The Over-the-Wall Club: Mon Valley Mondrian

brick wall with many styles and paint colors, Clairton, PA

Composition in Four Quadrants, Large Avenue, Clairton

One needn’t be an art connoisseur to recognize Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black. The 1929 oil-on-canvas painting is a simple geometric abstraction consisting of heavy black lines separating different-sized rectangular spaces. The three primary colors make cameo appearances, but the vast majority of the canvas is plain white.

Even if you don’t know this particular artwork, the piece is typical of Mondrian’s late-career shift that would define him. The easy-to-imitate style would be nicked for everything from textiles to housewares to TV game show sets; we still see plenty of it today. Three years ago, the original Composition No. III sold at auction for a record $50.6 million dollars[1].

Piet Mondrian's painting "Composition No. III, with-Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black"

Piet Mondrian, “Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black,” 1929

You can buy a three-bedroom home in the City of Clairton, around 15 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 30 thousand dollars[2]. Clairton’s story is a familiar one to its sister (ex-)mill towns in the Monongahela Valley–a boom for the first half of the 20th century following the massive growth of the steel industry, gradual exodus to the suburbs as families bought cars and became more mobile, then the steep decline with the collapse of Big Steel in the ’80s. Today, Clairton’s population is around a third of its peak in the 1950s[3].

That’s left a lot of vacant real estate. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the sale price of this one little artwork–Composition III is just 20 inches, square–every for-sale property in Clairton could be purchased, many times over[4].

cinderblock wall painted red and blue with a white stripe, Clairton, PA

Lavender over Dark Red with White Stripe, Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimal abstract painting "Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray)" by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, “Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray),” 1961

While it’s unlikely anyone in Clairton owns an original Mondrian, the fine residents of the “City of Prayer” have a trick up their collective sleeve–they just have to look out the window or walk down the block. There, for public view on the side streets and little alleyways, is an accidental, but absolutely spot-on survey of 20th century modern art.

Stewart Alley, just a block or two from the center of town, has a dead ringer for Mark Rothko’s soft-form, two-color ambient abstractions. Clairton’s version is rendered in deep red and light purple on the cinderblock wall of a commercial backside. The artist has upped the ante with a jaunty high-level racing stripe just under the roofline.

brick with layers of "ghost signs" overlapping, Clairton, PA

Treat Yourself to the Best, Waddell Avenue, Clairton

mixed media/collage artwork by Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, “Magician,” 1959

Just a couple blocks away and across a grassy vacant lot, sits the long side wall of an empty retail storefront. The wall features a riot of overlapping ghost advertisements–for Gold Medal Flour, some kind of tobacco, and others faded beyond recognition. The drywall and peg board from an ex-next-door neighbor are included in the collage, as is the yellow after-market siding protecting the apartment residences above. [Note: not all of this made it into the photo detail.]

Together, the life-imitating-art-imitating-life tableau made up a composition that spoke to the mixed-media/assemblage work of Robert Rauschenberg. Here, some stray, recycled text; there, paint smears, crumpled forms, jagged angles, and overlapping imagery.

exterior wall built in multiple styles of brick and cinderblock, Clairton, PA

Komposition von mehreren Mauerwerk (Composition of Multiple Masonry), Miller Avenue, Clairton

Karl Peter Röhl's geometric abstraction "Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat"

Karl Peter Röhl, “Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat (Composition with Resting Square),” 1924

Nearby, a wall so exquisite it quite figuratively took our breath away. Four interlocking, independent types of masonry–six patterns when you add in the squeeze of mortar and one stray white square–form such a simple, perfectly-balanced arrangement that it’s hard to fathom how the wall could have ended up that way by chance…or maybe it didn’t?

An older garage on Large Avenue features unique multi-tiered depth around its single, truck-sized garage door, a weathered two-tone paint job, and a bricked-over window that inserts an unexpected vertical box into the façade. That shape plays against the stair step drama of the doorway for a feeling that’s both harmonic and unresolved, balanced and weighted all wrong.

brick wall with worn paint job in several different levels, Clairton, PA

Five Layers, Large Avenue, Clairton

Jasper Johns stacked painting "Three Flags"

Jasper Johns, “Three Flags,” 1958

The Over-the-Wall Club held the latest of its infrequent, haphazard meetings in Clairton and we couldn’t have selected a finer set of public verticals. The small city has been through a lot, and contrary to the old saw, these walls do talk. They speak volumes, in fact, on growth and change, weather and time, industrial might and D.I.Y. ingenuity.

Sure, walking into a nice brand new construction brings a bunch of modern amenities and the rehab and reuse of older buildings is terrific. But there’s so much…not world history, but the people’s history in an old wall that often gets lost when the paint rollers and drop cloths come out.

brick wall with handmade "no drugs" painting on wood, Clairton, PA

No Drugs, Mulberry Alley, Clairton

Burgoyne Diller's geometric abstraction "Second Theme"

Burgoyne Diller, “Second Theme,” 1949

Sometimes club members–like faithful parishioners waiting on the Rapture–get hung up on what’s on the other side. Clairton’s walls tell us to look right here, right now, at the intense beauty we can see in front of our eyes without going anywhere. We can reach out and touch it without the tantalizing prospect of a jackpot lottery payout or taking out a loan on the house. And it makes us value the moment–if history is any guide, these will be gone before you know it.

