Art Walk: The Pipe Cleaner Fern Frames of Lawrenceville

pipe cleaner fern frame

Consider it a wild weekend with woebegone weeds or First Fridays for forgotten ferns. Heck, this may even qualify as the Make a Wish Foundation for misunderstood moss. Whatever you call it, there’s a new street-level contemporary art walk on exhibit now–for what may be a very limited run–in Central Lawrenceville.

pipe cleaner fern and moss frame

Someone has taken the fascinating step of constructing simple colorful rectangular frames from mismatched pipe cleaners and attached them to an old stone retaining wall along 45th Street, bordering St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.

Their placement on the soot-blackened stones is no haphazard act of vandalism or careless littering–no, they’ve been very precisely curated to frame and highlight the kind of the minute nature dioramas that appear around us everywhere, all the time, but usually go unnoticed. In lieu of anything more witty, we’re calling these fern frames.

popsicle stick fern frame

Nature is an absolutely amazing thing–and one that we can reasonably trust to outlive and survive the appetite-for-extinction behavior of the human race. In every sidewalk crack, a burst of life; on each block of pavement, itty-bitty creatures scurrying around, just doing their thing. And yes, in the thin vertical spaces between wall stones and mortar joints there exist tiny blasts of green in the form of soft fuzzy moss, delicate miniature weeds, the spindly leaves of little ferns.

pipe cleaner moss frame

We have no idea what motivated the person or persons responsible to construct and place the fern frames–they come with neither attribution nor artist statement. So we’re left to speculate on what’s going on with these simple displays. Are they a goofy stunt with leftover crafting materials? Psychological experiment? Candid Camera-style prank where The Orbit is the butt of the joke?

Anything’s possible, but to the imaginative mind what these little pieces seem to say echoes Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s famous couplet I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree. You can put a lot of effort into painting a picture, singing a song, or–gulp–writing a blog post, but you’re not going to top Mother Nature. Look around! Keep those peepers open! The world is a wonderful and mystifying place.

It can be really hard given the news of the day–you name the day–and, yes, people have all kinds of heaviness they’re dealing with. But what these little fern frames seem to say is, don’t just stop and smell the roses–those sell-outs already get enough attention!–put your schnoz right down in between the cracks in the sidewalk and up against the stones in the wall. There is so much beauty all around us, but sometimes it takes an anonymous stranger with a couple pipe cleaners to point it out to us.

pipe cleaner weed and moss frame

Art All Night 2019: A Roundup with Reflections on 22

artists from Creative Citizens Studios, “Pittsburgh,” (detail) mixed media

There she is: perhaps the most famous character the Brothers Grimm brought to world. Most of us came to her doe-eyed, perfectly-behaved acquaintance care of Walt Disney Studio’s classic animated film.

Only here the princess is no angel. She’s accessorized in rock-and-roll sunglasses and huffing a cloud of gray smoke through a makeshift pipe. It’s a scene that would leave Cheech and/or Chong gasping for fresh air. The crudely-painted artwork is titled Snow White Smoking Weed from an Apple.

lildoodoobutt, “Snow White Smoking Weed from an Apple”

Through the years, we’ve seen Art All Night grow up. We were there when the very literal all-night, anything-goes community event masquerading as art show learned to crawl, built its first set of plywood S panels, and went from a four-month planning cycle to an incredibly-efficient four-week execution. [Full disclosure: this author was neck-deep in volunteering for Art All Night for at least ten years; this year he just pulled a late-night, keep-your-eyes-open shift.]

So it is with strange comfort that we see this onetime oddball event grow up to be the same kind of goofball grass-roots institution we might have hoped for. The longevity of this all-volunteer event–last weekend was its 22nd yearly happening–and the continued commitment to no jury / no fee / no censorship is about as resolutely pure and accurate as one could hope from an organizational constitution.

Paul Feight, “4 Nudes Walking with Koi fish,” acrylic on canvas

Alexander Sands, “Diablo Blanco,” acrylic on canvas

There are a few other nos we could tack onto the Art All Night credo: no curation, no restraint, and no questions asked. These are, of course, 100% in the spirit of the event and give it a great I don’t need your rulesstick it to the man vibe–but that can present its own set of challenges for both participant and spectator.

