Stamp Collecting: A Tale of Filbert, Falvo, Frank, and Ferrante

brass sidewalk plaque for G.H. Filbert, Pittsburgh, PA

“F” is for stamp collecting. Hundred-year-old(-ish) brass sidewalk plaque for mason G.H. Filbert, Shadyside

You’d think a person pounding greater Pittsburgh’s pavement, eyes glued to the surface in an intense review of its cracks and crevasses, would run out of new sidewalk inscriptions … eventually. But lucky for all of us, there is a lot of cement in the world.

So much so that after years of meticulous street-by-street inspection we can still regularly turn up absolute jewels in the field like that of G.H. Filbert’s big brass F (above) on a Shadyside cross street or the gorgeous compressed-lettering typeface of Falvo & Son’s stamp (below) on the same day, on the same block. That’s what makes this particular egg hunt so eternally rewarding.

sidewalk stamp for Falvo & Son, Pittsburgh, PA

Falvo & Son, Shadyside

What about the Putchs? Frank and Edward (father and son? or possibly brothers?) had their own sidewalk-pouring empire throughout the greater North Side. Sure, we had a pair of different Edward Putch stamps one of the times we did this, but he turns up here with yet a third variety of the stamp design, this time as E.W.

sidewalk stamp for E.W. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

E.W. Putch (version #3), Marshall-Shadeland

One could cut the excitement around Chez Orbit with a knife when another Putch entered our lives in the form of the first-initial-only F. Now, usually Googling any of the names on these older stamps gets us exactly bupkis, but this time around we hit paydirt. The great online photo and map archive HistoricPittsburgh.org happens to have an August, 1918 photo of Frank Putch Stone & Concrete world headquarters on Brighton Road in Woods Run (see photo, below).

Don’t look for that little shack today–it’s long gone–but the three-story tavern/apartment building across the alley is still there and one imagines the ghosts of Putchs past still hoisting lagers after long days of building walkways in Perry Hilltop and Marshall-Shadeland.

sidewalk stamp for F. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

F. Putch (#1), Marshall-Shadeland

sidewalk stamp for F. Putch, Pittsburgh, PA

F. Putch (#2), Perry Hilltop

photo of Frank Putch Stone and Concrete company, Pittsburgh, PA

Frank Putch Stone & Concrete, Brighton Road, Woods Run, c. 1918 (photo: HistoricPittsburgh.org)

After that, we’ve got a bunch of one-offs. These all count as rare breeds, deep cuts, and/or white whales. With the exception of the Ferrante brass plaque (we got his more pedestrian stamp in 2018), Luick & Sons (there are a couple variants of this one), Ricci & Ciotola (at least two of these exist in Bloomfield), and John Heubel (Erie isn’t really “in orbit” and therefore hasn’t gotten the full dragnet yet) the rest of these all amount to one and only one spotting anywhere.

brass sidewalk plaque of John Ferrante & Son, Pittsburgh, PA

John Ferrante & Son, Point Breeze

brass sidewalk plaque for John Heubel, Erie, PA

John Heubel, Erie

sidewalk stamp for A.B. Gray, Pittsburgh, PA

A.B. Gray, Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Anthony Frank, Beaver, PA

Anthony Frank, Beaver

sidewalk stamp for Joseph Franceshini, Pittsburgh, PA

Joseph Franceshini, Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Saccacione Cement Contractor, Pittsburgh, PA

Saccacione Cement Contractor, Bloomfield

sidewalk stamp for Riccla Ciotola, Pittsburgh, PA

Ricci & Ciotola, Bloomfield

sidewalk stamp for D. Dalia, Pittsburgh, PA

D. Dalia, Bloomfield

hand-written sidewalk stamp for Joe Palmiera, Pittsburgh

Joe Palmiera, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for Supreme Masonry, Pittsburgh, PA

Supreme Masonry/S. Dunkovich, Uptown

sidewalk stamp for Luick & Sons, Pittsburgh, PA

Luick & Sons, Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Battaglia & Sons, Pittsburgh, PA

Battaglia & Sons, Shadyside

sidewalk stamp for Avelli Construction Crop., Beaver, PA

Avelli Construction Corp., Beaver

sidewalk stamp for R.C. Coccaro, Pittsburgh, PA

R.C. Coccaro, Friendship

heart-shaped sidewalk stamp from Allegheny Concrete Co.

Allegheny Concrete Co., Brighton Heights

Message from Big Pink: Breast Cancer Awareness Dumpsters

dumpster painted bright pink with downtown Pittsburgh skyline in background

One of Boyd Roll-Off Services breast cancer awareness dumpsters, South Side

Admittedly, it’s an unlikely way to be honored in the afterlife.

Aretha Boyd was young, just 46-ish*, when she passed away three years ago. And while she may not have the (local) celebrity-level name recognition of, say, Mr. Rodgers or Franco Harris, you’ll find tributes to Ms. Boyd all over the city in ever-changing locales. In fact, the Boyd name may appear around town more often than those of Carnegie or Clemente, Mellon or Warhol.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of cemetery

Lawrenceville

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in large parking lot

Strip District

It may be a little harder to tell this year, what with that other health affliction getting all the press, but Breast Cancer Awareness Month is here. Just like the arrival of pumpkin spice, crisp mornings, and the first turning leaves, the nation’s pink-out begins right on schedule every October first and stays strong for the next 31 days in a branding and awareness campaign that makes all other diseases drool with envy.

