The giant wall holds a lot of history–and likely not a few secrets. Two tall stories high and spanning the full depth of the lot–from the sidewalk on Wellsville’s Main Street all the way back to the service alley–this space did a lot of living. Demolition on the building that used to be here exposed a (former) interior wall that is an archeological treasure our shallow American memory will have to substitute for “real” finds like Sutton Hoo or Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The plaster walls still cling to a rich palette of battered colors. Each room had been painted in an entirely different scheme and what remains are beautiful antique reds, pale yellow-greens, and deep melancholy blues. There are channels on the surface where we see clear outlines of the old building’s load-bearing interior walls, a staircase, plumbing lines, slotted holes in the brickwork for tall floor joists.
With all this, it is one particular section of the wall surface that intrigues more than the rest. In it, we see the intersection of three colors, each scarred, smeared, and pockmarked with age but still brimming with verve. A strong yellow line runs due north-south and gives the whole thing the composition of a modernist painting. Everything exists in perfect right angles.
The obsession with wall quarters began way back in 2015 with a reporting trip to Forest Hills. We were there to commune with the ex-atom smasher and later found ourselves by another, similar, inside-outside lot. Amongst the rubble of felled bricks and illegally-dumped housewares were four squares within a larger square: the right side faded green-blue, the left a dirty white; plaster above, cinderblock below. The section lines could not have been more precise.
It was perfect: balanced and meditative, color, material, and texture arrayed in transcendent harmony. It’s the kind of lightening bolt that may only land once in a generation–heck, once in a lifetime if you’re lucky.
But, wall-watching naifs that we were back then, the hard truth wasn’t fully understood. It seemed obvious that we’d run into more big, glorious, quad-sectioned walls just as soon as the mind was opened to them. Why, once you set the controls for Marys or Steelermobiles or The Dog Police you see them everywhere–wall quarters must be just as easy … right?
Well, you know where this is going. No, it is not easy to locate a perfect wall square–and this poke-down-every-alley and look-inside-any-abandoned-property keister is here as a material witness. Six years later–six years of looking for these things!–and we’ve come up with merely a handful of specimens. A lot of them aren’t even that good!
But if you take the collection we did manage to cobble together and throw in a (good-sized) set of bonus/pseudo-wall squares, we end up with a pretty nice haul. Hopefully they’re as pleasing to Orbit readers’ eyes as they are for staff to deep focus on when we’re destressing in Chez Orbit’s salt cave. Breathe in, breathe out, close our eyes and say it until we believe it: everything is going to be all right.
Row House Rejoinders
I’m not going to lie, The Over-the-Wall Club has some purists who frown on the relatively easy wall quarter pickins found in row house blocks. While it took us half a decade of constant scouring to come up with just the few “real” quarters (above), any Sunday stroll through the South Side Flats or the Mexican War Streets will reward with a bounty of these interfaces between next-door row houses.
With brickwork and foundations in a continuous plane, it just takes neighboring homeowners with different color preferences and a little bit of luck (steps, stoops, porches, and downspouts all get in the way; sloping hillsides break a lot of linear connections) to get really nice, perfectly squared-off intersections.
No Room for Squares
As with life, things on a wall don’t always line up perfectly. One shouldn’t let that diminish the shear ecstasy of a beautiful mixed-media surface, though. An extra drain pipe here, foundations that don’t line up there–we’re all better off to roll with these as … not imperfections, but rather elements that broaden the depth of the final composition. Ain’t nobody perfect, but a wall with a whole lot of problems sure might come close.
Behind a six-foot brick wall sit two side-by-side row houses facing a thin alley in Bloomfield. On the left is a typical Pittsburgh wooden worker house: two up/two down, three windows wide, no decorative flourishes. Immediately abutting it is either a small house with an unexpected garage door or a small garage/workshop with an apartment upstairs–it’s not really clear. Everything is painted red.
This is a prime specimen for the row house fancier who wants a single, coordinated palette: lots and lots of red with just enough white trim to outline features of the two houses and make design snobs’ blood pressure rise. On a sunny day, with a big blue sky and just one wispy cloud dancing above it, don’t that look like America, man.
After the mental and physical exhaustion of last week’s sob session, it’s time for some spring cleaning. We’re sitting on sixty-eight stories in draft mode–so it’s well past time to clear out the cupboards, beat the rugs, and maybe throw some things away. Yeah, we may never get to Andy Warhol’s weight set or great Men’s Room signs, but if the brain will cooperate, expect a return to the weekly format for a while.
For the latest installment of our Row House Romance series, we’re digging into that elusive sub-genre of row house watchers–the side-by-side bestest buddies that decided to dress up in identical outfits. (Or, at least, came pretty close.) Enjoy.
Preface: In the six+ years I’ve been doing Pittsburgh Orbit, I’ve made every effort to make it not about me. There are no bylines to my writing and the photographs are uncredited. I don’t include a bio and most stories are written in third person (or with a “royal we“). I’m not one that wants personal attention but I do want readers to focus on these (hopefully) interesting things all around us and appreciate them while we can.
