The Alleyway of Magical Delights: Remly Way

long retaining wall decorated with hundreds of organized objects

“Little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of dollars.” Remly Way, Wilmerding

If there is a single image that captures both the dedication to this awkward space and the keeper’s ability to warm up, beautify, and humanize the most lifeless of urban landscapes, it may be found in a tiny row of marigolds. The flowers are planted in a thin channel–there’s maybe five inches of arable soil–between the cement curb and an imposing retaining wall, scarred with decades of cracks, pockmarks, and vestigial stains.

Those tiny flowers, spaced neatly in a freshly-mulched bed, offer just a hint at what the first-time visitor will encounter in the next couple hundred feet, but they sure let you know someone is paying attention back here. What lies ahead is the most magical transformation of a mundane alleyway you’ll encounter anytime soon.

cement retaining wall with thin row of marigold flowers planted along the curb

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” marigolds and cement

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” says Carl Remly of his effort to clean up the little street that runs behind his house. Remly is a self-described workaholic who lives on the block and is “not too good at sitting around.” We believe him.

The combined do-good spirit and boundless energy led Remly from weeding to gardening (“I was never what you’d call a green thumb”) to decorating his tiny front yard with an oddball collection of dinosaur models, tiki figures, and bric-a-brac.

When he turned his sights on the back alley, though, Carl Remly managed to convert what was a typically ignored minor passageway into an incredible outdoor, curated art environment that is both magical and comical, wacky and serene. Don’t look for it on the map, but we’re going to refer to this highly-recommended destination as Remly Way.

brick row house with many lawn decorations

“It started with the dinosaurs in the front yard” Carl Remly’s house on Middle Street, Wilmerding

Miller Street is a three- or four-block-long, one-way alley that runs behind a stretch of century-old row house blocks in north Wilmerding. From gaps between the long buildings, you can look straight out across Turtle Creek (the creek itself, not the town named after the creek) and see several giant old Westinghouse factories. One imagines many of the folks who originally lived in these tight worker homes must have spent their days in the big brick Air Brake Machine Shop.

By chance, Miller Street also appears to be the only section of the borough Google didn’t (or couldn’t) make it down to photograph for their StreetView feature. Perhaps Remly’s work will bring the crew back for another well-deserved drive-through.

Christmas decorations in alley with view of former Westinghouse factory

View of the old Westinghouse factory from Remly Way

Part visionary garden, part art environment, and part open-air museum, Remly Way has at least four distinct stages. Each is approximately a half-block long following the contours of the big retaining wall holding up the Tri-Boro Expressway, above.

Section I: A Curious Entree (our name) is that single row of marigolds (and other flowers) at the far eastern edge where Miller Street meets Short Alley. One needn’t begin the exploration here–and if you’re in a car, you can’t (it’s a one-way, going the other direction)–but The Orbit recommends you walk it from that starting point for maximum dramatic impact.

In Section II: Christmas in June, the space between curb and wall expands just a little to give Remly the room to house larger plants, figurines, statuary, and a recycled artificial Christmas tree about every 10 feet. “A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop,” Remly says of his favorite decoration source.

concrete retaining wall decorated with artificial Christmas trees, flowers, and other items

“A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop.”

row of Christmas decorations against retaining wall in long alley

Christmas in June. Remly Way should ideally be experienced both during the day and all lit up at night.

Up until now, the alley has been a pleasant side trip–a creative way one neighbor is making the most of a thin sliver of neglected space. That all changes when we get to Remly Way’s third stage: The Museum. Here, Carl Remly’s genius for design and composition come into full form and the minds of passers-by are forever blown in the process.

On the PennDOT-sponsored shelving created by heavy steel corrugated wall sections, Remly has converted the negative space into intricate, curated collections of oddball figurines, decorative items, and topiary. There is a section containing nothing but model ducks; another with animals cast in brass and a frog fantasia. Still another groups together bald eagles, their wings reliably spread as if in imminent lift-off.

retaining wall with many model ducks

“I have a little bit of a theme to everything,” the duck display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Brass/frog display

“You read the Sunday paper and somebody in Upper Saint Clair gets the garden of the year because they paid a lot of money,” Remly says, “I just wanted to show that little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of  dollars.”

In addition to being a workaholic, Remly also confesses to being a shopaholic who makes frequent trips to flea markets, junk stores, thrift shops, and Home Depot’s post-seasonal sales.

“I have two garages that are supposed to be for my (commercial door installation) business,” Remly says, “But now they’re the holding area for all my stuff.”

retaining wall with many model bird figures

Bird display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Bunny/cat/rooster display

By the time you reach Remly Way’s final phase, Section IV: Re-entry/The Coming Down, one needs to give the peepers a rest after the eye-popping density of the previous collections. That comes in the form of a tiny parklet at the only space along the alley that will permit it–a small alcove of green grass, shaded by a bank of short trees above.

