Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way

Steps to Nowhere: The Thomasson of Essex Way, Bloomfield

Well, it took long enough–three years and change.

It was that long ago, in this same electronic publication, where the author declared, “To Pittsburgh’s other Thomassons, hang in there: we’re coming for you!” (“A Thomasson!” Pittsburgh Orbit, March 16, 2016)

Rabid fans of architectural effluvia have been sitting on their hands for years now, waiting for a promised revival, but was the wait ever worth it! It’s not every day that a beaut’ like this comes along.

Five short steps form a poured concrete stoop along the alley side of a Bloomfield row house. They lead to a blank wall. The base has been freshly repainted in a deep slate blue with its risers and wooden railing accented in alternating colors of red, mauve, aqua green, yellow, orange, and a couple shades of blue. The whole construction pops from the otherwise nondescript off-white siding.

We’ll not go into the whole thing here, but a “Thomasson” is an artist-created name for an architectural or infrastructure relic that no longer serves any purpose but is still actively maintained. It’s that second clause that makes them so rare.

While Webster Hall’s former retail entrance (see the earlier story) is totally legit, it never felt quite right. The remaining two-step platform makes a pretty obvious nice long bench along the Fifth Avenue sidewalk bookended by a pair of planters. One could argue this is less Thomasson and more adaptive reuse. In reality, no one ever sits there; theoretically a person could.

In contrast, the Bloomfield side steps-to-nowhere are really textbook Thomasson. They clearly led to a door that’s no longer there, boxed in by after-market aluminum siding in a serious home renovation project. It’s expensive and/or labor-intensive to jackhammer out all that concrete–not to mention there’s a possible structural hazard for the home’s foundation. So one can imagine the very reasonable desire to just leave it be.

But by preserving the useless handrails and taking up the paint brush–in eight different colors, no less–the homeowners are working at some next-level Thomasson generation. It’s an oddball curio, discussion topic, and detour destination for a backstreet Bloomfield gambol.

Someone made the effort to redd up their Thomasson. We’re glad they did.

Going Postal: The Cap Man Returneth

Cap Man #13, East Liberty

It’s all there: the non-plussed selfie stare, the upturned ball cap, the all-contrast Sharpie-on-postal label execution. Super fans already know where this is going, but for everyone else, these are the tell-tale traits and hallmark style of one of the city’s more mysterious and elusive serial street artists.

Cap Man #14, Friendship [photo: Lee Floyd]

When last we reported on the mysterious Cap Man, in the fall of 2017, it was with the strong accusation that “he’s likely left Pittsburgh entirely.” That may have been true–the backsides of the East End’s street signage and utility poles remained remarkably free of the behatted one’s visage through all of last year.

Well, he’s back, emerging some time in the late winter/early spring–slapping his little original sticker artworks on city infrastructure throughout a contiguous swath of East Liberty, Friendship, and Bloomfield. And this time…well, he’s fooling around just as much as he ever did.

Cap Man #15, Bloomfield

One of the assumptions made in prior stories was that Cap Man (the artist) was the author of both the Cap Man (the subject) (self) portraits and the similarly-styled “rogue’s gallery” drawings of (in)famous celebrities, media notables, and true crime figures.

This theory is only bolstered by the simultaneous re-emergence of these types of drawings, inevitably committed by the same hand and distributed within the same vicinity as the Cap Man portraits. This time around, we can only positively ID slain rapper The Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie Smalls, who arrived on a Bloomfield utility pole some time in the late winter or early spring. The recent offerings also include a dripping skull, a message of peace and love, and a couple renditions of one “Fro Bro.”

The Mysterious C.A.P. meets The Notorious B.I.G., Bloomfield

Bloomfield

Peace, Love, and a bunch of other stuff, Bloomfield

Fro Bro 1, East Liberty

Fro Bro 2, East Liberty

Finally, a legit street art miracle. Co-assistant to the mail room intern Lee Floyd spotted this loose, perhaps unfinished, drawing of a young woman on a Liberty Ave. pole after we’d snuck in one last Lenten fish fry on Good Friday. (See below.)

