The Scarlet Letter: Saying Goodbye in New Kensington

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

X marks the spot. Former Penn Washer & Appliance Service building (c. 1910) on 10th Street, tagged for trouble.

The three-story, brick structure stands alone on a block surrounded by vacant lots. It’s got the obvious profile of many turn-of-the-century urban downtown buildings: a big storefront on the ground floor, apartments upstairs, ornamental brickwork at the crown, and the date of construction, 1910, etched into a stone header.

Most recently, the little building on 10th Street was the home of Penn Washer & Appliance Service. But between the age of the hand-painted sign and the amount of viney overgrowth consuming the façade, it’s probably safe to say no one’s had their Kenmore serviced here for some time.

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

4th Ave.

Every time we visit New Kensington, there’s a little less of it there. It’s not that the hillsides are eroding or the river is rising or municipal properties are being sold off to neighboring boroughs. No, the land is holding tight, but the city is losing its downtown buildings at an alarming rate.

In other places, you might see official Condemned paperwork stapled to the front of a “dead building standing” or maybe there’s no warning at all–one day it’s there; the next there’s a pile of rubble. But in New Kensington, derelict buildings are literally marked as living on borrowed time with a big red X crudely painted across a white square of plywood nailed to the front door.

small wood frame house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

5th Ave.

Officially, the red Xs don’t necessarily mean the site will be torn down, but rather it’s a warning for emergency crews and first-responders that the building is unoccupied and structurally unsound. X marks the spot where the roof–or the floor–could cave in at any moment.

Unofficially, it’s really hard to imagine anyone investing in the massive undertaking of saving–or at least stabilizing–any of these buildings in New Kensington. There’s just not that kind of money for such a limited demand. So while the X is telling us be careful, it’s really saying goodbye.

two brick retail buildings in downtown New Kensington, PA with second floor windows removed and plywood covering the storefronts

404-412 9th Street, Sept. 2018 [photo: Google street view]

The last time The Orbit was in town (some time in 2019) we noticed the red X’s across a pair of side-by-side commercial buildings on 9th Street, the main crossway through downtown if you’re coming straight off the Schmitt Bridge. Stupidly, no one took a picture then [note to self: always record!], but The Internet had our back[1]. (See photo from 2018, above.)

That last Google drive-by shows a pre-X-marked era when the once-charming pair of c. 1900 brick retail buildings are clearly not in a good place. All the windows have been removed, the big glass storefronts replaced by temporary plywood, and from the amount of daylight we’re seeing, it’s obvious one of the roofs is completely gone.

vacant lot where buildings have recently been demolished, downtown New Kensington, PA

404-412 9th Street, Jan. 2020

Returning to the scene just last month, 404-412 9th Street has been erased from the earth. Two buildings still stand on the block like bookends on an otherwise empty shelf. In between are 40 or 50 feet of vacant lot, reseeded with new fescue that is coming in nicely with all the recent rain. In the distance–across yet another vacant downtown lot–lies the suddenly-exposed side of a two-story brick building facing 4th Avenue.

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

5th Ave.

Throughout downtown New Kensington, you’ll see the tell-tale red Xs on buildings big and small, houses and commercial structures, on obvious death traps and others that look perfectly fine from the sidewalk right outside.

Take, for example, this yellow brick storefront on the 900 block of 5th Ave. (see photo, above) Aside from the obvious lack of a street-facing entrance door–which is a little weird, for sure–all the windows are intact, the redone masonry work on the first-floor façade looks perfect, and it’s even on a stable block with (literally) upstanding neighbors.

older brick commercial building with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

5th Ave.

Just a block away, still on 5th Ave., is half-block-long row of five single-story brick storefronts. A leftover hand-stenciled sign informs us that space #4 was most recently home to Bobby’s New York Fashion (see photo, above). Perhaps Bobby left New Ken for the five boroughs and that’s what started the whole exodus–either that, or Alcoa shutting down their massive riverfront plant.

Regardless, another etched stone inlay names and dates the structure as McDonough Bldg. 1916. While it’s tough for anyone to make a go of retail today, it’s easy to imagine this sweet set of five pocket-sized, pedestrian-friendly storefronts populated with quirky small retailers, a little art gallery, business or professional offices. Instead, ex-Bobby’s and the one next door are flagged with the scarlet letter.

former Syrian restaurant marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

Now, none of these downtown New Kensington buildings are the Sistine Chapel and when they reach the point where they could kill someone, something obviously has to happen.

But these kinds of stout brick-and-mortar urban spaces have an intrinsic value–historical, architectural, and aesthetic–that represent a period of expansive American opportunity. New Kensington built these places when our cities were growing like crazy, immigrants from all over the world were pouring into the country, America still made stuff, and things were built to last … and look good doing it. It was also before both the Depression and the automobile would come along and shut everything down and then move everyone out of town, respectively.

