Red and White, but Mainly Blue: Flag Post, 2021

retired flag box in small cemetery
The flag’s not dead! … but it probably had a rough year like the rest of us. Retired flag box, St. Nicholas Cemetery, Reserve Twp.

“The guy who painted that died before he could finish her face.”

The speaker, an older gentleman, I didn’t get his name, is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 556, in Vandergrift. That is a sidewalk bench in front of the post on 11th Street; her is the Statue of Liberty. The familiar figure is striking her iconic torch-raised-skyward pose and has been sketched-out and blocked-in with a background gray.

It’s nearly complete, but the little detail painting is indeed missing all features of Lady Liberty’s face, leaving her head in ghostly negative space. The folds of Liberty’s flowing robe also seem only half there and we can imagine the finished work detailed in a patriotic blue to contrast the backrest’s red and white stripes. But … we’ll never know if that was the artist’s original intent.

detail of wooden bench painted with red and white stripes, Statue of Liberty, and "USA"
“The guy who painted that died before he could finish the face.” Faceless Statue of Liberty flag bench (detail), Vandergrift

All American Transmission, inhabiting a cinderblock garage just off Millvale’s main drag, has been on our list for as long as we’ve been collecting stars and bars. The giant flapping American flag painted across the shop’s north-facing side wall is what this Independence Day series is all about–created by hand, patriotic, but maybe a little bit … off.

As many times as we tried, the big mural was never available for a proper photo shoot. Inevitably, either the surrounding chain link fence would be locked tight or vehicles were parked in the lot such that we could never get a clean angle on the wall.

After years of loitering on North Ave., we finally got the opportunity last fall and … the light was all wrong. Backlit and hazy under a half-cloudy sky, the effect was to throw a shadowy blue cast across the whole scene. Under The Orbit‘s typical hard-assed standards this photo would never make the cut–but this isn’t a typical year.

mural for All American Transmission Company with company name in giant waving American flag
Red and white and blue all over. All American Transmission Co. flag, Millvale

When we started to review this year’s collection of flags, though, Blue turns out to be something of both a visual and emotional theme. The set of American flags spotted on long, early morning “blue hour” mental health hikes and various walk- and ride-abouts taken over the last 12 months took the melancholy hue more often than not.

A row house in Polish Hill with pale blue aluminum siding covered in viny overgrowth with American flags as window curtain and mailbox ornament. Sunshine spotlighting Old Glory suspended from a makeshift carboard-covered windowpane against a blue-gray staircase. A fishing boat, its nose pointed skyward, decorated like an American flag (but missing the stars) photographed so early on an overcast morning the entire frame is in a still-dreaming blue pallor.

row house window overgrown with vines showing American flag used as a curtain inside
Flag curtain, Polish Hill
small window covered in cardboard with American flag sticking out
Cardboard window screen/stairway flag, Sharpsburg
small boat painted like the American flag
Flag boat, Reserve Twp.

They’re sad flags on a sad year. Six hundred thousand Americans dead of coronavirus–almost all of those since the previous Fourth of July. A population still unsure what the new world is going to look like; whether we’re all going to be sent back in the hole by the Delta strain; if we even know how to communicate with other human beings after 15 months in the bunker.

Rest assured, not every new flag in the Orbit‘s cross-county travels involved a deceased artist’s unfinished masterpiece or the shroud of mental fog. We came across plenty of well-lit, full sun, American flag-like things decorating private clubs and garden walks, identifying street addresses and hung from picture windows. But on a year when blue is the prevailing mood, red-and-white just doesn’t feel quite right.

brick wall with inlaid tile to look like American flag
Missing a few stars. Tiled flag wall, Cave Club, Wheeling, WV
decorative fence painted red, white, and blue
Flag fence, Wellsville, O.
spray-painted American flag with the text "The system is broken"
“The system is broken.” Graffiti flag, Color Park, South Side
mailbox painted red, white, and blue
Flag mailbox, Reserve Twp.
row house window decorated with multiple American flags
Flag window, Lawrenceville
window decoration of red, white, and blue wreath and American flag
Flag wreath/tribute, Lawrenceville
window decoration made from clothes pins painted like the American flag
Clothes pin flag, Polish Hill
address marker with large eagle and American flag
Home address placard eagle/flag, Reserve Twp.
bench painted like the American flag
Flag bench, Wellsville, O.
cement garden tiles painted like the American flag
Garden tile flag, Donora
hand painted American flag taped to glass door
Window flag, Lawrenceville
metal protective plates on alley utility pole painted red, white, and blue
Flag utility pole guards, Sharpsburg
handmade American flag made from recycled wood attached to brick house
Ragged flag, Stanton Heights
row house with wooden window cover painted like the American flag
Cellar window cover flag, Etna