In fact, old Clairton is coming down hard and fast. An entire block of the St. Clair Avenue main drag has been torn down and planted with fresh grass seed since the last time we were in town. The Treat Yourself to the Best ghost sign was only exposed from a similar pair of demolitions on Miller Avenue. You’ve only got a limited window on these lovely old time-worn and tale-telling walls before they’ll either be meeting the paint brush (hopefully) or, more likely, the wrecking ball (sigh). Consider it your one shot at a traveling exhibit. Take the opportunity to see it and say goodbye while you still can.

10-speed bicycle leans against a weathered cinderblock wall, Clairton, PA

10-Speed (The Orbitmobile), Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimalist painting "Series #14 (White)" by Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman, “Series #14 (White),” 2004


[1] Source: https://www.christies.com/features/In-The-Saleroom-Piet-Mondrians-Composition-No-III-6090-3.aspx
[2] Source: https://www.zillow.com/clairton-pa/
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clairton,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] The irony of Clairton is that it still hosts one of the few operating mills in the region: U.S. Steel’s massive Clairton Coke Works dominates the entire curling riverfront downhill from all parts of town. It’s a cliché, but if you’re anywhere in the area you can’t miss it.

Incisor Edition: Dental Art

mural on brick wall of large tooth with crossed toothbrushes and the sign "Dentistry", Pittsburgh, PA

tooth & cross-brushes: Jeffries, Smith & Associates, North Oakland

Holy molars! Big teeth. Monster teeth. Heck–we’re in Pittsburgh–dinosaur-sized teeth dangle from storefront awnings, appear painted in exaggerated scale on wall advertisements, and light up the night in window-sized neon displays. The teeth often come to life in bizarre anthropomorphized versions of the real thing, complete with goofy smiles [a tooth with teeth!] and little arms bizarrely clutching their own teeth-cleaning tools.

Dental Art is genre you’ll likely not find represented at this year’s upcoming Carnegie International–and that’s a shame. Don’t let its everywhere and everyone populism lull you into thinking a happy, glowing, purple neon molar is anything less than the noblest of public-private art partnerships. Anyone may go in for the crown, but whether you make a bee line for the canines or you’re just bicuspid-curious, we’re all royalty in a realm this rich with tooth display.

neon sign of large tooth with smiley face advertising dentist, Ambridge, PA

Walko Family Denistry, Ambridge

neon sign of large white tooth in blue frame, North Side Dental, Pittsburgh, PA

Northside Dental

Why is dentistry unique among medical fields in advertising via super-sized versions of the body part being treated? We don’t find an equivalent mass of enormous feet outside podiatrists’ offices or giant schnozes at the ear, nose, and throat specialist. Sure, you’ll see some see a pair of big eyeglasses here or there, but optometrists don’t tend to lay out for sculpted, disembodied eyeballs. What gives?

Why, if every neighborhood gastroenterologist and gynecologist had massive public art-sized scale models of the digestive and reproductive systems in front of their buildings, we’d all learn something with a stroll down the sidewalk or drive-by trip to the grocery store. Cardiologists could light up terrific neon hearts, the stop/start blinking lights crudely simulating blood pumping through ventricles. Why is this kind of action only acceptable for dentists? To all the doctors in the Orbit’s readership: how can we make this happen?

large plastic tooth painted gold hanging in front of dentist's office, Pittsburgh, PA

gold tooth with big cavity: Affordable Dentistry, Shadyside

large 3-D sign with large mouth and toothbrush for Select Dental, Millvale, PA

pop-art dentist: Select Dental, Millvale

We can probably answer our own question here. Kids start out terrified of the dentist, and it only goes downhill from there. You think braces are bad? Try getting a double root canal!

As intimidating as a visit to the doctor’s office or hospital clinic can be, there is something about the dentist’s chair that inspires a level a dread like no other (routine) medical procedure. The forced-open mouth, novocaine injected straight into the gums, instruments of torture clinically laid out to aggressively scratch the enamel from our defenseless chompers. And then there’s Hobson’s choice, incisor edition: wintergreen or tutti-fruitti?

Oh, and how about that squeal when the drill is engaged–changing from ear-piercing ultra-high pitch to an oppressive grind as we helplessly watch smoldering tooth shrapnel spray on the protective lenses of all present. The whole experience gives this sometimes sweet tooth the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it.

anthropomorphized smiling tooth with toothbrush and toothpaste from a sign for McKees Rocks Dental, McKees Rocks, PA

this tooth could use a cleaning: McKees Rocks Dental

dental office sign with anthropomorphized tooth holding giant toothbrush, Clairton, PA

David S. Shoaf, DDS, Clairton

So it makes sense in a profession that invokes sheer terror in the minds of a significant portion of its clientele that the conscientious dental professional would do everything in her or his power to lighten the mood. These are not cruel people; we just perceive them that way. Bring on the bright colors, the big smiles, the pop art oversized toothbrush, lips, and pearly whites.

My Oakland-based dentist [no tooth sign, but she gets a pass because the office is in a big building] has some kind of custom, ad-free music channel clearly designed to be as inoffensive and restful as possible. While a doped-up hour with James Taylor, Enya, and John Mayer could be considered its own version of Hell, no one will actually be driven to rage.

