approved.

safe from Donora Slovak club or beneficial society and other historical items, Donora Smog Museum

items from the museum including a safe from the former Donora Slovak club or beneficial society

Getting there: The Donora Smog Museum is located on McKean Avenue at the corner of Sixth Street. It takes around 45 minutes to an hour drive from the city of Pittsburgh. The museum is open every Saturday from 10 AM to 3 PM. For more information, see: http://www.donorahistoricalsociety.org

Bonus tip: The pizza at Anthony’s (just down the block at 557 McKean) is among the very best this blogger has ever had. The dough (the dough!) was like the best ciabatta bread–a little toughness to the outside and an unbelievably delicious, chewy, airy middle. Do yourself a favor and get a couple cuts after you visit the museum.

exterior of the Donora Smog Museum

The Donora Smog Museum, 595 McKean Ave., Donora, PA

The Serpentine Similar: Prop Rocks and Flood Stones

river stones labeled with peoples names and ages, Pittsburgh, PA

This is one obscure rock group. The Serpentine stones.

A most unique thing to find in the dirt. Twenty-some river stones, each inscribed with a person’s name, age, and mystery glyph. The collection is carefully laid out so all the written-on surfaces are upright, readable, and may be consumed from a single vantage point. Like the work of a patio builder, the flat stones have been arranged to interconnect gracefully with a minimum of negative space, but also just barely touching so as to avoid any awkward overlap.

Someone wanted these totems to be found, to be read, to be thought-about. But they didn’t want to make them too obvious either. Far enough off the bicycle trail, camouflaged against the stone foundation of a bridge support, darkened in the underpass, and dusted with months (years?) worth of grime, we only stumbled across them because there happened to be a new piece of intriguing stencil graffiti just above on the adjacent wall.

river stone painted with white text reading "Raymond Maat", Pittsburgh, PA

Rock star Raymond Maat

From any distance, the only legible names are the big ones out front: Raymond Maat and Viola Sayre. Written in white paint pen, each of names appears on its own, larger, burrito-sized brown stone. Even from several paces, the ink/background contrast was enough to catch this blogger’s ever-roving eye.

The Orbitmobile (Orbicycle?) never goes far without a couple bottles of water and it’s lucky we had them on this day. It would take gently emptying both containers to rinse off the thick layer of blown dirt and dropped bridge debris to get the stones to a point where they were reasonable to read (and photograph). Even so, we still could have used another bottle.

collection of river stones with barely-legible text written on them, Pittsburgh, PA

The collection as it was discovered (pre-rinsed)

It was only getting up close that would reveal the many other details. Henry McCallum (age 11)Catherine Krueger (age 61)Eduard Raven (age 24)Dennis Girvin (age 27), and a dozen or so more like them, each with one of a couple different symbols. Some have what appears to be feather; others an invented rune, shaped like a capital letter U with an extra wavy line bisecting the verticals. Two of the stones simply read unknown.

river stones labeled with peoples names and ages, Pittsburgh, PA

Henry McCallum (age 11), Catherine Krueger (age 61), Philip Piaza (age 19), Eduard Raven (age 24)

And then, there it is! Placed right in the center of the pack, its painted-on text further worn away than the rest of its buddies. A single stone has what appears to be an explanation for this obscure rock group: Victims of the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood.

With that, it seemed so obvious. Stones–likely pulled from the river just feet away and smoothed by its waters–placed just at the riverbank like a sacrificial altar. This spot is well within the flood plain if (and when) the big one ever strikes Pittsburgh again. What a delightful, hidden, reverent memorial to one of worst natural disasters to ever befall the region.

river stone painted with white text reading "Victims of 1936 St. Patrick's Day Flood", Pittsburgh, PA

Victims of 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood

… or is it?

We don’t know what bloggers did before the computer Internet came along, but luckily The Orbit is well-acquainted with The Google Machine and we worked our index fingers to the bone hunt-and-pecking around for info.

