An Orbit Obit: The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern

mural for Frankowski family with people holding giant pierogie, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

It takes a village to raise a pierogi. Frankowski family coat-of-arms.

This one’s personal.

Over at Orbit headquarters, we wailed into the night over the loss of Chiodo’s–it with its dusty, historic underwear hanging from the ceiling and the Mystery Sandwich haunting our dreams. We took it easy with the Casio beats and flared collars of The Casual Approach (R.I.P.) who defied gravity every weekend at Dormont’s Suburban Lounge (also R.I.P.). Letter-writing campaigns begged our congressmen to turn The Chart Room into a national monument and there should have been so many more piano sing-a-longs at Moré. The days of dollar pints and four-bit “lady drafts” at bygone Lawrenceville watering holes like Michalski’s, A.J.’s, and Salak’s feel like ancient history–but it wasn’t actually that long ago.

The loss of these iconic, convivial, rowdy barrelhouses are all just eyewash to the earthquake that music-making/beer-drinking/pierogi-eating/squirt-gun-shooting Pittsburgh felt last week. The “Polish party house in the heart of Little Italy,” has bled the grease from its deep friers, removed the ceramic stein collection, carved wooden stage bear, and pictures of the pope. They’ve powered down the spotty PA system and shooed out the last late-night booze hounds. The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has closed forever.

gated front door for the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Closed forever, sigh.

[Cue: shimmering soft focus and a one-two polka beat.]

The year was 1996–some time in November. Arriving from The South with its still-turning mid-fall leaves and pleasant, temperate climate, Pittsburgh was soaking in several inches of days-old dirty street slush as a steady freezing rain dripped from the unrelenting overcast gray-black sky. Needless to say, this blogger-to-be had found a new home.

By pure chance–we’re talking pre-Internet tourism here–The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern was the very first place he spent a nickel. It was on a Polish Platter, and I’m pretty sure it still cost just $5.95 at the time. Carbs are pretty cheap in The South–but they don’t come with names like golabki and kluski. Although my middle-aged metabolism can’t demolish a plate like it used to, the food was as delicious just a few weeks ago as it was all the way back in the ’90s.

plate of Polish food including pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Oh, how I will miss you. The Polish Platter (“Red”): pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski

For the next, gulp, twenty-one years the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has been the most long-running, consistent presence in this transplant’s Pittsburgh experience. The doctor only prescribes Polish Platters a couple times a year [yes, I know: find a new doctor!] but it’s been rare to go more than a couple months without receiving an audio-visual screening from BBT’s musical stage.

Typically, these are administered by local bands. [Full disclosure: the author is sometimes playing in one of them.] But despite BBT’s tiny size, cramped quarters, and DIY show-running [bands were responsible for collecting at the door, setting up the PA system, and running their own sound], the bar has played host to amazing run of touring players too numerous to list here.

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band at BBT, August, 2017

You think that’d be it, right? It’s a tavern: there’s beer, bar food, and weekend rock-and-roll–what else do you need? Well, you may not need much more, but the BBT plays into a legacy of Pittsburgh culture so deep we may take years–decades, even–to dig out from the loss.

Back in the day, then-city councilman Jim Ferlo held an annual Pittsburgh Marathon party in BBT’s side parking lot, complete with polka bands, a hot dog buffet, and cold beer. A highlight of the event was seeing exhausted runners, just hitting “the wall” at the marathon’s 23-mile point, veer straight off Liberty Avenue and plunge into the soft welcoming foam of a free Iron City Beer. Every local politician made it a point to stop by the BBT’s temporary parking lot stage to dole out cash “prizes” for things like “best dancer” and “cutest puppy”. Across the street, Foodland’s electronic weekly specials sign would be programmed to read the jingoist message Go runners. Beat Kenyans.

mural of Polish towns coats of arms painted on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish towns coats of arms, BBT parking lot

And then there are those murals. Dozens–maybe a hundred–different coats-of-arms of Polish towns you’ve probably never heard of. Crests with identifying names like Głowno, Szczecin, Gryfów Ślaski, and Żywiec ring the inside of BBT’s short concrete parking lot wall and come decorated in all manner of old world imagery–castles, bulls, red stags, and green griffins; kings, knights, mermaids, the sun & plow.

It’s gone now, but an earlier generation will forever associate the exterior of the bar with both the wonderful potted-flower Bloomfield mural/sign and [BBT founder/patriarch] Stan Frankowski’s wall-sized polemics attacking local politicians, anti-union foes, and corporate corruption. After Stan’s passing in 2005, his sons Steve and Karl took over the business. They kept up all the other traditions–including the annual day-after-Easter Dyngus Day party–but toned-down the see-it-from-the-suburbs politics. The updated red-and-white paint job, side screened porch/smoker’s lounge, and Polish falcons still look great.

coats of arms for Rodom and Radlin painted as murals on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Coats-of-arms from Rodom and Radlin

I didn’t make it out to the final night at the BBT–the body just wouldn’t let me. Luckily, Mike Shanley gave us all a pretty good scene report plus a slew of his own reminiscences in this week’s City Paper.

