The Front (and Back) Yard Marys of Bloomfield, Part 2

statuette of Mary in grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Ella Street

“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” – James 1:14

When first we reported on The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield (Pittsburgh Orbit: June 26, 2016), this blogger naively believed he’d bagged them all. But oh, like James, how The Orbit was lured and enticed by its own desire.

It wasn’t that we weren’t thorough. No, the way we’d figured it, every thoroughfare, side street, and back-alley was meticulously criss-crossed in a slow-motion two-wheel scan for Herself*. In this quest, we found The Blessed Mother, again and again, peering back at us from stoops and yardlets, porches and grottos all over the neighborhood.

Mary statuette seen through chainlink fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Chain link Mary, Idaline Street

statuette of Mary lying face down in backyard dirt, Pittsburgh, PA

That’s no way to treat a lady! Face-down Mary and homemade snow plow grotto, Carroll Street

But Mary–or, Marys–still managed to elude us. They clung to the shadows, behind fences, and deep in private spaces. How many more? It makes a blogger insane. Should we blow the entire Orbit budget on drone aviation/surveillance just to spy into the secluded no-access recesses of inner Bloomfield? No–that would be creepy, weird, and extreme. How many more? Should we deploy guises in our mission? The stock Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness costumes probably won’t get us far in this case, but how about dressing as “backyard inspectors” who “just need to take a few pictures” because “it’s regulation”? That could get us quick glimpses into those most private of sanctums. How many more?

Statuette of Mary in grotto of row house side yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Row houses, chain link, grape vines, Mary-and-grotto: that looks like Bloomfield to me, Torley Street

statuette of Mary by red brick rowhouse, Pittsburgh, PA

Ella Street

In The Orbit‘s defense, the Marys that did manage to emerge in the (nearly a) year since that initial post are not obvious. They’re deep cuts, B-sides, studio outtakes only fit for super fans who already own all the official releases. We’re talking a camouflaged Mary two backyards and three fences deep off tiny Mott Way; Mary face down in soggy dirt; an empty grotto your average Joseph–or customer on the way to Shur-Save–wouldn’t bat an eye at.

homemade Mary grotto without statuette in back yard of small house, Pittsburgh, PA

Empty Mary grotto, Ella Street

Mary statuette against garage wall behind chain link fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Camo Mary, Mott Way

For the obsessive collector, it’s all about the pursuit, but any hunt must be sustained by the occasional kill–[choice of words]–blessed encounter to keep up both morale and momentum. It’s fine if we haven’t bagged them all–we never will and (keep telling ourselves) that’s OK! Regardless, you’ve still got to bring something home for supper or the whole family goes hungry.

Like our old boss always said, “there’s a lot of good eating in Bloomfield”. If what they’re serving up is Mary–low-milage, sun-dried, and salt-cured–we’ll go back for seconds. Oh yeah, we’ll go back for more.

statuette of Mary in wooden backyard flower box, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary of the flower boxes, Carroll Street

two statuettes of Mary in a row house backyard, Pittsburgh, PA

Row houses, chain link, grape vines, and a pair of Marys, State Way


* Every street except Ella, whose two different front demi-yard Marys were inexcusably missed the first time around, but are captured here.

Stamp Collecting: More Pittsburgh Easter Eggs, Set in Concrete

Di Bucci and Sons brass sidewalk plaque, Pittsburgh, PA

Di Bucci and Sons

Editor’s note: our Easter special on the pursuit of figurative urban “egg hunts” generated a great suggestion from reader Larry Kramer: “OK, here’s one for intrepid city walkers: mason stamps. You know, the embedded names in a sidewalk advertising the contractor that poured it.” We liked Larry’s idea so much we asked him to pen a piece for The Orbit.

Photos and text by guest blogger Larry Kramer.


After my wife takes an untimely header on a poorly-canted section of Lawrenceville pavement, and then a wrong step from Tender while exiting with friends after a cocktail, she cautions me that maybe we should be paying more attention to where we’re walking whilst out on the streets. Chastened, we employ the method as schooled to us by our daughter: look directly in front of our feet and then scan ahead up the block a little. Repeat, and stay safe.

This seems to work and we actually find stuff we’re not looking for. There’s the random watch cap that launders up just fine and can be put to use by someone, not to mention the penny here and there which we must not stoop to pick up unless it’s positioned heads up.