The figure’s head is turned to the right, her long hair unruly and wind-blown across her face. One eye is obscured, but the other stares with steely unease right back at you. It ain’t the Mona Lisa, but as much could be supposed on that head position, that glare as anything people read into Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

unknown woman, Bloomfield [photo: Lee Floyd]

So, imagine our surprise when mere days later the crew is on a rainy day stroll down Baum Blvd.–nearly a mile from the original light pole–and there she is again. Divorced from the steel pole and lying on a soaking wet sidewalk is … the same woman! Not just the same subject, but the same drawing!

unknown woman, East Liberty [photo: Lee Floyd]

Now, how that sticker came off one light pole completely undamaged and worked it’s way a mile down the road just to find the only two pair of people in the world who would care about it is something we have no explanation for–but it’s a doggone miracle!

If that’s not enough positive juju, coincidental mojo, and lightening striking twice for you, I don’t know what is. Most people have to steal their parent’s HBO password to get that kind of drama, but Cap Man is offering it to you for free, right here on the street.


Background on the continuing saga of Cap Man:

Row House Romance: Christmas Window Roundup

window decorated with many winter scene buildings, Pittsburgh, PA

winter scene diorama, Lawrenceville

Keep on truckin’. The ’60s-era catch phrase of hippie can-do optimism was popularized by R. Crumb’s iconic cartoon of an easy-striding, big-shoed dude. Here, a sticker that’s appropriated both the slogan and image decorates the side panel of a model 18-wheeler. The little big rig has been put on display in a street-level front window of an Upper Lawrenceville row house.

Though it doesn’t explicitly say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, with a backdrop of picturesque snow-covered small town buildings, circled by carolers and snow people, colored lights and a tiny train, it’s impossible not to read the truck’s red cab as a modern update to Santa’s sleigh–those 400 horses a well-deserved upgrade to yesteryear’s eight tiny reindeer. Forget that other Snowman, if anyone’s got a long way to go and a short time to get there, it’s Ol’ Saint Nick on his yearly delivery run.

detail of winter scene including "Keep on Trucking" 18-wheeler, Pittsburgh, PA

Keep on Trucking (sic.): winter scene diorama (detail), Lawrenceville

Christmas. For some, as the song goes, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year” full of decadent–if generally wholesome–holiday parties, comforting tradition, and good cheer. To others, Christmas is a loathsome six weeks of commercialized sentimentality, forced mirth, obligation, and disappointment.

Here at The Orbit, we fall somewhere in the middle. I’ll admit it: I like the smell of a real spruce tree and the warm glow of colored lights; time off to do jigsaw puzzles, visit with friends, and sleep late; the collective goofiness of stuffed antlers added to minivan rooftops, white elephant gift exchanges, and a full movie house crowd gleefully roaring at Hans Gruber’s entrance in Die Hard.

But then there’s the dark side. The first time those jing-jing-jingling tunes preempt Casey Kasem on oldies radio–absurdly starting before Thanksgiving–it invokes such crushing, foreboding dread that it makes the whole holiday almost not worth it. Almost.

cat sitting in window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

candles, snowflake, attack cat, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

winking Santa, Lawrenceville

Love it or hate it, Christmas 2018 is over. But you wouldn’t know that from the residential streets in Lawrenceville. Say what you want about the neighborhood’s gentrification, but the Christmas display scene was (and still is) earnest and ample. Walk down any block and it can feel like every other house has got something up for the holiday: garlands on stoop railings, Santas on the front steps, and–most of all–decorations in the big front street-facing windows.

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Santa and Mrs. Claus, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

two Santas, Bloomfield

When you live in a row house–and I’m speaking from a couple decades of experience here–you get used to people looking directly into your life. It’s not weird or creepy or nebby–pedestrians and neighbors just can’t help but look in when the sidewalk is mere feet–often inches–from the front of the house.

That so many people end up using their street-facing windows as makeshift display cases for curated collections of figurines and little artworks, sports fandom and tchotchkes is perhaps something we could expect. But when our friends and neighbors orient their collections outward–specifically for the enjoyment of the world passing by on the sidewalk–well, that’s a beautiful thing and one that should not be taken idly. [Side note: Kirsten Ervin wrote a whole piece on this subject for Pittsburgh Orbit back in 2015.]

Krampus holiday decorations in row house window, Pittsburgh, PA

Gruss vom Krampus! Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

carolers, Troy Hill

One of the great pleasures of a daily constitutional around the neighborhood is getting to watch these window displays grow and evolve, get put away for the year and replaced in anticipation of the next turn of the calendar. Soon enough, the cotton-laden carolers and dangling snowflakes will be packed away to make room for Valentine’s Day hearts, St. Patrick’s clovers, Easter eggs and bunnies.

