Barbie’s Dream Cult

collection of Barbie dolls displayed on chain link fence in the sunshine

Fun in the sun. A handful of the hundreds of dolls in Barbie’s Dream Cult, Polish Hill.

If you were a kid that played with dolls and ever wondered whatever happened to them, now we know. They ended up here, on an overgrown former basketball court in Polish Hill.

Barbie dolls are everywhere[1]. Placed into tree branches and tied to fencing, dangling from a basketball hoop and performing headless yoga in the buff. They appear in clustered groups large enough to field a sports team and as loners cast off into the mud. Some look joyful–in relaxed repose, absorbing the morning sunshine–others have been abused and contorted, stripped bare and dismembered.

And then, rising from the twisted, haphazardly-tossed little bodies at the rear of the space, is the motherlode. At least a hundred dolls–probably more–forming the shape of a giant Valentine’s heart across a wide section of chain link fence.

large number of Barbie dolls hung on a chain link fence in the shape of a heart

Big love. The heart at the center of Barbie’s dream cult.

“Part Marwen, part Jonestown Massacre,” was artist Lisa Valentino‘s brief description after coming across the collection of Barbies on one of her WATSOP (Walk All the Streets of Pittsburgh) hikes. That enticing teaser, plus a handful of photos, was all it took to send the Orbit on a mad dash to see for ourselves.

You could accurately call this little out-of-control diorama a Pink Plastic Crime Scene or maybe Return to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It’s both the oxymoronic street art in the woods and an exploded American fantasy. Ultimately, between the Druidic imagery of The Wicker Man and the visions of The Peoples Temple, Branch Davidians, and Heaven’s Gate lingering in the cranium, we settled on Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Welcome-to-the-Cult Hostess Barbie

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence with wooden hex symbol

High Druid Priestess Barbie

Barbie has done a lot of things in her 60+ year history. Why, the Mattel Corporation is not so tone deaf here in the 21st century as to ignore expanding their flagship brand into all manner of dress-up outfits. One can now purchase Barbie the trial judge, astronaut, entomologist, astrophysicist, and robotics engineer. On her time off from drilling cavities and performing root canals at the dentist’s office, Barbie, D.D.S., enjoys beekeeping, pet-grooming, baseball, art, and tending chickens in the backyard. The list goes on and on.

That’s all great … but none of these focused, career-minded young ladies ended up here. No, among the hundreds of dolls scattered about, we spotted exactly one roller-skater, one Jazzerciser, and one apparent employee of Pizza Hut wearing a cropped t-shirt and miniskirt combo that almost certainly fails to meet the restaurant chain’s dress code.

Despite the wide array of careers and avocations Barbie is now free to pursue, the cult clearly appeals most to a more conservative–or, at least, traditional–young lady, almost entirely white and blonde, whose sartorial preferences lean toward pink party dresses and formal evening gowns[2].

dolls dressed in Pizza Hut shirt and roller skater gear

Sent-Home-With-a-Warning Barbie / Roller Skater Barbie

collage of Barbie dolls in fancy dresses

Formal dress Barbies

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that these are just plastic dolls that happened to end up the way most of their fellow children’s toys do: played-with, dropped in the dirt, broken-apart, and left behind. We find them in the street all the time.

That said, it has to be noted that today, in the #MeToo era, the image of so many post-adolescent/not-quite-fully-adult young women, lifeless, often stripped bare, and dramatically discarded in the woods, is somewhere between disconcerting and hardcore creepy. Hopefully you’ve never come across anything like this in real life, but watch any episode of Law & Order or Broadchurch–let alone the evening news–and it will often feature a similar-looking tragic young victim as Plot Point 1.

collage of blond Barbie doll heads on pavement

Heads-a-poppin’ Barbies

Barbie dolls dressed in bathrobe and exercise outfit

Rough Morning Barbie / Jazzercise Barbie

If Jan and/or Dean are still fantasizing over the mythical Surf City’s two-to-one gender ratio, they’ll completely flip their noggins when they arrive at Barbie’s Dream Cult. Kens do make  appearances here–both in the big Barbie art heart and tossed around the premises–but they’re easily outnumbered ten- or twenty-to-one.