That said, news began to circulate about the (then-future) closing of the bar back in the late winter, so 2017 became a kind-of year-long living goodbye to venue. I played a last show there, saw a (different) last show there, and yes, ate a last Polish Platter. For the piece on his recent book of poetry, we interviewed Scott Silsbe over Strawb ambers in BBT’s breezy side porch on a lovely day in May.

mirrored wall behind the bar and patrons at Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

BBT near the end: bevelled mirror bar, blood red ceiling, and big cats on TV.

As much as I’ll personally miss the place, I don’t fault the Frankowski brothers one bit for the decision to move on. Running a bar has got to be really tough work full of long, late hours dealing with no small amount of jerks, deadbeats, drunkards, and bodily fluids. Hats off to anyone who can put up with all that and still keep smiles on their faces the way Stan, Steve, Karl, and Sheila always did.

The Orbit certainly hopes the Frankowskis find a good new owner for the building and business so they can finally relax on the weekends without the sound of electric guitars ringing in their ears. Hopefully, the next tenants at 4412 Liberty Ave. will understand the legacy and history they’re dealing with–maybe they’ll even keep up the outside murals.

exterior of Bloomfield Bridge Tavern with Polish red and white flag and logo, Pittsburgh, PA

Hallowed ground. Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

A final note. “New” Pittsburgh: if you’re out there listening and planning the next local, organic, hop-infused culinary venture, please–sweet Jesus–consider adding a Polish Platter to the menu. I’m sure I won’t be the only one pining for the taste and willing to pony up every chance I get–at least as much as the doctor allows.

metal window cover painted with message "The worst form of failure is the failure to try.", Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Water’s Gone Cold: An Elegy for Tea Bags

brick wall painted with logo for Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Side wall of Tea Bags with logo/mural (and painted-over tag line), Lawrenceville

Once, I’m told by my lifelong Lawrenceville neighbor, Butler Street included a bar whose sign advertised No TV, but a fight every night. Mark claims the message was no exaggeration–just pure statement of fact. That space is now V3 personal (fancy) pizzas. There’s still no television, but it’s doubtful there’s an equal amount of trouble.

Another friend talks about a saloon in Michigan called The Home Bar, so named because “no matter what you did, you can always come back”. The Home Bar is apparently still around, allowing Kalamazoo’s citizenry back in some thirty years on.

Tea Bags bar logo of anthropomorphized tea bag with sunglasses and toothy grin, Pittsburgh, PA

Advertising one’s establishment as a source of a certain amount of calamity seems like a strange business model, but it obviously works…enough.

Always in hot water has been Tea Bags goofy salacious tag line for at least a couple decades. It used to be featured in big scrolling letters under the rest of the bar’s alley side mural, but was sadly painted over a few years ago*. The slogan remains etched into the custom behind-the-bar mirrors, but they won’t last long…and you probably can’t get in to see them anyway.

The Main Street Lawrenceville/Bloomfield corner bar has yelled its final last call, packed up its Cherry Master machine, green bar stools, large jars of alcohol-soaked cherries, and loaded them into a box truck directed to who-knows-where. The process to transfer Tea Bags liquor license to new owners is well underway.

mirror behind bar with "Tea Bags - Always in Hot Water" logo, Pittsburgh, PA

A well-stocked bar: soaked cherries, potato chips, Handi-wipes, paper plates.

The new, yet-to-be-named business taking over the space [assuming all the paperwork goes through] will be a fair departure from Tea Bags’ nuts-and-bolts no-frills corner bar. From Bloomfield Development Corp.’s posting of the business plan:

“The bar/restaurant is a price friendly location for those who seek educated bar-man ship (sic.) and well crafted cocktails, with an approachable yet notable beer selection, and easy yet technique driven menu items. Pop culture, art, music and skateboarding nuances will account for the subtle design details to create an easy feeling atmosphere that is appreciated by the local 25-35 age range.”

man and woman at bar with bartender looking on, Tea Bags, Pittsburgh, PA

Looks like somebody’s in hot water! The kind of typical skateboarding Millenials who will inevitably gravitate to the new bar’s “easy-feeling atmosphere”.

Call this blogger an old, non-skateboarding fuddy duddy**, but it’s painful to see oneself demographically excluded from a new place in the neighborhood before they’ve even selected a name.

It’s becoming a sad, repeated refrain–even right here in the virtual pages of Pittsburgh Orbit. The old place catering to every(wo)man closes from declining business or gets bought-out or someone just retires. The new owners want to get them some of that Google and Uber dough. Why eke out a living on dollar Jello shots when you charge six bucks for an I.P.A. and ten for a hamburger? It makes economic sense–if you can sell it–but feels like a little part of the city is dying with every one of these upsell transitions.

