Art Walk: The Pipe Cleaner Fern Frames of Lawrenceville

pipe cleaner fern frame

Consider it a wild weekend with woebegone weeds or First Fridays for forgotten ferns. Heck, this may even qualify as the Make a Wish Foundation for misunderstood moss. Whatever you call it, there’s a new street-level contemporary art walk on exhibit now–for what may be a very limited run–in Central Lawrenceville.

pipe cleaner fern and moss frame

Someone has taken the fascinating step of constructing simple colorful rectangular frames from mismatched pipe cleaners and attached them to an old stone retaining wall along 45th Street, bordering St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.

Their placement on the soot-blackened stones is no haphazard act of vandalism or careless littering–no, they’ve been very precisely curated to frame and highlight the kind of the minute nature dioramas that appear around us everywhere, all the time, but usually go unnoticed. In lieu of anything more witty, we’re calling these fern frames.

popsicle stick fern frame

Nature is an absolutely amazing thing–and one that we can reasonably trust to outlive and survive the appetite-for-extinction behavior of the human race. In every sidewalk crack, a burst of life; on each block of pavement, itty-bitty creatures scurrying around, just doing their thing. And yes, in the thin vertical spaces between wall stones and mortar joints there exist tiny blasts of green in the form of soft fuzzy moss, delicate miniature weeds, the spindly leaves of little ferns.

pipe cleaner moss frame

We have no idea what motivated the person or persons responsible to construct and place the fern frames–they come with neither attribution nor artist statement. So we’re left to speculate on what’s going on with these simple displays. Are they a goofy stunt with leftover crafting materials? Psychological experiment? Candid Camera-style prank where The Orbit is the butt of the joke?

Anything’s possible, but to the imaginative mind what these little pieces seem to say echoes Alfred Joyce Kilmer’s famous couplet I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree. You can put a lot of effort into painting a picture, singing a song, or–gulp–writing a blog post, but you’re not going to top Mother Nature. Look around! Keep those peepers open! The world is a wonderful and mystifying place.

It can be really hard given the news of the day–you name the day–and, yes, people have all kinds of heaviness they’re dealing with. But what these little fern frames seem to say is, don’t just stop and smell the roses–those sell-outs already get enough attention!–put your schnoz right down in between the cracks in the sidewalk and up against the stones in the wall. There is so much beauty all around us, but sometimes it takes an anonymous stranger with a couple pipe cleaners to point it out to us.

pipe cleaner weed and moss frame

Art All Night 2019: A Roundup with Reflections on 22

artists from Creative Citizens Studios, “Pittsburgh,” (detail) mixed media

There she is: perhaps the most famous character the Brothers Grimm brought to world. Most of us came to her doe-eyed, perfectly-behaved acquaintance care of Walt Disney Studio’s classic animated film.

Only here the princess is no angel. She’s accessorized in rock-and-roll sunglasses and huffing a cloud of gray smoke through a makeshift pipe. It’s a scene that would leave Cheech and/or Chong gasping for fresh air. The crudely-painted artwork is titled Snow White Smoking Weed from an Apple.

lildoodoobutt, “Snow White Smoking Weed from an Apple”

Through the years, we’ve seen Art All Night grow up. We were there when the very literal all-night, anything-goes community event masquerading as art show learned to crawl, built its first set of plywood S panels, and went from a four-month planning cycle to an incredibly-efficient four-week execution. [Full disclosure: this author was neck-deep in volunteering for Art All Night for at least ten years; this year he just pulled a late-night, keep-your-eyes-open shift.]

So it is with strange comfort that we see this onetime oddball event grow up to be the same kind of goofball grass-roots institution we might have hoped for. The longevity of this all-volunteer event–last weekend was its 22nd yearly happening–and the continued commitment to no jury / no fee / no censorship is about as resolutely pure and accurate as one could hope from an organizational constitution.

Paul Feight, “4 Nudes Walking with Koi fish,” acrylic on canvas

Alexander Sands, “Diablo Blanco,” acrylic on canvas

There are a few other nos we could tack onto the Art All Night credo: no curation, no restraint, and no questions asked. These are, of course, 100% in the spirit of the event and give it a great I don’t need your rulesstick it to the man vibe–but that can present its own set of challenges for both participant and spectator.

Like being the introvert at a raucous New Year’s Eve gala or a vegetarian at a pig roast, the more subtle artworks are absolutely invited and welcome to be there, but may have a hard time feeling like they came to the right party.

Petey Miceli, “The Red Death,” acrylic on canvas

Exhibition at Art All Night favors big and loud, jokey and profane–that’s just the reality of an environment where the hanging is a shotgun blast of random collisions on dull fiberboard. There’s no way a sensitive portrait in graphite, delicate fabric embroidery, or miniature collage can compete side-to-side with a painting like The Red Death (above). That three-foot acrylic-on-canvas fantasy by artist Petey Miceli stars a giant demon-creature in flowing red cloak walking through turbulent seas with an enormous coffin under his arm.

Steven Walker, untitled, mixed media

Steven Walker’s untitled mixed media (self?) portrait of a young man staring straight back at the viewer (above) features actual barbed wire looped around the painting and a molded plastic eyeball exploding through the canvas in a gruesome bloody mess. It’s a lot to take in.

Ditto that for Universally fucked (below)–a kind of stoned joke come to life in the form of an orgasmic scary clown rogering a duck against a backdrop of the swirling psychedelic cosmos. There are elements of Jeannine Weber’s pen/pencil/acrylic artwork that I like–but I’m not going to hang this in the living room.

Jeannine Weber, “Universally fucked,” pencil/pen/acrylic

Kailee Greb, untitled (detail)

Kathie Hollingshead’s Peep All Night (below) takes the created-for-the-occasion approach to a whole new level. As one of the organizers of the event, her insiders-view recreation of Art All Night in miniature–with leftover Easter peeps standing in for attendees and volunteers–is a kind of meta joke-within-a-joke that blew this blogger’s already fragile noggin.

The piece–complete with faithful models of the plywood exhibition panels in cardboard and popsicle sticks–has so many great nods to Art All Nights past that we really have to salute this as some kind of high-water mark in art history. The tiny Etch-a-Sketch? The little Three Sisters bridge photo? Portraits of peeps? If you’ve been to Art All Night–any Art All Night–you’ll recognize these tropes. That’s it, man–game over.

Kathie Hollingshead, “Peep All Night,” mixed media

There’s long been a debate in Art All Night’s inner circles as to whether the work of younger artists should be segregated into a safe zone. The proponents argue that this way junior’s finger painting doesn’t end up hanging next to something really offensive; those opposed feel like it puts the kids in the often looked-over ghetto of “children’s art.”

Personally, I love to be surprised when the piece that pops out from a full panel has Age: 14 (or whatever) on the info tag. But I’m not a parent and don’t have to answer not-ready-for-it-yet questions like “why is that man doing that to that lady?”

Regardless, the under-18 panels always yield great stuff–too much to include here–but we loved Faith Little’s Daniel Ceaser, a mixed-media bas-relief in cut cardboard with stray scattered phrases like “Japanese Denim,” “Death & Taxes,” and “Street Car” that must be meaningful…but we can’t make the connection.

Faith Little, “Daniel Ceaser,” mixed media

Elias Grim, “Building a Wall”

As always, Art All Night is a place for some folks to, as Mrs. The Orbit says, “get their freak on.” From the days of The Rubber Men, The Cardboard Cowboy, and Sailor John Art All Night always brings out a who’s-who of where are these people the rest of the year?

The event has been around long enough for some of these folks to now be exhibiting in the great gallery in the sky. Rest assured, there’s a new crew of regulars–that guy with the electric blinking lights fuzzy jacket, Most Wanted’s crushed art cars, too many costumed characters to name, a naked lady!

We also enjoyed this too-late-for-the-party-but-I’m-showing-up-anyway tribute collage to the Golden Girls (below) which appears to just be a drop-off/leave-behind. We don’t know what Blanche, Rose, Sophia and the gang would have thought about Art All Night, but they’d be welcome here too.

anonymous drop-off art, “Golden Girls” collage

They’re not the only ones. If Art All Night teaches us anything, it’s that the human spirit to create, delight, surprise, and humor is deep and wide, strong and alive. That behind every row house awning and within every apartment bedroom there may be an artist, paintbrush in hand, shoving a fake bloody eyeball through a canvas just because he or she wanted to communicate…something…to the world.

lildoodoobutt, the artist behind the Snow White piece, would likely have a hard time finding gallery sponsorship elsewhere. We might assume the same for the vast majority of Art All Night contributing artists. That said, Ma and Pa doodoobutt can rest assured their kid will always have a home at Art All Night.

Katy Dement, papier mache/chia seed

Row House Romance: Christmas Window Roundup

window decorated with many winter scene buildings, Pittsburgh, PA

winter scene diorama, Lawrenceville

Keep on truckin’. The ’60s-era catch phrase of hippie can-do optimism was popularized by R. Crumb’s iconic cartoon of an easy-striding, big-shoed dude. Here, a sticker that’s appropriated both the slogan and image decorates the side panel of a model 18-wheeler. The little big rig has been put on display in a street-level front window of an Upper Lawrenceville row house.

Though it doesn’t explicitly say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, with a backdrop of picturesque snow-covered small town buildings, circled by carolers and snow people, colored lights and a tiny train, it’s impossible not to read the truck’s red cab as a modern update to Santa’s sleigh–those 400 horses a well-deserved upgrade to yesteryear’s eight tiny reindeer. Forget that other Snowman, if anyone’s got a long way to go and a short time to get there, it’s Ol’ Saint Nick on his yearly delivery run.

detail of winter scene including "Keep on Trucking" 18-wheeler, Pittsburgh, PA

Keep on Trucking (sic.): winter scene diorama (detail), Lawrenceville

Christmas. For some, as the song goes, it’s the “most wonderful time of the year” full of decadent–if generally wholesome–holiday parties, comforting tradition, and good cheer. To others, Christmas is a loathsome six weeks of commercialized sentimentality, forced mirth, obligation, and disappointment.

Here at The Orbit, we fall somewhere in the middle. I’ll admit it: I like the smell of a real spruce tree and the warm glow of colored lights; time off to do jigsaw puzzles, visit with friends, and sleep late; the collective goofiness of stuffed antlers added to minivan rooftops, white elephant gift exchanges, and a full movie house crowd gleefully roaring at Hans Gruber’s entrance in Die Hard.

But then there’s the dark side. The first time those jing-jing-jingling tunes preempt Casey Kasem on oldies radio–absurdly starting before Thanksgiving–it invokes such crushing, foreboding dread that it makes the whole holiday almost not worth it. Almost.

cat sitting in window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

candles, snowflake, attack cat, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

winking Santa, Lawrenceville

Love it or hate it, Christmas 2018 is over. But you wouldn’t know that from the residential streets in Lawrenceville. Say what you want about the neighborhood’s gentrification, but the Christmas display scene was (and still is) earnest and ample. Walk down any block and it can feel like every other house has got something up for the holiday: garlands on stoop railings, Santas on the front steps, and–most of all–decorations in the big front street-facing windows.

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Santa and Mrs. Claus, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

two Santas, Bloomfield

When you live in a row house–and I’m speaking from a couple decades of experience here–you get used to people looking directly into your life. It’s not weird or creepy or nebby–pedestrians and neighbors just can’t help but look in when the sidewalk is mere feet–often inches–from the front of the house.

That so many people end up using their street-facing windows as makeshift display cases for curated collections of figurines and little artworks, sports fandom and tchotchkes is perhaps something we could expect. But when our friends and neighbors orient their collections outward–specifically for the enjoyment of the world passing by on the sidewalk–well, that’s a beautiful thing and one that should not be taken idly. [Side note: Kirsten Ervin wrote a whole piece on this subject for Pittsburgh Orbit back in 2015.]

Krampus holiday decorations in row house window, Pittsburgh, PA

Gruss vom Krampus! Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

carolers, Troy Hill

One of the great pleasures of a daily constitutional around the neighborhood is getting to watch these window displays grow and evolve, get put away for the year and replaced in anticipation of the next turn of the calendar. Soon enough, the cotton-laden carolers and dangling snowflakes will be packed away to make room for Valentine’s Day hearts, St. Patrick’s clovers, Easter eggs and bunnies.

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow owl, Bloomfield

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow scene vignette, Bloomfield

If it’s not obvious, we went a little nutso with the Christmas window shopping this year–and, believe me, there are plenty more where these came from. This weekend is likely your last decent chance to catch any of these until the next Christmas season begins. Get out and walk around, take in what you can.

Anyway, Merry Christmas! (again)

windows decorated with Christmas stockings, Pittsburgh, PA

teddy bear stockings, Lawrenceville

window decorated with snow people and Christmas wreath, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people window, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people, wreath, and candles, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

snow people, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

deflated snow person, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

hot pink snow, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

candy canes, snow flakes, wreath, and candles, Lawrenceville

bay window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas’ greatest hits, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

manger scene, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas stickers, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

bells, candles, Lawrenceville

row house window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Claus family, Lawrenceville

bay window decorated with Christmas dolls, Pittsburgh, PA

Christmas automatons, Lawrenceville

rowhouse window decorated for Christmas, Pittsburgh, PA

Santa window, Bloomfield

Row House Romance: Double the Fun OR Twins Gone Wild!

identical brick row houses, one with elaborate mural across the entire front, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Identical twins, born of the same womb. The exact face, height, and profile. Some are from the side-streets–tough, working-class, gritty, without pretension. Others, their high-brow peers; raised mere blocks away, but praised for their natural beauty, elegant stature, and enviable position in life. To the former, these may as well have been from the moon.

No matter how much each pair of siblings may appear as perfect duplicates at birth, time has a way of imprinting itself on every living creature in radically different ways: an unwise tattoo or regrettable fashion choice, the scar from a near-death collision or the catastrophe of an ugly divorce. Given a hundred and twenty years or so, a lot can happen.

pair of brick row houses painted aqua blue and olive green, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

matched pair of row houses painted red and pink, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of matching row houses with many exterior alterations, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Consider the humble row house. Two up, two down; squat stoop; a single shared chimney stack; window-window, window-door. Some are boxy and flat-topped, but most have clean, peaked roofs–almost always with a dormer inserted right in the middle.

For the most part, Pittsburgh wasn’t built with the kind of block-long identical row houses you see filling entire neighborhoods of Baltimore or Philadelphia. More often, we ended up with pairs–mirror-image houses sharing a common wall. So much so, Pittsburgh has its own term for duplex: double house. Sometimes these twins are built into long blocks of other row houses in various designs; often, thin walkways separate the next-door neighbors.

exterior of brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

pair of row houses with very different exteriors, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

What’s so interesting about these–and perhaps all–twins is the divergent paths their lives inevitably take. Different paint jobs, added siding, fake stone and tile. Historical markers: windows cut down during the energy crisis, consolidated into one central pane, or removed completely. Entire doorways bricked-over or made unusable by nonexistent steps.

In one house, a third-floor addition with an out-of-place mansard roof; another, a post-op porch rebuild–but only across half the façade. A set of tin-slatted awnings here, window boxes and gingerbread paint details there. An extant old-school TV aerial, never bothered to remove after cable was introduced in the ’80s.

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of mirror-image row houses with many cosmetic differences, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

Imagined as life-long companions–and also inevitable rivals–the pairs take on their own personalities. These two dress alike–only he prefers hot red, she a cool aqua green. That one’s in the process of some cosmetic surgery; this one just broke his leg–that big cast will be on for a while. Another always has to outdo her sister–fancier clothes, more refined tastes, newer technology.

brick row houses in Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

side-by-side brick row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

pair of brick row houses, both with many obvious alterations to brickwork and detail, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

… and then there are those that just kept doing their thing. Maybe she got some window awnings back in the ’60s and he added an air conditioner to cool the front bedroom; she enlarged the stoop, he stopped using the front door. But they basically stayed together, no one putting on any fancy airs, as one family unit.

These aren’t rare, but they’re more exception than rule. The ability to get along with one’s neighbors is crucial in a tight, city neighborhood–even more so in one of these conjoined, paired double houses. But if you do it right, you end up with a better price on a re-roof, full house paint job, or new aluminum siding.

side-by-side row houses with dingy aluminum siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

matched pair of row houses with fake brick siding, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield

exterior of dilapidated row houses in Sharpsburg, PA

Sharpsburg

In these polarized times, a picture of neighbor-working-with-neighbor cooperation feels like the kind of rosy-eyed, optimism that’s been banished from the earth–but it hasn’t. It’s still here in the compressed side streets and awkward alley houses all over the city. All it takes to find it is a little row house romance.


A note to the Orbit’s readers in the Mexican War Streets, Spring Garden, Southside flats, Hill District, and all the other row house neighborhoods and boroughs: we’ve neither forgotten nor forsaken thou. This topic deep and wide and we intend to explore it over time. We’ll get to you.

Look Both Ways: Trafficking in Warhol Eye Cones

wheatpaste image of Campbell's Soup can on traffic cone with eyeballs

Lawrenceville

Ask anyone–they’ll tell you. It was a cold, ugly, brutal winter. Unrelenting weeks down in the ten degree range. Our thoroughfares were so pockmarked with crater-sized potholes the streets are only now becoming navigable. The Prince’s prophesy about snow in April–late April at that–was a little too true. And then into May (yes, May!) with the freezing rain and timid buds too scared to peek their tiny compressed flower heads out of protective branches. Oy!

That’s all behind us now, but weren’t we embarrassed to learn those cold north winds also blew in the most wonderful city-wide surprise right under our hunkered-down noses.

wheatpaste image of Andy Warhol wallpaper on traffic cone with eyeballs

Rachel Carson (neé 9th Street) Bridge

The first one we spotted was on the Rachel Carson Bridge. A likeness of a traffic cone, maybe 18 inches tall, wheatpasted to one of the vertical bridge supports. The image was full color, but not in the blaze orange you’d expect to see running wild in the street. Instead, the cone appears in one of Andy Warhol’s wallpaper designs–a repeating pattern of a maroon cow head against a brilliant yellow field. The piece is further decorated with eleven disembodied eyeballs, scattered loosely across the shape.

wheatpaste street art of traffic cone with Andy Warhol design and eyeballs, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on wooden board

Downtown

After that, a two-tone Campbell’s Soup design on an unoccupied Lawrenceville storefront and then another on some temporary plywood against the old Kaufmann’s building, Downtown.

A query to Orbit Nation rewarded us with the news that we weren’t alone–nor were we imagining these inscrutably arch street offerings. “I’ve seen them too,” from one, “What do they mean?” another. Most useful, a direct tag to the Instagram account of the apparent leaver of cones.

wheatpaste street art of traffic cone with eyeballs, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on spraypainted retail window, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

That photo stream–a series of unspecific pictures from Downtown Pittsburgh and a few near neighborhoods–Lawrenceville, The Strip District, the North Shore–was all it took to send Team Orbit on an obsessive egg hunt for all the eyeball-soaked, wheatpasted traffic cones we could handle.

We got a clue here and there–a location description like Downtown Pittsburgh or a recognizable detail from the Chinatown Inn–but this was no “gimme.” No, we spotted most of these just taking the old Orbitmobile out, in-and-around, and keeping the peepers primed for action. We didn’t find them all–that’s for sure–but bagged a pretty good collection.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on retail storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

ornate Chinese portico design over restaurant kitchen doors, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

We’re calling them Warhol Eye Cones for hopefully obvious reasons. [We have no idea what–if anything–their creator has named them.] The Orbit asked for an interview but, like The White House’s weekly rejection of National Public Radio, we were politely told to get bent…or, at least, no, thank you. Sigh. We’re here, if and when you ever want to talk.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on concrete wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

wheatpaste image of traffic cone with eyeballs on brick wall

Downtown

The Instagram photos all date from March of this year and that seems like a pretty believable timeframe for their original installation. As we made our way around town looking for the eye cones’ tell tale triangular shape and somebody’s-watching-me exterior, it was already clear the clock is ticking on chances to catch them.

A number of the pieces have already suffered under the scraper, the aforementioned cruel winter, or, in one case, a die-by-the-sword instance of duct tape-on-wheatpaste parking variance lifting the face right off one of the Lawrenceville pieces. The account’s most easy-to-locate piece was on a parking sign for the Andy Warhol Museum, but it had been scraped clean by the time we got there. Sigh.

wheatpaste images of traffic cones with eyeballs on cement wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District

wheatpaste traffic cone on cinderblock wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

The inevitable question: what do they mean? It’s got to come up because someone always needs an explanation.

The short answer is we don’t know. As mentioned, the eye coner prefers to let their eyeballs do the talking, which leaves our fingers to do the guessing. It’s hard to draw any obvious line between this mundane, utile object, eleven arhythmic floating eyeballs, and the nods to Andy Warhol’s greatest hits.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on wall with Pirates baseball mural, Pittsburgh, PA

Downtown

exterior wall of PNC Park with wheatpaste traffic cone, Pittsburgh, PA

PNC Park

The latter is probably the easiest to divine. Our wheatpaster appears to have been but a temporary visitor to the city–moving on/back to Chicago and San Francisco, based on their Instagram trail. Acknowledging Pittsburgh’s most famous locally-born artist, they’ve worked reproductions of Warhol silkscreens, early paintings, and decorative designs into the pieces. For the rest of it…who knows?

For our part, we’ll say it again: The Orbit loves a good egg hunt. Any excuse to take another look down the alleys, under the bridges, and by the electrical panels is enough to make this effort a rewarding one. The thrill of nabbing one more eye cone is something no discerning Pittsburgher should live without. Those eleven eyeballs may stare at you with the force of five-and-a-half infants, but they’re really whispering in your ear: come find me, I dare you.

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on electric panel

Lawrenceville

wheatpaste traffic cone with eyeballs on construction trailer, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

A Football Team That Wanted Him: Johnny Unitas and the Bloomfield Rams

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field, Pittsburgh, PA

Paul J. Sciullo II Memorial Field (neé Dean’s Field), Bloomfield. Johnny Unitas’ Bloomfield Rams practiced here in the 1950s.

Editor’s note: Back in April, we wrote a piece for our cross-continental sister blog The Portland Orbit[1]. In exchange, Orbit poobah David Craig offered to file a story for us during football season. Here you go.

by David Craig

When I think about Johnny Unitas, I think Colts football, his battle against Namath, and the Super Bowl victory that cemented his reputation. The Colts’ overtime victory in the ‘58 league championship is known as “the greatest game ever played” and helped pro football gain its immense popularity. I didn’t know he was born in Pittsburgh and was surprised to find out that he initially broke into the league when he was drafted–and then cut–by the Steelers.

book cover for "Pro Football Heroes" by Steve Gelman

Cover star Johnny Unitas perfects the hand off. “Pro Football Heroes” by Steve Gelman.

It was a 99 cent purchase made at a Goodwill Store that led to another Unitas discovery. How I came to own the book Pro Football Heroes by Steve Gelman escapes me, but the book opens with a chapter on Unitas describing the detour on his road to football glory after the Steelers released him in 1955:

“Convinced now that he couldn’t get into pro football until the next year, Johnny took a job as a pile driver on a construction gang. Meanwhile, to stay in shape for his next pro football tryout, he began playing with a semi-pro team, the Bloomfield Rams.”

From my knowledge of Pittsburgh I recognized this as a city neighborhood. Reading more confirmed this:

“The Rams played every Thursday night at the Arsenal Street School playground in the Bloomfield section of Pittsburgh.”[2]

Arsenal Middle School in Pittsburgh PA with a large green playing in front.

Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville. The Bloomfield Rams played their home games on this field. Now more grass than glass.

It intrigued me that Unitas began his storied career in Bloomfield before becoming “pro football’s last hero,” as Lou Sahadi called him in his book Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback. From an early age, Johnny lived for football. In Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas by Tom Callahan, Unitas’ mother talked about returning from the funeral home after his father died to find her then five-year old son throwing a football with friends. It seemed especially poignant that he sought comfort in the game after the loss of his father.

childhood home of Johnny Unitas, Pittsburgh, PA

Unitas family home, Mt. Washington

Unitas confided in a substitute teacher at school that he wanted to be a professional football player when he grew up. His sights were set on an athletic career but after failing the entrance exam to the University of Pittsburgh and being turned away from his hometown school, Unitas knew his professional chances would be nonexistent if he didn’t play in college. Another failed entrance exam found him starting his college career at the University of Louisville on academic probation. He did what he had to do to keep his dream alive.

Getting sacked by the Steelers was tough but he had been in a no-win situation. There were three other quarterbacks in camp that year, the most notable being Ted Marchibroda, who had better job prospects as a coach than a quarterback. Unitas was never able to show what he could do in preseason. Cut too late to join another team, he was forced to sit out a season and remained in Pittsburgh working construction to pay the bills.

At Steeler training camp, Unitas conducted a lesson in the “Hail Mary.”

When his old friend Fred Zangaro asked Johnny to join him on the Bloomfield Rams, Unitas had concerns about getting hurt. The team needed a quarterback but he didn’t want anything to get in the way of playing professionally. Unitas conceded, and played what he described as “sand-lot ball.” Explaining in a 1959 Look magazine article, “it was football and I was able to keep in practice.”

In the books by Callahan and Sahadi, the authors emphasized subpar playing conditions. The field was more dirt, rock and glass than grass and had to be sprayed with oil and water to keep the dust down. The equipment was ratty. Unitas had to search through piles of old gear to suit up. Players wore army boots instead of cleats. Unitas faced derision for being a college boy, a Steeler’s draftee and someone who dared dream of playing in the NFL. In his ebook The Best There Ever Was, Roland Lazenby describes a team, like Def Leppard, playing without a full set of limbs:

“…a roster loaded with steel-mill workers, many of them disabled. The offensive line alone featured just seven arms.”

Unitas in a rare Bloomfield Rams photo when he played both offense and defense. Courtesy Chuck “Bear” Rogers.

Later in the Look article, Unitas described an improvisational game plan that sounded like plays were diagrammed in the dirt as the team huddled.  “You had to take punishment,” was his simple description of the challenge of receiving pass protection from 140 pound linemen. Unitas led the Rams on an eight game winning streak and a conference championship. He experienced the satisfaction of winning–something that hadn’t happened much in his college years. The Bloomfield Rams offered him a sense of championship football he brought to his NFL career.

The Rams played in the Steel Bowl Conference against teams like the Pittsburgh Cubs, Arnold A.C., and the Nanty-Glo Blackhawks, along with teams from Shaler and McKeesport. The financial aspects of the league were small by today’s standards[3]. Unitas was paid $6 a game–money he was happy to turn over to his wife for groceries. By the end of the season, his winning ways earned him a pay bump of $15 a game. Opposing teams liked playing the Rams at Arsenal Field because the games there attracted crowds of anywhere from a few hundred to 1,000 people, each paying a $3 admission which meant a $500 pay out. After expenses, Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers had a budget of about $350 to pay Ram’s players. His policy of fining players $3 for missing practice meant some guys had to play for free.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

Johnny Unitas at Steelers training camp in a uniform he never got to wear on the field.

In considering Unitas as the father of great Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks, I wondered if the others had idolized him. An obiturary/tribute to Unitas written by Chuck Finder for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revealed the always quotable (Beaver Falls native) Joe Namath had considered Unitas “my football inspiration, my hero.” I imagine that the other western Pennsylvania quarterbacks knew enough about Unitas to think that if he could make it, they also had a shot. Lou Sahadi made a case for the western Pennsylvania quarterbacks describing the mentality that fueled them:

“John was first of those lunch-bucket quarterbacks to come out of western Pennsylvania. Later on came Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Joe Namath and Dan Marino. They were all the same. Guys who didn’t have anything. Guys who knew it was back to the steel mills or coal mines if they didn’t get the job done.”

historical plaque honoring Johnny Unitas that reads "(1933-2002) Pittsburgh native & Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, 1979. Here Unitas quarterbacked semi-pro Bloomfield Rams to a Steel Bowl Football Conference championship, 1955. Signed with Baltimore Colts, 1956, leading them to an NFL championship, 1958.

historical plaque in front of Arsenal Middle School, Lawrenceville

At this point this post should have the feel of a very late night AM radio sports talk broadcast. Imagine bursts of static and a distant echoing theremin whine as I sermonize about the early playing days of the great Johnny Unitas. I focused so much on his brief time in Bloomfield that I never got around to exploring the rest of his playing career. My sense is, if only on a subconscious level, his brief foray in semi-pro football offered a foundation that made him the player he became. No matter the pressure, weather, or game situations he faced, he could always draw on the challenges of his primitive Bloomfield days.

The experience must have given him an appreciation for quality teammates, decent equipment and reasonable practice facilities but it’s important to remember the Bloomfield Rams were there when Unitas needed them. He expressed this in Lou Sahadi’s book explaining that what had mattered most about playing for the Rams had been the feeling that there was a football team that wanted him.

I’ll leave it up to the Pittsburgh Orbit‘s head honcho Will Simmons to track down the Bloomfield Rams old 1955 Steel Bowl Conference trophy. I’m imagining his relentless pursuit in knocking on doors as he looks up players from the ’55 Ram’s roster, guys like Jim Deglau, Jacko Cray, Red Celender, Fred Zangaro, or even Coach Chuck “Bear” Rogers, if he’s still around, to get the full story of what it was like to play football with Johnny Unitas in Pittsburgh. That will have to wait until next season.


[1] “The Louie Files: The Greatest Moment in Rock-and-Roll,” Portland Orbit, April 6, 2017.
[2] Of course, this was actually down the hill in Lawrenceville at what is today Arsenal Middle School on Butler Street. There’s a historical plaque there to prove it.
[3] Editor’s note: This pay rate may actually not be that different from present-day. If any members of the [currently-active semi-pro teams] Passion, Rangers, Colts, or Wildcatz would like to comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Bibliography:

Tom Callahan, Johnny U The Life & Times of John Unitas, Crown Publishers
Lou Sahadi, Johnny Unitas, America’s Quarterback, Triumph Books
Roland Lazenby, Johnny Unitas: The Best There Ever Was, Triumph ebooks
Steve Gelman, Pro Football Heroes, Scholastic Book Services

Stamp Collecting: The Quest for More Sidewalk Stamps

pair of sidewalk stamps by Langell & Son, Millvale, PA

Langell & Son, Millvale

All these years wasted! A lifetime, really. Day after day, week after week, month after month rolling around with neither goal nor focus. Eyes dawdling in every direction but down! Into electrical wires, on the backsides of buildings, caught in treetops, telephone poles, and up in the clouds. Regrets: yeah, we’ve had a few.

Sure: we’d seen sidewalk/mason stamps before, but they never really occupied prime territory in this blogger’s dog-eared and ill-folded mental map. Maybe it was just plain not paying attention or the willful ignorance of avoiding their alluring street-level stare. Either way, the city’s concrete masons never made that great of an impression on us [har har]. That was, however, until Orbit reader Larry Kramer came into our life with his post-Easter walk-through on the year-round egg hunt that is stamp collecting.

sidewalk stamp for Didiano Bros. Cement Contr., Pittsburgh, PA

Didiano Bros. Cement Contr., Lawrenceville

sidewalk stamp for Jos. Lucente & Son, Pittsburgh, PA

Jos. Lucente & Son, Gen. Cont., Lawrenceville

Larry’s piece was a great beginner’s guide to the greatest hits–plus a few deep cuts/one-hit-wonders–of Pittsburgh sidewalk-laying history. Di Bucci, Pucciarelli, Baleno, Ciriello–these are the Beatles, Stones, Michael Jackson, and Prince (respectively) of local cement work. You’ll come to recognize their tell-tale signature shapes from any distance–across the street or cruising by in a two-wheel, slow-motion neighborhood drag.

A little tip: don’t get too excited when you bag your first diamond-shaped Santo–it’s about as hard to find as Best of Bread or Whipped Cream and Other Delights at any thrift shop–and worth the same fifty cents. In just a few short months, we’ve developed a whole new outlook on life and a more discerning palate in this most al fresco of dining experiences.

sidewalk stamp reading "WCCP", Pittsburgh, PA

WCCP, Oakland

sidewalk stamp reading "Neno Colucci Cement Contractor", Pittsburgh, PA

Neno Colucci Cement Contractor, Lawrenceville

DidianoLucenteColucciPalmieriCiummoPollice. It’s a stereotype, for sure, but the names–which read like a passenger manifest on a one-way liner from Naples to Ellis Island–don’t lie. Italian-Americans poured a lot of concrete in Pittsburgh over the last century and still seem to dominate the business today. After you bag all the big-name repeat offenders, it’s these other smaller-scale, long-gone operators who may only have a handful of remaining stamps that keep the hunt alive and exciting.

"Palmieri" sidewalk stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Palmieri, Oakland

sidewalk stamp, Pittsburgh, PA

Ciummo Bros., Friendship

There seems to be very little documentation on the computer Internet of this particular underfoot history–and most of that comes from some pretty rinky-dink sources. From what we can tell, though, the legacy of sidewalk stamps has some unique cultural differences based on what part of the country was having their pedestrian paths prepped.

sidewalk stamp for D. Pollice & Sons, Pittsburgh, PA

D. Pollice & Sons General Contractor, Oakland

sidewalk stamp for Jos. Crimeni Paving, Pittsburgh, PA

Jos. Crimeni Paving, Oakland

Here in Pittsburgh, the obvious thematic threads between our stamps are that they include the surnames of (mostly Italian) individual contractors, (seven-digit) phone numbers, and (often) extra business info squeezed in, ex: Cement Contr.Gen. Con.Landscaping & Construction. Our stamps are never dated. (Sigh–that would be so interesting!)

Other cities like Vancouver and Milwaukee have made dating the concrete pour the primary stamp. In Corvallis, Oregon the system was to include street name, contractor, and year of installation, but with a standard form and typeface (if it can be called that) containing no individual flourish. In the latter case, every (known) stamp in town seems to have been impressively mapped and labeled. There are other blog entries documenting small collections from Los Angeles, Oakland/Berkeley, Denver, and Chicago–but there’s just not that much interest out there.

sidewalk stamp for Dormont Concrete Co., Pittsburgh, PA

Dormont Concrete Co., Oakland

The new school. Depressingly sterile in their oblong, bloated rectangle shape and factory-set letters, it’s still great to see today’s masons leave their mark–and phone number–in their work…the stamps are just not as attractive or interesting.

Nick Scotti (whose unique diamond-shaped six-sider was included in Larry’s piece) shows up with two different new-fangled stamps. The “Concrete Man” of Verona and Antonio DiFiore are working with similar off-the-shelf models. Vento Landscaping & Construction obviously paid for a nicer, custom design.

sidewalk stamp for Vento Landscaping & Construction, Pittsburgh, PA

Vento Landscaping & Construction, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for Nick Scotti, Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti concrete contr., Bloomfield

sidewalk stamp for Nick Scotti, Cement Contr., Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Scotti, Cement Contr. (hand-written phone number), Oakland

sidewalk stamp for Concrete Man, Pittsburgh, PA

Concrete Man, Friendship

sidewalk stamp for Antonio DiFiore, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonio DiFiore, General Contr., Morningside

Finally…these are pretty neat, but there must be more of the really cool metal plaques that Larry mentioned, right? You bet your big brass there are! We’re working on a follow-up that will include the really old-school inset pieces along with some of the other oddball stamps and things we’ve found. That’ll be up….sometime.


Got a tip on an unrecognized stamp? A suggestion of an impression? We’d love to hear about it.