The Orbit’s Summer Vacation, Part 1: Considering Portland

yellow bungalow house in Portland, OR

Portland in the summertime: green trees, parched yellow grass, cute craftsman bungalows on large flat lots

Let’s get something straight: the stereotypes are all basically true. Young people–tattooed, time-warped, and tricked-out–cavort at each neighborhood’s stock of ethnic-inspired food trucks and to-the-point microbreweries. Seemingly every home comes equipped with a strand of Tibetan prayer flags or a Black Lives Matter window sign. [Whether or not you’ll actually encounter any black lives is another matter.] The “Rose City” is aglow with its totem flower–albeit often shriveled and water-starved in the sun-baked late summer drought. Everything is “locally sourced.”

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam, The Egg Carton (food cart), SE Portland

Portland, Oregon. Like Austin and Seattle in the ’90s–or Brooklyn a decade later–it is the current generation of twenty-somethings’ hip organic indie destination-du-jour…and that makes a lot of sense. There are a ton of things to do, inside and out. Every flavor of culinary and sensory offering is available just a Square-swipe or Subaru sidle away. There’s just enough grit (if you look hard enough) to locate the handful of still-remaining rough edges from the city’s industrial past, but with the outsized young/white/educated/leftie population to feel more like a giant college town where everybody plays in a band, jams for the roller derby squad, and works part-time at the coffee shop while working on their novel.

We went to Portland to hang out with friends, ride a bicycle around the city, see the big rocks on the coast and the lovely waterfalls in the gorge. We did all that (thank you, again, most generous hosts and tour guides!) but also had the terrific experience that all travel should reward us with: the perspective on what is–and what could be–back home.

new condo under construction behind older used car lot, Portland, OR

Boomtown: condo rising, North Portland

This, of course, is the Pittsburgh Orbit. So we’re not so interested in creating a travel piece for a city 2500 miles away. Plenty of that hype has been generated already. So much so that Portland has some very opposite problems from Pittsburgh: skyrocketing housing prices, the “damn Californians” pouring into the city, and a not-too-successful campaign to Stop Demolishing Portland! (to construct hated condos).

There were a whole bunch of things we liked–the number of old junkers parked on the streets, all the great craftsman architecture, gardening nuts planting their front yards, “zombie RVs”, some great street art, and, yes, the food cart “pods” and ubiquitous microbreweries. That said, we’re more interested in just a few really basic city things that impressed us in the trip and how we’d like to see some of these emulated back here, in Pittsburgh.

small house with front yard planters made from a toilet, dresser drawers, wooden boxes, Portland, OR

Plant your front yard! North Portland

Bicycle Heaven

To call Portland Nirvana on two wheels is a stretch–it’s just too flat and too gridded for that. But, it’s absolutely heaven for the commuter or basic point-to-point traveler. There is an unbelievable amount of infrastructure in place nearly everywhere in the city–well-marked bicycle lanes, directional and distance signage every few blocks, dedicated street-crossing and curb cuts, and the concept of “neighborhood greenways”: dedicated streets that prioritize through-routes for cyclists and pedestrians. Further, motorists have a great deal of respect for bicycle-riders and the two seem to co-exist very comfortably.

street signage specifically for bicycle riders including directions, time, and distance to various locations, Portland, OR

Friendly bicycle signage: directions, distances, neighborhood greenway markers

North Williams Avenue–running from the central East Side up to North Portland–resembled a full-on cycling highway with non-stop two-wheel traffic every time we headed home. Plus, since the majority of the city is basically flat[1], you can ride all day and never get tired[2]. Throw in a climate that rarely gets hot enough for you to sweat and even less often do riders have to deal with snow and ice, and you’ve really got no excuse for not living on two wheels.

street crossings and integrated turn lanes for bicycle riders, Portland, OR

Bicycle infrastructure: street crossings, integrated turn lanes, NE Portland

We can’t do anything about our climate, but Pittsburgh has come a long way in its bicycle-friendliness in the last ten years. [Thank you, Mayor Peduto/Bike Pittsburgh!] We’re gaining new bicycle lanes all the time, have a terrific advocacy community, lots of hardcore riders, and are finally working out the nightmare of traveling through central Oakland on a bike. I think we (Pittsburgh) may actually have a better trail system than Portland within the city [it’s also entirely likely we just didn’t get to see Portland’s trails], but it’s limited to the riverfronts and a couple other through-passages.