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow owl, Bloomfield

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow scene vignette, Bloomfield

If it’s not obvious, we went a little nutso with the Christmas window shopping this year–and, believe me, there are plenty more where these came from. This weekend is likely your last decent chance to catch any of these until the next Christmas season begins. Get out and walk around, take in what you can.

Anyway, Merry Christmas! (again)

windows decorated with Christmas stockings, Pittsburgh, PA

teddy bear stockings, Lawrenceville

window decorated with snow people and Christmas wreath, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people window, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people, wreath, and candles, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

deflated snow person, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

hot pink snow, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

candy canes, snow flakes, wreath, and candles, Lawrenceville

bay window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas’ greatest hits, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

manger scene, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas stickers, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

bells, candles, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Claus family, Lawrenceville

bay window decorated with Christmas dolls, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas automatons, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Santa window, Bloomfield

Row House Romance: Double the Fun OR Twins Gone Wild!

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Identical twins, born of the same womb. The exact face, height, and profile. Some are from the side-streets–tough, working-class, gritty, without pretension. Others, their high-brow peers; raised mere blocks away, but praised for their natural beauty, elegant stature, and enviable position in life. To the former, these may as well have been from the moon.

No matter how much each pair of siblings may appear as perfect duplicates at birth, time has a way of imprinting itself on every living creature in radically different ways: an unwise tattoo or regrettable fashion choice, the scar from a near-death collision or the catastrophe of an ugly divorce. Given a hundred and twenty years or so, a lot can happen.

pair of brick row houses painted aqua blue and olive green, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

matched pair of row houses painted red and pink, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of matching row houses with many exterior alterations, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Consider the humble row house. Two up, two down; squat stoop; a single shared chimney stack; window-window, window-door. Some are boxy and flat-topped, but most have clean, peaked roofs–almost always with a dormer inserted right in the middle.

For the most part, Pittsburgh wasn’t built with the kind of block-long identical row houses you see filling entire neighborhoods of Baltimore or Philadelphia. More often, we ended up with pairs–mirror-image houses sharing a common wall. So much so, Pittsburgh has its own term for duplex: double house. Sometimes these twins are built into long blocks of other row houses in various designs; often, thin walkways separate the next-door neighbors.

exterior of brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

pair of row houses with very different exteriors, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

What’s so interesting about these–and perhaps all–twins is the divergent paths their lives inevitably take. Different paint jobs, added siding, fake stone and tile. Historical markers: windows cut down during the energy crisis, consolidated into one central pane, or removed completely. Entire doorways bricked-over or made unusable by nonexistent steps.

In one house, a third-floor addition with an out-of-place mansard roof; another, a post-op porch rebuild–but only across half the façade. A set of tin-slatted awnings here, window boxes and gingerbread paint details there. An extant old-school TV aerial, never bothered to remove after cable was introduced in the ’80s.

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of mirror-image row houses with many cosmetic differences, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Imagined as life-long companions–and also inevitable rivals–the pairs take on their own personalities. These two dress alike–only he prefers hot red, she a cool aqua green. That one’s in the process of some cosmetic surgery; this one just broke his leg–that big cast will be on for a while. Another always has to outdo her sister–fancier clothes, more refined tastes, newer technology.

brick row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of brick row houses, both with many obvious alterations to brickwork and detail, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

… and then there are those that just kept doing their thing. Maybe she got some window awnings back in the ’60s and he added an air conditioner to cool the front bedroom; she enlarged the stoop, he stopped using the front door. But they basically stayed together, no one putting on any fancy airs, as one family unit.

These aren’t rare, but they’re more exception than rule. The ability to get along with one’s neighbors is crucial in a tight, city neighborhood–even more so in one of these conjoined, paired double houses. But if you do it right, you end up with a better price on a re-roof, full house paint job, or new aluminum siding.

side-by-side row houses with dingy aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

matched pair of row houses with fake brick siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of dilapidated row houses in Sharpsburg, PA

Sharpsburg

In these polarized times, a picture of neighbor-working-with-neighbor cooperation feels like the kind of rosy-eyed, optimism that’s been banished from the earth–but it hasn’t. It’s still here in the compressed side streets and awkward alley houses all over the city. All it takes to find it is a little row house romance.