What lies ahead may not be fun, these accommodations all seem to say, but we’ll do our best to make it all right. Much respect to all the dentists and all their big teeth.

wooden dentist's sign in the shape of a tooth, Pittsburgh, PA

wooden tooth: South Side Dental Pavilion, Southside

wooden sign for Dr. Petraglia & Associates dentist office, Pittsburgh, PA

ye olde toothe: Dr. Petraglia & Associates, Bloomfield

hanging sign with silver tooth in circle advertising dentist's office, Ambridge, PA

no words needed: Dr. Sooky Arpad, Ambridge

large tooth-shaped sign reading "Premier Family Dentistry welcomes Dr. Broring", Baldwin Borough, PA

Premier Family Dentistry, Baldwin Borough

logo for Munhall Dental of capital letter D intertwined with outline of tooth

Munhall Dental [photo: Lee Floyd]

logo for Merit Dental of a combined bridge and tooth

bridge work, Pittsburgh Oral Surgery, East Liberty

neon sign with tooth shape in dentist's office window, Bridgeville, PA

David Regine, DMD, Bridgeville

Tales of the Trail: The Rutkowski Shoe Memorial

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Township

As memorials go, it’s a strange one. At a small clearing along a bicycle trail sits a rectangular raised plot, bordered by river stones, about the size of a modest backyard garden. The ground is staked with 18 short lengths of white PVC pipe. Each has an article of decommissioned footwear firmly attached, its sole turned toward the sky.

None of the shoes match and they appear to come from a variety of sources. There are women’s dress shoes with chunky heals, rubber-soled trainers, and comfortable sneakers. Though most are adult models, some of the shoes are sized for a small child, while others would fit a still-growing youth. All have been decorated with after-market paint jobs, now disintegrating after years (?) exposed to the elements.

The center of the memorial is a large, engraved stone with the text In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, “Always put your best foot forward.”

green ladies' shoe attached to PVC pipe

Kimberly Rutkowski’s obituary features just the bare minimum information. Her residence was listed as South Fayette, a large suburban township just west of where the memorial lives now. She was survived by a husband and two children. As the stone tells us, Ms. Rutkowski died in January, 2005. She was just 43.

As obituaries tend to do–or not do, as is the case–there is no real personal detail to go on. We don’t know what Ms. Rutkowski cared about or did for fun, what she dreamed of or was made crazy by. We don’t even know what she looked like. But for those of us who never got to meet Kimberly Rutkowski, we can at least share the abstract experience-by-association of putting our best foot forward through the loving, humorous, and thought-provoking memorial in Collier Township.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Panhandle Trail starts or ends (your pick) in Rennerdale, just a few miles past Carnegie. It runs 30 miles due west to the outskirts of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a lovely, easy ride through gentle, rolling hills, lush full summer overgrowth, and comes replete with all manner of scurrying creatures, circling hawks, babbling brooks, and eye-popping wildflowers.

It also features a number of human-created attractions, including a bunch of small towns and country hamlets the former Pennsylvania Railroad used to serve before the tracks were replaced with trail. Along the way is a former quarry, a congenial bicycle shop, and enough little restaurants to sate trail-generated hunger almost anywhere along the line. Bike-to-beer fanciers will find the newish Helicon Brewery right along the route in Oakdale.

These are all wonderful accompaniments to a thoroughly-enjoyable bicycle trek, but it was the Rutkowski memorial that kept the Orbit office buzzing for days after we finished the ride.

engraved stone with the text "In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, 'Always put your best foot forward'"

“In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, ‘Always put your best foot forward'”

Like all great art, the shoe memorial asks more questions than it answers. Was “always put your best foot forward” such a repeated catch-phrase that Ms. Rutkowski’s friends and/or family needed to take it to the next level? Was the deceased herself in on the design? How and why did the creators select this plot of trailside ground? We just don’t know.

So we’re left to wonder and come up with our own personal interpretations.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

There was a time in this blogger’s early life when 43 would have seemed like a ripe old age. Those days–just like that particular birthday–have long since passed. Forty-three is young! Or, at least, it’s what we think of as middle-aged. We know we’re not owed anything in this life, but in one’s early forties we hope to still have nearly as many tomorrows as we had yesterdays.

So, the next time you find yourself on The Panhandle Trail [yes, make sure there is a next time] take the opportunity to pause for Kimberly Rutkowski and her tribute of second-hand pumps and discarded jogging shoes. We’ve only got so much time on this earth–make sure to not only put your best foot forward, but wear those shoes to the nub when you’re doing it.

memorial with shoes nailed to PVC pipe planted in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Twp.

Getting there: The Panhandle Trail has its own web site with maps and all the relevant information on trailheads and route. The Rutkowski shoe memorial is on the eastern end of the path, between Rennerdale and Oakdale.

Take Bigelow! “Striking Distance,” 25 Years Later, Part 2: The Chase Scene Then & Now

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of a city bus colliding with a beer truck

Some things never change: PAT bus into loose-packed Iron City Beer wagon

If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for any recent amount of time–say, the last ten years, maybe just five would do it–the rate of change can seem extraordinary. Entire neighborhoods–East Liberty, Lawrenceville, The Strip District, to name the most obvious examples–have been radically transformed, downtown has a couple new skyscrapers, rents and home prices are finally starting to match other metro areas, gone are one-dollar beers and big red sauce Italian joints. So it can be comforting to us old-timers when we’re reminded that not everything is changing quite so fast.

As 2017 rolled-over to 2018, we got the idea to honor the 25th anniversary of Striking Distance–the Pittsburgh-set police action film that spawned an unexpected local meme. [For more on this, see last week’s Part 1 of the story.] The idea was to take the opening high-speed car chase through the city, find all the actual filming locations, and then take a look at how they appear today, 26 years later. [The movie was actually shot over the summer of 1992.]