All that said–as we’ve written in these virtual pages before–cyclists are still second-class citizens in Pittsburgh who all too often have a combative relationship with motorists and councilwoman Darlene Harris. It was remarkable to see how good it could be. We’ve got some major room to improve here.

exterior of indoor/outdoor bar called Tough Luck, Portland, OR

Adaptive reuse: Tough Luck, NE Portland

Adaptive Reuse

Tough Luck, a months-old bar and restaurant in NE Portland, is housed in a 1960s-era building that probably started life as a garage, or a laundromat, or maybe a dry cleaners–it really doesn’t matter. It was an underwhelming little big box design to begin with. But with some imagination, tasteful rehab, and the conversion of a half-dozen parking spots into relaxed outdoor seating, it’s aged gracefully as a terrific little addition to the Woodlawn neighborhood.

That story–the adaptive reuse of one aesthetically-challenged building or discarded vacant lot into something useful, vibrant, welcoming, and fun was something we saw all over the city in a ton of different impressive ways–a used car lot turned outdoor dining park, cinderblock workshop-to-brewery, old social hall to new performance space.

Former Pizza Hut building, now vacant, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Pizza Hut, East Liberty, Pittsburgh

There is a former Pizza Hut that’s been sitting vacant for years in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. This is nothing remarkable–we’ve got empty buildings all over the place. But the fact that it’s a hundred yards from Duolingo’s headquarters on Penn Ave. and maybe a half mile from Google’s big Pittsburgh office is. Right now–for good or bad–there is a lot of money flowing through this part of town. That this runty little shack sits idle is a shame. The building itself is nothing special, but its location and the vast city lot it sits on sure are.

In Pittsburgh, it can really feel like all the nice design and construction happened by the 1920s. We are fortunate to still have a lot of that stuff. But if there’s something of the vintage of Tough Luck or Pizza Hut–and there are plenty in and around–probably no one cares and it will sit there until the roof caves in or someone knocks it down for another parking lot. We’d love to see entrepreneurs take up the challenge of turning some of the city’s many architectural eyesores and discarded structures into welcoming, creative uses of fallow ground.

exterior of ornate Hollywood movie theater, Portland, OR

Hollywood Theater: one of many terrific neighborhood movie houses in Portland

Main Streets

Lastly, I’ll say that I was totally jealous of how every neighborhood seemed to have its own healthy business district, amazingly each supporting both a record store and still-operational movie house to go with the requisite cutsie retail, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

This is likely an effect of that thing most cities have where there are actually more people living there than there were sixty years ago[3]. Sometimes humanity can be a real pain the ass, but it certainly makes it easier to populate the storefronts of Main Street.

terra cotta building facade for former theater, Pittsburgh, PA

former Atlas Theatre, Perry Hilltop, Pittsburgh

To pass through [Pittsburgh city neighborhoods] Perry Hilltop, Spring Garden, Morningside, Uptown, parts of the Hill District, etc. and see the obvious former business districts that are currently somewhere between under-utilized and totally vacant is a real bummer. Oh! to bring back the New Grenada Theater or a real grocery in Homewood or anything on Observatory Hill. Sigh.

Next up: It was a nice place to visit–and under different circumstances, we could see the appeal of living there–but coming home pointed out so many things that we love about Pittsburgh. We’ll look at those comparisons next week.


[1] Portlanders: by contrast, a huge amount of Pittsburgh looks like the hilly area just above your downtown. Here, it’s nearly impossible to avoid hill climbs unless you stick entirely to the river trails–and even then you still have to get home.
[2] The positive spin on this is that every bicycle ride is both a commute and a trip to the gym.
[3] While the greater region has grown, the city of Pittsburgh has been losing population ever since 1950, when it was more than twice its current size. [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh#Demographics]

Thin Blue Line: Millvale’s “Watermark”

blue line painted on cement support for highway, Millvale, PA

“Watermark” (detail), Route 28 underpass, Millvale

The thin blue line is painted on sidewalks and bridge supports, climbs up onto brick walls and relaxes in the park. It’s also broken into sections, appearing to duck into storm drains, slip down side-streets, and leap across intersections.

