Into the Forgotten: Clairton’s Ghost Neighborhood

abandoned house with spray-painted graffiti "Into the forgotten", Clairton, PA

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Gone windows. Collapsed porches. Crumpled forms. Roof lines slant, flex, wheeze, and implode. Thin trees grow straight up through foundations and strangle outside walls. Nature crowds in from all sides as small single-family homes and squat double-houses are enveloped by vines, moss, weeds, and debris. The only signs of human life are the stray household items jettisoned by families forced to move and the spray-painted graffiti added by miscreants in their wake.

In a few cases, only the exterior walls remain. Former kitchens and living rooms are reduced to piles of layered rubble. For the most part, though, the two- or three-dozen parcels here are still recognizable as houses–but like Elvis working that milk cow, they’re just real real gone.

abandoned house with porch roof collapsed, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with only exterior walls remaining, Clairton, PA

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It’s no secret: The Orbit makes a living off ghosts. It’s a strange way to earn a buck, but business is good. Oh sure, we love to run stories on weird religion, city steps, egg hunts, and the like. But you try to pay the rent covering some street artist who won’t call your ass back!

Since the beginning, so-called ghost signs and ghost houses have been stock-in-trade for us and Orbit faithful snack on them like funnel cakes at the county fair. We’re already licking our lips for the ghost pizza we’ll never get to eat in an upcoming Pie Day feature. One ghost bike made these pages, but mercifully, cycling deaths have been rare enough to not warrant follow-up stories…yet. All that said, Clairton’s Lincoln Way ghost neighborhood is something altogether more dramatic.

abandoned house with only rear exterior walls still standing, Clairton, PA

abandoned double-house with roof collapsed, Clairton, PA

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Speeding south, the billowing white smoke of U.S. Steel’s Clairton coke plant is already on the horizon. Not a care in the world–next stop, Donora! But then, all of the sudden something flashes through the passenger-side window. With just the quickest of glances, we see it’s a pair of burned-out and bummed-out houses on a thin residential street just off the main road. They’re alarming, but sadly not that all that unique in the depopulated Mon Valley.

On the way home, Swiss-cheese-for-brains has already forgotten the sighting mere hours beforehand. But when a mirror-image of the earlier picture pops through the windshield, it’s deja vu all over again. This time breaks squeal, the Orbitmobile is stashed on a muddy berm, and we hoof it back up the road to see what’s going on.

abandoned house covered in bare trees, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with only exterior walls remaining, Clairton, PA

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What’s going on is pretty intense. An entire residential street–not long, but still the equivalent of maybe five or six city blocks–with every single home abandoned, crumbled, collapsed, gutted, scarred, and mocked. Lincoln Way is a hollow between steep rising hills on either side with no outlet streets or other exits, so there’s literally no visible habitation that isn’t in this shape.

The scene is one that could be interpreted as anything from a Love Canal-style environmental disaster to world-without-us post-apocalypse. [That hasn’t happened yet, right?] This was clearly not the result of any single house fire or the general tough economics of the Mon Valley–every inch of Lincoln Way was vacated for a reason.

masonry walls from otherwise collapsed houses, Clairton, PA

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abandoned house with spray painted graffiti "I am the antichrist", Clairton, PA

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Though we found it all on our own–by accident–The Orbit was not the first cop on this particular beat. Once one fires up The Google Machine, he or she finds out Lincoln Way has been documented by sources from the mainstream/”dishonest” press (“Clairton fire decimates ‘ghost town'”Post-Gazette, April 11, 2015) to paranormal support groups (wikinut.com’s “The Mystery of Clairton’s Abandoned Lincoln Way”)–and I’m sure every teenager at Steel Valley High.

Most terrifically, though, the great Architectural Afterlife blog covered Lincoln Way back in 2015 with an astoundingly great collection of photographs taken through a pair of visits in both winter snow and summer’s lush, full overgrowth. Unlike this need-to-get-home-for-dinner blogger, AA’s Johnny Joo wasn’t afraid to risk falling through the floorboards and got some beautiful, heartbreaking inside shots as a result. His piece is highly recommended–and the contrast with The Orbit‘s recent photos show how fast Lincoln Way is returning to cinder.

abandoned house with graffiti "That's all she wrote", Clairton, PA

“That’s all she wrote” is about right


Update (September, 2018): We’ve gone back to visit Lincoln Way a year-and-a-half after this original post. To see what it looks like today, check out “Only the Stones Remain: A Follow-up Visit to Clairton’s ‘Ghost Neighborhood'” (Pittsburgh Orbit, Sept. 2, 2018.)

Fairywood: The World Without Us

fire hydrant in field of tall weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Former Broadhead Manor public housing project, Fairywood

Fairywood. Has any place as bucolic a name? One would assume it could only exist in fantasy–within Narnia or Neverland or, at least, New Zealand. Fairywood must be a land of eternal mist, riddle-spinning toadstools, magick staffs hewn from gnarled bentwood, spellcasting. It is where banshees live, and yes, they do live well. But one need not cross the Misty Mountains nor the darkest depths of Mordor[1]–it’s right here in the City of Pittsburgh.

If one were to set out for Fairywood, she or he might also optimistically hope to encounter pixies, gnomes, gremlins, griffins, or unicorns along the journey. Such other-worldly creatures simply must exist in the forest faerie realm. Alas, that was not this blogger’s experience.

empty street with jersey barriers at entrance of former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Entrance from Broadhead Fording Road

Look up Fairywood and you’ll likely come across some bad press. At this point, the peninsular neighborhood on Pittsburgh’s far southwestern border [it is surrounded on three sides by non-city boroughs] is mainly associated with two things: colossal ex-urban warehouses and off-the-charts crime.

The former is easy to see–along the south and west perimeters are huge distribution centers for UPS, ModCloth, Amazon, and Giant Eagle/OK Grocery. The hum of their idling 18-wheelers and beeps of reversing forklifts are omnipresent even from a great distance.

The latter is not so obvious. On a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon, we barely encountered a single living soul–and the ones we did meet were real nice! The sum of residential Fairywood is contained in four or five streets of pre-war frame houses and Baby Boom-era pill boxes and split-levels, plus one former project-turned-gated community. Only around a thousand people live here. Who’s committing all this crime?

cul-de-sac in former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Cul-de-sac

Alan Weisman’s 2007 best-seller The World Without Us detailed the ways in which the built environment would inevitably deteriorate in the absence of human beings. I’ll confess I haven’t actually read the book, but Mrs. The Orbit did and relayed its projections of houses collapsing and cities overtaken by nature as I was suddenly getting much more aware of cracks in the plaster ceiling and loosening of our mortar joints.

By far, the most prominent feature of Fairywood today is the enormous negative space created by what was at one time the Broadhead Manor public housing project. In its absence is a massive plot of land–its footprint similar in size to a junior college campus or suburban shopping mall (including all the parking). The actual housing blocks have been razed and removed, but the infrastructure–several curling roads that terminate in dead-ends, street lights, sidewalks, fire hydrants, an absurd children at play road sign–all remain.

handrail and concrete sidewalk to urban prairie, former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

Handrail, sidewalks

Between these few remaining stretches of concrete, nature has come back hard and fast. It’s a very un-Pittsburgh landscape–almost completely flat (although you can see hills in the distance in any direction) and dominated not by trees, but instead with scrubby waist-high bushes, weeds, and wildflowers–much more midwestern than Appalachian. Nationally, these kinds of spaces have been coined urban prairies for a reason–they’re not quite nature without man, but they’re decidedly not city (as most tend to think of it) either.

That Broadhead Manor should or should not have been razed is a conversation for those who actually lived in and around it[2]. With no personal connection, it does strike me as a classic built-to-fail situation: warehousing people in closed-circle public projects at the most distant edge of the city in a neighborhood with neither business district nor many transportation options[3]. What could go wrong?

Man in winter clothes against chain link fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Mr. Ro Ro (note his wizard’s staff)

We met Mr. Ro Ro camped out on a folding chair, waiting for a bus on Prospect Avenue. A wizard’s staff was casually propped against the chain link fence. Mr. Ro Ro told us he’s lived in Fairywood for fifty years and said of Broadhead Manor, “Roosevelt built them after the war.” President Roosevelt’s connection is unknown, but Broadhead Manor was indeed former military housing, purchased by the city in 1946[4].

As the only human wandering through the strange dystopian landscape of an ex-neighborhood with all its buildings removed–now almost completely reclaimed by nature–the irony of the phrase “after the war” was ringing in the air. More than anything else, this huge section of Fairywood feels like what’s left after the nuclear winter has finally subsided and an entirely new form of nature begins again on the bones of the civilization that destroyed the old one. Let’s hope we get it right this time.

dead end street in former Broadhead Manor, Fairywood, Pittsburgh, PA

The end of the road


[1] It is telling that The Orbit‘s knowledge of Middle Earth comes more from Houses of the Holy than The Player’s Handbook.
[2] A post in the Abandoned, Old & Interesting Places – Western PA FaceBook group shows some of the housing after the residents had been moved but pre-demolition. It includes many comments–both positive and negative–including quite a few former residents who speak glowingly of their time at Broadhead Manor in the 1960s.
[3] Port Authority’s 27 bus route serves Fairywood and nearby neighborhoods with a link to downtown Pittsburgh.
[4] Fairywood Fact Sheet (date unknown) http://digitalcollections.library.cmu.edu/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=550317