We’ll also throw in that shoe leather beats car tires; sidewalks and street trees beat parking lots. Downtown New Ken has its share of problems, but it’s still got a great, walkable core with the potential for just about anything.

wood frame house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

wood frame house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

brick house marked with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave.

I don’t know what the answer is. It is a cruel irony that while much of metro Pittsburgh is–for the first time in generations–rapidly escalating its cost-of-living, there’s a fully intact little city just 20 miles up Rt. 28 that can’t find anyone to populate its nice little downtown. The fantasy urban planner in me imagines all kinds of possibilities, but the realist knows I wouldn’t want to take any of them on.

If you get a chance, though, get yourself up to New Kensington, check out Voodoo Brewery’s rehab of a gorgeous old art deco theater into its newest tap room and beer garden [note: not quite open just yet!], get a weird pizza from P&M [yes, that’s technically in next-door Arnold], an Ethiopian coffee from Kafa Buna, or a Reuben from Eazer’s. While you’re there, say goodbye to some new old friends–they’re already marked for you.

older buildings with red "X" for demolition, New Kensington, PA

3rd Ave. (rear)


[1] An earlier, undated, photo on New Ken’s wiki page shows the 404 9th painted white and there still appears to be an open business in 412 9th (at least). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Kensington,_Pennsylvania#/media/File:New_Kensington,_Pennsylvania_(8482190929).jpg

Q: Who Can Take a Rainbow and Make the World Taste Good? A: The Randyland Can

elaborately painted former storefront, now Randyland, in Pittsburgh, PA

All the colors, all the time: Randyland, Arch Street, North Side

Even on one’s second, third, or fourth visit, there is still a lot left to take in. Dangling fruit and topiary flora; psychedelic pattern-over-pattern detail and wooden animals spinning their wings in the breeze; funhouse mirrors elongate space and disembodied mannequin heads make sure someone’s looking out for you at all times.

With all these competing attention-grabbers, what will stay with you most are the colors. The phrase “every crayon in the box” comes to mind–but it’s not quite accurate here. You’ll find no dour grays or bland beiges, nor any ugly browns or heavy black. The colors are more like an exploded rainbow dipped in a dream: big, bright, and bold, fully saturated with no restrictions on theme or palette.

wooden backyard arbor decorated with plastic fruit at Randyland

Arbor fruit and psychedelic stairs

By now, Randyland needs (almost) no introduction. The North Side house of many murals, its open-to-the-public garden art environment, decorated fences, adjoining buildings, and extending-to-the-street pole art have been featured in travel sites, airline magazines, city visitor guides, and a zillion Instragram selfies.

That level of publicity usually takes a location out of our purview … usually. But Randyland is also such a special place–so individual, fun, giving, personal, positive, and, yes, colorful that we also can’t not include it in The Orbit‘s broader map of Pittsburgh’s you need to see this cultural high points. Plus, we’ve been negligent on including a Mexican War Streets story and it’s high time we right that wrong.

map of the North Side of Pittsburgh rendered as 3-D mural at Randyland

3-D Central North Side map (excerpt)

However it happened, Pittsburgh’s North Side ended up with an outsize share of the city’s big name cultural and tourist attractions. The Andy Warhol Museum, National Aviary, Children’s Museum, and Carnegie Science Center are all within (long) blocks of each other, as are the ball parks for both The Steelers and Pirates. The North Side also hosts slightly less name-brand amenities like The Mattress Factory, St. Anthony’s Reliquary, The Hazlett Theatre, Bicycle Heaven, and the newish (but terrificish) Alphabet City. It would be negligent to not mention that that the city’s only casino also ended up on the far “North Shore.” (Sigh.)

direction signs outside Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

All roads lead to Randyland

So it is entirely fitting that Randyland is right here, on Arch Street, at the absolute geographical center of The North Side. This place–both visionary and as grass roots and down-to-earth as they come–seeks to be a welcome beacon to all of Pittsburgh’s disparate citizens, as well as all of her visitors. Those who come to our fair city and ignore the Land of Randy in favor of a roll on the slots or pre-game beers in a parking lot do so at their own peril. You’ve been warned.

handmade welcome signs in many different languages at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Section of “The largest international welcome wall in America”

Whether The largest international welcome wall in America can really claim that honor is probably up for debate. Regardless, Randyland has the interior of the Arch Street fence fully decked out with hand-painted arrows that bienvenidosmurakaza nezaüdvözöljük, and haere-mai visitors from around the world into Randy’s little corner of it.

The property’s side shed is well-stocked with shelves full of blanks ready for visitors to decorate with new welcome messages. A sign by the project mentions the creator’s welcome message  “must be your ancestry,” suggesting a United Nations-like visitor count has already made Randyland a stop on their American adventure.

wooden painted cutout of a musician playing a horn at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Play, baby, play … and then dream big

Around the east and south sides of Randyland, facing Arch and Jacksonia Streets, are big sections of wooden picket fence. It’s likely the first thing you’ll see after the Randyland pseudo-storefront right on the corner. Like everything else on the property, these are decorated in multiple layers of swirling psychedelic bubbles, little round fish eye mirrors, and spinning whirligigs on off-kilter poles.

