Day of the Dead: Susan Hicks, Uber Alles

bicycle painted completely white and decorated with flowers and lights, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost bike memorial for Susan Hicks, Oakland

Last week marked the one year anniversary of Susan Michelle Hicks death. This blogger didn’t know her personally, but Ms. Hicks was “friends of friends” who commuted–and was killed–riding her bicycle on a stretch of Forbes Avenue in Oakland where I ride all the time. Quite literally, it could have been me.

Very near the tragic spot where Ms. Hicks died, just across the street from Dippy the Dinosaur and the Carnegie Music Hall, is a so-called “ghost bike” memorial. Chained to the pole of a stout street lamp, it’s a decommissioned older bicycle, painted completely white, draped in flowers, ribbons, personal messages, and a strand of solar-powered lights. A felt-tipped pen left on the seat invites visitors to ink inscriptions to the fallen–many have done so.

The effect of seeing the Hicks ghost bike–or any other–is incredibly moving. It’s both beautiful and haunting, arresting, sombre, and reverent. It’s also encouraging that this obviously-un-sanctioned memorial has been allowed to remain intact; city works crews choosing to leave it alone–now, for over a year–in this very public, well-travelled spot instead of treating it as an act of litter or vandalism.

detail of ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Pittsburgh, PA

Statistically, Pittsburgh is among the very safest U.S. cities to be a bicycle rider/pedestrian. This is, perhaps, surprising given our severe infrastructure challenges, but according to some numbers collected by Bike PGH, the city’s rate of 1.8 fatalities per 10,000 commuters is way down the list of American cities. As comparison, the bottom of the collection contains Ft. Worth, Detroit, and Jacksonville, all with an average of 40 to 50 fatalities on the same scale.

That said, it’s sadly no surprise this particular tragedy happened in the heart of Oakland. Any Pittsburgh cyclist will tell you what a nightmare it is to navigate the neighborhood on two wheels. It’s nearly impossible to feel safe riding from, say, Neville to Atwood, or CMU to Pitt without either breaking some kind of law or going way out of your way–and this is a part of town with 40-some thousand college students! I get mad at the kids riding on sidewalks, but what alternative do they have?

Handmade sign reading "Are we the last generation who learns to drive?", Pittsburgh, PA

Anti-Uber sign, Oakland

On a recent ride home from work, I came across a batch of wooden signs nailed to telephone poles. On each was a hand-scripted message: Are we the last generation who learns to drive? read one on Craig Street, and Humans crave community, not isolation another. The messages continued in Bloomfield:  Automation smothers natural beauty and awe and Deep in your humanness, your heart longs not to be mechanized.*

If you’ve spent any time in the East End over the last half year, you know where these are coming from. Uber self-driving cars are being tested all over the city–we see them every day**. It’s a technology that’s not without controversy, but surprisingly little considering the potential societal implications. Overall, opinion has felt more like a collective ho-hum.

collage of photos of Uber self-driving cars being tested on Pittsburgh city streets

Uber self-driving cars testing in Pittsburgh [photos, clockwise from top left: P. Worthington, M. Hertzman, A. Hoff, K. Barca]

The full point of these guerrilla signs is not entirely clear, but each contains Uber’s name in a crossed-out circle. We can assume the opposition to the ride-sharing company is the anonymous sign-poster’s major thesis, but there are also messages around community, beauty, and “humanness”.

Is Uber being accused of colossal corporate takeover? Or is the issue that they’re developing self-driving technology? Assuming the latter, how does changing the way a car navigates “smother natural beauty and awe”? [We did a pretty good job of this way before Uber came along.] Plenty of people drive alone every day–why do these vehicles create any more isolation than any other solo car trip?