It turns out “Raymond Maat”, “Viola Sayre”, and “Seth Jormundgander” (at least) were all characters created for an alternate reality game/immersive theater production called Serpentine put on by Uncumber Theatrics in 2016. It is entirely unclear from Uncumber’s web site what actually happened in the game or how these painted stones may have figured into it–but that’s likely on purpose. I guess you had to be there, man…and we weren’t. [Yes: we have added this one to our lengthy list of life regrets. Readers: if you played/participated in Serpentine we’d love to hear about the experience in the comments.]

river stones labeled with peoples names and ages, Pittsburgh, PA

Seth Jormundgander, James Green (age 65), Dennis Girvin (age 27)

Regardless of whether we got had or had the hadders, we love the fact that Uncumber made the unlikely choice to just leave this elaborate handmade prop right out in the open–hidden in plain sight, as it were. Those of us who might happen across it, scratch our heads, and take the time to think about the plight of poor Roland Mars (age 31) and Nathanial Peterson (age 39) can still get a little contact high off Serpentine‘s medical-grade Maui wowee. Does it matter if real people’s names were used for theatrical sport? What if they were simply invented entirely as color elements to move along the game’s narrative?*

We don’t have the answers to the questions. In the spirit, however, The Orbit has made the decision not to tell our readers any specifics on where to find the Serpentine stones. There are plenty of clues here (and elsewhere) if you want to go looking for them yourself. Or, just go out–anywhere–poke around, and keep the peepers open. Something will come into view soon enough.

river stones painted with white text reading "Nathanial Peterson (age 39)" and "Roland Mars (age 31)", Pittsburgh, PA

Nathanial Peterson (age 39), Roland Mars (age 31)

UPDATE (24 July): Like this blogger’s waistline, the plot has officially thickened. Astute reader–or perhaps, inside operative–“Fourth River Fortean” pointed us to a 1981 Pittsburgh Press article that details the death of one Dennis Girvin (age 27) who “drowned while partying and swimming” in the Allegheny River.


* We were unable to locate an actual list of the victims of the St. Patrick’s Day Flood to compare these names against, nor did Googling the names from the stones reveal any connection to the flood of 1936.

Go On and Take a Free Ride: The Tarentum History Mural

mural of rail car with famous natives of Tarentum, PA

famous Tarentum natives: Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, Henry Marie Brackenridge, Capt. J.B. Ford, “Uncle Billy” Smith, Sam Kier, and J.W. Hemphill

A rearing horse bucks at the sight of a beautiful woman through a rail car’s passenger window. High school sports fans celebrate championships of the Tarentum Redcats and Highland Rams. A pair of bonnet-wearing homesteaders share an emotional goodbye with a departing Union soldier headed off to war. Mercantile goods are unloaded from a flat-bottom riverboat to the R. McAyeal General Store. A Vietnam veteran dances with a mysterious one-armed monochrome man[1].

These very public Norman Rockwell by-way-of David Lynch scenes come to us from the dedicated hands–and seriously overworked paintbrush–of one Wally Sommer. They all play out upriver, over the bridge, and downtown, in Tarentum.

mural detail of high school students with banner reading "Redcats basketball champs '67 '68", Tarentum, PA

Redcats basketball fans

mural detail of Vietnam War veterans dancing and "Welcome to RAM LAND" sign, Tarentum, PA

Welcome to RAM LAND, dancing vets

The history of Tarentum–from the native Shawnee Indians on undeveloped Allegheny River banks to present-day football fans tailgating before a Steelers game–is chronicled in an amazing right-to-left time-traveling mural spanning the equivalent of an entire city block in the Allegheny Valley borough’s downtown.

The long concrete retaining wall has been painted in one epic, continuous 180-foot scene that takes the spectator through more than two hundred years of borough history. Starting with native Americans in unspoiled lush summer lea, the viewer is taken on a multi-century journey through colonial-era mercantile settlement, Tarentum’s industrial heyday[2], connections to U.S. war efforts, social change, famous natives, leisure, and business.

mural of army tank on train car with soldiers, sailors, and WACs on train station platform, Tarentum, PA

Tarentum’s contribution toward World War II

mural detail of World War II WACs, Tarentum, PA

WACs

That this magnum opus was created by just one person–an unpaid, 61-year-old (at the time) volunteer who “runs a family-owned auto repair shop” at that–is pretty incredible. A 2010 TribLive article profiles the work of Sommer as he was still currently one year into the painting process. At that point, the artist estimated he’d already put 500 hours into the massive work, hoping to finish another six months later. [No word on when the piece was actually completed.]

