Take Bigelow! “Striking Distance,” 25 Years Later, Part 2: The Chase Scene Then & Now

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of a city bus colliding with a beer truck

Some things never change: PAT bus into loose-packed Iron City Beer wagon

If you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for any recent amount of time–say, the last ten years, maybe just five would do it–the rate of change can seem extraordinary. Entire neighborhoods–East Liberty, Lawrenceville, The Strip District, to name the most obvious examples–have been radically transformed, downtown has a couple new skyscrapers, rents and home prices are finally starting to match other metro areas, gone are one-dollar beers and big red sauce Italian joints. So it can be comforting to us old-timers when we’re reminded that not everything is changing quite so fast.

As 2017 rolled-over to 2018, we got the idea to honor the 25th anniversary of Striking Distance–the Pittsburgh-set police action film that spawned an unexpected local meme. [For more on this, see last week’s Part 1 of the story.] The idea was to take the opening high-speed car chase through the city, find all the actual filming locations, and then take a look at how they appear today, 26 years later. [The movie was actually shot over the summer of 1992.]

If you haven’t seen that epic chase–or even if it’s just been a while–rectify that now, in the original French. See what you recognize and what you don’t. And if you really want a challenge, try to name the main filming locations–they’re (almost) all right in town. Bigelow Boulevard is, of course, a “gimme,” and you shouldn’t have any problem with the downtown shots, but after that it gets a little trickier.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Striking Distance chase scene, then and now:

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Mount Troy Road, Troy Hill, 1992

empty street with distant view to downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Mount Troy Road, Troy Hill, 2018

For the opening of the sequence, father and son cops Vince and Tom Hardy head out in full dress regalia toward the Policeman’s Ball, presumably at the Point (based on the “two years later” setting elsewhere in the film). The locations team could’t have picked a more Pittsburgh scene, replete with cross-river views, the downtown skyline, and a short barrier wall before a steep drop-off. Not that it matters, but Troy Hill/Reserve Township even seems like a believable cop neighborhood.

Almost nothing in this particular panorama has changed in the last 26 years. There are more wires on the telephone poles as high-speed Internet arrived in the between-time and the trees have definitely been allowed to grow up, but that’s about it. Downtown does have some new features to its skyline (we’ll get to those in a bit)–but you can’t really see them from this angle.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Ridgway Street, Hill District, 1992

two-lane hillside road with house, Pittsburgh, PA

Ridgway Street, Hill District, 2018

There is no possible way to take Bigelow from Troy Hill, so the Hardys are magically transported across the Allegheny to Ridgway Steet, at the far eastern/upper end of the Hill District, for their careening entry to that fabled cross-city byway.

Just like we saw on Mt. Troy Road, the tiny starter saplings on Ridgway in 1992 have grown to legit shade-producing coverage today–in fact, we couldn’t even get the same angle as the Striking Distance shot because we’d be buried in shrubbery–chalk one up for Mother Nature! Other than that, we can see the city replaced the old wooden street light pole and the homeowner appears to have had some porch work done. No idea what happened to the Silverado in the driveway.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of busy street intersection in Pittsburgh, PA

Bigelow Blvd. at Bloomfield Bridge, 1992

empty street intersection with large building, Pittsburgh, PA

Bigelow Blvd. at Bloomfield Bridge, 2018

Striking Distance filming closed a pretty major east-west artery for the Hardys’ high-speed pursuit of The Polish Hill Strangler and the crew made the most of the opportunity. The approximately half-mile stretch of Bigelow from the the Bloomfield Bridge to the intersection at Herron is run backwards and forwards, crossing lanes and milking busy intersections. The movie viewer is rewarded with a lot of quick-cut chances to see the road and its pedestrian overpasses.

The biggest change here is the old Geyer Printing building, which was sold and converted into a self-storage place a while back. Gone are the big G-E-Y-E-R letters on the roof and instead we’ve got the imagery of self-storage plastered over the former windows. The whole intersection got a heavy-duty resurfacing (in cement) a few years back and still looks like it’s brand new.

Side note: I wanted to bag one of those Stagno’s Bakery trucks in the wild, but couldn’t actually find one now that I was looking. Sigh.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of alley in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Strawberry Way, Downtown, 1992

alley turned pedestrian way in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

“That’s my boy!” said our model Walter Lee Robinson on recognizing Bruce Willis in the YouTube clip I showed him. Strawberry Way, Downtown, 2018

OK, now we’re getting to the good stuff. Little Strawberry Way, the single-lane alley that runs parallel between Sixth and Seventh Streets, Downtown, has had perhaps the most dramatic makeover of our locations.

Starting maybe ten years ago, the long, lower block of Strawberry between Smithfield and Liberty started getting dressed up with temporary art installations. More recently, the city went all-in on Strawberry’s conversion from car-friendly alley to pedestrian hang-out zone. Currently, there are two blocks entirely closed-off to traffic, including the short stretch from Grant to William Penn Place where the Hardys dash down in a shortcut to intercept The Strangler on William Penn Place. These are nicely appointed with colorful street painting, tables and chairs, potted plants, and special lighted signage.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of downtown street in Pittsburgh, PA

Cherry Way, Downtown, 1992

city street in downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Cherry Way, Downtown, 2018

Starting to sound like a broken record (1993)/streaming audio loop (2018), but the 400 block of Cherry Way, Downtown looks pretty much the same as it did when Pittsburgh’s finest chased that ’89 Ford. Based on the green lights in both lanes, we assume traffic was still one-way (the other direction) in 1992 which would have made this a difficult escape route for the Strangler.

What’s changed the most in this scene is a building you feel more than see. Kaufmann’s–Pittsburgh’s original, longest-standing downtown department store–was still open and operating by that name in the 1990s. I know–I bought business casual khakis there. The building still straddles little Cherry Way, forming a tunnel the filmmakers shot through for the chase scene. The downtown Kaufmann’s would be rebranded to a Macy’s in 2006 and then closed for good in 2015[1]. Currently, the elegant, 12-story building is undergoing renovation to become fancy apartments.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of Armstrong Tunnel, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel, Uptown, 1992

interior of Armstrong Tunnel, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel, Uptown, 2018

You’re thinking, what could possibly have changed in the Armstrong Tunnel? The answer, it turns out, is more than you’d expect. First off, the tile work looked a lot better in 1992–so much better we wonder if it had recently gotten a rehab treatment. Today, there are big chunks of the white ceramic that have separated and disappeared, leaving a pock-marked, water- and oil-stained surface throughout.

More interesting, though, is the tunnel’s apparent change from a two-way, bi-directional route (note the double yellow line in the earlier picture) to its current configuration with separate, dedicated inbound and outbound tubes. We have to wonder what was happening with the other tunnel in ’92. Maybe it was just a temporary closure to fix up the tiles? Who knows!

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of police car exiting fire-filled tunnel in Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel entrance, Uptown, 1992

exterior of Armstrong Tunnel with rising highway structure above, Pittsburgh, PA

Armstrong Tunnel entrance, Uptown, 2018

You’ll be happy to know the fire in the Armstrong Tunnel was safely put out some time in the last couple decades, making the daring dash through burning police cruiser wreckage no longer required in passage from Forbes to Second Ave.

Fire or not, Steelers fans will remember this south end of the tunnel as the dangerous intersection where Ben “Why would I wear a helmet? I’m not playing football.” Roethlisberger almost ended both his life and career in a motorcycle accident in 2006. Like all the principal characters in Striking Distance (but not all the extra roles!) he made it out alive.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of downtown street and bridge in Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street and Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, 1992

empty street in downtown Pittsburgh

Smithfield Street and Smithfield Street Bridge, Downtown, 2018

This is another one where the real action is just out of the frame. On the near side, Point Park University continues to expand, gobbling up, restoring, and repurposing much of “First Side” downtown as it goes. Had the filmmakers chosen almost any other block in the area, we’d have a more obvious contrast.

On the other side of these buildings, every cyclist will tell you Smithfield Street Bridge is the gateway to South Side bicycle-riding as the easiest, farthest, western-most entrance to the Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail (which goes from here all the way to Washington, D.C.). The town end of the bridge also has a semi-new dedicated bicycle passage to connect cyclists to the Jail Trail and a brand new switchback ramp from the bridge will take you down to The Mon Wharf and Point State Park, traffic-free. [That opens…next month?] … but you can’t see any of that in this picture.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street Bridge, 1992

ornate iron entryway to Smithfield Street Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Smithfield Street Bridge, 2018

The Smithfield Street Bridge, a “lenticular truss bridge,” completed in 1883 and designed by Gustav Lindenthal[2] is certainly one of the city’s most iconic crossings. The castle-like porticos on either end and gorgeous sine wave interlocking curves are about as perfect and classic as one could hope for from such a structure.

By the time this blogger arrived in Pittsburgh–just a few years after Striking Distance–the Smithfield Street Bridge had undergone a massive rehab including a new paint job of yellow-gold on the entrance ways and deep blue for the curving truss sections.

But back in 1992, the bridge was still a dingy steel gray with a tree apparently growing out of the lane separator on the south end. It also had two-way car traffic on one half and train track on the other [see previous then photo]. Today, the re-do colors remain, but they’re faded, rusted, and graffiti-scarred; the tree is gone. It may be about time for yet another paint job on this old beauty.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of city streets in Pittsburgh, PA

Intersection of Carson and Arlington, Southside, 1992

Intersection of Carson and Arlington streets, Pittsburgh, PA

Intersection of Carson and Arlington, Southside, 2018 [Note the bonus Class A Steelermobile!]

Pittsburgh’s modern light rail line (“The T”) was set up in the 1980s. Though largely running on vestigial trolley tracks through the South Hills, the newer, elevated stretch of rail connecting to the Panhandle Bridge remains the dominant presence at the intersection of Carson and Arlington on the Southside as it did in the early ’90s.

You’ll notice the same deep blue paint job the Smithfield Street Bridge received and an addition of one clearance height warning sign, but that’s all we’ve got here.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of police car standoff in Pittsburgh, PA

Second Ave., Downtown, 1992

empty street with girders for raised highway, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Second Ave., Downtown, 2018

A little tip for budding action movie makers: if you want to set your picture in gritty, urban America, make sure you’ve got an elevated highway and/or train line to film under. Pittsburgh has plenty of bridges, but the double-decker effect of Boulevard of the Allies rising over Second Avenue, Downtown, really only happens for a few blocks in this one location. Striking Distance writer/director (and Pittsburgh native) Rowdy Herrington wasn’t going to miss out on it.

The cagey quality of 1920s-era steel girders with its heavy shadows and rumble from auto traffic above makes this space still feel like an action set–even on a quiet, sunny, Sunday morning. The steel beams appear to have been newly-painted, parking rates have gone up, and the bail bondsman (just out-of-frame) is open for business 24-hours.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of car on street in front of downtown Pittsburgh, PA skyline

P.J. McArdle Roadway and downtown skyline, Mt. Washington, 1992

Pittsburgh city skyline as seen from Mt. Washington

P.J. McArdle Roadway and downtown skyline, Mt. Washington, 2018

Of course The Polish Hill Strangler would take P.J. McArdle Roadway up to very-accessible Grandview Avenue in his escape route! Mount Washington’s cobblestone streets, hairpin turns, and limited egress points are exactly what any clever criminal who “drive’s like a cop” would opt for. Regardless of the plot logic of this particular route, it leaves us with some great views of the Pittsburgh skyline…and that’s probably what Rowdy Herrington was really after.

The main difference today is that downtown Pittsburgh has been in a major construction boom for the last decade or so and it’s left us with two big additions to the skyline. The 23-story Three PNC Plaza and the 33-story Tower at PNC Plaza were completed in 2009 and 2015, respectively. Both are now clearly visible [and blocking the view of Gulf Tower!] from Grandview Ave.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Pittsburgh, PA

Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington, 1992

street with large church and city view in PIttsburgh, PA

Grandview Ave., Mt. Washington, 2018

The lovely St. Mary of the Mount Catholic church still holds court at its prominent spot on Grandview Ave., its parishioners getting a glorious view of downtown Pittsburgh as they step out the big, oak front doors. We set up for our photo on the grassy lawn of St. Mary’s school next door, just like Herrington and the gang did back in the day–only, Orbit budget wouldn’t pony up for the crane shot and long lens. Regardless, it’s obvious the biggest difference from here is not what’s happening on Mt. Washington, but instead, what you can see across the river.

The so-called North Shore has had a dramatic–almost wholesale–re-envisioning since the late 1990s. Still visible in the Striking Distance scene is Three Rivers Stadium and the acres of surface-level parking surrounding it. The hallowed home to Steelers and Pirates world championships was imploded in 2001 after construction of separate dedicated venues for football and baseball had been built in the same approximate area. Our present-day shot doesn’t have the detail to show you those sportatoriums–but trust me: they’re there–as are the casino complex, Stage AE, and various other new infill.

scene from the film "Striking Distance" of residential street in Duquesne, PA

Center Street, Duquesne, 1992

steep Belgian block residential street in Duquesne, PA

Center Street, Duquesne, 2018

The holy grail of chase scene locations! Where is this camel back cobblestone road that launches all vehicles–from a toddler’s tricycle to a chain of police cruisers–off the street and into the air?

This one really pushed The Orbit’s research team. The only clue was the visible Oak St sign in the original clip, but it clearly wasn’t any of the Oak Streets Google Maps had to offer for Pittsburgh. IMDB listed some additonal filming locations, including both Monessen and Monongahela, but it was obvious none of those was the right place, either.

Never underestimate the combination of intuition, dumb luck, and Google Street View. We were finally able to ID the venue as Center Street in Duquesne. Center is still paved with the same hundred-year-old Belgian block, but it’s the terraced layout that really invites drama. The road flattens at each point where there’s a cross street or alley, giving it the feeling of a ramp with landings.

Now, I walked the four- or five-block length of Center Street, and while it is steep, no vehicles are leaping into the air all on their own–even going way over the speed limit. Herrington’s stunt coordinators must have installed extra jumps at each stage to launch the chase party so dramatically in the air, because that’s just not happening naturally. But then again, not happening naturally would describe how most screenings of Striking Distance take place.


[1] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaufmann’s
[2] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smithfield_Street_Bridge

Art/Work: Big Industry Art

mural of abstract steel mills on brick wall, Hill District, Pittsburgh, PA

Mural, Hill District

They’re striking images. Tall stacks belching a blanket of smoke that blacks out the sky. Grim men with lunch pails and work shirts. A cauldron of molten metal is poured against a skyline of towering steel vessels. The tools and symbols of power generation: hydroelectric, relay tower, a key struck by lightening. Three ironworkers team up to hammer a bar of hot steel on an anvil as beams of radiant energy stream out, ostensibly the only light source in an otherwise unlit workshop.

tile mosaic depicting various industry and innovation from commercial building in Bloomfield, Pittsburgh, PA

Mosaic, Bloomfield

Mural of steelworker, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

(light-up) Mural, Downtown

Somewhere between social realism and folk art lies the realm of steel town tributes to the workers and industries that built them. The mills are (almost) all gone–as are the coke plants, glass and aluminum producers, bridge builders and pipe rollers. But you wouldn’t know it from the public art that still exists–and continues to get created anew–all over the place.

The depictions are of landscapes and people that many Americans wouldn’t choose to decorate with: rusting blast furnaces, smoke-spewing chimney stacks, utility infrastructure, big men–and they are almost always men–working hard.

Mural depicting workers with lunch pails emerging through the pedestrian tunnel to PPG's Ford City, PA plant

Mural, Pittsburgh Plate Glass workers, Ford City

Painting of steel mill and workers with metal and neon lights mounted to brick wall, Braddock, PA

Mixed (mural with neon lights and metal sign), Braddock

Much of “new” Pittsburgh would rather not talk about the steel industry. The air has been cleaned-up (sort of*), there’s a workforce teeming in eds, meds, and….TEDs (?) over yesteryears’ union laborers, and–amazingly–we’re getting some amount of national attention on things like quality of life, affordability, and fancy food. Famously down-on-itself Pittsburgh is even starting to believe some of the hype. Civic boosters and young urbanites want to put those big smokestacks and ginormous rolling mills as far as they can in the rearview mirror.

Thankfully, though, there’s a great reverence for the people and industries that built the region. In fairness, there’s also just a lot more visual power and romance to it. It’s hard to imagine similar wall-sized tributes to tech workers, robot engineers, bankers, heart surgeons, or academics. That said, The Orbit has long considered itself the Joe Magarac of blogs**–so if you’ve got some bare bricks, give us a call. Like Norma Desmond, we’re ready for our close-up.

Mural painted on cinderblock wall of iron workers hammering hot steel on an anvil, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale, PA

Mural, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale


* The actual quality of the air is still a mess–you just can’t see the problem quite so obviously any more.
** Or at least the Joe Pesci of blogs. You think this blogger is a clown?

More Time for the Skyline

Art installation of Pittsburgh skyline as large cut-outs with black and white patterns projected on them

Spirit Lounge Pittsburgh 200th Birthday Celebration

Back in January, we posed the question is the Pittsburgh skyline that distinct? No definitive conclusion was achieved but it became clear that we’re dealing with an extremely popular subject. In only the few months since, we’ve seen new examples of the same profile appear over and over–in art, in industry, in history. Here are The Orbit’s favorites:

Spirit Lounge‘s 200th birthday party for the city was an orgy of Pittsburgh in-joke goofballery. The flashing, multi-color downtown skyline diorama looked great in all of its phases, but especially this high-contrast, two-tone number (above)–amazingly with just one building’s profiles caught on the bias. Hats off to whoever put this great display together.

Airbrush painting of the Pittsburgh skyline seen from the North Side

Warhola Recycling, North Side

Warhola Recycling would have to include a North Sider’s view of the city. The big touch points are all there: PPG, Fifth Avenue Place, Point State Park and its fountain–even one of the party boats on the river. This mural, airbrushed on the big steel doors on the side the building, is a great example of the skyline potentially popping up just about anywhere.

fantasy skyline with various Pittsburgh elements included

Energy Innovation Center (former Connelly Technical Institute), Hill District, c. 1930

The depiction of Pittsburgh in this arched doorway mural from the old Connelly Technical Institute is terrific in a number of ways. First, it’s just very much of its time–a pseudo-realistic depiction of the city in full industrial might: a place of buildings reaching to the skies, bridges that can ford any span, industry cranking out…stuff, and glorious rolling green hills as far as the eye can see.

But it’s also a perspective that doesn’t actually exist–and never did. The painting is a fantasy view of Pittsburgh combining real-life entities (downtown’s Gulf Tower, the Panther Hollow Bridge in Oakland, steel mills, farmland) plucked out of their actual habitats and re-combined in a close-shouldered collision. It’s like a regional greatest hits album that lacks any cohesive flow, but still sells because it’s got all the good stuff people want to hear.

city skyline painted on concrete tennis practice wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Garland Parklet, East Liberty

This skyline, painted graffiti-style in a park in East Liberty, is almost so abstract that we can’t count it–it could be Anytown (O.K. any city), U.S.A. There’s no recognizable Gulf Tower or U.S. Steel Building, but the central point is arguably Fifth Avenue Place’s giant hypodermic needle. They’ve also got a generic bridge in there, though it doesn’t really look like any of the “three sisters” suspension bridges. In any case, this blogger thinks it counts. Plus, it ended up on the backstop of a tennis practice wall in East Liberty, which is a pretty neat place to turn up a city mural.

Pittsburgh skyline mural painted on cinderblock building

Red Star Ironworks, Millvale

Excuse the weird cropping here, but there was a glass block window and a competing mural to work around. The entire front of Red Star Ironworks’ Millvale workshop has been painted as a giant tribute to big dudes working with hot steel. The split pair of Pittsburgh skylines that bookend the mural are really just a decorative afterthought. But they’re still there, and you won’t have any trouble picking out the now-familiar key players.

mural on brick wall including the downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Mural, Art All Night 2016, Lawrenceville

We could have filled an entire post–maybe several–with depictions of downtown Pittsburgh entered into this year’s (or any year’s) Art All Night. But we went with the one that will go down with the ship: a mural painted directly on the brick wall of the 39th Street Arsenal Terminal building that ain’t long for this world. New condos await, right there at the foot of the 40th Street Bridge, but they’re not going to make it into this skyline.

Up in Smoke: Ex-Snack Shops

mural of soft-serve ice cream cones in colorful silhouette, former Tastee Queen, Ambridge, PA

Tastee Queen, Ambridge

Scene: The freezer aisle at the Lawrenceville Shop’n’Save, 9:30 on a recent Sunday evening. An enormous man is paused, his buggy half-full with potato chips, Cheez Doodles, canned chili, two-liter pop bottles, the makings for deli sandwiches–there’s not a fruit or vegetable in sight. He’s dressed in the kind of long short pants that big men often wear and a t-shirt in the Rastafarian red/green/black/gold color scheme featuring a prominent marijuana leaf and the single word STONED. The man is engaged in a cell phone conversation communicating ice cream flavors to an associate: “They got rocky road, they got butter pecan, they got moose tracks, they got strawberry, they got double chocolate…”

former Coney Island Convenience store, McKeesport, PA

Coney Island Convenience, McKeesport

As fascinating as this was (would this guy keep naming flavors all the way down to the Ben & Jerry’s section? would the team consider sherbet, ice milk, and/or frozen yogurt? how about the add-ons: chocolate sauce, nuts, whipped-cream? what would the final decision be?) this eves-dropper can only pretend to peruse the Stouffer’s frozen dinners for so long–we needed to move along.

former Howze Corner Store, Wilkinsburg, PA

Howze Corner Store, Wilkinsburg

What’s a doobie smoker to do? Gone (for the most part) are the mom & pop corner convenience stores, replaced almost entirely by the one-two punch of supermarkets and gas & sips. Good luck finding a retailer with only one brand of potato chips or a single freezer for the ice cream. It’s a wonder we’re not all standing confused and on the help line right now trying to make an informed, intelligent decision on Funyuns vs. Fritos, Cheetos vs. Cheese Puffs, ridges vs. kettle-cooked. Somehow, we must all dig deep and make these most difficult of life’s decisions.

snack trailer with cartoon images and sign "Temporarily closed for remodeling"

unknown (snack trailer), Hill District

In central Lawrenceville, we lost our independent snack shop three or four years ago. Mrs. The Orbit always cites Star Discount* as the place where ladies of the evening could purchase undergarments and bingo freaks could stock up on daubers. Lottery tickets and cigarettes were likely paying the bills, but “Star’s” also carried Herr’s and Snyder’s chips and pretzels as well as Cotton Club pop. Everyone behind the counter was always smoking.

Star Discount was replaced by the trifecta of Row House Cinema, Smoke BBQ, and Bierport (née Atlas Beer)–all of which we’ve patronized and enjoyed–but even if they let you in the door, try getting a $1.99 bag of cheese puffs from Smoke!

former Haley's Market, Pittsburgh, PA

Haley’s Market, Lincoln

Growing up in southwest Virginia, the peaceful, gentle climb to Cascade Falls in the nearby national forest, followed by a celebratory post-hike soft-serve at Dairy Princess made for a fine afternoon. In collecting images for this story, it was nice to see the tradition of knock-off ice cream shops perpetuated in both Tastee Queen (Ambridge) and Tasty Queen (Bruceton Mills, West Virginia). Unfortunately, all three businesses seem to have met a similar fate**. At least we still have Tastee Queen’s glorious technicolor soft-serve silhouettes.

former Tasty Queen ice cream shop, Bruceton Mills, WV

Tasty Queen, Bruceton Mills, WV


* Star Discount would make a great Orbit obit, but we sadly never took the photographic record to do it justice.
** This blogger almost met an even more violent version of the same fate taking this photo of Tasty Queen.

Pittsburgh’s Next Hottest Neighborhoods

older frame houses with clear blue sky and bare trees, Pittsburgh, PA

Allentown rooftops, just around the corner from NoCarSoSoSlo

Pittsburgh is famously a city of neighborhoods–ninety of them, to be exact. Most are incredibly distinct. There’s no questioning the transition from Bloomfield to Oakland or Larimer to Lincoln or Polish Hill to Lawrenceville–you have to cross a bridge to get there. Spring Hill and Troy Hill are way up on the top of steep hills; Spring Garden is down in the valley between. More subtley, Bloomfield and Friendship are on the same plane, but as Friendship Ave. dog-legs around, the street grid changes bias, the blocks change dimension, and Friendship’s stately detached homes yield to tight Bloomfield aluminum-clad row houses. It’s clear you’re somewhere else.

But not all of the city is as well-defined, nor is it all prospering at the same rate. What to do? Enter the acroname–the citizen and/or developer-based rebranding of urban spaces to upsell low-rent sections of town into yuppie havens and “whitopias”. New York has famously come up with SoHoTriBeCaNoLita, Dumbo, etc. to address this; others have followed suit. Pittsburgh has been blessedly free of this trend*, but at the rate we’re gentrifying–and our collective me too obsession–it seems like it’s only a matter of time.

Here then is an Orbit modest prediction/proposal for the rebranding of some parts of town that are maybe a little harder to define just how and where they fit in.

NoSOak (“No Soak”)

row homes in Pittsburgh, PA

Empty beer bottles, an American flag in the window: that looks like NoSOak to me

The residential section of central Oakland, with Bates as its main through street, was traditionally an Italian-American neighborhood, but that legacy has largely ceded to college ghetto. Ratty old couches fill front porches , flags and beer signage decorate dirty windows. By rebranding itself NoSOak (North of South Oakland), the neighborhood’s landlords and property developers may be able to usher in an entirely new clientele of tech yuppies and hospital workers, eager to rehab those turn-of-the-century row houses on pedestrian-friendly blocks, the lovely aroma of street tacos perpetually wafting in the breeze.

NoCarSoSoSlo (“No Car–So, So Slow”)

Detail from the hand-painted storefront of the Mount Oliver Mens Shop, Pittsburgh, PA

The Mens Shop, a NoCarSoSoSlo icon for generations

The southern borough of Mount Oliver is a politically-independent island entirely surrounded by the city of Pittsburgh, but hasn’t benefitted from (or gotten ruined-by–take your pick) the rapid gentrification that so much of the city is experiencing. Heck, even hilltop neighbor Allentown has a heavy metal coffee shop now! With the rebranding NoCarSoSoSlo (North of Carrick/South of the Southside Slopes) the borough can reference two city neighborhoods without ever mentioning you have to pay goofy Mount Oliver taxes.

VoBeShaBlo (“VO-bee-shay-blow”)

older frame houses, train tracks, and busway, Pittsburgh, PA

View of VoBeShaBlo through the chain link fence of the Aiken Ave. Bridge

The two-to-three-block-wide strip that runs between the train tracks/east busway and Baum Boulevard are technically Shadyside, but it’s physically cut off from the heart of that neighborhood and it doesn’t share its hoity-toity feel. To mix our metaphors like we’re real urban planners, VoBeShaBlo (The Void Between Shadyside and Bloomfield) is a line in the sand that its resident “Shay-Blowers” will wear with pride, finally attaining an identity that’s been missing for a long, long time.

The hoodlet has some appealing (potential) amenities that can make this work. There are nice, if not fancy, older frame houses (although not that many of them). Between Centre and Baum they’ve got a bigger business district than a lot of city neighborhoods. And it’s well-connected/located if you’re either a cyclist or bus rider. VoBeShaBlo’s Giant Eagle even sells beer!

PaHolE / WheBiJIs (“PAY-hole / we-BIJ-iss”)

Tile sign for Big Jim's in The Run, Pittsburgh, PA

Big Jim’s, a PaHolE / WheBiJIs institution since 1977

Four Mile Run, or just “The Run”, is the tiny sub-neighborhood under both The Parkway and Swinburne bridges. Its technically a part of Greenfield, but doesn’t really feel like it. Like Rodney Dangerfield, a lot of people go back to school via its walk/bicycle path directly to central Oakland and cyclists know it as the connection point to the jail trail. But with literally just one-way-in/one-way-out, motorists typically ignore it and most of Pittsburgh has probably never even been to the neighborhood.

Luckily for PaHolE / WheBiJIs (Panther Hollow East / Where Big Jim’s Is) there are a couple of great local places of note including the great St. John Byzantine Church, access to the Schenley Park ball fields, city steps up to Greenfield proper, and Big Jim’s terrific eponymous tavern. Let’s quit fooling around and put it on the map.

HiDiBuNoQuOak (“HI-dee-boo-no-quoke”)

View down Dunsieth Street, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking down Dunsieth Street toward Carlow University in HiDiBuNoQuOak

The area around Pitt’s upper campus doesn’t really feel like it fits in anywhere. It’s the university, so that’s Oakland, right? But it’s also way up the hill–at the southeastern edge of The Hill District–physically separated from the hospitals and school buildings below. By embracing their new identity as HiDiBuNoQuOak (Hill District, But Not Quite Oakland) residents tell the world they’re doing their own thing in their own time, man. No quoke.


LoLa (Lower Lawrenceville) and Eastside (East Liberty adjoining Shadyside) are the two painfully obvious exceptions, although The Orbit doesn’t know anyone that actually uses these terms.

L’chaim on a Hilltop: Jewish Holy Houses in the Hill District (Part 2)

Miller Street Baptist Church formerly Shaaray Teffilah Synagogue/Beth David Congregation, Pittsburgh, PA

Miller Street Baptist Church (former Shaaray Teffilah Synagogue/Beth David Congregation), Miller Street

Back in May, The Orbit ran a story on a couple of really spectacular former Jewish holy houses in the lower Hill District and their new lives today. As we were cruising the old maps looking for info on these places, we kept realizing there were more former synagogues–plus one celebrated settlement house–that survived in the same general area (just outside of the old Civic Arena footprint). This begged for a sequel to the original post, and here we are.

Enon Baptist Church formerly Lebovitch Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA

Enon Baptist Church (former Lebovitch Synagogue), Erin Street

It’s nothing like it was. Look at platte maps of the lower Hill from the ’20s or ’30s and the density of Jewish life in the area is made incredibly obvious–“Pittsburgh’s Lower East Side,” it’s sometimes referred as. The Jewish population seems to have largely migrated out (to Highland Park, and then Squirrel Hill) by the 1940s, but it was the colossal Civic Arena project that took out the vast majority of its remaining physical structures.

On streets that no longer exist, where City View apartments and the giant, empty former arena parking lot now stand, the maps show block after block containing tiny, often only house-sized synagogues–Bani Israel (sic.), Beth Jacob, Sharey Zadek, Gates of Wisdom, etc.

Hill House Association Kaufmann Center formerly the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, Pittsburgh, PA

Hill House Association – Kaufmann Center (former Irene Kaufmann Settlement), Centre Ave.

Those are all gone–along with (almost) everything else below Crawford and above Fifth Ave. But for a handful of former houses of worship outside of the arena project’s gluttonous reach, life has carried on in new and different incarnations.

The three former synagogues we located–Shaaray Teffilah/Beth David and Kanascis Israel on Miller Street and Lebovitch on Erin Street–have all become Baptist churches. The former Irene Kaufmann Settlement on Centre Ave. now serves as one of the non-profit Hill House Association‘s main locations.

New Pilgrim Baptist Church formerly Kanascis Israel Synagogue, Pittsburgh, PA

New Pilgrim Baptist Church (former Kanascis Israel Synagogue), Miller Street

This loitering blogger met a very welcoming member of the Miller Street Baptist congregation when curbing his bicycle to take a photo of the church. She told me she’d been a member for 23 years and encouraged me to attend a service some time. Despite her very warm invitation, I wasn’t sure I could accept in good (err…bad) faith. That said, I would love to see inside the place. Had I been wearing something closer to Sundaygotomeetin’ duds and not running late to scour the woods for evidence of insurance fraud, I might have asked for a poke-see around. But it wasn’t going to happen this day.

Miller Street Baptist Church formerly Shaaray Teffilah Synagogue/Beth David Congregation, Pittsburgh, PA

Miller Street Baptist Church

Ghost House: Wearing a Hearth on the Eaves

Brick house with exposed fireplace, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Central North Side

Home is where the heart is–at least if Granny’s framed needlepoint aphorism is to be believed. For buildings of a certain age, we may cheekily adjust this to say that home is where the hearth is (or hearths are)–every pre-steam heat building having requisite fireplaces in each and every living space throughout the house. This blogger’s little row house had eight of them.

Sometimes, though, the old saw gets flipped on its head. Quite often the old fireplaces end up outliving their host homes. Keith Richard-like hard-smoking, hard-living grizzled bears that manage to defy odds and stay alive while marathon-running vegetarians a generation younger fall in their trail.

Brick house with exposed fireplace, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Central North Side

When we started our series on ghost houses, the very first post was on a pair of houses in East Liberty. The second of these profiled had the curious arrangement that two fireplaces from the former home were left intact and hanging from the now-exposed common wall. We remarked at how extraordinary this was. [That post is still worth a look as the combined brick-faced (upper) and fake stone (lower) hearths still paint a strange portrait.]

Well, it sure seemed like that at the time. But as with so many of life’s mysteries, once the eyes were properly trained, it became a thing we started seeing everywhere–like faces in plumbing arrangements, or constellations in sidewalk chewing gum, or evil elves.

Brick house with two exposed fireplaces, Pittsburgh, Pa.

East Deutschtown

This is surely not a Pittsburgh phenomena, but the city is uniquely suited for it. Almost all of the oldest parts of town were built in dense neighborhoods of brick row houses, their adjoining walls sharing common, integral chimney stacks. As time and tide (and the death of the local steel industry) did their thing, lots of these houses were demolished–or just plain collapsed from neglect. So when the situation resulted in a kept-up house abutting a felled one, you get fireplaces dangling from external walls. It’s weird. And it’s kind of cool.

Brick house with two exposed fireplaces, Millvale, Pa.

Millvale

It turns out that there are so many of these out there, in fact, that we may end up needing to run a sequel (or two). There are even some interesting related-but-different sub-categories: exterior bath and kitchen tile, stair framing, exposed plaster walls that somehow survive winter after winter. So much to get to!

Brick house with two exposed fireplaces, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Hill District