Hollers to Doughnuts: Cycling the Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Beaver Greens Park and Ohio River on a sunny fall day

Picture perfect. View of Beaver Greens Park, Bridgewater Crossing, and the Ohio River from River Road, Beaver

[Breathes deeply, sighs wistfully.]

If only it was October all year long. This…err, last month’s magic powers are almost too numerous to name. Golden, low-angle sunshine fans through dappled multicolor leaves. Crisp morning air yields to warm, t-shirt weather afternoons. Decorative gourd fantasias tell us the aroma of pumpkin spice and mulled apple cider is wafting somewhere nearby as the whimsical array of dismembered body parts, sadistic clowns, and sprays of blood spatter signal the most wonderful of holiday seasons is fully upon us.

elaborate Halloween decorations on house and yard in Monaca, PA

The most wonderful holiday season, Monaca

Give this blogger a day off and a blue sky and you’ll inevitably find him on a bicycle, worldly cares dismissed for the afternoon. This particular October day (it was Saturday, two weeks ago) was just such an occasion. Maps were consulted, timetables checked, and the S.S. Orbit charted a course downriver.

The goal for this particular journey was to construct our own custom bicycle-based tour through a series of nearly-contiguous river towns. We’re calling the route The Beaver Valley Six-Pack. If you get the chance and you’re so-inclined–there is still time–we can’t think of a better way to enjoy a gorgeous autumn day.

Below is the path we took along with some highlights. That said, as long as you get the interchanges right, it’s pretty much choose-your-own-adventure on this one. Stay off the busy roads–that turns out to be pretty easy–and you really can’t go wrong.

rooftop decoration of Santa with 10 reindeer made from toilet bowls, Monaca, PA

Santa and 10 tiny reindeer-toilets, Monaca

Monaca

We started in Monaca and went north. There’s a good argument to go the other direction, but we’ll get into that later. In any case, one can safely park a car on anywhere around 9th Street and the vehicle should remain unmolested as long as you like.

Don’t be too quick to get across the river! An easy trundle through the longer residential streets  (Washington, Indiana, and Atlantic Aves.) is well worth the poke-see, as are the dramatic river views from Monaca’s pair of waterfront parklets.

View of the Ohio River and train bridge from Monaca, PA

View of the Ohio River from the Monaca riverfront

Right now, the city is well represented in holiday decoration with an ample supply of front yard witches, skeletons, and gravestones. You’ll also not want to miss the Christmas-all-year display of Santa and his ten tiny reindeer toilets (photo above) on the roof of a garage behind the Japanese steakhouse.

ghost sign reading "Monaca Business Block," Monaca, PA

Ghost sign, Monaca

Whenever you’re ready, the giant bridge over the Ohio River awaits. It comes straight off 9th Street and there’s a protected bicycle/pedestrian gangway on the north-bound side. Newish signage states this will part of a future, more formalized Beaver County bicycle trail–but we can’t wait for that.

We saw no other non-vehicles on our crossing and while the views up and down the Ohio River are spectacular, we didn’t manage to get a photo worth sharing. Maybe you can do better.

large elevated sign for DeAngelis Donuts, Rochester, PA

DeAngelis Delightfully Different Donuts, Rochester

Rochester to Bridgewater

Arriving on the north bank of the Ohio, you’d swear the municipality was named DeAngelis for the size and placement of the enormous welcome sign. It’s not. No, Rochester just happens to begin (or end) at DeAngelis “Delightfully Different” Donuts which somehow commandeers the enviable location where the little city’s downtown intersects with the bridge and Routes 51/65 highway through-traffic.

A dirty secret: The Orbit has been to Rochester a dozen times on various field trips and never stopped for a DeAngelis donut (sic.). We’ll rectify that one of these days.

Rochester has a cool–but, sadly, vacant–old downtown just downhill from where you are now. There’s also a riverfront bowling alley whose exterior you’ll recognize from Kingpin the next you see it. This is all well worth exploring–but we didn’t do it this trip. Instead, it was through the roundabout, arriving at six o’clock and getting out at 11, down Brighton to Madison and crossing the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Beaver River between Rochester and Bridgewater, PA

Rochester (right), Bridgewater (left), and a whole lot of blue. View from the Rochester-Bridgewater Bridge.

Bridgewater and Beaver Borough

You’ll pass quickly through Bridgewater–so quickly, you might not even realize it was its own place. That said, if you’re looking for lunch, there are a handful of establishments right there at the base of the bridge that all look welcoming and convivial.