Sommer may be an amateur painter, but he’s clearly got both talent and technique. Sure, there are some funny proportions and odd angles, the backgrounds get a little splotchy when you get in close and there’s a John Kane-like flatness to some of the larger scenes. Overall, though, it’s really quite an impressive feat that stands up against similar pieces by “real” artists and rewards close looks at the many tiny details Sommer has included.

mural of native Americans with land that would become Tarentum, PA

(Shawnee?) natives of lower Allegheny River

mural detail of two men in Pittsburgh Steelers team jerseys, Tarentum, PA

Steelers fans

The thematic device of a single multi-use train spanning a couple hundred years of local history was not without its bearing in immediate reality. Tarentum Borough, twenty miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh, is bisected by prominent east-west train tracks that parallel the river and separate the town into distinct sections. Below are river flats with most of the commercial and industrial buildings. Above the tracks are largely residential slopes full of single-family detached homes, schools, and churches. The retaining wall-turned-history mural is just below East 6th Ave. and directly behind the old 1913 downtown depot, now home to JG’s Tarentum Station Grille.

mural detail of 19th century rail worker and draft horse in field, Tarentum, PA

rail worker and draft horse

mural detail of soldier reading letter and sailor waiting at Tarentum, PA train station

soldier and sailor at Tarentum station

You won’t find a passenger train that stops in Tarentum anymore (sigh), but as a freight route, the tracks that parallel the Allegheny River still get plenty of daily use. Tarentum, like many of its sister riverfront (ex-)factory towns, has “seen better days”. According to Wikipedia, the town’s current population of 4,500 is less than half its peak in the 1940s[3]. So it’s easy to see why a large public artwork that celebrates a history of making things, winning wars, and establishing a nation would be appealing. But it’s also encouraging that this spirit still persists in the work of Wally Sommer. There’s no comparable mural project in, say, Clairton or Ambridge or right across the river in New Kensington.

mural of early American settlement with general store, farmers, and river boat, Tarentum, PA

early mercantile Tarentum general store and river boat

mural detail of Pittsburgh Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins logos, Tarentum, PA

Pittsburgh sports and the hardhat-wearing fans who love them

This blogger has opined on both the virtues and perils of large, public artworks in these virtual pages before. Unlike the Sewickley Speakeasy or Images or Rankin, however, Tarentum’s mural really feels built to last. It won’t take the daily roadside abuse of the former and we imagine a more invested maintenance plan than the latter. It also has the feel of a real we’re-all-in-this-together town centerpiece that will be watched-over, respected, and loved. Seven years on, the painting still looks fresh, vibrant, and as alive as the day Sommer finally laid down his brush. So far, no teenager with a can of spray paint has defiled the piece. Let’s hope it stays that way.

mural detail of Union army soldier with two women in Victorian dress at Tarentum, PA train station

Union soldier leaving from Tarentum Station

mural detail of train car windows showing man with A-1 Rental equipment, Highlands High School students, fraternal organization logos, Tarentum, PA

(present-day) mural sponsors, businesses, and civic groups are well-represented: A-1 Rental, Highlands High School, fraternal organizations


[1] We suspect the dancing partner is a fellow veteran of a more recent desert war–Kuwait, Iraq, or Afghanistan–but it is unclear from the painted depiction.
[2] The Big Steel era of the mural was sadly in heavy shade on the super sunny day we visited, so we chose not to include any of the substandard photos from this section.
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarentum,_Pennsylvania#Demographics

On Making America Great … Again

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

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

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

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

parking lot of Foodland grocery store, Monessen, PA

The same scene today, 6th and Donner Ave.

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

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

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

Former EIS Manufacturing plant, Schoonmaker Ave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A picture of Health, Donner Ave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Look Out Loretto, Part 2: He’s Dead, Wrapped in Plastic

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown (detail)

He stands bolt upright, looking straight into the camera. The man is young–probably in his early twenties–dressed formally in jacket and tie with a corsage pinned to the lapel. Black hair is combed flat and parted hard to one side with a pair of troublesome locks springing loose across the forehead just above his eyebrow. The facial expression is curious: fixed formal, let’s-get-this-right sternness appears just on the edge of breaking to a suppressed, forbidden smile. This may have been his wedding day.

