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.

Take Bigelow! “Striking Distance,” 25 Years Later, Part 2: The Chase Scene Then & Now

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of a city bus colliding with a beer truck

Some things never change: PAT bus into loose-packed Iron City Beer wagon

If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for any recent amount of time–say, the last ten years, maybe just five would do it–the rate of change can seem extraordinary. Entire neighborhoods–East Liberty, Lawrenceville, The Strip District, to name the most obvious examples–have been radically transformed, downtown has a couple new skyscrapers, rents and home prices are finally starting to match other metro areas, gone are one-dollar beers and big red sauce Italian joints. So it can be comforting to us old-timers when we’re reminded that not everything is changing quite so fast.

As 2017 rolled-over to 2018, we got the idea to honor the 25th anniversary of Striking Distance–the Pittsburgh-set police action film that spawned an unexpected local meme. [For more on this, see last week’s Part 1 of the story.] The idea was to take the opening high-speed car chase through the city, find all the actual filming locations, and then take a look at how they appear today, 26 years later. [The movie was actually shot over the summer of 1992.]

If you haven’t seen that epic chase–or even if it’s just been a while–rectify that now, in the original French. See what you recognize and what you don’t. And if you really want a challenge, try to name the main filming locations–they’re (almost) all right in town. Bigelow Boulevard is, of course, a “gimme,” and you shouldn’t have any problem with the downtown shots, but after that it gets a little trickier.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Striking Distance chase scene, then and now:

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Mount Troy Road, Troy Hill, 1992

empty street with distant view to downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mount Troy Road, Troy Hill, 2018

For the opening of the sequence, father and son cops Vince and Tom Hardy head out in full dress regalia toward the Policeman’s Ball, presumably at the Point (based on the “two years later” setting elsewhere in the film). The locations team could’t have picked a more Pittsburgh scene, replete with cross-river views, the downtown skyline, and a short barrier wall before a steep drop-off. Not that it matters, but Troy Hill/Reserve Township even seems like a believable cop neighborhood.

Almost nothing in this particular panorama has changed in the last 26 years. There are more wires on the telephone poles as high-speed Internet arrived in the between-time and the trees have definitely been allowed to grow up, but that’s about it. Downtown does have some new features to its skyline (we’ll get to those in a bit)–but you can’t really see them from this angle.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Ridgway Street, Hill District, 1992

two-lane hillside road with house, Pittsburgh, PA

Ridgway Street, Hill District, 2018

There is no possible way to take Bigelow from Troy Hill, so the Hardys are magically transported across the Allegheny to Ridgway Steet, at the far eastern/upper end of the Hill District, for their careening entry to that fabled cross-city byway.

Just like we saw on Mt. Troy Road, the tiny starter saplings on Ridgway in 1992 have grown to legit shade-producing coverage today–in fact, we couldn’t even get the same angle as the Striking Distance shot because we’d be buried in shrubbery–chalk one up for Mother Nature! Other than that, we can see the city replaced the old wooden street light pole and the homeowner appears to have had some porch work done. No idea what happened to the Silverado in the driveway.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of busy street intersection in Pittsburgh, PA

Bigelow Blvd. at Bloomfield Bridge, 1992

empty street intersection with large building, Pittsburgh, PA

Bigelow Blvd. at Bloomfield Bridge, 2018

Striking Distance filming closed a pretty major east-west artery for the Hardys’ high-speed pursuit of The Polish Hill Strangler and the crew made the most of the opportunity. The approximately half-mile stretch of Bigelow from the the Bloomfield Bridge to the intersection at Herron is run backwards and forwards, crossing lanes and milking busy intersections. The movie viewer is rewarded with a lot of quick-cut chances to see the road and its pedestrian overpasses.

The biggest change here is the old Geyer Printing building, which was sold and converted into a self-storage place a while back. Gone are the big G-E-Y-E-R letters on the roof and instead we’ve got the imagery of self-storage plastered over the former windows. The whole intersection got a heavy-duty resurfacing (in cement) a few years back and still looks like it’s brand new.

Side note: I wanted to bag one of those Stagno’s Bakery trucks in the wild, but couldn’t actually find one now that I was looking. Sigh.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of alley in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Strawberry Way, Downtown, 1992

alley turned pedestrian way in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

“That’s my boy!” said our model Walter Lee Robinson on recognizing Bruce Willis in the YouTube clip I showed him. Strawberry Way, Downtown, 2018

OK, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Little Strawberry Way, the single-lane alley that runs parallel between Sixth and Seventh Streets, Downtown, has had perhaps the most dramatic makeover of our locations.