Then there are the virtual rewards of pavement scanning, at least to those of us who like to make lists and perhaps don’t have the most exciting lives. I’m referring to “mason stamps”. I put that term in quotes as I’m not exactly sure that’s what the masons themselves call them, and I haven’t done the necessary homework yet to find out.[1] Anyway, you know what I’m talking about if you’ve spent any time at all walking the sidewalks of Pittsburgh–those imprints that only the best purveyors of concrete walks and driveways leave as a testament to their work. When the contractor signs their work it not only evinces their pride in it, but serves as an advertisement for future services.

Pucciarelli Brothers brass sidewalk plaque, Pittsburgh, PA

Pucciarelli Brothers, “The Concrete People”

The gold standard–or maybe I should say bronze–of these mason stamps are those of Di Bucci and Sons and Pucciarelli Brothers. Most of the time they just stamp the concrete as others do, but if the job is somewhat extensive, they’ll actually embed a bronze plaque in the sidewalk that says for all to see that both this sidewalk and this plaque are going to last a long time.

Not every mason leaves a bronze plaque behind to mark their work, but quite a few, apparently, stamp the concrete with their personal trademark. I’m not talking about their grandkids’ handprints as an amateur might do, but a deep impression of the business name and usually a phone number.

Walking around the city–at least The Strip, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, and Oakland–I became more and more aware of these, and it became a challenge to see how many I could collect. So, trusty (some may say obsolete) BlackBerry in hand, I made a concerted effort at digitally capturing all the mason stamps I could find. Not individual stamps–that could run well into the hundreds just in my wanderings–I’m talking about uniquely-named stamps.

So, starting with Di Bucci and Pucciarelli, I make my way with through the ABC’s with Avelli, Baleno, and Ciriello.

Avelli Construction Corporation sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Avelli Const. Corp.

Baleno Concrete sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Baleno Concrete

A. Ciriello sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

A. Ciriello

The Ciriello stamp is old. Not only is the phone number not prefixed with a 412 Area Code, but it harkens back to the days when phone number exchanges were named something. I recall the one from suburban Philadelphia of my youth as Windsor (WI) 6. Not sure what the HI stands for but older Pittsburgh residents might recall it.[2]

Esses can be found as my walks continue, and I start to take side streets off my well-trodden usual route, now actively in search of the elusive stamp: Santo, Scotti, Spano.

Santo sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Santo Cement Contr.

Steve Scotti Construction Company sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Steve Scotti Construction Co.

Spano sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Spano

But there’s an “R” in my future as well as I chance upon a lone, lonely Raimondo in Upper Lawrenceville. I don’t know if there are others about, but this is the only one I’ve seen.

Raimondo sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Raimondo

At this point I’m starting to come up empty. I need to expand my territory, perhaps farther out in the East End, to Shadyside, Point Breeze, East Liberty. Who knows, Highland Park? What about an excursion beyond The River to the Southside?

Something else is niggling me. I know it’s a cliché, but are all masons Italian? Apparently, not! Just as things look bleak, I find a singleton Ira G. Wilcox and a David Regan. They’re in very old concrete; don’t even try Googling these contractors as they’ve been out of business for some time, but you can try finding the stamps before they lapse into indecipherability as have some I’ve come across.

Ira G. Wilcox sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Ira G. Wilcox, contractor

David Regan Construction sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

David Regan Construction

Oh, yes. Keep your eyes on the concrete stoops. We found this one in The Strip:

Chas. Gamberi sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Chas. Gamberi, contractor

Walking The Strip today, I’m not even watching the pavement. It’s a Sunday and too many tourists to dodge. Wait, what’s that? A new one? Nope, just another Scotti, they’re a dime a dozen. On closer look, though, this one turns out to be different; a different format, and not Steve Scotti, this one’s Nick!

Nick Scotti Concrete Contractor sidewalk concrete mason stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti Concrete Contr.

The hunt goes on. I think a Southside trip is overdue. Who knows what stamps I’ll find on Carson Street?


Editor’s notes:
[1] The Internet contains remarkably little information and no obvious consensus on the term, but sidewalk stamps seems to be the favorite.
[2] The historical site phone.net46.net lists Pittsburgh’s HI exchange name as “HI-land”.

Easter Special: You Can’t Make an Omelet Without Finding Some Eggs

baby doll painted gold and hanging from telephone wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby, Lawrenceville

Matched ceramic salt and pepper shakers, ruby glass, bobbleheads, Hummel figurines, cookie jars–people collect all kinds of goofy stuff. Bakelite AM radios, Santas, and state plates, World’s Fair trinkets and glass insulators from telegraph lines. David from our West Coast rival Portland Orbit has some unique collections: cans of knock-off Dr. Pepper, eyeglass stems found on the street, other peoples’ grocery lists.

Easter may come only once a year, but every day can be the Orbiteer’s figurative egg hunt–which is really just the primordial collecting impulse–and it doesn’t cost a penny or take up any room on your shelves. Spotting is a lifelong and year-round habit: take the alley, poke behind the bushes, look down at the pavement and up in the telephone wires. [Oh, Golden Babies, how we pray we haven’t seen the last of you!]

Today, whether you’re a committed church-going, brunch-eating Easter reveler or full-on dance-naked-by-the-bonfire pagan, we celebrate some of the Orbit‘s favorite any-time/all-year-long city egg hunt targets.

protractor glued to metal driving barrier, Pittsburgh, PA

Pittsburgh protractor, Allegheny River Trail, Millvale

Pittsburgh Protractors are the easy money, chump change, fish-in-a-barrel of local urban collecting. In that way, though, they’re a great entry point–the gateway drug–to hardcore egg hunting. Either way, you have to respect the work of the protractor perpetrator(s) and we couldn’t not include the protractors in the list. There are just so damn many of the little plastic doo-dads glued all over the place that if you’re in bicycle-accessible city limits and keep your blinkers open, you’ll probably spot a few even if you’re not really trying.

ghost sign for "Arsenal Brand Meat Products" painted on side of brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign: Arsenal Brand Meat Products, Hill District

Sal’s MeatsHipCo BatteriesMother’s Best FlourOwl Cigar. Who are these vendors and what is the business arrangement that traded a (presumably) single payment into a long-after-life of marketing products that may no longer be purchased?

The hand-painted, brick wall advertising of yesteryear was all put out of business (we assume) by the arrival of big, purpose-built billboards with their larger display areas, darkness-defying flood lights, targeted sight lines, and monthly rates. That’s part of what makes so-called ghost signs so enjoyable for the egg hunter: it’s pretty obvious that there won’t be any more of them[1], and what’s left is often fading fast.

brass marker showing the 46.0 high water mark for the March 18, 1936 flood of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

1936 flood marker, Blvd. of the Allies, Downtown

Waaaay back when, the very first story committed to these virtual pages concerned a cryptic message painted around two faces of an old brick building in Manchester. That [SPOILER ALERT!] turned to be a marker for the most famous rising of the waters in Pittsburgh’s history–the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood.

We’ve found a handful more of them around downtown and on the North Side, but surprisingly few considering the immensity of the event and the age of our building stock. That just makes the hunt all that much sweeter when we zero in on previously unseen prey.

Mary statuette in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Mary and grotto, Arlington

The blessed mother, hands spread with her palms open in a welcoming embrace or–far less often–the pietà image of Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus or holding the once-and-future as a baby [see above]. Whichever way we encounter the statuary, this is Front Yard Mary [even if she’s in the side or back yard] and we’ll take her any way we can get her.

There are so many Marys out there that we’ve got separate future features planned for South Oakland, Homestead, and the South Side Slopes (at least), which hardly makes Mary the most difficult egg to hunt. That said, this is ostensibly an Easter feature…

painting of woman with three eyes by Clohn Art, wheatpasted to wood, Pittsburgh, PA

Clohn Art, Downtown

Clohn Art is the nom de plume–or perhaps nom de paintbrush–of one John Lee, whose crude extra-eyed men, women, and animal paintings are executed on the placemats of Chinese restaurants and unfurled brown paper bags. They’re found wheatpasted at construction sites, alley walls, and, in at least one case, a rusty bus shelter in Homestead.