If you haven’t seen that epic chase–or even if it’s just been a while–rectify that now, in the original French. See what you recognize and what you don’t. And if you really want a challenge, try to name the main filming locations–they’re (almost) all right in town. Bigelow Boulevard is, of course, a “gimme,” and you shouldn’t have any problem with the downtown shots, but after that it gets a little trickier.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Striking Distance chase scene, then and now:

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Mount Troy Road, Troy Hill, 1992

empty street with distant view to downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mount Troy Road, Troy Hill, 2018

For the opening of the sequence, father and son cops Vince and Tom Hardy head out in full dress regalia toward the Policeman’s Ball, presumably at the Point (based on the “two years later” setting elsewhere in the film). The locations team could’t have picked a more Pittsburgh scene, replete with cross-river views, the downtown skyline, and a short barrier wall before a steep drop-off. Not that it matters, but Troy Hill/Reserve Township even seems like a believable cop neighborhood.

Almost nothing in this particular panorama has changed in the last 26 years. There are more wires on the telephone poles as high-speed Internet arrived in the between-time and the trees have definitely been allowed to grow up, but that’s about it. Downtown does have some new features to its skyline (we’ll get to those in a bit)–but you can’t really see them from this angle.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Ridgway Street, Hill District, 1992

two-lane hillside road with house, Pittsburgh, PA

Ridgway Street, Hill District, 2018

There is no possible way to take Bigelow from Troy Hill, so the Hardys are magically transported across the Allegheny to Ridgway Steet, at the far eastern/upper end of the Hill District, for their careening entry to that fabled cross-city byway.

Just like we saw on Mt. Troy Road, the tiny starter saplings on Ridgway in 1992 have grown to legit shade-producing coverage today–in fact, we couldn’t even get the same angle as the Striking Distance shot because we’d be buried in shrubbery–chalk one up for Mother Nature! Other than that, we can see the city replaced the old wooden street light pole and the homeowner appears to have had some porch work done. No idea what happened to the Silverado in the driveway.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of busy street intersection in Pittsburgh, PA

Bigelow Blvd. at Bloomfield Bridge, 1992

empty street intersection with large building, Pittsburgh, PA

Bigelow Blvd. at Bloomfield Bridge, 2018

Striking Distance filming closed a pretty major east-west artery for the Hardys’ high-speed pursuit of The Polish Hill Strangler and the crew made the most of the opportunity. The approximately half-mile stretch of Bigelow from the the Bloomfield Bridge to the intersection at Herron is run backwards and forwards, crossing lanes and milking busy intersections. The movie viewer is rewarded with a lot of quick-cut chances to see the road and its pedestrian overpasses.

The biggest change here is the old Geyer Printing building, which was sold and converted into a self-storage place a while back. Gone are the big G-E-Y-E-R letters on the roof and instead we’ve got the imagery of self-storage plastered over the former windows. The whole intersection got a heavy-duty resurfacing (in cement) a few years back and still looks like it’s brand new.

Side note: I wanted to bag one of those Stagno’s Bakery trucks in the wild, but couldn’t actually find one now that I was looking. Sigh.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of alley in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Strawberry Way, Downtown, 1992

alley turned pedestrian way in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

“That’s my boy!” said our model Walter Lee Robinson on recognizing Bruce Willis in the YouTube clip I showed him. Strawberry Way, Downtown, 2018

OK, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Little Strawberry Way, the single-lane alley that runs parallel between Sixth and Seventh Streets, Downtown, has had perhaps the most dramatic makeover of our locations.

Starting maybe ten years ago, the long, lower block of Strawberry between Smithfield and Liberty started getting dressed up with temporary art installations. More recently, the city went all-in on Strawberry’s conversion from car-friendly alley to pedestrian hang-out zone. Currently, there are two blocks entirely closed-off to traffic, including the short stretch from Grant to William Penn Place where the Hardys dash down in a shortcut to intercept The Strangler on William Penn Place. These are nicely appointed with colorful street painting, tables and chairs, potted plants, and special lighted signage.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of downtown street in Pittsburgh, PA

Cherry Way, Downtown, 1992

city street in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Cherry Way, Downtown, 2018

Starting to sound like a broken record (1993)/streaming audio loop (2018), but the 400 block of Cherry Way, Downtown looks pretty much the same as it did when Pittsburgh’s finest chased that ’89 Ford. Based on the green lights in both lanes, we assume traffic was still one-way (the other direction) in 1992 which would have made this a difficult escape route for the Strangler.

What’s changed the most in this scene is a building you feel more than see. Kaufmann’s–Pittsburgh’s original, longest-standing downtown department store–was still open and operating by that name in the 1990s. I know–I bought business casual khakis there. The building still straddles little Cherry Way, forming a tunnel the filmmakers shot through for the chase scene. The downtown Kaufmann’s would be rebranded to a Macy’s in 2006 and then closed for good in 2015[1]. Currently, the elegant, 12-story building is undergoing renovation to become fancy apartments.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of Armstrong Tunnel, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel, Uptown, 1992

interior of Armstrong Tunnel, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel, Uptown, 2018

You’re thinking, what could possibly have changed in the Armstrong Tunnel? The answer, it turns out, is more than you’d expect. First off, the tile work looked a lot better in 1992–so much better we wonder if it had recently gotten a rehab treatment. Today, there are big chunks of the white ceramic that have separated and disappeared, leaving a pock-marked, water- and oil-stained surface throughout.

More interesting, though, is the tunnel’s apparent change from a two-way, bi-directional route (note the double yellow line in the earlier picture) to its current configuration with separate, dedicated inbound and outbound tubes. We have to wonder what was happening with the other tunnel in ’92. Maybe it was just a temporary closure to fix up the tiles? Who knows!

