OK, maybe it’s not much of a quandary for The Orbit‘s corner on both obsessive-compulsive and dirty-minded readers, but let’s accept that many of us (ahem) changed our hygienic standards with the onset of the pandemic. Mary—mother of all mothers, blessed virgin, you know, that Mary—seems to have recalibrated her priorities as well. If the Marys of greater McKees Rocks/Stowe Township are any indication, Mary is already comfortable with her proximity to godliness and content with an almost exact day-on/day-off schedule.
That said, McKees Rocks and Stowe Township—the distinction between the two is completely arbitrary to any outsider—may well lay claim to the greatest house-for-house percentage of Marys in metro Pittsburgh. Little Presston, a Rocks neighborhood of just two streets, had enough Marys to fill a whole story. Greater Sto-Rox has so many Marys—just about 50/50 with and without bathtubs—that we’ll not kid ourselves into thinking we won’t have a third or fourth edition on the topic.
So we’ll leave you to it. Enjoy your Marys with the clean aroma of Mr. Bubble or not and please let us know if you’ve got a Mary of your own or Mary story we should hear.
A blast of color. Soft pinks, big reds, cool blues and purples on one face; rusty reds, browns, and blacks another. Everything is accented in gold.
That gold! It’s a gold of ancient secrets and the gold of a new dawn. The warm glow has an extra glossy shine that elevates already-textured steel surfaces to a fourth dimension—something beyond space and time. What the amateur sees as mere spray paint is actually a fuzzy overlay on reality from another world.
Cast against the very literal rust of a pair of weathered steel sheds, the gold feels like flashes of light glinting and gleaming through stony creek water. Precious metal to some, fool’s gold to others, but with an experiential value beyond anything we can measure. That is, if you can climb out of 3-D and into this transformative plane.
In glorious full sunshine, surrounded by high summer’s lush greenery, the two old metal work sheds pop from the earth like temporary housing created by interstellar travelers. We may not speak their tongue, but these pictorial representations of stars and symbols, geometric patterns and light rays communicate enough otherworldly visions that we can get along.
Getting along is exactly what we want to do—very much so. The work is striking and soothing, both chaotic and patterned, with obvious iconography and wild abstraction. Like waves crashing on the beach or mountaintops viewed from a neighboring peak, one may stare into the wide murals, let the eyes go into a glazed soft-focus, and drift off to a blissed-out zen state where nothing looks the same way twice.
The artist who painted the sheet metal sheds has signed the work only as Coker, his last name—this much we know. We’d love to do a full-on Orbit artist profile on the man—there are so many questions! Does he also make smaller works? paintings? sculptures? what’s inside the sheds? It feels like there simply must be an amazing story there.
But … the volume of No Trespassing and Stay Out signs posted around the property suggest Coker is, at minimum, wary of uninvited guests and this we respect. I’ve visited the buildings a half dozen times over the course of a year-and-a-half, on various early mornings, mid-days, and weekends and left notes for Mr. Coker. Alas, I’ve never heard back and never managed to catch him in person. So … we’re left to muse about The Wizard of Perry South from his (street-visible) painted walls alone.
Coker’s most profound work—to these highly-opinionated eyeballs—remains the large abstract wall sections. “They’re like (Marc) Chagall!” Ms. Orbit exclaimed when your author produced his first photographs of the remarkable structures. That said, the artist’s paint work extends to more representational fare as well.
A corner wall section of the first shed includes tributes to Barrack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marvin Gaye, George Benson, and Snoop Dogg (in the form of gin & juice, illustrated with musical notes). Another celebrates the music of ’70s soul group Maze and includes the band’s bizarre seven-fingered hand logo. Elsewhere King Kong tramples New York while a bloated “fake news scum-bag”—not sure who that could be—tramples democracy.
Just down the block sits the third unmistakable Coker property. It’s a classic Pittsburgh two-up/two-down brick row house—now having outlived all former neighbors on a half-block-long dead end. The front of the home is painted in Coker’s tell-tale gold, daringly paired with splotchy silver—a color combination that makes even pink & brown stand up and take notice. Around the side, Coker has continued the blocky, abstract themes begun on the pair of sheds, but this time executed in gold, black, and white.
