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.”

Going Postal: The Cap Man Returneth

Cap Man #13, East Liberty

It’s all there: the non-plussed selfie stare, the upturned ball cap, the all-contrast Sharpie-on-postal label execution. Super fans already know where this is going, but for everyone else, these are the tell-tale traits and hallmark style of one of the city’s more mysterious and elusive serial street artists.

Cap Man #14, Friendship [photo: Lee Floyd]

When last we reported on the mysterious Cap Man, in the fall of 2017, it was with the strong accusation that “he’s likely left Pittsburgh entirely.” That may have been true–the backsides of the East End’s street signage and utility poles remained remarkably free of the behatted one’s visage through all of last year.

Well, he’s back, emerging some time in the late winter/early spring–slapping his little original sticker artworks on city infrastructure throughout a contiguous swath of East Liberty, Friendship, and Bloomfield. And this time…well, he’s fooling around just as much as he ever did.

Cap Man #15, Bloomfield

One of the assumptions made in prior stories was that Cap Man (the artist) was the author of both the Cap Man (the subject) (self) portraits and the similarly-styled “rogue’s gallery” drawings of (in)famous celebrities, media notables, and true crime figures.

This theory is only bolstered by the simultaneous re-emergence of these types of drawings, inevitably committed by the same hand and distributed within the same vicinity as the Cap Man portraits. This time around, we can only positively ID slain rapper The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls, who arrived on a Bloomfield utility pole some time in the late winter or early spring. The recent offerings also include a dripping skull, a message of peace and love, and a couple renditions of one “Fro Bro.”

The Mysterious C.A.P. meets The Notorious B.I.G., Bloomfield

Bloomfield

Peace, Love, and a bunch of other stuff, Bloomfield

Fro Bro 1, East Liberty

Fro Bro 2, East Liberty

Finally, a legit street art miracle. Co-assistant to the mail room intern Lee Floyd spotted this loose, perhaps unfinished, drawing of a young woman on a Liberty Ave. pole after we’d snuck in one last Lenten fish fry on Good Friday. (See below.)

The figure’s head is turned to the right, her long hair unruly and wind-blown across her face. One eye is obscured, but the other stares with steely unease right back at you. It ain’t the Mona Lisa, but as much could be supposed on that head position, that glare as anything people read into Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

unknown woman, Bloomfield [photo: Lee Floyd]

So, imagine our surprise when mere days later the crew is on a rainy day stroll down Baum Blvd.–nearly a mile from the original light pole–and there she is again. Divorced from the steel pole and lying on a soaking wet sidewalk is … the same woman! Not just the same subject, but the same drawing!

unknown woman, East Liberty [photo: Lee Floyd]

Now, how that sticker came off one light pole completely undamaged and worked it’s way a mile down the road just to find the only two pair of people in the world who would care about it is something we have no explanation for–but it’s a doggone miracle!

If that’s not enough positive juju, coincidental mojo, and lightening striking twice for you, I don’t know what is. Most people have to steal their parent’s HBO password to get that kind of drama, but Cap Man is offering it to you for free, right here on the street.


Background on the continuing saga of Cap Man:

Art Walk: The Pipe Cleaner Fern Frames of Lawrenceville

pipe cleaner fern frame

Consider it a wild weekend with woebegone weeds or First Fridays for forgotten ferns. Heck, this may even qualify as the Make a Wish Foundation for misunderstood moss. Whatever you call it, there’s a new street-level contemporary art walk on exhibit now–for what may be a very limited run–in Central Lawrenceville.

pipe cleaner fern and moss frame

Someone has taken the fascinating step of constructing simple colorful rectangular frames from mismatched pipe cleaners and attached them to an old stone retaining wall along 45th Street, bordering St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.