If you’re a Ken, that’s the good news. (I guess?) The bad news is the Kens have been brutalized as much as any of the Barbies. Missing limbs, heads, and all/most of their clothes, Kens are found covered in dirt, with their pants around their ankles, buck naked, and frozen into ice. Maybe Surf City was a better plan after all.

collage of Ken dolls resting on dirt

Hey, ladies! Pants-Around-the-Ankles Ken / Which-Way-to-the-Phish-Concert Ken

collage of Ken dolls frozen in an icy creek

What a way to go. Two versions of You-Messed-with-the-Wrong-Barbie Ken

The obvious question: what are all these Barbie dolls doing here? For this we need to declare an official Spoiler Alert. We received some insider information, but if you’d rather not know and just let it remain a mystery, feel free to skip ahead.

We were lucky enough to get this short history from a Polish Hill resident, intimately involved with Barbie’s Dream Cult:

The Barbie heart story started originally with a guy in the neighborhood who bought all the Barbies to make an art car. Other people in the neighborhood felt the car was creepy and people started to say things on the Internet insinuating he was some kind of pervert and that they wished him harm. So, the gentleman took the Barbies off his car and well, what else do you do with that many Barbies? He graciously donated them to the abandoned courts.

In the beginning they were all in bags and rubber tubs and they sat there for a while. I took em out to write my name in Barbies and photograph it. Since then, they’ve been getting thrown all over the place. The heart was made by another human who wanted to remain mysterious about its origins and meanings.

collage of broken dolls found in the woods

Headless Yoga Barbie / Arm-Where-It-Shouldn’t-Be Ken / Whole-Lotta-Pink-Hair Barbie / Half-a-Horse

Barbie dolls placed in thick vine wood

Run for your life! Escape-While-You-Still-Can Barbies

Now, it’s probably safe to say that not everyone in the neighborhood considers leaving bags of Barbie dolls outside for public dismemberment is a “gracious donation.” From our vantage point, though, it’s an intriguing opportunity.

We can think of a lot worse things than this little abandoned corner of Polish Hill becoming a kind of ever-changing Barbie art park, outdoor creative space, or just another weird Pittsburgh thing to discover. It could also be a one-of-a-kind, no-questions-asked Barbie lending library: Need a Barbie? Take a Barbie. Have a Barbie? Leave a Barbie.

Barbie doll placed in a tree branch

Footloose, fancy-free, and hanging in a tree Barbie

Barbie takes a lot of well-deserved heat–for her does-not-exist-in-nature body proportions, reliably Aryan features, and dress-up-and-look-pretty career goals. This is a chance to counter that–to take a tiny amount of the world’s Barbies and do something new and innovative with them.

The last thing Marine Biologist Barbie or Wildlife Conservationist Barbie want is for the mountain of molded pink plastic the Mattel Corporation has brought into the world to end up casually thrown out, minced up, and washed out to sea for an even larger Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the real doctrine of Barbie’s Dream Cult.

Barbie doll attached to chain link fence

Naked and not ashamed. Nudist Colony Barbie


[1] We’re using the names Barbie and Ken generically here. The dolls likely come from many different sources and are not necessarily all Barbie® brand toys.
[2] In fairness, many of the dolls have been stripped of all clothing, so it’s impossible to establish if these may have originally worn different outfits.

Reading the Road: Things Embedded in Paving Tar

white plastic figure embedded in road tar

white plastic figure, Oakland

By any measure, it’s a strange object to encounter in the middle of a crosswalk. Laying on its back, a pure white plastic humanoid figure stares straight up at you–not a care in the world–embedded in the road-paving tar of Fifth Avenue.

The little toy likely came into this world in a very different form. Perhaps the material was originally in full color, complete with hair and facial details painted on–the pure white merely a result of repeated sun-bleachings. A pair of matching holes on the torso suggest an optional attachment set of armor or wings or maybe a backpack. We can hope the little guy once had some clothes.

By now, though, it’s impossible to tell. Someone’s ex-plaything–jettisoned from a bumpy stroller ride or fumbled in a harried attempt to catch the Walk sign at Bellefield–wound up crushed under so many wheels of downtown-headed PAT buses and Oakland through traffic it’s become one with the street surface itself.

wire cap embedded in road tar

wire cap, North Oakland

machine screw embedded in road tar

machine screw, Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]

Now, that little plastic toy is an extraordinary thing to find preserved in the macadam of a city street, but it’s not alone. It turns out that–like much of life–with close inspection there is almost limitless variety of this naturally-occurring phenomena just about anywhere you look.

