The Over-the-Wall Club: A Winter Meeting

weathered brick and sheet metal factory wall, Etna, PA

factory, Etna

Every inch of the wall tells a story. Consider just the thick steel doors, rusted so far that a firey red is bleeding through the darker brown surface as if the earth’s crust was finally giving way to its molten core. Miscreants have scratched their tags and in-jokes into its surface and an off-the-shelf safety placard warns us about what we already know–DANGER lies on the other side.

Surrounding this lone entry point are a patchwork of industrial building materials: brick of a couple shades, cinderblock, concrete, sheet metal, corrugated fiberglass, PVC pipe, blue light bulbs suspended in a strand, and thick, high-voltage electrical wire.

There is but a single design detail committed for its aesthetics. Within one of the red brick surfaces, the mason has crafted an off-bias diamond that interrupts the stacked pattern in the gentlest of ways. Otherwise, this place is all business.

roofline with several commercial buildings, Charleroi, PA

roofline, Charleroi

If you’re tired of writing, the old wisdom goes, then you’re tired of living.

For The Over-the-Wall Club, there’s a similar mantra: if you’re tired of walls, then you’re really just tired of seeing. Put those eyes away–into a box in the bottom drawer, or send them off to the thrift shop so someone else can use them at a cut-rate price.

When last we met, the Over-the-Wall Club was pondering that old stand-by of the Dumpty clan, what’s on the other side? But let’s not ignore the trees for the forest. What’s right here in front of us may actually be the more interesting subject. Just because it’s blocking the view of those other things we think we’d rather be looking at doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

brick wall painted green and aqua with homemade address sign, Pittsburgh, PA

row house apartments, Oakland

Walls. America loves talking about them, and–gosh darn it–Mexico loves building them…at least, that’s what we’re told. But try to convince the federal government to put up a two-tone, aqua-on-lime green splotchy brick wall along the Rio Grande and see how far it gets you. In fairness, it’s a color scheme that maybe even Enrique Peña Nieto might get behind–but we still doubt he’s going to pull out the nation’s wallet any time soon.

alley wall with ghost signs and many materials, Butler, PA

ghost signs, ghost windows, ghost paint job, Butler

Another entry in the wall-as-modern art category. This geometric bricolage of styles and materials in a Butler alleyway competes with Etna’s factory row (above) in sheer density of visual stimuli. Two different mid-century Firestone Tires ads have ghosted themselves almost out of readability against a field of brick and stone, tin and particle board, paint and ash. If you can’t imagine a century’s worth of narratives playing out against this scenery, you’re not trying very hard.

tiled wall with cross and mountain, Pittsburgh, PA

ex-church, West End

If these walls could talk, they say–but some do! How does a former house of worship manage to preserve its midcentury terra cotta Jetsons cross and mount with but a few cracks and crumbles and still shed the loose bricks around it like tears at a funeral? I know, I know–it’s God’s way, or something like that, but there may be an equally fascinating or boringly prosaic reason. No matter how much church we go–or skip–we’ll probably never know.

facade of building with shadows of telephone pole and wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Industri l Engi & S p ly, Homewood

It’s the stories, man–the stories. The letters probably just fell off all on their own, but someone made a very conscious decision to block in those windows and repaint just one section in a warm, sun-baked yellow-orange that makes the whole mundane façade look like a poor man’s Mark Rothko. The criss-crossing shadows of a strong wooden utility pole and warped telephone lines decorate in the most abstract of ways.

interior of cinderblock warehouse with shadows of roof structure, Pittsburgh, PA

roofless warehouse, Strip District

Maybe there’s a set of parallel shadows that dance across the suddenly-exposed wall surfaces and make the whole scene light up like special effects at a discotheque or fancy lighting in a theatrical production. How many precious moments do we have before this old warehouse either gets a new roof or has the cinderblock walls felled to clear the lot? We can only wonder.

mural on outside retaining wall of fish and sunset, Penn Hills, PA

retaining wall mural, Penn Hills

…But that’s what The Over-the-Wall Club does best, wonderWhat’s on the other side? Sure. But also how did we get right where we are? And how can we stay just like this forever? If only it were that easy.

Until next time, we’ll see you over-, under-, roundabout-, and upside-the-wall.


See also:“The Over-the-Wall Club” (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 12, 2015)

Stamp Collecting: Getting Down to Brass Plaques

brass plate embedded in sidewalk concrete advertising Wadsworth Stone & Paving company, Pittsburgh, PA

Wadsworth Stone & Paving Co., Friendship*

Friendship. The little neighborhood–surely one of the smallest in the city by acreage–is full of stately turn-of-the-century homes and an enviable location adjacent to Bloomfield, Garfield, and East Liberty. It’s also home to nice, walkable sidewalks on quiet, tree-lined blocks that are–by Pittsburgh standards–relatively easy on the feet. Bargain grocery shoppers in the East End know Friendship as the neighborhood with two Aldi stores. But to The Orbit, it’s sidewalk stamp Nirvana.

