The Orbit’s Summer Vacation, Part 1: Considering Portland

yellow bungalow house in Portland, OR

Portland in the summertime: green trees, parched yellow grass, cute craftsman bungalows on large flat lots

Let’s get something straight: the stereotypes are all basically true. Young people–tattooed, time-warped, and tricked-out–cavort at each neighborhood’s stock of ethnic-inspired food trucks and to-the-point microbreweries. Seemingly every home comes equipped with a strand of Tibetan prayer flags or a Black Lives Matter window sign. [Whether or not you’ll actually encounter any black lives is another matter.] The “Rose City” is aglow with its totem flower–albeit often shriveled and water-starved in the sun-baked late summer drought. Everything is “locally sourced.”

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam, The Egg Carton (food cart), SE Portland

Portland, Oregon. Like Austin and Seattle in the ’90s–or Brooklyn a decade later–it is the current generation of twenty-somethings’ hip organic indie destination-du-jour…and that makes a lot of sense. There are a ton of things to do, inside and out. Every flavor of culinary and sensory offering is available just a Square-swipe or Subaru sidle away. There’s just enough grit (if you look hard enough) to locate the handful of still-remaining rough edges from the city’s industrial past, but with the outsized young/white/educated/leftie population to feel more like a giant college town where everybody plays in a band, jams for the roller derby squad, and works part-time at the coffee shop while working on their novel.

We went to Portland to hang out with friends, ride a bicycle around the city, see the big rocks on the coast and the lovely waterfalls in the gorge. We did all that (thank you, again, most generous hosts and tour guides!) but also had the terrific experience that all travel should reward us with: the perspective on what is–and what could be–back home.

new condo under construction behind older used car lot, Portland, OR

Boomtown: condo rising, North Portland

This, of course, is the Pittsburgh Orbit. So we’re not so interested in creating a travel piece for a city 2500 miles away. Plenty of that hype has been generated already. So much so that Portland has some very opposite problems from Pittsburgh: skyrocketing housing prices, the “damn Californians” pouring into the city, and a not-too-successful campaign to Stop Demolishing Portland! (to construct hated condos).

There were a whole bunch of things we liked–the number of old junkers parked on the streets, all the great craftsman architecture, gardening nuts planting their front yards, “zombie RVs”, some great street art, and, yes, the food cart “pods” and ubiquitous microbreweries. That said, we’re more interested in just a few really basic city things that impressed us in the trip and how we’d like to see some of these emulated back here, in Pittsburgh.

small house with front yard planters made from a toilet, dresser drawers, wooden boxes, Portland, OR

Plant your front yard! North Portland

Bicycle Heaven

To call Portland Nirvana on two wheels is a stretch–it’s just too flat and too gridded for that. But, it’s absolutely heaven for the commuter or basic point-to-point traveler. There is an unbelievable amount of infrastructure in place nearly everywhere in the city–well-marked bicycle lanes, directional and distance signage every few blocks, dedicated street-crossing and curb cuts, and the concept of “neighborhood greenways”: dedicated streets that prioritize through-routes for cyclists and pedestrians. Further, motorists have a great deal of respect for bicycle-riders and the two seem to co-exist very comfortably.

street signage specifically for bicycle riders including directions, time, and distance to various locations, Portland, OR

Friendly bicycle signage: directions, distances, neighborhood greenway markers

North Williams Avenue–running from the central East Side up to North Portland–resembled a full-on cycling highway with non-stop two-wheel traffic every time we headed home. Plus, since the majority of the city is basically flat[1], you can ride all day and never get tired[2]. Throw in a climate that rarely gets hot enough for you to sweat and even less often do riders have to deal with snow and ice, and you’ve really got no excuse for not living on two wheels.

street crossings and integrated turn lanes for bicycle riders, Portland, OR

Bicycle infrastructure: street crossings, integrated turn lanes, NE Portland

We can’t do anything about our climate, but Pittsburgh has come a long way in its bicycle-friendliness in the last ten years. [Thank you, Mayor Peduto/Bike Pittsburgh!] We’re gaining new bicycle lanes all the time, have a terrific advocacy community, lots of hardcore riders, and are finally working out the nightmare of traveling through central Oakland on a bike. I think we (Pittsburgh) may actually have a better trail system than Portland within the city [it’s also entirely likely we just didn’t get to see Portland’s trails], but it’s limited to the riverfronts and a couple other through-passages.

All that said–as we’ve written in these virtual pages before–cyclists are still second-class citizens in Pittsburgh who all too often have a combative relationship with motorists and councilwoman Darlene Harris. It was remarkable to see how good it could be. We’ve got some major room to improve here.

exterior of indoor/outdoor bar called Tough Luck, Portland, OR

Adaptive reuse: Tough Luck, NE Portland

Adaptive Reuse

Tough Luck, a months-old bar and restaurant in NE Portland, is housed in a 1960s-era building that probably started life as a garage, or a laundromat, or maybe a dry cleaners–it really doesn’t matter. It was an underwhelming little big box design to begin with. But with some imagination, tasteful rehab, and the conversion of a half-dozen parking spots into relaxed outdoor seating, it’s aged gracefully as a terrific little addition to the Woodlawn neighborhood.