If we’re worried about the number of Uber (and other) human drivers who may be put out of work by this technology, that’s legit. But let’s not assume that’s the only sociological possibility for self-driving vehicles. There is the very real likelihood that autonomous cars will be much safer on the road than humans. They certainly won’t drive drunk or fall asleep at the wheel. They won’t show off to impress the girls in the back seat and won’t take their eyes off the road when their phones light up. There are a whole lot of people with disabilities who can’t wait for an alternative to Access.

Handmade sign reading "Automation smothers natural beauty and awe", Pittsburgh, PA

Anti-Uber sign, Bloomfield

Bicycle riders are not saints. There are a lot of dangerous people out there, and we come across them every day–treating sidewalks as bicycle lanes, recklessly jack-rabbiting through traffic, ignoring traffic lights, signaling, and stop signs. Cyclists who take off without a helmet or foregoing lights in the dark are just plain foolish.

These are condemnable actions that frankly burn this biker’s breeches–you guys give us all a bad name! That said, it’s nothing compared to the regular behavior we see from drivers toward cyclists. I’ve never been hit by a vehicle driven by a computer; the same can’t be said for humans. In my years (ahem, decades) on two wheels, I’ve been spit on, had trash thrown at me, yelled-at, cat-called, and aggressively hip-greased more times than I can recall. Drivers routinely drift absent-mindedly, park in bicycle lanes, and wildly swing open their parked doors without first consulting their mirrors. While driving, they eat and drink, talk on the phone, apply lipstick in the rearview mirror, and, of course, are constantly texting.

Given all this, I’ll take my chances with the robots. If they’d been deployed to Oakland last year at this time, maybe Susan Hicks would still be with us and on the road today.

bicycle painted completely white and decorated with flowers and lights, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Oakland


* If anyone has seen more of these, we’d love to know about them.
** So far, always with a human in the driver’s seat.

Black-and-Gold: On the Fence

black and gold section of picket fence with hand-painted messages to the Steelers

Lawrenceville

To football spectators–from the die-hard to even the most casual/occasional game-watchers–the practice is so common it’s become cliché. Cameras trained on a small group of fanatics in the stands. One dude (and yes, it is almost always a dude) with a giant poster board cut-out of the letter D, his buddy right next to him with a matching section of picket fence. The pair are very excited to be on television. D-fence. Very clever.

So with this familiar rebus haunting NFL crowd shots every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday* throughout autumn, it’s no wonder Steeler faithful would consider their own side yards and front porches as prime opportunity for a black-and-gold home improvement makeover.

Here then, on this opening day of the Steelers 2016 campaign, The Orbit salutes those fans who’ve taken up post-hole diggers and sacks of concrete mix, lattice board and exterior enamel all in preparation to defend our fair city from the attack of marauding Bengals, Browns, Ravens, and (eesh) “Patriots”. Here, indeed, we go.

row house back yard fence painted black and gold and decorated with Steelers signs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

side yard and fence with sign reading "Steeler fans", Pittsburgh, PA

East Deutschtown

side yard with chain link fence decorated with lifesavers, Steeler colored rope, and flowers, Pittsburgh, PA

Marshall-Shadeland**

black and gold fence and jungle gym, Pittsburgh, PA

East Deutschtown


* I don’t know if this particular act of fandom shows up as often at high school and college games, but if so, yes: every single day of the week, August through January.
** It was suggested that this may not, in fact, be a Steeler party yard, but with the Steel City lifesaver and black-and-gold rope, we think it qualifies.

Art/Work: Big Industry Art

mural of abstract steel mills on brick wall, Hill District, Pittsburgh, PA

Mural, Hill District

They’re striking images. Tall stacks belching a blanket of smoke that blacks out the sky. Grim men with lunch pails and work shirts. A cauldron of molten metal is poured against a skyline of towering steel vessels. The tools and symbols of power generation: hydroelectric, relay tower, a key struck by lightening. Three ironworkers team up to hammer a bar of hot steel on an anvil as beams of radiant energy stream out, ostensibly the only light source in an otherwise unlit workshop.

tile mosaic depicting various industry and innovation from commercial building in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh, PA

Mosaic, Bloomfield

Mural of steelworker, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

(light-up) Mural, Downtown

Somewhere between social realism and folk art lies the realm of steel town tributes to the workers and industries that built them. The mills are (almost) all gone–as are the coke plants, glass and aluminum producers, bridge builders and pipe rollers. But you wouldn’t know it from the public art that still exists–and continues to get created anew–all over the place.