You’ll find all the regular players here: DiBucci, Pucciarelli Brothers, Spano, Baleno–heck, one of the folks from A. Ciriello parks a branded red work truck right out front on Friendship Ave. There’s also a bunch of one-offs, old and new, including the inimitable, no-last-name-needed Jerry [more on these, later]. All this said, where Friendship really walks the walk is in the ultra-rare field of brass sidewalk plaques.

brass plaque for the Wadsworth Stone & Paving Company, Pittsburgh, PA

Wadsworth Stone & Paving Co., Friendship [photo: Paul Schifino]

The computer Internet contains very little information regarding the history of The Wadsworth Stone & Paving Co. In fact, all this Googler could locate was a single historical photo taken on a winter day in 1911 showing the company’s big industrial building on Hamilton Ave. in Larimer.

Regardless, Wadsworth literally left their mark around town in the form of several different designs of brass sidewalk plaques. Friendship is fortunate enough to have no less than three different variants–the most glorious containing the company’s name emanating from a rising sun over rugged mountains, now appearing green from the oxidation of the copper (above). These two markers are of a generation before the term concrete appears to be in common use–the designs are just-the-facts basic, but contain the alluring details describing “silica-barytic stone” in one and “artificial stone” in the other.

brass sidewalk stamp for The Wadsworth Stone & Paving Co., Pittsburgh, PA

The Wadsworth Stone & Paving Co., Friendship

brass plate embedded in sidewalk concrete advertising Rhodes-King & Company, Pittsburgh, PA

Rhodes-King & Co., Friendship

Friendship, of course, does not hold exclusive rights to anything–even in the superlative quaintness of its name. That is, at least, not while Fairywood is still on the map. So we see brass plaques throughout town, just not with the same block-for-block density we get between Baum Blvd. and Penn Ave.

Millvale and Lawrenceville both turn in paired sets of great old-school sidewalk markers. E. Martina’s can be roughly dated with the 1950s-era named telephone exchange Everglade (EV) 1-8022 in the embedded phone number of the plaque’s triumphant shield shape.

brass sidewalk plaque for E. Martina, Contractor, Millvale, PA

E. Martina, Millvale

brass sidewalk plaque for J.A. Hotnich, Millvale, PA

J. A. Hotnich, Millvale [photo: Paul Schifino]

Speaking of dating these plaques (and the sidewalk jobs around them), several of the designs here contain the apparent misprinted city name Pittsburg (sic.)–without the H. That’s no error, though. For a little over twenty years (officially, 1890-1911) the city’s name was changed to this shortened, streamlined spelling.

That would seem to be a pretty clear approximate date for these sidewalks but every source seems to suggest the alternate spelling was used both before 1890 (leading to the initial confusion that required official action) and for several decades after repeal (people can be obstinate). It’s hard to imagine any piece of pavement could last through more than a hundred Pittsburgh winter freeze-thaw cycles…and these may not actually have done so.

brass sidewalk plaque for J.K. Wymard, Pittsburgh, PA

J.K. Wymard Paving, Lawrenceville [photo: Paul Schifino]

round steel sidewalk plaque with letter "G", Pittsburgh, PA

G, Lawrenceville

The mysterious G! This example is such an outlier–it’s steel, not brass and it doesn’t contain any identifiable name or contact info–one almost wonders if it’s actually a marker for a gas line or other underground infrastructure. With that thought in mind, it’s clearly a single embedded piece with no valve opening or other obvious utile function. Maybe someone just wanted to mark a gas line, or maybe “G” just liked to keep things simple.

brass sidewalk plaque for Nick Scotti, Concrete Contr., Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti, Concrete Contr., Oakland

brass sidewalk plaque for Jendoco, Pittsburgh, PA

Jendoco, East Liberty

On the new end of the spectrum come two from Nick Scotti–who we first saw in Larry Kramer’s original sidewalk stamp piece [“Stamp Collecting: More Pittsburgh Easter Eggs, Set in Concrete“, Pittsburgh Orbit, May 5, 2017]–and a much more modern-looking one from a corporate parking lot poured by Jendoco. While these aren’t quite as exciting as a weathered Wadsworth, it’s great to see current contractors keeping up the tradition.

sidewalk mason engraved stone plaque for R. Albright, Pittsburgh, PA

R. Albright, The Run

A few other interesting tidbits. Mason R. Albright created a unique piece the likes of which we’ve not encountered elsewhere. Albright has apparently had his name, phone number, and an installation date etched into stone which was then set into the poured concrete of a sidewalk on Saline Street in The Run (above). It ain’t brass, but it’s still very much of the calling-card plaque variety, so we’re including it here.

Alternately, just one sleepy intersection–the corner of Lytton and Parkman Aves. in the Schenley Farms section of Oakland–has these embedded brass street names oriented for pedestrians. They’re neat, but seem like they would have been part of a larger strategy of infrastructure design that either was never adopted on the wider neighborhood, or (more likely) are the last remnants after other sections of sidewalk were replaced due to damage or the installation of accessible curb cuts, etc. Sadly, we may never know.

brass letters spelling street name Lytton Ave., Pittsburgh, PA

Lytton Ave., Schenley Farms/Oakland

brass letters spelling street name Parkman Ave., Pittsburgh, PA

Parkman Ave., Schenley Farms/Oakland

Many thanks to ace sidewalk-stepper and detail-procurer Paul Schifino with his contributions to this story.


* This same terrific Wadsworth rising-sun-over-mountains plaque has also been spotted in East Liberty and Millvale.

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.