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of police car exiting fire-filled tunnel in Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel entrance, Uptown, 1992

exterior of Armstrong Tunnel with rising highway structure above, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel entrance, Uptown, 2018

You’ll be happy to know the fire in the Armstrong Tunnel was safely put out some time in the last couple decades, making the daring dash through burning police cruiser wreckage no longer required in passage from Forbes to Second Ave.

Fire or not, Steelers fans will remember this south end of the tunnel as the dangerous intersection where Ben “Why would I wear a helmet? I’m not playing football.” Roethlisberger almost ended both his life and career in a motorcycle accident in 2006. Like all the principal characters in Striking Distance (but not all the extra roles!) he made it out alive.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of downtown street and bridge in Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street and Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, 1992

empty street in downtown Pittsburgh

Smithfield Street and Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, 2018

This is another one where the real action is just out of the frame. On the near side, Point Park University continues to expand, gobbling up, restoring, and repurposing much of “First Side” downtown as it goes. Had the filmmakers chosen almost any other block in the area, we’d have a more obvious contrast.

On the other side of these buildings, every cyclist will tell you Smithfield Street Bridge is the gateway to South Side bicycle-riding as the easiest, farthest, western-most entrance to the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail (which goes from here all the way to Washington, D.C.). The town end of the bridge also has a semi-new dedicated bicycle passage to connect cyclists to the Jail Trail and a brand new switchback ramp from the bridge will take you down to The Mon Wharf and Point State Park, traffic-free. [That opens…next month?] … but you can’t see any of that in this picture.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street Bridge, 1992

ornate iron entryway to Smithfield Street Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street Bridge, 2018

The Smithfield Street Bridge, a “lenticular truss bridge,” completed in 1883 and designed by Gustav Lindenthal[2] is certainly one of the city’s most iconic crossings. The castle-like porticos on either end and gorgeous sine wave interlocking curves are about as perfect and classic as one could hope for from such a structure.

By the time this blogger arrived in Pittsburgh–just a few years after Striking Distance–the Smithfield Street Bridge had undergone a massive rehab including a new paint job of yellow-gold on the entrance ways and deep blue for the curving truss sections.

But back in 1992, the bridge was still a dingy steel gray with a tree apparently growing out of the lane separator on the south end. It also had two-way car traffic on one half and train track on the other [see previous then photo]. Today, the re-do colors remain, but they’re faded, rusted, and graffiti-scarred; the tree is gone. It may be about time for yet another paint job on this old beauty.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of city streets in Pittsburgh, PA

Intersection of Carson and Arlington, Southside, 1992

Intersection of Carson and Arlington streets, Pittsburgh, PA

Intersection of Carson and Arlington, Southside, 2018 [Note the bonus Class A Steelermobile!]

Pittsburgh’s modern light rail line (“The T”) was set up in the 1980s. Though largely running on vestigial trolley tracks through the South Hills, the newer, elevated stretch of rail connecting to the Panhandle Bridge remains the dominant presence at the intersection of Carson and Arlington on the Southside as it did in the early ’90s.

You’ll notice the same deep blue paint job the Smithfield Street Bridge received and an addition of one clearance height warning sign, but that’s all we’ve got here.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of police car standoff in Pittsburgh, PA

Second Ave., Downtown, 1992

empty street with girders for raised highway, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Second Ave., Downtown, 2018

A little tip for budding action movie makers: if you want to set your picture in gritty, urban America, make sure you’ve got an elevated highway and/or train line to film under. Pittsburgh has plenty of bridges, but the double-decker effect of Boulevard of the Allies rising over Second Avenue, Downtown, really only happens for a few blocks in this one location. Striking Distance writer/director (and Pittsburgh native) Rowdy Herrington wasn’t going to miss out on it.

The cagey quality of 1920s-era steel girders with its heavy shadows and rumble from auto traffic above makes this space still feel like an action set–even on a quiet, sunny, Sunday morning. The steel beams appear to have been newly-painted, parking rates have gone up, and the bail bondsman (just out-of-frame) is open for business 24-hours.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of car on street in front of downtown Pittsburgh, PA skyline

P.J. McArdle Roadway and downtown skyline, Mt. Washington, 1992

Pittsburgh city skyline as seen from Mt. Washington

P.J. McArdle Roadway and downtown skyline, Mt. Washington, 2018

Of course The Polish Hill Strangler would take P.J. McArdle Roadway up to very-accessible Grandview Avenue in his escape route! Mount Washington’s cobblestone streets, hairpin turns, and limited egress points are exactly what any clever criminal who “drive’s like a cop” would opt for. Regardless of the plot logic of this particular route, it leaves us with some great views of the Pittsburgh skyline…and that’s probably what Rowdy Herrington was really after.

The main difference today is that downtown Pittsburgh has been in a major construction boom for the last decade or so and it’s left us with two big additions to the skyline. The 23-story Three PNC Plaza and the 33-story Tower at PNC Plaza were completed in 2009 and 2015, respectively. Both are now clearly visible [and blocking the view of Gulf Tower!] from Grandview Ave.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington, 1992

street with large church and city view in PIttsburgh, PA

Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington, 2018

The lovely St. Mary of the Mount Catholic church still holds court at its prominent spot on Grandview Ave., its parishioners getting a glorious view of downtown Pittsburgh as they step out the big, oak front doors. We set up for our photo on the grassy lawn of St. Mary’s school next door, just like Herrington and the gang did back in the day–only, Orbit budget wouldn’t pony up for the crane shot and long lens. Regardless, it’s obvious the biggest difference from here is not what’s happening on Mt. Washington, but instead, what you can see across the river.