The objects have a certain continuity, though. They’re the kinds of things that fall out of pockets and off of vehicles; worth little enough to neither require securing in place nor retrieval after they hit the pavement. None is of any value for a passer-by to bother picking up. Each must be so small that it can be subsumed into a thin layer of road tar.

zipper pull embedded in road tar

zipper pull, North Oakland

broken reflector and metal pin embedded in road tar

reflector, metal pin, Oakland

Like those fragments of household pottery or scraps of tanned buckskin preserved in historical collections, the objects we find fused in the road don’t have any intrinsic value. [Although we did find one small unit of U.S. currency (see below).] No, this is the flotsam of a population on the move, building, buying, wearing-out, and discarding the ephemera of modern life.

One needn’t look too far in the past to imagine a time when a penny wouldn’t be dropped absentmindedly and an eighth-inch drill bit would be worth the effort to retrieve from a job site. But today we live in a mechanized, mass-produced, disposable culture–one where the value of a single wire cap, machine screw, or even a kid’s toy is so little that no one would think twice when it is dropped on the pavement.

penny embedded in road tar

penny, Oakland

bottle cap embedded in road tar

bottle cap, Oakland

bottle cap embedded in road tar

bottle cap, North Oakland

These public, open-air excavation sites are a bonanza for the amateur archeologist. When we see the incredible skeletons of dinosaurs on display at the Carnegie Museum it’s obvious they are literally the one-in-a-million chance creatures that managed to collapse into just the right environment to preserve their bones intact for millennia, remain undisturbed for all that time, and managed to be recovered by the fossil-hunters of the early 20th century. Few among us can hope to participate in a real dig for T-Rex.

But anyone can be his or her own Howard Carter or Kathleen Kenyon on the morning walk to work or an afternoon constitutional. Like those pterodactyl-hunters before us, we imagine all of the bottle caps that didn’t happen to get stuck in a hot patch of road tar, the fractured reflector pieces swept down the sewer in the next big rain, the plastic detritus of America washed downriver and out to sea. It’s a lot to take in.

metal bracket embedded in road tar

metal bracket, Homestead [photo: Lee Floyd]

drill bit embedded in road tar

drill bit, Oakland

aluminum flashing embedded in road tar

aluminum flashing, Oakland

aluminum flashing embedded in road tar

aluminum flashing, Oakland

tooth flosser and bobby pin embedded in road tar

tooth flosser/bobby pin, Lawrenceville

ketchup packets embedded in road tar

ketchup packets, Bloomfield

One final observation: There is a unique related-but-different subset of the embedded-in-road-tar category of items. These are things that were actually baked into the road material itself at the time of construction. (Rather than appended to the street surface, later.) The fact that we came across two different full-sized red bricks melded with street tarmac does not a pattern make, but it’s an interesting double-occurrence.

How did these bricks get here? What were they doing in a batch of freshly cooked-up street surfacing? Were they laying on the denuded substrate or did they get mixed in with the goop pre-pour?

So many questions. But … that’s why we’re reading the road.

brick embedded in road tar

brick, Marshall-Shadeland

brick embedded in road tar

brick, Bloomfield

Always + 4EVA: Valentine’s Day Hearts, 2020

deteriorated paper heart stapled to black wall

ing T en Hom Safe, Lawrenceville

If Pittsburgh has a ground zero for human pathos, it may well be at the southeastern edge of downtown, exactly at the point where the “Jail Trail” (aka Three Rivers Heritage Trail) earns its nickname.

There, on the thick concrete supporting The Parkway east and right along the bicycle/walking path, is a stretch of wall surface where loved ones leave messages scrawled in sidewalk chalk for the inmates at the county jail.

The text is reliably heartbreaking, often written in a child’s hand, and is clearly aimed at the missing parent or family member who, incarcerated somewhere on the floors above, may or may not have one of the river-facing windows to actually see what’s been left at ground level outside. Whether or not anyone residing in the big house overhead can actually read these hand-written tributes is beside the point; here, it’s the thought that counts.

chalk written message including two hearts and the message "BM + BM: always + 4EVA"

Recycled heart, BM + BM: always + 4EVA, Jail Trail

One day, we’ll do a full story on this wall as it’s got a zillion tales to tell. Until then, though, we’ve got this pair of artfully-rendered hearts, full of multicolor shading and texture, with circular connecting arrows that echo the message from BM + BM (no snickering!): always + 4EVA.