A quick left on Market Street, following the road around to Wolf Lane, will lead you directly to a bike/ped trail up under some railroad tracks by the old train depot and into Beaver Borough.

Now, Beaver gets all the name recognition out here and that’s in no small part because it cornered the market on the three W’s: wealthy white WASPs. If you’ve never been there, Beaver is totally out of place among the rest of the area. With its wide streets, well-kept fancy homes, and main street full of boutiques and frivolity, Beaver feels like a tony commuter suburb was plucked out of Connecticut and dropped in among the old mill towns of Beaver County. Don’t let that stop you from checking out the good stuff.

Halloween decorations at home in Beaver, PA

Halloween at Thunberg Acres, Beaver

The bicycle ride around River Road is just terrific. A wide street with no traffic and long views down to Beaver Greens Park, the Ohio River, and back across to Monaca on the other shore. (See photo, top.) River Road also includes numerous park benches, historical markers, and assorted other points of interest along the way.

At the far end, you’ll come up close to Thunberg Acres (our name). Orbit fans know this as the 3rd Street home of Gary Thunberg and his always-in-rotation holiday displays. [See photo above; we’ve reported on Gary’s homemade Halloween and Independence Day displays in years past.] Whatever the time of year, see what Thunberg Acres has in the queue of full-yard displays and please sign Gary’s guest book in the front box–he’s got a collection that goes back 20 years and would love for you to add to it.

fall day in Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA

Dappled sunlight, fall colors, Cyrillic picture graves at Beaver Cemetery

It is hard to overstate this how devastatingly beautiful Beaver Cemetery is–especially this time of year. The cemetery sits directly across 3rd Street from the Thunberg house and basically forms the western end of the town’s business district–you won’t miss it. We’ve reported on the off-its-rocker Leaf Mausoleum already, but there is so much to see here–and it colors so beautifully in the fall–that you don’t even need that.

As an unrepentant taphophile, I can tell you that Beaver Cemetery’s collection of mid-century photo gravestones is the largest we’ve seen in these parts. We first got the bug with the amazing weathered grave markers at Loretto Cemetery, but the town of Beaver bought into the little photos-turned-ceramic insets big time. At some point, we’ll go back for a big story there. For now, you’ll have to go find them yourself.

World War I memorial featuring doughboy statue painted gold in Townsend Park, New Brighton, PA

The golden doughboy, Townsend Park, New Brighton

New Brighton

Fun fact: Beaver Falls (we’ll get there in a minute) was originally called Brighton, which makes the name of the borough right across the river more sensible and explains the prominence of Pittsburgh’s north-west-heading Brighton Road. Once the name change to Beaver Falls, you’d think New Brighton might consider becoming Regular-Old Brighton, but that obviously didn’t happen.

Bicycling to New Brighton is the trickiest of the lot. From Beaver, you’ll make your way across town, down Leopard Lane, back into Bridgewater, and north up either Market or Riverside. There’s a quick little run on the sidewalk and then across the bike/ped lane of the Veterans Memorial Bridge. From here, you want to go straight across Rt. 65 to 3rd Avenue, which will skirt the through traffic almost all the way to New Brighton.

dark beer in glass on rough wooden table

Ein dunkel, Petrucci Brothers Brewing, New Brighton

The pairing of cycling and a malty quaff go together like…well, basically like anything else where one of the two things is drinking beer. That’s certainly true on the Six-Pack and Petrucci Brothers Brewing served up a rich dunkel that was qualified to satisfy the thirsty rider. In addition to the requisite combined brew/drink space, mismatched seating, and thrown-together bar, the Petruccis are big on games with shuffleboard, ping pong, air hockey, pool, and a big stack of board games all available to play for free.

Before leaving New Brighton, take a gander at the terrific collection of churches in town. There are too many to either discuss or include photos of here, but suffice to say for a small town it ended up with an amazing array of holy architecture.

First Baptist Church, New Brighton, PA

First Baptist Church, one of several beautiful churches in New Brighton

Beaver Falls

You’ll be tempted to ride with the traffic across the 7th Street Bridge because that’s the most direct way to where you’re headed. This stay-off-the-busy-streets cyclist didn’t feel that safe with the handful of speeding cars greasing my hip, so the recommendation is to get across the road and take the safer–if underused–walkway on the south/downriver side of the bridge.