The so-called North Shore has had a dramatic–almost wholesale–re-envisioning since the late 1990s. Still visible in the Striking Distance scene is Three Rivers Stadium and the acres of surface-level parking surrounding it. The hallowed home to Steelers and Pirates world championships was imploded in 2001 after construction of separate dedicated venues for football and baseball had been built in the same approximate area. Our present-day shot doesn’t have the detail to show you those sportatoriums–but trust me: they’re there–as are the casino complex, Stage AE, and various other new infill.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Duquesne, PA

Center Street, Duquesne, 1992

steep Belgian block residential street in Duquesne, PA

Center Street, Duquesne, 2018

The holy grail of chase scene locations! Where is this camel back cobblestone road that launches all vehicles–from a toddler’s tricycle to a chain of police cruisers–off the street and into the air?

This one really pushed The Orbit’s research team. The only clue was the visible Oak St sign in the original clip, but it clearly wasn’t any of the Oak Streets Google Maps had to offer for Pittsburgh. IMDB listed some additonal filming locations, including both Monessen and Monongahela, but it was obvious none of those was the right place, either.

Never underestimate the combination of intuition, dumb luck, and Google Street View. We were finally able to ID the venue as Center Street in Duquesne. Center is still paved with the same hundred-year-old Belgian block, but it’s the terraced layout that really invites drama. The road flattens at each point where there’s a cross street or alley, giving it the feeling of a ramp with landings.

Now, I walked the four- or five-block length of Center Street, and while it is steep, no vehicles are leaping into the air all on their own–even going way over the speed limit. Herrington’s stunt coordinators must have installed extra jumps at each stage to launch the chase party so dramatically in the air, because that’s just not happening naturally. But then again, not happening naturally would describe how most screenings of Striking Distance take place.


[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaufmann’s
[2] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smithfield_Street_Bridge

Take Bigelow! “Striking Distance,” 25 Years Later, Part 1: The Scene, The Meme, The Dream

illustration of scene from 1993 film "Striking Distance" with Lt. Vince Hardy (John Mahoney) and Det. Tom Hardy (Bruce Willis) in police car

“Take Bigelow.” Lt. Vince Hardy (John Mahoney) and Det. Tom Hardy (Bruce Willis) in hot pursuit of The Polish Hill Strangler. [illustration: Mario Zucca]

Let’s get something straight: Striking Distance is not a perfect movie. No, the 1993 police drama/action romp has a plot that’s a muddled mess. There’s the hunt for a serial killer, a cop drama, revenge-on-betrayal subplot, and “five generations of police” honor tale–some of them Italian, some Irish, but they’re all family…it’s confusing.

All that would be fine, but there are logical problems big enough to drive a twin-engine Chris Craft through with the river running way above flood stage. In the effort to avoid spoiling the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet [and despite everything we’ll say here, we do recommend you see the movie at least once], we’ll not go into all the details–but there are some really important plot points that just don’t make any sense at all.

In a vintage segment from their eponymous movie review show, Gene Siskel sums up Striking Distance as “The kind of warmed-over, generic action picture that really seems tired.” Roger Ebert responds to the narrative inconsistencies by saying “This movie is really stupid because it isn’t even smart enough to answer the obvious questions the audience will have,” and “I didn’t care, because I didn’t believe it.” Ouch!

illustration of scene from "Striking Distance" with Robert Pastorelli as Det. Jimmy Detillo pointing and laughing

Q: “Who’s the best cop now?” A: No one in this movie! Robert Pastorelli as Det. Jimmy Detillo. [illustration: Mario Zucca]

And then there’s Bruce Willis. Still coasting on the first two Die Hard blockbusters, the action star arrived on set armed with the same cocky smirk and dumb one-liners John McClane wore out at the Nakatomi building–only this time, they come with an obvious lack of investment.

In theory, Willis is the film’s protagonist–both hunting-for and targeted-by the unseen strangler after suffering devastating personal and professional losses. Even so, the audience finds itself praying some combination of bent cops, river bandits, and serial killers will find a way to silence his wise-cracking and misogyny before they have to white-knuckle it through another inevitable love scene.

illustration from the 1993 movie "Striking Distance" of woman gagged and laying on her side with a toy police car in foreground

A bound victim of The Polish Hill Stranger [illustration: Mario Zucca]

In a pair of the genre’s great clichés, The Polish Hill Strangler terrifies the women he’s abducted by driving a remote control police car into their bound bodies and taunts authorities by playing a cassette recording of Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs’ “Little Red Riding Hood” over the telephone. A man was imprisoned for the crimes after questionable witness testimony and a recanted confession, but hard-nosed detective John Hardy (Willis) isn’t buying it.

Sarah Jessica Parker comes aboard (literally–the setting turns to river rescue after Hardy’s demotion from the force) as by-the-book rookie Jo Christman partnered to Willis’ grisled, alcoholic, chauvinist veteran. Of course she’s helpless against his…charms (?) and two end up in the bed on his house boat by the end of her first week on the job. Girl, you can do better! Needless to say, the film fails The Bechdel Test in all possible ways.

scene from "Striking Distance" with Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker talking in bed

No rug needed. Partners Hardy and Christman working the Polish Hill Strangler case. [Note that Hardy has the only copy of “Yachting” magazine in Allegheny County.]

So why do we care about a B-grade genre movie from a generation ago?