That story–the adaptive reuse of one aesthetically-challenged building or discarded vacant lot into something useful, vibrant, welcoming, and fun was something we saw all over the city in a ton of different impressive ways–a used car lot turned outdoor dining park, cinderblock workshop-to-brewery, old social hall to new performance space.

Former Pizza Hut building, now vacant, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Pizza Hut, East Liberty, Pittsburgh

There is a former Pizza Hut that’s been sitting vacant for years in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. This is nothing remarkable–we’ve got empty buildings all over the place. But the fact that it’s a hundred yards from Duolingo’s headquarters on Penn Ave. and maybe a half mile from Google’s big Pittsburgh office is. Right now–for good or bad–there is a lot of money flowing through this part of town. That this runty little shack sits idle is a shame. The building itself is nothing special, but its location and the vast city lot it sits on sure are.

In Pittsburgh, it can really feel like all the nice design and construction happened by the 1920s. We are fortunate to still have a lot of that stuff. But if there’s something of the vintage of Tough Luck or Pizza Hut–and there are plenty in and around–probably no one cares and it will sit there until the roof caves in or someone knocks it down for another parking lot. We’d love to see entrepreneurs take up the challenge of turning some of the city’s many architectural eyesores and discarded structures into welcoming, creative uses of fallow ground.

exterior of ornate Hollywood movie theater, Portland, OR

Hollywood Theater: one of many terrific neighborhood movie houses in Portland

Main Streets

Lastly, I’ll say that I was totally jealous of how every neighborhood seemed to have its own healthy business district, amazingly each supporting both a record store and still-operational movie house to go with the requisite cutsie retail, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

This is likely an effect of that thing most cities have where there are actually more people living there than there were sixty years ago[3]. Sometimes humanity can be a real pain the ass, but it certainly makes it easier to populate the storefronts of Main Street.

terra cotta building facade for former theater, Pittsburgh, PA

former Atlas Theatre, Perry Hilltop, Pittsburgh

To pass through [Pittsburgh city neighborhoods] Perry Hilltop, Spring Garden, Morningside, Uptown, parts of the Hill District, etc. and see the obvious former business districts that are currently somewhere between under-utilized and totally vacant is a real bummer. Oh! to bring back the New Grenada Theater or a real grocery in Homewood or anything on Observatory Hill. Sigh.

Next up: It was a nice place to visit–and under different circumstances, we could see the appeal of living there–but coming home pointed out so many things that we love about Pittsburgh. We’ll look at those comparisons next week.


[1] Portlanders: by contrast, a huge amount of Pittsburgh looks like the hilly area just above your downtown. Here, it’s nearly impossible to avoid hill climbs unless you stick entirely to the river trails–and even then you still have to get home.
[2] The positive spin on this is that every bicycle ride is both a commute and a trip to the gym.
[3] While the greater region has grown, the city of Pittsburgh has been losing population ever since 1950, when it was more than twice its current size. [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh#Demographics]

Thin Blue Line: Millvale’s “Watermark”

blue line painted on cement support for highway, Millvale, PA

“Watermark” (detail), Route 28 underpass, Millvale

The thin blue line is painted on sidewalks and bridge supports, climbs up onto brick walls and relaxes in the park. It’s also broken into sections, appearing to duck into storm drains, slip down side-streets, and leap across intersections.

Like a giant spool of yarn knocked to the floor, unwound, and batted about by mischievous cats, you’re likely to come across Watermark somewhere in the middle and wonder what’s going on. The piece–part large-format public artwork and part community-engagement project–is doing its thing right now, in Millvale.

blue line painted in front of Millvale Upholstery, Millvale, PA

Millvale Upholstery, Grant Ave.

The line follows a loose path and it’s no hurry to get anywhere. It starts, or maybe it ends–your choice–at the big concrete support for the north end of the 40th Street Bridge in Millvale’s Riverfront Park. From there, it winds a jagged, herky-jerky route out along the jersey barrier retaining wall by the park’s bicycle trail, crosses the town’s busiest intersection, and winds its way up through the Grant Avenue business district. The long blue strand finally concludes in a glorious, unruly tangle in the little Grant Avenue Pocket Park at the top of the street.

blue line painted on jersey barrier retaining wall, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

The Watermark line is around two-thirds of a mile long, as the crow flies, and has the good sense to meander through much of downtown, effectively becoming a guide to a sort-of Tour d’Millvale. Along the way, it winds past Cousin’s Lounge, the upholstery shop, library, and Yetter’s Candy.