This drops you on 7th Avenue, Beaver Falls‘ Main Street. Like a lot of its fellow old mill towns, Beaver Falls has seen better days and will demonstrate that to you with a certain level of vacancy, empty lots, and underused storefronts up and down.

river, trees in fall colors, and train bridge in Western PA

The Beaver River and train bridge between New Brighton and Beaver Falls

That said, there’s plenty to do, see, eat, and drink in town–even if you’re just passing through on two wheels.

The Beaver River’s eponymous falls do indeed break alongside Old Brighton’s eastern shore and there is the shortest of bicycle paths, connecting 2nd Ave. to 6th Ave., to see them from. Don’t get your hopes up: it’s a little tricky to actually get a decent viewing spot, and when you do…well, maybe they should have called the town Beaver Rapids. The gorgeous giant waterfalls of Ithaca or the Columbia River Gorge, these ain’t.

map with bicycling route between six different towns in Beaver County, PA

One suggested route for The Beaver Valley Six-Pack

Yeah, that’s a lot to take in. For anyone who’d actually like to recreate the Beaver Valley Six-Pack, we created a Map My Ride route that should get you through.

One final note: it was mentioned above that departing from Monaca may be the wrong way to do the trip. The argument for the opposite (start/end in Beaver Falls) is that you could bag (literally!) Oram’s Donuts at the start of the journey, do the rest of the ride in reverse, and then be back for the late opening time of Beaver Brewing Company. But then you’re probably getting to DeAngelis too late–what a dilemma!

Whatever you do, an exploration of Beaver Valley’s river towns is well worth the effort–even if you don’t do it on a bicycle. We’ll be back again, for sure, and maybe we’ll see you on the Six-Pack.

exterior of Oram's Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls, PA

Oram’s Old-Fashioned Donuts, Beaver Falls


Getting there: To get anywhere in Beaver Valley will take you around 40 minutes drive west from downtown Pittsburgh.

Waiting to Go Off: In the Street, On Target, and Under the Bus with Off Hole

Perhaps the world’s finest “off hole”: bus lane, downtown Pittsburgh. [Photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

They had, the joke goes, one job … but it wasn’t this one. In this case the specific task was probably something pretty important: keeping electric power running between buildings; telephone and Internet connectivity; making sure the sewer system doesn’t back up into your basement.

What the job clearly didn’t involve is paying too close attention to how exactly the door was closed when the real work was done and the crew packed up to move on or go home.

switch symbol off hole, North Side [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

Despite this relatively minor detail in the grand scheme of things, those of us top-side get the tiniest evidence that work was occurring under city streets in the form of manhole covers, striped in accordance with road markings and put back not quite where they ought to be. It’s a stretch to say these patterned cast iron discs tell us a story–or really anything–about what was happening below the surface, but we do know something was going on down there.

The effect on the visual landscape is more notable. Each of these little displacements creates a subtle but striking schism in the very regular, ordered, and predictable world of thoroughfare infrastructure. These are known as off holes.

it’s not easy finding a green off hole, Downtown [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

“As a very neat person that needs everything in order, I couldn’t fathom how utility workers didn’t put the covers back in the correct direction,” says Greg Lagrosa, “I would never be able to do that–it would drive me crazy!”

Indeed, it would take someone with more than a little obsessive-compulsiveness to notice–let alone photograph, publicize, and catalog–the city’s off-kilter manhole covers.

If you’ve never noticed the phenomenon, you definitely haven’t been looking. Off holes–the name was coined by Pittsburgh artist Kirsten Ervin–are everywhere. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that every intersection in the city, along with plenty of spots in-between, have manhole covers smack dab in the middle of cross-walks and lane markings. Many of these have gotten worked-on and most of them didn’t get put back in line with their paint jobs.

So close! Single yellow stripe off hole, North Side [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

“To me it’s all about your worldview,” Lagrosa says about the Off Hole project, “There are all of these small things happening in our city. Taking the time to notice the minutiae is a way of interacting with the city in a tangible and human way. Workers are obviously using the manhole covers–that’s why they’re there–we just barely ever see it happen. This is a window into how things work and those lives and stories.”

Lagrosa is regular bicycle rider who commutes from his home in Stanton Heights to a job downtown. As a self-described person that “hates driving and walks and bikes around as much as possible,” he began noticing off holes everywhere he travelled.

classic “waxing gibbous” off hole, Oakland

After studying the random occurrences of off holes throughout Pittsburgh, Lagrosa started studiously photographing each specimen–both as a straight down top view and a broader-context “in the wild” shot. The location and other details are logged in a spreadsheet and one photo a day gets posted to the @off.hole Instagram account.