We could all use more magic in our lives—of this I’m sure. Luckily, we live in a time and place where one may stumble upon just that, right out in the open, on a simple summer bicycle ride or autumnal constitutional through a city neighborhood.
If you’re lucky enough to live in The Perrys, you know where Compound Coker is already. For anyone who doesn’t, we’ll not spoil the surprise with a precise address or instructions for travel. There’s enough information right here to locate Pittsburgh’s buried treasure of gold (art), it’s up to you to go out and find it.
No one. Not a single person. It hasn’t happened. Throughout the long history of humans applying sauce and cheese to fresh baked bread, there has never been an instance where the diner wished for there to be less toppings on her or his pizza. We refuse to accept this premise.
However, hypothetically speaking of course, if ever there was such a place—a pizzeria that lives only in the imagination of those who dream big, one whose pies are so over-laden with toppings as to prevent human hands from delivering mere pizza slices to mouths unassisted—that place is Shelly Pie. We were warned.
We’re Americans. We don’t like rules. Shelly Pie’s menu doesn’t exactly have strict rules, per se—the Page 1 instructions are more like disclaimers or warnings about what you’re getting into—but how much training and expectation-setting does a person need to order a pizza?
It’s no small amount, it turns out.
A Shelly Pie is a knife and fork pizza. It’s right there at the top of the quite literal list. Don’t try to pick this thing up, it will only break your heart. The overload of smouldering cheese and full arsenal of toppings just won’t hold up to being lifted off the plate in toto. While any one of Shelly’s eponymous pies will blow your mind, the laws of gravity still apply here.
The cold hard facts of a hot cheesy life don’t end with the use of silverware.
We use fresh vegetables. Know that a vegetable pizza will produce a lot of liquid. Fair enough—this from another of Shelly Pie’s FAQs. Neither our tomato & spinach pizza (below) nor the half green pepper (at top)—which must have contained an entire large pepper—had any noticeable storm runoff, but it must be true on a really heavy veggie pie or the notes wouldn’t have made it to the menu.
Our pizzas are unique in that no two pizzas look alike. A statement we confirmed with just our minimal sample size. Our cheeses are high in fat. When you add fatty meats to a pizza, it creates a lot of grease. Another bon mot from Shelly that really sets up There are times when the top crust will look dark. It’s not burnt. It’s charred.
The big one—that inconceivable scenario—hits you in the menu’s fourth bullet point: If the abundance of toppings is too much, ask for light toppings. Needless to say we neither requested light toppings nor were we disappointed in the abundance thereof for either entree.
A custom-ordered Shelly Pie isn’t so much flavored by its toppings as it hosts a convention attracting every free slice of pepperoni and unbooked green pepper east of metro Pittsburgh. They get down to business during the daytime and are ready to party all night long. Like the plumbers union meeting at David L. Lawrence Convention Center, participants in this Bacchanal won’t head home until they’ve done something they regret.
The toppings are extraordinarily generous—and delicious—but they in no way act as a smoke screen or distraction for inferior dough. Far from it. Shelly Pie’s admittedly irregular and “charred” crust bubbles and bulges but it’s as perfect a bed for pizza pie as this eater has ever had the pleasure to consume.
It’s been three weeks since our team ventured out to Turtle Creek on this reporting trip and, like an addictive drug, your author has fantasized about the next time he can inject Shelly Pie directly into his bloodstream, let his eyes roll back into his skull, and drift off into the abundance of another exquisite dream meal.
Getting there: Shelly Pie is located at 912 Penn Avenue in Turtle Creek and they’re open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, so all you have to figure out is breakfast.
Monroeville Mall is largely populated—if suffering the same economic woes as many of its peers—and sits right there on a couple hundred acres of the eponymous suburb’s most automobile-oriented real estate. The shopping center hosts more than a hundred retail establishments, a separate adjunct strip mall, and has its own encircling beltway, just like the small city it is.
