Hail, Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup

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

Deluxe grotto Mary, Spring Hill

With apologies to James Rado and Jerome Ragni:

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

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

Mary statuette in front yard grass, Pittsburgh, PA

The Run

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

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

Statuette of Mary in front yard, Homestead, PA


Mary statuette in front of brick house, Pittsburgh, PA

Stanton Heights

Mary statuette in front yard, Pittsburgh, PA


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


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

Big Jim’s Marys, The Run

Front yard Mary, Pittsburgh, PA


Mary statuette in wooded yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary of the Wood, South Side Slopes

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

Halloween Mary, Spring Hill

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


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

Trio of Marys, Stanton Heights

statue of Mary in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Back yard Mary, Lawrenceville

Allegheny Cemetery: Mausoleum Stained Glass

mausoleum stained glass with pentagram, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


Seeing the world through the Orbit eye. Those words came to us a while back from superfan Lee, and we accept it as the ultimate compliment. Lee still requires corrective eyewear–so be warned that Pittsburgh Orbit is no substitute for Lasik–but we think we know what he was getting at.

If Orbit “reporting” has taught us anything at all, it’s to always take another look. Lose the expectations and open up the senses. Point those peepers everywhere you can: down the alley, around the corner, on the pavement, up in the telephone wires, and through the crack in the window. Like Irene Cara said: take your pants off and make it happen. What a feeling, indeed.

broken mausoleum stained glass with sitting woman and field of flowers, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

James M. Miller

mausoleum stained glass of oil lamp hanging in arched window with columns, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown (possibly Krey, based on nearby cenotaph)

One of those spots, attentive Orbit readers will have anticipated by now, is through the thick barred grates, cobwebbed glass, and musky air of the ornate mausoleums at our historic cemeteries. Pittsburgh is sitting on a bunch of these.

This blogger has walked through, bicycled around, picnicked in, and shutterbugged Allegheny Cemetery literally hundreds of times over the last couple decades. Allegheny’s collection of mausoleums isn’t quite as spectacular as the rock star ones we toured with Jennie Benford last year at Homewood, but it’s nothing to scoff at.

The mausoleums act as both beacons and exclamation points on the rolling landscape and much of the art deco and faux-Egyptian architecture is really astounding. But for whatever reason, we rarely ever took the opportunity to shade the eyes and poke the schnoz in to check out the interior spaces.

mausoleum stained glass with angel, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Unknown (detail)

mausoleum shelves with trophies in front of colored glass, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


I’ll tell you: it’s not an easy thing to do. The average mausoleum–in Allegheny Cemetery, at least–seems to have a pair of thin, highly-decorated entry doors, each behind some version of vertical iron bars or decorative scrolled metalwork. Half the time, the original door locks are still in use, if not, there’s an awkward after-market steel chain and padlock lashed around whatever it can grab ahold of.

If you can see much inside, it’s typically a narrow passage, just wide enough for a person to turn around in, flanked by the celebrated residents’ crypts. Sometimes there’s just one of these on either side; others are stacked floor to ceiling. At the rear of almost every mausoleum is a stained glass window providing the only natural light outside of the shaded entry doors.

So to look inside a mausoleum is to peer through several layers of obfuscation, from the outside daylight into a darkened interior that may have had a hundred years since its last human visitor.

broken mausoleum stained glass with architectural design, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA


mausoleum stained glass with angel in green tunic, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Wettengel (detail)

And what do we get to see in the stained glass? In a word: flowers–lots and lots of flowers. Flowers in vases, flowers in gardens, ornamental flowers, and flowers held by angels; lillies of the valley and daffodils of the foothills. We only included photos for a few of these; the flowers are quaint, but they’re just not that exciting.

Beyond the flora, however, there’s some pretty neat stuff. An old-school oil lamp dangles under an arched cathedral window with ghostly leaf shadows backlit from the outside; angels appear with painted-on faces, doe-eyed and calming; and, of course, in that chestnut of mortal symbolism, the sun sets over and over again in Mausoleumville.

There are also the broken panes. Windows whose heavy weight, coupled with a hundred years of un-climate-controlled Pennsylvania weather, eventually overburdened the lower sections. Individual colored pieces have popped out and cracked, leaving the windows looking like incomplete paint-by-numbers; the unimpeded sun’s glare the brightest element in the tiny space.

broken mausoleum stained glass with arch and white flowers, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Lillian Russell Moore

Is it worth a trip? Well, Allegheny Cemetery is absolutely worth all the time you can give it–even if you don’t want to squint into (silent film star) Lillian Russell‘s final repository. But while you’re there, yeah, you should neb into whoever’s crypt you can. The Sheets and the Kreys and the Sproal-Splanes don’t seem like they’re coming around anymore, but don’t worry; we’ve got that Orbit eye looking out for them.