A note to the Orbit’s readers in the Mexican War Streets, Spring Garden, Southside flats, Hill District, and all the other row house neighborhoods and boroughs: we’ve neither forgotten nor forsaken thou. This topic deep and wide and we intend to explore it over time. We’ll get to you.

Tin Can Pole Art, Part 2: A Date with Some Little Devils

tin can lid painted with sad devil and the words "She's gone", Pittsburgh, PA

Hell & Oates[1]: “She’s Gone”, Bloomfield

Farewell to all these smiling angels….I’ve got a date with some little devils.

That auspicious message, artfully paint-penned to the cut lid of a large-size steel can, is nailed to a wooden utility pole on South Aiken Ave. in Friendship. Immediately above it appears one half of another can lid, cocked upright, suggesting a single bunny ear–its mate either removed after-the-fact or just never made it to the pole the first time.

However nutty this inscription might seem, little devils are absolutely on the loose in the greater East End. And while pious Christians worry about getting right with God or facing Lucifer’s pitchfork in the keister for all eternity, the city’s devils clearly have their own concerns to stress over. Indeed, the red one appears on a couple different poles both broken-hearted and teary-eyed.

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“Farewell to all these smiling angels….I’ve got a date with some little devils,” Friendship

She’s gone were the only two words Messrs. Oates and Hall really needed as shorthand to heartbreak–that, and close falsetto harmony over a slinky Fender Rhodes groove. Here, the simple message is a clue to the devil’s distress (above).

A cat-like devil has an inverted pink heart for a nose and a topsy-turvy screwed-up mouth (below, top). Those sad eyes may say just as much with no words at all. There’s one more teary-eyed devil, this time with cupid’s arrows literally piercing his visible heart (below, middle).

steel can painted with sad devil and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

sad devil, Friendship

painting of devil with arrows piercing his chest, nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship [photo: Susan Peake]

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I try momma…”, Friendship

I try momma… implores a blue devil, rendered in stark silhouette and levitating an electric martini with one hand, the other raised in salutation (above). A different pole devil clutches the circle-A anarchy flag while waving to friends (below)–no doubt shopping for bargain Clancy’s chips at the nearby Aldi.

This same common imagery of devils, hearts, anarchy, and martini glasses showed up a couple times in our first story on tin can pole art earlier this year. These were clearly no coincidence as the themes get even more of a workout this time around.

metal can lid painted with devil holding anarchy flag nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

anarchy devil, Friendship

tin can lids painted and nailed to a utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“So lost … pray for me, I’m down,” Garfield

Somebody needs to get this guy into therapy! Or maybe we all just need to be better friends to the devils we know. Whatever it is, she’s gone and the plea to appease momma aren’t the only cries for help on the city’s telephone poles.

So lost…pray for me, Mom, I’m down reads a Garfield alley two-fer (above); the simple message Struggle, along with a fire-dancing, heart-balancing devil, turns up on a nice, rust patina’d single-color piece in Shadyside (below).

small painting of devil with heart on tin can nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Struggle, Shadyside [photo: Lee Floyd]

While that’s a lot of devils clinging to East End telephone poles, they’re far from the only specimens in this tin can pole art roundup. We also spotted a number of other pieces with the same stylistic DNA as the devil-doer dealt–we’re talking about the tell-tale cryptic calligraphy, hearts, flowers, martinis, and anarchy.

BUT…[yes, there’s always a big but] there are some outliers in the collection, too. We’ve seen the swirling, psychedelic television/VCR combo scrawled on all sorts of walls and dumpsters, as well as turned into back-of-sign decals. But this nice, two-color paint can lid outside The Glitterbox Theater (below) feels like a giant leap forward–even if the perpetrator still can’t get his or her mind off the TV.

tin can lid painted with TV and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

North Oakland

steel can with painting nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I try to stop…and smell the flowers (in life too),” East Liberty

steel can metal painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“My worst enemy has always been time, 2001,” Friendship

tin can lid painted with abstract face and nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Garfield

can lid painting of flower with crying face, Pittsburgh, PA

sad flower face, Bloomfield

tin can lid painted with the message "It's all I know", Pittsburgh, PA

“It’s all I know,” Bloomfield

tin can lid painted with indecipherable image and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside [photo: Lee Floyd]

tin can painted and nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside (partial) [photo: Lee Floyd]

While asking one’s mother for her prayers may or may not be common practice, doing so via painted kitchen tool on side-street telephone pole seems an especially unlikely way to share one’s feelings.