Depending on one’s relationship status and/or sentimental capacity, Valentine’s Day can be a dicey affair. But from the mass of hearts we run across all the time–red, white, pink, and yellow, spray painted on cinderblock and scrawled on dumpsters, embedded in concrete and taped to electrical boxes–it’s clear there’s a lot of love (or, at least, hoping for it) out there.

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all!

mural by Jeremy Raymer including a heart with keyhole and key

The key to your heart, Lawrenceville [mural by Jeremy Raymer]

heart images made from red and yellow tape on electrical box

Tape hearts, Bloomfield

graffiti image of combined tooth and heart

The rare electric tooth heart, Lawrenceville

sign for Valentines Day heart-shaped pizza at Amato's Pizza, Etna, PA

Heart-Shaped pizza: Amato’s, Etna

graffiti of two hearts with "S+V" written in them

Royal hearts, S+V, Millvale Street Bridge

heart-shaped sidewalk stamp from Allegheny Concrete Co.

Sidewalk heart #1. Sidewalk stamp by Allegheny Concrete Co., Brighton Heights

graffiti hearts painted on sidewalk

Sidewalk hearts #2, North Side

imprint of two hearts in sidewalk cement

Sidewalk hearts #3, Friendship

small painted heart on chunk of concrete

(Ex-)sidewalk heart #4, Friendship

graffiti written on green dumpster with the names "Hesh" and "Paul" in a white heart

Hesh + Paul dumpster heart, Strip District

graffiti painted heart on cinderblock wall

Chemtrail heart, Hazelwood

stencil images of hearts with wings on brick wall

Flying hearts, Bloomfield

large red heart painted on cinderblock wall

Cinderblock heart, East Liberty

small pink heart painted on cement retaining wall

Pink heart, California-Kirkbride

large spray-painted pink heart on garage door

Garage door heart, North Oakland

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

Enough Crude to Keep Us in Business: Five Years in Orbit

photo collage of numeral 5 found in address signs

Five years in Orbit, man!

Five years. That ain’t that long in geologic or astronomical time, but it’s an eternity in the blogosphere. Why, a child born on the eve of The Orbit‘s maiden voyage, in late January, 2015, is old enough to have jettisoned countless sad toys from perambulators and open minivan doors by now. If you were following the physical evidence of The East End Dangler or the mystery of the golden babies, well, it’s all gone up, come down, and the trails have gone cold.

Golden baby hanging from power lines, Pittsburgh, PA

One of the golden babies in Lawrenceville, 2016: still a mystery, but no longer hanging around.

In the world of petroleum exploration, there is a known paradox. On the one hand, crude oil is a limited resource that takes millions (billions?) of years to be naturally brewed and we human beings are (quite literally) burning through massive amounts of it every day. Even setting aside all of the wake-in-the-night-screaming affects of global warming, this is simply an unsustainable pace that can’t last forever. We’re going to run out, sooner rather than later, right?

Well, you’d think so, but the history of oil exploitation tells a different story. It’s one where repeated technological advancements continue to open up entirely new, untapped resources and have, amazingly, kept gas prices incredibly low. Stand back and think about how a limited supply natural resource can get extracted from the earth, shipped over oceans, run through the refining process, distributed across America, and still be cheaper per ounce than bottled water. It is mind boggling.

diorama of oil drilling on Oil Creek, Pennsylvania

Oil drilling on Oil Creek. Part of the large diorama of Petroleum Center in Oil Creek State Park, Venango County.

A similar conundrum faces the speculative journalist engaged in hyper-local niche blogging. As long as there are children, their teddy bears and baby dolls will inevitably end up left behind on playgrounds and sidewalks, sure, and we’ll (hopefully) always have artists finding new ways to express themselves on dumpsters, street signs, and the backsides of buildings. In this pained analogy, these are the Orbit‘s evergreen renewable resources.

But it’s unlikely the region will see any new Russian Orthodox churches, epic sets of city steps, or ghost signs for Owl Cigars and Mother’s Best Flour. We can get exactly one story each from oddball cultural attractions like the Donora Smog Museum, Randyland, or DeBence Antique Music World–and then that ship has sailed, likely forever.

exterior view of onion-domed St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora, PA

Limited resource: we’ve got a bunch of them, but there are still only so many onion-domed churches to go around. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Donora.