That said, I’ve been going through some heavy personal stuff and–much to my chagrin–that’s the only thing my fancy brain can focus on right now. The subject is perhaps an odd choice to include in the Orbit–or even to make this kind of private info public at all–but the shame and stigma of mental illness is one of its most dangerous native features. If you can’t hang with that–or it’s just, uh, too depressing–I get it; you’re completely excused.Hopefullywe’ll be back to our regular diet of upbeat stories on disappearing towns, sad toys, and partying alone in the cemetery soon enough.
Something isn’t right, all of the time. This is the water in which my brain swims and it’s how I’ve always been. No matter how good the occasion or how temporarily high the mood, there is a gnawing caution to not get too excited, to not enjoy it too much. This won’t last, the killjoy noggin chimes in to remind me, good things never do.
Dysthymia (aka persistent depressive disorder) is chronic, low-grade depression. It’s not among the more cinematic I wanna kill myself or I hear voices flavors of mental health affliction; it’s what used to be called “depressive personality.” That charming descriptor was deadnamed some time in the ’70s or ’80s for its less offensive and more clinical-sounding current title. Most of the time, it is entirely manageable with some low-octane pharmaceuticals and reasonable lifestyle choices.
Just like where I come from and who raised me (and who didn’t), dysthymia has affected everything about me. A half-finished painting is almost always more interesting than when it’s “done.” Forty-five degrees and drizzling is never bad weather–it actually feels pretty natural. Summer, with its relentless sunshine and unrealistic expectations for carefree fun, is the very worst of seasons. It’s why the minor third and flatted seventh sound so much better than their sprightly major cousins; Nick Drake, the Elvis of Sadness, gets a lot more spins than, you know, the Elvis of Elvises. I like my humor dry and dark.
It’s also been a driving force in the Orbit aesthetic. Many people–some of whom are married to me–find spending a Saturday in, say, the Mon Valley to be “depressing.” The idea that I would return–over and over again, by choice, in my precious free time–to towns many view only as models of vacancy and despair, depopulation and collapse, where “they should bulldoze the whole place,” just doesn’t make a lot of sense to them.
I don’t see it that way. Las Vegas is depressing. Suburban sprawl is depressing. Grown-ass adults scoring the likes on their selfies is depressing. Places with lovely bones, rich histories, big personalities, and flowers growing through the cracks in the sidewalk are fascinating, warts and all.
They’re also a convenient parallel for those of us who suffer from mental illness. We can’t throw these places–and, more importantly, the people who live there–away, just because the industries that built them abandoned the people who built the community. Likewise, there are those that would discard people who get brain sick as defective, broken, lazy, weak.
Winston Churchill famously called his depression The Black Dog. I liken my experience to a different animal.
I’m in the woods and there is a bear chasing me, every day, all the time. He’s not one of those friendly bears. No, if the bear catches up with me, I will be mauled to death. I can outrun the bear, but only if I never slow down, never look back, never trip on a rock or pause to take in the view. If the bear gets me, gone are the relatively benign “blues” and “sads” we all experience and in comes the full battery of clinical symptoms: sleepless nights and loss of appetite, racing thoughts, guilt, shame, uncontrollable emotion. It becomes impossible to access joy.
It’s a good lifestyle for getting things done. When something wants to kill you, you don’t waste a lot of time on dumb TV, sleeping late, or doomscrolling. But being hyper-productive because the alternative is a hospital stay is no way to live.
Anyway, I’ve been running for a long time–it’s been seven years since the last big one–but just recently that ol’ bear caught up to me again with a sneak attack I could never have prepared for. In the parlance of my psychiatrist, this is a “double depression” (I prefer “Double Bummer“)–a debilitating clinical depression on top of the everyday low-grade stuff. In the on-brand attempt to make lemonade from guilt-ridden lemons–and no capacity to write about anything else–I thought I’d take the opportunity to share one person’s perspective on dealing with the noonday demon.
If you’ve been there, this may be all too familiar; if you’re one of the lucky ones that never experiences major depression, maybe this will help you empathize the next time a friend is afflicted–and they will be, even if they’re too ashamed to tell you the truth about it. Regardless, I hope it can help someone.
Wrapped in plasticis maybe not as common a metaphor as greatest hits like The Thick Fog, Wearing a Lead Suit, or Stuck in the Depths of the Ocean, but it’ll do–and the Orbit archives contained a good photo to illustrate. The world is still going on out there, but at best we can only see it through a gauzy film; arms and legs too restricted to be of any real use.
This experience of having one’s eyes wide open–knowing exactly what we’re missing (or, at least, what the brain’s unreliable narrator tells us we’re missing)–is endemic of the experience. It’s watching our lives fast-forward to the near end when we can only dodder about while the world blissfully continues without a second thought about us.
There’s no right way to go. It’s a conundrum: when The Brain Fog takes over, every decision is the wrong one and every action taken is disaster. Doing nothing puts you into self-imposed solitary confinement; doing anything guarantees failure. Yes, this also describes the intersection where West Carson, Steuben, South Main, Sawmill Run, and The West End Bridge roll the dice to see which piece of infrastructure will claim a human life today.
No, just no. Republicans have famously become The party of ‘No’. No, you can’t bring that bill to the floor; no, there will be no discussion on the topic; no, we don’t have any ideas of our own. But if a person really wants to get down to the no-no sound, he or she just needs to take the D train, downtown. That’s the fastest way to get to hurtin’.
It’s here in this underground club of mind control experimentation that the brain’s wondrous capacity for life-threatening distortion will override any inconvenient, fact-based truths. In a kind of scorched-earth one-upsmanship, the body follows the noodle’s lead and raises the stakes by impairing the ability to move. Want to do the things you love? No, you can’t. How about some simple relaxation? No–the body may be at rest, but the mind is on a wild crime spree in Crazy Town. Want to laugh, sleep, communicate like a human being? Ain’t gonna happen.
Nights are the worst. The daily experience of lying in bed, unable to sleep, night after night, is a living hell. To spend an evening–heck, every evening for the duration of the depression–alone with one’s devastating thoughts is like being on a long drive with someone that hates you. Unlike Bon Scott’s view of hell, this is a bad place to be.
As I write this (section), it is 2:38 am. Two melatonin tabs, deep breathing exercises, a sleep meditation recording, and one prescription-grade horse tranquilizer only bought me one hour of shuteye. I’m averaging around three hours sleep a day; if I get five I feel like I won the lottery. Like clairvoyants or time travelers, we know the day ahead is already ruined well before sunrise.
Making friends with Death is one of the oft-overlooked bright sides to a clinical depression. Yes, there are others. Don’t discount the No AppetiteDiet‘s ability to burn off some of the lockdown 35 in a most ruthless fashion or all the extra time one gets when you can’t sleep past 4:30. Every morning is a like three “fall back” time changes right on top of each other. Just imagine all the things you have no energy to do with those extra hours.
But as a lifelong wake-up-screaming-in-the-night worrier about the unknown hereafter, when one’s twenty delirious waking hours every day exist on a cold cocktail of dread, exhaustion, guilt, despair, and self-loathing, death is still a haunting specter–but it’s no longer the terror it once was.
[Side note: personally, I have never been suicidal and don’t intend to start now. But if you are anywhere near that mindset, sweet Jesus, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255.]
Something hopeful. I’ve been through this enough times to know these things end–they always do. It doesn’t feel that way when you’re in it–the brain is making some very convincing arguments that we’re in a hopeless situation with no possible resolution and no means of escape.
But that’s not true. We can beat this, it’s just really really hard. For me, I have to go into a holistic mind/body regimen like Rocky prepping for Drago: long, heartbeat-elevating daily walks/bike rides; being open, honest, and talking with anyone who’ll lend an ear; professional help; cut out drinking and mainline fruits and vegetables; do everything you can to ensure a decent night’s rest. (This last one is a particularly tough nut to crack, see above.)
The very best thing, for me at least, is what I’m doing here: writing about it–heck, writing about anything. Even when I’m unable to pick up the guitar or focus on a movie, I can get my head deep inside a piece of writing and feel like I’ve learned something in the process. It’s why this little blog post, authored gradually over a couple weeks of ups and downs, turned into an epic saga–I just kept having more to say, and it felt good to get it down. Getting thoughts out and organizing them, reading them back and clarifying ideas, the old gadget of writing a “letter never sent”–these things really work.
Lastly, when Mrs. Orbit read an earlier draft of this piece her reaction was, “It’s good, it’s heavy, and people are really going to worry about you.” Please don’t. I will be fine and I do know that I’ll get through this … eventually. This past week was way better than the week before (when most of the above text was written) and I’m legitimately feeling like I’m emerging from the fog.
But it’s a good reminder that people are suffering all around us, all the time. The isolation and anxiety of the pandemic has sent previously-epic mental illness rates through the roof. Please check on any friend you haven’t connected with recently; make sure your neighbors are OK; call your mother. Nothing gives a person in depression hope like a friend just reaching out to ask, “How are you? Are you doing OK?” … and then letting them say whatever they need to let go of.
The family is gathered together in grief. Their roles are not entirely clear, but it appears we’ve got a husband and wife, several school-aged children, and a nanny tending to the youngest of the lot. There is also another, larger, man dressed formally in the kind of double-breasted coat-and-tails popular among the well-to-do of the mid-19th century. Even if the patriarch hadn’t quite literally lost his head (and portions of both arms) it’s probably safe to say he’s the reason the gang is all here.
The figures, intricately carved into an elaborate marble cemetery monument, don’t appear as they originally did 150 years ago. Like her father (or maybe it’s her father-in-law), mom is also sans-tête, but even more striking is the way the facial features of the entire group have been worn away, leaving a strange alien-like cadre–gaunt, ghostly, and zombified–but awkwardly dressed in Sunday-best human clothes with an out-of-place Greek temple in the background. It’s the perfect setup for a gothic sci-fi story.
If you’ve spent any time at all within the beautiful boundaries of Allegheny Cemetery, you know its greatest hits: the rolling landscape, gangs of deer, and gaggles of geese; the Winter mausoleum, resplendent in faux-Egyptian glory, complete with a pair of guardian sphinxes; elegant–if, endangered–stained glass; the hokey Jaws-inspired “shark grave”; Orbit favorite Steelers stones; final resting places of famous (at least, Pittsburgh famous) people like Stephen Foster, Josh Gibson, Lillian Russell, and Stanley Turrentine. The list goes on …
But for those of us who spend enough time in the cemetery to, you know, “check the pulse,” there are so many more fascinating details to this 177-year-old burial park that we thought we’d put together a scavenger hunt for those who might be looking for an excuse to get out and poke around.
Below is a collection of favorite oddball, accidental, and unexpected elements from Allegheny Cemetery’s 300+ acres that we offer up as a fun, we-still-need-to-be-Covid-safe outdoor hunt for the curious. Much like an office visit with Dr. Love, there are neither bills nor fees for participating. There is also no time limit and the only reward is the satisfaction of getting out there, stretching the legs, and doing the thing–but that’s a fine way to spend a sunny spring afternoon.
Happy hunting, y’all!
We’re four photos in, and already down as many noggins. The ornate colliding with the real world never fails to generate interesting anomalies. Statues carved from stone that have lost fingers, whole limbs, and yes, their entire cranium are always something to see–and Allegheny Cemetery has plenty of these–but we thought we’d call out two evergreen favorites.
The headless boy (above) sits among a circle of similar–but still intact–statuary in a glorious part of the cemetery, reliably basking in fine views and peaceful tranquility. By contrast, the bird’s nest monument (below) is always a hive of activity as a family of sparrows almost always take up residence under the structure’s partial roof, atop the cloth-draped column by the headless woman. Yes, again with the science fiction, but it’s almost as if the lady’s brain has been transformed into a bird’s nest that her decapitated body must now lean in close to communicate with.
Hat ornaments! There are many markers that incorporate iconography of the service their occupants pursued, but we particularly like the fireman’s memorial (above) with its old-school pointy hat-helmet and large firehose nozzle.
There are plenty of military veterans buried at Allegheny Cemetery, but few got the Union soldier’s hat + crossed cannons and cannonballs treatment of this fellow (below).
Most of the big cemetery obelisks are pretty plain. Shaped like mini-Washington Monuments, their whole thing is to be big and simple. But we love the detail on this one (above) where a stonemason has carved an incredibly intricate fantasy machine full of gears, engine belts, flywheels, an anvil, tools–you name it. Its an abstracted imagination of what a fully-mechanical factory might look like. It probably bears little resemblance to real life (even the real life of a hundred years ago) and more to the satire of Chaplin’s Modern Times vision of innovation-run-amok.
Orbit whisperer Paul Schifino pointed this one out to us, and we’re glad he did. While including statuary of a young child isn’t all that rare (especially when the deceased died young), this one appears to be a bonus, add-on stone to a much more traditional marker. The bronze (?) head and bust was clearly handmade by an artisan and features the flat back of a piece that had previously been mounted … somewhere else. Who’s the kid? Where did he come from? We don’t know!
One of the holy grails for American taphophiles are the monuments created by the Woodmen of the World. That mysterious fraternal order/life insurance society provided stones carved to look like tree trunks with severed limbs for just a few decades at the turn of the 20th century.
The Wilkins family tree (above) is not one of these (at least, it doesn’t bear the WOTW insignia)–nor are there any in Allegheny Cemetery as far as we can tell. We have reached full-on obsession with finding some–heck, finding one. [Side note: if you know of any Woodmen of the World markers in greater Pittsburgh, please let us know and we’ll be on the road faster than you can say Dum Tacet Clamet.] Regardless, the Wilkins didn’t skimp when it came to ordering up this extra-large trunk with a dozen or so names carved into the severed limb stumps.
We love this pair of open book memorials. It would be interesting to know the title of a couple good books (above). History would suggest they’re probably two matching Bibles, but with all detail worn away, they could as easily be Lincoln in the Bardo and The Lovely Bones. Let’s hope it’s something good, because they’ll be here a while.
No mystery with this one, though. The square and compass insignia tells us a Freemason planted this stout stone dais with an open book and the two aforementioned tools acting as bookmark. Around the base (not pictured) is additional iconography–a Star of David, cross, etc.
Cemeteries–all cemeteries–are dominated by the color gray. Grave markers, large monuments, cenotaphs–they all live somewhere in the very limited spectrum of dirty white to not-quite black. It’s why the larger environment looks so great among the turning leaves of fall and against the green grass of spring; it’s why they look so stark within the equally monotone grays of winter.
Green also appears every once in a while in the stone itself. The Orbit doesn’t have a resident geologist/chemist, but our understanding is that this is the result of some mineral (copper, probably?) oxidizing over its decades exposed to the open air.
Many individual markers and statuary have streaks of iridescent green in their surfaces, but none moreso than the big memorial for George Hogg (above), which has completely mutated into a psychedelic light show of rich, emerald greens, electric neon blues, and washed-out pale cornflower.
A couple oddballs here. My Angel Lilla (above) is nothing special but for the way time and tide have created this weird distortion in the lid. Did some imperfection in the stone cause it to … melt? Does that really happen to rock?
What the artist of the salt and pepper shakers (below) was going for might have been more obvious when it was installed and the details were sharp, but by now it’s a total mystery. Are those columns? cannons? some kind of industrial product? And what is binding them–vines? rope? chains? Heck, we’ve got today’s writing prompt for you right here.
Generally the newer-style, glossy black headstones with etched-in details just look too shiny and too computer-generated for these old blogger’s eyes. But we love this view of ninth-ward Lawrenceville–the 40th Street Bridge and Heppenstall mill in the foreground, the chock-a-block row houses rising above–as seen from the top of the hill, across the river in Millvale. Maybe it’s just because we like the art better or because this was obviously a Lawrenceville (after-)lifer, but this speaks more about the person than all those clip art shovels and Steelers emblems and musical notes we see on its sister stones.
Bailey Balken went rouge when s/he went out (above). Not afraid to mix media or typefaces, Balken’s marker includes a pair of flat marble stones inside a brass plaque laid atop a just-a-size-larger granite slab. That alone won’t get you in the Orbit scavenger hunt, but the volleyball-sized round rock inserted into the middle will. Looking like a rising loaf of rustic Italian bread, it’s unclear what Bailey was after … unless it was some kind of play on ball/Balken. Who knows?
We imagine Thomas Bowater (below) must have been an engineer, or a machinist, or something in that world. That seems the most likely explanation for including a rolling axle/cog/gear as the prominent feature in a gravestone that looks like it came right off the shop floor. This rock rolls.
These gates don’t really lead to nowhere–there’s actually a nice, circular plot back there–but the family clearly didn’t get the buy-in they were expecting from the rest of the crew, which left the space largely uninhabited. The result is a pristine little plateau with a great view across the river, down and over the rest of the cemetery, and up to Garfield–all with the ornate decorative blackened stone portico that says to the world you’re here–but we don’t know why.
One day this will all be over. With vaccines going into arms as we speak and new alternatives arriving from just-approved sources, it’s not that unrealistic to see a day in the near-ish future when we’ll be able to see friends again, to go out to theaters and rock-and-roll shows, to have the freedom to travel, throw a party, or just quaff a beverage at the tavern.
Along with this, it’s easy to predict “after times” celebratory events that ritualistically destroy the physical reminders of the year+ we’ve all lived in some level of coronavirus lockdown. Mass bonfires of face masks seem like the most obvious expression, but outworn sweatpants and pajamas, abandoned first novels and knitting projects are likely targets in the same group exorcism.
The collective scar on the nation’s forehead signifying the half a million (and counting) human lives lost will not be forgotten any time soon–nor should it. The shuttered storefronts of businesses of both the mom & pop and big box varieties will ultimately be rented to new merchants, but unswept sidewalks under For Lease signs will be with us for a while.
One of the most obvious visual elements of the coronavirus pandemic is the stencils applied to sidewalks, stickers on retail floors, and makeshift duct tape delineations to mark pedestrian traffic flow and spaced six-foot waiting points. These ubiquitous graphic additions to the landscape all popped up overnight early in the pandemic and then seemed frozen in time after this single application.
Despite the obvious advertisement for the incredible adhesive tenacity to survive a very snowy Pittsburgh winter, these markers are, by definition, temporary. When bars and restaurants are allowed to open at full capacity and mask orders are finally lifted, shop stewards will peel back the big round decals and scrape off the gaffer’s tape once and for all. [Pro tip: forget GameStop–invest in Goo Gone now!]
It is this moment when historians should be alert to these soon-to-disappear markers of a time we think we’ll never forget. Fear not: we will. Humans have famously lousy memory and we’re hardwired to move onto the next thing. Your author has been laughed-at for still using a five-year-old iPhone–you think this society is going to be thinking about six-foot distance markers in a few years? A new generation of Covid deniers will inevitably force the narrative that the whole thing was a collective fever dream. Heck, in ten years we’ll probably have no one left that can still bake sourdough bread.
When Orbit readers Alyssa Cammarata Chance and Michele Timon submitted photos of some of the big round floor decals we see all over, we first scoffed at these as “corporate coronavirus.” No, they’re neither as creative or interesting as original stencils, nor as randomly oddball as the tape directives. But with a little reflection and a whole lot more re-examination, they make for their own unique experience worth documenting. We’ve included the best of them here.
Special thanks to The Orbit’s co-executive assistant to the mailroom intern Lee Floyd for suggesting this fascinating topic.
If you’ve got some good photos of six-foot separator markers–or anything that speaks to the last year in lockdown–let us know and maybe we can include it in a follow-up story.
Last fall, we watched with disbelief as a tenant finally moved into the empty retail space at Penn & Main and opened its doors for business. That prime corner had sat unoccupied for at least two decades*, and El Sabor Latin Kitchen inexplicably added another Mexican restaurant to the same block as Los Cabos during a global pandemic. Let’s just say the whole thing was front page news at Chez Orbit. But when those big Penn Avenue windows came dressed in a decal with an original logo of the Pittsburgh skyline embedded in a hot pepper, well, let’s just say it made the last twenty of years of head-scratching make a lot more sense. The landlords were just looking for the right tenant all along.
Hot Pepper City: El Sabor, Bloomfield
The downtown Pittsburgh skyline–spiky towers at PPG Place, Highmark’s pointed angle, the big block of the USX (neé US Steel) tower, a couple of bridges if we’re lucky–just won’t be contained. Here it is, the Orbit‘s seventh trip down this particular road and we’ll no longer be foolish enough to think we’ve bagged them all. You get a new restaurant today and there will always still be an untapped pizzeria, plumber, real estate agency, or left-in-the-woods slate stencil art tomorrow.
It is a beautiful (and sunny!) day out there. Go out and find your own Pittsburgh skyline.
[Special thanks to Greg Lagrosa who is working the micro-beat of food trucks with the Pittsburgh skyline temporarily parked in Verona hard.]
Sandwich City. Pittsburgh Sandwich Society food truck, Verona [note: skyline made of *sandwiches*!] [photo: Greg Lagrosa]
Cheese City. Pops & Son Pizzeria, Brighton Heights [photo: Kristen Sarver]
Deli City. Shop’n’Save, Lawrenceville
All Day City. Alioto’s, Etna
Skyline stencil on piece of slate left under a mysterious Christmas tree along Emerald View Trail City. Mt. Washington
Pandemic Rainbow Heart City. Key Bank, Downtown
* There was a brief (like, maybe three months) period in the mid-oughts when someone had set up the space for phone-banking or telemarketing or something involving folding tables and cheap landlines–this hardly counts.
Wild hair. Crosswalk mural at Sedgwick Street and Grant Ave., Millvale
While no one wants to be a doormat, we might all wistfully hope to be a crosswalk. At least, we would if we were rendered this lovingly.
Standing on the corner, the woman in the street is quite the vision. With a plain face and porcelain skin, she is more antique doll than real flesh and blood. It is her hair, though–a psychedelic swirl of curled pinks, mauves, and orange locks spread out across a technicolor rainbow backdrop–that gets the well-deserved focus here.
The mural is painted across Sedgwick Street, in Millvale. It is one of a couple dozen similar murals painted last summer directly on top of existing crosswalks in the borough’s great little downtown business district. We don’t know who the individual painters are [artists: please get in touch so we can credit you!] but various reports have the murals loosely associated with the group that puts on the annual Millvale Music Festival. That free weekend turn-every-business-into-a-music-venue hootenanny, along with everything else, just couldn’t happen last year.
Something fishy (Grant & Sherman)
BIG free library (Grant & Sheridan)
While the show wasn’t able to go on, Millvale’s civic spirit continued unabated. The murals are 100% focused on the community, with almost all of them containing unnamed but sly references to the small businesses that exist in the immediate proximity.
There are a pair of collections of disembodied haircuts near Shear Timing and Salon 22; a lineup of dancing tacos, hot peppers, and salsas by Baby Loves Tacos’ North Ave. location; a firehose dowsing a raging flame in front of the fire department. A row of books is just down from the public library; stacks of Pamela’s glorious crepe-like pancakes at the P&G Diner; happy kids and chocolate bunnies by Yetter’s Candy Shop.
As waistline-watching, model-building, music fiends, we’re wondering how Jean-Marc’s French bakery, Esther’s Hobby Shop, and The Attic Record Store slipped through cracks here, but perhaps those are all in the works for this coming summer.
Curl up and dye (details) (Grant & Sedgwick; North & Lincoln)
Firehouse (Lincoln & Sedgwick)
At present, Millvale’s downtown community is at a real high point of healthy livability. Its storefronts are occupied with businesses from the mundane to the sublime: there are a couple fancy things, a lot of nice-to-haves, and plenty of nuts-and-bolts. Those of us looking at (and regularly walking across the bridge to) Millvale from across the river in Lawrenceville can tell you all about the slippery slope from this zenith of sensible sustainability to drowning in condos, Thai rolled ice cream, and weekend partiers arriving by the Uber-load.
The crosswalk murals that celebrate Millvale’s community point all this out beautifully, without ever needing to rub your face in it. This little borough with its candy shops and laundromat, diners, dive bars, and videotape rental, church-turned-concert hall and ex-Moose Lodge to trattoria Sprezzatura, has so much to offer right now–even in the depths of Covid-induced ghost towns everywhere–that we should appreciate what we’ve got and how we can keep it just like it is.
Gateway to Millvale (North Ave.)
Happy kids! Beer-making icons! (Grant & Sedgwick; Grant & Sherman)
Long in the shadow of her uphill, Mary-loving sister neighborhood, Lawrenceville may be seen as but an also-ran in the adoration of The Blessed Virgin. Bloomfield has such an overabundance of public Marys that we’ve reported on it not once, but on two separate occasions–and are well aware we’re still missing so many quality Marys in the tiny backyards we’ve not (yet!) been invited into. [A note to those with secret/hidden Marys, wanting a portrait: call me!]
In Lawrenceville, the Mary-obsessed blogger must put away the soft shoes and put on the gum shoes as locating The Mother of All Mothers is more back-alley, debatably-sleazy, detective work than the more casual sidewalk tourism one enjoys in other locales. Mary is well-acquainted with the ‘Ville–and in no small number, mind you–but is usually only found in repose. She peeps shyly from street-facing windows, prays in flower pots, and takes cover in backyard grottoes. She’s coyly turned-away among the bric-a-brac of an overloaded front porch and (almost!) out-of-view but for a neck stretched over fences and hedges. In one case, a tiny Mary stands guard over a grave marker at, yes, St. Mary Cemetery.
To Mary with her arms outstretched and forgiving, a kindly face welcoming to all in her presence, we salute you! We’ve all had a rough year and can use your grace now more than ever.
A note on the photographs: Pittsburgh Orbit takes pride in its quality of image, but the necessity of observing our neighbors’ private spaces and therefore zooming in–often from great distance–resulted in a number of grainy, not-ideally-composed photos. Hopefully, however, this fact adds evidence to the narrative that searching out Marys in Lawrenceville is no easy task.
Jean-Claude Van Damme, Pittsburgh fire marshal. What could go wrong?
By Matty B.
The city of Pittsburgh’s acting resume isn’t terribly long, but it is memorable. Best known for character roles, the Steel City portrays a backdrop of industrial grit to Jennifer Beals’ welder-turned-dancer in Flashdance and lays out thrilling rivers and hillsides for Bruce Willis and Sarah Jessica Parker in Striking Distance. There is one other city-set film from the era that doesn’t quite carry the same name-brand recognition and didn’t generate a “Take Bigelow!”-like catchphrase, but should exist in everyone’s short list of iconic Pittsburgh movies.
Sudden Death isn’t just “Die Hard on ice.” No, the big-budget karate and terrorists, bombs and hockey action thriller caught the city of Pittsburgh on a post-Stanley Cup high with the Penguins back-to-back victories in 1991 and ‘92. It places the old Civic Arena (aka “The Igloo”) front and center as the playing-itself real-life home of the Penguins and an unlikely target for home-grown terrorism. Despite all this, Sudden Death rarely gets mentioned as a great action movie, let alone a great Pittsburgh one. Here, on its twenty-fifth-ish anniversary, we attempt to right that wrong.
Original film poster for “Sudden Death”
Sudden Death took Die Hard‘s guy-alone-against-terrorists action movie playbook and made it darker and French-Canadian … by-way-of the lower Hill. It was also the only “Die Hard in a [fill in the blank]” movie set in and around a sporting event. These films typically play out over the course of one day or one night, so the end is always finite. This makes the stakes that much higher.
The film also continued the trend of making the hero an unassuming, smalltime, meat-and-potatoes guy. In the opening scene, we learn that Frank McCord (Jean-Claude Van Damme) was once a Pittsburgh firefighter who failed to save a young girl from a wrenching blaze. Presumably, that’s why he’s been demoted to fire marshal at the Civic Arena.
One of the best shots in local movie history comes just a few minutes in. It features McCord walking to pick up his kids for Game 7 of the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals. McCord, now divorced, cautiously approaches his ex-wife’s house as he sees the step-dad and his son Tyler playing street hockey. The shot only lasts for a few seconds but it features Tyler shooting the puck on steep Fritz Street in the South Side slopes. The sun is beaming down on the city in the background, a slither of which can be seen in the shot, along with the churches and redbrick buildings of the South Side, below.
Pittsburgh at its Pittsburghiest: steep hills, rivers, bridges, and a kid playing street hockey. Scene from “Sudden Death.”
This scene’s refusal to “ooo-ahh” you is what makes it stick. You can tell it’s either late spring or early fall and includes a what’s-what of Pittsburgh scenery: hilly streets, bridges, and an eclectic mix of downtown skyscrapers. Aside from a few other establishing shots, Pittsburgh’s daylight coverage vanishes as game-time approaches and night takes over. Peter Hyams, who served as both director and cinematographer, lit the film’s few moments of light with such unpretentious flair that one can’t help but revel and soak it in.
Sudden Death saves its best lines for scene-stealing villain Joshua Foss (Powers Boothe), a bitter ex-CIA officer-turned-mercenary who’s out for revenge against the country he allegedly sacrificed so much for. He too, like many other ’90s action foes, was a disgruntled, home-grown foot soldier gone rogue. Like McCord’s break with the fire department and his inexplicable Belgian-French accent, Hyams spares viewers from any pesky character development so we never actually learn what went south between Foss and the government he feels wronged by.
Revenge is a dish best served … ON ICE! Powers Boothe as mysterious villain Joshua Foss
Most of McCord’s screen time is spent on the periphery of the action, lingering among pipes, maintenance rooms, and power generators of the Civic Arena. In a matter of hours, McCord wills himself to become a bomb-disarming expert, seeking out explosives distributed throughout the arena. Peter Hyams was shrewd enough to let “the muscles from Brussels” focus on his dexterous ability to kick ass, but McCord finds enough spare time to speak French with former Penguin and (future) Hall-of-Famer Luc Robitaille.
The action in Sudden Death comes at the viewer fast, hard, and absurdly dressed as Iceburgh, the Penguins mascot. There are preposterously over-the-top situations that call for Van Damme suiting up as goalkeeper for the Penguins, zip-lining through the arena, crashing through plate glass, deploying both deep fryer and commercial dishwasher as tools of self-defense, and finally–inevitably–up through the old Civic Arena’s retractable roof to a bazookas-and-helicopters finale that will have the explosions-and-smoke teenager in you hoisting your fists in the air.
Van Damme v. Iceburgh
Perhaps more implausible than some of the fight scenes is the fact that Sudden Death was conceived as a story by Karen Elise Baldwin, the daughter of then-Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, who was a producer of the film. It is wild to realize the owner of a major professional sports franchise championed a film that involves terrorists taking hostages in the middle of a Stanley Cup Final game, where the city’s mayor perishes, and his own team’s mascot is basically beheaded. The history of originally-scripted action movies by women has a short history in Hollywood but this is one hell of a film to have your name attached to.
Original “Sudden Death” story author Karen Elise Baldwin with the Oscar she *should have* won
“I was an actress and then I started writing and producing. We had the Penguins, we had access to the Civic Arena, and the building was unique in that the roof opened up,” said Ms. Baldwin in Sports Illustrated’s oral history of the film in 2015. She was right: Civic Arena was singular for its of-another-era, simple design and retractable roof. Hyams thought there was no way to pull off directing this film in the Arena until he realized the story was concocted by the owner’s daughter–then it was game on.
Likely capitalizing on JCVD’s Street Fighter prowess from the year before, Sudden Death was a modest box office success and a film whose long run of cable replays cemented its place, at worst, as a cult favorite. As if having a high-octane sport set among a brigade of bomb-setting terrorists wasn’t enough, the game does eventually head to sudden death overtime. The Jumbotron reads as such in big bold letters for several seconds. The cinematic angles Hyams captures early in the film and the circling police helicopters that swivel their way over the arena and downtown expertly set the stage for what a hockey night in Pittsburgh actually feels like. Though the game itself, in the movie, feels secondary to what takes place on the margins, casting real-life Penguins broadcasting duo Mike Lange and Paul Steigerwald as themselves was a thing of beauty. Lange’s archetypal “Scratch my back with a hacksaw” and “call Arnold Slick from Turtle Creek” catchphrases are sprinkled throughout.
90 minutes until face-off, but the ass-kicking starts *now*. The old Civic Arena. Sigh.
I feel proud knowing that Jean-Claude Van Damme’s last great movie was made in Pittsburgh. Like the actor himself, Sudden Death has a propulsive energy and is centered around one of the things that makes Pittsburgh so special–its fanaticism for athletes in black and gold. Sudden Death, in its muscle-flexing eye-winking self-reflection, is the city’s most iconic. It’s small-time, blue collar, but full of big and brash ideas all at the same time. Even if JCVD’s accent gives off a man-from-somewhere else vibe, he stands tall, undaunted, unashamed, and ever surprising as the underdog ready to be a hero.
Matty B. is a self-described “lawyer, Alanis Morrissette enthusiast, avid card player, East End Pittsburgh native, and cinephile/writer whose work can be found at TheThirdTake.com.”
Three wise men AND Three Stooges. Full-on residential nativity scene, Ross Township.
We’re not too proud to admit it: we’ve got a crush on the crèche, make major maneuvers for the manger, and take any opportunity to go nativity when the opportunity arises. That occasion presents itself early, often, and with no remorse on any trip around Bethle…ahem–metro Pittsburgh.
‘Tis the season for plastic lawn decor, strings of dollar store lights, and more baby Jesuses than you’d think a monotheistic society would care to advertise–but that’s what we do. For the atheist, it’s a weird internal conflict–I don’t believe any of this hokum, but man do I love it. If only this country had more wise men, myrrh out the yin-yang, a livestock petting zoo by every newborn and a kneeling camel in every cul-de-sac. Heck, we can dare to dream.
Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and a spine-tingling Krampus to all and may The Orbit‘s diaspora have the good frankincense to stay safe until Santa can hook us up with the vaccine.
Cinderblock crèche, Polish Hill
Wait…where’s the kid? Millvale *
Forget the frankincense and myrrh, who brought the 24″ Weber? Monessen
Major manger, Reserve Township [Note: bonus cracked Mary!]
Three wise men, two nutcrackers, AND Troy Polamalu (+ “A Christmas Story” sexy leg lamp!), Reserve Township
White Christmas, Lawrenceville
Christmas behind bars, Lawrenceville
Row house crèche, Lawrenceville
That’s not the baby Jesus! Marshall-Shadeland
O Hummel town of Bethlehem, Merante’s Gifts, Bloomfield
Diamond Wire Spring, Ross Township
Cement circle crèche, Glassport
Front porch crèche, Lawrenceville
* Orbit Instagram user @danko_pgh explains this as “The Baby Jesus figure should never be displayed until very late on Christmas Eve.” That certainly makes sense once’d you think about it, but clearly isn’t followed universally.