Macy’s department store anchors one end of the mall; Dick’s Sporting Goods the other. In between, you’ll find LaButiq Lash Studio, Xtreme Teeth Whitening, Banter by Piercing Pagoda, Auntie Anne’s Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzel, four recruiting offices for the United States Armed Forces—one for each branch of the military—plus Up$cale Beauty, Up$cale Juice Bar, and Up$cale Kids.
Wander to the far west end of Monroeville Mall’s upper level, right next to Hot Stone Massage, and there’s another storefront with the same extended wood and glass treatment you’ll see at Klexo’s Tattoo Studio or Smoke Wizard and Vape. From the mall’s wide walkway, it looks like yet another apparel and gift shop with its prominently-displayed t-shirts, hoodies, books, and novelties.
This one’s different, though. For eight dollars, a cashier will grant the curious entry to an unexpected collection of movie memorabilia and replica models, disfigured mannequins and The Maul of Fame, a singular wall of hand prints and signatures from various horror film demi-celebrities, each one blood red. This is The Living Dead Museum.
You’ve heard the term dead mall—heck, you heard it right here—but ain’t no dead mall like an undead mall and this one’s stocked with ghouls, zombies, and The Evil Dead.
George Romero—the Orson Welles of gore—came to Monroeville Mall late in 1977. He wasn’t there to do his Christmas shopping. That winter, he started filming Dawn of the Dead, the zombie apocalypse masterpiece and lineal descendant of his Night of the Living Dead, the mother-of-all undead movies.
From this history, Monroeville Mall holds a special place for horror film fans long before The Living Dead Museum. Its starring role in Dawn of the Dead makes the mall hallowed ground for gore buffs and the entire structure a kind of living museum all on its own. There’s even a brass bust of George Romero on the mall’s lower level, in front of Pittsburgh Locker Room by Lids, to celebrate it.
So The Living Dead Museum ended up at Monroeville Mall by no accident and it celebrates Dawn of the Dead every way it can. There are props from the original film and movie posters from both its American version and Zombi, producer Dario Argento’s separate cut of the same movie for the European market.
Your author is ashamed to admit he hasn’t seen most of the films celebrated in the displays at The Living Dead Museum. Why, I don’t even know The Evil Dead from The Evil Dead 2! So the giant rustic woodshed from the former was indistinguishable from the various window sashes, shutters, door jambs, and fake boulders of the latter. The significance of “prop-alike” tape recorders and calligraphy from The Necronomicon was lost on me—but I’m sure The Orbit’s gore-enthused readership would enjoy them all.
Monroeville Mall even gets its own snake-eating-its-tail tribute at The Living Dead Museum. There is a defunct/replaced elevator car and a section of escalator from the period when the movie was made. The gift shop sells tote bags and t-shirts with the mall’s original uber-mod MM logo, c. 1969—with and without blood spatter.
It’s entirely subjective of course, but The Living Dead Museum’s most exciting display is a large, hand-made model of sections of Monroeville Mall as it existed in the late 1970s. Presumably built in pre-production for the movie—there is sadly no documentation on who created the model or how it was used—the piece reads like an incredible work of folk art.
Created from poster board, balsa wood, repurposed bamboo placemats, and advertising photos, the model provides an exciting window into both what Monroeville Mall looked like in 1977—originally there was an ice rink, later replaced by the food court; Carlton’s Mens Shop included the faux street lamps of mall shops of that era—and how low-budget movie-making worked at the time. It’s hard to imagine the production designers for Jaws or Star Wars cutting pictures from a Sears catalog to propose set ideas … but, maybe?
Calling itself a museum is a little bit of a stretch. The Living Dead Museum has a number of really great artifacts, but I could imagine hardcore fans being disappointed by the limits of the collection. As with the mall model, the collection is extremely light on description of either the items presented or the films they came from.
The Night of the Living Dead room, for example, has plenty of promo stills, posters, and news clippings, but for actual objects from the movie, visitors get to see Sheriff McClelland’s ammo belt and some production lights used for scenes inside the farmhouse.
Many of the other displays include “prop-alikes.” I couldn’t find an official definition for this term, but I assume it means an object not used in a film, but one that looks just like the prop. There are quite a number of replica/recreation/tribute figures which are cool, but feel a little like the house that went all-in on Halloween.