There is a long list of potential story ideas that’s been kicking around this last half-decade. It’s got a bunch of new prospects and lots of things have gotten crossed-off as they’ve been reported-on, but many just haven’t had any movement. Will we ever get to tell the story of The Cardboards or Hans Brinker & The Dykes? Did the documentation on Andy Warhol’s weight set die with John Riegert? When will we ever make it to Latrobe for a Jioio’s pizza?

Three cuts of pizza from Beto's, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Not your average pie. Beto’s Pizza, Beechview.

SO, reflecting on this fifth anniversary–three hundred and some articles into the deep exploration of greater Pittsburgh’s nether regions–the desire to keep doing the poking, the picture-taking, the ink-spilling is as strong as ever, but … we want you do us a favor, though.

If you’re a regular reader [and if you’ve made it this far, we’re guessing that’s you] then you know the kinds of things we’re after. If you’ve got a tip on a unique pizza joint, a super-fan’s crazy antics, the keys to a long-locked ex-tavern, a street art phenomenon, connections to the polka underground, or anything else too far off-the-radar for, you know, “lame stream media” (other media sources: just jaggin’!) then we would love to hear about it.

You can reach the Orbit hot tip line either through our Contact page or email pittsburghorbit [at] gmail.com.

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

You don’t actually have to go to the side porch to contact us.

Lastly, a big thank you to everyone who’s ever taken the time to read a story, pass it on to a friend, participate in one of our goofy contests, contribute a tip, or leave a thoughtful comment. This is largely a solo endeavor whose main purpose is a kick-in-the-pants to get out the door, go do things, and exercise the fantasy journalist within. So we’d probably still be doing this even if no one was paying attention, but we won’t deny that it’s nice when people do.

Just like those wildcatters drilling for black gold in the blown caliche of West Texas, we’ll keep poking holes in the ground and hopefully we’ll find enough crude to keep us in business.

number 5 found on building's address

The Tooth Shall Set You Free! Dental Art, Part 2

mural painted on brick wall for Smiles by Hart dentist office including Pittsburgh imagery, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and the banner message "Brush, Floss & Be Happy"

Brush, Floss & Be Happy, Smiles by Hart mural by Tim Engelhardt, North Oakland

We watched it go up, day-by-day over a couple weeks in November. The new mural, painted by artist Tim Engelhardt on the brick wall of Smiles by Hart’s Centre Ave. office, appeared like an Orbit photo fantasy. It’s got a little bit of everything: sports team logos, greatest hits from the Pittsburgh skyline, a trio of red Valentine’s Day hearts, floating red lips, and the not-quite-what-you-were-looking-for life advice to Brush, Floss & Be Happy.

While the new painting fits all these categories, the most powerful graphic expression comes from the dentist’s office-specific inclusion of a dozen toothbrushes and half as many oozing tubes of what appear to be cadmium white oil paint … but in this context, we can probably assume as toothpaste.

The whole collection is set just so, arranged to form the meta image of a pair of giant disembodied wings. The painting seems to suggest that through a healthy regimen of dental hygiene, we may all be lifted into the aether. The tooth, the mural seems to say, shall set you free.

orthodontist sign with stylized images of teeth straightening, Richard J. Dahar, Avalon, PA

Pop art orthodontist: Richard J. Dahar, D.M.D., Avalon

Who knew? Lurking amongst the quaint, prewar housing, protestant churches, and discount retail in the near western suburbs lies a hotbed of the dental arts. Mere blocks from each other along Bellevue/Avalon’s main drag, reside four different professional offices engaged in a kind-of arms race of the teeth.

The sign for orthodontist Richard J. Dahar’s Avalon office (above) features a four-panel sequence of technicolor abstracted lips, teeth, and braces that clearly apes the super-saturated, square-format repetition of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens.