The small rectangular photograph is preserved in thick, transparent violet-hued Lucite and has one transverse crack across the man’s chest. A handful of small dings decorate the surface as if an assailant has taken to it with a crude weapon but gave up before doing any real damage. Otherwise, it is in fine shape.

The combined piece is about the size of a deck of playing cards and mounted to a beautiful marble headstone featuring Jesus on the cross, a pointed arch shape like a cathedral window, and a fading old-world cross-and-sun image we’re not familiar with. [Pious Orbit readers: help us out here–what is that thing?]

marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of middle-aged man encased in plastic, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The irony of the photos mounted to headstones at Loretto Cemetery–most preserved on ceramic discs as we discussed in the previous post, but this and one other encased in thick acrylic–is that for so many, we don’t even know the names of the deceased.

What’s unique among the vast majority of photo markers here is the complete absence of identification remaining. At one time, the de rigueur details–name, birth and death dates, perhaps an epitaph or Lahke mu Zamlja inscription–almost surely filled the flat faces of the stones. But now on all but a few, they’ve been completely wiped-clean.

ceramic photograph with image almost completely disappeared on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

How this came to be, we can only speculate on–but that’s what this blogger does best! It seems likely the cause has to do with the underlying material (marble? fieldstone?) and what was literally falling from the sky around Pittsburgh through most of the twentieth century. With the Jones & Laughlin steel mill occupying both sides of the river just downhill from Loretto Cemetery until the 1980s–not to mention plenty more like it up and down each of the rivers–regular doses of acid rain had to do a number on all the headstones made from susceptible materials.

This is a noteworthy turn of the tables for an environment where typically all we know are names and dates, forever left to wonder who these people were.

marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph now broken, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown grave with faded and broken photo

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, broken, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

faded and broken ceramic photo (detail), unknown

In Part 1 of this story we looked at a bunch of these headstone photos where the name of the deceased may or may not be known, but at least we got a pretty good (literal) picture of him or her. In almost all cases the ceramic has weathered with irregular cracking throughout the piece, but the image survives with enough clarity to get a sense of the person below the earth.

Not all these photos fared as well, though. First of all, at this point there are roughly an equal number of empty oval cutouts in headstones where the photos simply don’t exist any more. It’s impossible to know if these were stolen or vandalized or simply dropped out of their markers through a century of freeze-and-thaw cycles.

But even the ones that are still here aren’t necessarily all here. The sun had faded a number of the South-facing photos to mere ghosts represented in strange gray negatives. One of the pieces (above) has been broken with only the bottom half remaining. The detail is all gone, leaving just a vague outline of the woman’s face and basic description of the house dress she wore in the photo.

ceramic photograph with image almost completely disappeared on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

faded ceramic photo, unknown

detail from granite headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of man in military dress, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Joseph Andreucci

Consider the plight of Joseph Andreucci (above) whose loved-ones ponied-up for a beautiful deep red and black granite that never suffered the erosion present on so many of the other stones. All this only to have his photo in military dress attire worn- or scraped-through to the iridescent green of oxidizing copper underneath.

The poor fellow below is not only unknown in name, but unknowable as image. It appears that some miscreant took a hammer directly to the photograph, rendering it completely unrecognizable. All that remains is a hint of combed, dark hair above the damage and a suit with jaunty floral accent below.

ceramic photograph with image vandalized on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

If it’s possible to end both on a high note and six feet under, we’ll wrap this whole thing up with the big smile and voluminous curly locks of Anna Vensak. Her passing in 1996 is decidedly outside of the early century/between-the-wars window where we find all the other headstones in the series. But it seems notable for inclusion by virtue of its proximity here at Loretto Cemetery and the monument-maker’s continued use of the technique–certainly antiquated by the 1990s–deploying the oval-shaped photo, mortared directly to an inset cutout in the stone.

detail of granite headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Anna Vensak

In an age where photographs are so immediate, disposable, and omni-present as they currently are, it’s fascinating to think of a time not that long ago when a single image may be all that remains of the legacy of a human being’s time here on earth. For that one last opportunity to reach beyond this mortal coil to end up cracked, faded out entirely, or lost in the weeds of Arlington Heights is humbling at best and reaches to full-on existential crisis at worst. Either way, The Orbit will still be here, looking out for you.