Starting maybe ten years ago, the long, lower block of Strawberry between Smithfield and Liberty started getting dressed up with temporary art installations. More recently, the city went all-in on Strawberry’s conversion from car-friendly alley to pedestrian hang-out zone. Currently, there are two blocks entirely closed-off to traffic, including the short stretch from Grant to William Penn Place where the Hardys dash down in a shortcut to intercept The Strangler on William Penn Place. These are nicely appointed with colorful street painting, tables and chairs, potted plants, and special lighted signage.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of downtown street in Pittsburgh, PA

Cherry Way, Downtown, 1992

city street in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Cherry Way, Downtown, 2018

Starting to sound like a broken record (1993)/streaming audio loop (2018), but the 400 block of Cherry Way, Downtown looks pretty much the same as it did when Pittsburgh’s finest chased that ’89 Ford. Based on the green lights in both lanes, we assume traffic was still one-way (the other direction) in 1992 which would have made this a difficult escape route for the Strangler.

What’s changed the most in this scene is a building you feel more than see. Kaufmann’s–Pittsburgh’s original, longest-standing downtown department store–was still open and operating by that name in the 1990s. I know–I bought business casual khakis there. The building still straddles little Cherry Way, forming a tunnel the filmmakers shot through for the chase scene. The downtown Kaufmann’s would be rebranded to a Macy’s in 2006 and then closed for good in 2015[1]. Currently, the elegant, 12-story building is undergoing renovation to become fancy apartments.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of Armstrong Tunnel, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel, Uptown, 1992

interior of Armstrong Tunnel, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel, Uptown, 2018

You’re thinking, what could possibly have changed in the Armstrong Tunnel? The answer, it turns out, is more than you’d expect. First off, the tile work looked a lot better in 1992–so much better we wonder if it had recently gotten a rehab treatment. Today, there are big chunks of the white ceramic that have separated and disappeared, leaving a pock-marked, water- and oil-stained surface throughout.

More interesting, though, is the tunnel’s apparent change from a two-way, bi-directional route (note the double yellow line in the earlier picture) to its current configuration with separate, dedicated inbound and outbound tubes. We have to wonder what was happening with the other tunnel in ’92. Maybe it was just a temporary closure to fix up the tiles? Who knows!

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of police car exiting fire-filled tunnel in Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel entrance, Uptown, 1992

exterior of Armstrong Tunnel with rising highway structure above, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel entrance, Uptown, 2018

You’ll be happy to know the fire in the Armstrong Tunnel was safely put out some time in the last couple decades, making the daring dash through burning police cruiser wreckage no longer required in passage from Forbes to Second Ave.

Fire or not, Steelers fans will remember this south end of the tunnel as the dangerous intersection where Ben “Why would I wear a helmet? I’m not playing football.” Roethlisberger almost ended both his life and career in a motorcycle accident in 2006. Like all the principal characters in Striking Distance (but not all the extra roles!) he made it out alive.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of downtown street and bridge in Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street and Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, 1992

empty street in downtown Pittsburgh

Smithfield Street and Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, 2018

This is another one where the real action is just out of the frame. On the near side, Point Park University continues to expand, gobbling up, restoring, and repurposing much of “First Side” downtown as it goes. Had the filmmakers chosen almost any other block in the area, we’d have a more obvious contrast.

On the other side of these buildings, every cyclist will tell you Smithfield Street Bridge is the gateway to South Side bicycle-riding as the easiest, farthest, western-most entrance to the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail (which goes from here all the way to Washington, D.C.). The town end of the bridge also has a semi-new dedicated bicycle passage to connect cyclists to the Jail Trail and a brand new switchback ramp from the bridge will take you down to The Mon Wharf and Point State Park, traffic-free. [That opens…next month?] … but you can’t see any of that in this picture.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street Bridge, 1992

ornate iron entryway to Smithfield Street Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street Bridge, 2018

The Smithfield Street Bridge, a “lenticular truss bridge,” completed in 1883 and designed by Gustav Lindenthal[2] is certainly one of the city’s most iconic crossings. The castle-like porticos on either end and gorgeous sine wave interlocking curves are about as perfect and classic as one could hope for from such a structure.

By the time this blogger arrived in Pittsburgh–just a few years after Striking Distance–the Smithfield Street Bridge had undergone a massive rehab including a new paint job of yellow-gold on the entrance ways and deep blue for the curving truss sections.

But back in 1992, the bridge was still a dingy steel gray with a tree apparently growing out of the lane separator on the south end. It also had two-way car traffic on one half and train track on the other [see previous then photo]. Today, the re-do colors remain, but they’re faded, rusted, and graffiti-scarred; the tree is gone. It may be about time for yet another paint job on this old beauty.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of city streets in Pittsburgh, PA

Intersection of Carson and Arlington, Southside, 1992

Intersection of Carson and Arlington streets, Pittsburgh, PA

Intersection of Carson and Arlington, Southside, 2018 [Note the bonus Class A Steelermobile!]

Pittsburgh’s modern light rail line (“The T”) was set up in the 1980s. Though largely running on vestigial trolley tracks through the South Hills, the newer, elevated stretch of rail connecting to the Panhandle Bridge remains the dominant presence at the intersection of Carson and Arlington on the Southside as it did in the early ’90s.