3-story brick building with Tea Bags bar on first floor, Pittsburgh, PA

Not an optical illusion: Tea Bags trapezoidal shape

This blogger won’t claim to have been a regular at the bar [so maybe I’m part of the problem!] but he’s slanted a few in its smoky, natural light-defying confines over the years. Along with Wilson’s Pharmacy, Sunoco, and the 54C, Tea Bags has been the most constant presence in the general Penn & Main crossroads for the last twenty years. I must have walked, ridden, and driven past the bar thousands of times by now–pretty much every single day. Even with that frequency, seeing the big-toothed grin on the sunglasses-wearing anthropomorphized tea bag never fails to bring a smile.

If it were up to Pittsburgh Orbit, we’d extract the entire Woolslayer Way mural wall and preserve it forever in a sacred, public place–just like Romare Bearden’s glorious “Pittsburgh Memories” mosaic in the Gateway Plaza T station.

That probably won’t happen, though. So take a little advice from us and get thee over to Main Street to check out Tea Bags’ smiling tea bags while you still can. The water’s cooling down mighty fast.

mural detail of anthropomorphized tea bag wearing sunglasses and with wide toothy grin, Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Grinning tea bag logo (detail)

* The reason is unknown, but we assume graffiti cover-up as the likely explanation.
** Not to mention grammar snob. Whoever wrote this business plan needs to learn how to deploy a hyphen correctly!

An Orbit Obit: Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Duquesne

interior of former Holy Trinity Catholic church with spray paint graffiti and sky visible through the roof, Duquesne, PA

Before the fall. Holy Trinity’s chancel and still (barely) intact roof

The term ruin porn makes it sound so dirty. The Orbit likes to consider its mission[1] a noble one: peek into special, disappearing, fantastic places; record, document, and tell their tales–especially the ones that won’t be around that long.

But there’s a nebby, morbid, and yes, prurient curiosity too. How did things get this way? What’s going to happen next? Why isn’t anyone paying attention here? If I were a citizen of Duquesne, or any of its struggling sister boros, would I be resentful of some ne’er-do-well blogger poking his bicycle-riding picture-taking schnoz into my town’s business? I don’t know, but yeah…maybe.

interior of former Holy Trinity Catholic church with spray paint graffiti and sky visible through the roof, Duquesne, PA

Holy Trinity’s nave, viewed from the second floor alley window

The news came just this week that Monday’s huge thunderstorm had finally collapsed the roof and several wall sections of the century-old former Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Duquesne. The church is so close to catastrophe that nearby residents have been relocated and the city is expediting plans to demolish what remains out of safety concerns.

The Orbit had the good fortune–or, at least, good timing–to stumble upon and check out Holy Trinity mere weeks before the walls literally came tumbling down. We captured a few final images of the church, its threadbare, about-to-drop ceiling, and the sad beauty of a kind of old world liturgical construction that we’ll surely never see created anew.

exterior of former Holy Trinity Catholic church, Duquesne, PA missing windows and trees growing over front steps

Exterior, from South 1st Street

Pittsburgh is littered with beautiful, old churches. Many of the ones that no longer function as houses of worship have been repurposed into any manner of creative second lives. Performance halls, community centers, art studios, living spaces, a hookah lounge, and even a brewery have been reborn from sacred bones. Last year we got all dewey-eyed drooling over the potential of the former St. George’s Syrian Orthodox Church in the lower Hill. This blogger’s co-worker is still trying to figure out what to do with the combined church and school he bought in Tarentum for the price of a suped-up SUV earlier this year.

Holy Trinity - mural Moses

Chancel mural

So it’s worth remembering that despite metro Pittsburgh’s relative urban health–verging on full-on priced-out gentrification in some necks of the wood–places like Duquesne exist just a couple miles down the river…any of the rivers. They’re dying (quite literally) for any investment.

In Duquesne, according to the WTAE report, city managers can’t even find the owner of the old church. Twenty years ago–maybe not even that long–the former Holy Trinity, abandoned by its congregation in 1970, was probably still in a state where it could have been saved, loved, and re-used. Now, we’ve not just lost the potential of preserving something unique and beautiful, but that very thing has become a safety hazard to even leave around as standing ruins. Sigh.