Nearly half a year into the process, Lagrosa describes some favorite patterns or types of off holes that have emerged:

In my opinion, the best off holes are the clean ones. Just one or two painted lines across the hole, the paint is still really clear and it’s just off. Something like this:

middle double-yellow off hole, Oakland [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

The off holes I wasn’t sure about the most are where the old line is off but it’s been repainted and the new line is still on. At the end of the day I decided this was fine too:

off hole with repainted line, Lower Marion, PA [photo: Off Hole contributor @hottenrottb]

There are the ones where multiple lines have been painted and they are all off:

multi-lined off hole, Friendship [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

And finally, some of them just create cool designs that I like:

pie-slice off hole, Strip District [photo: Off Hole/Greg Lagrosa]

The concept is still a relatively new thing, but Lagrosa has considered expanding into other Internet platforms and possibly going full-on Off Hole IRL in the form of an art show or t-shirt. [Editor’s note: sign me up for a men’s XL!]

For now, though, the focus is mainly on collecting and expanding the Off Hole community. While Lagrosa lives here in Pittsburgh, he accepts–and encourages–submissions from anywhere with pavement and manhole covers. (See details, below.)

a collection of off holes submitted by Orbit staff photographers

When the robot work crews take over, off holes will likely disappear forever. Heck, there are probably industrial designers working right now to try to solve this “problem.”

Here at the Orbit, we love off holes–and Greg’s got the clogged In box to prove it! The phenomenon is another example of the superiority of randomness over hyper organization, faded paint that tells a story to a crisp line’s empty page, and the indefatigable human desire to leave work early and get on to Miller Time. We can all learn something from this.

Friend of the streets. Off Hole’s Greg Lagrosa with a new find, North Side.

Postscript: If there’s a moral to the story it’s that sometimes the cloud may actually be its own silver lining. When asked if on holes were more or less satisfying since commencing the project, Lagrosa responds resolutely, “On holes are just future off holes. I definitely take notice of painted holes in unusual spots and wait for them to go off.”

Think about that for a minute: the guy with self-described OCD who would be “driven crazy” by a misaligned lane stripe actually looks forward to a disruption in his space-time continuum. Whatever you say, that’s progress.


To submit an off hole you’ve found, email photos to off.hole.pittsburgh@gmail.com or direct message the @off.hole Instagram account.

Per Lagrosa, “I like to get two pictures for each hole, an overhead shot and one that shows the hole in context. The overhead is the money shot and is the most important. I also need the location, date, time, and your Instagram username so I can credit you.”

The Missing Link: Making the Connection via the Mon Wharf Switchback

Mon Wharf walkway in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mon Wharf Landing, looking east towards the Smithfield Street Bridge, downtown

One glorious day–and a Sunday at that! Deep blue skies, whispy cirrus clouds, bright sunshine, and seasonally optimistic temperatures requiring only a long-sleeve shirt. Those who failed to leave the indoors on this 24-hour reprieve between Thanksgiving’s elongated drizzly gloom and the following Monday’s snow-filled temperature plunge should feel all the guilt and remorse they deserve.

Just jaggin’–no judgment, here. This blogger, however, wasn’t going to miss the opportunity. The Orbitmobile was sprung from its hutch, tires inflated, and chain oiled. We were off to town on a mission to check out the brand new Mon Wharf Switchback.

Mon Wharf Switchback bicycle/pedestrian ramp in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

The new Mon Wharf Switchback Ramp, downtown

It’s been said that Pittsburgh is the only city with a front door. Indeed, the approach from the morass of Parkway West suburbia/airport/I-79 to the awestruck oohs and aahs emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel into a seeming city from nowhere is truly spectacular, unparalleled, and–I can attest, twenty-some years on–never gets old.

That said, one can only reach that front door with a motor vehicle. For those arriving in our fair city by bicycle–and yes, thanks to the Great Allegheny Passage trail, plenty of newcomers get here on two wheels–it’s a less dramatic entrance. That changed, at least a little bit, with the completion of this last connection point allowing car-free passage into town from the Smithfield Street Bridge.

bicycle/pedestrian ramp to Point State Park in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

ramp to Point State Park

As of now, the incoming cyclist may exit the Smithfield Bridge to be gently guided down to the previously-existing, but hard-to-get-to Mon Wharf Landing parklet hugging the riverbank. The method is a long, graceful switchback ramp connecting 40 or 50 vertical feet from bridge deck to walkway below.