You’ll notice the same deep blue paint job the Smithfield Street Bridge received and an addition of one clearance height warning sign, but that’s all we’ve got here.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of police car standoff in Pittsburgh, PA

Second Ave., Downtown, 1992

empty street with girders for raised highway, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Second Ave., Downtown, 2018

A little tip for budding action movie makers: if you want to set your picture in gritty, urban America, make sure you’ve got an elevated highway and/or train line to film under. Pittsburgh has plenty of bridges, but the double-decker effect of Boulevard of the Allies rising over Second Avenue, Downtown, really only happens for a few blocks in this one location. Striking Distance writer/director (and Pittsburgh native) Rowdy Herrington wasn’t going to miss out on it.

The cagey quality of 1920s-era steel girders with its heavy shadows and rumble from auto traffic above makes this space still feel like an action set–even on a quiet, sunny, Sunday morning. The steel beams appear to have been newly-painted, parking rates have gone up, and the bail bondsman (just out-of-frame) is open for business 24-hours.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of car on street in front of downtown Pittsburgh, PA skyline

P.J. McArdle Roadway and downtown skyline, Mt. Washington, 1992

Pittsburgh city skyline as seen from Mt. Washington

P.J. McArdle Roadway and downtown skyline, Mt. Washington, 2018

Of course The Polish Hill Strangler would take P.J. McArdle Roadway up to very-accessible Grandview Avenue in his escape route! Mount Washington’s cobblestone streets, hairpin turns, and limited egress points are exactly what any clever criminal who “drive’s like a cop” would opt for. Regardless of the plot logic of this particular route, it leaves us with some great views of the Pittsburgh skyline…and that’s probably what Rowdy Herrington was really after.

The main difference today is that downtown Pittsburgh has been in a major construction boom for the last decade or so and it’s left us with two big additions to the skyline. The 23-story Three PNC Plaza and the 33-story Tower at PNC Plaza were completed in 2009 and 2015, respectively. Both are now clearly visible [and blocking the view of Gulf Tower!] from Grandview Ave.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington, 1992

street with large church and city view in PIttsburgh, PA

Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington, 2018

The lovely St. Mary of the Mount Catholic church still holds court at its prominent spot on Grandview Ave., its parishioners getting a glorious view of downtown Pittsburgh as they step out the big, oak front doors. We set up for our photo on the grassy lawn of St. Mary’s school next door, just like Herrington and the gang did back in the day–only, Orbit budget wouldn’t pony up for the crane shot and long lens. Regardless, it’s obvious the biggest difference from here is not what’s happening on Mt. Washington, but instead, what you can see across the river.

The so-called North Shore has had a dramatic–almost wholesale–re-envisioning since the late 1990s. Still visible in the Striking Distance scene is Three Rivers Stadium and the acres of surface-level parking surrounding it. The hallowed home to Steelers and Pirates world championships was imploded in 2001 after construction of separate dedicated venues for football and baseball had been built in the same approximate area. Our present-day shot doesn’t have the detail to show you those sportatoriums–but trust me: they’re there–as are the casino complex, Stage AE, and various other new infill.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Duquesne, PA

Center Street, Duquesne, 1992

steep Belgian block residential street in Duquesne, PA

Center Street, Duquesne, 2018

The holy grail of chase scene locations! Where is this camel back cobblestone road that launches all vehicles–from a toddler’s tricycle to a chain of police cruisers–off the street and into the air?

This one really pushed The Orbit’s research team. The only clue was the visible Oak St sign in the original clip, but it clearly wasn’t any of the Oak Streets Google Maps had to offer for Pittsburgh. IMDB listed some additonal filming locations, including both Monessen and Monongahela, but it was obvious none of those was the right place, either.

Never underestimate the combination of intuition, dumb luck, and Google Street View. We were finally able to ID the venue as Center Street in Duquesne. Center is still paved with the same hundred-year-old Belgian block, but it’s the terraced layout that really invites drama. The road flattens at each point where there’s a cross street or alley, giving it the feeling of a ramp with landings.

Now, I walked the four- or five-block length of Center Street, and while it is steep, no vehicles are leaping into the air all on their own–even going way over the speed limit. Herrington’s stunt coordinators must have installed extra jumps at each stage to launch the chase party so dramatically in the air, because that’s just not happening naturally. But then again, not happening naturally would describe how most screenings of Striking Distance take place.


[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaufmann’s
[2] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smithfield_Street_Bridge

Look Both Ways: Trafficking in Warhol Eye Cones

wheatpaste image of Campbell's Soup can on traffic cone with eyeballs

Lawrenceville

Ask anyone–they’ll tell you. It was a cold, ugly, brutal winter. Unrelenting weeks down in the ten degree range. Our thoroughfares were so pockmarked with crater-sized potholes the streets are only now becoming navigable. The Prince’s prophesy about snow in April–late April at that–was a little too true. And then into May (yes, May!) with the freezing rain and timid buds too scared to peek their tiny compressed flower heads out of protective branches. Oy!

That’s all behind us now, but weren’t we embarrassed to learn those cold north winds also blew in the most wonderful city-wide surprise right under our hunkered-down noses.

wheatpaste image of Andy Warhol wallpaper on traffic cone with eyeballs

Rachel Carson (neé 9th Street) Bridge

The first one we spotted was on the Rachel Carson Bridge. A likeness of a traffic cone, maybe 18 inches tall, wheatpasted to one of the vertical bridge supports. The image was full color, but not in the blaze orange you’d expect to see running wild in the street. Instead, the cone appears in one of Andy Warhol’s wallpaper designs–a repeating pattern of a maroon cow head against a brilliant yellow field. The piece is further decorated with eleven disembodied eyeballs, scattered loosely across the shape.

wheatpaste street art of traffic cone with Andy Warhol design and eyeballs, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on wooden board

Downtown

After that, a two-tone Campbell’s Soup design on an unoccupied Lawrenceville storefront and then another on some temporary plywood against the old Kaufmann’s building, Downtown.

A query to Orbit Nation rewarded us with the news that we weren’t alone–nor were we imagining these inscrutably arch street offerings. “I’ve seen them too,” from one, “What do they mean?” another. Most useful, a direct tag to the Instagram account of the apparent leaver of cones.

wheatpaste street art of traffic cone with eyeballs, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on spraypainted retail window, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

That photo stream–a series of unspecific pictures from Downtown Pittsburgh and a few near neighborhoods–Lawrenceville, The Strip District, the North Shore–was all it took to send Team Orbit on an obsessive egg hunt for all the eyeball-soaked, wheatpasted traffic cones we could handle.

We got a clue here and there–a location description like Downtown Pittsburgh or a recognizable detail from the Chinatown Inn–but this was no “gimme.” No, we spotted most of these just taking the old Orbitmobile out, in-and-around, and keeping the peepers primed for action. We didn’t find them all–that’s for sure–but bagged a pretty good collection.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on retail storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

ornate Chinese portico design over restaurant kitchen doors, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

We’re calling them Warhol Eye Cones for hopefully obvious reasons. [We have no idea what–if anything–their creator has named them.] The Orbit asked for an interview but, like The White House’s weekly rejection of National Public Radio, we were politely told to get bent…or, at least, no, thank you. Sigh. We’re here, if and when you ever want to talk.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on concrete wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste image of traffic cone with eyeballs on brick wall

Downtown

The Instagram photos all date from March of this year and that seems like a pretty believable timeframe for their original installation. As we made our way around town looking for the eye cones’ tell tale triangular shape and somebody’s-watching-me exterior, it was already clear the clock is ticking on chances to catch them.

A number of the pieces have already suffered under the scraper, the aforementioned cruel winter, or, in one case, a die-by-the-sword instance of duct tape-on-wheatpaste parking variance lifting the face right off one of the Lawrenceville pieces. The account’s most easy-to-locate piece was on a parking sign for the Andy Warhol Museum, but it had been scraped clean by the time we got there. Sigh.

wheatpaste images of traffic cones with eyeballs on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

wheatpaste traffic cone on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

The inevitable question: what do they mean? It’s got to come up because someone always needs an explanation.

The short answer is we don’t know. As mentioned, the eye coner prefers to let their eyeballs do the talking, which leaves our fingers to do the guessing. It’s hard to draw any obvious line between this mundane, utile object, eleven arhythmic floating eyeballs, and the nods to Andy Warhol’s greatest hits.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on wall with Pirates baseball mural, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

exterior wall of PNC Park with wheatpaste traffic cone, Pittsburgh, PA

PNC Park

The latter is probably the easiest to divine. Our wheatpaster appears to have been but a temporary visitor to the city–moving on/back to Chicago and San Francisco, based on their Instagram trail. Acknowledging Pittsburgh’s most famous locally-born artist, they’ve worked reproductions of Warhol silkscreens, early paintings, and decorative designs into the pieces. For the rest of it…who knows?

For our part, we’ll say it again: The Orbit loves a good egg hunt. Any excuse to take another look down the alleys, under the bridges, and by the electrical panels is enough to make this effort a rewarding one. The thrill of nabbing one more eye cone is something no discerning Pittsburgher should live without. Those eleven eyeballs may stare at you with the force of five-and-a-half infants, but they’re really whispering in your ear: come find me, I dare you.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on electric panel

Lawrenceville

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on construction trailer, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles, Part 2

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades “Toynbee Tile” #4 (detail), Blvd. of the Allies, downtown

A cautionary tale: Whenever one thinks she or he has reached the end of the metaphorical line and is dangling by the very last fibers above the abyss, know that if you’re successfully converting oxygen to carbon dioxide, you’ve still got a fighting chance. Heck, maybe one day we’ll finally get the high-quality hemp rope N.O.R.M.L. promised us back in the ’90s.

Just a few months back, we bagged what we thought were the very last “Toynbee tiles” in Pittsburgh. Those two little street artworks, both found on Blvd. of the Allies downtown, are actually courtesy of the equally-mysterious House of Hades, which is believed to be either copycat or super-fan, depending on one’s viewpoint. [Our handful of “real” Toynbee tiles are, sadly, long gone.]

linoleum art of city scene at night, imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

city at night tile (detail), Blvd. of the Allies, downtown

And so, as we said in that post, that was all she seemed to write…err, carve into linoleum and press into the street.

But (yes: there’s always a big but) how wrong a blogger can be! Within mere blocks of those two specimens, we encountered yet another pair of wayward street tiles–apparently from the very same hands. The first of these is on Smithfield Street, right before the bridge; the other just around the corner and up a block on the Boulevard (at Cherry Way).

The former (we’re calling it House of Hades tile #3) includes the exact same message as tile #1 from the previous post: House of Hades / One man versus American media in society ‘2012. This one also has the added ominous zinger To punish them all.

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades tile #3, Smithfield Street at First Ave.

Tile #4 is a little more difficult to parse. The Toynbee half of it contains what we’ve come to recognize as a naked lady’s shapely gam across the top (there was probably a right leg to go with this left, but it’s gone now), plus some of the familiar big headline text: House of Hades / The resurrection of Toynbee’s idea in society ‘2012. It also contains an extra stanza in relative fine print with the disturbing message I must work harder to punish these butchers for all that they’ve done.

The most unusual thing about #4, though, has to be that it’s also immediately abutting/overlapping yet another linoleum street tile of an entirely different mood and design. This one, vertical in composition with rounded corners, features a night scene in one-point perspective of a car driving toward a stylized big city skyline [notably not Pittsburgh]. A crescent moon hangs overhead against the star-speckled black sky.

It’s probably safe to say this nightscape is not the work of either the Toynbee or House of Hades folks. Aside from the medium itself, it just has none of the tell-tale style elements or apocalyptic messaging. That said, it sure is curious that the two ended up where they did. With all the available, naked pavement out there, how do two road tiles lie nearly right on top of each other? Can’t we all get along!

House of Hades "Toynbee Tile" imprinted on city street, Pittsburgh, PA

The full scene. House of Hades tile #4/nighttime city scene, Blvd. of the Allies at Cherry Way

Are these really the last of the Toynbee (inspired) tiles in Pittsburgh? We sure hope that isn’t the case and we’ll not make the mistake of trying to declare such a truth again. Fool me twice, as they say.

Plus, like that desperate hero watching the fraying strands of her lifeline unspool from its anchor above, we like to think there’s a little more life left in these streets and–with it now legal in 30 states–hemp is on the way. We haven’t given up just yet.


See also: Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles: (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 9, 2017)

Heavy Petting: The Anthrocon Fursuit Parade 2017

parade marchers in fursuits including large rabbit, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Tongues out, ears up, that’s the way we like to strut. Big bunny and other Fursuit Parade marchers.

Let’s get something straight: there is a lot of fake fur. Short pile like a hiker’s Thermafleece® and the deep shag of a drug lord’s living room carpet; zebra-striped, tiger-blazed, and leopard-spotted; black, white, and every color in-between.

Anthrocon’s annual Fursuit Parade features more plush, fuzzy softness than you’re likely to encounter in a lifetime…or until next year’s convention, whichever comes first. Like the allies storming Omaha Beach, wave after wave of fluffy fixed-faced cartoon cats and permanent growl ear-tagged wolves assaulted the senses and delighted spectators in their relentless pursuit of high-paws parade-route salutations and head patting approval. And we gave it to them–oh yes, we gave it to them.

group of fursuit-wearing parade marchers, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

A handful of the 1,890 different fursuited parade marchers

fursuit costume of cat with glasses in baseball uniform for team Piecats, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Baseball cat: Piecats manager.

fursuits various color dogs, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy? Orange fox* and friends.

Anthrocon, the “world’s largest convention for those fascinated with anthropomorphics” was back in Pittsburgh last weekend for its twelfth consecutive summer meetup and twentieth year overall. For the festival’s annual four-day run, both full-on suited-up furries and the dreaming-of-the-big-time ears-and-tail crowd carouse and kibitz throughout downtown streets. Whether you’re participant or gawker, it’s a lot of fun.

But if you really want to see the fur fly by–as well as witness the hyperbole of furry fandom–ground zero is down by the convention center on Saturday afternoon. There, the annual fursuit parade makes its short route out one door, around a horseshoe-shaped path nearly up to Penn Ave., and the back inside the other wing of the convention center. It draws thousands of local onlookers for their best, closest look at the full technicolor menagerie.

indeterminate fursuit costumes with shirts "#KRUMP" and "#VOGUE", Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Let’s party! Two-thirds of the #TWERK / #KRUMP / #VOGUE crew.

fursuit costume of bear with long rabbit ears, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Grrrrrr. A “crux”*.

fursuits of green and pink bear, blue and white bear, and evening attire fox in wheelchair, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Evening wear fox, blue-and-white tiger hybrid, and psychedelic friend*.

It’s a short route–certainly less than a quarter mile–but getting mummified in the nearly-universal head-to-toe blanket of fuzz and shuffling through stifling July heat and humidity takes the dedication of a marine. Up close right at the mid-point, we could hear participants breaking character to wheeze sotto voce support for each other, “keep going, we’re half-way there.”

Anthrocon’s FaceBook page puts the number at 1,890 participants for this year’s parade and I can tell you, it felt like even more than that. Forty-five straight minutes of uninterrupted disco mice and barbed-wire baseball bat-brandishing bears, seductive lady foxes and goofy tongues-out psychedelic mutts[1].

fursuit costume of bear with baseball bat covered in barbed-wire Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Someone needs to switch to decaf! Barbed-wire baseball bat bear.

fursuit costume of scary rooster with arms extended over head, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Drop nuggets! Atomic rooster FTW.

fursuit costume of white dog with purple features, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Move over, Spuds McKenzie–these dogs came to party.

There is a point, however, when it’s just too much fur. While each and every anthropomorphic costume is its own unique creation, there are a lot more similarities than there are differences. Sure, somebody went crazy with the color palette here and there’s a wacky prop, in-joke, or movie reference there, but it’s remarkable how much of the same each of these animal riffs ends up being.

Not knowing what’s in these (largely much younger) folks minds, the obvious touchstones seem to be the kind of grinning goofiness and high saturation of “classic” Saturday morning cartoons–think Scooby Doo, Deputy Dawg, Mighty Mouse, and Kung Fooey. Parade marchers would not be out-of-place in the worlds of Hanna-Barbera or Sid & Marty Kroft–although the frequent additions of ’90s style rave attire, wink-wink naughtiness, and anime sheen are deployed liberally.

fursuit blue bear costume, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

blue tiger*

group of fursuit-wearing parade marchers, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

parade marchers

fursuit costome of leopard wearing cheerleader outfit, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Go team! Cheerleader cheetah, rollin’ cougar*.

It seems strange that this subculture–as vulnerable and ripe for ridicule as any set of outsiders–would be as internally uniform as it is. (At least, to non-participant.) While the suits are all unique–don’t go looking for one at Target–they’re rarely handmade. Companies like Made Fur You and Kilcodo Costumes charge upwards of several thousand dollars for a full head-to-toe custom outfit that fits within a very narrow cartoon aesthetic. The inspiration may be animals, but this isn’t the world of Marlin Perkins’ Wild Kingdom; other than these few, rare outliers, it’s strictly the prolonged colorful, safe adolescence of Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

So it is a pleasant detour–a relief even–to see the off-script giant shark, an obviously homemade sad dragon, the couple birds with fully-articulated wingspans, and an alien lizard creature in clinking in metallic silver scales. It’s not The Orbit‘s place to tell furries what to do, but just like Chabad’s menorahmobiles, we’d love to see more fans take the costume-making (literally) into their own hands and create something truly original in the process.

homemade fursuit of green dragon head, tail, and gloves, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

A rare homemade (partial) fursuit. Green dragon.

costume with silver metal scales and wings, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Colonel Clink. Silver metal-scaled dragon*.

fursuit costume of dragon in police uniform, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Those don’t look like regulation footwear. Police dragon.

young woman in blood-spattered skirt and blouse, Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Oops…wrong convention! Blood-splattered spoilt Victorian child.

If you’ve seen Fursonas, Dominic Rodriguez’ locally-made 2016 documentary on the furry community, you’ll not soon forget its most controversial figure. “Uncle Kage” (pronounced kah-GAY) comes off as a perpetually deep-pour rosé-swilling megalomaniac who lectures rapt convention-goers on a level of deceitful media manipulation that would make Steve Bannon blush.

In Kage’s mind, the world is out to get the fursuited few, and it is only through a strictly-committed loose lips sink ships effort of Trumpian loyalty and intensely mannered public relations that the community’s lifestyle is able to survive the forces hell-bent on destroying it.

man with lab coat and bullhorn in Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Uncle Kage (with bullhorn) and entourage

So the sight of Uncle Kage closing out the parade in his trademark lab coat, barking an abbreviated version of his patented stream-of-consciousness ranting through a bullhorn–a top hat-wearing lackey in tow–really did give this blogger chills on a hot day.

If Kage’s ultimate goal is acceptance, he’s got it. While the convention is in town, downtown’s burger joints and pizza parlors roll out the red carpet for Anthrocon’s tail-wagging attendees to walk their paws in for supper. Nice, suburban families drive in to take selfies with permanent grin pooch-people. Every local news outlet sends their perky human interest beat reporter to smarm and eyeroll through a two-minute feel good piece.

KDKA News photographer and reporter covering Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

The Orbit wasn’t the only media outlet covering the Fursuit Parade, but at least we weren’t invited. KDKA News.

Whatever goes on behind closed convention-rate Westin Hotel doors is those humanoid badgers’, muskrats’, and flying squirrels’ business. Maybe at one time the fears of freaky, deviant sex got people up in arms, but frankly, I don’t think anybody cares that much–at least, not anymore. There’s just a lot bigger problems in the world than worrying about whether some twenty-somethings are turned-on by polymeric fibers.

We certainly have them–bigger problems, that is–but every year that Anthrocon comes to town and puts on the dog (sorry) for us locals is not one of them. It’s an annual highlight, for sure, as well as a wonderful evolving get-to-know-you mystery in the way all long-term relationships are. Let’s hope it keeps growing.

two children posing for photograph with person in fursuit costume of sabretooth tiger at Anthrocon 2017 Fursuit Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Good old-fashion family fun. Sabre-toothed tiger and fans.


* Many thanks to Reddit /r/furry community member Shetani (username acinonyxjubatusrex) with help identifying the species represented in these fursuits. Our original post was updated based on Cheetah’s personal knowledge. We appreciate the help.

[1] Having a blown a trombone for well over an hour during last year’s event, this blogger can tell you 2016’s parade was even longer.

Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles

Street art "Toynbee tile" reading "House of Hades, one man versus American media in society: 2012", Pittsburgh, PA

Pennies for your paranoid thoughts. House of Hades tile #1, Blvd. of the Allies at Market St., Downtown.

The style is exactly the same: linoleum tile, constructed in reverse, and embedded as mosaic into a tar base that is applied directly to road surface. Ultimately, the piece will fuse with street macadam given enough over-rolling traffic to force it into the pavement. Arch messages are cut into rough block capital letters and have a familiar cryptic apocalyptic tone with phrases like House of Hades and Media must be reduced to ash in society.

We know these–they’re the so-called “Toynbee Tiles”…right? The (very literal) street art/paranoia phenomenon has emanated from center city Philadelphia outward for several decades now. They’ve been featured in their own investigative documentary film [Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2012)], and–at least at one time–decorated a bunch of streets in the Golden Triangle.

Street art "Toynbee tile" reading "House of Hades, media must be reduced to ash in society: 2012", Pittsburgh, PA

House of Hades tile #2, Blvd. of the Allies at Wood St., Downtown

But…not so fast. For one thing, pretty much every legitimate Toynbee tile in downtown Pittsburgh has vanished from this earth[1]. We chronicled a bunch of these in our stories on The Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street and its follow-up Orbit obit to The Last Toynbee Tile on Smithfield Street a year later. The all-things-Toynbee site toynbeeidea.com has a Google map that includes pinpoints for eight different tiles that used to exist on Smithfield, Forbes, Oliver, and Commonweath Place. Under Orbit due diligence, our bicycle- and sidewalk-based researchers criss-crossed downtown and couldn’t locate a single extant tile from this set.

Second, the pair of tiles that arrived on Blvd. of the Allies (photographed here, but not currently on toynbeeidea.com’s map) aren’t strictly “Toynbee”. Whether they’re the work of a copycat, tributes to the original, or just plain doing their own thing (using the same visual language), is a matter of some debate. What’s clear, though, is that these House of Hades tiles have been left by a different crew than the person Resurrect Dead researcher/filmmaker Steve Weinik calls The Toynbee Tiler (“TTT”).

map of downtown Pittsburgh with locations marked for former locations of Toynbee tiles

Red dots mark the former locations of eight Toynbee tiles in downtown Pittsburgh–now all are gone. [map: toynbeeidea.com]

The ominous warning One man versus American media in society certainly comes off as incredibly timely given the current political climate. But in fact these messages go back well before Steve Bannon’s elevation to the White House. Both pieces contain the date 2012. This may or may not be accurate to the time of installation, but that’s around when we first remember tripping across them.

Information on this “House of Hades” is scant. Is it the message or the maker? As these things go, there’s no P.O. box to send your S.A.S.E. into or 800 number to call for a free brochure. ToynbeeIdea.com claims the tiles started appearing in Buffalo some time in the oughts and “look nice, but don’t last long”[2]. That’s not our experience, though. The pair on Boulevard remains nearly perfect five (or more) years on. Of course, we probably don’t have the volume of Philly traffic they’re comparing them to, but it’s still impressive.

street art "Toynbee tile" and buildings of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Regardless, we’ll re-issue that old Orbit saw and simply say, House of Hades–who- or whatever you are–we’re glad somebody’s still out there carving wacky words, spoons, and lady legs into street decoration and we’re glad you dropped enough morsels in downtown Pittsburgh for us to chew on for a while. If it stops us in our tracks–possibly with oncoming travel barreling forward–makes us wonder, and gives the noodle a twist, well, you’re all right by us.

Oh–and one more thing: while The Orbit may technically qualify as part of “the media” [in its loosest, most pathetic usage], please don’t reduce us to ash just yet. We’ve still got some things we want to cover.

street art "Toynbee tile" and buildings of downtown Pittsburgh, PA


[1] That we know of…but The Orbit is pretty sure this is it. If you know of any other remaining Toynbee tiles in the city, please educate us.
[2] http://www.toynbeeidea.com/house-of-hades/


See also: Highway to Hell: The House of Hades “Toynbee” Tiles, Part 2: (Pittsburgh Orbit, August 6, 2017)

Re:NEW Festival: DRAP-ART

Chinese temples made by artist Gao Yansong from recycled boxes

Gao Yansong “The Chinese Dream Marlboro” and “The Chinese Dream NIKE”

It can’t be easy to light up a brand new festival. Why, you’ve got to do a bunch of planning, organize volunteers, negotiate with venues, talk people into doing umpteen different things, write a grant, create a logo, secure a domain name, and then when the day–or month–finally rolls around, you can only cross your fingers and hope that somebody–anybody–is willing to give your goofy idea a shot. It’s exhausting just thinking about it.

The folks that cooked-up this year’s Re:NEW Festival* weren’t mucking about. The festival spans a full month across a dozen different downtown venues, features a slew of staggered events, long-run gallery shows, lamppost banners, glossy printed materials, and of course, printed t-shirts. Oh, yeah–they also decided to stage the North American premier of a world-renowned international recycled art festival/organization, just so you’ll know they aren’t slacking.

sculpture of tiny skiers on lanscape of recycled circuit board by artist David Martin

David Martín “Ski” (detail)

pendant lamp created by artist Imanol Ossa from piano keys

Imanol Ossa “Piano XL Lamp”

From its web site, DRAP-ART is a Barcelona-based “association of artists who have chosen trash to be their material and/or conceptual resource.” Whether you want to call it recycled or repurposed or straight-up trash, (a term DRAP seems to have embraced) the non-standard (typically) mixed media is front-and-center in almost every piece in the show.

Bic pens and piano keys dangle from pendant lamps, a woman’s mod-inspired go-go dress is created with the pop-tops from aluminum cans and sewn with plastic bag “thread”. There are robots made from deconstructed office equipment and a school of tin can-fashioned fish. Phonograph records are laser cut into birds on telephone wires and brown paper bags become the canvas for ashen drawings of industrial Detroit. Bill Miller [the only local in the bunch and one of just two Americans] turns in an incredible wall-sized mosaic/collage of cut linoleum flooring.

landscape by Irene Wölfl created from recycled plastic

Irene Wölfl “Irgendwo” (detail)

sculpture of red fish created from recycled metal can by artist Orson Buch

Orson Buch “Red Fish”

Artists do this kind of stuff all the time, but what makes the DRAP-ART show so out-of-this-world is the level of craft and the deep exploration of the various recycled media. In these artists’ hands, the use of the discarded materials is no gimmick, but rather act as really great prompts to build truly extraordinary new and fantastic things.

We could go on, but suffice to say, it’s a fantastic and truly inspirational show that is thoroughly Orbit-approved. To use the hoity-toity argot of art academia, it’s a real sock-knocker-offer. In fact, right after seeing the show we ran out to buy some new socks. It’s that good.

detail from large mosaic by Bill Miller created with recycled linoleum flooring

Bill Miller “Steal Mill” (detail)

pendant lamp created from recycled Bic pens by artist Héctor Escudero

Héctor Escudero “PENcil”

Back to those festival organizers. This blogger knows it must have been a huge undertaking to put on and we have no insight into whether attendance and sponsorship made all that worthwhile. That said, not all successes can be measured with a calculator. So we’d just like say we sure hope this first Re:NEW festival can itself be renewed next–or, at least, some future–year. It’s a great idea for an art festival and Pittsburgh is a great place to host it. We hope the public is enjoying it as much as we are.

The Orbit will even go as far as to suggest a title for the come-back: Re:NEW : Re:DUX. Don’t even say anything. By the time you’re ready, it’ll sound great.

three-piece sculpture of square boxes with recycled fencing and bamboo by artist Felip Gaig

Felip Gaig “Els Horts de Sant Vicens”

portrait of Mary Cassatt made from egg cartons by artist Verónica Arellano

Verónica Arellano “Mary Stevenson Cassatt”

A note: We included way more photos in this piece than we normally do in a post, just because there is so much great stuff we’re excited about**. Even so, this is just a small portion of what’s actually set up, beautifully-presented, and even for sale over at the Wintergarden. The show ain’t over yet, but you need to shake a leg–it ends this Saturday. Get your kiester down there and see it for yourself while you still can.

Re:NEW Festival’s DRAP-ART show is at the PPG Wintergarden (PPG1, downtown), through next Saturday, Oct. 8. Admission is free.

sculpture made from recycled ironing board, silverware, and advertising image by artist Karol Bergeret

Karol Bergeret “Camarera” (detail)


* A large-scale collaboration between city arts, tourism, downtown, and reuse organizations including the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Carnegie Museum of Art, Andy Warhol Museum, Visit Pittsburgh, Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership, Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, Construction Junction, Goodwill, etc.
** And had a hard time not including yet another half dozen photos, but that would just be ridiculous.