Holy Trinity - mural lamb

Chancel mural

Mrs. The Orbit and I sometimes squabble about what the changes to Pittsburgh’s fortunes will really amount to. Will the Lawrencevillianization of the East End spill across the rivers and turn the city into another place where, you know, “real people” can’t afford to live any more? Or do we just have way too much available space[2] and cheap housing with nowhere near the curb appeal of a New York or a San Francisco?[3]

This optimist tends to believe the latter. But if, by some crazy twist of socio-economic happenstance, every looking-for-a-change young person really does decide to turn Pittsburgh into the “next Portland”, hopefully it will mean a breath of life to the immediate industry towns just outside city limits which will inevitably absorb some of the overflow. If we could see good things come to Ambridge, New Kensington, McKeesport, and, yes, Duquesne, well, that might make it all worthwhile. Let’s just hope it happens before all the roofs collapse.

view through broken glass block window in shape of a cross to dark interior of former Holy Trinity Catholic church, Duquesne, PA

View through (replacement) second floor rear window (from Oak Alley)

All photos taken July 25, 2016 just a month prior to the roof and wall collapse on August 29.

Also: Lost Monongahela has a nice write-up with some great photos on the history of Holy Trinity and the congregation’s decision to build a brand new church in nearby West Mifflin and abandon their original home in Duquesne.

[1] At least, one of its missions.
[2] Pittsburgh’s current city population is around 325,000–just about half of what it was in the 1960 census–there is a lot of vacant land here.
[3] Not to mention the sunshine and no-snow climate of a Charlotte, Miami, or Los Angeles.

An Orbit Obit: The Lost Art of Found Photographs

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown girl

You used to find them everywhere. Someone else’s photographs, lost, torn to bits, or simply discarded as substandard. Dropped from wallets, ripped-up in tear-stained anger, fallen from automobile door pockets and sun visors, blown by the wind. Once, an entire paper bag full of slides from a stranger’s family vacation out West.

O, the riches of big box parking lots of yore! Rejected photos were so often immediately jettisoned right onto the lined pavement of the Target or Rite Aid that processed them. You can picture the disgruntled customer flipping through a just-picked-up batch in the front seat of his or her sedan. For every stray finger obscuring the lens or flash that didn’t pop, a picture tossed right out the window. This pre-blogger was even known to rescue misfires directly from photo processing waste bins[1].

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown baby

The Orbit‘s files are stuffed with dozens–probably hundreds–of found photos, but now that the world’s gone digital, we almost never come across them anymore. So that’s what made this recent find such a gas.

Kirsten Ervin[2] occasionally merges civic duty and her daily constitutional with a cleanup of litter found in Lawrenceville’s Arsenal Park. That will make it’s own fine story–hopefully one day appearing on these very virtual pages–but we’ll leave the telling of it to Kirsten. Suffice to say that among the many curiosities that eluded the waste bin and made it home was this collection of photographs.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown boy

What a find indeed! Five wallet-sized color photos, one each of two babies (or, possibly, two photos of the same baby), one boy, and two young ladies of indeterminate age. In each, their time spent outdoors in the elements of Arsenal Park has drastically affected the images[3]. A girl’s posed smile barely visible through a swirl of dreamy fog–her red hair and purple sweater psychedelically lifting and blurring into the background. The pair of infants seem blissfully unaware of an encroaching ooze. The woman’s big grin and shoulder length brown hair the last recognizable elements as her face and torso dissolve into the picture’s white background.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown baby

They’re arresting images, and it’s everything the chase for found photos ever promised. The standard questions are there: who are these people? and how did the photos end up here? But it’s also so much more. The beautiful decay and accidental destruction of the original pictures is lovely and haunting and thoroughly thought-provoking. If these are the last found photos we ever come across, we’ll know we went out with a bang.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown woman

All photos courtesy of Kirsten Ervin.

[1] Yes, this is kind of cheating, and no, we’re not proud–but this story isn’t about that.
[2] Full disclosure: a full time resident of Chez Orbit.
[3] Cleaning the mud-soaked photographs following their return home may have inadvertently contributed to the image distortion.

An Orbit Obit: Clemente Street Art

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium (detail), 2013

Today it begins. The period from now until the early dark eves of October is, for many sports fans, a restoration of when things feel right. It is a time of chin music and LOOGies, where men scratch their groins and spit sunflower seeds in concrete dugouts awash in discarded Gatorade cups. It is the season where contests are interrupted at the discretion of “managers” who summon pitchers and catchers at the mound for tense mid-game summits, runners in scoring position the imminent threat. Phrases like “O-and-two, the count,” “low and outside,” “check swing,” and “foul ball” will be repeated ad infinitum. Rivers of yellow mustard, sweet relish, and, yes, ketchup (heathens!) will adorn a non-stop parade of frankfurters. It is a time when spring’s inevitable showers send both players and spectators alike to huddle under whatever protection the park offers while radio announcers ramble on in aimless filibusters to occupy the dead air. It is baseball season.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2014

Wheel Emporium, a retail outlet and installation garage for what they used to call mag wheels, existed at the corner of Penn Avenue and 34th Street in Lawrenceville for years. The small shop was shuttered some time around 2012 (?) and plywood installed to protect the giant panes of glass in its showroom windows.