This record fiend can’t visit Millvale without poking his black plastic-sniffing schnoz into Attic Records, but the blue line decided to skip to the other side of street to avoid such temptation. Clearly not into model railroading or macaroons, the end of the line happens just before rounding the corner to Esther’s Hobby Shop and Jean Marc’s French bakery.

blue line painted on sidewalk, Millvale, PA

Grant Ave. sidewalk

Watermark is the work of Ann Tarantino, one of six artists participating in Neighborhood Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot. Tarantino tells us the goal of the piece is to “connect the community to water–to link the riverfront to the rest of town.” The GAPP park, along with other buildings in downtown Millvale, was built right on top of the Girty’s Run stream that can be seen flowing through its raised concrete flood walls both above and below the business district. Its influence is felt–if not expressly stated–by the shape, color, and general direction of the blue line.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Scott's Barber Shop, Millvale, PA

Scott’s Barber Shop, Grant Ave.

It’s a tall order, connecting Millvale town to its riverfront. Anyone who’s ever attempted to negotiate the ugly six point intersection where Grant and E. Ohio join the Route 28 on-ramps as either pedestrian or cyclist knows how harrowing the experience can be. Will a thin, painted line actually get riverfront bicycle-riders and cookout cornhole-tossers up to Panza Gallery or happy hour beer-drinkers down to the river? This blogger could only guess…but it got him to follow the trail all the way, just to see where it would go.

blue line painted on brick walk, Millvale, PA

Sheridan Street

The project is not yet complete. Tarantino informs us the blue line itself will still have some more painting and “connectivity” points added, but the major additions will be descriptive signage at both ends and an installation/”final experience” to be installed in the GAPP park. The Orbit will have to wait to check that out just like everyone else, but we were teased that it will involve both sound and light and should be installed later this Fall.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Millvale, PA

Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Grant Ave.

We talked to a few folks sitting on front stoops along Grant Ave. during an otherwise entirely vacant, bright sunny Labor Day holiday and it’s obvious the explanatory signage will be a benefit. “What does it mean?” said one befuddled hanger-out. His buddy: “It don’t mean nothin’.”

Unlike these critics, however, The Orbit is perfectly happy to live in a world without all the answers and can therefore take a more piqued approach to the abstract project. After a couple visits now, we find the loose, playful, follow-the-blue-line curiosity to be appealing on a number of fronts and begs several enticing questions: Where is it going? Who did this? Why is it here?

blue line painted on asphalt parking lot, Millvale, PA

parking lot, Grant Ave.

Hopefully having the answers to some of these in the convenient electronic format in front of them now won’t dampen our readers’ interest in checking out Watermark for themselves. If so, that would be a shame. The way to see the piece is on your feet, walking the cement and brick sidewalks of Millvale, headed for some of P&G’s mind-melting, Michelle Obama-approved hotcakes or a piece of Dutch apple pie from the legendary hands of Frank Ruzomberka at the Grant Bar.

Is Watermark great art? I don’t know about that. But it’s a simple, low-tech (at least, until we get that sound and vision experience), and effective conversation-starter. We think it also succeeds at making any side-walker or stoop-sitter both active participant in and art critic of an odd little curio traipsing through their borough. Those are interesting challenges to rise to and we had a fine time chasing its long blue tail.

blue line painted in front of Wild at Heart Body Arts, Millvale, PA

Wild at Heart Body Arts / Tattoo, Grant Ave.

Love it or hate it, the whole thing will disappear in 2019. Watermark, like the other Neighborhood Allies projects in this series, is temporary. It is scheduled to have just a two-year lifespan. Tarantino tells us the line was created with a type of paint that can be rinsed with a cleaning solution and power-washed away like it was never there at all.

blue line painted on cement of Grant Avenue Pocket Park, Millvale, PA

Grant Avenue Pocket Park

Watermark is a project sponsored by Neighbor Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot and the Office of Public Art. It is funded by Heinz Endowments and Hillman Foundation and supported by community-based organizations Millvale Community Development Corporation, Millvale Community Library, and the Society to Preserve the Murals of Maxo Vanka.

Tarantino will continue to update news of the project at her website. You can follow her on Instagram at @anntarantino.