Black-and-Gold: On the Fence

black and gold section of picket fence with hand-painted messages to the Steelers


To football spectators–from the die-hard to even the most casual/occasional game-watchers–the practice is so common it’s become cliché. Cameras trained on a small group of fanatics in the stands. One dude (and yes, it is almost always a dude) with a giant poster board cut-out of the letter D, his buddy right next to him with a matching section of picket fence. The pair are very excited to be on television. D-fence. Very clever.

So with this familiar rebus haunting NFL crowd shots every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday* throughout autumn, it’s no wonder Steeler faithful would consider their own side yards and front porches as prime opportunity for a black-and-gold home improvement makeover.

Here then, on this opening day of the Steelers 2016 campaign, The Orbit salutes those fans who’ve taken up post-hole diggers and sacks of concrete mix, lattice board and exterior enamel all in preparation to defend our fair city from the attack of marauding Bengals, Browns, Ravens, and (eesh) “Patriots”. Here, indeed, we go.

row house back yard fence painted black and gold and decorated with Steelers signs, Pittsburgh, PA


side yard and fence with sign reading "Steeler fans", Pittsburgh, PA

East Deutschtown

side yard with chain link fence decorated with lifesavers, Steeler colored rope, and flowers, Pittsburgh, PA


black and gold fence and jungle gym, Pittsburgh, PA

East Deutschtown

* I don’t know if this particular act of fandom shows up as often at high school and college games, but if so, yes: every single day of the week, August through January.
** It was suggested that this may not, in fact, be a Steeler party yard, but with the Steel City lifesaver and black-and-gold rope, we think it qualifies.

Golden Babies: Strange Things Afoot!

golden baby and baby foot hanging from wires in front of row houses, Pittsburgh, PA

Dismembered foot of Penn Baby with Penn Baby 2, Lawrenceville

Regrettably, The Orbit had accepted the mystery around the Golden Babies–like the Kennedy assassination, or where real babies come from–would likely never be solved.

But then a tip of the reddest and hottest variety came in: “MAJOR new development in the golden babies,” it began. What followed was a pair of plot twists to this ongoing street art narrative that both flipped our collective wig and, like Michael Phelps waking from his doobie-smoking Subway bender, re-lit a fire underneath this blogger that fans had thought long extinguished in the purple haze of five dollar foot-longs.

golden baby and baby foot hanging from wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby has a leg up on other street art

Faster than you can say quasi-respectable news source we hoofed it up to Constellation Coffee. The café sits right where our first-sighted golden baby (“Penn Baby”) appeared. Here, we could confirm the tip–and also enjoy a delicious cup of coffee*.

The story, right from the baristas at Constellation, goes like this: one Sunday morning, a concerned citizen phoned in a complaint to the city. Apparently the golden baby, dangling by his ankle from the wires on the 4000 block of Penn Ave., was just too much. The substance of the concern is not known, but we’ll take a wild guess that the baby was deemed “offensive,” “creepy,” and/or “weird.” Fair enough, I suppose**.

Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA with golden baby hanging from wires

View down Penn Ave. with golden baby and loose foot.

With nothing more substantive ablaze, the fire department was dispatched to remove the offending infant from the airspace over Penn Avenue. For whatever reason, they were unable to either undo the baby’s hanging wire or just cut it off, so the crew made the bizarre decision to instead saw through its tiny plastic leg. This allowed the removal of most of the kid, but left one stray golden foot, ankle, and calf dangling from the telephone wires.

Side note: This action begs a number of questions. Among them: Is leaving a disembodied leg really less offensive than the whole baby? and How is it that a street artist/prankster has a longer ladder than the fire department? and If I’m in the third floor of a burning building should I just accept fate and kiss my feet goodbye?

golden baby and baby leg dangling from wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Golden baby: foot loose and fancy free

Strange? Sure is! But what happened next will blow your mind! [That is, unless you’ve already looked at the pictures.]

In less than 48 hours, a brand new golden baby went up on the same stretch of wires–within mere feet of the foot. “Penn Baby 2” generally looks the same as the other golden babies, but with the key differences that s/he’s clothed in a red onesie (the others are white) and that garment appears to be stamped or silk-screened with some mystery insignia (the others are plain/unadorned).

close-up of golden baby in red onesie, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Baby 2. Note the red onesie with cryptic insignia.

If blogging teaches us anything, it’s to not rest on one’s assumptions. The strange circumstances of Penn Babies 1 and 2 only prove that black is white, up is down, child is father to the man, and therefore, baby is, uh…older sibling to the child? Ah, hell.

This story is not over yet–no, not by a long shot. There’s one very important piece of evidence still in dispute–the whereabouts of the footless and foot-loose Penn Baby. Sources say it’s in the possession of Constellation Coffee–secured in a drawer right on the premises. But when the subject came up during The Orbit’s interrogation of the staff, the aforementioned “friendly” baristas clammed up tighter than a set of quad toms at a Sun Devils half-time show. Believe you me: their guilty eyes have got no rhythm.