Though this blogger would sooner, uh, put ketchup on his hot dog than pay money for fancy auto parts, we always enjoyed passing the little shop with its big windows and array of shiny chrome. But what we liked even more was what came after Wheel Emporium closed: the terrific pair of elaborate street art tributes to Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente.

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2013

A note to bloggers: always get an establishing shot! We sadly just took close-up photos of the artwork–and of course they’re now long gone*–so there’s not really a sense of how the pieces relate. For sure, though, we can say there were two nearly life-sized black-and-white enlargements of old photos wheat-pasted to Wheel Emporium’s protective plywood. In the first, Clemente is in his batting stance, left leg starting its lift in anticipation of the incoming pitch. The other–perhaps just seconds later–shows the batter watching the rocket he’s just launched sail from the park, his body twisted in the follow-through of the heavy swing. In both, the artist(s) applied shards of cut painted wood to the plywood which suggest waves of energy coming directly from Clemente.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2014

The tale of the Clemente art took a strange turn a year later. At some point in 2014, the colored wood pieces were all removed and the rest of the exterior plywood painted over in a deep blue color. Amazingly, though, whoever did this chose to preserve the wheat pasted photos, leaving an equally-effective alternate version of the previous year’s art. In these, we see Clemente’s two-tone image really “pop” against the monochrome blue background. It would have been fantastic to re-install the wooden additions on top of the blue, which would have looked far superior to the noisy graffiti’d wood grain, but we can’t always get what we want.

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium (full), 2013

Roberto Clemente is debatably the most beloved Pittsburgh Pirate for his prowess both in the batter’s box and out in right field (which helped the team win two World Series over his eighteen year tenure) and also for his charitable efforts off the field. His life ended tragically in a plane crash Clemente was on for a humanitarian relief mission to Nicaragua in 1972. For all of these reasons, he’s certainly a fitting subject for not just his bronze statue at PNC Park, but also the street art tributes that appeared in Lawrenceville. We’d love to see more of them.

That said, The Orbit would be equally enthusiastic about seeing similar street-level honors bestowed on other Pirate greats. Imagine a stenciled and spray-painted Honus Wagner or a 3-D “Pops” Stargell constructed from recycled materials. If you don’t see the opportunities in “Big Poison” and “Little Poison” (brothers/teammates Paul and Lloyd Waner), then you’re not trying very hard. Hell, why not create a new set of Greenberg Gardens in the city’s many vacant lots? I guess we need to quit yapping about it and start…planting about it.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District (current)

Addendum: We were so glad to see the tradition of Clemente wheat-pasting continue on a recent ride through the Strip District. This photo was taken just last week and shows what appears to be a relatively new photo of Clemente pasted to a vacant storefront on the 2700 block of Penn Avenue. In it, Clemente’s bat is pointed directly at the camera and he displays a look that’s both steely and also posed, perhaps stifling his characteristic smile to crack serious for the photographer.

bicycle lane marker of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Bicycle lane marker, Clemente Bridge

One final addition: over at The Portland Orbit, they recently ran a story called “The Beautiful People of the Bike Lane” about the terrific work of that city’s Board of Transportation to make customized, humorous bicycle lane markers. This cyclist was totally jealous and wished Pittsburgh would do something as fun and interesting. Well, it turns out that we do have at least a few these customized “bike guys.” You guessed it: they’re honoring the very same Roberto Clemente on the downtown bridge that now bears his name. It’s definitely Clemente art on the street, even if it’s not, you know, street art.

* The former Wheel Emporium was razed in 2015 and at present there’s a much larger building under construction that appears to be another combined retail/residential mixed-use space.

An Orbit Obit: Squirrel Hill’s Double Ghost

Ghost building with a ghost sign for Approved Lubrication, Pittsburgh, PA

Before: the Approved Lubrication ghost building/ghost sign where Poli used to be, Squirrel Hill (October, 2015)

What a bummer! Whatabummer, (and even) WHAT. A. BUMMER. Squirrel Hill: you really let this one get away–and don’t tell us The Orbit wasn’t there to warn you! In less time than Cop Rock was on the air, we managed to both take flight and burn our wings on the heat of the sun.

As detailed in an Orbit story from October, the tragic fire that destroyed the former Poli restaurant, as well as the building next door, had the miraculous silver lining of exposing not one, but two pretty terrific visual artifacts of previous times, one right on top of the other.

First, there was as crisp and clean an outline of a one-story ghost house (possibly ghost kitchen or ghost retail?) as we’ve ever seen. Then, under that, was a faint, but still appreciable ghost sign that some sleuthing revealed as an advertisement for Approved Lubrication, likely from the 1930s or ’40s.

blank wall painted over to cover former ghost house and ghost sign at the site of the former Poli Restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA

After: well done, guys (January, 2016)

Sigh. It was, of course, too good to last. By December, whoever owns this lot–or maybe the owner of the big former factory building behind it–decided to send the painting squad out to make sure the entire surface would be devoid of any soul and this cultural history banished from the earth. Mission accomplished.