Finally, there are plenty of those evergreens of patriotic DIY home decor: flags made from discarded wooden shipping pallets. From suburban front yards to row house back alleys, pallet flags are so common that it almost feels silly to keep the collection going. Ah, who are we kidding? In a pinch we’ll still take the pictures and serve them up like coleslaw and potato salad alongside the more prestigious Fourth of July party offerings.

These got blue, too. Often taken in those same getting-the-head-together pre-dawn hikes, but maybe just existing in year where everybody lost something, even if we didn’t lose everything, makes things turn out this way.

Happy Independence Day, ya’ll. May we all warm up on the figurative color wheel from here on out.

shipping pallet painted like the American flag, hung on alley fence
Pallet flag, Lawrenceville
shipping pallet painted to look like the American flag
Pallet flag, Troy Hill
shipping pallet painted like the American flag in front of brick house
Pallet flag, Stanton Heights
shipping pallet painted like American flag leaning against brick wall
Pallet flag, Strip District
shipping pallet painted like the American flag in front of brick house
Pallet flag, Stanton Heights

Rest in Punk: Memorial D.I.Y. 2021

memorial portrait painted on brick wall with candles and flowers below
Rest in punk. Memorial to activist Melissa “Missy” Kira (1993-2020), Polish Hill

The big mural is painted across multiple sheets of protective plywood covering the back entrance to an old brick building. On it, there’s a stark two-tone portrait of a young woman in glasses and shaggy hair with an indeterminate facial expression. Is that a subtle Mona Lisa smile or just let’s-get-this-over-with ambivalence at being photographed? We’ll probably never know. The woman is identified as Melissa “Missy” Kira (1993-2020).

At the base of the portrait is a small table decked out with those most reliable hallmarks of any active memorial site: saint-sporting veladoras (Mexican prayer candles) and bundles of flowers arranged in vases and laid out across the ground. There are also garlands and tchotchkes, glassware and bottles of mysterious origin.

memorial portrait painted on brick wall with candles and flowers below
Francesca Araya (1988-2018), Polish Hill

Kira’s memorial isn’t alone. The redbrick courtyard hosts three different wall-sized tributes to young activists, musicians, and community members. The murals are rough, charged with emotion, and resemble the iconography of the Rest in Punk message that appears on a couple of them. Any one of the paintings would blend seamlessly into the design language of Xeroxed flyers for a church basement all-ages show, patches on the back of a denim jacket, the cover art for a Crass record.

It’s also a scene straight out of old Pittsburgh–and one that’s increasingly rare to find today. What with seemingly every vacant lot and empty building in the East End actively getting converted into Legoland “luxury loft” apartments, it’s harder and harder to locate these kinds of off-the-books public/private spaces for a small community to gather, mourn, celebrate, and remember.

memorial portrait painted on brick wall with candles and flowers below
Corinne (1988-2021), Polish Hill

While these three punk rock memorials are the most elaborate we stumbled across in the last twelve months, they’re far from the only D.I.Y. remembrances out there. Americans have taken their mourning of the deceased out of the formality of pristine cemetery plots and into the streets everywhere. It’s a really beautiful kind of mass emotional release–the intensely personal act of grieving in the very public sphere of sidewalks, roadsides, fences, and utility poles.

wooden cutout of angel placed on hillside
Angel in the hillside. W.A.B., Chester, WV

Memorial Day is the holiday we’re supposed to honor the Americans who’ve given their lives in the service of their country. However one feels about the nature of war and American foreign policy, we should absolutely respect those who really did pay the ultimate price.

At the same time, the holiday is also an ideal opportunity for us to reflect on those we’ve lost who didn’t die in battle–or, perhaps, died fighting very different types of battles. Often, like the three punk rock memorials, these were young people who passed way before their time. Even if you’ll never have a commemorative portrait of you painted on a brick wall, we all know we’d be lucky to be loved enough for friends and family to construct a wooden angel and climb a craggy hillside to install it–or even just to lash some stuffed animals to a telephone pole.

