Live, Worship, Eye-Pop: In Bellevue, Anonymous Welcome Art

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue’s *other* welcome sign, Ohio River Boulevard

A quick blast of psychedelic color might be all you get. From the corner of the eye, a riot of blue and purple swirls, orange and yellow stripes, irregular, jagged boxes. Maybe you don’t see it at all, but just sense something alien and alive at the side of the road. Blink and you’ll miss it, the tired phrase goes–but it’s absolutely true in this case.

Bellevue. The old, down-river trolley suburb prides itself on its community, faith, and bargain retail. So much so, the borough’s most salient feature is a giant, glowing, boomerang modern entrance sign proudly announcing these civic strengths.

So it was no small surprise to discover Bellevue’s other, more humble, and completely anonymous welcome marker.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue welcome art [detail]: windmill, church, apartments

The piece appears to be entirely created from recycled parts. A section of fencing forms the supporting backdrop. It is painted like an impressionist aurora borealis the good citizens of Bellevue are unlikely to witness in real life. Attached to the wooden slats are a haphazard collection of scrap wood, snipped tin, and other assorted bits and bobs. Some have been spray painted through crude stencils; others are just rough, raw lumber.

It’s loose, for sure, but there’s no mistaking the composition as a street-level view of a small town. The specifics are really up to the beholder, but it’s safe to say the artwork could easily represent Lincoln Avenue, Bellevue’s main street, just a couple blocks up the hill.

The town’s live / worship / shop principles are represented in multi-story apartment buildings, a pair of cross-and-steeple churches–even a taco shop. A factory-looking structure, well off the main drag, down by the river, might be ALCOSAN. I don’t know that Bellevue actually has a windmill, but there’s one of those here, too.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Bellevue welcome art [detail]: apartment buildings, taco shop, church

Heading outbound/westward on Ohio River Boulevard, one leaves the city as s/he crosses the little unnamed bridge over Jack’s Run. Within the length of a couple blocks, the Bellevue sprawl–a collection of fast food joints, no-tell motels, and oddball old-school holdouts–comes into view.

It is exactly at this point–when one is least expecting it, but perhaps most in need of it–where the colorful blitz of this alternate, wordless Welcome to Bellevue flashes by through the passenger-side window. I’m telling you now: you might encounter it this way–but you won’t actually experience it at 40 miles an hour.

Park the car. Better yet, get to it Orbit style: it’s a terrific, easy bicycle ride from anywhere in Pittsburgh. [Just don’t try to ride on the highway!] Get up close, sit on a stump, and let the passing big rigs rustle your hair, Bellevue-style.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

Water’s edge: ALCOSAN possibly?

There’s no information provided with Bellevue’s welcome art, no signature to decipher on the back. It exists on an improbable tiny dirt lot right along busy Rt. 65. So we don’t know who created and placed the artwork or what the motivation was. It’s unlikely borough elders would commission something this folksy–and they’d probably have installed it in a more central spot if they had–but that’s just a guess.

So here, in a total void of facts, is where we lean on pure speculation. It feels very much like the work of someone who just loves his or her borough. Enough to take the time to create a heavy, wall-sized tribute to the town, truck it down to a miniature vacant lot, and hoist the piece up on a set of tree stumps for passing motorists to glimpse as they whiz by.

colorful public art piece of town made with scrap wood, Bellevue, PA

In context: Bellevue’s welcome art along Ohio River Boulevard

The artist may want to supply townsfolk with a pleasant image as they arrive home from work in the city. Perhaps it was actually a commissioned job from the owner of one of the nearby houses or businesses. Maybe someone just had a spousal ultimatum to get the damn thing off the porch.

Regardless, we like to think the artist was hoping some visitor might actually slow down and take a deeper look–maybe even bicycle all the way out just to see it. It’s not every day you run across a terrific little public objet d’art installed in a dirt lot next to Discount Tire Center, but it should be, and it can be. That is, if you take the time to live, worship, and/or eye-pop in Bellevue.

Mr. Fix-it: Don Polito

Don Polito at workbench

Every couple months I need a fix and I head to Bellevue to see my guy.  No!  Nothing like that, I’m talking about mysterious hums and dropping volume, waning vacuum tubes and blown capacitors. Maintaining old guitar amplifiers is like having teenagers (I hear), or driving a Peugeot (ditto); I love them, but they cause me so much suffering!  Luckily, I know somebody who can hook me up.

Phil’s TV-Radio Service sits in an unassuming building on an otherwise residential side street in Bellevue.  In the big front room, crowded by the incoming patients, oscilloscopes, tube testers, frequency analyzers, repair manuals, and spare parts works Mr. Fix-it: Don Polito.

Phil's TV-Radio Service exterior

Phil’s TV-Radio Service, Bellevue

Don’s father (the eponymous Phil) opened the shop in 1954 and Don has been repairing electric gadgets since 1964. Stepping inside the shop, one sees the breadth of his domain: old console radios, turntables, amplifiers, televisions, compact disc players, boomboxes, and, occasionally, Don’s favorite thing to fix, organs.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen toasters, blenders, and microwave ovens there too, but don’t quote me on that.

The shop is decorated with a treasure trove of old signed photographs, marketing materials for long-gone manufacturers, stray speakers and cables, and terrific hand-made signs for Don’s old engagements on “eminent organ”, solo and with The Velvetones.

Handmade posters advertising Don Polito's organ engagements

Posters from Don’s organ gigs, with and without The Velvetones

On my most recent visit, dropping off a sick Fender Twin Reverb, Don was fighting with a 1980s-era Zenith integrated stereo/turntable/tape deck whose spindle was failing and had developed an ugly buzz in the cartridge.  He wasted no time putting this loitering blogger to work, me holding the turntable platter up to the light while he figured out how to reconnect the spindle to the retraction mechanism.  The problem neatly solved, he moved on to the cartridge, tapping its housing with a screwdriver, searching for the cause of the noise, focused like a surgeon, listening for changes in the hiss for clues to the problem.

Handmade crystal radio with decorations

Uncle Sam Radio, crystal radio made by Don’s father

A couple years back, I had just seen Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie (a great documentary film on the early mechanical/tape-based sampling keyboard) and I brought up Mellotrons the next time I was in the shop.  Don stopped what he was doing, his eyes lit up, and he reeled off some great stories about an array of pre-electronics: reverb units in open canisters of oil, keeping units at the right temperature, etc.

I would tell you to stop by and give Don your business if you had anything in need of repair, but when I suggested it Don explicitly told me “No–I don’t need any more business!”  So don’t do that.  But if you want to drop by and talk organs (human or musical), I’m sure Don would love to chat.

Assorted vacuum tubes in boxes