Black-and-Gold: Here We Go / Random Acts of Fandom

car painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

black-and-gold car, Heinz Field

With as bold a stroke as the custom paint job on a classic car–or as subtle as the jimmies on your doughnut–sides are taken and armament drawn. For it is here, dangling from front porches and stacked in the pop & chip aisle of Giant Eagle, that the enemy is engaged, troops fortified, and the City of Pittsburgh prepares for its annual fall campaign toward world dominance on the turf and sod battlefields of the AFC North.

doughnut with black-and-gold jimmies

doughnut with black-and-gold jimmies, Dunkin Donuts

Today it begins. Families bid tearful goodbyes to the husbands, brothers, and sons they’ll not see for the next four to five months–depending on how things go in the playoffs–as living rooms and finished basements are converted into makeshift bunkers where the foot soldiers of Coach Tomlin’s standing army perform isolation drills, practice daylight depravation exercises, and go on full intravenous diets of molten cheese and malted barley.

matching graves with Steelers logo, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Steeler graves, Allegheny Cemetery

Yes: ladies will be there, too–right to the end. We haven’t forgotten the mothers, sisters, and daughters who populate these same bleachers, tailgate parties, and La-Z-Boys of conflict. According to one well-passed-around story, “Pittsburgh has, by far, the largest base of NFL fans who are women”*. But–and this is just a hunch–we think most of those women will have the good sense to go back to the rest of their lives after the clock runs out on Sunday afternoon. Men? Not so much. We’ll see you guys in February.

one gold and one black lawn ornament flamingos, Pittsburgh, PA

black and gold flamingos, Woods Run

Oh, sure, the guys on the field getting paid the big bucks get all the credit, but who’s really winning these championships, huh? I’ll tell you, who, jack. It’s the lady who locates one black and one gold yard flamingo for the little grass patch in front of her house in Woods Run–no alarm system needed.

It’s the fourth-grader that spray-paints a set of tin cans black and then carefully strings them together as a mummy-wrapped Steeler robot. In New England they probably just buy pre-assembled Bradybots from China because everyone cheats anyway.

robot ornament made from tin cans, painted black with Steelers logo, New Kensington, PA

tin can porch robot, New Kensington

You want to talk about a Steeler fan? Just look up on the hillside, there’s a house there with yellow-gold painted walls and black trim on the roofline, window and door frames. Yeah, there’s probably a Jeep or maybe a big Ram pickup in the driveway with the same color scheme. No one drives a car that’s orange and brown. Those are loser colors.

house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

black-and-gold house, South Side Slopes

standpipe connector on apartment building painted black with gold Pittsburgh Steelers cap covers

standpipe connector, Shadyside

A Steeler fan has a long, long memory–one that goes way back to the cold, bleak pre-Noll era when Sundays weren’t so optimistic, and Cleveland [shutters] might still have a chance to make the playoffs. There’s the ex-pat–now relocated to Virginia–who has to contend him- or herself with the occasional drive home in a dynasty-era black Cadillac. The Rock probably had one like this before he had to hock his Super Bowls rings in the divorce settlement. The vehicle’s other ornament is a cryptic custom license plate that’ll only make sense inside Pittsburgh radio range: DUBL YOI.

front grill of a 1970's Cadillac with "DUBL YOI" Virginia license plate

deep cut: DUBL YOI, Schenley Park

steelers ornaments in front yard of home, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers frogs / Steelers logo mosaic garden stone, Mount Washington

Whether today is the first of a season of Sundays spent with your keister on the couch or you couldn’t give a hoot about the galoots in the boots, The Orbit hopes you can still enjoy the annual spectacle of your friends, neighbors, and country(wo)men flying those most glaring of high-contrast hues, losing their minds over a fake-punt, dropped catch, or blown coverage, and head-bobbing to the throbbing monotony of this year’s re-write of “Here We Go”.

May all your towels be terrible and may we still get three points off Chris Brown’s toe. Let’s go out there and teach Cleveland a new lesson in losing.

brick building with cinderblock doorway painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Pythian Temple doorway brick-over, Hill District


* “Pittsburgh leads nation in female NFL fans”, NFL.com, Sept. 12, 2007.

See also:

Vex Ed: A Contest for a New Pittsburgh City Flag!

flag of the City of Pittsburgh

(Current) flag of the City of Pittsburgh. Can we do better?

The flag–any flag–should be a glorious, triumphant emblem that trumpets the twin messages this is who we are and you’re here now. It’s raised high above government buildings and hangs formally inside legal chambers. And–if you get it right–the public takes the flag into their own hands.

With a good flag, loyalists adopt its design as their own–flying it freely from front porches and attaching plastic decals of it to windows and bumpers; they paint it on garage doors and wear it in the form of track suits. Kindergarten teachers will instruct young patriots in the art of creating facsimiles from finger paint and popsicle sticks.

American flag made from recycled wood, Apollo, PA

No one makes these for the city flag. Homemade 28-star American flag, Apollo

When we talk about the flag of the City of Pittsburgh, we’re clearly not at this level of either fandom or familiarity. Do you know anyone not named “the mayor” who owns a Pittsburgh city flag? Do you ever see it flown in your neighbors’ yards or waved at public events the way people hoist the rainbow flag, Steelers banner, or the Jolly Roger? If we hadn’t included the image Pittsburgh’s flag [above] would you even be able to describe what it looks like?

