Reflections On A Hundred

St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh reflected in mirrored glass

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oakland

A hundred! One whole century! What a very round integer!

Yes, today Pittsburgh Orbit trips the old blogometer into three digit land. It all happened in just under one calendar year. We promise to not make a big deal about that date too, but in lieu of any real story today, we’ll take this rare opportunity to reflect on a year in the blogosphere and The Orbit‘s one hundred tiny episodes so far.

reflection of small shops on Craig Street in large glass windows, Pittsburgh, PA

Craig Street, Oakland

Why blog? Frankly, it’s not something this majority introvert ever really considered. The “me me me“-ness of so much blogging is nauseating at best and just plain pathetic (much of) the rest of the time. And what hasn’t already been covered? The answer, it turns out, is a lot. But, you know, a suggestion here, an idea there–next thing we know, we’re up and blogging.

Plus, it’s fun! Roll together a bunch of things we already loved to do (bicycle, hike, explore, take photographs, drink beer, find out about other people, write) and wrap those experiences up in little easy-to-chew bite-sized chunks. It’s a tremendous regular creative prompt and get-out-the-door keister-kicker. We recommend it!

Reflection of the former Mellon National Bank, Downtown Pittsburgh in mirrored glass windows

Former Mellon National Bank, Downtown

Who reads this stuff? A good question! The stats tell us there are site visitors from all around the world, but mainly from the U.S. and Canada (and we imagine most of those are current or former Pittsburghers). Apparently they get here from umpteen different means–social media, Reddit discussions, search engines, email lists, etc.

We’ve gotten a lot of really nice feedback from friends and site visitors, but it’s been most rewarding to connect with the various outside groups, each scratching their own funny itches. Pittsburgh’s bike and pedestrian community seems to check in on the city steps stories, there’s a devoted crew of ghost sign hunters over in the U.K., the street art folks are kept in ready supply, everybody likes to read about their friends, and just about anyone who came across them seems to love the Antignanis. Oh, and every single day someone comes in looking for Jaws.

Reflection of Market Square, Downtown Pittsburgh in glass windows

Market Square, Downtown

Regrets? Yeah, this blogger has a few! For a fellow as music-obsessed as this one, we’ve barely touched the category. We’re also starving for some more food and drink stories (the weird pizza series, notwithstanding). We’ve barely touched the South Hills, the hilltops, and still haven’t made it to Duck Hollow or Fairywood. And gosh darnit, if we’re left without being able to interview Bill Bored about the Cardboards, then this whole thing has been a waste of everybody’s time. (I suppose it won’t have been a waste of Bill Bored’s time.)

University of Pittsburgh building reflected in glass windows

University of Pittsburgh, Oakland

There are also a ton of things that would have made great Orbit obits but either disappeared before we started writing, or we were in the wrong place at the right time, or just couldn’t have done them justice: the old Nickel Bingo Parlor, Chiodo’s–its decades of dangling undergarments and its “mystery sandwich”–(former) White Towers, The Suburban Lounge and their house band The Casual Approach, St. Nicholas Church grotto–ah, hell, the list goes on and on. In any case: forgive us–we’re doing our best. Sigh.

Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh reflected in glass windows

Mellon Institute, Oakland

What’s next? Honestly, the eternal tap of great ideas has run from a gushing main to more of a babbling brook–but it’s still flowing! Maybe this blogger just needs to get up off the thinkin’ chair and put his nose to the grindstone. That said, we’ve got some fun stuff planned around Lent, springtime, weird sports, fried fish, wacky artists, a hunt for the elusive paw-paw, and of course, Cemetober. Keep that Internet web browser dialed-in right here, folks.

reflection-oliver-way

Oliver Ave., Downtown

Un-Graffiti: No Parking! (Part 1)

white brick wall with "NO PARKING" painted in red, Pittsburgh, PA

NO PARKING, Oakland

Parking, man. People get so damn worked-up about it.

When first The Orbit introduced the notion of “un-graffiti” some most-of-a-year-ago, it wasn’t clear there’d be much more to that particular story. How wrong we were! As it turned out, over and over again we were seeing not just more examples of the form, but the very particular one of business owners taking the law into their own hands with D.I.Y. graffiti-style No Parking signs. We have so many of these that our hard drive overfloweth with this particular bounty. Here we bring you just the cream of this particular crop…so far.

brick wall with message "Theatre. Quiet please. No parking." painted, Downtown Pittsburgh

THEATRE QUIET PLEASE *NO PARKING*, Downtown

In our digital-age interpretation of ALL CAPS as text-based shouting, the QUIET PLEASE portion of this particular message comes as a humorous incongruity. I believe the “theatre” location is actually still valid (either Harris or Arcade Comedy? It’s somewhere near the back/alley side of those two) though I imagine this sign predates the modern use of the space. The different color paint, elongated verticals, and general sloppiness of the NO PARKING half of the message suggest it was appended at some point after the initial job.