Atop all this are a series of life-size, 2-D wooden cutouts of musicians and dancers. Wearing fabulously groovy patterns, caught mid-stride and in full blown-out jam mode, they seem to all be at a swinging good-time party no one would want to miss. Among all the eccentric oddball entries scattered about Randyland, these painted cutout figures are a really incredible collection of work that would stand on its own in any environment.

hand-painted cut-out of man playing long trumpet at Randyland, Pittsburgh, PA

Play, smile, laugh, dance, love, believe, grow

Messages painted directly on the figures’ body parts, clothes, and instruments are a not-too-subtle thesis for Randyland writ large. Dream Big, reads the bell of a saxophone; Believe U Can, the inscription on a dancer’s necktie. A cubist trumpeter with a punk rock hairdo implores us to Play, Smile, Laugh, Dance, Love, Believe, Grow. The message on a frenetic dancer’s long flowing dress is simply Be Happy.

metal letters spelling L-O-V-E in sand at Randyland

We IOVF Randyland! Love letters in the sand.

That kind of relentlessly earnest optimism and you-can-do-it positive encouragement is both a rare thing in this age of cynicism and easy to dismiss as hopelessly naive. It may also be a tough nut to swallow for those suffering from a blues that can make tossed-off statements like “be happy” feel like either an insufferably shallow temperature reading or an insurmountable obstacle to achieve in a real world outside the boundaries of Randyland.

art robot with outstretched arms

HUG-BOT 2.0

But…that’s why Randy created the HUG-BOT 2.0–and a garden’s worth of oversize art flowers, goofy takes on where to hang one’s lawn furniture, and how to look at the sky in its mirror opposite. If you can manage to visit Randyland, take your time speculating on the preposterous occasion of a suit of armor with a necktie, giant flies on telephone poles, mannequin heads in sunglasses and lip gloss and still not feel any better about the state of the world, well, you may just need to turn around, look at that wall of arrows one more time, and know that this is a place where you’re always welcome to try again.

collection of mannequin heads wearing sunglasses at Randyland

Here’s lookin’ at you! The future’s so bright, even the mannequins gotta wear shades.


Getting there: Randyland is located at 1501 Arch Street in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood of the North Side. It’s free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to dusk pretty much every day.

Looking for a Lost Little Italy in Larimer

red, white, and green painted storefront for Henry Grasso, Co. Inc. Pittsburgh, PA

Last of the red, white, and green: Henry Grasso, Co. Inc., Larimer Ave.

There’s a scene early on in Striking Distance where police captain Nick Detillo (Dennis Farina in full cop mustache and salt-and-pepper wave) downplays his career aspirations. Asked by Bruce Willis’ Detective Tom Hardy if he’s bucking for advancement in the force, Detillo responds humbly, “Not me kid. I’m just a Larimer Avenue dago.” [Please pardon the ethnic slur. We’re quoting–and it’s important to the story.]

Writer, director, and Pittsburgh native Rowdy Herrington peppered the movie’s dialog and mise en scène with local references, so it’s no surprise the Italian-American Detillo clan gets fleshed-out with a nod to the old neighborhood. But why not choose one of the more obvious Little Italys–say, Bloomfield, Panther Hollow, or South Oakland?

movie still from "Striking Distance" with character Nick Detillo's line "Not me, kid. I'm just a Larimer Avenue dago."

Who’s the best cop? Dennis Farina as Capt. Nick Detillo in “Striking Distance”

In record geek terms, it’s a deep cut–one that Rowdy Herrington gets much respect for including.

Dennis Farina was born in Chicago in 1944. Like every other member of the Striking Distance cast, he made no attempt to replicate a Pittsburgh accent for the movie–but the dates line up. From the early part of the 20th Century until some time in the 1960s, Larimer was the Little Italy for Pittsburgh. A neighborhood with any random block holding a majority of Italian surnames; the location where The Italian Sons and Daughters of America was formed; an enclave hosting the Pittsburgh Italian Hospital. [Yes: that was thing–it’s now a vacant lot at the corner of Paulson and Maxwell.] It is entirely likely that the fictional Detillo family could have all grown up in Larimer.

The amateur anthropologists and wanna-be archeologists of Pittsburgh Orbit like any challenge that invites bicycle-based poking down alleys and remorseless nebbing into empty retail windows. We set out with the loose goal of seeing what–if any–traces of Detillo-era, Italian-American Larimer we could still find today.

detail from 1924 platte map showing two blocks of the Larimer neighborhood with a majority of property owners having Italian surnames

Larimer, 1924. Map detail of two blocks between Larimer Ave. and Ashley St., Mayflower and Meadow. [source: G.M. Hopkins Company Maps]

The short version: there ain’t much left.