Like being the introvert at a raucous New Year’s Eve gala or a vegetarian at a pig roast, the more subtle artworks are absolutely invited and welcome to be there, but may have a hard time feeling like they came to the right party.

Petey Miceli, “The Red Death,” acrylic on canvas

Exhibition at Art All Night favors big and loud, jokey and profane–that’s just the reality of an environment where the hanging is a shotgun blast of random collisions on dull fiberboard. There’s no way a sensitive portrait in graphite, delicate fabric embroidery, or miniature collage can compete side-to-side with a painting like The Red Death (above). That three-foot acrylic-on-canvas fantasy by artist Petey Miceli stars a giant demon-creature in flowing red cloak walking through turbulent seas with an enormous coffin under his arm.

Steven Walker, untitled, mixed media

Steven Walker’s untitled mixed media (self?) portrait of a young man staring straight back at the viewer (above) features actual barbed wire looped around the painting and a molded plastic eyeball exploding through the canvas in a gruesome bloody mess. It’s a lot to take in.

Ditto that for Universally fucked (below)–a kind of stoned joke come to life in the form of an orgasmic scary clown rogering a duck against a backdrop of the swirling psychedelic cosmos. There are elements of Jeannine Weber’s pen/pencil/acrylic artwork that I like–but I’m not going to hang this in the living room.

Jeannine Weber, “Universally fucked,” pencil/pen/acrylic

Kailee Greb, untitled (detail)

Kathie Hollingshead’s Peep All Night (below) takes the created-for-the-occasion approach to a whole new level. As one of the organizers of the event, her insiders-view recreation of Art All Night in miniature–with leftover Easter peeps standing in for attendees and volunteers–is a kind of meta joke-within-a-joke that blew this blogger’s already fragile noggin.

The piece–complete with faithful models of the plywood exhibition panels in cardboard and popsicle sticks–has so many great nods to Art All Nights past that we really have to salute this as some kind of high-water mark in art history. The tiny Etch-a-Sketch? The little Three Sisters bridge photo? Portraits of peeps? If you’ve been to Art All Night–any Art All Night–you’ll recognize these tropes. That’s it, man–game over.

Kathie Hollingshead, “Peep All Night,” mixed media

There’s long been a debate in Art All Night’s inner circles as to whether the work of younger artists should be segregated into a safe zone. The proponents argue that this way junior’s finger painting doesn’t end up hanging next to something really offensive; those opposed feel like it puts the kids in the often looked-over ghetto of “children’s art.”

Personally, I love to be surprised when the piece that pops out from a full panel has Age: 14 (or whatever) on the info tag. But I’m not a parent and don’t have to answer not-ready-for-it-yet questions like “why is that man doing that to that lady?”

Regardless, the under-18 panels always yield great stuff–too much to include here–but we loved Faith Little’s Daniel Ceaser, a mixed-media bas-relief in cut cardboard with stray scattered phrases like “Japanese Denim,” “Death & Taxes,” and “Street Car” that must be meaningful…but we can’t make the connection.

Faith Little, “Daniel Ceaser,” mixed media

Elias Grim, “Building a Wall”

As always, Art All Night is a place for some folks to, as Mrs. The Orbit says, “get their freak on.” From the days of The Rubber Men, The Cardboard Cowboy, and Sailor John Art All Night always brings out a who’s-who of where are these people the rest of the year?

The event has been around long enough for some of these folks to now be exhibiting in the great gallery in the sky. Rest assured, there’s a new crew of regulars–that guy with the electric blinking lights fuzzy jacket, Most Wanted’s crushed art cars, too many costumed characters to name, a naked lady!

We also enjoyed this too-late-for-the-party-but-I’m-showing-up-anyway tribute collage to the Golden Girls (below) which appears to just be a drop-off/leave-behind. We don’t know what Blanche, Rose, Sophia and the gang would have thought about Art All Night, but they’d be welcome here too.

anonymous drop-off art, “Golden Girls” collage

They’re not the only ones. If Art All Night teaches us anything, it’s that the human spirit to create, delight, surprise, and humor is deep and wide, strong and alive. That behind every row house awning and within every apartment bedroom there may be an artist, paintbrush in hand, shoving a fake bloody eyeball through a canvas just because he or she wanted to communicate…something…to the world.

lildoodoobutt, the artist behind the Snow White piece, would likely have a hard time finding gallery sponsorship elsewhere. We might assume the same for the vast majority of Art All Night contributing artists. That said, Ma and Pa doodoobutt can rest assured their kid will always have a home at Art All Night.