All that said, for this horror noob, fair-weather fan, and general curiosity-seeker, The Living Dead Museum was a legit hoot. There is plenty to goo-ga over, even if you haven’t seen the movies the displays reference. It’s also a nice bite-sized experience that won’t wear you out, take up your whole afternoon, or break the bank.
The creators of The Living Dead Museum clearly put their blood and guts—and the blood of plenty others too—into an experience custom made for zombies, and those who love them. This Halloween season—or any season—we highly recommend a visit.
Don’t tell Ms. Orbit, but your author has had a long-running affaire d’amour going on decades now. My paramour is lovely—and complicated—but always a surprise. A fellow makes his clandestine visits early in the morning and late at night—sometimes even sneaking in for a Rupert Holmes-style lunch hour. Just like Lionel Richie and the gang, she’s quite literally a brick house … but is still mighty mighty when she dresses down in casual wood frame and siding. Yes, I’m in a legit Row House Romance and here to tell you a fire that burns this hot ain’t going out any time soon.
So today, we move around to the alley backsides of row house blocks where so often the true variations on this theme get amplified. Here—with less people looking and a little more room to make choices—homeowners let these birthed-from-the-same-womb siblings go their own ways.
She joined the fencing team, maybe, and likes to wear false eye … err, window lashes. His waistline expanded with a new addition and dresses like a pile of clothes when he can’t keep his siding straight.
Big Sky Rooflines
Maybe it’s cheating to include so much big blue sky in a photo that’s supposed to be about buildings, but when you’ve got it—and yes, it’s not all that often in Pittsburgh—a photographer will work it like a rented mule. Lit up like billboards and shining like new pennies, even humble row houses are elevated against a perfectly blue sky. It gives the picture a deep, mystical contrast we can’t resist. They just look so darn good—even from the back side.
Aging, your author’s bluntly-honest, not-entirely-tactful, and dearly-missed father-in-law used to say, ain’t for sissies. As someone with more yesterdays than tomorrows, I can attest to this firsthand. The body starts breaking down in all sorts of unexpected ways; the mind wanders off to Lulu land more frequently than we’d like to admit; young whippersnappers run rings around us in all ways that whippersnappers may run.
… but I’m a dude—and that means it’s just easier for me. Older men are granted a kind of societal clout simply by virtue of their gender that women don’t enjoy. Graying men are often described as wise, established, and “silver fox” handsome. (Still crossing my fingers for that last one.) Women of the same age share no such common, stereotypical positives.
Far from it. American society is youth-obsessed, for sure, but it’s mainly obsessed with young women. Ms. Orbit—she of my same vintage—often describes the experience as one of “becoming invisible” and feeling “no longer relevant” to the outside world.
Just about one year ago, we spotted a small hand-written sticker attached to a residential parking sign post in Lawrenceville. The text was a simple double-entendre: Menopause is HOT. That got a snort-laugh out of yours truly and I bagged it for the road.
That little teaser was quickly followed by an array of more elaborate, hand-colored stickers spread on lamp posts and electrical boxes. They all contained simple messages proudly addressing the very uncommon subject—either in wider culture or here at the street level—of middle-aged women as real, present beings: Aging is Sexy; Crone; Menopause.
We don’t know who created these subtle, gently-subversive little works. None of the pieces we’ve found have any attribution and the Orbit hive mind was unable (or unwilling) to name names. We’re also left to interpret the artists’ message.
We do know the statements are attention-grabbing and hilariously out-of-context—seeing the word menopause bedazzled and glorified in the leftover spaces where taggers dwell is objectively funny.
Ms. Orbit and I have discussed the matter much in the course of our relationship, crossing into deep middle-age, and specifically with her experiences as a woman and an artist. For these reasons, I wanted to turn the rest of the story over to her:
Middle-aged women become invisible to a degree. But, rather than lamenting that fact, I’m enjoying the hell out of the invisibility, because it means a certain kind of freedom. It means the freedom of not having to matter to men, not worrying about being pretty, sexy, feminine enough, thin enough, demure enough, not too loud, not too opinionated. Men no longer care what I look like, sound like, say, etc. When I was younger, I often stepped outside the lines by being too loud, too bold, too feisty and was admonished by men and sometimes by other women. Now, those folks no longer care what I have to say or how I look and I feel the freedom to be fully myself, on my own terms.