The proliferation of pink ribbons and pink t-shirts will abound, as will coordinated group marches along the river trails, billboard advertisements, and public service announcements on broadcast media. In what is both absurd and lovingly allied, hyper-masculine football players will suit up in eye-popping “mangenta” gloves and cleats when they take the field–the black, gold, and hot pink color scheme is a little daring for most fashion runways, but hopefully gets the attention of Steeler fans.

large dumpster painted bright pink in front of office building

Downtown

dumpster painted bright pink in front of large brick building

South Side

In a move no one saw coming, Boyd Roll-Off Services, a McKees Rocks-based waste disposal business, upped the ante considerably when their fleet of big 30-yard construction dumpsters  started appearing a couple years ago to spread the gospel. Each dumpster, painted in breast cancer awareness electric pink, contains a custom placard featuring the campaign’s trademark pink ribbon and the simple message In Loving Memory of Our Sister ARETHA BOYD, 1970-2017.

large dumpster painted bright pink in front of apartment building

Lawrenceville

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of large stone building

Oakland

While they’re a little goofy, the pink dumpsters may end up being the awareness campaign’s greatest ambassadors … at least, here in metro Pittsburgh where you’re likely to encounter them on the street. The Boyd dumpsters aren’t painted pink just during October. No, they’re out there putting in the work and being visible 365 days a year. They can also be found anywhere and everywhere: at any job site or corporate office building, on downtown street corners and in neighborhood back-alleys.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of under-construction building

Downtown

pink dumpster in front of hospital entrance

Bloomfield

The need for public education around the disease is obvious; statistics for breast cancer in America are grim. According to the site BreastCancer.org, one in eight U.S. women (about 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, hundreds of thousands of new cases are detected every year, and we’ll lose around 40,000 women in the U.S. to breast cancer in 2020. The disease also disproportionally affects Black women.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster behind large building

Downtown

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster by highway overpass

Chateau

The street-side dumpster is a part of urban life we see all time. Its role as a big trash can for construction projects is pure utility with no expectation that it will ever be the object of attention. It will disappear into the night as soon as the job is done.

By painting the normally drab skiff bright pink, Boyd Roll-Off has turned the everyday into activist statement: breast cancer is for real, and it’s as omnipresent as the city’s concrete sidewalks and brick façades. And, of course, let’s remember Aretha Boyd and all the other women we’ve lost to this most heinous disease. That’s the message from Big Pink.

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of apartment building

Strip District

dumpster painted bright pink

North Side

pink breast cancer awareness dumpster in front of old stone building

North Side

Additional resources:


* The dumpsters clearly give 1970 as Boyd’s birth year, but Boyd Rolloff Services web site lists it as 1971. We were unable to locate an obituary for Boyd.

Deflated and Kicked to the Curb: Sad Toys, Balls to the Wall Edition

worn medicine balls left in alley

medicine balls, Strip District

It’s unfair to call the big balls lonely because, after all, there are three of them bound in this particular predicament–but they’re definitely sad. A trio of old-school medicine balls, each a different circumference and weight, has been left out in the alley behind a small Strip District gymnasium. The leather (?) bound skin of the two larger objects is ruptured at the seams from an excess of exercise, revealing loose fabric like blood gushing from a knife wound.

street football, Oakland

green play ball on the curb of highway

green ball, kicked to the curb, North Side

In the world of Sad Toys, there are a clear pair of winners in the sweepstakes of human pathos. Nothing can really touch the head-shaking, waterworks-inducing reaction to a beloved teddy bear or perfect princess dress-up doll dropped from a stroller, dismembered and/or face down in roadside mud. Nevertheless, we persist in a pursuit of those lesser, sleeper categories of lost playthings.

In this quest, one should not discount the intangible loss experienced by what could have been. Consider a group of playground kickball teammates, the outcome of their match against cross-school rivals forever in limbo when a dramatic home run is kicked over the fence and down the hillside. Alternately, imagine bragging rights at an annual family reunion volleyball showdown left unresolved for an entire year as cousin spikes against uncle, jettisoning the ball deep into the surrounding woods; the contest abruptly ended before barbeque chicken and potato salad ever makes it to festooned picnic tables. Oh, the humanity!

yellow rubber kickball in storm drain, California-Kirkbride

flat volleyball left in dried leaves

volleyball, Mt. Washington

So, in this time when next-to-no sports are happening, either at a professional or recreational level, and children are forced to limit their playtime to backyards and rigidly-regulated playground trips, we salute these strange vestiges of a pre-Covid-19 world: the sad toy balls of an earlier, more free and open era that existed as recently as just this past winter.