Like a giant spool of yarn knocked to the floor, unwound, and batted about by mischievous cats, you’re likely to come across Watermark somewhere in the middle and wonder what’s going on. The piece–part large-format public artwork and part community-engagement project–is doing its thing right now, in Millvale.

blue line painted in front of Millvale Upholstery, Millvale, PA

Millvale Upholstery, Grant Ave.

The line follows a loose path and it’s no hurry to get anywhere. It starts, or maybe it ends–your choice–at the big concrete support for the north end of the 40th Street Bridge in Millvale’s Riverfront Park. From there, it winds a jagged, herky-jerky route out along the jersey barrier retaining wall by the park’s bicycle trail, crosses the town’s busiest intersection, and winds its way up through the Grant Avenue business district. The long blue strand finally concludes in a glorious, unruly tangle in the little Grant Avenue Pocket Park at the top of the street.

blue line painted on jersey barrier retaining wall, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

The Watermark line is around two-thirds of a mile long, as the crow flies, and has the good sense to meander through much of downtown, effectively becoming a guide to a sort-of Tour d’Millvale. Along the way, it winds past Cousin’s Lounge, the upholstery shop, library, and Yetter’s Candy.

This record fiend can’t visit Millvale without poking his black plastic-sniffing schnoz into Attic Records, but the blue line decided to skip to the other side of street to avoid such temptation. Clearly not into model railroading or macaroons, the end of the line happens just before rounding the corner to Esther’s Hobby Shop and Jean Marc’s French bakery.

blue line painted on sidewalk, Millvale, PA

Grant Ave. sidewalk

Watermark is the work of Ann Tarantino, one of six artists participating in Neighborhood Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot. Tarantino tells us the goal of the piece is to “connect the community to water–to link the riverfront to the rest of town.” The GAPP park, along with other buildings in downtown Millvale, was built right on top of the Girty’s Run stream that can be seen flowing through its raised concrete flood walls both above and below the business district. Its influence is felt–if not expressly stated–by the shape, color, and general direction of the blue line.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Scott's Barber Shop, Millvale, PA

Scott’s Barber Shop, Grant Ave.

It’s a tall order, connecting Millvale town to its riverfront. Anyone who’s ever attempted to negotiate the ugly six point intersection where Grant and E. Ohio join the Route 28 on-ramps as either pedestrian or cyclist knows how harrowing the experience can be. Will a thin, painted line actually get riverfront bicycle-riders and cookout cornhole-tossers up to Panza Gallery or happy hour beer-drinkers down to the river? This blogger could only guess…but it got him to follow the trail all the way, just to see where it would go.

blue line painted on brick walk, Millvale, PA

Sheridan Street

The project is not yet complete. Tarantino informs us the blue line itself will still have some more painting and “connectivity” points added, but the major additions will be descriptive signage at both ends and an installation/”final experience” to be installed in the GAPP park. The Orbit will have to wait to check that out just like everyone else, but we were teased that it will involve both sound and light and should be installed later this Fall.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Millvale, PA

Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Grant Ave.

We talked to a few folks sitting on front stoops along Grant Ave. during an otherwise entirely vacant, bright sunny Labor Day holiday and it’s obvious the explanatory signage will be a benefit. “What does it mean?” said one befuddled hanger-out. His buddy: “It don’t mean nothin’.”

Unlike these critics, however, The Orbit is perfectly happy to live in a world without all the answers and can therefore take a more piqued approach to the abstract project. After a couple visits now, we find the loose, playful, follow-the-blue-line curiosity to be appealing on a number of fronts and begs several enticing questions: Where is it going? Who did this? Why is it here?

blue line painted on asphalt parking lot, Millvale, PA

parking lot, Grant Ave.

Hopefully having the answers to some of these in the convenient electronic format in front of them now won’t dampen our readers’ interest in checking out Watermark for themselves. If so, that would be a shame. The way to see the piece is on your feet, walking the cement and brick sidewalks of Millvale, headed for some of P&G’s mind-melting, Michelle Obama-approved hotcakes or a piece of Dutch apple pie from the legendary hands of Frank Ruzomberka at the Grant Bar.

Is Watermark great art? I don’t know about that. But it’s a simple, low-tech (at least, until we get that sound and vision experience), and effective conversation-starter. We think it also succeeds at making any side-walker or stoop-sitter both active participant in and art critic of an odd little curio traipsing through their borough. Those are interesting challenges to rise to and we had a fine time chasing its long blue tail.

blue line painted in front of Wild at Heart Body Arts, Millvale, PA

Wild at Heart Body Arts / Tattoo, Grant Ave.

Love it or hate it, the whole thing will disappear in 2019. Watermark, like the other Neighborhood Allies projects in this series, is temporary. It is scheduled to have just a two-year lifespan. Tarantino tells us the line was created with a type of paint that can be rinsed with a cleaning solution and power-washed away like it was never there at all.

blue line painted on cement of Grant Avenue Pocket Park, Millvale, PA

Grant Avenue Pocket Park

Watermark is a project sponsored by Neighbor Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot and the Office of Public Art. It is funded by Heinz Endowments and Hillman Foundation and supported by community-based organizations Millvale Community Development Corporation, Millvale Community Library, and the Society to Preserve the Murals of Maxo Vanka.

Tarantino will continue to update news of the project at her website. You can follow her on Instagram at @anntarantino.

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.

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”.

Street / Art [or] The Street as Art: Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9)

concrete sections of road stacked neatly in a pile, Harmar, PA

Sky / wall / earth, “Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9)”, Rt. 28, Harmar

What happens when things “go away”? Isn’t a wall just a road in another form? How can we replace the very ground beneath our feet?

Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9)*, the awesome deconstructed and reconstructed public installation artwork just outside of town asks these questions, and many more. The sculpture, consisting of hundreds–perhaps thousands–of four- to eight-foot sections of decommissioned highway is spread over several acres of barren berm within the graceful curl of a Route 28 on-ramp. Road is lifted into the blue sky and lets the participant view it alternately as both compact, well-ordered stacks and chaotic, post-catastrophe fallen landscape.

concrete sections of road stacked neatly in a pile, Harmar, PA

The viewer will inevitably first encounter the piece from a distance, likely traveling at high speed. Its huge mass and gentle shape echo the rolling hills of the Allegheny Valley in which it resides. In fact, were it not for its treeless surface, the installation might be mistaken for merely another mound of earth, another hill rising up from the river.

But to approach the work as it really must be seen–up close, on foot, with time to wander, poke, and explore–is to experience the tremendous weight (quite literal, that) of our built environment. One imagines a skyscraper collapsed, an entire small town collected and swept in the corner, a border wall separating the righteous from “bad hombres” who seek to breech its crevasses in a bloodthirsty quest for our dollars and our women.

top view of giant pile of road sections, Harmar, PA

Atop the piece, [access points are provided at the participant’s own caution] it is a different story entirely. The ordered, neatly stacked piles of Masonry‘s south end contrast with the topsy-turvy, patchwork firmament of its expanse. The structure is unmistakably formed of ex-roadway–the omnipresent worn yellow center lines and fine-textured concrete surface give that away. It forces us to confront the disorientation of disaster. This, the artwork suggests, is what the big one feels like…if we’re lucky enough to still be here when the earth stops shaking.

Like Duchamp’s Fountain before it, visitors to Serially will never mistake where they are or what they’re looking at. But with a world bent, flat lanes severed, split, and tumbled, and the rushing highway traffic reminding us of exactly where these raw materials came from, we’re asked to look deeply at the disposable nature of the most durable of goods. If 10-inch thick, rebar-enforced concrete can be discarded by the side of the road with the same casualness as a paper coffee cup or flicked cigarette butt, what chance have we in this world?

detail of broken road sections showing painted yellow line, Harmar, PA

The Orbit has eaten its hat more than once over the suggestion of locating the ultimate street art. First, it was the tantalizing Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street (R.I.P.), the artwork embedded directly into the macadam, fused by the force of the traffic that overruns each of the tiles. But then we got tipped off to another PennDOT collaboration–the road sign murals up in Meadville.

Finally, it seemed like the crown was clearly taken by the Howard Street Line Painting Tests. How could you get more “street art” than painting directly on the street, with street-painting equipment, performed by the Department of Public Works road crews?

Well, as we found out here, I’ll tell you how: you take an actual stretch of roadway right out of the ground, rack it, stack it, and compact it, and then display it to the very travelers who drove across it in its previous life, viewable right out their passenger-side windows as they whiz by. If that doesn’t get your noodle spinning, well, I don’t know what will.

concrete sections of road stacked neatly in a pile, Harmar, PA

Getting there: PennDOT’s Serially Accumulated Mural (Masonry #9) is along Route 28, south-bound, right by the Harmarville on-ramp. As they say, you can’t miss it.


* Charles Rosenblum contributed to this article.

Step Beat: Oakley Dokeley, The Oakley Way Rehab

Detail of public steps with mosaic decoration of a woman's head, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a cruel reality: when you’re working the city step beat, there ain’t a lot of news to report. No, most of the stories we run end up being about going to visit steps that inevitably won’t be around for long, occasional Indiana Jones-style heroics to hike them, or the historical curiosities of infrastructure ruins that were once so vital and now–all too often–go nowhere and serve no one.

So it is with no small amount of glee that The Orbit goes to press with a story on not only the complete rehabilitation of a set of core city steps, but the genuine newsy news that they’ve been wonderfully dressed-up in brand-new full-color mosaic tile.

public steps with mosaic decoration including houses, sky, a fox, a bird, sun, and stars, Pittsburgh, PA

Oakley Way Steps, top mosaic section

Oakley Way is one of the many climbs that create access points from the South Side Slopes above to the flats below (and vice-versa). The street is actually seven short (but mostly vertical) blocks long–part city steps/part steep road-with-steps sidewalk. The bottommost stretch (from Josephine to McCord) is the only section that’s received the mosaic treatment, but some of the upper sections have also been nicely rehabbed with patched concrete and fully repaired and repainted blue handrails.

Artist Laura Jean McLaughlin led a group of volunteers in the design, construction, and installation of the mosaic risers. That process was covered in a recent Post-Gazette piece that only scooped us because we got side-tracked by Fairywood and tryptophan and shelved the post for a month. Fooey!

looking up Oakley Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking up: the Oakley Way steps

Spread across seventy-seven consecutive risers, the mosaic’s central figure is a tall red-booted woman in a checkered skirt who–based on the proportional size of the river, bridge, and factory building also in the piece–must stand about the height of the US Steel tower. Also decorating the lush scene are Slopes homes, grass, flowers, a fox, a bird, the sun and stars.

If you’ve seen any of McLaughlin’s other local projects you’ll recognize her loose, cartoonish, and earthy signatures. A lesser blog might invoke the term “whimsical,” or even (shudder) “funky”. The Orbit won’t stoop to that level, so we’ll just say they’re fun, very Slopes-centric, and a great compliment to the D.P.W.’s fix-up work.

Oakley Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

View down the bottommost section of Oakley Way (from McCord Street)

We’ve argued in these very virtual pages that Pittsburgh’s network of public steps is a city asset unlike any other–part transit route, part jungle gym, part historical oddity, and what should be a big draw for tourism*. It’s encouraging to see any set of steps getting much-needed maintenance, but it’s especially great to see them dressed to thrill with such a wonderful addition as McLaughlin’s mosaic.

There’s at least one other similar project out there and completed. Linda Wallen’s mosaic work at the base of the steps off Itin Street in Spring Garden isn’t nearly as ambitious as Oakley Way, but it’s still a great twinkling beacon in the great constellation of city step dark stars. May these two heroic projects guide step freaks to a new, golden dawn of altitude adjustment, wide perspectives, and throbbing calf muscles.

public steps with mosaic tile decoration of woman's head with houses and deer in the background, Pittsburgh, PA

Old and new: remnants of an earlier, defunct passage under the rehabbed Oakley Way steps


* Visitors who don’t want to lose their breath climbing dozens of flights of steps to dilapidated neighborhoods with spectacular views should consider lodging other than Chez Orbit’s fold-out sofa.

Fairywood: The World Without Us

fire hydrant in field of tall weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Broadhead Manor public housing project, Fairywood

Fairywood. Has any place as bucolic a name? One would assume it could only exist in fantasy–within Narnia or Neverland or, at least, New Zealand. Fairywood must be a land of eternal mist, riddle-spinning toadstools, magick staffs hewn from gnarled bentwood, spellcasting. It is where banshees live, and yes, they do live well. But one need not cross the Misty Mountains nor the darkest depths of Mordor[1]–it’s right here in the City of Pittsburgh.

If one were to set out for Fairywood, she or he might also optimistically hope to encounter pixies, gnomes, gremlins, griffins, or unicorns along the journey. Such other-worldly creatures simply must exist in the forest faerie realm. Alas, that was not this blogger’s experience.

empty street with jersey barriers at entrance of former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Entrance from Broadhead Fording Road

Look up Fairywood and you’ll likely come across some bad press. At this point, the peninsular neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s far southwestern border [it is surrounded on three sides by non-city boroughs] is mainly associated with two things: colossal ex-urban warehouses and off-the-charts crime.

The former is easy to see–along the south and west perimeters are huge distribution centers for UPS, ModCloth, Amazon, and Giant Eagle/OK Grocery. The hum of their idling 18-wheelers and beeps of reversing forklifts are omnipresent even from a great distance.

The latter is not so obvious. On a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon, we barely encountered a single living soul–and the ones we did meet were real nice! The sum of residential Fairywood is contained in four or five streets of pre-war frame houses and Baby Boom-era pill boxes and split-levels, plus one former project-turned-gated community. Only around a thousand people live here. Who’s committing all this crime?

cul-de-sac in former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Cul-de-sac

Alan Weisman’s 2007 best-seller The World Without Us detailed the ways in which the built environment would inevitably deteriorate in the absence of human beings. I’ll confess I haven’t actually read the book, but Mrs. The Orbit did and relayed its projections of houses collapsing and cities overtaken by nature as I was suddenly getting much more aware of cracks in the plaster ceiling and loosening of our mortar joints.

By far, the most prominent feature of Fairywood today is the enormous negative space created by what was at one time the Broadhead Manor public housing project. In its absence is a massive plot of land–its footprint similar in size to a junior college campus or suburban shopping mall (including all the parking). The actual housing blocks have been razed and removed, but the infrastructure–several curling roads that terminate in dead-ends, street lights, sidewalks, fire hydrants, an absurd children at play road sign–all remain.

handrail and concrete sidewalk to urban prairie, former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Handrail, sidewalks

Between these few remaining stretches of concrete, nature has come back hard and fast. It’s a very un-Pittsburgh landscape–almost completely flat (although you can see hills in the distance in any direction) and dominated not by trees, but instead with scrubby waist-high bushes, weeds, and wildflowers–much more midwestern than Appalachian. Nationally, these kinds of spaces have been coined urban prairies for a reason–they’re not quite nature without man, but they’re decidedly not city (as most tend to think of it) either.

That Broadhead Manor should or should not have been razed is a conversation for those who actually lived in and around it[2]. With no personal connection, it does strike me as a classic built-to-fail situation: warehousing people in closed-circle public projects at the most distant edge of the city in a neighborhood with neither business district nor many transportation options[3]. What could go wrong?

Man in winter clothes against chain link fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Mr. Ro Ro (note his wizard’s staff)

We met Mr. Ro Ro camped out on a folding chair, waiting for a bus on Prospect Avenue. A wizard’s staff was casually propped against the chain link fence. Mr. Ro Ro told us he’s lived in Fairywood for fifty years and said of Broadhead Manor, “Roosevelt built them after the war.” President Roosevelt’s connection is unknown, but Broadhead Manor was indeed former military housing, purchased by the city in 1946[4].

As the only human wandering through the strange dystopian landscape of an ex-neighborhood with all its buildings removed–now almost completely reclaimed by nature–the irony of the phrase “after the war” was ringing in the air. More than anything else, this huge section of Fairywood feels like what’s left after the nuclear winter has finally subsided and an entirely new form of nature begins again on the bones of the civilization that destroyed the old one. Let’s hope we get it right this time.

dead end street in former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

The end of the road


[1] It is telling that The Orbit‘s knowledge of Middle Earth comes more from Houses of the Holy than The Player’s Handbook.
[2] A post in the Abandoned, Old & Interesting Places – Western PA FaceBook group shows some of the housing after the residents had been moved but pre-demolition. It includes many comments–both positive and negative–including quite a few former residents who speak glowingly of their time at Broadhead Manor in the 1960s.
[3] Port Authority’s 27 bus route serves Fairywood and nearby neighborhoods with a link to downtown Pittsburgh.
[4] Fairywood Fact Sheet (date unknown) http://digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=550317