Katy Dement, papier mache/chia seed

A Fourth Time for the Skyline

mural, A Silver Fox Limousine Service, Neville Island

Let’s start with the obvious: there are a lot of representations of the Pittsburgh skyline out there. They show up anywhere and everywhere when you start looking–in street art and sponsored neighborhood murals, small business advertising and, of course, official city-branded vehicles and equipment.  There are so many that this–The Orbit‘s fourth foray into collecting them–bags the biggest haul yet. Heck, we didn’t even bother with the newish emblems on city trash cans.

When looking at these, it’s best not to get too critical of the exact layout of downtown buildings or specific geographic features. So what if the A Silver Fox Limousine Service mural sneaks in the Empire State Building just to the left of PPG tower? That painting is undeniably downtown Pittsburgh. The same with Thai Gourmet Express’ vague set of spiky buildings behind a suspension that is very clearly not The West End Bridge–the east-facing river perspective and tight arrangement of tall buildings on a relatively small piece of land is good enough for us.

We’ll keep the blah-blah-blah short this week and get you right to the photos. Happy skylining!

mural including the Pittsburgh skyline along bicycle trail

mural, Jail Trail

handmade puppet stage decorated with Pittsburgh skyline

puppet stage, Pittsburgh Puppet Guild

news box with artwork of Pittsburgh skyline and pigeon

artist-created Pittsburgh City Paper news box, Squirrel Hill

mural of downtown Pittsburgh skyline by artist Baron Batch

Baron Batch mural, South Side Slopes

mural for Guys and Dolls hair salon featuring Pittsburgh skyline, Bellevue, PA

mural, Guys and Dolls hair salon, Bellevue

mural, Spak Brothers Pizza, Garfield

colorful mural featuring the Pittsburgh skyline

mural, Millie’s Ice Cream, Shadyside

mural, Iron Lung vape shop, Bloomfield

Thai Gourmet Express food truck, Oakland

The Three Ps. Specials board, Patron Mexican Grill, East Liberty

logo for The Construction Company featuring artistic rendering of Pittsburgh skyline in black and gold

logo, The Construction Company

Healthy Ride bicycle share kiosk

bus shelter advertisement

chalk board, Delanie’s Coffee, Southside

Steeltown Marketing, Bloomfield

line drawing of Pittsburgh skyline on police van

City of Pittsburgh police van

Animatronically Correct: Hopping Down Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane

elaborate diorama of Easter bunnies at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

big bunnies at Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage

Flowers pop in full bloom way ahead of schedule as fairies mingle with enormous fuzzy caterpillars. Giant Easter eggs dangle from tree limbs while an array of butterflies lift off in a spectacularly-coordinated squadron. An indoor forest is filled with the world’s most cuddly cavalcade of bunnies and geese, pigs and lambs, bears, owls, and raccoons.

Existing somewhere between the topsy-turvy psychedelic overload of the Wonka Chocolate factory and the kind of über-wholesome family entertainment one would see in a Christian cartoon program, Kraynak’s Easter Bunny Lane is an avenue like no other.

elaborate diorama of yellow flowers in bloom at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

spring flowers and besuited geese

elaborate diorama of fairies and flowers at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

fairy scene

Kraynak’s, located 70 miles north of Pittsburgh in the town of Hermitage, has created its own little empire since it first opened in 1949. We don’t know what it was like back then, but today the large site on State Street includes an enormous retail store selling just about any frivolity one can name, a lawn and garden center, and soon-to-be-hopping six-bay plant nursery.

The store’s commerical jingle–an ear worm that makes “It’s a Small World” sound like Stockhausen–claims “It’s always Kraynak’s time of year.” That may be true, but they really put on the dog for the two big Christian holidays. That’s what brought us up north, our eyes all aglow with pre-resurrection fever, to Easter Bunny Lane.

elaborate diorama of nocturnal animals at night at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Dump n’ Dine

elaborate diorama of Sesame Street characters at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Sesame Street

You get to Easterland–yes, it goes by both names–through Kraynak’s retail store; the entrance is by the massive toys, games, and novelties section on the righthand side of the space. Arrive on a weekend and you’ll likely encounter a line of people stretching nearly to the front doors waiting to get in.