As if parenting weren’t difficult enough, kids are always coming up with new ways to communicate. First SnapChat, now GreatChee. “How’s our youth doing, honey?” We imagine a clueless Dad asking, “Why, not so good,” the response from Mom, “Haven’t you checked East Liberty for cheese graters?”

painted cheese grater nailed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

cheese grater pole art! “Mom – pray for me”, East Liberty

There are also a couple more of these giant, five-gallon driveway sealant drum lids, tagged-up and screwed-into poles/trees along Spring Hill city steps. The pair clearly begs for a deeper investigation of the neighborhood’s walkways as we’re guessing these aren’t the only two out there[2].

steel can lid painted and attached to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“I am home 16” / “free Rakan” / “R.I.P. Syzer”, Spring Hill

large metal can lid painted and nailed to a tree, Pittsburgh, PA

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Basin Street steps, Spring Garden/Troy Hill

Finally, a couple pieces that are absolutely metal and pole art, but don’t have their material origin in discarded soup cans. They’re a little off-topic, but we’re not going to sit on these waiting for a collection of stray non-tin can-but-still-metal pole art.

The triptych of embossed blank verse into sheet metal that hangs on a Harriet Street utility pole (below, top) gets high marks for its innovation in the genre, but the execution feels a little, you know, “smoke a little dope, skip a little rope”… but maybe this blogger just doesn’t get it, man.

Similarly, A boy from Frankford… (below, bottom) really feels like somebody who doesn’t know what he’s trying to do. Then again, I guess he says it right there: like anyone in the tin can pole art game, this “boy” is just trying to find his way.

metal sheets stamped with words and painted, nailed to utility pole in Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship

metal sheet painted, lettered, and screwed to utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“a boy from Frankford … trying to find his way,” Spring Hill

Thanks to Susan Peake for tipping us off to a number of the Friendship pieces and co-assistant cub reporter Lee Floyd for his work in Shadyside.


[1] Thank you, Chris Caldwell.
[2] Greater Spring Hill: if you spot more of these, let us know!

An Orbit Obit: The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern

mural for Frankowski family with people holding giant pierogie, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

It takes a village to raise a pierogi. Frankowski family coat-of-arms.

This one’s personal.

Over at Orbit headquarters, we wailed into the night over the loss of Chiodo’s–it with its dusty, historic underwear hanging from the ceiling and the Mystery Sandwich haunting our dreams. We took it easy with the Casio beats and flared collars of The Casual Approach (R.I.P.) who defied gravity every weekend at Dormont’s Suburban Lounge (also R.I.P.). Letter-writing campaigns begged our congressmen to turn The Chart Room into a national monument and there should have been so many more piano sing-a-longs at Moré. The days of dollar pints and four-bit “lady drafts” at bygone Lawrenceville watering holes like Michalski’s, A.J.’s, and Salak’s feel like ancient history–but it wasn’t actually that long ago.

The loss of these iconic, convivial, rowdy barrelhouses are all just eyewash to the earthquake that music-making/beer-drinking/pierogi-eating/squirt-gun-shooting Pittsburgh felt last week. The “Polish party house in the heart of Little Italy,” has bled the grease from its deep friers, removed the ceramic stein collection, carved wooden stage bear, and pictures of the pope. They’ve powered down the spotty PA system and shooed out the last late-night booze hounds. The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has closed forever.

gated front door for the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Closed forever, sigh.

[Cue: shimmering soft focus and a one-two polka beat.]

The year was 1996–some time in November. Arriving from The South with its still-turning mid-fall leaves and pleasant, temperate climate, Pittsburgh was soaking in several inches of days-old dirty street slush as a steady freezing rain dripped from the unrelenting overcast gray-black sky. Needless to say, this blogger-to-be had found a new home.

By pure chance–we’re talking pre-Internet tourism here–The Bloomfield Bridge Tavern was the very first place he spent a nickel. It was on a Polish Platter, and I’m pretty sure it still cost just $5.95 at the time. Carbs are pretty cheap in The South–but they don’t come with names like golabki and kluski. Although my middle-aged metabolism can’t demolish a plate like it used to, the food was as delicious just a few weeks ago as it was all the way back in the ’90s.

plate of Polish food including pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Oh, how I will miss you. The Polish Platter (“Red”): pierogi, kielbasa, golabki, haluski, and kluski

For the next, gulp, twenty-one years the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern has been the most long-running, consistent presence in this transplant’s Pittsburgh experience. The doctor only prescribes Polish Platters a couple times a year [yes, I know: find a new doctor!] but it’s been rare to go more than a couple months without receiving an audio-visual screening from BBT’s musical stage.