blue toy ball left on curb of brick street

blue ball, McKees Rocks

yellow ball left in dried leaves

yellow ball, Mt. Washington

green ball left in alley

green ball, Lawrenceville

deflated toy ball left on street

discarded and deflated: purple spiky ball, Shadeland

flat basketball on empty macadam

basketball, Lawrenceville

tiny soccer ball and downspout, Lawrenceville

The Alleyway of Magical Delights: Remly Way

long retaining wall decorated with hundreds of organized objects

“Little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of dollars.” Remly Way, Wilmerding

If there is a single image that captures both the dedication to this awkward space and the keeper’s ability to warm up, beautify, and humanize the most lifeless of urban landscapes, it may be found in a tiny row of marigolds. The flowers are planted in a thin channel–there’s maybe five inches of arable soil–between the cement curb and an imposing retaining wall, scarred with decades of cracks, pockmarks, and vestigial stains.

Those tiny flowers, spaced neatly in a freshly-mulched bed, offer just a hint at what the first-time visitor will encounter in the next couple hundred feet, but they sure let you know someone is paying attention back here. What lies ahead is the most magical transformation of a mundane alleyway you’ll encounter anytime soon.

cement retaining wall with thin row of marigold flowers planted along the curb

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” marigolds and cement

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” says Carl Remly of his effort to clean up the little street that runs behind his house. Remly is a self-described workaholic who lives on the block and is “not too good at sitting around.” We believe him.

The combined do-good spirit and boundless energy led Remly from weeding to gardening (“I was never what you’d call a green thumb”) to decorating his tiny front yard with an oddball collection of dinosaur models, tiki figures, and bric-a-brac.

When he turned his sights on the back alley, though, Carl Remly managed to convert what was a typically ignored minor passageway into an incredible outdoor, curated art environment that is both magical and comical, wacky and serene. Don’t look for it on the map, but we’re going to refer to this highly-recommended destination as Remly Way.

brick row house with many lawn decorations

“It started with the dinosaurs in the front yard” Carl Remly’s house on Middle Street, Wilmerding

Miller Street is a three- or four-block-long, one-way alley that runs behind a stretch of century-old row house blocks in north Wilmerding. From gaps between the long buildings, you can look straight out across Turtle Creek (the creek itself, not the town named after the creek) and see several giant old Westinghouse factories. One imagines many of the folks who originally lived in these tight worker homes must have spent their days in the big brick Air Brake Machine Shop.

By chance, Miller Street also appears to be the only section of the borough Google didn’t (or couldn’t) make it down to photograph for their StreetView feature. Perhaps Remly’s work will bring the crew back for another well-deserved drive-through.

Christmas decorations in alley with view of former Westinghouse factory

View of the old Westinghouse factory from Remly Way

Part visionary garden, part art environment, and part open-air museum, Remly Way has at least four distinct stages. Each is approximately a half-block long following the contours of the big retaining wall holding up the Tri-Boro Expressway, above.

Section I: A Curious Entree (our name) is that single row of marigolds (and other flowers) at the far eastern edge where Miller Street meets Short Alley. One needn’t begin the exploration here–and if you’re in a car, you can’t (it’s a one-way, going the other direction)–but The Orbit recommends you walk it from that starting point for maximum dramatic impact.

In Section II: Christmas in June, the space between curb and wall expands just a little to give Remly the room to house larger plants, figurines, statuary, and a recycled artificial Christmas tree about every 10 feet. “A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop,” Remly says of his favorite decoration source.

concrete retaining wall decorated with artificial Christmas trees, flowers, and other items

“A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop.”

row of Christmas decorations against retaining wall in long alley

Christmas in June. Remly Way should ideally be experienced both during the day and all lit up at night.

Up until now, the alley has been a pleasant side trip–a creative way one neighbor is making the most of a thin sliver of neglected space. That all changes when we get to Remly Way’s third stage: The Museum. Here, Carl Remly’s genius for design and composition come into full form and the minds of passers-by are forever blown in the process.

On the PennDOT-sponsored shelving created by heavy steel corrugated wall sections, Remly has converted the negative space into intricate, curated collections of oddball figurines, decorative items, and topiary. There is a section containing nothing but model ducks; another with animals cast in brass and a frog fantasia. Still another groups together bald eagles, their wings reliably spread as if in imminent lift-off.

retaining wall with many model ducks

“I have a little bit of a theme to everything,” the duck display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Brass/frog display

“You read the Sunday paper and somebody in Upper Saint Clair gets the garden of the year because they paid a lot of money,” Remly says, “I just wanted to show that little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of  dollars.”

In addition to being a workaholic, Remly also confesses to being a shopaholic who makes frequent trips to flea markets, junk stores, thrift shops, and Home Depot’s post-seasonal sales.

“I have two garages that are supposed to be for my (commercial door installation) business,” Remly says, “But now they’re the holding area for all my stuff.”

retaining wall with many model bird figures

Bird display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Bunny/cat/rooster display

By the time you reach Remly Way’s final phase, Section IV: Re-entry/The Coming Down, one needs to give the peepers a rest after the eye-popping density of the previous collections. That comes in the form of a tiny parklet at the only space along the alley that will permit it–a small alcove of green grass, shaded by a bank of short trees above.