Their placement on the soot-blackened stones is no haphazard act of vandalism or careless littering–no, they’ve been very precisely curated to frame and highlight the kind of the minute nature dioramas that appear around us everywhere, all the time, but usually go unnoticed. In lieu of anything more witty, we’re calling these fern frames.

popsicle stick fern frame

Nature is an absolutely amazing thing–and one that we can reasonably trust to outlive and survive the appetite-for-extinction behavior of the human race. In every sidewalk crack, a burst of life; on each block of pavement, itty-bitty creatures scurrying around, just doing their thing. And yes, in the thin vertical spaces between wall stones and mortar joints there exist tiny blasts of green in the form of soft fuzzy moss, delicate miniature weeds, the spindly leaves of little ferns.

pipe cleaner moss frame

We have no idea what motivated the person or persons responsible to construct and place the fern frames–they come with neither attribution nor artist statement. So we’re left to speculate on what’s going on with these simple displays. Are they a goofy stunt with leftover crafting materials? Psychological experiment? Candid Camera-style prank where The Orbit is the butt of the joke?

Anything’s possible, but to the imaginative mind what these little pieces seem to say echoes Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s famous couplet I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree. You can put a lot of effort into painting a picture, singing a song, or–gulp–writing a blog post, but you’re not going to top Mother Nature. Look around! Keep those peepers open! The world is a wonderful and mystifying place.

It can be really hard given the news of the day–you name the day–and, yes, people have all kinds of heaviness they’re dealing with. But what these little fern frames seem to say is, don’t just stop and smell the roses–those sell-outs already get enough attention!–put your schnoz right down in between the cracks in the sidewalk and up against the stones in the wall. There is so much beauty all around us, but sometimes it takes an anonymous stranger with a couple pipe cleaners to point it out to us.

pipe cleaner weed and moss frame

Precious Metal: The Disappearing Legacy öf Hard Rock Graffiti

spray paint rendering of the British flag on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

All we’ve got is a photograph: Def Leppard (c. 1983), Sharpsburg

There was a time when giants walked the earth. Abbreviated to just single power words, their names are legend: ZeppelinPriestDokkenMaidenKrokusCrüe. Burnouts, D-20 rollers, and teenage hair-farmers alike analyzed Tolkien-meets-toking mysticism, tapped and plucked modal riffage on second-hand battle axes, and armored themselves in a suburban denim-and-studs couture. Umlauts döminated every pössible occasiön. Yes, it was the very best of times.

The penance for an enviable life rich in metal mullets, keg beer consumed by a river, double bass drums, and a perpetual soreness in the neck and ringing in the ears was to pay tribute to one’s idols in the most public, lasting, and respectful way: half-assedly spray-painting their names on dimly-lit concrete walls.

masonry window sill with graffiti "Led Zepp", Pittsburgh, PA

Communication breakdown: Led Zepp(elin) (c. 1980), Hazelwood

Blue Oyster Cult logo spray-painted on cement wall, New Brighton

This ain’t the summer of love: Blue Öyster Cult (hook and cross logo) (c. 1981), New Brighton

Existing somewhere between the cave paintings at Lascaux and ballpoint etchings committed by high school students into classroom desks and Trapper Keepers, metal/hard rock graffiti occupies a very particular place in modern cultural history.

In the city (at least), we see graffiti everywhere–to the point it becomes a kind of visual white noise, unnoticed for its omnipresence. Every alley, dumpster, and bus shelter is tagged-up; jersey barriers, concrete infrastructure, and the back sides of traffic signs bear a familiar scrawl and riot of puckering stickers. In some places you’ll see elaborate full-color wall-sized tags and in others, pithy sophomoric humor. But nobody–and I mean nobody–ever paints graffiti to praise rock stars–or any other musicians–anymore. You just don’t see it.

graffiti for metal band Iron Maiden in cement drainage tunnel, Munhall, PA

Caught somewhere in time: Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

spray paint graffiti "Ace of Space" on cement wall, New Brighton, PA

Ace of Spade (sic) (Motörhead) (c. 1980), New Brighton

Like Stonehenge and Chichen Itzá, these primitive tributes dating from the late Cold War have stood stalwart through the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. Indeed, twenty, thirty, even forty years on we still see their traces…if you know where to look.

