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.