My guess is you’ll answer no to each of these questions–and that’s a shame. Pittsburghers love their city and we should have a city flag we’re equally proud of.

flag pole with miniature flags of Italy, USA, and Pittsburgh

Hey: somebody’s flying it! Flags of Italy, USA, and Pittsburgh, Panther Hollow

So what’s wrong with the flag we have? Let’s start with the colors. In Pittsburgh, we accept high-contrast black and gold as natural bedfellows–like french fries and ketchup, or french fries and sandwich meat, or french fries and salad greens. The extra addition, however, of the blue and white detail in the central checkerboard crest is what really sends this palette from reckless driving into fatal collision. Nowhere should these four colors intersect–not even in Cleveland.

While the background black/gold/black vertical sections are a nice, simple, bold presence, they’re directly at odds with the completely useless design-by-committee noise in the middle of the flag. Here, a cartoonish tri-turreted castle–looking like the packaging for a child’s play set–awkwardly either floats above or balances tenuously atop the curlicue formality of the city crest.

detail of the center design in Pittsburgh's city flag including three-tower castle and crest with eagles and blue-and-white checkerboard

Detail: “A triple-towered castle masoned Argent” and “a fess chequay Argent et Azure, between three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted”

Putting aside questions about why the City of Pittsburgh is represented by a medieval European-style fortress, its pairing with an embellished coat-of-arms inherited from William Pitt is particularly dissonant. [These are referred to as “a triple-towered castle masoned Argent” and “a fess chequay Argent et Azure, between three bezants bearing eagles rising with wings displayed and inverted,” respectively.]

This combination creates chalk and cheese design elements that not only have nothing to do with each other and are scaled in odd proportion, but look like they were rendered by entirely different hands. Mercifully, there isn’t any text to not be able to read in the crest, but from any distance I dare you to find anyone who can make out those “eagle-fronted bezants” flapping in the breeze.

Less is more. Same flag, less crap.

Less is more. The same flag, without the crap.

Pittsburgh Orbit will never advertise itself as a design shop, but even without the background and very limited fake-Photoshop skills, the simple removal of the junk in this flag’s trunk–that being the ridiculous castle and crest–seems like an enormous win. We’d fly that thing off the H.M.S. Orbit with pride. Further streamlined down to the bare minimum square of one each black and gold halves may be even better.

flag of the City of Pittsburgh with center details removed and reduced to two vertical black/gold sections

Even less is even more…maybe. Two-tone black/gold square.

Something clearly needs to be done around here. There were grandiose plans: a design contest! with celebrity judges! a big-reveal gala event! we could even pitch it to the city! Meetings were taken with, you know, a media partner and real designers. But…ah, hell–that’s a lot of work and you try finding a local expert in vexillology. Heck, just try pronouncing it!

All that said, the simple goal remains to come up with a banner that Pittsburghers will recognize, identify with, and fly proudly from their eves and stitch to the seats of their pants.

SO, here’s where you, dear reader and creative acquaintances of dear reader, come in. We’d love to see your submissions for a redesigned flag for the City of Pittsburgh. This blogger has no idea whether The Orbit‘s audience would support such an effort, but we’re crossing fingers and, like Casey Kasem, keeping our feet on the ground, and reaching for the stars.


Note: This contest has ended, so we’ve removed the submission details. You can see the results at our follow-up story Vex Ed: Designs for a new Pittsburgh flag (Oct. 8, 2017).

proposed flag with gold planet on black field with text "ORBIT"

Hey, it’s an option!


Background/further study:

Neighbor of the Living Dead [or] I Was a Teenage Zombie

still from the movie "Night of the Living Dead" showing zombies breaking into farmhouse

John Kirch (on right) “starring” in “Night of the Living Dead”, 1968

John Kirch‘s career in crime began and ended in one slow-motion breaking-and-entering incident at an Evans City farmhouse fifty years ago. That experience–the young man tagging along with a particularly unruly pack of hoodlums–was not only caught on camera, but absorbed, analyzed, lovingly re-enacted, and paid tribute to. It also forever affected movie history.

The “crime,” of course, was a work a fiction. The film was George Romero’s debut feature, Night of the Living Dead, released the following year in 1968. While not the first of either, the picture has gone on to be a holy grail for both American independent filmmaking and the flood of late-night zombie flicks that followed. It is likely the most famous movie ever to come out of Pittsburgh[1].

John Kirch wearing a t-shirt with the message "I was dead before dead was cool"

Kirch today, at home in Lawrenceville [photo courtesy John Kirch]

The good news: If you have to shuffle off this mortal coil as a member of the undead feasts on your flesh, it might as well be at the hands of this guy. Mr. Kirch, now in his mid-60s, still moves deliberately, but it’s thankfully as a member of the living. Working until Midnight most evenings, any slowness can be attributed to the early-morning, first-coffee-of-the-day time of our visit rather than a methodical blood quest for brain breakfast.