The jean jacket alchemists who spun black vinyl into precious metal blazed the names and iconography of their heroes in the kinds of places teenagers hung out before anyone in the gang had a car and long before the Internet existed. Some of these remain, blessedly untouched by the hands of public works crews with more important things to take care of.

graffiti of "Judas Priest" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Judas Priest (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

graffiti reading "Iron Maiden" carved into handrail of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Iron Maiden (c. 1984), Rising Main city steps, Fineview

In Pittsburgh city limits, the obvious bridge railings, retaining walls, and industrial fencing has been tagged and painted-over in so many yearly cycles that almost nothing from this halcyon era survives. But dig a little deeper–or climb a little higher–and you can still find the names of goat-throwing deities carved into the handrails of underused city steps, scratched into train trestle underpasses, or spray-painted on stormwater runoff drains. Further afield, the spoils get richer.

spray paint graffiti for Deep Purple, New Brighton, PA

Deep Purple (c. early 1980s), New Brighton

faded graffiti reading "Led Zepplin rules" on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Led Zepplin (sic.) rules (c. 1980), Sharpsburg

This all begs the obvious question, where did it go? Or, more precisely, why did it stop? No, we don’t expect the youth of today to still be into ZZ Top and Deep Purple (we can dream, though!), but kids still like music, right? Why did the act of desecrating public infrastructure in the (literal) name of a favorite musical act simply amount to a two- or three-decade fad, basically gone by the turn of the millennia?

The Orbit has no clear answer for this–not even an educated guess. That said, it’s likely some combination of The Internet, overprotective parents, unlimited and ever-changing entertainment options, and…oh yeah, The Internet again. Why climb down in a culvert with a can of Rust-Oleum for some band no one will care about in six months when you could be Snapchatting with a stranger in Singapore?

spray paint graffiti on cinderblock wall for ZZ Top, Homestead, PA

ZZ Top (c. 1983), Homestead

graffiti for metal band Metallica spray painted on cement wall, Munhall, PA

0 for 2: Metalica (sic.) Alchoholica (sic.) (c. 1990), Munhall [photo: Lee Floyd]

It’s all probably a good thing for the sake of our public spaces. Here at the Orbit, we report on graffiti when it makes sense, but we’re also not advocating for it. If young people have a deeper respect for our parks and sidewalks, private residences and commercial buildings that’s great…but I don’t really think that’s what’s going on.

With all its great opportunity, something definitely got lost when The Internet came to town. There was a deep connection that many of us had to a small number of artists–saving up weeks of paper route money to buy one record which then got played over and over. That’s no longer a practical necessity when the history of popular music is available right through the phone in your pocket. The opportunity is great; the connection and identification, not so much. Who’s going to risk a misdemeanor for […hold on while I Google the current pop/rock charts…] Ariana Grande or Panic! At the Disco?

[Side note: the irony that as we’re going to press Queen holds 13 of the top 25 “Hot Rock” tracks is not lost on this author.]

logo for hard rock band Twisted Sister scratched into cement, Sharpsburg, PA

Twisted Sister (c. 1984), Sharpsburg

graffiti tribute to Norwegian metal band Mayhem on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Mayhem (c. 1990s?), Mt. Oliver

Some notes on the photos and dates:

Sadly, The Orbit doesn’t have the proper resources to do the kind of carbon-dating and art preservation that these historical documents clearly deserve. That said, we consulted the expertise of metal scholars Dave Bjorkback, Ben Blanchard, and Lee Floyd in the course of reporting this story. We are indebted to their lifetime of study.

faded graffiti for metal band Korn on cement wall, Sharpsburg, PA

Korn (c. 2000), Sharpsburg

  • We don’t know for sure that the rendering of the Union Jack (above, top) was in fact a tribute to Def Leppard, but they were the U.K. band who flew…err, sat on the British flag most prominently during this, their prime “ten-arm” Pyromania/Hysteria era–so it’s a reasonable guess.
  • The 1980s were way past Deep Purple’s early-’70s creative peak, but given the proximity to other specimens in New Brighton’s Big Rock Park [yes: that’s really the name of the place where this–and others–were found], we believe this is a more accurate estimate.
  • Faster Pussycat was an also-ran in the Sunset Strip hair metal scene of the late-1980s. The band was named after a Russ Meyer film, however, and the cryptic hobo tag on this boxcar (below) doesn’t really give us any clue as to what the writer was after. It’s still worth a mention.
graffiti cartoon of a vampire with "Faster Pussycat" written on his cloak, Neville Island, PA

Faster Pussycat, Neville Island