So on this Memorial Day we celebrate all of the fallen that we never got to meet and all the people who loved them so much they took their grief into their own hands, D.I.Y. style. May they rest in punk.

sidewalk memorial with photos, flowers, candles, and stuffed animals
unknown, Strip District
memorial including candles and nativity scene
unknown, Troy Hill
impromptu sidewalk memorial including candles, flowers, and squirt guns
unknown (Kung Fu? Kuhn’s Food?), South Side
memorial including flowering plants, candles, and cartoon figure with halo
unknown, Millvale
memorial placed by iron fence with flowers and candles
Donny (1968-2020) (Pronounced Dawn-EE), Polish Hill
memorial on utility pole including stuffed animals and flowers
Tiffanie Anne Nelson, Erie
roadside memorial including stuffed animals, candles, and plastic flowers
unknown, Hill District
memorial featuring photograph and Easter bunny on utility pole
unknown, Troy Hill
memorial graffiti painting of the name "Tony" on cement wall
Why does the memorial for Franny Connelly read “TONY”? We don’t know. Millvale
memorial featuring photograph of small family and sparkley wreath on cement wall
unknown, Chateau
memorial for young man featuring large photograph, cross, figurines, and cans of Bud Light beer
unknown, Rt. 30/Raccoon Creek State Park
memorial on hillside featuring pink cross and professional sign
Amanda Desarro, East Liverpool, O.
memorial featuring photograph, pink cross, and flowers on utility pole
unknown, Wilmerding
memorial cross placed at base of tree
Bruce (6/9/66-?), New Brighton
memorial plaque nailed to utility pole
Daniel Smith (1983-2018), Garfield
memorial flowers in chain link fence
unknown, Millvale Street Bridge
memorial flowers in chain link fence
unknown, Millvale Street Bridge
memorial display with flowers, stuffed animal, and letter on bridge railing
Aunt Barb, Millvale Street Bridge
short wall painted white with names of many victims of police killings
Memorial to victims of police killings, Garfield

Whole Grotto Love: The Marys of Stanton Heights

cinderblock and brick residential wall with five different statues of Mary
Multiplying Marys. The (now) quintet of Marys (and friend) that greet visitors to Stanton Heights.

Most people will blow right by without ever giving the place a second thought. The little post-war brick and cinderblock house sits a comfortable distance off Stanton Avenue, tucked behind a curve in the road, and probably won’t even catch your eye when you’re barreling up the hill. It’s not the house itself that’s so exciting here, but rather the miracle of the multiplying Marys that is taking place out front.

Five years ago, your favorite hyper-local electronic publication ran a story that attempted to round up some of our favorite Marys from all over the place. [See: Hail Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup (Nov. 27, 2016)] Yes, it was naive to bundle so many Marys from so many places together when seeking them out and collating them into location-based sets is so satisfying. Lesson learned.

Anyway, in that story, most of the way down, there’s a photo of this same Stanton Ave. address, but with merely three Marys against the aqua-blue foundation wall. If anyone is equipped for a miracle, it’s a woman who can conceive pregnancy with a holy ghost–so we shouldn’t put human cloning past The Blessed Mother. But this jump in the population begs so many questions: Can Mary immaculately replicate herself? Where do they all come from? Will there be more? Look, I’ve seen Multiplicity and things didn’t work out so well for Michael Keaton, so let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

statue of Mary in front yard of house
Whole grotto love Mary

Stanton Heights won’t bowl you over with its Marys. Between the neighborhood’s detached homes, large yards, big hedges, and fenced-in backsides, just locating a Mary here and there can feel like no small achievement. Rest assured, though–they’re around.

It takes a patient blogger who no longer sleeps to rise at the crack of dawn, trundle up the big hill, and criss-cross every block, each dead-end alley, and explore all the places, courts, and ways to get a thorough accounting of Stanton Heights’ Mary scene. [Side note: if you’re a Heights resident whose Mary was not found or you just think she deserves a better photo, please get in touch.]