I’ve lived right down the street from Kirch’s Lawrenceville home for the last seventeen years and didn’t find out he was involved in the movie until just recently. Between this revelation, the very recent passing of George Romero, and the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the film, we asked Kirch if he’d be up for an interview. He couldn’t have been more accommodating.

John Kirch at 15 years old

Don’t let the blazer fool you. Kirch at 15, around the time of filming “Night of the Living Dead” [photo courtesy John Kirch]

This blogger has never looked as cool as John Kirch appears in his sophomore-year class photo from Carrick High School. A torn-and-worn black-and-white image shows the once-and-future “teenage zombie” looking altogether suave–dapper, even. The young man sports a very of-its-time black turtleneck and blazer ensemble, his left hand jauntily clutches the jacket’s lapel. All he’s missing is to go full-on beatnik is a beret, goatee, and half-smoked Gauloise dangling from his mouth.

Kirch’s cool confidence was what got him in with the ghouls. Already bitten by a love of film and television, his sister introduced the adolescent Kirch to a Mr. Jack Givens. At the time, Givens was chief audio engineer at Hardman Associates, the (former) downtown Pittsburgh audio/film studio that collaborated with Romero and ultimately produced Night of the Living Dead.

Three-story neoclassical Pitt Building in downtown Pittsburgh

Pitt Building, Smithfield Street. Former home of Hardman Associates. [photo: John Kirch]

Givens told Kirch they might have a small part for him in the monster movie they were making, but he’d have to check back for a time and details. Kirch recalls phoning the studio every morning before school for weeks and asking for Givens. Each effort just resulted in Hardman’s receptionist relaying a “no” message back to him. But–as the always one step ahead readers of The Orbit will have divined–eventually Givens picked up the phone and gave Kirch the opportunity he was looking for.

Kirch was brought in late in the production after all of the lengthy interior scenes had already been filmed. The basement of a building at 247 Fort Pitt Blvd. where Romero had an office doubled for the farmhouse basement as there wasn’t adequate underground space for the Arriflex cameras, studio lighting, and film crew inside the tiny Evans City property used for the first floor scenes and exteriors.

still from "Night of the Living Dead" with zombies recoiling from fire

“Night of the Living Dead” molotov cocktail still. John Kirch behind central figure.

Kirch received the sum of his acting direction, “Don’t walk like Frankenstein,” (arms stiffly streched out) from Jack Givens in the car ride up to Butler County. A cold night, the would-be zombies were also commanded not to exhale while the camera was rolling–the filmmakers didn’t want actors’ visible breath ruining the continuity of the earlier (warmer weather) sequences.

Kirch has a great humility about his role in the production, stressing he was the most minor of players. Indeed, the young actor only spent two days on the Living Dead set. All of his scenes–the zombies’ final siege of the farmhouse–were filmed in just one evening.

still from "Night of the Living Dead" with zombies

“Night of the Living Dead” zombie still. John Kirch, third from left.

But what a night! Kirch got an up-close look at low-budget indie filmmaking at it best: actors doing each other’s makeup at the kitchen table, special effects wounds created from mortician’s wax, chocolate syrup subbing for blood, improvised lighting scrims from leafy tree branches, the tech crew suiting up for double-duty as onscreen extras.

One thing Kirch was not exposed to on the Living Dead set was the bureaucracy/safety concerns of a more studio-official film. These included setting fire to Jack Russo’s ghoul character. “Nowadays you’d have to have permits and a fire department on hand,” Kirch says, describing the molotov cocktail scene, “They just had the actor throw an empty bottle and lit a puddle of gasoline on fire to make it look like it blew up!”

Kirch remembers the 27-year-old George Romero as particularly hands-off with regard to directing actors. “He was really just concerned with how the picture looked through the camera…the lighting and angles,” says Kirch.

Fulton Theater marquee lit up for world premier of "Night of the Living Dead", Oct. 1, 1968

“Night of the Living Dead” world premier, Oct. 1, 1968 at the old Fulton Theater (now Byham), downtown [photo © Image Ten]

Somewhere around a year after that chilly night in Evans City, Kirch was invited by the production team to attend Night of the Living Dead‘s world premier at the Fulton Theater (now the Byham) downtown. He brought his sister as his date and remembers (Living Dead lead) Duane Jones arriving in a dramatic tuxedo, top hat, and cape.