Don’t worry, the line moves and there’s a lot to look at even before you get inside. Once there, the big displays are on both sides of the aisle and each takes up maybe 20 feet of visible space, offering lots of angles and view points to take in all of the visual spectacle. Even this ne’er-do-well photojournalist had the time to snap plenty of pictures and still get out of everyone else’s way.

elaborate diorama of cartoon characters in camping scene at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Bigfoot Fan Club annual campout

elaborate diorama of farm scene at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Petal’s Pig Farm

Not only does Kraynak’s sponsor the free 300-foot indoor panoply of blinking, oscillating, electric dioramas, but the elaborate displays are completely redesigned and made anew each Christmas and Easter, surely guaranteeing yearly repeat visits from the faithful. Through the magic of YouTube, the armchair egg hunter is able to virtually tour Easter Bunny Lane for a number of its more-recent incarnations. The images are really something else.

Many of the characters and environments we encountered are easily recognizable in the videos from years past. Those same bunnies, flowers, colored lights, and Easter eggs appear over and over, but in different arrangements and altered landscapes. Here, they’re in a cotton candy fantasia; the year prior, the fuzzy crew arrived in a polar wonderland, as habitués of woodland cabins, or partying underwater with technicolor clams and arms-in-the-air octopi.

That said, organizers of Kraynak’s holiday displays clearly want to keep current with nods to popular culture. We see scenarios featuring The Mario Brothers running a pizza shop, My Little Pony, bears dressed in superhero costumes, those little yellow creatures from Dispacable Me, and a cosmic Sesame Street/Star Wars mash-up. [Side note: who knew Oscar the Grouch was in that R2-D2 tin can all along?]

elaborate diorama of oversized candy at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Candyland

life-size model of Jesus riding a donkey at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

… and then there’s Jesus

Sadly, good things must come to an end. Kraynak’s lets you know the party is over when all the color, fun, and movement drains away and we’re left with a starkly-lit somber Jesus on the back of a donkey. This was just the first of three different Sunday school-inspired dioramas reminding the visitor that the holiday is not all chocolate bunnies and glazed ham.

While this atheist dutifully spent time with each of the eat-your-oatmeal religious displays, I can tell you that I was the only one who did so. Like getting past the accident scene on a clogged highway, the formerly busy weekend crowds dispersed entirely as they made bee-lines to the exit gate, skipping the tail end of the exhibit.

elaborate diorama of nocturnal animals at night at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

night scene with nocturnal animals

elaborate diorama of child in treehouse at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Honeycomb hideout/treehouse

Editor’s confession: We couldn’t not run this story on Easter Sunday, but alas, the timing is as cruel as it is appropriate. For any reader inspired to hop down the bunny trail, you’re too late. Kraynak’s is closed today for the holiday and will be packing away Easterland, likely kicking off the process to design next year’s epic display.

Until then, you’ve–gulp–got Christmas to look forward to. Kraynak’s promises the Yuletide dioramas will be jing-jing-jingling at you by September 10. That’s a couple seasons away, but, you know, at “your store for all seasons” it’s always Kraynak’s time of year.

exterior sign for Kraynak's store, Hermitage, PA

Kraynak’s “Store for all Seasons,” State Street, Hermitage

elaborate diorama of Sesame Street characters at Kraynak's Easter Bunny Lane, Hermitage, PA

Sesame Street

Getting there: Kraynak’s is located at 2525 East State Street in Hermitage. It takes an hour and change to drive up from Pittsburgh.

In Search of Special Sauce: A Visit to the Big Mac Museum

statue of Jim Delligatti, inventor of the Big Mac, at the Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

Statue of McDonald’s franchise owner Jim Delligatti with his most famous creation, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon

As inventions go, it pales in importance to, say, the polio vaccine or alternating electric current. Nor is it as fun as the Ferris Wheel, movie theater, baseball stadium, or broadcast radio–all of which Pittsburgh likes to take credit for…if not inventing, at least getting there first.

When it comes to food, we’ll argue the innovation of French fries injected into salads and sandwiches is an altogether superior achievement and Pittsburgh’s many weirdo regional pizza varieties are unique and different enough to warrant their own series on these electronic pages.