That’s about all there is to say here. On this Mother’s Day 2021, we salute all the mommas out there from the O.G. Mother of All Mothers–you’re all immaculate in The Orbit‘s book!

statue of Mary among leafy groundcover
Our Lady of the rising groundcover
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Sunshine Mary and babies
statue of Mary in front of large hedges in residential front yard
Bustle in your hedge row Mary
statue of Mary on brick porch wall
Don’t jump! Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house
Oohooh Mary Blue, livin’ her life in a free-form style
statue of nun in front yard of house
Yeah, this looks more like a nun, but we’re going to count it
statue of Mary in back yard of house
Back patio Mary (looming, far right)
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Flower box Mary
statue of Mary under a tree in residential garden
Shade garden Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house with big yard
Perfect green blanket Mary
statue of Mary between flower garden and front porch
Mary Flowers-a-Poppin’
statue of Mary in front of house
Excited about the new city-issued recycling bin Mary
statues of Mary and Jesus by large bush
Big Mary and half-pint Jesus
statue of Mary against a cinderblock wall
Eyes on the door, back-against-the-wall Mary [yes, we need a longer lens]
small brick house with statue of Mary in front and no other decoration
No friends Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinderblock crèche, Polish Hill

Christmas nativity scene missing baby Jesus

Wait…where’s the kid? Millvale *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Christmas, Lawrenceville

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

Christmas behind bars, Lawrenceville

Christmas nativity scene in row house window

Row house crèche, Lawrenceville

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

That’s not the baby Jesus! Marshall-Shadeland

Christmas nativity scene in retail store window

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

Christmas nativity scene in front of small factory

Diamond Wire Spring, Ross Township

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

Cement circle crèche, Glassport

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

Bloomfield

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

Front porch crèche, Lawrenceville


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

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2020

artwork shaped like large claw hammer painted in red, white, and blue

hammer/flag, Mars

A six-foot tall wooden sculpture of a claw hammer is mounted in the arched brickwork of a turn-of-the-century commercial building in Mars, Butler County. It is both uniquely American in its roadside kitsch oversized scale and patriotic red, white, and blue but is also tasteful, fits the unique space, and manages to subtly advertise Pfeifer Hardware without any text at all.

There is plenty of subtext, however, if one chooses to go down that particular rabbit hole. Is America the land of tools, of ingenuity, where anything can be built and anything can get done? Or is it the love it or leave it country where we either worship the stars-and-bars or feel the hammer come down?

Probably the creator of Pfeifer’s big hammer had none of this in mind. He or she may have just wanted to build a big hammer and decided to paint it in an obvious color scheme. While the jingoist use of the American flag always makes us feel a little queasy, the spirit of people taking a paint brush and star stencil to garage doors and retaining walls, porch art and–of course–discarded shipping pallets is something we’ll always get behind.

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

wooden doorway painted like an American flag

door flag, Swissvale

One year, we’ll celebrate with a post entirely composed of that evergreen of folk-art patriotism: the pallet flag. Their complete dominance of greater Kittanning/Ford City’s lawn art scene suggests we could even go hyper-local with coverage from Armstrong County alone.

shipping pallet painted like the American flag

pallet flag, Mars

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Kittanning

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Ford City

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

pallet flag, Kittanning

shipping pallet painted like American flag

pallet flag, Beaver

shipping pallet painted like an American flag

political pallet flag, Kittanning [note: just reporting here–Pittsburgh Orbit does NOT endorse these candidates!]

brick residential house with prominent American flag decoration

flag house, Kittanning

brick residential house with prominent American flag decoration

flag house, Kittanning

faded mural of bald eagle with American flag

eagle/flag mural, Marshall-Shadeland

section of wall mural including American flag

Allentown neighborhood mural

mural painted on cinderblock wall including American flag stars and stripes

Dougherty Veterans Fields, Etna

Row house window displays are reliably full of red, white, and blue this time of year, but The Plague has us mostly staying at home, tending vegetables in the backyard. Despite the lack of nebbing, we still managed to bag a few of these Old Glory old friends.

window with American flags

flag window, Lawrenceville

window with American flags

flag window, Lawrenceville

large plastic dinosaur lawn ornament with American flag in its mouth

dinosaur flag, Lawrenceville

skeleton decorated with green hat, Christmas garland, and American flag

multi-holiday decoration, Etna

Halloween skeleton decoration wearing long dress and red, white, and blue tie

America’s not dead … yet. Patriotic skeleton, Lawrenceville

Jeep grill made to look like American flag

grill flag, Lawrenceville

handmade sign reading "Honor the American flag"

pallet flag sign, Kittanning

The Mother of All Mothers! A Mother’s Day Mary Super Round-Up

statue of Mary leaning against house

Leaning Mary, Bellevue

And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And does she want to see the stains, the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies, and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

– Tandyn Almer, “Along Comes Mary”

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Classic “blue robe” Mary, Brighton Heights

Whatever else Tandyn Almer did with the rest of his life[1], he’ll have forever authored one of the greatest bits of twisted sunshine pop and doobie entendre soft rock to harmonize and flute-solo its way onto Top 40 radio and prime time television.