The genius that picked the Home Depot mens room taupe for the paint color should be given some kind of award. Not only did you rip all the character and history off the wall with a couple cans of exterior enamel, you erased the whole thing with the visual shorthand for bland. Maybe you can get Dockers or Applebee’s to build a franchise on the lot. Well done.

former Poli Restaurant parking sign, Pittsburgh, PA

The (other) last sign of Poli

Now, this blogger has never advocated illegal activity–certainly not vandalism or destruction of private property. But if ever there was a blank surface that was calling–nay, crying–out for some spray paint-wielding bomb squad to enrich the local cultural landscape, this is it. There are forty or fifty feet of clean, unobstructed wall, the prime Murray-meets-Forward five-way intersection, where captive audiences have nothing better to do than check out your work, and an aesthetic and history-erasing wrong to right. The Orbit is, in the parlance of the times, “just sayin'”.

Lot where Poli Restaurant used to be, Pittsburgh, PA

In context: the former Poli lot, all cleaned-up, Squirrel Hill

An Orbit Obit: Where the Buffalo Roamed

sidewalk painting of purple and white buffalo with painted fence

Last photographic evidence of the now-extinct sidewalk buffalo of lower Lawrenceville, Summer 2015

The lore will be passed-down for generations to come. It was a time when proud giants strode the streets (err…sidewalks) of lower Lawrenceville; their brilliant purple, red, white, and gold colors shimmering and electrifying the drab, weed-cracked concrete blocks. Mere mortals freely walked foot-to-hoof with these legendary lords of the great plains. Every one of the animals was rendered in its own style–the group less herd and more party of like-shaped individuals; each creature with its own agenda. Though trampled underfoot, they still managed to stand tall–at least if you stood back far enough to get the angle right.

sidewalk painting of purple, red, and white buffalo

Purple pain: one big hombre

If you find yourself at the corner of 35th and Charlotte Streets in Lawrenceville’s sixth ward, you won’t miss Jeremy Raymer‘s house. The otherwise standard-issue two-story Pittsburgh rowhouse is covered–foundation to soffit–in big, eye-popping mural portraiture. Around the side, a gray, picket fence is more loosely painted in an ever-evolving array of icons. The closest telephone pole is covered in an odd assortment of push-pinned offerings. [More about all of this, hopefully, in some future Orbit story.] The one thing you won’t see anymore is the fantastic parade of buffalo that roamed freely on Raymer’s sidewalks just weeks ago.

sidewalk painting of purple and white buffalo

Lascaux-a-go’alo: caveman street buffalo

It was a surprise to see them disappear so quickly. Street art is by its very nature temporary/ephemeral, but we hope the good stuff will get a little time in the sunshine before the man sends in the clouds. Having just taken these photos in August, we arrived back at the same intersection a mere couple months later with nothing but the faintest outlines of the great beasts remaining. It was a sad reminder of both how fleeting grace can be and also how potentially on-the-verge-of-dissolution pretty much everything is. The great American street bison is clearly no exception.

sidewalk painting of purple, red, and white buffalo

All wound up: mechanique’alo

We got in touch with Mr. Raymer to ask about the sudden extinction of his herd. He verified that indeed he was the perpetrator (the buffalos were loosely based on series of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge taken in late 19th century), planning to make them last, Raymer painted the buffalos in Montana Gold spray paint, and that a neighbor filed an official complaint about the sidewalk paintings. The city’s Graffiti Task Force was called-in and was therefore obligated to power wash them away. (Apparently the city would not have acted but for the formal complaint.) Raymer would like to re-paint his sidewalks with a new to-be-decided theme at some point in the future, but this time he’ll go through official channels to do so.

Sequence of a buffalo (American bison) galloping. Photos taken by Eadweard Muybridge (died 1904), first published in 1887 at Philadelphia (Animal Locomotion).

Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic sequence of a buffalo (American bison) galloping, 1887

The whole thing raises an interesting series of questions. Sidewalks are this curious blend of public and private space and the letter of the law doesn’t necessarily add up logically. Technically, one’s sidewalks are part of the property lot and the homeowner (not the city) is legally responsible for the care and maintenance, including weed, snow, and ice removal, patching and replacing cracked concrete, etc. Sidewalks are undeniably public thoroughfares that everyone uses and are absolutely essential to a healthy urban environment. They also offer great opportunities for expression.