Even more memorable to the teenaged Kirch was when the film opened for a full run at the old Arcade Theatre on the South Side[2] where Kirch was working as an usher at the time. His manager typed out the program’s time sheet listing Feature: Night of the Living Dead, Starring: John Kirch. The film was a big enough local success for it to hold over for a longer-than-expected run.

typed time schedule for former Arcade Theatre in Pittsburgh with first run of "Night of the Living Dead"

(Former) Arcade Theatre time schedule including “Night of the Living Dead” “starring” John Kirch [image courtesy of John Kirch]

The influence of being involved with a film production at such an impressionable age led Kirch to career in pictures–but not as an actor. After graduating from Carrick High, Kirch left Pittsburgh to pursue a degree in filmmaking from Cal Arts in Los Angeles before returning home. Here, he’s made a career as a film and video editor, primarily for local television stations WQED, WTAE, and, for the last 35 years, KDKA. He’s also worked on numerous films and contracted projects through the years.

newspaper ad for "Night of the Living Dead" mentioning a life insurance policy for $50,000

“Night of the Living Dead” newspaper ad, c. 1968

Night of the Living Dead has come back into Kirch’s life a number of times in the last five decades. The only professional one of these was around 1980 when he got an editing job cutting a no-dialog soundtrack to the film to be overdubbed in other languages for foreign markets.

Kirch explains with some envious regret that the existing foley (ambient audio) track was so good, he didn’t need to create any new sound effects. “I wanted to whack a watermelon with a tire iron.”

John Kirch with left hand painted blood red, preparing to leave a hand print on wall

“I wanted to whack a watermelon with a tire iron.” Kirch prepares to leave a bloody hand print at the Living Dead Museum, Evans City, PA [photo: Kevin Kriess]

The cult of Night of the Living Dead and George Romero’s numerous horror/zombie sequels has only grown through the years. Because of his minor role in the film, Kirch never felt compelled to join the fever. However, after being “outed” by a friend at a 2012 screening of the film at the Hollywood Theater with (Living Dead actor/producers) Russ and Gary Streiner[3], he’s been invited each year to the annual Living Dead Weekend festivals held in Evans City.

John Kirch with Russ and Gary Streiner on stage at Hollywood Theater, Dormont, PA

Kirch (right) “outed” at a “Night of the Living Dead” screening with Russ and Gary Streiner, Hollywood Theater, 2012 [photo: Joel Wlodarczyk]

As the second-youngest member of the cast, (Kyra Schon–the trowel-wielding, parent-murdering, child-turned-ghoul–was just ten at the time of filming) the Living Dead festivals have been bittersweet for Kirch. Fun to reconnect with acquaintances and fans, but also sad. So many of the original cast and crew have gone from, uh, living to dead (sorry) in the last decade that the festival is getting re-stocked with participants from Romero’s later works.

poster advertising 2013 Living Dead Festival in Evans City, PA

Living Dead Festival 2013 poster

How deeply Night of the Living Dead has affected Mr. Kirch is hard to tell, but it’s obvious the experience has stayed with him long after the credits faded to black and the house lights came up at the Arcade’s final show. It’s lingering in his career, his sense of humor, and the devilish twinkle in his eye. Right there, hung on the wall of his kitchen, is a replica mason trowel signed by the actors and encased in glass.

To Mr. Kirch: thank you for sharing your story with us. May you one day get to whack that watermelon with a tire iron–we’ll even buy you the melon.

12 cast members from the film "Night of the Living Dead", photographed in 2013

Kirch (far right) with other “Night of the Living Dead” cast members, 2013 [photo: Lawrence DeVincentz]


[1] What else would you put up there? FlashdanceSilence of the Lambs? That Batman movie?
[2] Not to be confused with the currently-active downtown comedy club of the same name, the South Side Arcade Theatre was an old 1200-seat, 1920s-era movie palace. The building at 1915 East Carson Street burned down in 1984; there is a Rite-Aid there now. Sigh. See: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/16447
[3] The Streiner brothers were intimately involved with the making of Night of the Living Dead as actors, technical producers, and financial backers. Russ utters the classic line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara”; Gary is part of the meathook-weilding posse at the end.


Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the Pitt Building as the location for basement scenes in Night of the Living Dead. Those scenes were actually shot around the corner at 247 Ft. Pitt Blvd, where George Romero kept an office. We apologize for the error.

This Way Out: Arrow Collecting

yellow arrow painted on weathered plywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Esplen

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.*

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"Service & Parts" sign painted in shape of an arrow on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Service & Parts, Manchester

day-glo green arrow painted on dumpster, Pittsburgh, PA

dumpster arrow, Shadyside

Oh, how much simpler life would be if we all just had a little more clear direction. Go that way. Do this thing. It’ll all be O.K.

The arrow is likely the boldest, simplest, and most direct (in a couple different definitions of the word) of visual statements; it is this magic voice from above. Where to go, what choices exist, how to find our way in the world. Without the arrow, we’d all be lost…literally.

tile building facade with number 223 and arrow directing around the back, Homestead, PA

Have you seen the back? 223, Homestead

ghost sign for former La Salle Electric, Pittsburgh, PA

Office this way / Pick-up that way. Former La Salle Electric building (now demolished), Manchester

Constructed with your choice of just three simple lines or as the beefier triangle + rectangle, the form is geometry at its most basic, graphic design boiled down to the last essential elements, universal in both meaning and comprehension. Go that way.

It’s also visually arresting. For such a simple shape, the arrow represents both incredible movement and a certain level of violence. It’s based on–and named after–the form of a projectile weapon, after all. Conflict is inevitable when the point of the spear impacts its target. The inherent tension in this implied collision charges every depiction of the mighty arrow.

detail of arrow painted on the wing of an airplane

airplane arrow, Boeing 737

arrow painted on white brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

East Liberty

In a news week dominated by talk around the president’s embrace of Nazis, the alt-right, and his no-teleprompter invention of an “alt-left”, we thought it’d be as good a time as any to seek a little clear direction. [For the record, The Orbit has always considered itself alt-down-and-out.]

Here then, are some fine area examples of that most noble of graphic forms: the arrow. May you all get where you’re going.

white arrow painted on brown brick and cinderblock wall, McKeesport, PA

Down and out in McKeesport

sign for brewery entrance with directional arrow painted on bridge support, Pittsburgh, PA

Brewery Entrance, Lawrenceville

red brick house shaped like an arrow, Pittsburgh, PA

arrow house, West End

ghost sign for former Penn Bowling Lanes, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Bowling Lanes, Downtown

red arrow painted on exterior column, Pittsburgh, PA

Manchester

ghost sign on former hardware store, Pittsburgh, PA

multiple arrow ghost sign: Home Improvement Needs, “The Contractor’s Department Store”, Hill District

detail of store entrance with arrow shape, Etna, PA

store entrance arrow, Etna

former school bus in field of wildflowers painted to advertise F&V Fireworks, Enon Valley, PA

F&V Fireworks, Enon Valley, PA


* Yes, someone needs to enlighten Mr. de Saint-Exupery that it may be she who is making the design decisions.

Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles, Part 2

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades “Toynbee Tile” #4 (detail), Blvd. of the Allies, downtown

A cautionary tale: Whenever one thinks she or he has reached the end of the metaphorical line and is dangling by the very last fibers above the abyss, know that if you’re successfully converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, you’ve still got a fighting chance. Heck, maybe one day we’ll finally get the high-quality hemp rope N.O.R.M.L. promised us back in the ’90s.

Just a few months back, we bagged what we thought were the very last “Toynbee tiles” in Pittsburgh. Those two little street artworks, both found on Blvd. of the Allies downtown, are actually courtesy of the equally-mysterious House of Hades, which is believed to be either copycat or super-fan, depending on one’s viewpoint. [Our handful of “real” Toynbee tiles are, sadly, long gone.]

linoleum art of city scene at night, imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

city at night tile (detail), Blvd. of the Allies, downtown

And so, as we said in that post, that was all she seemed to write…err, carve into linoleum and press into the street.

But (yes: there’s always a big but) how wrong a blogger can be! Within mere blocks of those two specimens, we encountered yet another pair of wayward street tiles–apparently from the very same hands. The first of these is on Smithfield Street, right before the bridge; the other just around the corner and up a block on the Boulevard (at Cherry Way).

The former (we’re calling it House of Hades tile #3) includes the exact same message as tile #1 from the previous post: House of Hades / One man versus American media in society ‘2012. This one also has the added ominous zinger To punish them all.

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades tile #3, Smithfield Street at First Ave.

Tile #4 is a little more difficult to parse. The Toynbee half of it contains what we’ve come to recognize as a naked lady’s shapely gam across the top (there was probably a right leg to go with this left, but it’s gone now), plus some of the familiar big headline text: House of Hades / The resurrection of Toynbee’s idea in society ‘2012. It also contains an extra stanza in relative fine print with the disturbing message I must work harder to punish these butchers for all that they’ve done.

The most unusual thing about #4, though, has to be that it’s also immediately abutting/overlapping yet another linoleum street tile of an entirely different mood and design. This one, vertical in composition with rounded corners, features a night scene in one-point perspective of a car driving toward a stylized big city skyline [notably not Pittsburgh]. A crescent moon hangs overhead against the star-speckled black sky.

It’s probably safe to say this nightscape is not the work of either the Toynbee or House of Hades folks. Aside from the medium itself, it just has none of the tell-tale style elements or apocalyptic messaging. That said, it sure is curious that the two ended up where they did. With all the available, naked pavement out there, how do two road tiles lie nearly right on top of each other? Can’t we all get along!

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

The full scene. House of Hades tile #4/nighttime city scene, Blvd. of the Allies at Cherry Way

Are these really the last of the Toynbee (inspired) tiles in Pittsburgh? We sure hope that isn’t the case and we’ll not make the mistake of trying to declare such a truth again. Fool me twice, as they say.

Plus, like that desperate hero watching the fraying strands of her lifeline unspool from its anchor above, we like to think there’s a little more life left in these streets and–with it now legal in 30 states–hemp is on the way. We haven’t given up just yet.


See also: Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles: (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 9, 2017)