Typically, these are administered by local bands. [Full disclosure: the author is sometimes playing in one of them.] But despite BBT’s tiny size, cramped quarters, and DIY show-running [bands were responsible for collecting at the door, setting up the PA system, and running their own sound], the bar has played host to amazing run of touring players too numerous to list here.

Weird Paul Rock Band performing at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Weird Paul Rock Band at BBT, August, 2017

You think that’d be it, right? It’s a tavern: there’s beer, bar food, and weekend rock-and-roll–what else do you need? Well, you may not need much more, but the BBT plays into a legacy of Pittsburgh culture so deep we may take years–decades, even–to dig out from the loss.

Back in the day, then-city councilman Jim Ferlo held an annual Pittsburgh Marathon party in BBT’s side parking lot, complete with polka bands, a hot dog buffet, and cold beer. A highlight of the event was seeing exhausted runners, just hitting “the wall” at the marathon’s 23-mile point, veer straight off Liberty Avenue and plunge into the soft welcoming foam of a free Iron City Beer. Every local politician made it a point to stop by the BBT’s temporary parking lot stage to dole out cash “prizes” for things like “best dancer” and “cutest puppy”. Across the street, Foodland’s electronic weekly specials sign would be programmed to read the jingoist message Go runners. Beat Kenyans.

mural of Polish towns coats of arms painted on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish towns coats of arms, BBT parking lot

And then there are those murals. Dozens–maybe a hundred–different coats-of-arms of Polish towns you’ve probably never heard of. Crests with identifying names like Głowno, Szczecin, Gryfów Ślaski, and Żywiec ring the inside of BBT’s short concrete parking lot wall and come decorated in all manner of old world imagery–castles, bulls, red stags, and green griffins; kings, knights, mermaids, the sun & plow.

It’s gone now, but an earlier generation will forever associate the exterior of the bar with both the wonderful potted-flower Bloomfield mural/sign and [BBT founder/patriarch] Stan Frankowski’s wall-sized polemics attacking local politicians, anti-union foes, and corporate corruption. After Stan’s passing in 2005, his sons Steve and Karl took over the business. They kept up all the other traditions–including the annual day-after-Easter Dyngus Day party–but toned-down the see-it-from-the-suburbs politics. The updated red-and-white paint job, side screened porch/smoker’s lounge, and Polish falcons still look great.

coats of arms for Rodom and Radlin painted as murals on parking lot wall, Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

Coats-of-arms from Rodom and Radlin

I didn’t make it out to the final night at the BBT–the body just wouldn’t let me. Luckily, Mike Shanley gave us all a pretty good scene report plus a slew of his own reminiscences in this week’s City Paper.

That said, news began to circulate about the (then-future) closing of the bar back in the late winter, so 2017 became a kind-of year-long living goodbye to venue. I played a last show there, saw a (different) last show there, and yes, ate a last Polish Platter. For the piece on his recent book of poetry, we interviewed Scott Silsbe over Strawb ambers in BBT’s breezy side porch on a lovely day in May.

mirrored wall behind the bar and patrons at Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

BBT near the end: bevelled mirror bar, blood red ceiling, and big cats on TV.

As much as I’ll personally miss the place, I don’t fault the Frankowski brothers one bit for the decision to move on. Running a bar has got to be really tough work full of long, late hours dealing with no small amount of jerks, deadbeats, drunkards, and bodily fluids. Hats off to anyone who can put up with all that and still keep smiles on their faces the way Stan, Steve, Karl, and Sheila always did.

The Orbit certainly hopes the Frankowskis find a good new owner for the building and business so they can finally relax on the weekends without the sound of electric guitars ringing in their ears. Hopefully, the next tenants at 4412 Liberty Ave. will understand the legacy and history they’re dealing with–maybe they’ll even keep up the outside murals.

exterior of Bloomfield Bridge Tavern with Polish red and white flag and logo, Pittsburgh, PA

Hallowed ground. Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

A final note. “New” Pittsburgh: if you’re out there listening and planning the next local, organic, hop-infused culinary venture, please–sweet Jesus–consider adding a Polish Platter to the menu. I’m sure I won’t be the only one pining for the taste and willing to pony up every chance I get–at least as much as the doctor allows.

metal window cover painted with message "The worst form of failure is the failure to try.", Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, Pittsburgh, PA

A Football Team That Wanted Him: Johnny Unitas and the Bloomfield Rams

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field, Pittsburgh, PA

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field (neé Dean’s Field), Bloomfield. Johnny Unitas’ Bloomfield Rams practiced here in the 1950s.

Editor’s note: Back in April, we wrote a piece for our cross-continental sister blog The Portland Orbit[1]. In exchange, Orbit poobah David Craig offered to file a story for us during football season. Here you go.

by David Craig

When I think about Johnny Unitas, I think Colts football, his battle against Namath, and the Super Bowl victory that cemented his reputation. The Colts’ overtime victory in the ‘58 league championship is known as “the greatest game ever played” and helped pro football gain its immense popularity. I didn’t know he was born in Pittsburgh and was surprised to find out that he initially broke into the league when he was drafted–and then cut–by the Steelers.

book cover for "Pro Football Heroes" by Steve Gelman

Cover star Johnny Unitas perfects the hand off. “Pro Football Heroes” by Steve Gelman.

It was a 99 cent purchase made at a Goodwill Store that led to another Unitas discovery. How I came to own the book Pro Football Heroes by Steve Gelman escapes me, but the book opens with a chapter on Unitas describing the detour on his road to football glory after the Steelers released him in 1955:

“Convinced now that he couldn’t get into pro football until the next year, Johnny took a job as a pile driver on a construction gang. Meanwhile, to stay in shape for his next pro football tryout, he began playing with a semi-pro team, the Bloomfield Rams.”

From my knowledge of Pittsburgh I recognized this as a city neighborhood. Reading more confirmed this:

“The Rams played every Thursday night at the Arsenal Street School playground in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh.”[2]

Arsenal Middle School in Pittsburgh PA with a large green playing in front.

Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville. The Bloomfield Rams played their home games on this field. Now more grass than glass.

It intrigued me that Unitas began his storied career in Bloomfield before becoming “pro football’s last hero,” as Lou Sahadi called him in his book Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback. From an early age, Johnny lived for football. In Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas by Tom Callahan, Unitas’ mother talked about returning from the funeral home after his father died to find her then five-year old son throwing a football with friends. It seemed especially poignant that he sought comfort in the game after the loss of his father.

childhood home of Johnny Unitas, Pittsburgh, PA

Unitas family home, Mt. Washington

Unitas confided in a substitute teacher at school that he wanted to be a professional football player when he grew up. His sights were set on an athletic career but after failing the entrance exam to the University of Pittsburgh and being turned away from his hometown school, Unitas knew his professional chances would be nonexistent if he didn’t play in college. Another failed entrance exam found him starting his college career at the University of Louisville on academic probation. He did what he had to do to keep his dream alive.

Getting sacked by the Steelers was tough but he had been in a no-win situation. There were three other quarterbacks in camp that year, the most notable being Ted Marchibroda, who had better job prospects as a coach than a quarterback. Unitas was never able to show what he could do in preseason. Cut too late to join another team, he was forced to sit out a season and remained in Pittsburgh working construction to pay the bills.

At Steeler training camp, Unitas conducted a lesson in the “Hail Mary.”

When his old friend Fred Zangaro asked Johnny to join him on the Bloomfield Rams, Unitas had concerns about getting hurt. The team needed a quarterback but he didn’t want anything to get in the way of playing professionally. Unitas conceded, and played what he described as “sand-lot ball.” Explaining in a 1959 Look magazine article, “it was football and I was able to keep in practice.”

In the books by Callahan and Sahadi, the authors emphasized subpar playing conditions. The field was more dirt, rock and glass than grass and had to be sprayed with oil and water to keep the dust down. The equipment was ratty. Unitas had to search through piles of old gear to suit up. Players wore army boots instead of cleats. Unitas faced derision for being a college boy, a Steeler’s draftee and someone who dared dream of playing in the NFL. In his ebook The Best There Ever Was, Roland Lazenby describes a team, like Def Leppard, playing without a full set of limbs:

“…a roster loaded with steel-mill workers, many of them disabled. The offensive line alone featured just seven arms.”