Wherever we happen to see the artist’s distinctive little paintings, they always pop off the wall surface and bring a twisted smile to our merely two-eyed faces. Mr. Lee declined The Orbit‘s request for a feature interview [John: we’re still interested!] so we’re left to troll the back streets, hoping to grab another of those rarest of eggs: a fresh, new Clohn to nestle in the wicker basket.

teddy bear and plastic flowers left on curbside, Pittsburgh, PA

Reasonably happy-looking sad toy, Fairywood

Like some mangy old teddy bear, dropped casually from a toddler’s stroller and forced to spend purgatory face-down in the weedy berm, Al Hoff brought the concept of “sad toys” into this blogger’s life and then cruelly left us by the side of the road to fend for ourselves.

Stuffed animals with their fur matted, flattened, and filthy; a basketball, punctured and concave in an oily culvert; doll parts dismembered and jettisoned like the work of a Lilliputian serial killer. So much pathos in such tiny candy-colored doses! It’s almost too much to bear…almost. But when we find them–and these are truly both the most random and the most reliable, renewable resource of today’s eggs–we can’t help but bag them.

outline of previously-existing "ghost house" against larger brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost house, North Side

Ghost houses–the imprint of one, now-extinct building upon its still-extant neighbor–is hardly a concept unique to Pittsburgh, but we’ve got the perfect environmental conditions to produce them here. Older building stock constructed right up against each other in a previous era when the density supported a pedestrian-based workforce, coupled with decades of “benign neglect” that demolished many–some falling all on their own–and landlords caring little about fixing-up the weird negative spaces on their vacant lot-facing windowless walls.

Like many of the other ova that occupy our oculi, ghost houses are special because–like a petrified forest, or the career of Steve Guttenberg–they’re the result of such a peculiar series of historic events, circumstances, and (non-)actions over a great period of time that we’ll likely not encounter the same perfect storm here again.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Clarence the Bird pole art, Bloomfield

With Clarence the Bird, the egg hunt changes parameters. Like picking up pawpaws, where there’s one of his handmade, ink-on-cardboard Make the World Beautiful instances, there tend to be a lot. Find a Clarence and you can safely spread out–looking up and down at the adjacent-blocks’ neighboring telephone poles and bulletin boards–and you’ll likely spot more.

So far [to our knowledge], Clarence has stuck to the greater Lawrenceville-Bloomfield-Garfield-Friendship portion of the East End, but that may just be where we’ve crossed paths with his big wings and pointy beak. I’m sure if we do see his trail elsewhere, we’ll see it everywhere.

poems of The Dirty Poet taped to a lamp post, Pittsburgh, PA

Poems of The Dirty Poet, Oakland

To call locating the telephone pole and street lamp verse of The Dirty Poet “egg hunt” material is a little bit of a stretch. His Dirtiness (yes: the writer is a he) wants the short, dittoed poems he authors to be read, after all. They’ve been taped and stapled at eye level on prominent foot traffic corners for just that purpose.

Regardless, it’s still neat to run across the prickly prose and lurid lines of the Bard of the Backstreets, knowing that one is literally standing in the creator’s footprints, inhaling his boozy breath, and shimmering in what’s left of his groovy vibes. To you, Whitman of the walkways, Dickinson of the downtown, Angelou of the who are you? may we always encounter your offspring sunny side up.

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

Toynbee Tile (no longer present), Downtown

It almost feels like cheating to include the so-called Toynbee Tiles in the list–we ran a feature on the House of Hades tiles just last week. But when you get lucky enough to spot one of the remaining, legit, first-generation street pieces, well, it’s a good day indeed.

As we reported, it is The Orbit‘s conclusion that none of these still exist in metro Pittsburgh and we’re left with a pair of ersatz Hell-bound tributes. But you never know! What does Easter–and, by association, spring–offer but the arrival of new hope, possibility, and opportunity. It is a new season: the sun is shining, birds are chirping, and flowers are popping with their tiny blasts of color across late winter’s gray-brown backdrop. Go out there and get you some eggs!


[1] There are, however, several efforts out there to restore/repaint old ghost signs as new mural projects. There’s a big one on Penn Avenue in Garfield and several in Braddock that we know of.

