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

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.

Valentine’s Day Hearts 2019, Part 2: Love Hangover

rusty heart shape carved into red dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA

love dumpster, Downtown [photo: Lisa Valentino]

It would figure that someone named Valentino would get busy this time of year. The surname is likely a coincidence, but artist Lisa Valentino answered the call for found-around-town hearts early, often, and with remarkable geographic reach. That could be explained–at least partially–by an ongoing project to walk all the streets of Pittsburgh (“WATSOP”). [Yes: we’ll have to follow up with Lisa on this particular endeavor.]

Valentino and reader Linda Smith both turned in some terrific found hearts for our Valentine’s Day challenge. Graffiti, murals, street art, nature, and even that plague of public works crews: the “love lock”–they’re all there. To the rest of you slackers: show a little love next time!

Follow Lisa Valentino on Instagram @lisa.valentino and Linda Smith @linsmith415.

fire hydrant with graffiti heart, Pittsburgh, PA

heart valve, South Side [photo: Lisa Valentino]

icy window with heart shape

cold cold heart [photo: Lisa Valentino]

mural on brick wall including combined heart and peace sign, Pittsburgh, PA

peace heart, South Side [photo: Lisa Valentino]

tree with heart-shaped hole

wooden heart [photo: Linda Smith]

painted tin can with white heart nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

tin can pole (he)art, Bloomfield [photo: Lisa Valentino]

graffiti heart on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

down-and-out heart, Strip District [photo: Lisa Valentino]

waterfall and icy water in shape of heart

frozen heart, Ohiopyle [photo: Linda Smith]

black(top) heart, Homewood Cemetery [photo: Lisa Valentino]

spray paint heart on bridge railing, Pittsburgh, PA

the classic, Bloomfield Bridge [photo: Lisa Valentino]

heart-shaped lock on chain link fence

love lock, Oakland [photo: Lisa Valentino]

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