Unitas in a rare Bloomfield Rams photo when he played both offense and defense. Courtesy Chuck “Bear” Rogers.

Later in the Look article, Unitas described an improvisational game plan that sounded like plays were diagrammed in the dirt as the team huddled.  “You had to take punishment,” was his simple description of the challenge of receiving pass protection from 140 pound linemen. Unitas led the Rams on an eight game winning streak and a conference championship. He experienced the satisfaction of winning–something that hadn’t happened much in his college years. The Bloomfield Rams offered him a sense of championship football he brought to his NFL career.

The Rams played in the Steel Bowl Conference against teams like the Pittsburgh Cubs, Arnold A.C., and the Nanty-Glo Blackhawks, along with teams from Shaler and McKeesport. The financial aspects of the league were small by today’s standards[3]. Unitas was paid $6 a game–money he was happy to turn over to his wife for groceries. By the end of the season, his winning ways earned him a pay bump of $15 a game. Opposing teams liked playing the Rams at Arsenal Field because the games there attracted crowds of anywhere from a few hundred to 1,000 people, each paying a $3 admission which meant a $500 pay out. After expenses, Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers had a budget of about $350 to pay Ram’s players. His policy of fining players $3 for missing practice meant some guys had to play for free.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

In considering Unitas as the father of great Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks, I wondered if the others had idolized him. An obiturary/tribute to Unitas written by Chuck Finder for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed the always quotable (Beaver Falls native) Joe Namath had considered Unitas “my football inspiration, my hero.” I imagine that the other western Pennsylvania quarterbacks knew enough about Unitas to think that if he could make it, they also had a shot. Lou Sahadi made a case for the western Pennsylvania quarterbacks describing the mentality that fueled them:

“John was first of those lunch-bucket quarterbacks to come out of western Pennsylvania. Later on came Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath and Dan Marino. They were all the same. Guys who didn’t have anything. Guys who knew it was back to the steel mills or coal mines if they didn’t get the job done.”

historical plaque honoring Johnny Unitas that reads "(1933-2002) Pittsburgh native & Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, 1979. Here Unitas quarterbacked semi-pro Bloomfield Rams to a Steel Bowl Football Conference championship, 1955. Signed with Baltimore Colts, 1956, leading them to an NFL championship, 1958.

historical plaque in front of Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville

At this point this post should have the feel of a very late night AM radio sports talk broadcast. Imagine bursts of static and a distant echoing theremin whine as I sermonize about the early playing days of the great Johnny Unitas. I focused so much on his brief time in Bloomfield that I never got around to exploring the rest of his playing career. My sense is, if only on a subconscious level, his brief foray in semi-pro football offered a foundation that made him the player he became. No matter the pressure, weather, or game situations he faced, he could always draw on the challenges of his primitive Bloomfield days.

The experience must have given him an appreciation for quality teammates, decent equipment and reasonable practice facilities but it’s important to remember the Bloomfield Rams were there when Unitas needed them. He expressed this in Lou Sahadi’s book explaining that what had mattered most about playing for the Rams had been the feeling that there was a football team that wanted him.

I’ll leave it up to the Pittsburgh Orbit‘s head honcho Will Simmons to track down the Bloomfield Rams old 1955 Steel Bowl Conference trophy. I’m imagining his relentless pursuit in knocking on doors as he looks up players from the ’55 Ram’s roster, guys like Jim Deglau, Jacko Cray, Red Celender, Fred Zangaro, or even Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers, if he’s still around, to get the full story of what it was like to play football with Johnny Unitas in Pittsburgh. That will have to wait until next season.


[1] “The Louie Files: The Greatest Moment in Rock-and-Roll,” Portland Orbit, April 6, 2017.
[2] Of course, this was actually down the hill in Lawrenceville at what is today Arsenal Middle School on Butler Street. There’s a historical plaque there to prove it.
[3] Editor’s note: This pay rate may actually not be that different from present-day. If any members of the [currently-active semi-pro teams] Passion, Rangers, Colts, or Wildcatz would like to comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Bibliography:

Tom Callahan, Johnny U The Life & Times of John Unitas, Crown Publishers
Lou Sahadi, Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback, Triumph Books
Roland Lazenby, Johnny Unitas: The Best There Ever Was, Triumph ebooks
Steve Gelman, Pro Football Heroes, Scholastic Book Services