The park a lovely open space with a wide walkway, stone resting spots–they’re not quite benches–and a thin strip of green grass. Native maple trees–presumably planted back at the park’s opening in 2009–have managed to cling to their deep red fall leaves long after wimpier peers dropped all outerwear weeks ago.

bicycle/pedestrian entrance to Point State Park via the Mon Wharf trail in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

gateway to Point State Park

The new ramp doesn’t just connect downtown with the South Side. One can now, in theory, ride continuously from Point State Park all the way to our nation’s capital without having to contest with any car traffic. Three hundred and thirty-five miles, in fact, as the crow dodges and weaves, crosses the Alleghenies, ducks through tunnels, and follows the curling banks of various old rivers.

That is one hell of an accomplishment for long-distance, intrastate bicycle recreation[1], but the new ramp that allows connection from the upriver side of the Smithfield Street Bridge through to Point State Park–is likely going to be much more useful to the city’s cyclists for their around-town commutes and pleasure cruises.

We’ll spare the particulars, but if you’re a city cyclist, you know getting from, say, Penn Avenue to the South Side was a pain in the ass. Thanks to this new infrastructure, one can make that ride safely and with a spectacular 360° tour of all three rivers.

traffic sign reading "Motor vehicles only: no pedestrians" on Mon Wharf bicycle/pedestrian path in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

The Mon Wharf bicycle/pedestrian route: “Motor vehicles only: no pedestrians”

Though the ramp has been publicly accessible for a week or two, the opening will be made official with an event this Tuesday. As of last weekend, there are still some final touches to the overall route we hope they’ll eventually get to.

Most notable is the lack of signage directing the connection-curious to and from Point State Park. From the latter, one must–on blind faith–go under the bridge ramp overpass, pass a maintenance vehicle parking lot, along the thin connection beside a highway ramp, and then down the fairly steep ramp to the Mon Wharf. This only-possible route takes the walker/bicycle rider directly under a (roadway) sign with the confusing message MOTOR VEHICLES ONLY: NO PEDESTRIANS (see photo, above). [This is a minor quibble that we assume city crews will get to–and may already have.]

Mon Wharf path in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mon Wharf Landing, looking west towards the Fort Pitt Bridge

The Mon Wharf Landing and switchback ramp are projects from Riverlife and the City of Pittsburgh. The commitment both have shown toward making the city bike- and pedestrian-safe, friendly, and accessible should absolutely be recognized and praised. From the (mostly) bicycle-based Orbit staff, a very big thank you–we’ll be putting the new route to use as often as we can.


[1] Between the GAP and C&O, the two trails run through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Tales of the Trail: The Rutkowski Shoe Memorial

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Township

As memorials go, it’s a strange one. At a small clearing along a bicycle trail sits a rectangular raised plot, bordered by river stones, about the size of a modest backyard garden. The ground is staked with 18 short lengths of white PVC pipe. Each has an article of decommissioned footwear firmly attached, its sole turned toward the sky.

None of the shoes match and they appear to come from a variety of sources. There are women’s dress shoes with chunky heals, rubber-soled trainers, and comfortable sneakers. Though most are adult models, some of the shoes are sized for a small child, while others would fit a still-growing youth. All have been decorated with after-market paint jobs, now disintegrating after years (?) exposed to the elements.

The center of the memorial is a large, engraved stone with the text In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, “Always put your best foot forward.”

green ladies' shoe attached to PVC pipe

Kimberly Rutkowski’s obituary features just the bare minimum information. Her residence was listed as South Fayette, a large suburban township just west of where the memorial lives now. She was survived by a husband and two children. As the stone tells us, Ms. Rutkowski died in January, 2005. She was just 43.

As obituaries tend to do–or not do, as is the case–there is no real personal detail to go on. We don’t know what Ms. Rutkowski cared about or did for fun, what she dreamed of or was made crazy by. We don’t even know what she looked like. But for those of us who never got to meet Kimberly Rutkowski, we can at least share the abstract experience-by-association of putting our best foot forward through the loving, humorous, and thought-provoking memorial in Collier Township.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Panhandle Trail starts or ends (your pick) in Rennerdale, just a few miles past Carnegie. It runs 30 miles due west to the outskirts of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a lovely, easy ride through gentle, rolling hills, lush full summer overgrowth, and comes replete with all manner of scurrying creatures, circling hawks, babbling brooks, and eye-popping wildflowers.