By our count, there are exactly two extant businesses in the neighborhood that date from the old days. Henry Grasso’s Italian foods shop on Larimer Ave. (see photo, top) is still, as the sign says, original manufacturers of the Italian sausage and capicollo. Dressed for the part in the red, white, and green colors of the Italian flag, Grasso’s is the picture of an old American neighborhood butcher/grocer you’ll see few other places.

On the other side of the neighborhood, Stagno’s Bakery no longer staffs their retail storefront, and the corner of Auburn and Lowell suffers for it. But they’re very much still baking up Italian bread in their two big cinderblock buildings. You’ll find the product on bakery shelves and restaurant bread baskets all over the city. [Side note: one of Stagno’s old blue delivery vans even gets a cameo in the Striking Distance chase scene. Coincidence?]

run down exterior of former retail shop for Stagno's Bakery, Pittsburgh, PA

Still making bread…just not selling retail. Stagno’s Bakery, Auburn Street.

The former Our Lady Help of Christians still stands on the corner of Meadow and Turrett Streets. With its attached school building, the massive Roman-Catholic church basically takes up an entire city block and reaches four or five stories into the sky.

Built in 1897 (rebuilt 1905), Our Lady Help is a crumbling beauty. The multiple copper domes remain, gleaming in even the dappled sunlight of last weekend, but since the church closed in 1992, a crew has clearly gone through and stripped anything of value. The stained glass, statuary, and thick oak doors are all gone, replaced with temporary protective plywood. Ivy climbs the exterior walls and weeds have breached the joints in the stone front stairs. Perhaps inevitable, a blue condemned notice is stapled to the front door. Sigh.

view of 1905 Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic church, now abandoned and condemned, Pittsburgh, PA

(former) Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic Church, Meadow Street

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s page on Our Lady Help details the deep Italian roots of the church:

Our Lady Help of Christians was established in 1898 as an Italian parish. The origin of the parish can be traced to the rise of immigrants from Italy in the late nineteenth century.  In 1895 the Italian Franciscan Fathers were invited to come to Pittsburgh. They took charge of the Italian parish in the Hill District, St. Peter. In 1894, the Italian residents of the East Liberty area petitioned the bishop for permission to form their own parish. This petition was denied. To meet the needs of the East Liberty Italians, the pastor of St. Peter began visiting the area to celebrate Mass.  The first Mass for Italians celebrated in East Liberty took place in February of 1895 in the school hall of Ss. Peter and Paul parish. From that point, a Mass was celebrated almost monthly for the Italians.

There are a lot of reasons why (local) Catholic churches are having a hard time. Overall, Pittsburgh has lost half its population and people just don’t attend mass like they did in the old days. And then there’s the whole, horrific priest sex abuse (and cover-up) business.

But when a entire congregation this large relocates to the suburbs of Penn Hills and Plum, Forest Hills and Churchill, the Latin scripture reads pretty clear on the old plaster walls.

painted sign for Fiore's Home Dressed Meats on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign for former Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats (now State Senator Ferlo’s local office), Larimer Ave.

Beyond this handful of obvious touchstones, we’re really left grasping at straws.

Vacant lots outnumber buildings on Larimer Avenue today, but there are may be a dozen surviving retail storefronts on the old main drag. One of these features a ghost sign for Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats, but that’s really the only clue to what any of the businesses in these pre-war two- and three-story brick buildings once were.

While there’s still plenty of open space in the neighborhood, Larimer’s housing has fared better overall than its commercial structures. There is a particular type of after-market tin-slatted porch and window awning you see all over Pittsburgh (and elsewhere)–we imagine some door-to-door salesman made a killing hawking these in the 1950s.

There’s no way to prove this, but anecdotal evidence points to the popularity of red-and-white (and to a lesser extent, green-and-white) color combos in certain locales. There are still a bunch of these Italian-colored tin awnings throughout Larimer. [Note: You don’t have to tell this blogger–you want us to cry over tin awnings? No: but it’s all I got.]

small house with tin awning and green paint, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a stretch, but the red-and-white awning with a green paint job look familiar. [Bonus points for the pair of old-school aerial antennas!]

Oh, and what about Mary? Every old Catholic neighborhood worth its rosaries has a couple dozen houses sporting ceramic statuettes of The Blessed Virgin doing her palms-out thing on the front lawn or nestled up against the porch. There are even more Marys relaxing in people’s back yards–but it’s harder to get the invitation to visit up close.

I’m telling you, the Orbitmobile criss-crossed Larimer a dozen times, rolling down every street and just about every alleyway coming and going. In those rides, we spotted exactly one extant front yard Mary outside a unique frame house that appears to at one time have been a pair of separate, conjoined buildings.

older wooden house with statue of Mary by the front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

Possibly the last front yard Mary in Larimer?

That home, on a short dead-end of the aptly named Orphan Street, is at a little horn-shaped peninsula forming the very northeast corner of Larimer. In front of the house, the steep drop-off down to Washington Blvd.; behind, dense greenery all the way over to Highland Park.

We don’t know who lives here–if they’re black or white, hard core Catholic or just enjoy a quirky lawn ornament–but this little icon living on the most precarious of properties feels very much like the last representative of a disappeared people.