Writer-director Rowdy Herrington is a Pittsburgh native who clearly parlayed the success of his Razzie-nominated work on Road House (1989) into a pet project, set in his hometown, and stocked with some significant star power. In addition to Willis and Parker, you’ll recognize character actors Dennis Farina, Tom Sizemore, Robert Pastorelli, etc. as members of the extended Hardy/Detillo clan.

Say what you want about Striking Distance, but the filmmakers didn’t skimp on the Pittsburgh. The local references come early and often–street and neighborhood names; police badges and Pirates gear; great-looking location shots up the hills, down on the water, and wrapped around bridges, locks, and heavy industry. Sally Wiggin and Ken Rice make cameos, playing 1993 versions of themselves anchoring local newscasts.

It’s a shame not a single actor attempts a Pittsburgh accent–which makes the film sound like it was set in Weehawken or Long Island City–but I imagine it would take more industry clout than Rowdy Herrington ever wielded to get Bruce Willis to consult with a dialogue coach.

scene from "Striking Distance" as two characters race on foot at factory

Pittsburgh at its Pittsburghiest. Scene from “Striking Distance” (1993).

If you forget about all those pesky plot issues, relax your standards on “acting,” and acknowledge that you–just like Roger Ebert–don’t care about or believe any of the characters, Striking Distance is a pretty fun popcorn movie. There’s a couple fast-paced boat chases, the pirate takeover of a tugboat shoving a full load of coal barges upriver [hey–it could happen!], high-tension when The Strangler strikes, and raw testosterone when cops and family collide.

It’s the opening car chase, though–a high-speed, cross-city, explosions-and-acrobatics pursuit of an unidentified suspect in an ’89 Ford–that really kicks the film into high gear right out of the gate. Herrington’s mise en scène is nowhere better dealt than in the Hardys’ casual descent down a couple of classic Pittsburgh hillsides–the city playing its own glorious self laid out before the views from Troy Hill.

illustration based on the 1993 movie "Striking Distance" with two cars racing down a dark road

“He drives like a cop.” One of two loose hubcaps in the high-octane opening chase scene. [illustration: Mario Zucca]

As the chase jumps into high gear, Herrington makes sure everyone in the audience gets a good look at his hometown. It’s a what’s-what–or maybe where’s-where–of spectacular Pittsburgh: tight downtown alleys, the elegant Smithfield Street Bridge and Armstrong Tunnel, hairpin hillside turns, and birds-eye views from Mount Washington.

John Mahoney, as Tom Hardy’s police lieutenant father Vince, utters the offhand “Take Bigelow”–a throwaway line that would absurdly launch its own local micro-phenomena, spawning a meme that seems to gather more energy with each passing year.

black t-shirt with text "TAKE BIGELOW"

“Take Bigelow” t-shirt from Commonweath Press

The car chase was going to be the subject of today’s story, but we just had too much to blather on about–that, and we came across a fantastic original illustration based on the movie by artist Mario Zucca (“Take Bigelow,” top). On asking Mr. Zucca for permission to include the drawing for this story, he not only granted us that favor, but produced another series of pieces from the archive done for a (one-time) planned full illustration of the film. Some of those are included here.

Zucca describes himself as “having a pretty serious obsession with [Striking Distance] back in the day,” [we believe you!] who could at one time quote the movie line-for-line. Many thanks to Mario for allowing Pittsburgh Orbit to publish his original illustrations here. Check out more of his work at mariozucca.com.

detail of "Striking Distance" DVD case with "Take Bigelow" word balloon taped onto outside

fan-altered library copy of the “Striking Distance” DVD case

Next week: Like Capt. Nick Detillo’s old Italian saying, we’re not going to scald our tongues on another man’s soup. Enough with the appetizer–bring on the meal! The Orbit has got a fun now-and-then retracing of locations from Striking Distance that will have you tearing across bridges, hopping the hillside cobblestones, and yes, taking Bigelow. Read all about it in Part 2.

screen capture from the film "Striking Distance" of actor John Mahoney as police officer riding in passenger seat of car

John Mahoney as Lt. Vince Hardy in “Striking Distance,” (1993).


Errata: An earlier version of this story mistakenly credited local TV news personalities “Ken Burns” and “Sally Wiggins” with cameos in the film. We were corrected by alert Orbit readers that it is actually Ken Rice and Sally Wiggin who appear in Striking Distance. We regret the errors and will tar-and-feather our fact-checkers.

Flag Post: A Very Orbit Independence Day 2018

rows of small flags marking surface-level military graves in Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville

Independence Day, the most American of holidays. From its origin in the founding of the country to the relentless red, white, and blue seen everywhere on porch rail bunting, matching jogging suits, and strawberry-blueberry desserts. Baseball, mom, apple pie, and yeah, bombs bursting in air–they’re all there–as are the only slightly less-mythologized backyard cookouts and blowout sales at big box retailers.

The flag itself–all fifty stars and thirteen bars of it [or some other random numbers, if you remember last year’s flag roundup] is all over the place and it’s as divisive as ever. These three colors are a glaring mess when you get too much of them in one place and this becomes its own kind of visual metaphor for the confusion and oppression many of us feel when there is just too darn much flag-waving going on.

mural of American soldiers raising flag at Iwo Jima painted on red brick wall of house in Johnstown, PA

Iwo Jima mural, Johnstown

concrete roadside wall painted with American flag, McKees Rocks, PA

fading glory: bicentennial flag, McKees Rocks

Feel free to revolt! Break out the purple, orange, and green ensemble! Turn up the Fela Kuti, Shoukichi Kina, and Sergio Mendes! Put kimchi on that hot dog and dip those French fries in mayonnaise! What is, after all, more American than dissent?

