Poetry’s Uplifting Gormandizer: Scott Silsbe Serves Up “Muskrat Friday Dinner”

Poet Scott Silsbe standing in front of faded mural of Viet Nam veterans, Pittsburgh, PA

Think war is Hell? Trying reading this guy’s book! Just jaggin’–it’s good!

Inside, there are many, many nights of consumption–music and alcohol, laughter and greasy food. But also deeply personal reminiscences on childhood, past loves, missed opportunities, anecdotes of the day-to-day, awkward conversations. Yes, you’ll also find that great mother of all poetic downers–mortality.

Muskrat Friday DinnerScott Silsbe‘s just-released third collection of writing, contains all of these.

Some things are difficult. Some things we have to whisper.
Some things we don’t say at all. We have to keep it down.
Even if the laughter is all that’s keeping us alive or sane.

“Three Fragments” (excerpt)

A dirty secret: when poetry is recited at Chez Orbit, it generally involves both super-sized anatomy and the island of Nantucket–so we don’t have a lot of experience in the world of deep verse. Why? A prejudice, for sure: it feels like work in the same way some think about watching foreign films, or listening to twelve-tone music, or flossing. But it needn’t be that way.

Silsbe, who came to Pittsburgh at the turn-of-the-millenia to pursue an MFA in poetry from Pitt, expressly wants to get away from that kind of foo-foo academic writing and create work that’s direct, narrative, accessible, and decidedly not difficult. Muskrat Friday Dinner–from its title poem of a Downriver Detroit saloon staple to the rat-on-a-dinner-plate illustrations–delivers.

book cover for "Muskrat Friday Dinner" by Scott Silsbe

“Muskrat Friday Dinner” book cover, illustration by Paulette Poullet

“Poetry can be fun”, says Silsbe, “I wanted a book of good-time, drinkin’ poems that people will enjoy reading or hearing”.

Arty or arch, these short poems ain’t. That said, fun may depend on one’s sense of humor. But yeah, if you don’t get too worried about the condition of Silsbe’s over-worked liver, you can hopefully enjoy the vicarious thrill of waking up on the living room floor or arriving home with the dawn all from the comfort of your chaise lounge.

The book is so, uh, human-readable in fact, as to sometimes feel like a collection of journal entries, day-after tall tale-telling, or (very) short fiction–narrative, in plain English, and real. “I want to document the world around me,” Silsbe says, “The poetry should be personal so that it can be universal.”

If there’s
enough
money
get me
pork rib.

“Found Poem–Express Lane, Giant Eagle”

Silsbe’s experiences may or may not be truly universal, but they’re sure close. We’ve ridden in that car, ate that midnight meal, ended up in that tavern and didn’t know how or why. You’ve heard a record that felt like it was written just for you, longed for a person behind a second-story window light, seen the beauty in a perfect new snowfall…and then ruined it with your own need to slog through and get home to bed. Everyone past a certain age has received a phone call where he or she ended up needing a black suit.

Silsbe talks about individual pieces taking days–weeks, even–to get right. But the poems have an immediacy that feel like they were inked right then when the memory was still fresh–at the end of the night, or first thing the next morning–his head still throbbing and ears still buzzing.

It’d be nice to get some down so we don’t lose them. Stories grow soft with time. Though sometimes we fill in the gaps with juicier details to make the story better, making the story our own, with the hope we don’t lose the best parts, we don’t sacrifice the real story. As if we really know or care what that is.

“Old Writers Talking About Old Writers” (excerpt)

Us, we’re still buzzing too. Silsbe is right: it is fun to read a book of poetry (twice, even–we had to take notes!) and we’ll do again. Also interesting is getting inside the life of a person we kind of know [full disclosure: Silsbe was an acquaintance prior to the book’s release] vis-à-vis this tightly-edited, metered take on real experiences, Pittsburgh places we know, and people around town.

“There’s something in our makeup that craves to create a beautiful object”, Silsbe says in the poem “Ceremony”, “Essential to that is the knowledge that no thing we create can ever be without defects.” Defects? Yeah, well, maybe–sure. But hat’s off, Mr. Silsbe, you created some real nice stuff here. Thanks for letting us in to have a look.

My God, how I loved living on the earth.
There were those things that sustained me
all those years–the names of the clouds,
the vesper sparrows lined up on a branch,
her bedroom light on behind a red curtain.
I would circle the block just to see that–
knowing it meant she was in there, alive.
perhaps waiting for me, and perhaps not.
But there. And that presence was enough.