Just down the road, Bellevue Dental Associates have opted for a more classical design featuring the odd image of five figures engaged in what feels like a pagan ritual (below). The multi-color people hold hands to form a wide ring surrounding a bulbous tooth the size of a Hyundai. While a regular visit to one’s dentist is certainly good practice, this level of tooth worship may be taking it too far.

ornate sign for Bellevue Dental Associates with people forming ring around giant tooth

Ring around the root canal: Bellevue Dental Assoc.

dentist sign with stylized teeth in multiple colors, Bellevue, PA

Micucci can clean dirty teeth, but not dirty minds. Micucci Family Dentistry, Bellevue

awning for dentist John Debonis with tooth-shaped logo, Bellevue, PA

Blue tooth: John Debonis, D.M.D., Bellevue

Beyond greater Bellevue, we located some more of the themes we explored in part 1: glowing, neon tooth outlines, giant graphic silhouettes, abstracted gestural teeth, and one kid-friendly, colorful teeth-cleaning collage.

front window for dentist James M. Eiben with large neon tooth

Neon tooth: James M. Eiben, D.M.D., South Side

neon sign with large tooth for Beaver Dental Arts, Beaver, PA

Neon tooth, too: Beaver Dental Arts

Smile! That’s an order! Advanced Dentistry, Oakdale

stainless steel sign for Three Rivers Endodontics with stylized tooth logo

Silver filling: Three Rivers Endodontics, East Liberty

Sometimes it can feel like a grim world out there–and no one likes going to the dentist–but hats off to all the dental artists making the world a little more colorful, neon-lit, and, yes, toothy. “Brush, floss, and be happy” may not end up a Bobby McFerrin lyric, but there are worse credos to base one’s life on.

logo for Brungo Dentistry including colorful letters made to look like teeth, toothpaste, and a toothbrush

Brungo Dentistry, West View


See also: Incisor Edition: Dental Art (part 1), Pittsburgh Orbit, Aug. 5, 2018.

Something Dramatic: The Orbit Interview with Monessen Mayor Matt Shorraw

four-story building mid-way through being torn down

“We need something dramatic.” Downtown Monessen building, mid-tear down, 2019

Even a broken clock, the saying goes, is right twice a day. That’s true enough … unless one of the hands is missing.

It wasn’t until I was looking back at the quick couple of photos I’d taken last weekend that I realized the City of Monessen town clock–manufactured over a hundred years ago by the Brown Street Clock Company, right here in Monessen–had lost an appendage.

Now, that could happen anywhere and I’m sure it will be fixed soon enough, but this clock–not even right once a day–is about as perfect a metaphor for disjointed local government as you’ll find.

City of Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of downtown clock

Even a broken clock is right twice a day…unless the minutes hand has fallen off. Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw and the town clock.

River City: We got troubles.
Monessen: Hold my beer.

With apologies to “Professor” Harold Hill and the gang, Monessen would love to have a new billiards parlor–or any other business, for that matter–set up shop in town. The small city, 30 miles upriver from Pittsburgh in the Mon Valley, has lost two-thirds of the population it had at its peak in the 1940s. The mills started closing a couple decades later and the real death blow came when Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel finally pulled out in the mid-‘8Os.

Downtown Monessen, a nine- or ten-block-long by two-block wide stretch of what was once bustling Main Street America, is now a gap-toothed poster child for the fallout of big industry in the Rust Belt. The remaining storefronts are equal parts gorgeous late Victorian and between-the-wars brick-and-stone, crumbling with decades of neglect, and newer, obviously-out-of-place attempts at mid-century modernization. In between are gravel-filled vacant lots and collapsing sibling structures, biding their time until the city has enough money to tear them down.

large ornate building in bad condition

“We need something to spark a conversation.” The “HEALTH” building, downtown Monessen.

“This is a great place to live. I like it here,” says Matt Shorraw, the 28-year-old mayor of Monessen, midway through his first term in office. “A lot of family members have told me, ‘Get out–there’s nothing left here,’ but I’m not leaving. I feel like I have to be here.”

Say what you want about millennials–and believe me, Mayor Matt’s constituents are saying a lot about one particular millennial–but a young person committing to a life of service in the home town his own family is begging him to leave does not fit any negative stereotype of the generation.

Shorraw continues with a boundless optimism about the past-is-prologue potential of his home town. “It’s not an accident that Monessen was centrally located between five different county seats. We have easy access to I-70, rail lines, and we’re right on the river.” Shorraw also cites the low cost of living and the city’s location between metro Pittsburgh and the Laurel Highlands as virtues. “Eventually the success of Pittsburgh is going to make its way down through the Mon Valley.”

Monessen mayor Matt Shorraw's tattooed arm including image combining downtown Pittsburgh with flaming smokestack of Monessen

“I’m not leaving.” Shorraw’s left arm tattoo combines downtown Pittsburgh with the flaming stack of Monessen’s ArcelorMittal coke plant (and a certain starry night).