It also features a number of human-created attractions, including a bunch of small towns and country hamlets the former Pennsylvania Railroad used to serve before the tracks were replaced with trail. Along the way is a former quarry, a congenial bicycle shop, and enough little restaurants to sate trail-generated hunger almost anywhere along the line. Bike-to-beer fanciers will find the newish Helicon Brewery right along the route in Oakdale.

These are all wonderful accompaniments to a thoroughly-enjoyable bicycle trek, but it was the Rutkowski memorial that kept the Orbit office buzzing for days after we finished the ride.

engraved stone with the text "In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, 'Always put your best foot forward'"

“In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, ‘Always put your best foot forward'”

Like all great art, the shoe memorial asks more questions than it answers. Was “always put your best foot forward” such a repeated catch-phrase that Ms. Rutkowski’s friends and/or family needed to take it to the next level? Was the deceased herself in on the design? How and why did the creators select this plot of trailside ground? We just don’t know.

So we’re left to wonder and come up with our own personal interpretations.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

There was a time in this blogger’s early life when 43 would have seemed like a ripe old age. Those days–just like that particular birthday–have long since passed. Forty-three is young! Or, at least, it’s what we think of as middle-aged. We know we’re not owed anything in this life, but in one’s early forties we hope to still have nearly as many tomorrows as we had yesterdays.

So, the next time you find yourself on The Panhandle Trail [yes, make sure there is a next time] take the opportunity to pause for Kimberly Rutkowski and her tribute of second-hand pumps and discarded jogging shoes. We’ve only got so much time on this earth–make sure to not only put your best foot forward, but wear those shoes to the nub when you’re doing it.

memorial with shoes nailed to PVC pipe planted in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Twp.

Getting there: The Panhandle Trail has its own web site with maps and all the relevant information on trailheads and route. The Rutkowski shoe memorial is on the eastern end of the path, between Rennerdale and Oakdale.

The Orbit’s Summer Vacation, Part 1: Considering Portland

yellow bungalow house in Portland, OR

Portland in the summertime: green trees, parched yellow grass, cute craftsman bungalows on large flat lots

Let’s get something straight: the stereotypes are all basically true. Young people–tattooed, time-warped, and tricked-out–cavort at each neighborhood’s stock of ethnic-inspired food trucks and to-the-point microbreweries. Seemingly every home comes equipped with a strand of Tibetan prayer flags or a Black Lives Matter window sign. [Whether or not you’ll actually encounter any black lives is another matter.] The “Rose City” is aglow with its totem flower–albeit often shriveled and water-starved in the sun-baked late summer drought. Everything is “locally sourced.”

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam

Egg biscuit with Gouda cheese, bacon, arugula, jalapeño peppers, and marionberry jam, The Egg Carton (food cart), SE Portland

Portland, Oregon. Like Austin and Seattle in the ’90s–or Brooklyn a decade later–it is the current generation of twenty-somethings’ hip organic indie destination-du-jour…and that makes a lot of sense. There are a ton of things to do, inside and out. Every flavor of culinary and sensory offering is available just a Square-swipe or Subaru sidle away. There’s just enough grit (if you look hard enough) to locate the handful of still-remaining rough edges from the city’s industrial past, but with the outsized young/white/educated/leftie population to feel more like a giant college town where everybody plays in a band, jams for the roller derby squad, and works part-time at the coffee shop while working on their novel.

We went to Portland to hang out with friends, ride a bicycle around the city, see the big rocks on the coast and the lovely waterfalls in the gorge. We did all that (thank you, again, most generous hosts and tour guides!) but also had the terrific experience that all travel should reward us with: the perspective on what is–and what could be–back home.

new condo under construction behind older used car lot, Portland, OR

Boomtown: condo rising, North Portland

This, of course, is the Pittsburgh Orbit. So we’re not so interested in creating a travel piece for a city 2500 miles away. Plenty of that hype has been generated already. So much so that Portland has some very opposite problems from Pittsburgh: skyrocketing housing prices, the “damn Californians” pouring into the city, and a not-too-successful campaign to Stop Demolishing Portland! (to construct hated condos).

There were a whole bunch of things we liked–the number of old junkers parked on the streets, all the great craftsman architecture, gardening nuts planting their front yards, “zombie RVs”, some great street art, and, yes, the food cart “pods” and ubiquitous microbreweries. That said, we’re more interested in just a few really basic city things that impressed us in the trip and how we’d like to see some of these emulated back here, in Pittsburgh.

small house with front yard planters made from a toilet, dresser drawers, wooden boxes, Portland, OR

Plant your front yard! North Portland

Bicycle Heaven

To call Portland Nirvana on two wheels is a stretch–it’s just too flat and too gridded for that. But, it’s absolutely heaven for the commuter or basic point-to-point traveler. There is an unbelievable amount of infrastructure in place nearly everywhere in the city–well-marked bicycle lanes, directional and distance signage every few blocks, dedicated street-crossing and curb cuts, and the concept of “neighborhood greenways”: dedicated streets that prioritize through-routes for cyclists and pedestrians. Further, motorists have a great deal of respect for bicycle-riders and the two seem to co-exist very comfortably.

street signage specifically for bicycle riders including directions, time, and distance to various locations, Portland, OR

Friendly bicycle signage: directions, distances, neighborhood greenway markers

North Williams Avenue–running from the central East Side up to North Portland–resembled a full-on cycling highway with non-stop two-wheel traffic every time we headed home. Plus, since the majority of the city is basically flat[1], you can ride all day and never get tired[2]. Throw in a climate that rarely gets hot enough for you to sweat and even less often do riders have to deal with snow and ice, and you’ve really got no excuse for not living on two wheels.

street crossings and integrated turn lanes for bicycle riders, Portland, OR

Bicycle infrastructure: street crossings, integrated turn lanes, NE Portland

We can’t do anything about our climate, but Pittsburgh has come a long way in its bicycle-friendliness in the last ten years. [Thank you, Mayor Peduto/Bike Pittsburgh!] We’re gaining new bicycle lanes all the time, have a terrific advocacy community, lots of hardcore riders, and are finally working out the nightmare of traveling through central Oakland on a bike. I think we (Pittsburgh) may actually have a better trail system than Portland within the city [it’s also entirely likely we just didn’t get to see Portland’s trails], but it’s limited to the riverfronts and a couple other through-passages.

All that said–as we’ve written in these virtual pages before–cyclists are still second-class citizens in Pittsburgh who all too often have a combative relationship with motorists and councilwoman Darlene Harris. It was remarkable to see how good it could be. We’ve got some major room to improve here.

exterior of indoor/outdoor bar called Tough Luck, Portland, OR

Adaptive reuse: Tough Luck, NE Portland

Adaptive Reuse

Tough Luck, a months-old bar and restaurant in NE Portland, is housed in a 1960s-era building that probably started life as a garage, or a laundromat, or maybe a dry cleaners–it really doesn’t matter. It was an underwhelming little big box design to begin with. But with some imagination, tasteful rehab, and the conversion of a half-dozen parking spots into relaxed outdoor seating, it’s aged gracefully as a terrific little addition to the Woodlawn neighborhood.

That story–the adaptive reuse of one aesthetically-challenged building or discarded vacant lot into something useful, vibrant, welcoming, and fun was something we saw all over the city in a ton of different impressive ways–a used car lot turned outdoor dining park, cinderblock workshop-to-brewery, old social hall to new performance space.

Former Pizza Hut building, now vacant, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Pizza Hut, East Liberty, Pittsburgh

There is a former Pizza Hut that’s been sitting vacant for years in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. This is nothing remarkable–we’ve got empty buildings all over the place. But the fact that it’s a hundred yards from Duolingo’s headquarters on Penn Ave. and maybe a half mile from Google’s big Pittsburgh office is. Right now–for good or bad–there is a lot of money flowing through this part of town. That this runty little shack sits idle is a shame. The building itself is nothing special, but its location and the vast city lot it sits on sure are.

In Pittsburgh, it can really feel like all the nice design and construction happened by the 1920s. We are fortunate to still have a lot of that stuff. But if there’s something of the vintage of Tough Luck or Pizza Hut–and there are plenty in and around–probably no one cares and it will sit there until the roof caves in or someone knocks it down for another parking lot. We’d love to see entrepreneurs take up the challenge of turning some of the city’s many architectural eyesores and discarded structures into welcoming, creative uses of fallow ground.

exterior of ornate Hollywood movie theater, Portland, OR

Hollywood Theater: one of many terrific neighborhood movie houses in Portland

Main Streets

Lastly, I’ll say that I was totally jealous of how every neighborhood seemed to have its own healthy business district, amazingly each supporting both a record store and still-operational movie house to go with the requisite cutsie retail, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops.

This is likely an effect of that thing most cities have where there are actually more people living there than there were sixty years ago[3]. Sometimes humanity can be a real pain the ass, but it certainly makes it easier to populate the storefronts of Main Street.

terra cotta building facade for former theater, Pittsburgh, PA

former Atlas Theatre, Perry Hilltop, Pittsburgh

To pass through [Pittsburgh city neighborhoods] Perry Hilltop, Spring Garden, Morningside, Uptown, parts of the Hill District, etc. and see the obvious former business districts that are currently somewhere between under-utilized and totally vacant is a real bummer. Oh! to bring back the New Grenada Theater or a real grocery in Homewood or anything on Observatory Hill. Sigh.

Next up: It was a nice place to visit–and under different circumstances, we could see the appeal of living there–but coming home pointed out so many things that we love about Pittsburgh. We’ll look at those comparisons next week.


[1] Portlanders: by contrast, a huge amount of Pittsburgh looks like the hilly area just above your downtown. Here, it’s nearly impossible to avoid hill climbs unless you stick entirely to the river trails–and even then you still have to get home.
[2] The positive spin on this is that every bicycle ride is both a commute and a trip to the gym.
[3] While the greater region has grown, the city of Pittsburgh has been losing population ever since 1950, when it was more than twice its current size. [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pittsburgh#Demographics]

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.

Christmas Under the Bridge

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

We are, if the clever Orbit reader has not already divined, kerchief deep into Christmas season. It’s the all-consuming megalopolis of a holiday whose red and green, pine cone-encrusted, jingle-bell-adorned, egg nog-slurping tentacles reach so deeply that even Casey Kasem is banished from the airwaves until after the new year rolls around. Sigh. What to do when a blogger can’t even get any Hot Chocolate with his hot chocolate?

We expect this–and certainly know it’s coming–but had no idea that Ol’ St. Nick’s lords-a-leaping, geese-a-laying influence would extend all the way down under the bridges of the North Side, and yet it does. But we’re here to say that, just like Scrooge, even this bah-humbugging blogger can turn around to The Christmas SpiritTM when and where he never expected he would.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Yet another lovely sun-drenched December weekend day and another healthy afternoon two-wheeled constitutional. [Weather gods: why hath thou forsaken this blogger? How long must he wait for 45 degrees and drizzling?] This time the ride took us across the 40th Street Bridge and down to the Allegheny River trail.

It was a most curious surprise to come across. Against the tremendous concrete support for the railroad bridge that spans the Allegheny near Millvale Riverfront Park, rests a spindly, homemade Christmas tree-like sculpture, made of thick wound black wire, a discarded metal stake, and plastic holly. The tree is sparsely decorated with a handful of traditional ornaments, something that looks like a space invader, and one full set of refrigerator poetry. The current offering reads cadaver angels put wealth in the river. We poked around, snapped a few pics, went right down to the water’s edge. It was a fun little surprise, but then we were back on our way.

Refrigerator poetry from trail Christmas tree #1 reading "Cadaver angels put wealth in the river."

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Refrigerator poetry, Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1

So yet another trailside Christmas tree popping out at us just another minute or two further down the trail was starting to feel like a legitimate yuletide miracle. Here, under the 31st Street Bridge, is a medium-size Douglas fir, decked out in red, green, and silver garland, with giant candy cane ornaments, and one drug store Santa hat for a topper. A simple unfurled piece of cardboard includes the cursive Sharpie message Merry Christmas, Thank you.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2, detail

Here I met M.J., one of a number of people who camp under the on-ramp to the 31st Street Bridge. We talked for a while and I got some of the story on the tree and the group that lives here. The tree was brought in, along with a full Thanksgiving dinner spread, the week prior.

I saw a bag of apples and was heading to The Strip anyway, so I asked if I could pick up some food for the group. Surprisingly, M.J. explained that they were actually doing O.K. with food thanks to regular deliveries from the same organization that provided the tree and turkey dinner. [M.J. didn’t have a name.] I asked what the group’s other greatest needs are and he told me that he wished he could get battery-operated lanterns for everyone. He also mentioned bedding and tarps. So far, this blogger has struck out locating the kind of lanterns M.J. described, [and believe you me, he has tried] but it isn’t Christmas yet!

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1, detail


Related: Bridgette Wright’s blog post for Bike Pittsburgh details a couple of coordinated efforts to bring “care packs” to Pittsburgh’s homeless communities over the Christmas holiday. They’ll be using bicycles to deliver the packages to locations like this one under the 31st Street Bridge that are inaccessible by automobile.