Here, Remly has included–you guessed it–more Christmas trees, plus big freestanding cartoon character decorations, a seating area in purple wicker, at least one light-up Big Foot cut-out, and a homemade sign that reads Stay Safe and Healthy. The sign is decorated with drawings of airplanes and battleships fighting the coronavirus by Remly’s grandchildren.

small parklet decorated with Christmas trees and lawn decorations

Remly Way parklet, Miller Street

cut-out Big Foot figure wrapped in Christmas lights

Light-up Big Foot, Remly Way parklet

More than a few times in our short conversation Carl Remly mentioned the desire to brighten the spirits of his neighbors and other visitors to the alley. He puts up a Christmas display every year, but with the arrival and uncertainty of everything around the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for a spring/summer pick-me-up was especially strong.

I’m here to tell you, it works. There’s a kind of magic in that little alley–a sense that if someone cares this much about his neighbors and fellow human beings that things just have to work out somehow. The experience is beautiful and surprising, free and accessible. It’s also exactly what we need more of right now.

Like the sign in Remly parklet says, stay safe and healthy, y’all.

back porches of row house with elaborate decorations

Memorial to Carl Remly’s late wife Wannitta and other decorations

porch lit with elaborate light display

The flying unicorns at night


Getting there: Our recommendation is to park somewhere around the 300 or 400 block of Middle Ave., Wilmerding (look for Fan Club Sports Bar), walk to Short Alley (note: there’s no street sign), and then left at the concrete wall (to Miller Street aka Remly Way)–you’ll see the flowers.

Reading the Road: Things Embedded in Paving Tar

white plastic figure embedded in road tar

white plastic figure, Oakland

By any measure, it’s a strange object to encounter in the middle of a crosswalk. Laying on its back, a pure white plastic humanoid figure stares straight up at you–not a care in the world–embedded in the road-paving tar of Fifth Avenue.

The little toy likely came into this world in a very different form. Perhaps the material was originally in full color, complete with hair and facial details painted on–the pure white merely a result of repeated sun-bleachings. A pair of matching holes on the torso suggest an optional attachment set of armor or wings or maybe a backpack. We can hope the little guy once had some clothes.

By now, though, it’s impossible to tell. Someone’s ex-plaything–jettisoned from a bumpy stroller ride or fumbled in a harried attempt to catch the Walk sign at Bellefield–wound up crushed under so many wheels of downtown-headed PAT buses and Oakland through traffic it’s become one with the street surface itself.

wire cap embedded in road tar

wire cap, North Oakland

machine screw embedded in road tar

machine screw, Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]

Now, that little plastic toy is an extraordinary thing to find preserved in the macadam of a city street, but it’s not alone. It turns out that–like much of life–with close inspection there is almost limitless variety of this naturally-occurring phenomena just about anywhere you look.

The objects have a certain continuity, though. They’re the kinds of things that fall out of pockets and off of vehicles; worth little enough to neither require securing in place nor retrieval after they hit the pavement. None is of any value for a passer-by to bother picking up. Each must be so small that it can be subsumed into a thin layer of road tar.

zipper pull embedded in road tar

zipper pull, North Oakland

broken reflector and metal pin embedded in road tar

reflector, metal pin, Oakland

Like those fragments of household pottery or scraps of tanned buckskin preserved in historical collections, the objects we find fused in the road don’t have any intrinsic value. [Although we did find one small unit of U.S. currency (see below).] No, this is the flotsam of a population on the move, building, buying, wearing-out, and discarding the ephemera of modern life.

One needn’t look too far in the past to imagine a time when a penny wouldn’t be dropped absentmindedly and an eighth-inch drill bit would be worth the effort to retrieve from a job site. But today we live in a mechanized, mass-produced, disposable culture–one where the value of a single wire cap, machine screw, or even a kid’s toy is so little that no one would think twice when it is dropped on the pavement.

penny embedded in road tar

penny, Oakland

bottle cap embedded in road tar

bottle cap, Oakland

bottle cap embedded in road tar

bottle cap, North Oakland

These public, open-air excavation sites are a bonanza for the amateur archeologist. When we see the incredible skeletons of dinosaurs on display at the Carnegie Museum it’s obvious they are literally the one-in-a-million chance creatures that managed to collapse into just the right environment to preserve their bones intact for millennia, remain undisturbed for all that time, and managed to be recovered by the fossil-hunters of the early 20th century. Few among us can hope to participate in a real dig for T-Rex.