Shouldn’t Raymer (or anyone else) be allowed to decorate his own property–that he’s legally responsible for maintaining–in a way he chooses? Why is he allowed to paint the public-facing fence, but not the adjacent sidewalk, which is inches away and just as visible? If the same neighbors objected to his wall murals, would the city be in power to act on those complaints? And if one is painting his or her own property, does it really count as graffiti?

sidewalk painting of purple and white buffalos

Then: corner buffalo (and friend)

faded outline of a buffalo painted on sidewalk, Pittsburgh, PA

Now: the same corner with the last traces of the once-proud herd of Lawrenceville’s sidewalk buffalo

The Orbit does not pretend to have answers to these questions, nor do we want to vilify the residents who objected to the paintings. That said, this hardcore all-seasons blogging pedestrian would like to see the neighbors of Lawrenceville put that same keep-the-sidewalks-clean enthusiasm put into clearing the inevitable mini glaciers of snow and ice that will arrive any day now.

Maybe down on 35th Street they don’t have this problem, but just a few blocks away I sure do! Every year I slip on un-shoveled winter sidewalks. Most years there is at least one ugly fall that ends with a bent knee, a twisted ankle, or a very literal pain in the ass. These buffalos may look threatening, and they may not be Raymer’s neighbors’ idea of art, but it’s hard to imagine they were really offending anyone. It’s the coming ice age that may do us all in.

To see more of Jeremy Raymer’s work, check him out on Instagram @jeremyMraymer.

An Orbit Obit: The Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street

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

Resurrect dead while you can. The last remaining Smithfield Street Toynbee Tile, Downtown.

It was not that long ago (February, to be exact) when Pittsburgh Orbit filed one of its earliest stories on the great run of five “Toynbee Tiles” that were imprinted on Smithfield Street, approximately one per block from Boulevard of the Allies to Sixth, downtown.

This blogger likes to think The Orbit come a long way since those nascent days of yore, [Only two paragraphs of text? Who was doing the photo editing?] but looking back on this very recent history, it’s also a reminder of how rapidly (and drastically) things can change in the city as a whole. [Young people: for good or bad, back in the ’90s/early aughts, the words “Pittsburgh,” “rapid,” and “change” were never bundled in the same text.]

I’ve gotten in the habit of eyeballing and taking inventory of the Toynbee Tiles every time I ride through downtown, inevitably on Smithfield’s relatively-convenient route from the South Side to the great new Penn Ave. bike lane. It’s news to no one that there’s a tremendous amount of development happening in town right now–you see giant cranes, construction fencing, and torn up pavement everywhere you look. But I was startled to find that as of this past weekend–less than a year after that early blog post–only one out of the five Toynbee Tiles was still intact. The sole survivor (pictured above) is at the corner of Smithfield and Oliver Way.

It doesn’t seem like there was any malice involved here or that the tiles were actively removed in a clean-up effort. [Let’s hope not: the city has far bigger infrastructure-shaped fish to fry.] There just seems to be that much digging up of streets and running new, uh, things under them. The block of Smithfield from Sixth to Seventh has been totally resurfaced.

terra cotta storefront for former G's Restaurant and Pizzeria, Pittsburgh, PA

(The former) G’s Restaurant and Pizzeria on a torn-up Forbes Ave., Downtown

Fifteen years ago, me and a whole bunch of other concerned citizens drank a lot of beers and ate a lot of fried zucchini at The Chart Room in the name of not having downtown Pittsburgh eaten alive (or something like that) (hey: it worked, didn’t it? sort of?). The Chart Room is long gone (heavy sigh), but at least the building didn’t get torn down. [Sadly we can’t say the same for the old nickel bingo parlor across the street.]

No, The Chart Room got mangled by choice, in private hands, without needing any help from eminent domain. It’s strange to have lived through that extreme “Hail Mary”/desperation-style urban planning only to wake up in an entirely new world where big money comes in and builds big things all on its own. It’s different in a whole lot of important, structural ways, but still strangely the same as it seemed like it might have turned out to be. Resurrect dead, indeed.

Ah, hell. If you want The Orbit’s advice, go check out the last Toynbee Tile on Smithfield Street while you still can. It won’t be there forever.

An Orbit Obit: The Myrtle Booth Tanning Salon (Storefront)

Window for former Myrtle Booth Tanning Salon, Pittsburgh, PA

Myrtle Booth Tanning Salon (storefront), R.I.P.

Very recently, the long-vacant storefront at 4116 Main Street in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield finally turned over. By chance, I was lucky enough to have ganked this photo of the most recent business a few months before it disappeared.

Why do I care about an ex-tanning salon? I don’t even like real sun that much! Well, there were just so many little things to love about the Myrtle Booth windows.

I’ve been to Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Booth is clearly a riff on Myrtle Beach, the popular South Carolina beach/party town where many pasty northerners prefer to vacation this time of year. This blogger-to-be used to live just up the coast in Wilmington, NC. In the couple years I lived there, I made the hour-long drive down to Myrtle Beach a number of times, seemingly all for some goofy reason.