Here, Remly has included–you guessed it–more Christmas trees, plus big freestanding cartoon character decorations, a seating area in purple wicker, at least one light-up Big Foot cut-out, and a homemade sign that reads Stay Safe and Healthy. The sign is decorated with drawings of airplanes and battleships fighting the coronavirus by Remly’s grandchildren.

small parklet decorated with Christmas trees and lawn decorations

Remly Way parklet, Miller Street

cut-out Big Foot figure wrapped in Christmas lights

Light-up Big Foot, Remly Way parklet

More than a few times in our short conversation Carl Remly mentioned the desire to brighten the spirits of his neighbors and other visitors to the alley. He puts up a Christmas display every year, but with the arrival and uncertainty of everything around the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for a spring/summer pick-me-up was especially strong.

I’m here to tell you, it works. There’s a kind of magic in that little alley–a sense that if someone cares this much about his neighbors and fellow human beings that things just have to work out somehow. The experience is beautiful and surprising, free and accessible. It’s also exactly what we need more of right now.

Like the sign in Remly parklet says, stay safe and healthy, y’all.

back porches of row house with elaborate decorations

Memorial to Carl Remly’s late wife Wannitta and other decorations

porch lit with elaborate light display

The flying unicorns at night


Getting there: Our recommendation is to park somewhere around the 300 or 400 block of Middle Ave., Wilmerding (look for Fan Club Sports Bar), walk to Short Alley (note: there’s no street sign), and then left at the concrete wall (to Miller Street aka Remly Way)–you’ll see the flowers.

The Ultimate Pittsburgh Greenhouse Experience

worn painted wooden sign reading "Greenhouse"

Here’s how you get there: Go out Penn Avenue all way through Wilkinsburg and Forest Hills. Pass Vincent’s Pizza Park. [Pro tip: keep Vincent’s in mind–time things right and you can stop there for lunch on the way back.] Take the turn onto Electric Avenue to get you down into Turtle Creek. When you’re stopped, staring straight up at the giant old Westinghouse plant, make that left. You’ll slide onto the Tri-Boro Expressway, but you won’t be there long.

As soon as you see a handmade sign reading Greenhouse stuck into the grass, take that left, and then a quick right where the road forks and leads you straight up the hillside. Follow it around until you get to Henkel’s Greenhouse.

temporary roadsign for Henkel's Greenhouse

Directions to Henkel’s: it’s somewhere up the hill

Why go all the way out to Turtle Creek when there are so many places that will sell you plantlings between here and there? I’ll tell you why: Henkel’s is the ultimate Pittsburgh greenhouse experience. Thanks to my buddy Bill for the tip on this one, it’s become an annual tradition ever since.

This weekend is a couple of things: today is Mother’s Day. Nothing says “thank you for bringing me into the world” like a drug store greeting card and brunch at King’s, but this blogger really does love his momma, and momma is a terrific gardener. It also happens to be exactly the right time to get your vegetables in the ground, and this turned out to be a perfect sunshiny hot weekend to get on it (but don’t worry if you didn’t, there’s still time).

So we’re going to honor mothers, gardeners, thumbs (green and otherwise), and terrific old-school family businesses with this little Orbit tribute to Henkel’s Greenhouse via three great reasons to get your keister out to Turtle Creek.

Henkel's Greenhouse, Turtle Creek

Henkel’s Greenhouse, Turtle Creek

Reason #1: Four generations of Henkels growing your plants

I’m not going to pretend that I know the Henkel’s whole family tree and The Orbit isn’t the kind of shady “journalism” that “asks hard questions” and “gets answers.” No, we go with our gut and just hope we’re right. But here’s what our gut has witnessed over the years: a relationship of what appears to be great-grandpa, grandpa, father, and son (yes: all Henkel growers seem to be male), ages roughly eight to eighty, sowin’ and growin’ together. It’s beautiful. (But guys: maybe let the ladies get in the dirt too.)

Henkel's Greenhouse with tomato varieties

Tomato/pepper greenhouse, Henkel’s

Reason #2: The trip to the greenhouse

It’s a little bit of an adventure just getting up there.  The signage is minimal, you’re very far off any commercial drag, and the single-lane road that takes you there could well be on a mountain in West Virginia. Home Depot, this ain’t. Once you’re there, Henkel’s occupies the large yard of a humble two-story frame house, built up a steep hillside, cobbled together over likely decades with jerry-rigged kits and recycled shipping pallets.

cardboard box containing vegetable plants for replanting

What twelve bucks gets you

Reason #3: It’s cheap*

Here’s what twelve bucks buys you at Henkel’s**:

  • 9 tomato (3 each: Golden Boy, Potato Leaf, Viva Italia)
  • 15 pepper (6 Sweet Banana, 3 Early Sensation, 6 Inferno)
  • 4 zucchini
  • 3 sweet Italian basil

* Realistically, travel time and expense to Turtle Creek likely erases any monetary savings, but it’s still cheap.

** This blogger is obviously interested in vegetables, but Henkel’s has a full compliment of flowers, shrubs, ground cover, etc.–which we’ve purchased in the past. I just didn’t pick any of those up this year. They also have lots of other vegetables, but I just stuck with the basics this year.

stacked planting containers

view of greenhouse through ventilation slats