Stamp Collecting: The Quest for More Sidewalk Stamps

pair of sidewalk stamps by Langell & Son, Millvale, PA

Langell & Son, Millvale

All these years wasted! A lifetime, really. Day after day, week after week, month after month rolling around with neither goal nor focus. Eyes dawdling in every direction but down! Into electrical wires, on the backsides of buildings, caught in treetops, telephone poles, and up in the clouds. Regrets: yeah, we’ve had a few.

Sure: we’d seen sidewalk/mason stamps before, but they never really occupied prime territory in this blogger’s dog-eared and ill-folded mental map. Maybe it was just plain not paying attention or the willful ignorance of avoiding their alluring street-level stare. Either way, the city’s concrete masons never made that great of an impression on us [har har]. That was, however, until Orbit reader Larry Kramer came into our life with his post-Easter walk-through on the year-round egg hunt that is stamp collecting.

sidewalk stamp for Didiano Bros. Cement Contr., Pittsburgh, PA

Didiano Bros. Cement Contr., Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Jos. Lucente & Son, Pittsburgh, PA

Jos. Lucente & Son, Gen. Cont., Lawrenceville

Larry’s piece was a great beginner’s guide to the greatest hits–plus a few deep cuts/one-hit-wonders–of Pittsburgh sidewalk-laying history. Di Bucci, Pucciarelli, Baleno, Ciriello–these are the Beatles, Stones, Michael Jackson, and Prince (respectively) of local cement work. You’ll come to recognize their tell-tale signature shapes from any distance–across the street or cruising by in a two-wheel, slow-motion neighborhood drag.

A little tip: don’t get too excited when you bag your first diamond-shaped Santo–it’s about as hard to find as Best of Bread or Whipped Cream and Other Delights at any thrift shop–and worth the same fifty cents. In just a few short months, we’ve developed a whole new outlook on life and a more discerning palate in this most al fresco of dining experiences.

sidewalk stamp reading "WCCP", Pittsburgh, PA

WCCP, Oakland

sidewalk stamp reading "Neno Colucci Cement Contractor", Pittsburgh, PA

Neno Colucci Cement Contractor, Lawrenceville

DidianoLucenteColucciPalmieriCiummoPollice. It’s a stereotype, for sure, but the names–which read like a passenger manifest on a one-way liner from Naples to Ellis Island–don’t lie. Italian-Americans poured a lot of concrete in Pittsburgh over the last century and still seem to dominate the business today. After you bag all the big-name repeat offenders, it’s these other smaller-scale, long-gone operators who may only have a handful of remaining stamps that keep the hunt alive and exciting.

"Palmieri" sidewalk stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Palmieri, Oakland

sidewalk stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Ciummo Bros., Friendship

There seems to be very little documentation on the computer Internet of this particular underfoot history–and most of that comes from some pretty rinky-dink sources. From what we can tell, though, the legacy of sidewalk stamps has some unique cultural differences based on what part of the country was having their pedestrian paths prepped.

sidewalk stamp for D. Pollice & Sons, Pittsburgh, PA

D. Pollice & Sons General Contractor, Oakland

sidewalk stamp for Jos. Crimeni Paving, Pittsburgh, PA

Jos. Crimeni Paving, Oakland

Here in Pittsburgh, the obvious thematic threads between our stamps are that they include the surnames of (mostly Italian) individual contractors, (seven-digit) phone numbers, and (often) extra business info squeezed in, ex: Cement Contr.Gen. Con.Landscaping & Construction. Our stamps are never dated. (Sigh–that would be so interesting!)

Other cities like Vancouver and Milwaukee have made dating the concrete pour the primary stamp. In Corvallis, Oregon the system was to include street name, contractor, and year of installation, but with a standard form and typeface (if it can be called that) containing no individual flourish. In the latter case, every (known) stamp in town seems to have been impressively mapped and labeled. There are other blog entries documenting small collections from Los Angeles, Oakland/Berkeley, Denver, and Chicago–but there’s just not that much interest out there.

sidewalk stamp for Dormont Concrete Co., Pittsburgh, PA

Dormont Concrete Co., Oakland

The new school. Depressingly sterile in their oblong, bloated rectangle shape and factory-set letters, it’s still great to see today’s masons leave their mark–and phone number–in their work…the stamps are just not as attractive or interesting.

Nick Scotti (whose unique diamond-shaped six-sider was included in Larry’s piece) shows up with two different new-fangled stamps. The “Concrete Man” of Verona and Antonio DiFiore are working with similar off-the-shelf models. Vento Landscaping & Construction obviously paid for a nicer, custom design.

sidewalk stamp for Vento Landscaping & Construction, Pittsburgh, PA

Vento Landscaping & Construction, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for Nick Scotti, Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti concrete contr., Bloomfield

sidewalk stamp for Nick Scotti, Cement Contr., Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti, Cement Contr. (hand-written phone number), Oakland

sidewalk stamp for Concrete Man, Pittsburgh, PA

Concrete Man, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for Antonio DiFiore, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonio DiFiore, General Contr., Morningside

Finally…these are pretty neat, but there must be more of the really cool metal plaques that Larry mentioned, right? You bet your big brass there are! We’re working on a follow-up that will include the really old-school inset pieces along with some of the other oddball stamps and things we’ve found. That’ll be up….sometime.


Got a tip on an unrecognized stamp? A suggestion of an impression? We’d love to hear about it.

Going Postal: Cap Man Fever

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #8, Schenley Plaza

The ball cap is cocked high, resting on the back of the head at a jaunty just-off-center angle. Its bill is pure black, minus a small rectangular label on the inside brim. When you can see the man’s eyes, they stare directly back with a cold, dispassionate expression. More often, though, they’re shrouded in the heavy shadows cast by his supraorbital ridge.

Cap Man–our name for this anonymous figure–is the subject of a series of tiny artworks currently on view for a limited time* in the general vicinity of Craig Street and Forbes Avenue in Oakland. You’re going to have to work a little to find them.

portrait of man with eyes closed wearing a baseball cap drawn on US postal service mail label and stuck to blue free paper box, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #1, Forbes Ave.

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #2, Craig Street

Both the medium and presentation for the Cap Man portraits are as DIY and proletariat as they come–thick black felt tip ink drawn on repurposed U.S. Postal Service “228” priority mail labels. The little stickers have been peeled off and applied haphazardly to a free publication bin, an electrical box, street poles, and–clearly the venue of choice–the back sides of metal street signs.

Cap Man’s creator certainly isn’t the first to use this medium. Alternately going by the general term sticker art or the more specific postal slaps, you’ll see similar pieces littering mailboxes and light poles all over the city and (apparently) across the country. Typically, though, they’re filled with either bright big-lettered tags that look like studies for future spray paint work or blunt messages like the series of FUCK TRUMP stickers around town. The Cap Man original ink portraits are something a little more interesting.

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #3, Craig Street

US postal service priority mail sticker with black ink portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #4, Bellefield Ave.

We don’t know who this person is–either artist or subject. It’s probably safe to assume, though, that the two are one in the same–self-portraits of a young man on the move. The angle of the image seems to suggest the artist is working from a lap-held mirror, or (more likely) his phone.

A theory: The proximity of where the stickers have been left suggests the possibility the perpetrator is riding the bus to Oakland, getting off at Fifth & Craig (or thereabouts), and then tagging the first bare surface he or she encounters on the ensuing walk down Craig Street and around the corner, heading toward the museum maybe, or Pitt.

In this scenario, the drawings may even be inked right there in the aft seats of the 54C or the 93A, a daily discipline perfect for the 10-minute hands-free commute. The shaky nature of this workspace would also help to explain why a couple of the portraits are clearly off–as if the otherwise competent hand that drew them was jostled mid-stroke…but this may just be a romantic pipe dream from a blogger who reads too many detective stories.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #5, Forbes Ave.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #6, Forbes Ave.

Let’s face it: ball caps look pretty dumb on anyone who’s not either twelve years old or actively playing baseball at that moment. That said, we’re glad Cap Man has given his stark two-tone/big negative space portraits something distinctive to, uh, hang his hat on. As a visual element, it makes his head stand out, provides structure, and frames the top of the drawings. It also provides a nice thematic grouping for the current exhibition in Oakland.

We suspect Cap Man’s old-school selfies aren’t the only street-facing work of this artist. Bloomfield is currently host to another pretty distinct series of postal slaps that look like they may have come from the very same hands. That, however, is a subject for another post on another day. Until then, a tip of the hat to you, Cap Man, it’s been a good time finding your tiny pictures.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #7, Forbes Ave.

mail label portrait of man with baseball cap, Pittsburgh, PA

Cap Man #8 (detail), Schenley Plaza


* Limited, but unspecified: sunlight, rain, or graffiti cleanup efforts will eventually claim these pieces.

Stamp Collecting: More Pittsburgh Easter Eggs, Set in Concrete

Di Bucci and Sons brass sidewalk plaque, Pittsburgh, PA

Di Bucci and Sons

Editor’s note: our Easter special on the pursuit of figurative urban “egg hunts” generated a great suggestion from reader Larry Kramer: “OK, here’s one for intrepid city walkers: mason stamps. You know, the embedded names in a sidewalk advertising the contractor that poured it.” We liked Larry’s idea so much we asked him to pen a piece for The Orbit.

Photos and text by guest blogger Larry Kramer.


After my wife takes an untimely header on a poorly-canted section of Lawrenceville pavement, and then a wrong step from Tender while exiting with friends after a cocktail, she cautions me that maybe we should be paying more attention to where we’re walking whilst out on the streets. Chastened, we employ the method as schooled to us by our daughter: look directly in front of our feet and then scan ahead up the block a little. Repeat, and stay safe.

This seems to work and we actually find stuff we’re not looking for. There’s the random watch cap that launders up just fine and can be put to use by someone, not to mention the penny here and there which we must not stoop to pick up unless it’s positioned heads up.

Then there are the virtual rewards of pavement scanning, at least to those of us who like to make lists and perhaps don’t have the most exciting lives. I’m referring to “mason stamps”. I put that term in quotes as I’m not exactly sure that’s what the masons themselves call them, and I haven’t done the necessary homework yet to find out.[1] Anyway, you know what I’m talking about if you’ve spent any time at all walking the sidewalks of Pittsburgh–those imprints that only the best purveyors of concrete walks and driveways leave as a testament to their work. When the contractor signs their work it not only evinces their pride in it, but serves as an advertisement for future services.

Pucciarelli Brothers brass sidewalk plaque, Pittsburgh, PA

Pucciarelli Brothers, “The Concrete People”

The gold standard–or maybe I should say bronze–of these mason stamps are those of Di Bucci and Sons and Pucciarelli Brothers. Most of the time they just stamp the concrete as others do, but if the job is somewhat extensive, they’ll actually embed a bronze plaque in the sidewalk that says for all to see that both this sidewalk and this plaque are going to last a long time.

Not every mason leaves a bronze plaque behind to mark their work, but quite a few, apparently, stamp the concrete with their personal trademark. I’m not talking about their grandkids’ handprints as an amateur might do, but a deep impression of the business name and usually a phone number.

Walking around the city–at least The Strip, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, and Oakland–I became more and more aware of these, and it became a challenge to see how many I could collect. So, trusty (some may say obsolete) BlackBerry in hand, I made a concerted effort at digitally capturing all the mason stamps I could find. Not individual stamps–that could run well into the hundreds just in my wanderings–I’m talking about uniquely-named stamps.

So, starting with Di Bucci and Pucciarelli, I make my way with through the ABC’s with Avelli, Baleno, and Ciriello.

Avelli Construction Corporation sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Avelli Const. Corp.

Baleno Concrete sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Baleno Concrete

A. Ciriello sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

A. Ciriello

The Ciriello stamp is old. Not only is the phone number not prefixed with a 412 Area Code, but it harkens back to the days when phone number exchanges were named something. I recall the one from suburban Philadelphia of my youth as Windsor (WI) 6. Not sure what the HI stands for but older Pittsburgh residents might recall it.[2]

Esses can be found as my walks continue, and I start to take side streets off my well-trodden usual route, now actively in search of the elusive stamp: Santo, Scotti, Spano.

Santo sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Santo Cement Contr.

Steve Scotti Construction Company sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Steve Scotti Construction Co.

Spano sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Spano

But there’s an “R” in my future as well as I chance upon a lone, lonely Raimondo in Upper Lawrenceville. I don’t know if there are others about, but this is the only one I’ve seen.

Raimondo sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Raimondo

At this point I’m starting to come up empty. I need to expand my territory, perhaps farther out in the East End, to Shadyside, Point Breeze, East Liberty. Who knows, Highland Park? What about an excursion beyond The River to the Southside?

Something else is niggling me. I know it’s a cliché, but are all masons Italian? Apparently, not! Just as things look bleak, I find a singleton Ira G. Wilcox and a David Regan. They’re in very old concrete; don’t even try Googling these contractors as they’ve been out of business for some time, but you can try finding the stamps before they lapse into indecipherability as have some I’ve come across.

Ira G. Wilcox sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Ira G. Wilcox, contractor

David Regan Construction sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

David Regan Construction

Oh, yes. Keep your eyes on the concrete stoops. We found this one in The Strip:

Chas. Gamberi sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Chas. Gamberi, contractor

Walking The Strip today, I’m not even watching the pavement. It’s a Sunday and too many tourists to dodge. Wait, what’s that? A new one? Nope, just another Scotti, they’re a dime a dozen. On closer look, though, this one turns out to be different; a different format, and not Steve Scotti, this one’s Nick!

Nick Scotti Concrete Contractor sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti Concrete Contr.

The hunt goes on. I think a Southside trip is overdue. Who knows what stamps I’ll find on Carson Street?


Editor’s notes:
[1] The Internet contains remarkably little information and no obvious consensus on the term, but sidewalk stamps seems to be the favorite.
[2] The historical site phone.net46.net lists Pittsburgh’s HI exchange name as “HI-land”.

The Sad Toys of Homewood’s “Killing Fields”

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

The sad toys of “The Killing Fields”, Homewood South

Against deep blue sky and thick green long-overgrown grass, the fuzzy little bodies pop from the chain link fence they cling to. Tigers, monkeys, floppy-eared dogs and bunny rabbits fill the ranks, as do a lion, zebra, and giant duck. We didn’t know dinosaurs could be cuddly and furry, but there’s one of those too.

Overwhelmingly, though, the majority in this population is the teddy bear. Dozens of bears hang from the fence and nearby telephone pole: in a bow tie and with a Valentine’s heart, dressed in a Scotsman’s plaid and with matching Christmas hat and scarf, still buoyantly wide-eyed awake and drooping limply with the weight of the world.

telephone pole decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas garland, Pittsburgh, PA

The long, east-west alleys of Homewood are, like many sets of children born to the 1970s, group-named with a common initial letter: Ferdinand, Fletcher, Fuchsia, Fielding, Forest, Felicia, Fleury. Heading south, the very last of these–before you cross Hamilton Avenue and both street grid and naming scheme change–is Formosa Way.

The little alleyway is typical of many old Pittsburgh backstreets–a single lane, weedy, cracked, and stained with decades of practical use and a typically low seat on the Department of Public Works priority list for maintenance. Formosa Way runs parallel between Kelly Street and Hamilton Ave. and (at least at one time) was the main entrance for many row houses that fronted the alley for blocks in either direction.

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

All things considered, the 7300 block of Formosa Way looks a whole lot better than many Pittsburgh alleys. There’s next-to-no litter, nor signs of illegal dumping. The backyards of the row houses facing the adjoining streets may be untamed, but are now lush, tall-grassed expanses that bring welcome deep green open space to what at one time must have been dense blocks of brick worker housing.

What’s not so expected is the stretch of thirty-some feet of chain link fence, now bordering an overgrown vacant lot, plus one service pole across the alley. Attached to the intertwined steel strands and lashed to the wooden pole are scores–a hundred or more–soft children’s playthings along with assorted pinwheels, holiday decorations, and Christmas garland. These tributes have clearly been here for some time: their synthetic fur is matted, gnarled, and bleached white in years’ worth of sun, rain, frost, and thaw.

boarded-up row houses and chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a strange realization that the small patch of earth one has bicycled-through mere hours before is known locally as The Killing Fields…or, at least, it was at one time*. That particular name arrived during the crack-fueled gang violence of the 1990s, but persisted (we understand) until quite recently. Right here at Formosa and Collier, several blocks of derelict housing were razed in 2012*. A short set of five boarded-up row houses immediately adjoining the fence appear headed for the same fate.

That said, on this fine, bright sunny Sunday early afternoon, the blocks around Formosa Way feel much more like the Sunday-go-to-meetin’ fields or the wash-the-car-with-the-radio-on fields. Those activities, along with stoking up big barrel charcoal grills and neighbors swapping gossip on front porches are the most obvious occupations to the peddle-by blogger.

telephone pole decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas garland, Pittsburgh, PA

No label is attached to the fence of sad toys, there is no description for the installation, and attribution for the collection is not given. But what’s here seems obvious enough for even the densest of outsiders to put two and two together. This pair of diametrically-opposed and inseparably-linked events–decades of street violence and the impromptu memorial to lost innocence–say so much about the deep loss generations of Homewood families must have felt.

If each stuffed animal on the Formosa Way fence represents just one casualty in the neighborhood’s struggle, it is a weight no single community should have to bear. It’s more likely that not every victim received a tribute here–that a suitable memorial may need to be twice, three or more times greater to accurately represent the actual loss. For now, we can only hope the collection of playthings stops right where it is.

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

Final note: While most Pittsburgh Orbit stories sit just fine in the quasi-legitimate world of “speculative journalism”, this one does not. It’s crying out for more information from the Homewood community, the creators of the fence, residents of Formosa Way, etc.–we know this. Time and schedule wouldn’t allow that kind of “real journalism” for this week’s post, but we absolutely plan on continuing the story.

If you live in Homewood or have information on the Formosa Way fence, we would love to hear from you.


“Demolition gives Homewood residents hope”, Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 5, 2012 and “The ‘killing fields’ demolished in Homewood”New Pittsburgh Courier, 2012.

Easter Special: You Can’t Make an Omelet Without Finding Some Eggs

baby doll painted gold and hanging from telephone wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby, Lawrenceville

Matched ceramic salt and pepper shakers, ruby glass, bobbleheads, Hummel figurines, cookie jars–people collect all kinds of goofy stuff. Bakelite AM radios, Santas, and state plates, World’s Fair trinkets and glass insulators from telegraph lines. David from our West Coast rival Portland Orbit has some unique collections: cans of knock-off Dr. Pepper, eyeglass stems found on the street, other peoples’ grocery lists.

Easter may come only once a year, but every day can be the Orbiteer’s figurative egg hunt–which is really just the primordial collecting impulse–and it doesn’t cost a penny or take up any room on your shelves. Spotting is a lifelong and year-round habit: take the alley, poke behind the bushes, look down at the pavement and up in the telephone wires. [Oh, Golden Babies, how we pray we haven’t seen the last of you!]

Today, whether you’re a committed church-going, brunch-eating Easter reveler or full-on dance-naked-by-the-bonfire pagan, we celebrate some of the Orbit‘s favorite any-time/all-year-long city egg hunt targets.

protractor glued to metal driving barrier, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh protractor, Allegheny River Trail, Millvale

Pittsburgh Protractors are the easy money, chump change, fish-in-a-barrel of local urban collecting. In that way, though, they’re a great entry point–the gateway drug–to hardcore egg hunting. Either way, you have to respect the work of the protractor perpetrator(s) and we couldn’t not include the protractors in the list. There are just so damn many of the little plastic doo-dads glued all over the place that if you’re in bicycle-accessible city limits and keep your blinkers open, you’ll probably spot a few even if you’re not really trying.

ghost sign for "Arsenal Brand Meat Products" painted on side of brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign: Arsenal Brand Meat Products, Hill District

Sal’s MeatsHipCo BatteriesMother’s Best FlourOwl Cigar. Who are these vendors and what is the business arrangement that traded a (presumably) single payment into a long-after-life of marketing products that may no longer be purchased?

The hand-painted, brick wall advertising of yesteryear was all put out of business (we assume) by the arrival of big, purpose-built billboards with their larger display areas, darkness-defying flood lights, targeted sight lines, and monthly rates. That’s part of what makes so-called ghost signs so enjoyable for the egg hunter: it’s pretty obvious that there won’t be any more of them[1], and what’s left is often fading fast.

brass marker showing the 46.0 high water mark for the March 18, 1936 flood of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

1936 flood marker, Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown

Waaaay back when, the very first story committed to these virtual pages concerned a cryptic message painted around two faces of an old brick building in Manchester. That [SPOILER ALERT!] turned to be a marker for the most famous rising of the waters in Pittsburgh’s history–the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood.

We’ve found a handful more of them around downtown and on the North Side, but surprisingly few considering the immensity of the event and the age of our building stock. That just makes the hunt all that much sweeter when we zero in on previously unseen prey.

Mary statuette in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Mary and grotto, Arlington

The blessed mother, hands spread with her palms open in a welcoming embrace or–far less often–the pietà image of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus or holding the once-and-future as a baby [see above]. Whichever way we encounter the statuary, this is Front Yard Mary [even if she’s in the side or back yard] and we’ll take her any way we can get her.

There are so many Marys out there that we’ve got separate future features planned for South Oakland, Homestead, and the South Side Slopes (at least), which hardly makes Mary the most difficult egg to hunt. That said, this is ostensibly an Easter feature…

painting of woman with three eyes by Clohn Art, wheatpasted to wood, Pittsburgh, PA

Clohn Art, Downtown

Clohn Art is the nom de plume–or perhaps nom de paintbrush–of one John Lee, whose crude extra-eyed men, women, and animal paintings are executed on the placemats of Chinese restaurants and unfurled brown paper bags. They’re found wheatpasted at construction sites, alley walls, and, in at least one case, a rusty bus shelter in Homestead.

Wherever we happen to see the artist’s distinctive little paintings, they always pop off the wall surface and bring a twisted smile to our merely two-eyed faces. Mr. Lee declined The Orbit‘s request for a feature interview [John: we’re still interested!] so we’re left to troll the back streets, hoping to grab another of those rarest of eggs: a fresh, new Clohn to nestle in the wicker basket.

teddy bear and plastic flowers left on curbside, Pittsburgh, PA

Reasonably happy-looking sad toy, Fairywood

Like some mangy old teddy bear, dropped casually from a toddler’s stroller and forced to spend purgatory face-down in the weedy berm, Al Hoff brought the concept of “sad toys” into this blogger’s life and then cruelly left us by the side of the road to fend for ourselves.

Stuffed animals with their fur matted, flattened, and filthy; a basketball, punctured and concave in an oily culvert; doll parts dismembered and jettisoned like the work of a Lilliputian serial killer. So much pathos in such tiny candy-colored doses! It’s almost too much to bear…almost. But when we find them–and these are truly both the most random and the most reliable, renewable resource of today’s eggs–we can’t help but bag them.

outline of previously-existing "ghost house" against larger brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house, North Side

Ghost houses–the imprint of one, now-extinct building upon its still-extant neighbor–is hardly a concept unique to Pittsburgh, but we’ve got the perfect environmental conditions to produce them here. Older building stock constructed right up against each other in a previous era when the density supported a pedestrian-based workforce, coupled with decades of “benign neglect” that demolished many–some falling all on their own–and landlords caring little about fixing-up the weird negative spaces on their vacant lot-facing windowless walls.

Like many of the other ova that occupy our oculi, ghost houses are special because–like a petrified forest, or the career of Steve Guttenberg–they’re the result of such a peculiar series of historic events, circumstances, and (non-)actions over a great period of time that we’ll likely not encounter the same perfect storm here again.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Clarence the Bird pole art, Bloomfield

With Clarence the Bird, the egg hunt changes parameters. Like picking up pawpaws, where there’s one of his handmade, ink-on-cardboard Make the World Beautiful instances, there tend to be a lot. Find a Clarence and you can safely spread out–looking up and down at the adjacent-blocks’ neighboring telephone poles and bulletin boards–and you’ll likely spot more.

So far [to our knowledge], Clarence has stuck to the greater Lawrenceville-Bloomfield-Garfield-Friendship portion of the East End, but that may just be where we’ve crossed paths with his big wings and pointy beak. I’m sure if we do see his trail elsewhere, we’ll see it everywhere.

poems of The Dirty Poet taped to a lamp post, Pittsburgh, PA

Poems of The Dirty Poet, Oakland

To call locating the telephone pole and street lamp verse of The Dirty Poet “egg hunt” material is a little bit of a stretch. His Dirtiness (yes: the writer is a he) wants the short, dittoed poems he authors to be read, after all. They’ve been taped and stapled at eye level on prominent foot traffic corners for just that purpose.

Regardless, it’s still neat to run across the prickly prose and lurid lines of the Bard of the Backstreets, knowing that one is literally standing in the creator’s footprints, inhaling his boozy breath, and shimmering in what’s left of his groovy vibes. To you, Whitman of the walkways, Dickinson of the downtown, Angelou of the who are you? may we always encounter your offspring sunny side up.

Toynbee Tile reading "Toynbee Idea in movie '2001' resurrect dead on planet Jupiter"

Toynbee Tile (no longer present), Downtown

It almost feels like cheating to include the so-called Toynbee Tiles in the list–we ran a feature on the House of Hades tiles just last week. But when you get lucky enough to spot one of the remaining, legit, first-generation street pieces, well, it’s a good day indeed.

As we reported, it is The Orbit‘s conclusion that none of these still exist in metro Pittsburgh and we’re left with a pair of ersatz Hell-bound tributes. But you never know! What does Easter–and, by association, spring–offer but the arrival of new hope, possibility, and opportunity. It is a new season: the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and flowers are popping with their tiny blasts of color across late winter’s gray-brown backdrop. Go out there and get you some eggs!


[1] There are, however, several efforts out there to restore/repaint old ghost signs as new mural projects. There’s a big one on Penn Avenue in Garfield and several in Braddock that we know of.

Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles

Street art "Toynbee tile" reading "House of Hades, one man versus American media in society: 2012", Pittsburgh, PA

Pennies for your paranoid thoughts. House of Hades tile #1, Blvd. of the Allies at Market St., Downtown.

The style is exactly the same: linoleum tile, constructed in reverse, and embedded as mosaic into a tar base that is applied directly to road surface. Ultimately, the piece will fuse with street macadam given enough over-rolling traffic to force it into the pavement. Arch messages are cut into rough block capital letters and have a familiar cryptic apocalyptic tone with phrases like House of Hades and Media must be reduced to ash in society.

We know these–they’re the so-called “Toynbee Tiles”…right? The (very literal) street art/paranoia phenomenon has emanated from center city Philadelphia outward for several decades now. They’ve been featured in their own investigative documentary film [Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2012)], and–at least at one time–decorated a bunch of streets in the Golden Triangle.

Street art "Toynbee tile" reading "House of Hades, media must be reduced to ash in society: 2012", Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades tile #2, Blvd. of the Allies at Wood St., Downtown

But…not so fast. For one thing, pretty much every legitimate Toynbee tile in downtown Pittsburgh has vanished from this earth[1]. We chronicled a bunch of these in our stories on The Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street and its follow-up Orbit obit to The Last Toynbee Tile on Smithfield Street a year later. The all-things-Toynbee site toynbeeidea.com has a Google map that includes pinpoints for eight different tiles that used to exist on Smithfield, Forbes, Oliver, and Commonweath Place. Under Orbit due diligence, our bicycle- and sidewalk-based researchers criss-crossed downtown and couldn’t locate a single extant tile from this set.

Second, the pair of tiles that arrived on Blvd. of the Allies (photographed here, but not currently on toynbeeidea.com’s map) aren’t strictly “Toynbee”. Whether they’re the work of a copycat, tributes to the original, or just plain doing their own thing (using the same visual language), is a matter of some debate. What’s clear, though, is that these House of Hades tiles have been left by a different crew than the person Resurrect Dead researcher/filmmaker Steve Weinik calls The Toynbee Tiler (“TTT”).

map of downtown Pittsburgh with locations marked for former locations of Toynbee tiles

Red dots mark the former locations of eight Toynbee tiles in downtown Pittsburgh–now all are gone. [map: toynbeeidea.com]

The ominous warning One man versus American media in society certainly comes off as incredibly timely given the current political climate. But in fact these messages go back well before Steve Bannon’s elevation to the White House. Both pieces contain the date 2012. This may or may not be accurate to the time of installation, but that’s around when we first remember tripping across them.

Information on this “House of Hades” is scant. Is it the message or the maker? As these things go, there’s no P.O. box to send your S.A.S.E. into or 800 number to call for a free brochure. ToynbeeIdea.com claims the tiles started appearing in Buffalo some time in the oughts and “look nice, but don’t last long”[2]. That’s not our experience, though. The pair on Boulevard remains nearly perfect five (or more) years on. Of course, we probably don’t have the volume of Philly traffic they’re comparing them to, but it’s still impressive.

street art "Toynbee tile" and buildings of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Regardless, we’ll re-issue that old Orbit saw and simply say, House of Hades–who- or whatever you are–we’re glad somebody’s still out there carving wacky words, spoons, and lady legs into street decoration and we’re glad you dropped enough morsels in downtown Pittsburgh for us to chew on for a while. If it stops us in our tracks–possibly with oncoming travel barreling forward–makes us wonder, and gives the noodle a twist, well, you’re all right by us.

Oh–and one more thing: while The Orbit may technically qualify as part of “the media” [in its loosest, most pathetic usage], please don’t reduce us to ash just yet. We’ve still got some things we want to cover.

street art "Toynbee tile" and buildings of downtown Pittsburgh, PA


[1] That we know of…but The Orbit is pretty sure this is it. If you know of any other remaining Toynbee tiles in the city, please educate us.
[2] http://www.toynbeeidea.com/house-of-hades/

Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 2: A Beautiful Friendship

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Gross

Nevertheless, the bird persisted.

Call the little guy flighty, fragile, scrawny, left-leaning (or, at least, always left-facing), single-minded–heck, even a broken record! Sure, he could stand to put on a few ounces and what’s with that damn flipper-flapping all the time–give it a rest! Whatever you do, though, you’ll not call Clarence the Bird anything less than thorough.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Stack Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Choate Way

When last we left the little fellow [Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 1: Millvale and Beyond, Pittsburgh Orbit: March 19], Clarence’s spring fever was in overdrive, nesting his feathers and pointing his beak throughout Bloomfield–down Millvale Ave., in the warren of cattywumpus alley-streets west of Edmond, and up by the Penn Avenue Aldi.

Impressive, for sure, but those sightings were merely the appetizer for the grand buffet that is Clarence’s A Beautiful Friendship campaign.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Ella

tiny paper drawing of Clarence the Bird stapled to tree stump, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Ella and Dupont Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dupont Way

From the dense row house heart-of-Bloomfield all the way out to where Friendship Avenue becomes Friendship neighborhood, Clarence has left a bread crumb trail in cardboard and paper stock, fine-tipped ink pen and crude Sharpie. The tiny original artworks have been stapled, tacked, faded, torn, and (I’m sure) disattached and absconded-with. But the pieces still hanging-around–and there are a lot–look great covering (nearly) every single block up and down the long street.

Here then is the latest from The Orbit‘s Clarence Tracker 2000TM logging of Mr. The Bird’s Friendship Avenue activity, starting on the Penn Avenue/Children’s Hospital end and working east as far as South Pacific.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Taylor

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dryden Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dryden Way

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pearl

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pearl

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Edmond

Clarence the Bird original artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship Park

Clarence the Bird original artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Mathilda

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Mathilda and Edmond

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Millvale

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Winebiddle and Gross

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle (partial)

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Evaline

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pacific

Note: There are even more Clarence the Bird “droppings” on the eastern end of Friendship Ave., between Pacific and Roup (at least), but the ones we found there were previously reported on in our story Birdwatching: Clarence the Bird Watching [Pittsburgh Orbit: Jan. 5, 2017].