I remember driving down with my friends Detlef and David on the former’s quest for plastic pants, a necessary adjunct to the aspirationally-epic rock and roll he was performing at the time. No memory of whether he located them or not. I also remember making the trip with musical pen pal Marion, visiting the southern United States from Great Britain, along with Portland Orbit‘s own David. The parade of signs advertising “shag dancing,” “shag contest,” “shag music,” and just plain “shagging” turned her porcelain English sun-starved cheeks blood red. In the lowlands of the South, nothing could be tamer than shagging, but we understand it means something entirely different across the lake.

Handmade sign advertising shag dancing classes

Shag classes in Myrtle Beach: come join in or watch! [photo: the Internet]

You know what? I was there at least one more time. David (again, Orbit David) (what a prince!) helped me pack up a U-Haul and move from Wilmington to Pittsburgh. My repayment was to take him to Medieval Times wherein we ate giant turkey drumsticks, drank Pepsi products, and watched the pageantry of real humans and horses parading and jousting on the dirt floor of suburban Myrtle Beach sprawl. [Note to those relocating cross-country: an evening for two at Medieval Times is a lot cheaper than professional movers and pretty solid entertainment. Go Green Knight!]

Medieval Times theater/restaurant

Medieval Times: Where you’re the king and the Pepsi products are all-you-can-drink [photo: the Internet]

All this is to say Myrtle Beach is fine, but it’s not the destination I’d name my business after. But then, I probably won’t ever open a tanning salon. As my mother is wont to say, “maybe in my next life…”

Every square inch of their big front windows was painted over

I don’t know that I can name any other business that so successfully blocked out the light as Myrtle Booth. The irony that a tanning salon–in legendarily bleak Pittsburgh, no less–would attempt to thwart real sunlight from breaching its interior is just too great. Maybe people walk around naked in tanning salons? [Note to self: investigate!] I feel like that’s the only plausible explanation for this particular design decision.

The way the window was fallING apart

I can’t remember a time Myrtle Booth was actually open for business and we’ve been in the neighborhood for fifteen years now. You can see that aged wear it the way the white background paint has flaked off and has an amazing art-imitates-life look of loose sand on a wooden surface. I also love the single aborted attempt at graffiti in the pair of small black spray paint runs in the bottom right corner. What happened? Did the assailant just run out of paint at the wrong time? S/he never felt the need to come back and finish the job? Kids these days! No commitment!

Windows for Overcast Skate Shop retail store, Pittsburgh, PA

Overcast Skate Shop, the new occupants of 4116 Main Street

Back in May, we eulogized the relocation of Goeller Generator, a decades-old non-sexy business that cashed-in on rapidly-gentrifying Lawrenceville to make way for new upscale eats and digs in the Sixth Ward. The change from Myrtle Booth to its new life as Overcast Skate Shop is happening in the same general part of town, but with a very different set of circumstances. It’s hard to feel anything negative about a new business moving into to a storefront that’s been empty for so long and we wish them well, but I’ll still miss those big front windows.

An Orbit Obit: Goeller Generator, R.I.P.

faded sign for Goeller Generator, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Goeller Generator in Lawrenceville, 1946-2015

It was mere weeks ago that I finally took note (and, thankfully, took photo) of the beautifully faded Goeller Generator sign against the equally-transfixing rough weathered multi-color wall of the retail space next door (current home of gift shop Divertido).

Imagine my surprise, then, to pass this week by a pile of rubble and big hole in the ground where Goeller used to be.  The squat, one-story pair of cinder-block structures were no architectural marvel, and I can’t say that I’ve ever required the offerings of a generator sales and service shop (so maybe I’m part of the problem!) but I liked the fact that it was there–a constant among all the change that’s happened around it on Butler Street in Lawrenceville.

construction site with a large hole dug in the ground

A big hole in the ground

The move is so recent that there’s no mention of it on Goeller’s website, which still states proudly “We have been in the same location since 1946,” and had only in the last year or two gotten a new lit-up painted sign/mural on the wall facing 36th Street.

I e-asked around, my neighbors delivered, and the story is predictable. Zoned-retail real estate on Butler Avenue is worth a pretty penny right now and Goeller cashed-in to make way for a new development featuring a hamburger restaurant called Burgh’ers on the first floor and apartments upstairs. One report mentioned that Goeller will continue operating in a new location.

cinder-block wall of partially demolished Goeller Generator, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Over-the-Wall Club bonus: Goeller’s last wall standing with Our Lady of the Angels

Now, this blogger can eat the hell out of a fancy hamburger, even if he’s disgusted with himself for doing so. I’m also glad the neighborhood’s empty storefronts have mostly filled up and I like having more than Hambone’s and Barb’s Country Kitchen as walkable dining options. [No disrespect: I still patronize both!] But the whiplash rate of development/gentrification in Lawrenceville is pretty scary. Forever we’ve heard about this stuff happening in other cities, but I naively imagined it would never be so in Pittsburgh, let alone right in my neighborhood. Sigh.

If Frankie’s closes, it’s time to move to Rankin.