Despite all these other advancements to society, it is McDonald’s flagship double-decker hamburger alone that gets a dedicated visitor center. That’s what brought us to The Big Mac Museum.

display model of Big Mac toaster in Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

“Big Mac Toaster used from 1970-1997”

Truth is, the Big Mac wasn’t actually created here. At least not right here in the city–where it appears on numerous famous things from Pittsburgh lists–nor here in the exurb of North Huntingdon, Westmoreland County, where its eponymous museum was constructed along Route 30.

No, the Big Mac’s two paddies, three buns, pickles, cheese, and yes, “special sauce” were first concocted in a North Hills McDonald’s and served to the public some 50 miles south in the small Fayette County city of Uniontown.

display of Big Mac sauce and gun, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

Big Mac sauce and gun

It was there, in 1967, that early franchise owner Jim Delligatti went rogue. In an act of corporate insurrection that would likely get an operator slapped with a brand-violation lawsuit in today’s world, Delligatti took the same basic ingredients–plus a special double-cut bun–and made a bigger hamburger. With that one action, the restauranteur simultaneously created a local sensation, invented super-sizing, and put him on anyone’s short list for induction to the McHall of McFame.

One of many different historical displays, this one featuring video interviews with Jim Delligatti

By the next year, the informative display at the museum tells us, the Big Mac had been introduced nationally with a TV commercial called “Big Attraction.” In that minute-long spot a host guides the viewer through the elaborate layering of the sandwich.

The escalating excitement in the narrator’s voice is truly infectious: we start as passive participants in an emotionless guided tour but are soon sucked-in by the surprise elements of a “club slice,” “another hamburger!” and “a little more sauce, just for good measure.” It’s also worth noting the flavor-enhancer here is referred to as “our own secret sauce.” That sauce would become “special” by some point in the early 1970s.

The Big Mac Museum was opened in 2007 to honor Delligatti’s 50th anniversary as a McDonald’s franchisee and visitors should know that it’s housed in the dining room of a working McDonald’s restaurant–so there may be some challenges getting around to all of the display items at peak dining hours.

In fact, in order to bring our readers the full experience, Orbit photographers had to wait out some chit-chatting customers who were finishing breakfast. The couple was installed at the obvious power-broker table, right in the middle of the restaurant with its custom rounded upholstered seats, sitting under the bronze statue of Delligatti–one hand making the OK gesture, the other holding a Big Mac (photo at top).

Some of the Big Mac packaging through the years, plus one novelty transistor radio

While it’s not The Carnegie or Heinz History Center, The Big Mac Museum offers a lot to see–and, you know, the price is right. There is a bank of historical photos with a timeline of pivotal events in the life of the sandwich, a video installation featuring an interview with Delligatti, photos and a Delligatti family tree, equipment used in the restaurant, an array of packaging through the years, and plenty of novelty items.

Rock the McVote ’86! Various items from the Big Mac Museum.

The Rt. 30 McDonald’s is one of those jumbo versions with an indoor play area for the tykes. This is also where you’ll find the world’s largest Big Mac. The 14-foot sculpture of the signature burger on a decorative stand reads as both over-the-top pop art and weirdly hyper-realistic. It’s also so big that it would look great as a legit out-in-the-elements roadside attraction. For now, though, visitors will need to park the car and come inside to see it.

enormous sculpture of Big Mac, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

This is one BIG Mac. “World’s largest Big Mac” sculpture.

On the one hand, The Big Mac Museum is just classic goofy roadside America–not that far off from World’s Largest Ball of Twine and the like. [In fact, Roadside America (the web site) already beat us to the museum.] Despite me not really giving a hoot about McDonald’s, I found the story of Jim Delligatti, his family’s fast-food empire, and a time when one franchisee could influence change at the corporate level to be really interesting.

On the other, though, there is a lot that could be said about American values when we immortalize a factory-farmed, mass-produced, unhealthy-in-every-way double hamburger–literally putting its tribute on a pedestal–displayed in a soulless highway strip. This, while a lot of Pittsburgh will never forgive Mayor Peduto for adding bicycle lanes. Sigh.

Big Mac Christmas ornament, Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

‘Tis the season. Big Mac Christmas ornament.

The inevitable question: is it worth the trip? If you’re already out east, along Rt. 30, and you’ve got an extra 20 minutes, by all means. Also, if you just love either local (recent) history, McDonald’s, or roadside kitsch, yes–you’ll not be disappointed.