The depictions are of landscapes and people that many Americans wouldn’t choose to decorate with: rusting blast furnaces, smoke-spewing chimney stacks, utility infrastructure, big men–and they are almost always men–working hard.

Mural depicting workers with lunch pails emerging through the pedestrian tunnel to PPG's Ford City, PA plant

Mural, Pittsburgh Plate Glass workers, Ford City

Painting of steel mill and workers with metal and neon lights mounted to brick wall, Braddock, PA

Mixed (mural with neon lights and metal sign), Braddock

Much of “new” Pittsburgh would rather not talk about the steel industry. The air has been cleaned-up (sort of*), there’s a workforce teeming in eds, meds, and….TEDs (?) over yesteryears’ union laborers, and–amazingly–we’re getting some amount of national attention on things like quality of life, affordability, and fancy food. Famously down-on-itself Pittsburgh is even starting to believe some of the hype. Civic boosters and young urbanites want to put those big smokestacks and ginormous rolling mills as far as they can in the rearview mirror.

Thankfully, though, there’s a great reverence for the people and industries that built the region. In fairness, there’s also just a lot more visual power and romance to it. It’s hard to imagine similar wall-sized tributes to tech workers, robot engineers, bankers, heart surgeons, or academics. That said, The Orbit has long considered itself the Joe Magarac of blogs**–so if you’ve got some bare bricks, give us a call. Like Norma Desmond, we’re ready for our close-up.

Mural painted on cinderblock wall of iron workers hammering hot steel on an anvil, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale, PA

Mural, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale


* The actual quality of the air is still a mess–you just can’t see the problem quite so obviously any more.
** Or at least the Joe Pesci of blogs. You think this blogger is a clown?

The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield

Statue of Mary in grotto surrounded by roses, Pittsburgh, PA

Sciota Street

Mary–yes, that Mary–may have come from Nazareth, but she’s definitely got a second home in Bloomfield. Maybe even third and fourth homes–for a blessed virgin, she gets around! Decked out and ready to party in a Hawaiian lei, flanked by flowers, angels, cherubs, lights, and crosses, Mary is the centerpiece of postage stamp front yards, stoops, and porches.

Bloomfield is not known for its private green spaces–I’m sure suburbanites would guffaw at what passes for a “yard” in the neighborhood. The tight row houses are usually built right up to the sidewalk, some with porches, but almost never any grass. So it’s doubly impressive that with so few houses even able to host a grotto, many have chosen to do so.

front yard Mary with angel statuettes, Pittsburgh, PA

Pearl Street

Mary statue in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Pearl Street

Brick house with statue of Mary on front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

Mathilda Street

Front yard Mary statue, Pittsburgh, PA

Cedarville Street

Sisters of the Holy Spirit convent, Pittsburgh, PA

The mother of all Front Yard Marys: Sisters of the Holy Spirit convent, Friendship Ave.

An interesting corollary to the front yard Mary is the sub-phenomenon of ex-front yard Marys, or empty Mary grottos. What’s happened to Mary? Where did she go? Hopefully one day we’ll run into the homeowners and get the full story. Until then, we can only guess that the original owners of the statues have moved on and taken Mary with them. Alternately, Mary may have been stolen, kidnapped, or ransomed. These homemade brick and concrete grottos clearly aren’t going anywhere, so it’s no wonder they’ve become permanent fixtures on the property, with or without Mary.

former Mary housing, now containing angel statuette, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary doesn’t live here anymore. Ex-front yard Mary (the grotto is now occupied by an angel figurine), Pearl Street

empty Mary housing, Pittsburgh, PA

… or here. Empty grotto, Pearl Street

We’re collecting other front yard deities for a future scene report, but it bears mentioning that Jesus gets into the front-of-house tributes as well–just not as often.

Jesus statue in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Jesus and front porch Jesus, Pearl Street

Wheatpaste Roundup

drawing of a pig with the text "Every day is a fresh start" wheatpasted to mail box, Pittsburgh, PA

Shadyside

A drawing, some cut paper–maybe somebody else’s poster. A batch of homemade goo cooked up on the stove. It’s the lowest of tech, but when it works, wheatpaste jumps right off the wall–sometimes quite literally as the rough edges curl up, tears form where property managers have fought to scrape them off, or they inevitably fade and disintegrate in the weather. It’s always a surprise–graffiti, sort-of, but also like weird wallpaper. It looks equally good when it’s fresh and new and also when it’s falling apart. Sometimes they even manage to attract their own after market graffiti.

Enough talking about this one–this blogger will just get on with it. Here’s a batch of recent-ish grabs from around town.

image of hand-drawn telephones wheatpasted to glass bus shelter, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

image of three children wheatpasted to brick wall, Braddock, PA

Braddock

poster of naked man urinating into plant pots with text "Water save reuse treasure" and graffiti "Die yuppie scum!!!", Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

wheatpaste poster of psychedelic eagle with graffiti "Praise God" and "Survival is Political", Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

image of circular saw cutting off fingers with the handwritten text "Everybody makes mistakes", Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

image of man with camera wheatpasted to brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

wheatpaste poster of bare hands holding bullets and pills with the text "Survival is political" and "Combat rations", Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

Golden Babies: The Final Chapter?

golden baby hanging from electric line, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby #4 (aka “Clement Baby”)

Almost as soon as this blogger’s index finger migrated January’s More Golden Babies! post from “draft” to public record even more tips on the mysterious street art/prank started rolling in. Three of them, in fact, one right after the other. Another golden baby had been spotted just off Main Street in Bloomfield/Lawrenceville, a second over on The North Side, and yet a third down in the 10th Ward on Butler Street. That last one turned out to be duplicate report of Butler Baby (golden baby #3), but, as a famous realist–and entrée–once said, two out of three ain’t bad.

silhouette of baby doll dangling from electric line over row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden Baby #5 (aka “Sampsonia Baby”)

Oh, you can believe that chops were licked and hootenannies kicked into high gear to confirm these reports. Orbit readers who’ve already perused the included photographs will note that we were not let down in our pursuit.

Golden Baby #4 is (still) dangling from the electrical infrastructure on tiny Clement Way, just off Main Street, right next to The Shop and Liberty Beer. Golden Baby #5 was caught hanging loose in the Mexican War Streets on the very block where both The Mattress Factory and City of Asylum houses are. In both cases, the baby dolls seem to perfectly match their siblings: same gold paint, same white onesie, same dangle by the ankle.

The jump across the river for #5 was especially interesting as it meant our perpetrator(s) may be, you know, “city-wide,” rather than concentrated purely in the Penn and Butler stretches of the East End. How many more would there be? We’d just have to hang back, wait, and see what else turned up.

golden baby hanging from electric line over brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby, blue sky. Clement Baby

Well…the calendar turned from February to March, we ate a bunch of fried fish and mac & cheese, and now we’re half way into April and there’s been nary a peep from any more golden babies (or their spotters). The 1-800-ORBIT-ME hotline sits silent, phone bank operators idly twiddling their well-intentioned thumbs. We can’t get a grainy cell-phone baby photo tweeted at us to save our lives. Sigh.

Is this it? Is this the way it all goes down? If so, that’s O.K.–we had a good run. I’m tempted to say, like a famous minstrel–and heartbreaker–once did, don’t do me like that. But, you know, that ain’t how it is. No, Mr. or Ms. Golden Baby dangler, you did me pretty good. Yeah, you did The Orbit pretty darn good.

golden baby, electric lines, and sky, Pittsburgh, PA

Upside-down you’re turning me. Sampsonia Baby

Egg Hunt

front yard display with Easter bunnies and eggs, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

The bunny and the egg. That the high Christian holiday of Easter would be associated with two such non-religious totems seems strange. However it happened, we ended up with the bunny (always white; never a “rabbit”) and egg (brightly colored; sometimes elaborately decorated) as the emblems of the season. Eggs kind of make sense–Easter is either the celebration Jesus’ resurrection (if you’re Christian) or the spring holiday (if you’re pagan), and eggs certainly represent the spirit of rebirth (really, new birth) as well as anything. Bunnies? Not so obvious.

rowhouse window with Easter bunnies and eggs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

This blogger grew up in The South and though my memory is foggy, I don’t ever remember Easter being as big a deal–and I really don’t remember people decorating their houses the way Pittsburghers do. The variance is minimal and it’s basically all store-bought, but there’s a lot of it.

De rigueur are plastic colored eggs in both chicken and dinosaur sizes, sometimes strung on lines or hung from trees, often just resting in a front patch of grass or nestled under shrubs. Occasionally these come in a light-up strand like Christmas lights. You’ll often see die cut two-dimensional paper eggs pasted into windows and taped on door frames.

The other nearly as common element is the white Easter bunny. These creatures vary from hefty ceramic hand-painted garden centerpieces to plastic stand-up figures to fuzzy paper decorations that look like flat piñatas.

small flowering tree with plastic Easter eggs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

It strikes me that the palette is so slim. Just two images–plus the occasional flower, cross, or duckling thrown in as garnish–for such an important holiday. Compare this to Christians’ other big day: Mary, Joseph, the little lord Jesus, wise men, yonder star, the manger, Santa, elves, the sleigh, reindeer, presents, candles, candy, carolers–the list goes on and on. Christmas also gets its own defined color scheme, song book, and yearly television specials. I’m sure there are traditional Easter church hymns, but what about carols?

sidewalk chalk drawing of Easter egg, Pittsburgh, PA

The Run

This year, Easter Sunday rolled around and this heathen had neither a church service nor holiday ham supper to look forward to. So with a glorious seventy degrees and cloudless blue skies The Orbit set out on an old school egg hunt.

We weren’t actually out to possess any eggs. We just wanted to get an idea of who was out there decorating and what they were doing with the eggs. Of course, we’ll also take any excuse to ride the Orbit-cycle for a couple hours and poke our nebby Orbit-schnozes into other people’s business–and believe you me: schnozes were poked in the making of this story.

plastic Easter eggs hanging from tree, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

The ride took us all over the place–The Strip, Spring Garden, Central North Side, downtown, South Side, The Run, Panther Hollow, etc.–but observant Orbit readers will note that almost all these photos came from just two neighborhoods: Bloomfield and Lawrenceville.

Are these places Easter central? Maybe. Or did we just poke a little harder or a little wiser in the well-known nearby terrain? Well, that’s believable too. We definitely had insider information on the Easter crazy pair of neighbors on Lorigan Street in Bloomfield that generated several of these pictures.

tree with garland of plastic Easter eggs, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Along the way, we ran into one legitimate kid-centric egg hunt taking place in Arsenal Park. These eggs were not well-concealed–I must have spotted two dozen from the seat of my in-motion bicycle–but the target age of participants seems to start at the just-barely-walking, so I suppose it’s a fair contest.

The whole experience was good fun and good exercise and got us thinking that it might be interesting to stage an Orbit-sponsored, bicycle-based egg hunt for next year’s holiday. Would folks be into that? I don’t know, but maybe we’ll give it a try next year.

window flower box display with bunnies and eggs, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

rowhouse windows decorated with Easter bunnies and eggs, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

front stoop display of Easter bunny and eggs

Lawrenceville