The last 30 days have been eventful for the young mayor. In December, he released an exhaustive 103-page document titled Monessen: A New Vision–The Mayor’s Strategic Plan. The comprehensive vision statement covers everything from nuts-and-bolts city issues like what streets to prioritize paving and park maintenance details to long-term, broad aspirational goals. These include the creation of a light rail transit link from The Mon Valley to Pittsburgh and a tech-focused “innovation district” downtown.

“I know it won’t all get done,” Shorraw says of the plan, “But we need something dramatic. We need something to spark a conversation. If we could only get the tax base, we could do incredible things.”

“We’re constantly doing damage control,” the mayor says of trying to keep up with the flood of maintenance issues in the city, “We’ve only been able to focus on paving roads and tearing down houses. We’re not looking 10, 20, 30 years into the future.”

row of identical wooden houses, all missing windows and overgrown with weeds

“We’re constantly doing damage control.” Empty houses on Sixth Avenue

So, Monessen has an enthusiastic young mayor, immersed in a hands-on crash course on public policy, realistic in the short-term and committed to a long-range vision of revitalizing the city he’s vowed to remain faithful to–what’s not to like? Well, the city doesn’t have a coffee shop, or a movie theater, or a bowling alley, but it does have a particularly large elephant residing in this Mon Valley room.

Immediately after taking office, in January, 2018, things “got real” with the Monessen city council. New Mayor Shorraw immediately spotted what he saw as “improprieties” with regard to how management of the city police pension fund was being conducted and responded by alerting the Pennsylvania state auditor general.

From there, it got real ugly, real fast. Shorraw details the council’s threats, attempts to force his resignation, and then impeachment. (Not sure that last one is really a thing.) The mayor responded by refusing to attend any council meetings for the next 20 months.

large ornate building in bad condition

Nature’s Pathway Taxidermy, downtown Monessen

While Mayor Matt wasn’t at the official meetings, he didn’t stop, you know, mayoring. Shorraw was still out in the community and maintains that he was fully available, just a phone call or email away. Part of the ongoing work was authoring a series of essays, posted publicly on Medium.com, detailing a level of local government chicanery and sausage-making that most of us lay folk are never exposed to.

The seven-part (and counting) series, all under the title Fighting City Hall From Within, offers a brutally-frank, unfiltered insider’s view of city government–and the corrupt actions of its members–the likes of which you’re unlikely to see anywhere. The posts are thick with first-hand details and Shorraw is not afraid to name names–of council members, legal entities, business partners, and the like.

City of Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of the old Monessen Municipal Building

You *can* fight city hall … if you’re the mayor. Monessen mayor Matthew Shorraw in front of the old Monessen Municipal Building.

Now, your author is not a constituent of Shorraw’s, so he has no “skin in the game,” as they say. But I can imagine a very strong two-sided reaction to this whole thing if I were. On the one hand, it is incredibly refreshing to see a young, inexperienced politician come into an old-boys we’ve always done it this way environment and both start asking hard questions and then actually do something when he sees real governmental corruption. In this case, report it to the authorities and let the citizens know what’s going on.

On the other hand, you just can’t walk away from the office and expect to either affect change or earn the trust of your constituents. “Eighty percent of life is showing up,” they say, and it’s really hard to imagine anything in that elaborate city plan getting done from the couch at Chez Shorraw.

roofline of Foodland grocery store with flaming smokestack behind it

Foodland Fresh and the eternal flame of ArcelorMittal coke works, downtown Monessen

That absence ended dramatically the week before last as Shorraw returned to a calamitous city council meeting that included the abrupt firing of the city administrator and solicitor. The proceedings, in front of a standing-room-only crowd, devolved into a gavel-banging group shouting match. “I had to scream or nothing would get done,” Shorraw says. You can YouTube the whole thing if you’ve got the stomach for it. “I’m back. For good.” Shorraw told us.

Let’s hope that’s true. There are a whole lot of reasons why The Orbit makes the hour-long drive down to the Mon Valley again and again. As an outsider, it’s an incredible place full of lovely people, deep, important history, terrific old-world culture, and a brutal, tragic beauty. We’ll add that’s it’s also got some of the best pizza on the planet–well worth the trip for that reason alone. We wish the absolute best for Monessen (and its sister Mon Valley ex-steel towns) and really just hope that everyone can find a way to get along.


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