What are they hiding? O.K., we think we know what they’re hiding, but why are they hiding it? You can bet we’ll get to the bottom of this…or at least to another cup of that delicious coffee.

* Constellation makes a damn good cup of coffee.
** If only a phone call could have the much more offensive Crocs stripped from the feet of our citizenry so easily.

Step Beat: Climbs 57

looking up long set of city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking up the lower section of the 57th Street steps

Has Pittsburgh fifty-seven varieties of city steps? Maybe.

It’s an intriguing question. There are long and short sets of steps; steps on the side of the street and steps alone in the woods. There are steps of wood, metal, and concrete; steps in good repair and ones that are falling apart; open steps and ones permanently closed. Some have special bicycle ramps added; others just tell you to Try. There are steps with crazy turns and angles and steps that just go up one straight line. There are steps the whole neighborhood uses, step street intersections, and steps that no longer go anywhere.

It would probably take a significant imagination to keep this riff going all the way out to the magic number. However, we know Henry J. Heinz considered 57 to be a lucky number*, and if it’s good enough for the king of condiments, it’s good enough for Pittsburgh Orbit. We certainly felt lucky after a climb up the very fine 57th Street Steps in Lawrenceville.

city steps with older home, Pittsburgh, PA

Step-accessible (only) house at the bottom of the 57th Street steps

city steps at 57th and Duncan Streets, Pittsburgh, PA

The intersection at Duncan Street, mid-point in the 57th Street steps

The steps that make up the pedestrian section of 57th Street qualify as at least two of these varieties. The lower half, from where Christopher Street forks off 57th up to Duncan Street, is in immaculate shape. The treads and rails are all perfectly maintained, with easy clear passage. The surrounding foliage has been neatly trimmed and there was no litter the day we visited. There’s even one remaining house that is only accessible via the steps.

An the upper half? Well, that’s another story. In the middle of a lush Pittsburgh summer, dense knotweed has enveloped the majority of this stretch with just enough room for the city trekker to go full-on Indiana Jones. [Note to readers: bring a fedora, whip, and satchel.] It’s clear this batch is neither as well-loved nor as well-used as its downhill sibling. Still, it offers a great off-the-grid version of the step experience, which is just as much of what we’re after.

city steps nearly overgrown with knotweed, Pittsburgh, PA

Entrance to the upper section of 57th Street steps (at Duncan Street)

looking up city steps covered by trees, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking up the upper section of 57th Street steps

If there’s a bummer to the 57th Street steps, it’s that you’re stuck with a straight up-and-back trip–there’s no looping around for a more interesting walk/hike. Somewhere around half-way up the top stretch (above Duncan), you hit a pretty decisive end-of-the-line. The treads are gone, trees and weeds have overtaken what’s left, and a clear Steps Closed barrier has been placed across the route.

At this point, the red handrails continue, tantalizing us by disappearing into the hillside. The map shows that at one point the steps terminated up on Price Way in Stanton Heights, but that connection seems unlikely to be re-opened–at least until The Orbit gets put in charge of public works. Until then, pass the ketchup.

city steps missing treads with "Steps Closed" sign blocking the way, Pittsburgh, PA

End of the line: top of the 57th Street steps

* Heinz famously had way more than 57 different food products when the “57 Varieties” tag line was dreamed up and added to packaging.

An Orbit Obit: The Lost Art of Found Photographs

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown girl

You used to find them everywhere. Someone else’s photographs, lost, torn to bits, or simply discarded as substandard. Dropped from wallets, ripped-up in tear-stained anger, fallen from automobile door pockets and sun visors, blown by the wind. Once, an entire paper bag full of slides from a stranger’s family vacation out West.

O, the riches of big box parking lots of yore! Rejected photos were so often immediately jettisoned right onto the lined pavement of the Target or Rite Aid that processed them. You can picture the disgruntled customer flipping through a just-picked-up batch in the front seat of his or her sedan. For every stray finger obscuring the lens or flash that didn’t pop, a picture tossed right out the window. This pre-blogger was even known to rescue misfires directly from photo processing waste bins[1].

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown baby

The Orbit‘s files are stuffed with dozens–probably hundreds–of found photos, but now that the world’s gone digital, we almost never come across them anymore. So that’s what made this recent find such a gas.