The Protractor Files: One Last Big Score

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

Oh, their demon powers! The perfect arc, the cosine-solving magic, the eternal urban egg hunt! Wherever we go, that’s where we are–and so are they! Attached to the low wall of a concrete pedestrian walkway, stuck to the base of a lamp pole, glued to a park bench, painted red and white on a Polish Hill mailbox. Like the protagonist of any decent jewel heist flick, just when this blogger thought he was out, the Pittsburgh protractors held a dear family member hostage, blackmailing him back to the game for one last score.

protractor glued to base of light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Squirrel Hill

protractor glued to electrical box, Pittsburgh, PA

#32, Strip District

When Pittsburgh Orbit first wrote about them last year, we suggested right in the post’s title that the protractors are “disappearing”. The existing stock seemed to be in the process of removal by authorities, stripped by trophy-seekers, weather-eroded, and/or painted-over with no replacements arriving to replenish the supply.

Given a little time and perspective, though, reports of the protractors’ demise seem to be somewhat–if not greatly–exaggerated. Many of the specimens spotted in this spree–certainly the solid purple and yellow ones photographed here–appear to be new, unnumbered additions to the landscape since last we looked.

If so, why the change of M.O.? Did the protractor perpetrator just get lazy? Lose count? Or do we have a copycat on our hands? One Office Max dumpster dive plus a tube of Shoe Goo[1] and anyone could add to the city’s long-running street art mystery.

protractor attached to mail box, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

And what a mystery it is! How does anyone keep their big yap shut for this long without spilling the beans?

Is there a message to the protractors we’re all just too blind to see? Do they actually mean something or is this just someone’s goofy prank? Like the Trump voter coming to the realization the pathological liar he elected was telling the truth in just enough horrifying ways, are we in on the joke, or the butt of it?

Ah, hell. Maybe that’s something that could–and should–be said of all art[2]. If these little plastic doohickeys glued to nondescript bridge joints and light pole bases get people off their keisters, stretching their gams, asking questions, and looking at the world a little closer, you know, I.R.L. we’ll be happy to take a few lumps for Team Humanity.

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to I-beam in city park, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

protractor glued to pedestrian overpass, Pittsburgh, PA

Pedestrian overpass, Bigelow Blvd.

purple protractor attached to "Receiving Entrance" sign on stone building, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

purple protractor attached to metal expansion joint on bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

40th Street Bridge

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to park bench, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

See also:
A Paean to the Disappearing Pittsburgh Protractors Pittsburgh Orbit, June 5, 2016.
A Protractor Bender Pittsburgh Orbit, June 30, 2016.


[1] “Sources say” this is the origin story and application method for the protractors, but that is not confirmed.
[2] That the protractors may be “art” versus, say, “prank” or “graffiti” is worthy of its own debate.

Mondo Menorah! Menorahmobile Models Measured

Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA

Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Oakland

“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”

The speaker [I’m afraid I was moving too fast to get any names] is a genial, middle-aged man leaning up against a plain white passenger van that sports a glorious gold-painted menorah on its roof. Across the middle of the piece is a placard with stenciled letters: Happy Chanukah. The ornament is clearly custom-crafted and has sibling menorahs of the same exact design on dozens of other vehicles across the lot.

man posing in front of white van with rooftop menorah, Pittsburgh, PA

“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”

When you start ogling menorahmobiles–vehicles decorated with oversize ornamental electric menorahs for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah–you’ll find there are four basic models, distributed in roughly equal proportions.

There’s the plastic, light-up magnetic roof-topper made by Magnet Menorah. It basically looks like a similar-sized adjunct to the delivery car for a corporate pizza chain, only it’s got the image of nine candles, a phalanx of dreidels, a pile of gelt (gold coins), and the scrolled text Happy Chanukah in place of the Domino’s or Pizza Hut logo. This one may satisfy obligations–and is certainly convenient with minimums of both muss and fuss–but it’s got no soul. I was told “Those don’t count” by one, and even as both novice and outsider, I have to agree.

car with plastic rooftop menorah, Pittsburgh, PA

“Those don’t count.” magnet menorah by Magnet Menorah

Also commercially available is the competing, stainless steel model from CarMenorah.com. It features the eight daily Chanukah candles (each a separate, switchable LED light), four angled outward in one direction and four in the other, plus the tall center shamash. This design doesn’t have the convenient magnets, but it’s mounted to a roof-spanning bar that lashes discreetly for a nice tight side-to-side presentation. CarMenorahs come with one of a few optional professionally-printed wrapper-bases with messages like Happy Chanukah and Chabad wishes you a Happy Chanukah.

Simply by virtue of its choice in materials, CarMenorah’s design looks a lot nicer than the light-up plastic taxi topper offered by Magnet Menorah, but it still lacks any real individuality.

car with rooftop menorah reading "Chabad wishes you a happy Chanukah", Pittsburgh, PA

Stainless steel and LED CarMenorah.com design

Once you get past these mail-order, pre-fab car menorahs, we get to the good stuff.

Many vehicles feature menorahs with the same overall design as the CarMenorah piece, but built of wood on a 2×4 base rather than pre-assembled stainless steel. The more up-to-date of these include switchable LED lights; others had old-school tiny incandescent bulbs. Each set seems to have included a good-sized blank white board with room enough for the family to create their own custom messages across each side. Many simply pulled out the stencils and colored-in Happy Chanukah, but we also saw the additions of floral artwork, 8 Great Nights, and one pan of frying latkes.

Two cars with rooftop menorahs and home made "Happy Chanukah" signs, Pittsburgh, PA

Wooden menorahs make for 8 great nights!

lit rooftop menorah with homemade "Happy Chanukah" sign featuring frying latkes, Pittsburgh, PA

Thanks a latke, menorahmobile!

Finally, there is a particularly unique-to-Pittsburgh design that stands (literally) above all other car menorahs. Constructed of stout PVC pipe, spaced and jointed at 45-degree angles, and connected to a base spanning the width of the roof of a car, these menorahs extend probably 30 inches off the vehicle’s roof. A switch array connects the nine candle lights to the vehicle’s cigarette lighter. These menorahs become glorious headdresses to the otherwise plain Maximas and Odysseys they adorn.

Aside from the clever ingenuity of these materials, the PVC menorah wins on both simple elegance and sheer grandeur of its design. The menorah alone, spray-painted silver with no other adornment, is a striking and beautiful sight–the automobile underneath becomes but a humble pedestal for such interesting rolling modern sculpture.

mini van with rooftop menorah and "Happy Chanukah" banner, Pittsburgh, PA

PVC car menorah, electrical pole not included

If the spectator wants to see the full panoply of menorahmobiles, ground zero is Chabad of Pittsburgh’s Grand Menorah Parade. This year, it was held on Dec. 28, the fifth day of Chanukah. Detail-focused Orbit readers will note many photos included here have five bulbs lit and three dark.

The parade group assembles in the big back parking lot of Rodef Shalom Temple in Oakland and let this blogger tell you: it’s menorahmobiles as far and wide as the eye can see. Any lapse in reporting on this story can be blamed on the simple overwhelming number of subjects to try to catch, photograph, and say hello to in the midst of rapidly-diminishing daylight and the parade group’s imminent takeoff.

sedan with menorah and "Happy Chanukah" sign on roof, Pittsburgh, PA

Street menorahmobile, Squirrel Hill

white car with home made menorah on roof, Pittsburgh, PA

One on the street and one in the driveway. Squirrel Hill.

While fans can bag a virtually unlimited number of menorahmobiles in the setup for the parade, it’s also great to spot them “in the wild”. For the eight days of Chanukah, jaunts down the residential streets of Squirrel Hill will yield cockscombed Corollas and mohawked minivans casually parked on curbsides and driveways throughout.

* * *

One final thought: While this exercise was enlightening and fun, ultimately we found ourselves wishing the vehicle owners put more emphasis on creativity and individuality than simply selecting one of four off-the-shelf models. Menorahs come in infinite fantastic and original designs and have been a common subject for Jewish artists forever. Of course the roof of an automobile imposes some practical limitations to what the car’s owner can do, but I bet the community would come up with some really incredible creations if just given a little bit more of a prompt.

lineup for Grand Menorah Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Lineup for the Grand Menorah Parade at sundown, Rodef Shalom, Oakland

A Paean to the Disappearing Pittsburgh Protractors

purple protractor with number "500" written on it attached to garbage can, Pittsburgh, PA

The final protractor? #500, river trail, North Side

They’re all over the damn place. Protractors–those same cheap plastic devices we had to pony up for to complete ninth grade geometry–are glued to guard rails, bridge supports, waste bins, mailboxes, lamp posts, and the backs of street signs all over the city.

If you haven’t seen them, you either don’t live around here or you haven’t been looking. There are–or werehundreds of them[1]. In the hands of our pranksters/artists/mysterions (take your pick) each of the protractors has been painted a solid color, sequentially numbered by hand in big block numerals, and grafted to every manner of publicly-accessible metal surface.

green protractor glued to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

#100, North Oakland

Until now, The Orbit has resisted writing about the so-called “Pittsburgh protractors”. They’ve been around for a number of years and have achieved a certain level of obscure fame. The phenomenon is well documented in one dogged blogger’s map and database[2]. Even the local TV news got involved. The protractors don’t need us…or do they?

We started to realize that a lot of the old familiar golden, purple, green, and pink arches we’re used to seeing around town are disappearing. Gone are standout creatures of the Fort Duquesne, Smithfield Street, and Hot Metal bridges. Lamppost bases are scraped clean; big relay mailboxes and waste bin containers have simply been painted-over in not-quite-matching colors, sparing the maintenance workers the trouble of decoupling the protractors underneath. When oddity turns into nostalgic despair, that’s when The Orbit steps in.

protractor glued to mailbox, both painted hunter green, Pittsburgh, PA

#273[3], mailbox, Oakland/Shadyside (painted-over)

protractor glued to public waste bin container, Pittsburgh, PA

(unknown), river trail, North Side (painted-over)

What do the protractors mean?

The Orbit has always been content with a state of bemused wonder, so trying to suss meaning out of someone’s goofy art prank doesn’t concern us that much. As the protractor perpetrator(s) have remained mum this long, it’s unlikely we’ll get any definitive answer any time soon–if ever.

That said, it’s been commonly theorized that the shape of a protractor echoes the gentle arc and twin supports of a standard truss bridge–think the Fort Pitt, Fort Duquesne, or 16th Street bridges. It’s an appealing and believable theory. Pittsburgh is, after all, the “city of bridges,” and the protractors have been applied liberally to many of them.

Fort Pitt Bridge over the Monongahela River, Pittsburgh, PA

Fort Pitt Bridge, possible protractor prompt?

Who put these up?

It sure seems like no one knows–or, at least, no one’s talking/blogging. According on one old axe, “Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” By this logic, we’re dealing with one lone wolf–but who knows? What does seem obvious is that the person or persons behind this are intimately familiar with the walkable/ridable core of central Pittsburgh.

The aforementioned map contains points almost solely within the East End, Central North Side, and a very small representation of South Side (really just the river trail). We see nothing up in or over the hills, in the suburbs, or, frankly, in the black neighborhoods. There are also no reports from downtown, Squirrel Hill, or Greenfield–but some of this may be the bias of who’s reporting the finds, rather than actual placement.

All this certainly points to a bicycle-rider. There are a ton of protractors along the river trails and probably more along the bridge pedestrian walkways (although many of these have been removed). But beyond that….we got nuthin’.

purple protractor glued to metal blocker on bicycle trail, Pittsburgh, PA

#408, river trail, Millvale/North Side

Frankly, we’ve always had some issues with the protractors. It’s such an interesting and dedicated act of…mystery, but the slapped-on, haphazard approach and application often feels like it falls just short. Why not even them up, add an element, make them sing?

But as we muddled over this story, we realized what a minor gripe this really is. This blogger has great respect for any covert operation that exists for this long without anyone spilling the beans. We also love that the targets are all the city’s forgotten infrastructure–no private property has been harmed in the addition of the protractors[4].

And then, of course, there’s the egg hunt. If this whole thing has gotten even just a small number of dedicated weirdos to take to the streets, bridges, and bicycle trails with an eye out for the curve, well, The Orbit says hats off for the protractor perpetrators getting people off their keisters, into the outdoors, and observing their surroundings.

blue protractor glued to metal plate on 40th Street Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

#303, 40th Street Bridge


[1]  At least 500. But, you know, it ain’t official.
[2]  Just in comparing notes for this story, it was obvious how difficult keeping the map accurate and current would be. Many of the inclusions on the map are no longer there, and likewise many of the (newer?) protractors we located aren’t listed.
[3]  Identification from Eric Lidji’s Pittsburgh Protractor Map, which also includes a photo before the paint-over.
[4]  We wish the War on Google and Facebook is Boring taggers would be this respectful.