But anyone can be his or her own Howard Carter or Kathleen Kenyon on the morning walk to work or an afternoon constitutional. Like those pterodactyl-hunters before us, we imagine all of the bottle caps that didn’t happen to get stuck in a hot patch of road tar, the fractured reflector pieces swept down the sewer in the next big rain, the plastic detritus of America washed downriver and out to sea. It’s a lot to take in.

metal bracket embedded in road tar

metal bracket, Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]

drill bit embedded in road tar

drill bit, Oakland

aluminum flashing embedded in road tar

aluminum flashing, Oakland

aluminum flashing embedded in road tar

aluminum flashing, Oakland

tooth flosser and bobby pin embedded in road tar

tooth flosser/bobby pin, Lawrenceville

ketchup packets embedded in road tar

ketchup packets, Bloomfield

One final observation: There is a unique related-but-different subset of the embedded-in-road-tar category of items. These are things that were actually baked into the road material itself at the time of construction. (Rather than appended to the street surface, later.) The fact that we came across two different full-sized red bricks melded with street tarmac does not a pattern make, but it’s an interesting double-occurrence.

How did these bricks get here? What were they doing in a batch of freshly cooked-up street surfacing? Were they laying on the denuded substrate or did they get mixed in with the goop pre-pour?

So many questions. But … that’s why we’re reading the road.

brick embedded in road tar

brick, Marshall-Shadeland

brick embedded in road tar

brick, Bloomfield

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: Wigged-Out on Tumbleweave

No turning (back). Loose tumbleweave on the street in East Liberty.

There’s more to hair
Than real hair

George Willard, “Wig Store”

Over the years, we’ve lost a lot of things–some of them important, others just weirdly memorable. Printed photographs from a pre-digital era; a 10-speed bicycle left on the back porch in 1997; melodies of songs sung, but never recorded. The names and faces of people known, went to school with, drank beer next to, or played music around–all gone.

Once, embarrassingly, thirty-five cents–the exact change required and the only coins available–awkwardly falling from the pocket into a traffic lane at the Nickel Bridge tollbooth in Richmond. Still wondering what happened to my marching band hat. Sigh.

Cubist coiffure collage, Oakland

All that said, it’s safe to say this balding-the-old-fashioned-way/losing-his-mind-like-everyone-else blogger has never misplaced an entire head of hair–real or not–right out in the street. Clearly, not everyone has been so lucky.

So many questions! How does one lose an 18-inch braided pigtail? Are these the result of a hair-grabbing confrontation? Cruel prank? Street-borne fiasco? One imagines the most riveting of dramas, but the real stories may be much more mundane. Sadly, we’ll likely never know.

Regardless, when God tosses a fraying tumble of jet black hair weave loosely across the directional marker of a turn lane or dumps two-tone black/white curl on the sidewalk in front of Subway, we don’t question it. Even this atheist recognizes diving intervention when a curly brown coif is caught in the wind and takes life scurrying across Penn Avenue.

Tumbleweave,* your time on The Orbit is here.

braided ponytail hair lying on street surface

Crack that whip, Oakland

portion of leaf-covered black wig laying in street

Wigged-out, Bloomfield

bundle of hair lying on wet pavement with fallen leaves

Fall color, North Oakland

Dye hard, Larimer

lost hair in pile of fallen leaves against curb

Dead leaves and the hairy ground, Marshall-Shadeland

The post-Halloween special, Shadyside

mass of hair lying in street

The tail wigs the dog, Bloomfield

bundle of fake fur flattened on road surface

Hit-and-run/flat top, Hazelwood

The “Polamalu,” Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]


* The term “tumbleweave” may go back to Orbit Uber, Uber Doober, and Pooper Scooper Paul Schifino. Whoever gets the credit, you’ll not find a more perfect name for the phenomenon than this.

The Scoop on Poop OR Hill Street Doo Doos: On Patrol with The Dog Police

Dog Police beat poetry: “Shit No / Dog Shit Shit / No Dog Shit”, Friendship

The brick structure is two stories tall, three car-widths wide, with a barn-like gambrel roof. It’s been painted in a striking color scheme of deep black and vivid red. The legit c. 1900 carriage house faces the back alley of one of Friendship’s many stately manses. Across the building’s three sets of big wooden folding doors are a collection of crude, self-administered graffiti publicizing a wild set of existentialist free verse:

Shit no
Dog shit shit
No dog shit

metal rail painted with message "Curb your dogs!"

“Curb your dogs!” Shadyside

Title Six, Article III of the City of Pittsburgh’s Code of Ordinances deals with citizens’ conduct around the ownership of dogs, cats, and other animals. It’s a lengthy tract full of minutia on the expected behavior for pet owners on predictable topics like spaying and neutering; the conditions of kennels and catteries; food, water, and bedding; off-leash exercise areas.

Section § 634.09 deals with sanitation. The first paragraph is as close as we get to detailing the conduct around expectations for dog (and cat) poop:

(a) Excreta shall be removed from primary enclosures and exercise areas on a daily basis. Feces and soiled litter material shall be removed from all litter pans on a daily basis. Absorbent litter and/or any other litter material used to absorb urine shall be changed when it becomes thirty (30) percent saturated with urine.

No! Lawrenceville

Setting aside any comments on whether cat owners (ahem) ever let Mr. Peeper’s litter box get “thirty (30) percent saturated with urine,” this finely-worded requirement has more gray area than one may think.

Is a dog owner, taking the pooch out on a stroll, required to clean up Fido’s dookie or not? Is every block a dog walks his or her “exercise area”? And if so, “daily basis” suggests a person has a fair window, perhaps as much as 24 hours–or at least until Midnight–to clean up anything left behind on the jaunt.

With no law in sight, the city’s homeowners have become vigilantes of a sort–the sidewalk and front yard their beat; dog crap the contraband flooding the beaches and temping youths into a an amoral lifestyle of loose peeing and rampant defecation. These are The Dog Police.

“Clean that shit up,” Bloomfield

The city’s web site offers a little more information on the For Pet Owners page. Without any specification of repercussions, the site defines the following (among other actions) as “nuisance violations”:

  • Allowing a dog to “go to the bathroom” on school grounds, a City park or other public or private property (It is not considered to be a nuisance violation if you immediately clean up after your dog – called “Poop-Scoop” laws in most communities).
  •  Allowing your pet to scratch, dig or defecate on any lawn, tree, shrub, plant, building or any other public or private property other than that of the owner or person in charge or control of the animal.

“Please clean up after your dog,” Lawrenceville

One might assume that Rover’s, uh, solid waste would be the primary source on contention here–and that probably is the case–but one would be underestimating the full jurisdiction of The Dog Police.

Dog urine kills flowers reads one dinner plate-cum-public service announcement and it is true that canine pee–in enough quantity–can kill flowers, grass, and other foliage. This seems to be a result of the combination of alkaline pH of dog urine, its nitrogen load, and enough repeated applications–i.e. one or more dogs hitting the same spots over and over.

That said, it’s unlikely that a neighborhood dog passing umpteen tempting bushes, lamp posts, grassy lawns, and, yes, flower patches are really going to lay waste to mother nature. But … maybe.

plate with message "Dog urine kills flowers. Please curb dogs." in garden flowers, Pittsburgh, PA

“Dog urine kills flowers. Please curb dogs.” Shadyside

If killing the petunias and turning the grass brown wasn’t enough, The Dog Police work another urban scourge–disposing of Scout’s crap in someone else’s private receptacles.

Take dog poop home with dog reads a hand-painted brick holding down the lid of a garbage can in Friendship; another sign, just a few blocks away, demands Do not throw dog wastes in garbage can or driveway.

brick painted with message "Take dog poop home with dog" on outside garbage bins

“Take dog poop home with dog,” Friendship

One would think that having the “dog waste” disposed of in the rubbish bin would be vastly preferable to … just about any realistic alternative. But this gets into the “broken window” theory of dog policing–you let them put Ranger’s shit in your 50-gallon Rubbermaid today, they’ll be soiling that tall fescue, asking who’s a good boy? and laughing in your face about it tomorrow. Let’s nip this (quite literal) shit in the bud right now.

Sign posted on garage wall reading "Do not throw dogs wastes in garbage cans or driveway,"

“Do not throw dogs wastes in garbage cans or driveway,” Friendship

It’s a cruel world out there. In the face of global environmental catastrophe, absolute political corruption–not to mention each of our own worries about health, economics, and mortality–a patch of stray dog poop or some browned grass can seem mighty petty.

BUT–with dogs, there’s always a big butt–if I was the homeowner repeatedly waking up to a minefield of crap on the sidewalk or my black-eyed Susans murdered in the night by a spray of Fido whiz, well, I’d be pissed-off too. One has to assume you don’t go to the lengths of painting your garage over just one or two stray incidents.

That’s when ordinary citizens feel the need to take the law into their hands. That’s when we call The Dog Police.

handmade yard sign reading "Please be a good neighbor!!! Clean up after your dog"

“Please be a good neighbor!!! Clean up after your dog.” Shadyside

“Clean up after your dog please! Yuck!” Bloomfield

Face Down in the Gutter: Sad TVs

Lawrenceville

What hits you first is the shame. Turned away, unable to conjure even the faintest energy required to greet the day, jokingly scrawled on like a passed-out drunk at a juvenile party, or left at the very end of the line–face down in the gutter.

Who wouldn’t feel dejected? The trusted friend who delivered Olympics and Super Bowl cheers and kept us up-to-date on Snowmaggedon, the Iran-Contra Affair, and the pursuit of O.J. down that L.A. freeway rudely evicted from the relationship. Years–decades, even–of loyal service at their masters’ beck and call tossed out over night. It’s a cliché: the family member at the center of the home and intimate partner in the bedroom broken up with for a younger, better-looking model.

Bloomfield

Friendship

Where would a soap opera like this play out? We’re speaking, of course, about the television set. As ubiquitous as the units are in (seemingly) every home, bar, restaurant, gym (I’m told), waiting room, lobby, transportation hub, and high-profile public thoroughfare, they’re also quite literally littering the sidewalks and back alleys just about everywhere you go. To continue a theme, we’re calling these sad TVs.

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

American cities were clearly not ready for the arrival of big, cheap, flat-screen televisions and all the various technology that came along with it. The bajillion old cathode ray tube sets that lived anywhere and everywhere were seemingly rendered useless over night. With all the creative souls out there turning discarded t-shirts into fiber art and your (grand)parents Montovani records into fruit bowls, still no one wants to deal with a TV set.

Bloomfield

Lawrenceville

What it’s produced is a bizarre landscape where TVs still show up just about anywhere–but now we can also add outside public spaces in that measure. In the back alley, left out for a trash collection that will never come, sure, but also just randomly on sidewalks, stashed behind shopping malls, next to retail storefronts, and dumped in the woods.

Bloomfield

Bloomfield

We sat on this story for a while. The Portland Orbit had already scooped us on this one. They use the term “street TVs,” but the first line from their 2015 post describes the phenomenon as “sad, dejected, and lonely,” so we’re coming from the same place. The topic just didn’t seem either particularly Pittsburgh-centric (it’s not) or all that news-worthy.

But, in the spirit of capturing this moment in time–a very visible landmark where an old, pre-Internet appliance is literally thrown out with the trash to be replaced by a next-generation fancy new feature-enabled and home theater-ready future–it just seems like an important marker of what the world looks like now.

Bloomfield

Garfield

Plus … they’re kind of cool. Waste, environmental catastrophe, disposable culture–these are abhorrent things–but I don’t know what options we realistically have here. Nobody wants these old TVs.

As long as this legion of useless television sets is going out the door, it’s kind of fun–and bizarre–to trip across them along the sides of commercial buildings and out in front of nice apartment houses. They look as out-of-place as one could imagine and yet they’re so common as to be skipped over entirely.

Bloomfield

Shadyside

Conway

Lawrenceville

While we most commonly see the old, big box, cathode ray tube sets left out in the rain, the phenomenon–and its attendant waste-disposable challenges–have gone on long enough for us to begin experiencing sad flat-screen TVs too. These aren’t typically as interesting, but we’re including a few greatest-hits in the collection here.

“I don’t know who put this TV here…” Sad TV with sad note, Lawrenceville

graffiti-written sad TV with sad phone booth, Bloomfield

Lawrenceville

How many episodes of Golden Girls and Meet the Press, Judge Judy and Monday Night Football were consumed under these glowing pixels? How many laughs did Norm and Sam, Rerun, Raj, and Dwayne deliver from their tiny speakers? Where did the news from the attacks on 9/11, the nailbiting Bush-Gore presidential election, and the pre-me too Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings come in?

These are rhetorical questions, sure, but it’s interesting to consider both how absolutely central the television is to so many households and also how quick we are to throw it away. Each unit itself is filled with enough toxic components that the trash guys won’t even take them, so they end up here, abandoned by the side of the road.

Consider that not-too-subtle metaphor for a minute–the very same item that we bring into our home and invest countless hours in its presence is too lethal to go the dump. This, your author supposes, is the cruel fate of twenty-first century (American) life. That may be something we should all feel shame for.

sad toy on sad tv, Donora


What are your thoughts? Is there something great–or, at least, interesting–you can imagine doing with a more-than-you-can-handle supply of old TV sets? We know where you can find them! We’d love to hear about it. Leave us a comment below.

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way, Bloomfield

Well, it took long enough–three years and change.

It was that long ago, in this same electronic publication, where the author declared, “To Pittsburgh’s other Thomassons, hang in there: we’re coming for you!” (“A Thomasson!” Pittsburgh Orbit, March 16, 2016)

Rabid fans of architectural effluvia have been sitting on their hands for years now, waiting for a promised revival, but was the wait ever worth it! It’s not every day that a beaut’ like this comes along.

Five short steps form a poured concrete stoop along the alley side of a Bloomfield row house. They lead to a blank wall. The base has been freshly repainted in a deep slate blue with its risers and wooden railing accented in alternating colors of red, mauve, aqua green, yellow, orange, and a couple shades of blue. The whole construction pops from the otherwise nondescript off-white siding.

We’ll not go into the whole thing here, but a “Thomasson” is an artist-created name for an architectural or infrastructure relic that no longer serves any purpose but is still actively maintained. It’s that second clause that makes them so rare.

While Webster Hall’s former retail entrance (see the earlier story) is totally legit, it never felt quite right. The remaining two-step platform makes a pretty obvious nice long bench along the Fifth Avenue sidewalk bookended by a pair of planters. One could argue this is less Thomasson and more adaptive reuse. In reality, no one ever sits there; theoretically a person could.

In contrast, the Bloomfield side steps-to-nowhere are really textbook Thomasson. They clearly led to a door that’s no longer there, boxed in by after-market aluminum siding in a serious home renovation project. It’s expensive and/or labor-intensive to jackhammer out all that concrete–not to mention there’s a possible structural hazard for the home’s foundation. So one can imagine the very reasonable desire to just leave it be.

But by preserving the useless handrails and taking up the paint brush–in eight different colors, no less–the homeowners are working at some next-level Thomasson generation. It’s an oddball curio, discussion topic, and detour destination for a backstreet Bloomfield gambol.

Someone made the effort to redd up their Thomasson. We’re glad they did.

Waiting to Go Off: In the Street, On Target, and Under the Bus with Off Hole

Perhaps the world’s finest “off hole”: bus lane, downtown Pittsburgh. [Photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

They had, the joke goes, one job … but it wasn’t this one. In this case the specific task was probably something pretty important: keeping electric power running between buildings; telephone and Internet connectivity; making sure the sewer system doesn’t back up into your basement.

What the job clearly didn’t involve is paying too close attention to how exactly the door was closed when the real work was done and the crew packed up to move on or go home.

switch symbol off hole, North Side [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

Despite this relatively minor detail in the grand scheme of things, those of us top-side get the tiniest evidence that work was occurring under city streets in the form of manhole covers, striped in accordance with road markings and put back not quite where they ought to be. It’s a stretch to say these patterned cast iron discs tell us a story–or really anything–about what was happening below the surface, but we do know something was going on down there.

The effect on the visual landscape is more notable. Each of these little displacements creates a subtle but striking schism in the very regular, ordered, and predictable world of thoroughfare infrastructure. These are known as off holes.

it’s not easy finding a green off hole, Downtown [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

“As a very neat person that needs everything in order, I couldn’t fathom how utility workers didn’t put the covers back in the correct direction,” says Greg Lagrosa, “I would never be able to do that–it would drive me crazy!”

Indeed, it would take someone with more than a little obsessive-compulsiveness to notice–let alone photograph, publicize, and catalog–the city’s off-kilter manhole covers.

If you’ve never noticed the phenomenon, you definitely haven’t been looking. Off holes–the name was coined by Pittsburgh artist Kirsten Ervin–are everywhere. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that every intersection in the city, along with plenty of spots in-between, have manhole covers smack dab in the middle of cross-walks and lane markings. Many of these have gotten worked-on and most of them didn’t get put back in line with their paint jobs.

So close! Single yellow stripe off hole, North Side [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

“To me it’s all about your worldview,” Lagrosa says about the Off Hole project, “There are all of these small things happening in our city. Taking the time to notice the minutiae is a way of interacting with the city in a tangible and human way. Workers are obviously using the manhole covers–that’s why they’re there–we just barely ever see it happen. This is a window into how things work and those lives and stories.”

Lagrosa is regular bicycle rider who commutes from his home in Stanton Heights to a job downtown. As a self-described person that “hates driving and walks and bikes around as much as possible,” he began noticing off holes everywhere he travelled.

classic “waxing gibbous” off hole, Oakland

After studying the random occurrences of off holes throughout Pittsburgh, Lagrosa started studiously photographing each specimen–both as a straight down top view and a broader-context “in the wild” shot. The location and other details are logged in a spreadsheet and one photo a day gets posted to the @off.hole Instagram account.

Nearly half a year into the process, Lagrosa describes some favorite patterns or types of off holes that have emerged:

In my opinion, the best off holes are the clean ones. Just one or two painted lines across the hole, the paint is still really clear and it’s just off. Something like this:

middle double-yellow off hole, Oakland [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

The off holes I wasn’t sure about the most are where the old line is off but it’s been repainted and the new line is still on. At the end of the day I decided this was fine too:

off hole with repainted line, Lower Marion, PA [photo: Off Hole contributor @hottenrottb]

There are the ones where multiple lines have been painted and they are all off:

multi-lined off hole, Friendship [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

And finally, some of them just create cool designs that I like:

pie-slice off hole, Strip District [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

The concept is still a relatively new thing, but Lagrosa has considered expanding into other Internet platforms and possibly going full-on Off Hole IRL in the form of an art show or t-shirt. [Editor’s note: sign me up for a men’s XL!]

For now, though, the focus is mainly on collecting and expanding the Off Hole community. While Lagrosa lives here in Pittsburgh, he accepts–and encourages–submissions from anywhere with pavement and manhole covers. (See details, below.)

a collection of off holes submitted by Orbit staff photographers

When the robot work crews take over, off holes will likely disappear forever. Heck, there are probably industrial designers working right now to try to solve this “problem.”

Here at the Orbit, we love off holes–and Greg’s got the clogged In box to prove it! The phenomenon is another example of the superiority of randomness over hyper organization, faded paint that tells a story to a crisp line’s empty page, and the indefatigable human desire to leave work early and get on to Miller Time. We can all learn something from this.

Friend of the streets. Off Hole’s Greg Lagrosa with a new find, North Side.

Postscript: If there’s a moral to the story it’s that sometimes the cloud may actually be its own silver lining. When asked if on holes were more or less satisfying since commencing the project, Lagrosa responds resolutely, “On holes are just future off holes. I definitely take notice of painted holes in unusual spots and wait for them to go off.”

Think about that for a minute: the guy with self-described OCD who would be “driven crazy” by a misaligned lane stripe actually looks forward to a disruption in his space-time continuum. Whatever you say, that’s progress.


To submit an off hole you’ve found, email photos to off.hole.pittsburgh@gmail.com or direct message the @off.hole Instagram account.

Per Lagrosa, “I like to get two pictures for each hole, an overhead shot and one that shows the hole in context. The overhead is the money shot and is the most important. I also need the location, date, time, and your Instagram username so I can credit you.”