A Prosecco toast may feel revelatory, but there are definitely more productive ways to embrace one’s Americanness. Voting, of course, is also as American as things get. [Sadly, so is not voting.] Do your good deed for the day: get an unregistered voter signed up and on the right track to participating in his or her democracy! SwingLeft offers a really great, clear voter registration guide and Rock the Vote has been a force in registering young voters for decades.

And, sweet Jesus, if you’re reading this and are not already registered to vote, do it for yourself right now. You can register online (at least, if you’re a Pennsylvania resident); it only takes a couple minutes.

American flag draped over large object with cat and cat bowls sitting on top, Pittsburgh, PA

coffin/cat feeder flag, Spring Garden

concrete pylon decorated like the American flag, Coraopolis, PA

VFW, Coraopolis

All that blathering aside and all those misgivings noted, creating representations of the American flag fits right in the pocket of one of The Orbit’s bread-and-butter staples. When (otherwise) non-artists are motivated to pick up brush and paint to get their outer patriot on, the results are almost always interesting. Plus, Independence Day is the most obvious opportunity to run the flag pictures we collect all year.

That’s all we’ve got. Happy Fourth of July, ya’ll.

abandoned storefront with American flag painted on glass, Ambridge, PA

storefront, Ambridge

brick wall painted with American flag mural, Verona, PA

Billy Kay’s, Verona

cinderblock wall with painted American flag, McKees Rocks, PA

laundry/dry cleaners, McKees Rocks

grocery store display of soda pop packaging made to look like a bald eagle

pop art: Giant Eagle giant eagle/American flag, Homestead

mural of American flag on retaining wall along bicycle trail

retaining wall, Montour Trail

American flag made from construction paper

Church of the Assumption, Bellevue

wooden shipping pallet painted like an American flag, Ambridge, PA

The Kowalskys pallet flag, Ambridge

shipping pallet painted like American flag hanging on wooden fence

pallet flag, Stanton Heights [photo: Greg Lagrosa]

homemade American flag decoration leaning against house foundation, Neville Island, PA

Neville Island

musician Weird Paul performing in front of an American flag, Pittsburgh, PA

a real American hero: Weird Paul at the Elks Lodge, North Side

Serial Scrawlers: Who’s That Dude?

graffiti drawing of man's head with mustache, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

Equal parts suburban dad and Dobie Gillis, our newest acquaintance shows up alternately smug, demur, sleepy, and shy. His hair swings between close-cropped gestural bangs and full-on mop-top beatnik. Occasionally he’ll let the grass grow into an anachronistic goatee or legit full chin beard. There is always a preposterous bushy mustache.

The ridiculous names Mike BoneCarl Gigimo, and Bobby Kaczar appear attached to some of the bemustasched mugs. We don’t know where these come from [don’t bother Googling them], but, you know, at this point, why bother steering?

graffiti drawing of man's head with mustache, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

graffiti cartoon figure drawn on street feature

Garfield

Who is this dude? Where did he come from? What did he do last night to end up so dog tired today? and–you may be asking at this point–Why do we care?

Never you mind about that; unlike Melania, we do care. The more important question is, What makes a person take paint, crayon, or grease pencil to stray public surfaces? There are primal explanations, for sure–the need to express, to emote, to communicate the human experience. There’s probably a vanity angle, too. Why, do it enough times and you might find your after-hours etchings immortalized in some obscure corner of the blogosphere. [Ahem.]

paint pen graffiti of man with bushy mustache on painted board, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

graffiti of man's face with bushy mustache on stone wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

More perplexing than the compulsion to create is the need for some minority of graffiti writers to do (versions of) the same thing over and over and over again. Why come up with a new face when this dude’s closed eyes and walrus top lip come so naturally? Perhaps it’s a self-portrait in caricature? If you’ve got an angle, work it! Who knows?

graffiti image of man with mustache on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

graffiti drawing of man with mustache on white stucco wall

Lawrenceville

Whatever the motivation, these repeat offenders are all over the place. We’re no experts, but they seem to have too much line and not enough letter to be “tags,” but are really just barely getting by as full-on “street art.”

Whatever you think, there are a lot of them out there. There’s the psychedelic TV-VCR combo and the lightening bolt cloud, Mr. K.I.D.S. and that rock-and-roll sheep, the stylized row house and the dangling bat–the list goes on and on. Clarence the Bird almost counts, but having the original works on paper seems to put Mr. The Bird in different company.

We’re calling these folks Serial Scrawlers and they’re interesting enough to maybe get back to as time allows and the series unfolds.

graffiti face drawn on rusty utility pole

Bloomfield

graffiti drawing of man's head with mustache, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

So, “Mike Bone,” “Carl Gigimo,” or whoever you are, you got The Orbit’s attention. That’s what a spray paint spree in a Strip District side street will do for you. That, and making us work the S key like a rented mule.

We don’t know why you find this particular middle-aged male likeness so intriguing–enough to reproduce those forewhiskers and loose locks on every alley wall from 16th Street to high Penn Avenue. But we’ve had a fine little time tracking your progress through the East End. Live long, Mike Bone, and keep that brow furrowed and mustache humming.

graffiti drawing of man's head with mustache, Pittsburgh, PA

16th Street Bridge

graffiti cartoon figure drawn on street feature

Garfield

graffiti drawing of man's head with mustache, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville