The Sad Toys of Homewood’s “Killing Fields”

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

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

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


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

The Ways and Means Committee

Banner Way

Banner Way

Kirsten Ervin files her second story for Pittsburgh Orbit, inaugurating what we hope will be a new series on Pittsburgh’s alleys. The Ways and Means Committee is called to order!

I came home one day to find DEA agents and men in white coveralls in the alley behind our house, carting out garbage bags bursting with kind bud. The biggest indoor marijuana grow lab in Pittsburgh was discovered in a second-floor loft on Urbana Way two years ago. The stench permeated our own house. I smelled like the inside of a bong for the rest of the day, having some awkward explaining to do at business meetings.

ivy-covered 5-story brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Banner Way

Over the 16 years we’ve lived in Lawrenceville, a lot has happened on Urbana Way. We had a most colorful neighbor living behind us–a self-professed DJ, artist, soap maker, “creative genius”, etc. who went by MC Strawberrie Cream. Mostly she was really good at yelling at whatever boyfriend she was living with at the time. That, and terrorizing the neighborhood with late night playlists of piercing club music, so loud it made conversation difficult. She had electric orange hair and a permanent scowl. Her apartment was on the second story of an older industrial building, with a wide double door and a pulley. There was a dumpster below. Whatever went in that dumpster, or was left in the alley, was gone within minutes, Strawberrie Cream having hoisted it up into her apartment with its electric winch. One time we caught her sitting on top of a heap of trash in the dumpster drinking a beer, her skirt splayed out, picking through the contents.

Blackberry Way, Pittsburgh, PA

Blackberry Way

I am fascinated by the alleys of Pittsburgh and have recently gone exploring the other “Ways” in Lawrenceville, of which there are many. Most have very pleasing names: Blackberry Way, Umpire Way, Plum Way, Eden Way, Antwerp Way. They read like poetry. I wonder how they were named. They have street signs but aren’t streets. They intrigue me, beckoning like secrets. Here are the backs of houses, the backs of yards, the less traveled, the ultimate locals-only. Alleys are not meant to be seen, just as the back of an elaborate embroidery is not meant to be examined. But, in turning it over to reveal the hidden stitching, one meets with a fascinating haphazard tapestry. It’s not pretty, but this is where the work happens.

old Chevrolet truck, Pittsburgh, PA

Locarna Way

Likewise, the tiny backyards and fences of the alleyways reveal a lot about how we live, pretty or not. This is where we relax with a beer on a summer night, wash our cars, run through the sprinkler, take out the garbage. Our gardens, cars, grills, toys, and castoffs compete for space in the postage stamp existence of outdoor city life. Here is where the carefully-manicured green patch abuts the yard overrun with weeds and an old refrigerator. Kiddy pools, fire escapes, peeling paint, and barking dogs lean toward each other. It’s the juxtaposition of the junkyard and the sublime.

Banner Way

Banner Way

This is also where Pittsburgh reveals its industrial, immigrant past. Many of the ways are paved with cobblestone and brick, dotted with the breezeways of an ancient European village. Unassuming buildings lift up their back curtains to make way for deliveries and storage. Heavy equipment moves here.

Plum Way

Plum Way

While drinking in the random and accidental beauty of the alleyways, I come across the freshly appointed and carefully streamlined undersides of newer, fancier developments. These are stripped of any secrets or stories–pretty, but so bland as to be indistinct from one another. This is my worry for Lawrenceville, for Pittsburgh. It’s not the money or the so-called sophistication of new transplants that I am worried about. It is the whitewash of what is already here, the antiseptic cleansing of history, and the rejection of the underside of things–the masking of who we are and how we live.

Cotton Way

Cotton Way

All photos and text by Kirsten Ervin.