corrugated metal doors with hand-painted no parking message

DOORWAY DON’T BLOCK! No parking, Strip District

This blogger is sitting on a ton of pictures taken around the set of corrugated metal warehouses in the 3100 block of Penn and Liberty in The Strip. They just always look great and get such terrific weird light sneaking in over The Hill and down through the canyon between the tight buildings on either side of the Spring Way alley. What we’ll do with those, who knows? But there happens to be one qualifying no parking entry here, this with the re-phrase DOORWAY DON’T BLOCK–the no parking a mere afterthought.

no-parking-arrow

NO PARKING, Lawrenceville

Why is the NO only one brick high, but PARKING gets two? The directness (literally) of the arrow is so great…and specific. “Is it just right here? Is it OK if I park over there?” Whatever the explanation, it’s clear the owner of this property on Cabinet Way in Lawrenceville (a church school, rather than a home, if memory serves) doesn’t want to ask too much. Give the lord this one spot; do what you want anywhere else.

garage door spray painted with "Please. No parking in front of garage. Thank you."

Please. No parking in front of garage. Thank you. Lawrenceville

The most courteous no parking sign you’ll likely find. The message is written in a friendly cursive, includes an abstracted flower (?) decoration, and is bookended with both “Please” and “Thank you.” It makes this blogger almost want to abandon a car here, just to meet these nice folks.

brick walk with no parking message painted

NO PARKING ON SIDEWALK, North Side

Found on an alley in central North Side, this example is so perfect it looks like a film set. The worn red brick wall, the steel bars on the blocked-out windows, and the perfectly-painted (stenciled?) NO PARKING ON SIDEWALK that’s likely fifty or sixty years old (?) are all…just so. You could line up the Sharks and Jets or Pink Ladies and greasers in front of this backdrop and have a right proper switchblade-slinging bubblegum-popping sing-and-dance off. Cue: Vinnie Barbarino–this time we’re racing for pinks. Wop-de-wop, shoo-bop de-doobie-do.

faded painting on brick wall reading "No Parking at any time", Glassport, PA

*NO* PARKING at any time, Glassport

Another old sign so quaintly precious it’s hard to believe. This one has the bonus keystone-shaped Official [unreadable] ghost sign above it (probably a former Pennsylvania state inspection station?). The no-nonsense *NO PARKING* followed by the sweet lower-case at any time have a nice good cop/bad cop duality that seems to come from another time–don’t park here, but we still like you. Come back for an inspection and maybe an oil change…at any time.

Painting on brick wall of pizza restaurant reading "NO Parking Pizza Only ... -- or Towed at your own risk!", Homestead, PA

NO PARKING PIZZA ONLY … — OR TOWED at your own risk! Homestead

An embarrassment of riches…or at least messages. Is it “no parking” or “parking pizza only”? Why is there both an ellipsis and an m-dash? How can you be “towed at your own risk!”?Regardless of any lapses in pre-paint proof-reading (err…proof-thinking-through), it’s pretty obvious Di Sallas Pizza in Homestead would like you to pick up your pie and get the hell out–you can leave the motor running. The glowing online testimonials suggest the Di Sallas spent more time in the kitchen than either art or English class and we should come back to cover this place for The Pizza Chase–we’ll just watch where we park.

hand-painted sign on cement wall reading "Parking only Dollar Store and More"

PARKING ONLY DOLLAR STORE AND MORE, Forest Hills

Weed and See: The “Adjutant” Murals and Riverwalk Cleanup

Adjutant mural, downtown Pittsburgh river walk

They leapt right out, wheels in full motion, from a bicycle seat all the way across the river. There, beneath the on-ramp to the Fort Duquesne Bridge, along the thick concrete barrier walls by Gateway Center, stretches a new(ish) blocks-long mural (or series of murals, whichever way you see it). Even from a significant distance and shaded by the ramp structure above, the painting reads as a great collection of wild flora. It begged for further investigation so we legged it up over the bridge, around the park, and down to the river’s edge.

View of downtown Pittsburgh and the Allegheny River from the North Side with Adjutant murals visible under the Fort Duquesne Bridge ramp

In context: the new river walk murals, under the Fort Duquesne Bridge ramp, from the North Shore

Pittsburgh Orbit has spilled its share of virtual ink looking backwards. We’ve devoted an entire series of “Orbit obits” to things that aren’t there any more and when you fetishize ghost houses and ghost signs and graffiti as much as we do, well, you’re not really thinking about your future.

So we thought we’d start 2016 off right with a fresh-faced forward-looking story on something new to us and nearly brand new to Pittsburgh: this terrific blocks-long series of murals decorating the Allegheny side of the downtown riverwalk.