There are a lot of younger women now who are proudly and publicly themselves in a “give no fucks” way and I love it, admire it fully—Lizzo comes to mind. Of course, I have had my moments of feeling the negative side of aging and have grappled with thoughts that “I’m no longer relevant,” but the flip side is you can choose to matter to yourself and the important folks in your life. It’s beautiful to live without needing external validation. I wholeheartedly praise the artist or artists behind these stickers because it’s a way of shouting “We’re here! We exist! We matter!” and being proud of that. Ageism is real—just like racism and homophobia and sexism—but you counter that ugliness by fully owning and celebrating who you are.
When Suzanne Werder and I did the Drawn Together: A Coming of Middle Age Story in 62 Portraits show this past April, the reaction from women over 50 who came to see the show was intensely positive, almost incredulous—they felt seen. “You showed your wrinkles, and bags under your eyes!” Now, we didn’t set out to make a point of our flaws, but in just drawing each other everyday, we can’t escape our truth: that we are getting older and we are not supermodels, and we’re okay with that.
That show did a lot to make me more comfortable in my own skin. There’s a lot of push back culturally against the notion that people are supposed to look or act a certain way, that our world is supposed to mirror the narrow scope of idealized bodies in traditional advertising. Now, it’s more common to see images of people of all sizes, colors, ages, abilities, and sexualities represented, and the power of that is huge. It makes us realize that we are all relevant and beautiful and always were.
Meadville, Pa., New York, N.Y., Chicago, Ill., London, England. A hundred years ago, these four city names were printed on hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of photographic view cards enjoyed the world over.
With apologies to the fine people of Crawford County, one of these cities is not like the rest. That said, Meadville—little Meadville, a town of 13,000 people an hour-and-a-half due north of Pittsburgh—was actually the ring leader in this particular group in one important context.
Home to the Keystone View Company from the 1890s to the 1960s, Meadville found itself as one of, if not the, largest manufacturers of stereoscopes and stereoscopic “views” during the medium’s heyday in the first half of the twentieth century. New York, Chicago, and London were but vassals selling and distributing the wares created and produced in Meadville.
If you’ve never had the pleasure—or just didn’t know what they were called—a stereoscope is a handheld device with two lenses that a person looks through. Stiff paper cards with specially-printed images are placed into a slider aligned with the viewer’s eye holes.
The two photos—they’re usually photos, but come in other media too—were taken with special cameras equipped with a pair of lenses spaced at roughly the distance between a person’s eyeballs. With each of the viewer’s eyes focused on a slightly different perspective of the same scene an illusion of three-dimensionality is created.
The history of both this unique, pre-television entertainment/educational/optical technology and, more specifically the Keystone View Company, is documented at the Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum in Meadville.
The museum houses thousands of view cards produced by Keystone in their seven-decade run. Travel photos, news and current events, teaching aids, children’s stories, optical illusions, and visual gags are all collected in banks of cards available for the visitor’s perusal. One could spend an entire visit riding the old-school 3-D wave from Lake Conneaut to distant Asia and everywhere in between.
Hard to capture in photos is the care the Johnson/Shaw has taken to showing the way Keystone created its products. Factory workers ground the lenses, hand-carved the wooden stereoscopes, assembled the parts, glued pictures to cards, and hand-tinted black-and-white photos into gloriously over-saturated color scenes that one imagines were the pride of any stereophile’s collection.
The museum includes examples of the desks and workstations, tinting tables and shipping molds for the full process, each step attended-to by a period-dressed mannequin.
It will come as a surprise to no one—especially those who’ve never heard of stereoscopes—that the medium didn’t last. In a pre-Internet, pre-television era, stereo views were a solid way to armchair travel to places and events far from home. They could be borrowed, traded, and housed at libraries and museums for use by larger audiences, even if viewing a particular scene was a decidedly personal experience.
But—you know where this is going—by the time America got past the depression and World War II there were just a lot more options out there: a television right in the living room, movies in vibrant technicolor, glossy magazines full of frivolity, and bebop jazz and rock-and-roll’s daring thrill. Putting a view card in the slot of a stereoscope so you could see a still image have a little extra dimension must have felt hopelessly quaint by the mid-1950s.
The concept didn’t die there, though, and all of us who grew up with View-Masters and their rotating slides and stories are living proof. [Side note: apparently these are still available brand new, but it’s hard to imagine today’s youths getting that excited about them.] Old school blue/red 3-D glasses used a different optical technology but were a similar attempt to bring the third dimension to photography and film. These updates to the world of stereoscopic entertainment are also covered by Johnson/Shaw’s collection.
That’s a lot, huh? … but there’s more!
The Johnson/Shaw also contains a unique array of glass milk bottles, each with seemingly a different size, shape, and/or graphic treatment. If you’re into the history of Western Pennsylvania dairies, The James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection is the place to be. This museum-within-a-museum has giant display cases full of silk-screened glassware memorializing extinct dairies from Erie to Uniontown. Each bears the beautiful simplicity of mid-century typography on crystalline, reusable glass and is well worth your time … if you can stop digging through the stereoscope views.
Getting there:The Johnson/Shaw Stereoscopic Museum and James August Roha Milk Bottle Collection is located at 423 Chestnut St. in Meadville. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from Pittsburgh and is real near Conneaut and Pymatuning lakes, if you’re up that way. The museum’s only scheduled open hours are on Saturdays (10am – 4pm) but is also open by appointment on other dates (call 814-720-4306 to schedule).
We know it when we see it. And if you live in Pittsburgh, you see it all the time.
Sure, a drive through the East End can feel like there’s a new Legoland condo going up on every block and us old-timers will prattle on about the travesty of cranky old dive bars and red sauce Italian joints turning over into foo foo artisanal dining experiences with curatedwine programs—but it’s really not that way everywhere. Huge swaths of Pittsburgh aren’t seeing any new investment; real estate values have barely budged; vacant lots and condemned properties way outnumber lived-in homes.
That reality gets a whole lot more obvious as soon as you head up or down any of the rivers. To most outsiders, (ex-)industry towns like Monessen and Clairton, New Kensington and Ambridge are the very picture of Rust Belt devastation. These are places where the mill shut down 40 years ago and took most of the people who lived there with it. Nature reclaims whatever is left untended and ultimately the wrecking ball will finish the job.
“I don’t know if there’s a perfect word to describe it,” says artist Nathan Van Patter, whose current show Bound by Blight is an honest, loving, powerful meditation on life in another post-industrial borough, North Braddock.
“I chose the word bound because it has two meanings,” Van Patter says, “It means to be stuck—which is how a lot people in places like North Braddock find themselves. But it also has this other meaning of being bound together—people working to solve these kinds of problems as a community.”
Those dual themes—the weight of life in a crumbling physical landscape and the joy of that same life in a community where neighbors, bound together, truly look out for each other—inhabit every artwork in Van Patter’s terrific collection, even the ones in outer space.
Seeing the show, we experience enough of the hard stuff to get it. But Van Patter, who moved to North Braddock with his wife and kids four years ago, isn’t interested in “ruin porn.” The show is also full of the many many good things he’s experienced as a resident—a wall of portraits for various neighbors and community members, the metal shop and barber, sunflowers and urban farms, the big North Braddock sky.
Van Patter works in a medium we might call pictorial painted sculpture. You could also turn that around and say they’re paintings on wood constructions with sculptural elements. Van Patter just calls them paintings.
The pieces are literally rough—built on irregularly sized wooden boards with chips of rough cedar glued into place to approximate wood siding and stone, crumpled metal and bushy trees. The Orbit‘s photographs included here—or any photographs of Van Patter’s work—won’t do the 3-D elements justice, so we encourage the reader to see them IRL. (More about that below.)
The awkward chunkiness of the medium gives every artwork depth and texture, sure, but more importantly the fantastic quality that while we’re looking at real life subject matter—abandoned houses, police cars, utility poles—the scenes are distorted, dream-like, impressionistic.
