A Splendid Day in Esplen

view of McKees Rocks, PA from Pittsburgh neighborhood of Esplen

Esplen: Gateway to McKees Rocks. View of downtown McKees Rocks from the end of Radcliffe Street.

This blogger ain’t too proud to admit he had to look it up. Where the heck is Esplen? Well, it turns out we’d been there–or, at least, driven past–plenty of times and just didn’t even know it. You probably have as well.

The little boomerang-shaped neighborhood sits at the far western edge of the city, bounded by the Ohio River, Chartiers Creek, and a set of train tracks. There is no welcome sign. If you don’t live in the area, you’ve still probably whizzed by on West Carson Street/Rt. 51 as it heads out toward McKees Rocks, Neville Island, Coraopolis, and points west. In fact, from several Esplen dead-end streets there are some quite fine, elevated views across the creek to Chartiers Ave., downtown McKees Rocks’ main drag[1].

small cinderblock building with "Lab" over front door, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery Lab

A visit to Esplen won’t take you all day. With ten or twelve very short streets, plus a similar number of alleys and block-long connectors–may be a couple hundred total houses–you can probably tour the entire neighborhood and still have time for the Sunday crossword all before lunch.

Esplen is largely zoned commercial/industrial and is home to several small factories, a trucking center, some kind of chemical plant with its own mystery “Lab”, two different plumbing and heating outfits, etc. All this and the only actual retail business is a single Sunoco station. Presumably, Esplenites cross the creek to shop in the Rocks’ business district just blocks away.

statuette of Mary with white flowers, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary with flowers, Oregon Street

statuette of Mary on pedestal of bricks, Pittsburgh, PA

She’s a brick house Mary, Oregon Street

Esplen is a tiny neighborhood–among the smallest in the city both in acreage and population–but it still has a bunch of our favorite Pittsburgh things. There is a fine pair of front yard Marys at two different Oregon Street houses, some rugged untamed hillsides–one with a couple weird tunnels (storm drains from uphill Sheraden? former sewers?)–and a set of houses built on the face of a rock wall so steep there are two flights of steps to get to the front doors. A hand-painted sign informed us the mail is delivered milkman-style via the Caledonia Way alley behind the houses.

hand-painted sign reading "Mail Box Side Porch", Pittsburgh, PA

“Mail Box Side Porch”, Caldonia Way

two frame houses with long sets of steel steps to reach the front door, Pittsburgh, PA

This is why the mail is delivered via the back alley/side porch, Oregon Street

There is no official art gallery in Esplen, but one Poplar Way cinderblock garage has its exterior wall stocked with an odd assortment of recycled signage, plus the grill from a truck, and a sun-bleached portrait of Elvis. In a pinch, it’ll do.

Another Oregon Street house (not pictured) will be fully decked out for the holiday–you name the holiday–complete with both a prominent rebel/Confederate flag and a framed poster of (black athlete) Bo Jackson on the front porch. Esplenites are clearly comfortable with dichotomy on this matter.

garage decorated with "Peace on Earth" letters, stop signs, "School Bus" sign, and mounted photograph of Elvis Presley, Pittsburgh, PA

Poplar Way garage gallery

cement retaining wall in hillside with two tunnels, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery tunnels, Esplen Street

Should you add Esplen to your must do list? As pro-Pittsburgh/gotta-see-it-all as The Orbit is, it’s hard for even us to lobby this one. It’s a cheap date, for sure–you’re only out the couple bucks for a Sunoco coffee and the gas to get you over the McKees Rocks Bridge[2]–but Bicycle Heaven is free! If our time was worth anything, would we be blogging?

That said, there’s just not much for even the most easily-amused to poke around and ponder upon. Esplen is essential if you’re trying to visit/report on every one of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods (we are), but we still recommend you take your out-of-towners to more A-list attractions like the Rising Main steps, Howard Street, or the ex-atom smasher first.

Garage door with painting of two toddlers looking in their diapers and the words "There IS a difference in plumbing", Pittsburgh, PA

Sex ed, Esplen-style


[1] Our first visit–when we took all these photos–was back in late winter when the trees were still bare, exposing views of McKees Rocks that may not exist during the lush months of summer.
[2] The western neighborhoods of Pittsburgh are not easily accessible by bicycle from the rest of the city, so yes–we drove to Esplen. If any Orbit reader has a safe, bicycle-friendly route out that way, please let us know.

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.

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.

Hail, Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup

grotto with statue of Mary in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Deluxe grotto Mary, Spring Hill

With apologies to James Rado and Jerome Ragni:

Don’t ask me why, I’m just a Mary guy
I’m Mary noon and night, Mary, she’s a sight
I’m Mary high and low, don’t ask me why, don’t know

Not really expecting Mary to fly in the breeze, get caught in the trees, or provide a hive for the buzzing bees, we’ll end this frivolity right now–there’s big Mary business on the docket!

Mary statuette in front yard grass, Pittsburgh, PA

The Run

More Marys! In super-deluxe retaining wall grottos, bedecked in spinners and lights, obscured by Halloween decorations, enveloped in the deep-fry aromas of Big Jim’s, and standing alone in shame like a misbehaving student at recess.

The Orbit was not at all sated the by The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield. No, that June, 2016 scene report just whet an appetite that inspired us to climb mountains, ford streams, and canvas for Hillary Clinton to slake this curio-religious thirst. Drink up.

Statuette of Mary in front yard, Homestead, PA

Homestead

Mary statuette in front of brick house, Pittsburgh, PA

Stanton Heights

Mary statuette in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Morningside

statue of Mary in front of older pink frame house, Pittsburgh, PA

Oakland

front yard Mary in grotto with a separate front yard Mary, Pittsburgh, PA

Big Jim’s Marys, The Run

Front yard Mary, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Mary statuette in wooded yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary of the Wood, South Side Slopes

Mary statue in grotto in front of frame house, Pittsburgh, PA

Halloween Mary, Spring Hill

statuette of Mary in front yard of house, Pittsburgh, PA

Allentown

Three statuettes of Mary in front yard of home, Pittsburgh, PA

Trio of Marys, Stanton Heights

statue of Mary in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Back yard Mary, Lawrenceville

The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield

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

Sciota Street

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

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

front yard Mary with angel statuettes, Pittsburgh, PA

Pearl Street

Mary statue in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Pearl Street

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

Mathilda Street

Front yard Mary statue, Pittsburgh, PA

Cedarville Street

Sisters of the Holy Spirit convent, Pittsburgh, PA

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

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

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

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

empty Mary housing, Pittsburgh, PA

… or here. Empty grotto, Pearl Street

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

Jesus statue in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Front yard Jesus and front porch Jesus, Pearl Street