“Searchlight”

author Scott Silsbe dressed in suit and tie, drinking whiskey from a bottle in front of a wallpaper beach scene

Another day in paradise. Silsbe at “The Beach”. [photo: Scott Silsbe]

Muskrat Friday Dinner is Scott Silsbe’s third collection of poems. All three are available locally from Caliban Books in Oakland as well as “other fine booksellers”.  Those either preferring or requiring the magic of The Internet can achieve the same from Amazon.


Quoted poems taken from Muskrat Friday Dinner, White Gorilla Press, Belford, NJ ©2017 Scott Silsbe and used with permission of the author.

The Front (and Back) Yard Marys of Bloomfield, Part 2

statuette of Mary in grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Ella Street

“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” – James 1:14

When first we reported on The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield (Pittsburgh Orbit: June 26, 2016), this blogger naively believed he’d bagged them all. But oh, like James, how The Orbit was lured and enticed by its own desire.

It wasn’t that we weren’t thorough. No, the way we’d figured it, every thoroughfare, side street, and back-alley was meticulously criss-crossed in a slow-motion two-wheel scan for Herself*. In this quest, we found The Blessed Mother, again and again, peering back at us from stoops and yardlets, porches and grottos all over the neighborhood.

Mary statuette seen through chainlink fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Chain link Mary, Idaline Street

statuette of Mary lying face down in backyard dirt, Pittsburgh, PA

That’s no way to treat a lady! Face-down Mary and homemade snow plow grotto, Carroll Street

But Mary–or, Marys–still managed to elude us. They clung to the shadows, behind fences, and deep in private spaces. How many more? It makes a blogger insane. Should we blow the entire Orbit budget on drone aviation/surveillance just to spy into the secluded no-access recesses of inner Bloomfield? No–that would be creepy, weird, and extreme. How many more? Should we deploy guises in our mission? The stock Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness costumes probably won’t get us far in this case, but how about dressing as “backyard inspectors” who “just need to take a few pictures” because “it’s regulation”? That could get us quick glimpses into those most private of sanctums. How many more?

Statuette of Mary in grotto of row house side yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Row houses, chain link, grape vines, Mary-and-grotto: that looks like Bloomfield to me, Torley Street

statuette of Mary by red brick rowhouse, Pittsburgh, PA

Ella Street

In The Orbit‘s defense, the Marys that did manage to emerge in the (nearly a) year since that initial post are not obvious. They’re deep cuts, B-sides, studio outtakes only fit for super fans who already own all the official releases. We’re talking a camouflaged Mary two backyards and three fences deep off tiny Mott Way; Mary face down in soggy dirt; an empty grotto your average Joseph–or customer on the way to Shur-Save–wouldn’t bat an eye at.

homemade Mary grotto without statuette in back yard of small house, Pittsburgh, PA

Empty Mary grotto, Ella Street

Mary statuette against garage wall behind chain link fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Camo Mary, Mott Way

For the obsessive collector, it’s all about the pursuit, but any hunt must be sustained by the occasional kill–[choice of words]–blessed encounter to keep up both morale and momentum. It’s fine if we haven’t bagged them all–we never will and (keep telling ourselves) that’s OK! Regardless, you’ve still got to bring something home for supper or the whole family goes hungry.

Like our old boss always said, “there’s a lot of good eating in Bloomfield”. If what they’re serving up is Mary–low-milage, sun-dried, and salt-cured–we’ll go back for seconds. Oh yeah, we’ll go back for more.

statuette of Mary in wooden backyard flower box, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary of the flower boxes, Carroll Street

two statuettes of Mary in a row house backyard, Pittsburgh, PA

Row houses, chain link, grape vines, and a pair of Marys, State Way


* Every street except Ella, whose two different front demi-yard Marys were inexcusably missed the first time around, but are captured here.

Where Do Gravestones Go To Die?

sculptural detail of family with features worn away on marble grave monument, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

This one’s not going anywhere…until it does. Marble monument detail, Allegheny Cemetery

Generally, when one plants a couple thousand pounds of hard stone it stays put…but not always. With around 134,000 long-term residents over 300 acres of land, Allegheny Cemetery would make up one of the larger neighborhoods in the city all on its own. Some of these folks–dead or alive–are going to move around.

There are all sorts of reasons for this: separately-buried individuals are consolidated in family plots, a spouse chooses to spend eternity next to the husband or wife who departed first, buried caskets are migrated into a mausoleum, bodies are disinterred to other facilities across town or way out-of-state.

marble grave monument with details eroding, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Last week we ran the story “A Graveyard for Gravestones”–a look at the strange world created by a cemetery’s recycling lot. It was meant as humorous look at an unusual, fascinating scene, along with a polite nudge at one of our favorite places in the world to clean up one of its (very few) rough edges.

We had no idea about the reaction this story would generate. Within hours of its initial publishing we heard it from all sides: the cemetery felt it had been misrepresented, neighbors got wild ideas about what was going on within its stone walls, readers called it “nuts”. At the mere suggestion that retired grave markers might find a reuse outside of the cemetery we were tarred as “grave robbing” and “the lowest of the low”.

SO, in this most teachable of moments–for us here at The Orbit along with our readers, neighbors, and anyone else who’s ever wondered about the behind-the-scenes workings of a large, historic cemetery–we talked briefly with David Michener, a man who knows his stuff as president of both Allegheny and Homewood cemeteries.

simple headstone with three names, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Shared (replacement) grave marker, Allegheny Cemetery*

First of all, the vast majority of items that have ended up in the cemetery’s recycling area are not grave monuments. In the piece, we mention “dozens of…gravestones”, which is accurate–there are maybe 30 or so total stones currently retired to the lot. But the stacks of other material in our photos could be misconstrued as many more.

“Ninety percent of what’s [removed/recycled] is foundation,” says Michener. Foundations are, as the name implies, poured concrete structural elements that are buried under the surface and used to anchor the visible, sculpted portion of the monument. As markers are removed, so is the foundation, and it all ends up in the same place.

broken porcelain doll on base of marble grave monument, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” goes the passage from Genesis. It turns out this applies to retired monuments as much as expired human beings. As we saw, when a grave marker has reached its, ahem, “end of life” (sorry) it is removed by the cemetery’s grounds crew and taken to a kind of purgatory in the recycling yard. At this point, when the stone has been divorced from its grave and retired from service, it will eventually have any identifying information (the deceased’s name) ground down, defaced, or otherwise removed.

“At that point,” says Michener, “they’re just stones.” Allegheny Cemetery does all it can to recycle these no-longer-used materials into its own infrastructure projects–they’re deployed as foundations or supports and added as clean fill to stabilize land areas.

As for why there is an obvious delay in processing the retired markers, Michener says, “Our concern is taking care of the place where burials occurred and not our recycle yard.” Anyone who’s ever visited Allegheny Cemetery’s immaculate landscape knows this is true.

granite headstone with names for "father" and "mother", Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Two become one: shared (replacement) grave marker in Allegheny Cemetery*

A couple of the more outrageous criticisms we heard were that families would be shocked to find out the state of their loved ones’ markers and would want to be notified so they could come pick them up. “They just need the descendants of the original owner to pay the cemetery to have them put back”, was one statement. All of these are patently false.

First, families are the only ones making the decisions on the movement of graves and retirement/replacement of grave markers. “We never–by our own volition–remove a monument”, says Michener. If a gravestone has ended up in the recycling yard, it was at the request of the family.

Second, grave markers weigh from hundreds to thousands of pounds. No family takes mom’s granite stone home in the trunk of their Buick. “They are entitled to them–they own them”, says Michener, but do families ever claim the marker as a memento? “Very very rarely.”

grave monument featuring two sculpted figures with both heads broken off, one of them has a bird's nest where the head would be, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

To sum up: most gravestones are going to stay right where they are until they crumble to dust all on their own. A very small proportion of them will be removed and retired at the behest of the deceased’s loved ones. If the family declines ownership–which is what happens almost every single time–the cemetery takes ownership of the monument and processes it back into raw material to be born again. May we all be so lucky.


* The identifying information [surnames] on these monuments have been intentionally obscured in the photographs at the request of Allegheny Cemetery.

A Graveyard for Gravestones

dismantled granite building in unruly pile, Pittsburgh, PA

Deconstructed building in the graveyard for gravestones

Editor’s note: This story generated no small amount of controversy. After a discussion with the cemetery’s president, we made the decision to update the story, removing certain identifying details for general public safety. Based on the many questions raised by the piece, we responded with the follow-up story “Where Do Gravestones Go To Die?”


The simple grave marker is nothing out of the ordinary. Gently curved and smoothly hewn, the stone is a standard off-the-shelf/out-of-the-catalog mid-century model we’ve seen hundreds–perhaps thousands–of times in different plots over the years. About the size of a microwave oven, it has raised block letters on its face which detail only the most basic facts about the deceased: Frederick W. Zinsser, 1878-1942, Father.

broken gravestones in disordered pile, Pittsburgh, PA

What’s strange about Frederick Zinsser’s headstone is how it arrived in its current position–upside-down, squashed between two felled trees, in a hidden, barren spot just outside the cemetery’s otherwise beautifully-groomed and spectacularly-scenic acres of visiting space. Oh, and why is it surrounded by dozens of other gravestones and stray cemetery infrastructure that appear casually tossed in the dirt like children’s playthings at the call for dinner?

broken gravestones in disordered pile, Pittsburgh, PA

We’re not talking about just a few stones–a pile here and a pile there. No, the graveyard for gravestones is extensive. It’s a big, basin-shaped open area just downhill from the older side of the cemetery. By now–in early May–you probably wouldn’t even notice it. But when we visited on Easter Sunday the thin shroud of young trees hadn’t yet fully sprouted all its leaves, allowing this unsightly broom closet of quickly-tossed granite to be impressively available to the passer-by.

column bases from dismantled mausoleum, Pittsburgh, PA

This graveyard-within-a-graveyard contains piles and not-so-neatly-stacked collections of granite monument trimmings, grave edging, foundations, pedestal bases, supporting structural elements, and a least a couple full cemetery buildings, deconstructed and laid out like parts to-be-assembled in an Ikea box.

The stones didn’t just get dropped-off yesterday. They’ve got several years worth of viney overgrowth climbing in, on, and around the various pieces; a number of fall seasons’ downed leaves mulching their bases.

gravestones removed from their graves and under thick vine, Pittsburgh, PA

In the head-heart continuum, we tend to want the cemetery to be the final place where one may rest in peace…forever. We also know that nothing actually lasts that long. Most of the time, for good or bad, we won’t have the chance to confront that reality. But seeing dozens of (literal) set-in-stone, lifetime memorials uprooted from their primary locations and dumped in a strange public-private boneyard junkyard makes it all the more obvious.

trimmed granite pieces in woods area of cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

We don’t know why these gravestones were uprooted or why the cemetery has dumped them so casually right in the middle of the property. The Orbit maintains a strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward clarifying these matters, preferring to speculate and wonder over the cruel realities of truth.

That said, it seems like a strange business move for the marketing side of the cemetery. Will customers really want to buy that plot seeing the downed markers so nearby? And–assuming there are legitimate, practical reasons for the markers’ removal–why can’t the grounds crew at least put the retired stone in some kind of relative respectful order?

broken gravestones in disordered pile, Pittsburgh, PA

We imagine the current market for used gravestones is pretty low. That said, there simply must be more interesting uses for this substantial supply of unique historic, hand-cut, and incredibly-durable pieces than just sweeping them under the cemetery’s rug of fallen leaves.

The stockpile could absolutely be turned loose for artists to work with, used to decorate public spaces around the city, or recycled by monument makers into new graves. Speaking from experience, those of us who haunt the cemetery and ponder how the whole thing works would appreciate an educational display explaining how and why all these elements ended up displaced from the humans they once memorialized.

broken gravestones in disordered pile, Pittsburgh, PA

For our purposes, however, it’s a kind of weird disaster cool just as it is. The area evokes something between an Easterner’s imagination of the catastrophic wreckage following a big earthquake and the post-armageddon chaos that seems more likely every day. In zombie-obsessed Pittsburgh, we can picture the living dead rising from their crypts and casually tossing headstones like beach balls at summer concert. Perhaps the whole thing is social commentary: in just a couple months, The North Side can look forward to a similar scene in the wake of Kenny Chesney’s inevitable mid-summer return–only we may end up with more dead bodies around Heinz Field.

broken gravestones in disordered pile, Pittsburgh, PA

Stamp Collecting: More Pittsburgh Easter Eggs, Set in Concrete

Di Bucci and Sons brass sidewalk plaque, Pittsburgh, PA

Di Bucci and Sons

Editor’s note: our Easter special on the pursuit of figurative urban “egg hunts” generated a great suggestion from reader Larry Kramer: “OK, here’s one for intrepid city walkers: mason stamps. You know, the embedded names in a sidewalk advertising the contractor that poured it.” We liked Larry’s idea so much we asked him to pen a piece for The Orbit.

Photos and text by guest blogger Larry Kramer.


After my wife takes an untimely header on a poorly-canted section of Lawrenceville pavement, and then a wrong step from Tender while exiting with friends after a cocktail, she cautions me that maybe we should be paying more attention to where we’re walking whilst out on the streets. Chastened, we employ the method as schooled to us by our daughter: look directly in front of our feet and then scan ahead up the block a little. Repeat, and stay safe.

This seems to work and we actually find stuff we’re not looking for. There’s the random watch cap that launders up just fine and can be put to use by someone, not to mention the penny here and there which we must not stoop to pick up unless it’s positioned heads up.

Then there are the virtual rewards of pavement scanning, at least to those of us who like to make lists and perhaps don’t have the most exciting lives. I’m referring to “mason stamps”. I put that term in quotes as I’m not exactly sure that’s what the masons themselves call them, and I haven’t done the necessary homework yet to find out.[1] Anyway, you know what I’m talking about if you’ve spent any time at all walking the sidewalks of Pittsburgh–those imprints that only the best purveyors of concrete walks and driveways leave as a testament to their work. When the contractor signs their work it not only evinces their pride in it, but serves as an advertisement for future services.

Pucciarelli Brothers brass sidewalk plaque, Pittsburgh, PA

Pucciarelli Brothers, “The Concrete People”

The gold standard–or maybe I should say bronze–of these mason stamps are those of Di Bucci and Sons and Pucciarelli Brothers. Most of the time they just stamp the concrete as others do, but if the job is somewhat extensive, they’ll actually embed a bronze plaque in the sidewalk that says for all to see that both this sidewalk and this plaque are going to last a long time.

Not every mason leaves a bronze plaque behind to mark their work, but quite a few, apparently, stamp the concrete with their personal trademark. I’m not talking about their grandkids’ handprints as an amateur might do, but a deep impression of the business name and usually a phone number.

Walking around the city–at least The Strip, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, and Oakland–I became more and more aware of these, and it became a challenge to see how many I could collect. So, trusty (some may say obsolete) BlackBerry in hand, I made a concerted effort at digitally capturing all the mason stamps I could find. Not individual stamps–that could run well into the hundreds just in my wanderings–I’m talking about uniquely-named stamps.

So, starting with Di Bucci and Pucciarelli, I make my way with through the ABC’s with Avelli, Baleno, and Ciriello.

Avelli Construction Corporation sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Avelli Const. Corp.

Baleno Concrete sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Baleno Concrete

A. Ciriello sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

A. Ciriello

The Ciriello stamp is old. Not only is the phone number not prefixed with a 412 Area Code, but it harkens back to the days when phone number exchanges were named something. I recall the one from suburban Philadelphia of my youth as Windsor (WI) 6. Not sure what the HI stands for but older Pittsburgh residents might recall it.[2]

Esses can be found as my walks continue, and I start to take side streets off my well-trodden usual route, now actively in search of the elusive stamp: Santo, Scotti, Spano.

Santo sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Santo Cement Contr.

Steve Scotti Construction Company sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Steve Scotti Construction Co.

Spano sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Spano

But there’s an “R” in my future as well as I chance upon a lone, lonely Raimondo in Upper Lawrenceville. I don’t know if there are others about, but this is the only one I’ve seen.

Raimondo sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Raimondo

At this point I’m starting to come up empty. I need to expand my territory, perhaps farther out in the East End, to Shadyside, Point Breeze, East Liberty. Who knows, Highland Park? What about an excursion beyond The River to the Southside?

Something else is niggling me. I know it’s a cliché, but are all masons Italian? Apparently, not! Just as things look bleak, I find a singleton Ira G. Wilcox and a David Regan. They’re in very old concrete; don’t even try Googling these contractors as they’ve been out of business for some time, but you can try finding the stamps before they lapse into indecipherability as have some I’ve come across.

Ira G. Wilcox sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Ira G. Wilcox, contractor

David Regan Construction sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

David Regan Construction

Oh, yes. Keep your eyes on the concrete stoops. We found this one in The Strip:

Chas. Gamberi sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Chas. Gamberi, contractor

Walking The Strip today, I’m not even watching the pavement. It’s a Sunday and too many tourists to dodge. Wait, what’s that? A new one? Nope, just another Scotti, they’re a dime a dozen. On closer look, though, this one turns out to be different; a different format, and not Steve Scotti, this one’s Nick!

Nick Scotti Concrete Contractor sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti Concrete Contr.

The hunt goes on. I think a Southside trip is overdue. Who knows what stamps I’ll find on Carson Street?


Editor’s notes:
[1] The Internet contains remarkably little information and no obvious consensus on the term, but sidewalk stamps seems to be the favorite.
[2] The historical site phone.net46.net lists Pittsburgh’s HI exchange name as “HI-land”.

The Sad Toys of Homewood’s “Killing Fields”

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

The sad toys of “The Killing Fields”, Homewood South

Against deep blue sky and thick green long-overgrown grass, the fuzzy little bodies pop from the chain link fence they cling to. Tigers, monkeys, floppy-eared dogs and bunny rabbits fill the ranks, as do a lion, zebra, and giant duck. We didn’t know dinosaurs could be cuddly and furry, but there’s one of those too.

Overwhelmingly, though, the majority in this population is the teddy bear. Dozens of bears hang from the fence and nearby telephone pole: in a bow tie and with a Valentine’s heart, dressed in a Scotsman’s plaid and with matching Christmas hat and scarf, still buoyantly wide-eyed awake and drooping limply with the weight of the world.

telephone pole decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas garland, Pittsburgh, PA

The long, east-west alleys of Homewood are, like many sets of children born to the 1970s, group-named with a common initial letter: Ferdinand, Fletcher, Fuchsia, Fielding, Forest, Felicia, Fleury. Heading south, the very last of these–before you cross Hamilton Avenue and both street grid and naming scheme change–is Formosa Way.

The little alleyway is typical of many old Pittsburgh backstreets–a single lane, weedy, cracked, and stained with decades of practical use and a typically low seat on the Department of Public Works priority list for maintenance. Formosa Way runs parallel between Kelly Street and Hamilton Ave. and (at least at one time) was the main entrance for many row houses that fronted the alley for blocks in either direction.

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

All things considered, the 7300 block of Formosa Way looks a whole lot better than many Pittsburgh alleys. There’s next-to-no litter, nor signs of illegal dumping. The backyards of the row houses facing the adjoining streets may be untamed, but are now lush, tall-grassed expanses that bring welcome deep green open space to what at one time must have been dense blocks of brick worker housing.

What’s not so expected is the stretch of thirty-some feet of chain link fence, now bordering an overgrown vacant lot, plus one service pole across the alley. Attached to the intertwined steel strands and lashed to the wooden pole are scores–a hundred or more–soft children’s playthings along with assorted pinwheels, holiday decorations, and Christmas garland. These tributes have clearly been here for some time: their synthetic fur is matted, gnarled, and bleached white in years’ worth of sun, rain, frost, and thaw.

boarded-up row houses and chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a strange realization that the small patch of earth one has bicycled-through mere hours before is known locally as The Killing Fields…or, at least, it was at one time*. That particular name arrived during the crack-fueled gang violence of the 1990s, but persisted (we understand) until quite recently. Right here at Formosa and Collier, several blocks of derelict housing were razed in 2012*. A short set of five boarded-up row houses immediately adjoining the fence appear headed for the same fate.

That said, on this fine, bright sunny Sunday early afternoon, the blocks around Formosa Way feel much more like the Sunday-go-to-meetin’ fields or the wash-the-car-with-the-radio-on fields. Those activities, along with stoking up big barrel charcoal grills and neighbors swapping gossip on front porches are the most obvious occupations to the peddle-by blogger.

telephone pole decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas garland, Pittsburgh, PA

No label is attached to the fence of sad toys, there is no description for the installation, and attribution for the collection is not given. But what’s here seems obvious enough for even the densest of outsiders to put two and two together. This pair of diametrically-opposed and inseparably-linked events–decades of street violence and the impromptu memorial to lost innocence–say so much about the deep loss generations of Homewood families must have felt.

If each stuffed animal on the Formosa Way fence represents just one casualty in the neighborhood’s struggle, it is a weight no single community should have to bear. It’s more likely that not every victim received a tribute here–that a suitable memorial may need to be twice, three or more times greater to accurately represent the actual loss. For now, we can only hope the collection of playthings stops right where it is.

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

Final note: While most Pittsburgh Orbit stories sit just fine in the quasi-legitimate world of “speculative journalism”, this one does not. It’s crying out for more information from the Homewood community, the creators of the fence, residents of Formosa Way, etc.–we know this. Time and schedule wouldn’t allow that kind of “real journalism” for this week’s post, but we absolutely plan on continuing the story.

If you live in Homewood or have information on the Formosa Way fence, we would love to hear from you.


“Demolition gives Homewood residents hope”, Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 5, 2012 and “The ‘killing fields’ demolished in Homewood”New Pittsburgh Courier, 2012.