Kirsten Ervin[2] occasionally merges civic duty and her daily constitutional with a cleanup of litter found in Lawrenceville’s Arsenal Park. That will make it’s own fine story–hopefully one day appearing on these very virtual pages–but we’ll leave the telling of it to Kirsten. Suffice to say that among the many curiosities that eluded the waste bin and made it home was this collection of photographs.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown boy

What a find indeed! Five wallet-sized color photos, one each of two babies (or, possibly, two photos of the same baby), one boy, and two young ladies of indeterminate age. In each, their time spent outdoors in the elements of Arsenal Park has drastically affected the images[3]. A girl’s posed smile barely visible through a swirl of dreamy fog–her red hair and purple sweater psychedelically lifting and blurring into the background. The pair of infants seem blissfully unaware of an encroaching ooze. The woman’s big grin and shoulder length brown hair the last recognizable elements as her face and torso dissolve into the picture’s white background.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown baby

They’re arresting images, and it’s everything the chase for found photos ever promised. The standard questions are there: who are these people? and how did the photos end up here? But it’s also so much more. The beautiful decay and accidental destruction of the original pictures is lovely and haunting and thoroughly thought-provoking. If these are the last found photos we ever come across, we’ll know we went out with a bang.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown woman

All photos courtesy of Kirsten Ervin.

[1] Yes, this is kind of cheating, and no, we’re not proud–but this story isn’t about that.
[2] Full disclosure: a full time resident of Chez Orbit.
[3] Cleaning the mud-soaked photographs following their return home may have inadvertently contributed to the image distortion.

The Ways and Means Committee

Banner Way

Banner Way

Kirsten Ervin files her second story for Pittsburgh Orbit, inaugurating what we hope will be a new series on Pittsburgh’s alleys. The Ways and Means Committee is called to order!

I came home one day to find DEA agents and men in white coveralls in the alley behind our house, carting out garbage bags bursting with kind bud. The biggest indoor marijuana grow lab in Pittsburgh was discovered in a second-floor loft on Urbana Way two years ago. The stench permeated our own house. I smelled like the inside of a bong for the rest of the day, having some awkward explaining to do at business meetings.

ivy-covered 5-story brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Banner Way

Over the 16 years we’ve lived in Lawrenceville, a lot has happened on Urbana Way. We had a most colorful neighbor living behind us–a self-professed DJ, artist, soap maker, “creative genius”, etc. who went by MC Strawberrie Cream. Mostly she was really good at yelling at whatever boyfriend she was living with at the time. That, and terrorizing the neighborhood with late night playlists of piercing club music, so loud it made conversation difficult. She had electric orange hair and a permanent scowl. Her apartment was on the second story of an older industrial building, with a wide double door and a pulley. There was a dumpster below. Whatever went in that dumpster, or was left in the alley, was gone within minutes, Strawberrie Cream having hoisted it up into her apartment with its electric winch. One time we caught her sitting on top of a heap of trash in the dumpster drinking a beer, her skirt splayed out, picking through the contents.

Blackberry Way, Pittsburgh, PA

Blackberry Way

I am fascinated by the alleys of Pittsburgh and have recently gone exploring the other “Ways” in Lawrenceville, of which there are many. Most have very pleasing names: Blackberry Way, Umpire Way, Plum Way, Eden Way, Antwerp Way. They read like poetry. I wonder how they were named. They have street signs but aren’t streets. They intrigue me, beckoning like secrets. Here are the backs of houses, the backs of yards, the less traveled, the ultimate locals-only. Alleys are not meant to be seen, just as the back of an elaborate embroidery is not meant to be examined. But, in turning it over to reveal the hidden stitching, one meets with a fascinating haphazard tapestry. It’s not pretty, but this is where the work happens.

old Chevrolet truck, Pittsburgh, PA

Locarna Way

Likewise, the tiny backyards and fences of the alleyways reveal a lot about how we live, pretty or not. This is where we relax with a beer on a summer night, wash our cars, run through the sprinkler, take out the garbage. Our gardens, cars, grills, toys, and castoffs compete for space in the postage stamp existence of outdoor city life. Here is where the carefully-manicured green patch abuts the yard overrun with weeds and an old refrigerator. Kiddy pools, fire escapes, peeling paint, and barking dogs lean toward each other. It’s the juxtaposition of the junkyard and the sublime.

Banner Way

Banner Way

This is also where Pittsburgh reveals its industrial, immigrant past. Many of the ways are paved with cobblestone and brick, dotted with the breezeways of an ancient European village. Unassuming buildings lift up their back curtains to make way for deliveries and storage. Heavy equipment moves here.

Plum Way

Plum Way

While drinking in the random and accidental beauty of the alleyways, I come across the freshly appointed and carefully streamlined undersides of newer, fancier developments. These are stripped of any secrets or stories–pretty, but so bland as to be indistinct from one another. This is my worry for Lawrenceville, for Pittsburgh. It’s not the money or the so-called sophistication of new transplants that I am worried about. It is the whitewash of what is already here, the antiseptic cleansing of history, and the rejection of the underside of things–the masking of who we are and how we live.

Cotton Way

Cotton Way

All photos and text by Kirsten Ervin.