That fantasy/reality divide runs through the full breadth of the show. Trees, fencing, and street signs jut out from a distorted North Braddock police car in Community/Police (above). Black-winged angels fly in the night sky above a fast food restaurant in the appropriately-named Angels Over Taco Bell (below).
Van Patter imagines an entire deconstructed home, including utility poles and power lines, packed-up and driven away in Moving Day 15104 (top). With The Nights are Too Big (above) an elaborate clock is made atop a grand day/night scene that contrasts the bucolic sunshine and flowers of the former with the symphony of sirens that score the dark night.
Blight is a heavy word. It’s a shorthand for the kind of urban decay that exists pretty much everywhere, but especially in depopulated, neglected areas where all those socioeconomic factors have very real world, visible effects. It’s also an outsider’s term—no one wants to describe where they live as blight.
“Blight, to me, is the combination of physical decay and intentional disinvestment in communities,” Van Patter says, “People know there’s a problem, whether they’d use that term or not … and it’s a word that gets used in community development a lot.”
Nathan Van Patter is a humble guy who thankfully doesn’t talk about his work with any level of art school mumbo-jumbo. He didn’t have to go looking for overgrown houses; they’re all real buildings right there in his neighborhood. The portraits are people he sees at borough meetings and his children’s day care. “Every time something bad has happened [in the neighborhood], something really good happens too,” Van Patter says, “I wanted to paint the portraits of people who’ve helped me and my family and are doing positive things for the community.”
Why insert medieval knights in armor on horseback into into several of the pieces? “I just thought it was cool.”
I think it’s cool, too—the whole thing. Nathan Van Patter, working a full-time job and raising a family, has invented his own very personal approach to creating a unique artistic vision. The artwork is both about the world immediately around him and stretches way beyond the Mon Valley—to knights in armor and sailing ships, angels in the night sky and the “Rust Belt futurism” of science-fiction space stations made from buildings right there in Braddock.
Whether those leaky old windows can hold oxygen is debatable, but that I’d like to visit this vision of the future is not. Beam me up, have one of those jousting knights bring the Aldi’s crudité, and let me at that long view coming out of the Ohringer building floating a couple thousand miles off the edge of the Mon River.
Bound by Blight is up now at UnSmoke Systems in Braddock. There will be a final opportunity to see the full collection at a closing reception this Saturday, August 20, 6:00-8:00 PM.
UnSmoke is located at 1137 Braddock Ave. in Braddock.
It is, to be sure, an unusual recommendation for a restaurant: you have to see the men’s room.
The bathroom is immaculately clean and well-stocked with soap and paper products—these are not givens for the men’s room in a bowling alley—but the real draw here is how the space is decorated. There is a wall-to-wall, chair rail-to-ceiling collage of photographs that document the last 65 years of bowling in Aliquippa.
Bowling teams—collections of five or six reliably pudgy white dudes—clutching black bowling balls in matching uniforms; color snapshots of parties, gatherings, and banquets; rough cut-outs of single rollers approaching the lanes with the tucked-in shirts and pressed slacks of another era. Across them all, the names of the alley’s regulars, friends, and family members are recorded in hand-written ballpoint and fading-away felt tip: Larry Turkovich, Art Delisio, Angel Rama, Yogi Brachetti, the Ambroses.
Ohio Valley Pizza is its own glorious thing. Par-baked ahead of time in large, rectangular sheet pans and cut in squares to be sold by the slice, the dough is oxymoronically thick but light, crispy—not chewy—and comes adorned with cheese and toppings that may or may not have been through the baking cycle. With the exception of Beto’s—perhaps Ohio Valley pizza’s easternmost outpost—The Orbit has been negligent of reporting this important regional style. That ends today.
Ricky Dee’s, the pizzeria/restaurant/bar inside Aliquippa’s Sheffield Lanes bowling alley, has been serving up Ohio Valley pizza for the last four decades. First, from a longstanding shop in Glenwillard and then moving into its present location within the bowling alley sometime later.
A bowling alley’s restaurant need only make serviceable hamburgers and french fries to accompany the bowling—and beer—that pay the rent. Ricky Dee’s ain’t that.