For everyone else, maybe we could put the ol’ hive noggin together and dream up an alternative, grass roots and for-the-people yin to the Big Mac Museum’s yang–say, The French Fry Museum, Pierogi Palace, or–be still, my heart–The Western Pennsylvania Pizza Hall of Fame. We’ve got a few nominees for the inaugural class.

highway sign for McDonald's/Big Mac Museum, North Huntingdon, PA

The McDonald’s/Big Mac Museum sign on Rt. 30, North Huntingdon

Getting there: The Big Mac Museum is on Rt. 30 in North Huntingdon, very close to the PA-Turnpike exit. Look for the big McDonald’s sign and you can’t miss it. Admission is free and the museum is open whenever the restaurant is.


Sources:

Step Beat: The Steps of California-Kirkbride, Part 2: Hyena and Marvista

street with old houses and city steps climbing hillside, Pittsburgh, PA

Hyena Way alley and steps, California-Kirkbride

Apparently, the Internet informs us, North America once hosted its very own hyena. The Chasmaporthetes ossifragus managed to cross the Bering Land Bridge from Asia, make its way south to present-day Arizona and Mexico, and then east to what’s now Florida. There’s no mention of the big cat up here in the Northeast. This smaller, faster hyena seems to have gone extinct around one million years ago.[1]

So how did a little North Side alley and dramatic flight of 166 city steps end up with the name Hyena Way? We have no idea. But the loosey-goosey manner with which Pittsburgh ended up naming its back alleys would make for a near endless supply of Orbit fodder–if only we knew how to figure out the explanations.

view from the top long set of public city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

looking down from the top of Hyena Way with view of downtown Pittsburgh and Mt. Washington

When last we left you, Team Orbit was ascending the cluster of vertical streets on the eastern half of California-Kirkbride. The North Side neighborhood is small, but hosts an outsize number of both steps and viewpoints. Today we head just a couple blocks west to the thrilling pair of steps that meet at the end of the paved section of Hyena Way.

Visible from the main road as a straight climb right up the hillside, Hyena Way begs for a visit from anyone glancing in from California Ave. and excited about such things. We are powerless against this siren call, and thus continued the journey up, over, around, and down.

view from the top of long set of public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

looking down from the top of Marvista Street

All that mumbo-jumbo last week about how you can see so much more before the leaves come back to the trees really makes sense on these two stretches. Both flights have tall spindly trees right up to the handrails and it’s obvious they’ll generate a thick canopy over the walkways soon enough. That’ll be beautiful in its own right, but it behooves the step-hiker to catch these long views while she or he can.

From Hyena, you’re looking almost due south, over the railyards and Manchester, across rivers to downtown and Mount Washington. It’s a lovely, long scope that encompasses many great landmarks in the city all from one vantage point.

Marvista is perpendicular to Hyena and therefore faces west as one looks out from the top. There are fewer name-brand attractions in this direction, but it’s no less a pleasure to take in the landscape all the same.

public steps climbing the hills of Pittsburgh, PA

At the intersection of Marvista Street and Hyena Way, a network of steps and ghost steps

Where Marvista and Hyena meet is a fascinating cluster of still-in-use city steps (the two main flights) plus obsolete connectors and spurs–often terminating at empty foundations and tree-filled lots. The complexity of steps at this junction speaks to those same refrains we think about on most of these hikes: how this once-dense city neighborhood lost the vast majority of both its population and housing stock in the 140-or-so years since it was laid out and the fact that no one really needs to hike down the hillside every day to get to work. This gruesome one-two punch make any like them endangered species.

But as infrastructure of pleasure–recreation, meditation, and speculation, not to mention a history lesson in every walk–the steps of Hyena Way and Marvista Street are just about as exciting and beautiful as anywhere in the city. Some–certainly those who prefer solitude and exploration–will argue they’re even more valuable than their well-dressed and more popular peers along the riverfronts or up on Grandview Ave.

hillside with city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Marvista Street

There was a plan to include a map and suggested walking route for all the steps in California-Kirkbride. But as we plotted it out on paper, there was just no obvious loop to bag all the steps and get you back to where you started. It was going to end up being a confusing figure-8 or something and the truth is that it’s just not that hard to come up with your own plan if you’re so-inclined.

The trees are budding, so you won’t have these views for long. Get up there, stretch your gams, and keep your eyes open–maybe you’ll even spot one last hyena.

concrete public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

ghost steps, lower Marvista Street

Step Beat is an occasional series where The Orbit describes interesting features of Pittsburgh’s 700+ sets of public city steps.


[1] Source: Brian Switek, “North America Used to Have its Very Own Hyena,” Smithsonian Magazine, Oct. 3, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/north-america-once-had-hyena-its-very-own-180960673/

Step Beat: The Steps of California-Kirkbride, Part 1: Sunday Sunny Sunday

view of downtown Pittsburgh from public city steps

B Street, with view of downtown Pittsburgh, California-Kirkbride

In a few weeks (fingers crossed) everything will look different. The signs are all there: we’ve crossed the vernal equinox, birds are chirping their beaks off, full daylight exists before and after work, the first purple and gold crocuses are nudging their little flower heads from packed earth and sad-looking grass.

But for now, Pittsburgh still exists in its foliage-free late-winter monochrome of gray-brown. Bare trees are just spindly brown stalks. Hillsides have been reduced to impenetrable rats nests of last year’s dried up knotweed, tall grass, and loose vines. Grassy patches have typically turned into either a boggy mess or–in the case of this relatively dry winter–parched yellow straw.

The sky usually doesn’t help matters. A thick blanket of gray clouds casts its pall across the landscape more often than not; the absence of Vitamin D a severe depressant for the sun-deprived this time each year.

public city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

B Street, from Lamont

But not on this day! Last Sunday the blue above was so iridescently deep and rich, the sun so full and bright, and clouds just picture-perfect cotton balls, that it seemed to kick in the door of spring a week early, even if the plants hadn’t gotten the message.

You don’t have to tell this blogger twice: it was step-climbing weather if there ever was such a thing. So we lit off for the little North Side neighborhood of California-Kirkbride, home to a smattering of getting-fixed-up row houses, some terrific views, and–depending on how one counts them–five or six or seven great sets of city steps.

public steps on hillside in Pittsburgh, PA

St. Ives Street (foreground) and Sunday Street (in back)

Now, truth be told, we’d just been to the neighborhood 24 hours earlier–though admittedly, unenlightened and on a tighter timeline. The previous day was all of the above–chilly, desolate, and bleak. On that occasion we only got as far as the intersecting steps of St. Ives and Sunday streets and their eventual top-of-hill conclusion at Oriana. The latter parallels the old stone wall surrounding Union Dale Cemetery.

From the top of the steps, the day hiker is rewarded with interesting views both across the roofs of Manchester to downtown and over the river to Mount Washington. Turning the other direction, we can see right into the headstones and treetops of the looming cemetery.

Little B Street–connecting Lamont to Morrison–is well worth your time while you’re over there. It’s just a block long, but dramatically steep and featuring a pair of accessible-only-by-steps row houses. There’s another nice view at the top.

public steps and view of North Side, Pittsburgh, PA

a day earlier: gray view from top of Sunday Street

Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about a (late) winter step trek: you get to see so much more! Yes, soon enough this entire scene will be filled with lush green as Pittsburgh’s chronic humidity will prompt every bare patch of earth to sprout life, spread outward, and reach up into the sky.

All that overpowering tree, shrub, vine, and weed growth is a wondrous and beautiful thing, but it sure cuts down on the available sight lines. Every step trekker knows it’s a four-seasons hobby; in winter, we get the longest views.

public steps on sidewalk with hillside cemetery above, Pittsburgh, PA

Oriana Street steps and Union Dale Cemetery

Now, at this point, astute Orbit readers and chronic step-walkers are either rabid with anticipation or out-and-out screaming into their electronic devices. What about the rest of the neighborhood? They might say, You’re totally missing the best parts!

Fear not, dear reader. California-Kirkbride doesn’t have the largest quantity of steps in the city, but it still has too many to cover in just one post. We’ve also got a part 2 wherein the crew scales the deep hollow steps on the western side of the neighborhood. Hopefully we’ll see you on the steps.

view of Pittsburgh from city steps

view from lower Sunday Street


Step Beat is an occasional series where The Orbit describes interesting features of Pittsburgh’s 700+ sets of public city steps.