Times and places change, people move on–these are unalterable truths. But it’s comforting to think that if Nick Detillo were to make it back to the old neighborhood today, he could still get a pound of capicollo from Henry Grosso and still say a prayer to Mary.

Only the Stones Remain: A Follow-Up Visit to Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood

stuffed animal hung from its neck by caution tape on telephone pole, Clairton, PA

The scene of the crime. Lincoln Way, Clairton, Summer, 2018.

Sex. Money. Murder. That thin plot outline pretty much describes every episode of Law & Order–or maybe a particularly raging bar mitzvah. In this case, though, we found the three words in faded spray paint on the crumbling single-lane blacktop of a dead-end street. The cryptic message, along with a set of orphaned telephone poles, a couple out-of-place retaining walls, and the world’s eeriest sad toy, are about all that’s left of Lincoln Way, Clairton’s “ghost neighborhood.”

single lane paved road with words "Sex. Money. Murder." spray-painted on surface. Clairton, PA

“Sex. Money. Murder.” Lincoln Way

The plight of little Lincoln Way, a former residential street maybe a half-mile long on the north end of Clairton, has sparked a remarkable amount of interest in ye olde Orbite. Our story from early last year surveying the couple dozen remaining structures on the street has somehow made its way into the most read Orbit story, month-over-month, for the year-and-a-half since we originally ran it. [If you missed that one, read it here.]

Given the collective interest of both readers and writers, we thought we owed Lincoln Way a return visit to see where it is now, what’s left, and what it looks and feels like today.

single lane road leading into empty valley surrounded by trees, Clairton, PA

Today: entrance to Lincoln Way from State Street/Rt. 837.

The short answer is everything has changed. Gone are all of the dilapidated, burned-out, falling-down houses that lined both sides of the street. In their place is flat earth, newly reseeded with fresh grass that competes against wildflowers and knee high weeds in the most literal of turf wars.

The former houses of Lincoln Way were modest, two-up/two-down pre-war single-family homes and duplexes. But in their absence we get to see how large the lots actually were–especially on the upper part of the block as the valley dog-legs around to the right. A wide plain of greenery expands on either side of the remaining street surface, ending abruptly in tree-covered hillsides.

single-lane residential street with abandoned houses, Clairton, PA

A year earlier: Lincoln Way, February, 2017

The absolute lush green overgrowth of summer in the Mon Valley is stark contrast to the February day we visited a year-and-a-half ago. There was no snow on the ground, but every other telltale mark of winter was there: bare gray trees, threatening storm clouds blocking all sunlight, cold howls of gusty wind.

We mourn the loss of the compact little neighborhood we never got to know in its heyday, but on this hot afternoon with the sun out, birds chirping, critters buggin’, and deep deep green as far as the eye can see, it feels like nature (by way of the Redevelopment Authority of Clairton) may just do all right in this exchange.

overgrown hillside with retaining wall and masonry debris, Clairton, PA

hillside, retaining wall, masonry debris, Lincoln Way

The elephant in this particular room–err, empty valley–is the lives that were inevitably disrupted (at best) when residents relocated out of the neighborhood. Information on why Lincoln Way was abandoned is sketchy. There are plenty of empty houses in Clairton all on their own, but folks have also mentioned a planned connection of the Mon-Fayette Expressway to Rt. 837, which kind of makes sense. A 2015 Post-Gazette story mentions both natural abandonment, arson, and the city’s safety and redevelopment concerns.

broken toy soldier on street

sad toy on Lincoln Way

Regardless, most of the signs of (human) life we found in our last visit are all gone. That said, the demolition crews weren’t going through the weeds picking up every bit of effluvia wafted by the belch of a house with (possibly) generations of leftover, discarded stuff. A couple mangled toys, a scattering of broken records [oh! the humanity!], and that phosphorescent stuffed animal strung up by the neck with caution tape all made for creepy reminders that this quiet spot wasn’t always so placid.

street blacktop bordering overgrown weeds with broken records, Clairton, PA

Like a broken record. 45s among the many household items left at Lincoln Way.

No, people lived here. They worked, played, danced, swayed, and sung along to those 45s here. They grew up, grew old, and eventually moved-on from this little street in Clairton, one way or another.

These things are important. But when you’ve got a dead-end street, completely cut-off from the rest of town, full of dilapidated housing with both fire and safety concerns for the community–and then there’s that whole sex/money/murder thing–we’re pretty sure the City of Clairton made the right choice here.

For Lincoln Way, we can only hope the bright new beginning it’s received will invoke the prosperous future this little street–and all of Clairton–deserves.

former cul-de-sac surrounded by overgrowth, Clairton, PA

The end of the road: Lincoln Way’s terminal cul-de-sac

Heavy Living: Cement City, Donora

2-story cement house with large side yard, Donora, PA

Cement City, Donora, PA

Spoiler alert: Cement City is neither. No, the lovely little residential neighborhood consists of a combined 80 single-family homes and larger duplexes lining just a few streets on a hilltop at the south end of Donora. With its 360-degree views across several different valleys, glorious green lawns, and kid’s bicycles left carelessly on front sidewalks, this is hardly the picture of urban life.

That name, though–Cement City. It’s industrial, brutal–fantastic even–like the fictional world created for a shoot-’em-up video game or dystopian science fiction. One might imagine each resident of Cement City as some version of Snake Plissken or Sarah Connor–an eyepatch, leather wristbands, and heavy weaponry required for the epic quest just to make it out alive.

Rest assured, though, nothing could be further from the truth. That said, Cement City does have a certain retro-futurism in its very interesting past.

row of cement houses in Donora, PA

houses on Walnut Street

In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, the Borough of Donora, 30 miles south-southeast/upriver from Pittsburgh, grew like crazy. It went from incorporation in 1901 to reaching its peak population just 20 years later. That was all on the boom of the American Steel & Wire Company. With its integrated blast furnace, open hearth, and ancillary industries in zinc smelting and product finishing, the U.S. Steel subsidiary was the local employer in this prototypic company town. We learned all about these in our tour of the terrific Donora Smog Museum over the winter.

Twice a year, the same folks from the historical society throw a terrific combined educational lecture/walking tour of Cement City, a hundred-year-old housing development borne of the perfect storm of new innovation, high-demand for middle-management lodging, and a massive corporate entity that could take the whole project on and manage it after its completion.

wooden door detail showing 30 small window panes

original arts and crafts-style wood door

Today, Cement City doesn’t look that different than many other neighborhoods of pre-war, detached, American four-square houses–each with its own concessions to time. Here, a mismatched garage addition or fresh paint job, there, some buckling stucco or an obvious collapse in the fascia. Many houses have decorated with lawn statuary (including a generous number of front yard Marys) and ornamental landscaping; in others, the grill is lit, children’s toys are scattered in the yard, and bass-heavy party music blasts from open windows on this perfect Spring day.

There’s one big difference, though. Under the wide eaves and behind the technicolor paint jobs live skeletons of pure concrete. [Yes: concrete, not cement.] When industrial America needed to grow the most, Thomas Edison was trying to figure out what to do with all the concrete he’d been tinkering with. As a building material, concrete seemed perfect: it was cheap, wasn’t going anywhere, the termites wouldn’t touch it, and–most importantly in a pre-fire code America–it was impossible to burn down.

detail of cement ceiling in home in Donora, PA

basement ceilings reveal the original cement forms

We’ll not go into the whole history here–it’s just too much for one little blog post and we’d get the facts wrong anyway. But if you can go on the tour, D.H.S. president Brian Charlton will spin an engrossing yarn in a history that blends the often at-odds interests of Big Steel, quality-of-life, architectural design, and Age of Innovation new technology[1].

Suffice to say, it’s not easy to build a community of houses out of concrete–even more so on the slanted hillsides of Donora in 1916. Making the project cost-effective proved to be the biggest challenge of all. It takes an entirely different building model to pour in place the walls and floors of any construction. You need elaborate forms, a mobile mixing and delivery system, accounting for multi-day cure times, and then back-filling all the various trades that complete a home.

several cement houses on a hill in Donora, PA

Cement City houses on Bertha Ave.

Regardless, it all got done and the homes remain charming to this day. Eventually, the one-time company village grew from identically-maintained, corporate ownership to being sold off to individuals with the surrounding tennis courts and playground lots redeveloped into newer housing. Early photos show the neighborhood denuded of all vegetation as the land was clear-cut for build-out. Today, hundred-year-old sycamores line the sidewalks and reach way above the rooflines on Bertha and Ida Avenues as flowering dogwoods and manicured cypress decorate front yards.

All of Cement City’s original houses are still standing, largely occupied and in good shape. A remarkable number of other features–including original sluiced backyard storm drains and locally-made Ellword woven wire fencing–persist as well. There are similar Edison-era collections of concrete houses all over the Northeast and upper Midwest, but Donora’s set of 80 homes makes it the second-largest development of its kind.

detail of Ellwood woven wire yard fence made by American Steel & Wire Co.

hundred year old Ellwood woven wire yard fence, made locally by American Steel & Wire Co., in a Cement City backyard

Like we saw with Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington, the transition from high-concept, mass-produced worker housing to present day free-market community is an interesting one. Were they alive to see them today, the after-market shutters, dish TV hook-ups, dangling gutter systems, and quaint lawn ornamentation would probably have given Edison and American Steel & Wire fits.

But the fact remains that good design endures, even if the humans that come along later monkey with the architects’ master vision of clean lines and a uniform presentation. It speaks volumes that 100% of Donora’s original concrete houses remain today–a hundred years after they were constructed–in a town that has lost more than two-thirds of its population in the same time frame[2].

cement house in Donora, PA with lawn statuary and porch modifications

Lived-in. Cement City house on Walnut Street with lawn statuary and porch modifications.

The next time you’re in Donora–and yes, make sure there is a next time–you’ll have to take in the classic McKean Ave. twofer of the Smog Museum and Anthony’s Italiano. Grab a hike up to St. Nick’s if you get a chance, too. But then consider making the short drive south and up the hill for a post-pizza constitutional around Cement City’s handful of streets. You’ll not be sorry you did.

concrete house in Donora, PA's Cement City

Cement City house on Ida Avenue

The Donora Historical Society will offer the next Cement City lecture/walking tours the weekend of Saturday, Sept. 22 and Sunday, Sept. 23. at 1:00 p.m. both days.

RSVP by calling 724-823-0364 or email donorahistoricalsociety@gmail.com


[1] Brian Charlton literally wrote the book (or, at least, detailed article) on Cement City. His article “Cement City: Thomas Edison’s experiment with worker’s housing in Donora,” appeared in the Fall, 2013 issue of Western Pennsylvania History.
[2] Donora’s current population is around 4,600 people, down from 14,000 in 1920. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donora,_Pennsylvania

A Splendid Day in Esplen

view of McKees Rocks, PA from Pittsburgh neighborhood of Esplen

Esplen: Gateway to McKees Rocks. View of downtown McKees Rocks from the end of Radcliffe Street.

This blogger ain’t too proud to admit he had to look it up. Where the heck is Esplen? Well, it turns out we’d been there–or, at least, driven past–plenty of times and just didn’t even know it. You probably have as well.

The little boomerang-shaped neighborhood sits at the far western edge of the city, bounded by the Ohio River, Chartiers Creek, and a set of train tracks. There is no welcome sign. If you don’t live in the area, you’ve still probably whizzed by on West Carson Street/Rt. 51 as it heads out toward McKees Rocks, Neville Island, Coraopolis, and points west. In fact, from several Esplen dead-end streets there are some quite fine, elevated views across the creek to Chartiers Ave., downtown McKees Rocks’ main drag[1].

small cinderblock building with "Lab" over front door, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery Lab

A visit to Esplen won’t take you all day. With ten or twelve very short streets, plus a similar number of alleys and block-long connectors–may be a couple hundred total houses–you can probably tour the entire neighborhood and still have time for the Sunday crossword all before lunch.

Esplen is largely zoned commercial/industrial and is home to several small factories, a trucking center, some kind of chemical plant with its own mystery “Lab”, two different plumbing and heating outfits, etc. All this and the only actual retail business is a single Sunoco station. Presumably, Esplenites cross the creek to shop in the Rocks’ business district just blocks away.

statuette of Mary with white flowers, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary with flowers, Oregon Street

statuette of Mary on pedestal of bricks, Pittsburgh, PA

She’s a brick house Mary, Oregon Street

Esplen is a tiny neighborhood–among the smallest in the city both in acreage and population–but it still has a bunch of our favorite Pittsburgh things. There is a fine pair of front yard Marys at two different Oregon Street houses, some rugged untamed hillsides–one with a couple weird tunnels (storm drains from uphill Sheraden? former sewers?)–and a set of houses built on the face of a rock wall so steep there are two flights of steps to get to the front doors. A hand-painted sign informed us the mail is delivered milkman-style via the Caledonia Way alley behind the houses.

hand-painted sign reading "Mail Box Side Porch", Pittsburgh, PA

“Mail Box Side Porch”, Caldonia Way

two frame houses with long sets of steel steps to reach the front door, Pittsburgh, PA

This is why the mail is delivered via the back alley/side porch, Oregon Street

There is no official art gallery in Esplen, but one Poplar Way cinderblock garage has its exterior wall stocked with an odd assortment of recycled signage, plus the grill from a truck, and a sun-bleached portrait of Elvis. In a pinch, it’ll do.

Another Oregon Street house (not pictured) will be fully decked out for the holiday–you name the holiday–complete with both a prominent rebel/Confederate flag and a framed poster of (black athlete) Bo Jackson on the front porch. Esplenites are clearly comfortable with dichotomy on this matter.

garage decorated with "Peace on Earth" letters, stop signs, "School Bus" sign, and mounted photograph of Elvis Presley, Pittsburgh, PA

Poplar Way garage gallery

cement retaining wall in hillside with two tunnels, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery tunnels, Esplen Street

Should you add Esplen to your must do list? As pro-Pittsburgh/gotta-see-it-all as The Orbit is, it’s hard for even us to lobby this one. It’s a cheap date, for sure–you’re only out the couple bucks for a Sunoco coffee and the gas to get you over the McKees Rocks Bridge[2]–but Bicycle Heaven is free! If our time was worth anything, would we be blogging?

That said, there’s just not much for even the most easily-amused to poke around and ponder upon. Esplen is essential if you’re trying to visit/report on every one of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods (we are), but we still recommend you take your out-of-towners to more A-list attractions like the Rising Main steps, Howard Street, or the ex-atom smasher first.

Garage door with painting of two toddlers looking in their diapers and the words "There IS a difference in plumbing", Pittsburgh, PA

Sex ed, Esplen-style


[1] Our first visit–when we took all these photos–was back in late winter when the trees were still bare, exposing views of McKees Rocks that may not exist during the lush months of summer.
[2] The western neighborhoods of Pittsburgh are not easily accessible by bicycle from the rest of the city, so yes–we drove to Esplen. If any Orbit reader has a safe, bicycle-friendly route out that way, please let us know.

Into the Forgotten: Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood

abandoned house with spray-painted graffiti "Into the forgotten", Clairton, PA

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Gone windows. Collapsed porches. Crumpled forms. Roof lines slant, flex, wheeze, and implode. Thin trees grow straight up through foundations and strangle outside walls. Nature crowds in from all sides as small single-family homes and squat double-houses are enveloped by vines, moss, weeds, and debris. The only signs of human life are the stray household items jettisoned by families forced to move and the spray-painted graffiti added by miscreants in their wake.

In a few cases, only the exterior walls remain. Former kitchens and living rooms are reduced to piles of layered rubble. For the most part, though, the two- or three-dozen parcels here are still recognizable as houses–but like Elvis working that milk cow, they’re just real real gone.

abandoned house with porch roof collapsed, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with only exterior walls remaining, Clairton, PA

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It’s no secret: The Orbit makes a living off ghosts. It’s a strange way to earn a buck, but business is good. Oh sure, we love to run stories on weird religion, city steps, egg hunts, and the like. But you try to pay the rent covering some street artist who won’t call your ass back!

Since the beginning, so-called ghost signs and ghost houses have been stock-in-trade for us and Orbit faithful snack on them like funnel cakes at the county fair. We’re already licking our lips for the ghost pizza we’ll never get to eat in an upcoming Pie Day feature. One ghost bike made these pages, but mercifully, cycling deaths have been rare enough to not warrant follow-up stories…yet. All that said, Clairton’s Lincoln Way ghost neighborhood is something altogether more dramatic.

abandoned house with only rear exterior walls still standing, Clairton, PA

abandoned double-house with roof collapsed, Clairton, PA

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Speeding south, the billowing white smoke of U.S. Steel’s Clairton coke plant is already on the horizon. Not a care in the world–next stop, Donora! But then, all of the sudden something flashes through the passenger-side window. With just the quickest of glances, we see it’s a pair of burned-out and bummed-out houses on a thin residential street just off the main road. They’re alarming, but sadly not that all that unique in the depopulated Mon Valley.

On the way home, Swiss-cheese-for-brains has already forgotten the sighting mere hours beforehand. But when a mirror-image of the earlier picture pops through the windshield, it’s deja vu all over again. This time breaks squeal, the Orbitmobile is stashed on a muddy berm, and we hoof it back up the road to see what’s going on.

abandoned house covered in bare trees, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with only exterior walls remaining, Clairton, PA

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What’s going on is pretty intense. An entire residential street–not long, but still the equivalent of maybe five or six city blocks–with every single home abandoned, crumbled, collapsed, gutted, scarred, and mocked. Lincoln Way is a hollow between steep rising hills on either side with no outlet streets or other exits, so there’s literally no visible habitation that isn’t in this shape.

The scene is one that could be interpreted as anything from a Love Canal-style environmental disaster to world-without-us post-apocalypse. [That hasn’t happened yet, right?] This was clearly not the result of any single house fire or the general tough economics of the Mon Valley–every inch of Lincoln Way was vacated for a reason.

masonry walls from otherwise collapsed houses, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with spray painted graffiti "I am the antichrist", Clairton, PA

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Though we found it all on our own–by accident–The Orbit was not the first cop on this particular beat. Once one fires up The Google Machine, he or she finds out Lincoln Way has been documented by sources from the mainstream/”dishonest” press (“Clairton fire decimates ‘ghost town'”Post-Gazette, April 11, 2015) to paranormal support groups (wikinut.com’s “The Mystery of Clairton’s Abandoned Lincoln Way”)–and I’m sure every teenager at Steel Valley High.

Most terrifically, though, the great Architectural Afterlife blog covered Lincoln Way back in 2015 with an astoundingly great collection of photographs taken through a pair of visits in both winter snow and summer’s lush, full overgrowth. Unlike this need-to-get-home-for-dinner blogger, AA’s Johnny Joo wasn’t afraid to risk falling through the floorboards and got some beautiful, heartbreaking inside shots as a result. His piece is highly recommended–and the contrast with The Orbit‘s recent photos show how fast Lincoln Way is returning to cinder.

abandoned house with graffiti "That's all she wrote", Clairton, PA

“That’s all she wrote” is about right


Update (September, 2018): We’ve gone back to visit Lincoln Way a year-and-a-half after this original post. To see what it looks like today, check out “Only the Stones Remain: A Follow-up Visit to Clairton’s ‘Ghost Neighborhood'” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Sept. 2, 2018.)