The pizza is the real thing: dough made fresh daily by people who care, risen high and cooked hot to crispen the edges and keep the inside lifted, dreamy, and airy. Sold by the six-cut block—one quarter tray—you’ll end up with one corner, three edge pieces, and two middle slices per order. The six pack ($8.40 plain, $12-$13 bucks with a couple toppings) was plenty for the two of us.
It is a perfect pizza experience all on its own … but that’s only half of the reason for a trip to Ricky Dee’s.
The restaurant is so much more than merely an exquisite pizza shop. Inside its windowless walls, there exists a kind of historical archive—and love letter—to Aliquippa, its people, and bowling. The reverence paid to the many, many patrons of Sheffield Lanes over the last five or six decades is felt immediately. The big photo collage in the men’s room is incredible, but the tribute neither begins nor ends there.
Cafe tables—made from recycled bowling lanes—are decorated with bowling pins painted as tiny statuettes and include wax-dripped bowling balls as chunky candleholders. Every chair in Ricky Dee’s is upholstered with a bowler’s retired league shirt, covered in thick clear plastic—so sitting on them doesn’t feel as weird as it sounds. The walls include dozens of additional photographs of local bowlers, tournaments, and curios of a unique world just gone by.
The alley’s patriarch, Joe D’Agostino—Ricky’s father and the original “Dee”—is memorialized in a fascinating collection of club membership cards that is worth the drive alone. Between the late-1940s and mid-1960s, the man was a member of The Ukrainian National Association, Chiefs of Police, Wolves Club of Aliquippa, American Rubberband Duckpin Bowling Congress, and dozens of other social, fraternal, and sport organizations. The light and glare inside Ricky Dee’s is not always conducive to photography, so you’re going to have to see this amazing collection for yourself, in person.
And you should—see it in person, that is—as well as eat it in person—the pizza, that is.
Sure, when you’re looking for a dinner pie, you could order from some (literal!) cheesy chain or pay thirty bucks to a foo-foo pizza artisan with a colorful spiel. That’s all fine—I guess—but places like Ricky Dee’s that continue to craft extraordinary pizza with a no-nonsense simple approach are not ones to ignore or take for granted. When a pizzeria comes with this much extra history, eye-popping detail, and love for their city and its people, that’s really something special.
Lastly, I’ll add that the pizza was great hot out of the oven on the day we visited Sheffield Lanes, but Ricky Dee’s also offers a take-and-bake option that was equally delicious back home, prepared as directed the following day. So if you take the trip out to Aliquippa, make sure to do like any good cleanup bowler and pick up a spare. Whether you need it or not is debatable; that it is fantastic is not.
Getting there: Ricky Dee’s is located inside the Sheffield Lanes bowling alley, 818 Raccoon Street, Aliquippa. Ricky Dee’s is not open all the time, so check their web site for current hours.
I’ve looked at life with both sidings now Fake stone, fake brick, anyhow Clapboard slats and fish scale tile Colored vinyl—go on for miles
Call it what you like—brick collage bricolage or asphalt aspirations, vinyl verité or aluminum assemblage. We’re going the refer to the unique phenomena of homes improved in multiple phases with multiple different exterior building materials as mixed-media houses.
However it worked out, there are a lot of Pittsburgh homes—specifically row houses—that ended up with an upstairs/downstairs division in after-market siding. Sometimes, the twofer becomes a fourfer or fivefer when we go around the corner, under the porch, or up to the mansard roof.
The choice of material sometimes seems like a very conscious design decision—let’s do the first floor in blue stucco, she might say, yeah, and we’ll have white aluminum on the second floor, he joins in—but that doesn’t explain everything.
Way too many of these examples seem like accidents of time, as if one set of homeowners made an initial decision and a subsequent owner came along and flipped the script twenty years later. Some just feel like people went with bargain lots on leftovers that couldn’t cover the entire house. We’ll likely never know why things ended up the way the did.
The photos—hopefully—speak for themselves and we don’t have enough puns on exterior cladding or Joni Mitchell in-jokes to warrant too much jibber-jabber. Enjoy.