Now, it’s probably safe to say the inspiration for The Association’s 1966 toe-tapper was not the mother of Jesus Christ–and likely not even a woman at all. I think we can all assume that Mary’s middle name is Jane.

But the Mary–the O.G., blessed virgin, greatest-story-ever-told, gettin-it-done-in-a-manger Mary–indeed comes along all over the place, just about any ol’ time. Every front yard is Mary’s potential domain; any porch her possible perch. The city’s backyards are so full of clandestine, hidden Marys that we’ll never have a true accounting of them all. [You don’t know how that keeps a speculative journalist awake at night!] It’s enough to drive a Mary-curious atheist into confession.

So on this Mother’s Day, we return to an old favorite Orbit subject: Mary, the mother of all mothers, in some of her various occasions around town. Links to earlier coverage appear below.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mommas out there. While your kids won’t be able to take you out to lunch, may your empty cups taste as sweet as the punch.

house with small statuette of Mary by front steps

Tiny Mary, Troy Hill

statue of Mary with feet buried in garden mulch

Quicksand Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary along alley

No Parking Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary and flowers in pot

Flower pot Mary, Burgettstown

statue of Mary in front of house with condemned notice

Condemned Mary, Garfield

all-white statue of Mary on front porch

Monochrome Mary, Bloomfield

statue of Mary in large garden bed

Garden Mary, Saltsburg

statue of Mary in grotto with other statuary wrapped in black plastic bags

She’s Mary, wrapped in plastic. Bloomfield

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Solitary Mary, Friendship

statue of Mary in front of wood frame house

Sunbathing Mary, California-Kirkbride

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

The last Mary in Larimer?

rear-view statue of Mary behind chain link fence

Have you seen the back? Mary, Bloomfield

Mary and friends

statue of Mary embedded in concrete in flower pot

Concrete shoes Mary, penguin, flag, Lawrenceville

statue of Mary with other lawn decorations

Gas meter Mary, et al., Millvale

front porch with multiple statues

Porch Marys (and friends), Lawrenceville

front yard decorated with many small statuettes, Pittsburgh, PA

Lighthouse Mary I, Morningside

front yard covered with decorative figurines, lighthouse, and Mary statuette, Donora, PA

Lighthouse Mary II, Donora

house with statue of Mary

Mary and daughters, Sharpsburg

house with statue of Mary among lawn decorations

Wagon wheel Mary, Reserve

Pedestal Marys

statue of Mary on pedestal in residential backyard

Backyard Mary, Mt. Washington

statues of Mary and angels in front yard

Bay window Mary, Lawrenceville

statuette of Mary on pedestal of bricks, Pittsburgh, PA

Brick pedestal Mary, Esplen

statue of Mary on cinderblocks in backyard

Up-on-blocks Mary, Lawrenceville

Christmas Marys

statue of Mary in front of house with Christmas decorations

Christmas Mary, Reserve

statue of Mary and large Christmas tree

Christmas/camouflage Mary, Millvale

Empty Mary Grottos

empty Mary grotto in front of brick house

Empty grotto, Brighton Heights

brick grotto created for statue of Mary

Repopulated grotto, Oakland

More Orbit Mary coverage:

statue of Mary painted silver

Mary of the berries, Chez Orbit


[1] Almer’s Wikipedia entry confirms that “Along Comes Mary” is indeed Almer’s biggest songwriting success, but that he “invented a waterpipe called the Slave-Master, described by Jack S. Margolis and Richard Clorfene in A Child’s Garden of Grass as ‘the perfect bong.'” So, you know, there were definitely some other hits.

Humble Pei: A Pi Day Salute to I.M. Pei’s City View Tower

City View (originally Washington Plaza Apartments) designed by I.M. Pei, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden hour on the lower Hill: City View (neé Washington Plaza) Apartments, Centre Ave.

It must have felt like a dream. At the crest of Centre Avenue, mere blocks above the hubbub of downtown Pittsburgh and the still-smoldering remains of the lower Hill, twenty-four stories of clean, sharp concrete and grid-patterned windows shot from of the earth like a dramatic rock formation or the liftoff armature of a rocket ship, just launched into space.

City View (originally branded Washington Plaza) wasn’t Pittsburgh’s first large-scale, post-war modernist building–there are a handful of big office towers built downtown in the 1950s that meet that description–but its position standing alone, at the top of its hill and with eyes cast out in all directions, had to have felt like something completely different. The future–whether Pittsburgh really wanted it or not–was here right now.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, southeast side

This speculative journalist has driven and/or biked past the City View towers a hundred times and seen its cold concrete form from every direction imaginable–it’s hard to miss if you’re anywhere nearby. But I’ll be honest here, if you’d asked me a year ago, I would have just considered it the anonymous big ugly apartment building uphill from the hockey arena.

signage for City View Apartments featuring simplified graphic version of the building's shape

City View Apartments signage with abstracted/graphically-simplified version of the building’s design

And thenI.M. Pei died.

Pei, if you’re not a design geek or a regular crossword-puzzle-doer, is one of the giants of modern architecture who planned marquee office towers and airline terminals, art museums and corporate headquarters all over the planet. In his long career–he was 102 when he passed last year and worked most of those decades–Pei designed projects from Beijing to Bloomington, Doha to Denver, Paris to … well, you guessed it.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

Old vs. … not quite so old. City View Apartments, seen from Fifth Ave.

The Washington Plaza Apartments arrived in 1964 at the height of Pittsburgh’s urban renewal efforts, the tail end of the razing of the lower Hill District,[1] and just a few years before the real boom in downtown glass-and-steel skyscrapers would hit. With its climate-controlled interiors and uninterrupted 360-degree views, moving from a cramped city row house into a brand new Washington Plaza apartment, mere steps from downtown, must have satisfied many a jet-age urban fantasy.

On this come-for-the-pun, stay-for-the-dessert Pi/Pie Day, we thought we’d add Pei Day to the ramshackle who’s-driving? feel of the occasion. (Just know that the name is actually pronounced PAY.[2]) In this version of the “holiday” we celebrate the master architect’s sole Pittsburgh project and give ourselves the opportunity to really take a good long look at the building, from a bunch of angles across different seasons, and see if its tan concrete and wall-of-windows would whisper its secrets of the modern age to us.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, north face

And … I guess it worked out that way. Perhaps it was because we’re so easily swayed by star power or maybe it was just taking the time to actually look at the place–to set aside a bunch of prejudices and commune with Pei’s big apartment building at street level[3]. Either way, we found that enough time spent walking around the place, looking up, picture-taking, and photo-editing made all that concrete warm up, wave back to us, and glow against several different impossibly-blue skies.

exterior of City View Apartments building, designed by I.M. Pei, in Pittsburgh, PA

City View Apartments, east face

Look: there are no plans for us to leave our decidedly old-world row house with its boxy quarters and interior windows looking straight out on the neighbor’s brick wall. But there are times–up on the ladder, re-patching cracks in the same 140-year-old horsehair plaster one “fixed” not that long ago–that the mind wanders to an easier, simpler, more modern existence–big on sunlight and small on crumbling sandstone foundation dust. Yesterday’s modernists may have really had something there, and that’s how we ended up here, at Pei Day.


[1] The story of the destruction of the Lower Hill and forced displacement of its (largely black) resident/business community in the name of “urban renewal” is an extremely important one, but not the subject of this piece.
[2] The temptation to call this piece Pei Day Loans or Pei The Man or some such foolishness was strong, but for everyone (like me) who previously thought the name was pronounced PIE, that just wouldn’t make sense.
[3] The Orbit was escorted from City View’s lobby by security before we could either get a good look at the interior or any photographs. We’re not holding a grudge.

Always + 4EVA: Valentine’s Day Hearts, 2020

deteriorated paper heart stapled to black wall

ing T en Hom Safe, Lawrenceville

If Pittsburgh has a ground zero for human pathos, it may well be at the southeastern edge of downtown, exactly at the point where the “Jail Trail” (aka Three Rivers Heritage Trail) earns its nickname.

There, on the thick concrete supporting The Parkway east and right along the bicycle/walking path, is a stretch of wall surface where loved ones leave messages scrawled in sidewalk chalk for the inmates at the county jail.

The text is reliably heartbreaking, often written in a child’s hand, and is clearly aimed at the missing parent or family member who, incarcerated somewhere on the floors above, may or may not have one of the river-facing windows to actually see what’s been left at ground level outside. Whether or not anyone residing in the big house overhead can actually read these hand-written tributes is beside the point; here, it’s the thought that counts.

chalk written message including two hearts and the message "BM + BM: always + 4EVA"

Recycled heart, BM + BM: always + 4EVA, Jail Trail

One day, we’ll do a full story on this wall as it’s got a zillion tales to tell. Until then, though, we’ve got this pair of artfully-rendered hearts, full of multicolor shading and texture, with circular connecting arrows that echo the message from BM + BM (no snickering!): always + 4EVA.

Depending on one’s relationship status and/or sentimental capacity, Valentine’s Day can be a dicey affair. But from the mass of hearts we run across all the time–red, white, pink, and yellow, spray painted on cinderblock and scrawled on dumpsters, embedded in concrete and taped to electrical boxes–it’s clear there’s a lot of love (or, at least, hoping for it) out there.

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all!

mural by Jeremy Raymer including a heart with keyhole and key

The key to your heart, Lawrenceville [mural by Jeremy Raymer]

heart images made from red and yellow tape on electrical box

Tape hearts, Bloomfield

graffiti image of combined tooth and heart

The rare electric tooth heart, Lawrenceville

sign for Valentines Day heart-shaped pizza at Amato's Pizza, Etna, PA

Heart-Shaped pizza: Amato’s, Etna

graffiti of two hearts with "S+V" written in them

Royal hearts, S+V, Millvale Street Bridge

heart-shaped sidewalk stamp from Allegheny Concrete Co.

Sidewalk heart #1. Sidewalk stamp by Allegheny Concrete Co., Brighton Heights

graffiti hearts painted on sidewalk

Sidewalk hearts #2, North Side

imprint of two hearts in sidewalk cement

Sidewalk hearts #3, Friendship

small painted heart on chunk of concrete

(Ex-)sidewalk heart #4, Friendship

graffiti written on green dumpster with the names "Hesh" and "Paul" in a white heart

Hesh + Paul dumpster heart, Strip District

graffiti painted heart on cinderblock wall

Chemtrail heart, Hazelwood

stencil images of hearts with wings on brick wall

Flying hearts, Bloomfield

large red heart painted on cinderblock wall

Cinderblock heart, East Liberty

small pink heart painted on cement retaining wall

Pink heart, California-Kirkbride

large spray-painted pink heart on garage door

Garage door heart, North Oakland

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2019

Stars and bars for cars and, uh … more cars. Parking garage flag, Sharon.

No tanks. No flyovers from the Blue Angels. No fireworks, baseball games, or charcoal-grilled hot dogs. Not even a damn sparkler!

No, when it comes to Independence Day, The Orbit is all about the American flag—and flag-like red, white, and blue things—hopefully created by human hands and not too picky with its star count.

We’ll not blah, blah, blahbiddy, blah about the strange folk craft of shipping pallet flags or the ethical paradoxes of letting one’s most patriotic symbol peel paint or get covered in mold. Instead, it’s just wall-to-wall flags. Happy birthday, America!

patriotic dresses, J. Jones Evening Wear, Weirton, WV

pallet flag, Lawrenceville

pallet flag, Oakdale

flag/football, Steubenville, O.

porch flag, Oakdale

porch flag, Charleroi

yard flag, Follansbee, WV

yard flag, Buena Vista

play set flag, Buena Vista

wall flag, Blawnox

window flag, State Farm Insurance, Bloomfield

Uncle Sam: patriot/grill master, State Farm Insurance, Bloomfield

flag window, Bloomfield

Oakdale: America’s Home Town

Fourth of July Savings painted poster, Giant Eagle

flag, row houses, Lawrenceville

patriotic fountain, Follansbee, WV

Thi$ i$ American street art, Garfield

One Big Heart: Memorial Day 2019

Jordan Celovsky, 1988-2017, Rt. 837

Someone really loved Jordan Celovsky a lot; you can tell by the heart that’s been left behind. Attached to an otherwise nondescript stretch of highway guard rail is the most elaborate, and perhaps beautiful, model of a human heart we’ve ever come across.

The memorial sculpture–I think that’s the right term–is several feet wide, covered in rough burlap and then wrapped in an incredible tangle of green leaves and beet red roots. If you never made the connection between woodsy flora and coronary arteries before, you’ll never see them as independent again. We could only wish this past Carnegie International had anything either this imaginative or moving.

The 29-year-old Celovsky died two years ago in a head-on collision on Easter Sunday, 2017.[1] In that time, he’s already had three memorials created along Rt. 837. There was a beautiful hand-painted cross + Harley-Davidson stone left at the scene last year. [See our 2018 story Memorial Day: Roadside Crosses for a photo.] Now this heart and an entirely different cross, featuring what seem to be hand prints from the two children he left behind, have appeared back at the same location. [See photo, below.]

Jordan Celovsky, 1988-2017, Rt. 837

While this memorial is above-and-beyond in several different measures, it’s certainly not alone. Hopefully everyone has someone who cares about him or her the way that Jordan Celovsky’s loved-ones do. For those who die tragically and prematurely–in car crashes or accidents, suicide or as victims of gun violence–the rest of us hold onto a special kind of survivor’s guilt.

How many times have I driven that very same stretch of Rt. 837 in the Mon Valley? How about where other memorials are found along Ohio River Boulevard, McKeesport Road, or Munhall? Whatever the answer, we all know there’s been ample opportunity to end up with the same fate. It could have been me.

unknown, Strip District

This Memorial Day, we’re continuing with a theme we started one year ago: rounding up and focusing in on these very public, yet intimately personal, remembrances of a departed we’ll never get the chance to meet.

The highway crosses and utility pole collections of stuffed animals have become a kind-of people’s park outside the cold formality of the cemetery; it’s the immediate, this-is-where-it-happened holy ground for a life cut short.

roadside memorial including painted cross, angel statue, inscribed stone, and solar garden light

Jessica Marie Lojak, 10-13-81 – 9-26-10, Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

roadside memorial cross for "CB"

CB, 1/21/59-3/27/15, Mon-Fayette Expressway

roadside memorial cross

Nick, Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

Eric, Glassport

Jazmere B. Custis, Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

roadside memorial made from inscribed wooden planks

Nicholas W. Marino, Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

unknown, McDonald

Linda’s Garden, Slickville

unknown, Bellevue

Derek Durand #23, Butler-Freeport Community Trail

road construction warning sign turned into memeorial

unknown (“We love U (?) … R.I.P.”), Lincoln Place [photo: Lee Floyd]

It would be an incredible oversight to let the day go by without a mention of the lives lost in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. Unlike, say, traffic fatalities or suicide–which are sadly so common as to not really rate as news–that horrific hate crime has no parallel in modern America.

Back in January, we ran a story on the beautiful collection of handmade Stars of David that appeared throughout Squirrel Hill in the months following the massacre. [See “Higher and Higher: Star-Gazing in Squirrel Hill,” Pittsburgh Orbit, Jan. 13, 2019.] That display is just about as powerful a memorial as we can imagine.

The photo below, though, taken on the Monday morning after the attack at (Tree of Life victim) Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz’s office in Bloomfield, was its own kind of loving memorial. The spontaneous leaving of dozens of flower bouquets outside an office that may have been incapable of opening for the day says as much as the love and respect of this particular departed as anything else.

Office of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, Bloomfield

Finally, a personal connection. If you regularly walked Centre Avenue near the Giant Eagle you knew Roger. A constant positive spirit and kind soul who spent many of his days camped-out on the pavement, using black Sharpie markers to create goofy-faced pet rocks and elaborate dream worlds on discarded sheets of cardboard.

Working in the area, I got to know Roger a little bit–filling his coin cup now and again, along with buying him the occasional serving of take-out soup or fried chicken from the grocery store. The Orbit’s co-assistant to the mail room intern and spiritual time lord Lee did a lot better than me–regularly hooking Roger up with fresh fruit, cash money, and restocking his marker supply. I wish I’d have done more when I had the chance.

This Memorial Day, let’s all try to help each other get along in this life so we don’t live with any regret when they reach the next one.

R.I.P. Roger, Shadyside


[1] https://archive.triblive.com/local/allegheny/12202259-74/friend-family-remember-lincoln-place-man-killed-in-west-mifflin-crash