Adjutant mural detail, downtown Pittsburgh river walk

The murals are actually half a year old at this point, making this blogger wonder where the hell was I? Though he’s bragging about eagle-eying the paintings on this ride, he had to have been down this stretch of riverbank dozens of times without ever seeing them, nor did we catch any coverage in the local news last summer. So let this post be another reminder to get out there and keep the peepers scanning!

Though entirely uncredited at the site (as far as I could tell), The Orbit can Google with the best of them. The giant piece is the vision of artist Kim Beck and titled Adjutant (a fancy word pulled from a Henry David Thoreau quote). A team of some 150 volunteers organized by Riverlife Pittsburgh executed the work during the Three Rivers Arts Festival last June. Two blog posts on the Riverlife site give all the pertinent background and details [see links below].

Adjutant mural, downtown Pittsburgh river walk

If you ever used this section of the riverwalk–the stretch that runs between the northeast corner of Point State Park and the slender Allegheny Riverfront Park that picks up around the Clemente (née Sixth Street) Bridge–you don’t likely remember it for its charms. The passageway was perfectly utile and never felt dangerous (at least in daylight), but walking or bicycling through always seemed like traveling where one wasn’t supposed to–fairly lawless and designed to dock giant barges, not facilitate pedestrian traffic. Corners under the bridge often contained the sleeping bags, tarps, and cardboard boxes of the population that lived down there. Discarded liquor bottles, beer cans, and snack wrappers pointed to late night boozers and early morning fishermen who hung out under its private, protected shelter.

So the project to create the 850-foot (approximately three to four city blocks) mural is both a very welcome beautification of an extremely cold, hard, and dark urban space and also seems to be a wholesale cleanup effort to make the passageway a truly inviting link between the parks on either end.

Adjutant mural of Canada thistle under Fort Duquesne Bridge ramp, Pittsburgh, PA

Not only was this stretch scrubbed for the mural’s creation during the arts festival, but it amazingly seems to have stayed that way some six months on. The pedestrian section of the walk is remarkably litter-free and either Pittsburgh’s taggers have decided to leave these walls alone or the city’s graffiti removal crew does spot-on repair work (I’d bank on the former).

That’s all great, but “cleaning up” part of a city is always a loaded term–especially when it involves human beings. As nice and inviting as the new space is, we can’t help but think about those who were displaced (we assume?) in its transition. We’ve noticed homeless camps pushing farther out from town in a way that suggests you have to go that far to not get hassled by the man. We inadvertently ran into one such group in the Christmas Under the Bridge piece a couple weeks back.

Adjutant mural, downtown Pittsburgh river walk

The murals are large-scale depictions of common weeds that appear along Pittsburgh’s riverbanks, rendered in the lean palette of black, white, and a couple shades of gray. Artist Kim Beck informed us that the palette was dictated by the commissioning agency. They look great, but we can’t help but think the addition of some real color would warm the space up considerably and “pop” dramatically against the drab surroundings. That said, we’ll take what we can get, and this is a big improvement on the visual space.

Pittsburgh Orbit’s Pennsylvania wildlife consultant and resident deep woodsman Tim Tomon came down from the trees long enough to identify dandelion, goldenrod, mulberry, pearly everlasting, thistle, wild peppergrass, and wood sorrel among the silhouetted weeds.

Beck’s re-casting of weeds as giant expressions of beauty is certainly an exciting and inviting vision for this just-recently prettified stretch of town. The bright green of the real weeds that peek out from the cracks between foot surface and retaining wall are the only elements of color one sees (save for the bright yellow bridge deck above). Both serve as sweet reminders that a “weed” is purely a situational notion. These all look pretty good to me.

Adjutant mural, downtown Pittsburgh river walk

Sources/more info:

An Orbit Obit: The Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street

Toynbee Tile reading "Toynbee Idea in movie '2001' resurrect dead on planet Jupiter"

Resurrect dead while you can. The last remaining Smithfield Street Toynbee Tile, Downtown.

It was not that long ago (February, to be exact) when Pittsburgh Orbit filed one of its earliest stories on the great run of five “Toynbee Tiles” that were imprinted on Smithfield Street, approximately one per block from Boulevard of the Allies to Sixth, downtown.

This blogger likes to think The Orbit come a long way since those nascent days of yore, [Only two paragraphs of text? Who was doing the photo editing?] but looking back on this very recent history, it’s also a reminder of how rapidly (and drastically) things can change in the city as a whole. [Young people: for good or bad, back in the ’90s/early aughts, the words “Pittsburgh,” “rapid,” and “change” were never bundled in the same text.]

I’ve gotten in the habit of eyeballing and taking inventory of the Toynbee Tiles every time I ride through downtown, inevitably on Smithfield’s relatively-convenient route from the South Side to the great new Penn Ave. bike lane. It’s news to no one that there’s a tremendous amount of development happening in town right now–you see giant cranes, construction fencing, and torn up pavement everywhere you look. But I was startled to find that as of this past weekend–less than a year after that early blog post–only one out of the five Toynbee Tiles was still intact. The sole survivor (pictured above) is at the corner of Smithfield and Oliver Way.

It doesn’t seem like there was any malice involved here or that the tiles were actively removed in a clean-up effort. [Let’s hope not: the city has far bigger infrastructure-shaped fish to fry.] There just seems to be that much digging up of streets and running new, uh, things under them. The block of Smithfield from Sixth to Seventh has been totally resurfaced.

terra cotta storefront for former G's Restaurant and Pizzeria, Pittsburgh, PA

(The former) G’s Restaurant and Pizzeria on a torn-up Forbes Ave., Downtown

Fifteen years ago, me and a whole bunch of other concerned citizens drank a lot of beers and ate a lot of fried zucchini at The Chart Room in the name of not having downtown Pittsburgh eaten alive (or something like that) (hey: it worked, didn’t it? sort of?). The Chart Room is long gone (heavy sigh), but at least the building didn’t get torn down. [Sadly we can’t say the same for the old nickel bingo parlor across the street.]

No, The Chart Room got mangled by choice, in private hands, without needing any help from eminent domain. It’s strange to have lived through that extreme “Hail Mary”/desperation-style urban planning only to wake up in an entirely new world where big money comes in and builds big things all on its own. It’s different in a whole lot of important, structural ways, but still strangely the same as it seemed like it might have turned out to be. Resurrect dead, indeed.

Ah, hell. If you want The Orbit’s advice, go check out the last Toynbee Tile on Smithfield Street while you still can. It won’t be there forever.

Downtown Flood Markers

Close-up of a marker for the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 on the former Joseph Horne department store, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Waaaaaaay back (O.K., it was just at the beginning of the year) this only notional blog kicked itself off with a story on one set of cryptic runes reading H.W. 46 ft. 3-18-1936. That (Spoiler alert!) ended up being about the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 and a couple extant markers we had located in the industrial section of Manchester/Chateau on the North Side.

This blogger wondered aloud (in print) that there must be more where this came from, but that we weren’t actually aware of any. Informed readers responded (thanks Pauline!) to tip us off and we finally followed-up over Labor Day weekend with a cruise downtown to spot a couple more flood markers.

The first of these sits high on a wall (maybe twelve or so feet above street level) at the corner of Penn Ave. and Stanwix Street, on the old Horne’s department store. [The current tenant is the appropriately-named Highmark Insurance company.] It’s a simple brass marker, and like the others, it’s got the date of the flood (actually the day after St. Patrick’s Day, when the water crested) and height (46 ft.).

Marker for the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 on the former Joseph Horne department store, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

In context: flood marker on the former Horne’s, Penn & Stanwix, Downtown

We let our fingers do the walking and came up with a tip for one more downtown marker. This one on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building on The Boulevard of the Allies. Then, of course, we let our legs do the bicycling, our pores do the sweating (it was really hot that day!), and our fingers do the shutter-clicking to snap this pic.

I realized that I’d never actually walked right up to the Post-Gazette building before, although I’d ridden/driven by plenty of times. I was first impressed by their nice row of thriving potted plants, but then even more so by the big windows that let you look right into the giant rows of printing equipment that fill the first floor. Those huge, old machines are now idle as the paper has recently moved all its printing operations to a brand new facility somewhere outside of town. Sigh. I cursed myself for never stopping to see them all spinning and cranking when they were still in use. That must have been quite a sight. Just like the flood.

Marker for the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette building, Downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Flood marker on the Post-Gazette building, Boulevard of the Allies, Downtown

Any more flood marker tips for The Orbit? Please let us know.

The Toynbee Tiles of Smithfield Street

Toynbee tile, Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh

It doesn’t get much more “street art” than the mystery “Toynbee Tiles” that have appeared embedded in the macadam of city streets throughout the country (and the world!) for the last several decades.  They’ve been tracked pretty thoroughly and their story and the search for their creator was spellbindingly told in the terrific documentary film Resurrect Dead (2011).

We don’t have the kind of quantity that exist in Philadelphia or Baltimore, but Pittsburgh still has a bunch.  Smithfield Street (downtown) is the best spot to collectively see a run of the local ones, all of which are photographed here.  There’s approximately one on each block from Boulevard of the Allies to Sixth Street.

Toynbee tile, Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh

Toynbee tile, Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh

Toynbee tile, Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh

Toynbee tile, Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh