Ketchup City Confidential: The Marys of Sharpsburg

statue of Mary in front garden of brick house
Backlit like an angel Mary. A fine ambassador of Sharpsburg’s fertile Mary scene.

KETCHUP CITY, 2021.

One thing about not sleeping: it leaves a blogger lot of time to hit the bricks–maybe too much time. Your wayward author spent most of the big light months stumbling through pre-dawn fog. Aimless, wandering, wondering, and trying to shake not few demons. Up hillsides with more wild turkeys than people; down roads where ravens and groundhogs ghosted the train to Lonelyville. Out looking for a reason when no one else had yet cracked the lids or boiled the bean.

Ketchup City at six in the morning is a funny place to meet a woman out on her own. This one wasn’t what you’d expect–all flowing robes, white gown, palms out like Fido’s about to jump in her lap. She had the face of an angel–glowing, porcelain, radiant–but this lady wasn’t giving anything away. She held her secrets tighter than a vice grip on a lug nut. Mary made you think decency may still linger on this scorched earth.

statues of Mary and Jesus in glass storefront window
Patriotic Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house
Composed Mary

Around another corner and there she is again … and again! Mary kept busier than a vampire at a blood bank. This lady didn’t know when to give up or how to relax. At every corner in this small hamlet, there’s another mother of a holy other watching out, keeping us honest.

There she is: standing guard in a big flower pot, her blue and pink gown ready for anything the world would throw at her. Again on a front stoop, commanding in the supra-orbital power of a protective grotto. Down the alley she’s relaxing under the dappled sunlight of backyard roses. Yeah, Mary looked better than a cold beer after a mowed lawn and all that walking makes a blogger mighty thirsty.

statue of Mary and rose bush in backyard garden
Shy Mary/Mary of the roses
ceramic statue of Mary on front steps of house
Classic grotto Mary

We put the tacks on Mary, but she gave us the slip more times than we’ll tell the big guy. A secret smile echoed from curtained window seats; knowing chortles from behind a screened-in façade. Sure, she was happier than a butcher’s dog, but Mary was hiding something. Like the best secrets, though, we knew the suspense is always worth the wait.

small statue of Mary in window overlooking flower box with many colorful flowers
Window box view Mary
statue of Mary in screen window
From a window to a screen Mary

Ketchup City–OK, Sharpsburg, if you’re pushing paper for the governor–you’ve got a lot to be proud of. Not the least of which is the battalion of Blessed Mothers peepin’, creepin’, and brow-beatin’. From St. Mary’s to The Madonna of Jerusalem, The Lafayette to CC’s, The Internet Court of Lies to Drop ur Load Washery (R.I.P.), you’ve got a friend in Sharpsylvania–just don’t forget the french fries.

ceramic statue of Mary in front of brick house
Brown brick Mary
statue of Mary in front of house with weeds
In the weeds Mary
house with statue of Mary
Mary with some of her less-famous offspring
statue of Mary with feet buried in garden mulch
Quicksand Mary
statue of Mary along alley
No Parking Mary

Hail, Mary! The Marys of South Oakland and Oakland Square

ornate shrine to Mary including large brick and masonry grotto, statue of Mary on a stone pedestal, urns with flowers, candles, and angel statues
The (blessed) mother of all South Oakland Marys. Shrine of the Blessed Mother aka “Our Lady of the Parkway.”

Welcome to South Oakland: childhood home of Dan Marino, Andy Warhol, and Bruno Sammartino. At least, that’s what the welcome sign on Frazier Street, at Dan Marino Field, tells us.

Those were the days, huh? One’s mind wanders to a time before Oakland’s tight, pre-war homes had mostly been converted into student housing. When it was still a neighborhood with a large Italian-American community full of workers who’d commute not to the current nearby ginormous eds and meds employers but instead south, down the hill, to the massive Jones & Laughlin steel mill occupying both banks of the Mon.

Setting aside the pesky reality of belching smoke stacks that blackened the sky and rained soot on everyone and everything, it must have been a pretty great place to grow up. The Carnegie museums, library, and concert hall an easy half-mile walk; Schenley Park, even closer; downtown Pittsburgh a mere trolley ride away. Football at Pitt Stadium (R.I.P.), boxing and hockey at The Gardens (ditto). Backyards overgrown with grape vines and fig trees; the intoxicating aroma of stewing marinara wafting from kitchen windows.

statue of Mary in grotto enclosure on pedestal in special attachment to front porch
On a porch of her own Mary

… and Mary. Oh! The mind reels at the thought of all those good Catholics sacrificing a half-week’s pay for a quality statue of Her Blessedship–blue-cloaked, head down, and palms out. Maybe she’s posed in a bathtub-shaped grotto or up on a pedestal–or both! In our gauzy rose-colored nostalgia-by-proxy, a saunter down Dawson, Ward, or Juliet was so rife with statuary that the stray houses without a holy figure stand out … but that’s probably just the imagination running wild, like usual.

statue of Mary in grotto with additional ivy grotto in front of house
Ivy grotto Mary

South Oakland and adjacent Oakland Square are an entirely different scene now. Great neighborhoods still, mind you, with all the same location advantages. Heck, around Chez Orbit, the area has crucial pins on the step-trek and cycling maps as entry point to the great Romeo & Frazier steps and gateway to the Panther Hollow trail. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine either neighborhood as childhood home to many kids today.

With the ever-gobbling-up of greater Oakland by the twin goliaths of Pitt and UPMC, Oakland’s demographic has shifted decidedly from working families to student transients. A stroll anywhere and you’ll see all the tell-tale signs of off-campus living: ratty porch couches, Tibetan prayer flags, Pitt banners, card tables laden with last night’s party debris. Religious iconography? Not so much.

Mary statuette in front yard flower garden, Pittsburgh, PA
Urnin’ a living Mary

But if you spend a little time, look around a bit, you’ll still find Mary doing her thing. She’s flanked by urn-styled flower pots and nestled between hedges. Mary peeks out from behind blooming flowers and serves her country under a patriotic flag-filled fantasia.

The (blessed) mother of all South Oakland Marys is, of course, The Shrine of the Blessed Mother (aka “Our Lady of the Parkway”) (photo at top). Installed on a beautiful hillside nook where one can both relax in the solace of the space, take in its terrific view across the river, and pretend the unrelenting Parkway traffic below is just rushing water on a boisterous river … with random bursts of road rage. Yes, we’re obliged to do a whole story on the Shrine at some point.

statue of Mary in front of gas meter
Lovely Mary, meter maid

Until then, steps-seekers, park wanderers, and the Mary-obsessed alike can bask in the glow of The Blessed One’s dimmed, but still radiant aura emanating from the dozen-or-so figures and still-potent empty grottoes visible from Oakland’s sidewalks. If only we could peer into all those backyards! Untold riches almost certainly hide in these private spaces. For that, we’ll have to look to the heavens, say a little prayer, make the sign of the cross, and thank the Lord we can party with Mary whenever she’ll have us.

statue of Mary behind small hosta plant with solar light
Hosta mañana, baby! Mary is (solar) lit!
Mary statuette in front flower garden, Pittsburgh, PA
Peepin’ through the flowers Mary
Mary statue in front of brick porch with many American flags, Pittsburgh, PA
Patriotic Mary in coffin grotto
statue of Mary in front of brick house with hanging flower baskets
Mary of the Hanging Baskets
Mary statuette encased in brick and glass on front porch of house, Pittsburgh, PA
Still in the closet Mary
large empty brick enclosure meant for statue of Mary
Maybe Mary fell out? Leaning/empty grotto
empty masonry grotto built into brick front porch of house in Pittsburgh, PA
You grotto be kidding! Empty grotto
homemade brick Mary grotto with Jesus figurine and toys, Pittsburgh, PA
Former Mary grotto, re-inhabited by squatters

Whole Grotto Love: The Marys of Stanton Heights

cinderblock and brick residential wall with five different statues of Mary
Multiplying Marys. The (now) quintet of Marys (and friend) that greet visitors to Stanton Heights.

Most people will blow right by without ever giving the place a second thought. The little post-war brick and cinderblock house sits a comfortable distance off Stanton Avenue, tucked behind a curve in the road, and probably won’t even catch your eye when you’re barreling up the hill. It’s not the house itself that’s so exciting here, but rather the miracle of the multiplying Marys that is taking place out front.

Five years ago, your favorite hyper-local electronic publication ran a story that attempted to round up some of our favorite Marys from all over the place. [See: Hail Mary! Front Yard Mary Roundup (Nov. 27, 2016)] Yes, it was naive to bundle so many Marys from so many places together when seeking them out and collating them into location-based sets is so satisfying. Lesson learned.

Anyway, in that story, most of the way down, there’s a photo of this same Stanton Ave. address, but with merely three Marys against the aqua-blue foundation wall. If anyone is equipped for a miracle, it’s a woman who can conceive pregnancy with a holy ghost–so we shouldn’t put human cloning past The Blessed Mother. But this jump in the population begs so many questions: Can Mary immaculately replicate herself? Where do they all come from? Will there be more? Look, I’ve seen Multiplicity and things didn’t work out so well for Michael Keaton, so let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

statue of Mary in front yard of house
Whole grotto love Mary

Stanton Heights won’t bowl you over with its Marys. Between the neighborhood’s detached homes, large yards, big hedges, and fenced-in backsides, just locating a Mary here and there can feel like no small achievement. Rest assured, though–they’re around.

It takes a patient blogger who no longer sleeps to rise at the crack of dawn, trundle up the big hill, and criss-cross every block, each dead-end alley, and explore all the places, courts, and ways to get a thorough accounting of Stanton Heights’ Mary scene. [Side note: if you’re a Heights resident whose Mary was not found or you just think she deserves a better photo, please get in touch.]

That’s about all there is to say here. On this Mother’s Day 2021, we salute all the mommas out there from the O.G. Mother of All Mothers–you’re all immaculate in The Orbit‘s book!

statue of Mary among leafy groundcover
Our Lady of the rising groundcover
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Sunshine Mary and babies
statue of Mary in front of large hedges in residential front yard
Bustle in your hedge row Mary
statue of Mary on brick porch wall
Don’t jump! Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house
Oohooh Mary Blue, livin’ her life in a free-form style
statue of nun in front yard of house
Yeah, this looks more like a nun, but we’re going to count it
statue of Mary in back yard of house
Back patio Mary (looming, far right)
statue of Mary in front yard of house
Flower box Mary
statue of Mary under a tree in residential garden
Shade garden Mary
statue of Mary in front of brick house with big yard
Perfect green blanket Mary
statue of Mary between flower garden and front porch
Mary Flowers-a-Poppin’
statue of Mary in front of house
Excited about the new city-issued recycling bin Mary
statues of Mary and Jesus by large bush
Big Mary and half-pint Jesus
statue of Mary against a cinderblock wall
Eyes on the door, back-against-the-wall Mary [yes, we need a longer lens]
small brick house with statue of Mary in front and no other decoration
No friends Mary

The Secret Marys of Lawrenceville

statue of Mary in front window of row house
Our Lady of the Heavenly Skies. Front window Mary, lower Lawrenceville

Long in the shadow of her uphill, Mary-loving sister neighborhood, Lawrenceville may be seen as but an also-ran in the adoration of The Blessed Virgin. Bloomfield has such an overabundance of public Marys that we’ve reported on it not once, but on two separate occasions–and are well aware we’re still missing so many quality Marys in the tiny backyards we’ve not (yet!) been invited into. [A note to those with secret/hidden Marys, wanting a portrait: call me!]

In Lawrenceville, the Mary-obsessed blogger must put away the soft shoes and put on the gum shoes as locating The Mother of All Mothers is more back-alley, debatably-sleazy, detective work than the more casual sidewalk tourism one enjoys in other locales. Mary is well-acquainted with the ‘Ville–and in no small number, mind you–but is usually only found in repose. She peeps shyly from street-facing windows, prays in flower pots, and takes cover in backyard grottoes. She’s coyly turned-away among the bric-a-brac of an overloaded front porch and (almost!) out-of-view but for a neck stretched over fences and hedges. In one case, a tiny Mary stands guard over a grave marker at, yes, St. Mary Cemetery.

To Mary with her arms outstretched and forgiving, a kindly face welcoming to all in her presence, we salute you! We’ve all had a rough year and can use your grace now more than ever.

statue of Mary in a flower planter
Flower planter Mary
statue of Mary and frog figurine in backyard
Mary and frog
statue of Mary leaning against stone foundation of house
Foundation Mary
statue of Mary in front window of house
Window Mary
statues of Mary, an angel, and other religious figure on pedestals in back garden
Pedestal Mary and friends
gravestone with added statue of Mary
Grave marker Mary
front porch with multiple statues
Porch Marys (and friends)
statue of Mary embedded in concrete in flower pot
Concrete shoes Mary
statue of Mary on cinderblocks in backyard
Up-on-blocks Mary
statue of Mary in homemade grotto, Pittsburgh, PA
Alley-facing Mary
statue of Mary in grotto located in residential backyard
Backyard Mary
statue of Jesus in backyard of row house
Blessing of the green grass [Note: *probably* Jesus with that gesture, but we’re going to count it]
statue of Mary painted silver
Mary of the berries, Chez Orbit

A note on the photographs: Pittsburgh Orbit takes pride in its quality of image, but the necessity of observing our neighbors’ private spaces and therefore zooming in–often from great distance–resulted in a number of grainy, not-ideally-composed photos. Hopefully, however, this fact adds evidence to the narrative that searching out Marys in Lawrenceville is no easy task.

The Mother of All Mothers! A Mother’s Day Mary Super Round-Up

statue of Mary leaning against house

Leaning Mary, Bellevue

And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And does she want to see the stains, the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies, and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

– Tandyn Almer, “Along Comes Mary”

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Classic “blue robe” Mary, Brighton Heights

Whatever else Tandyn Almer did with the rest of his life[1], he’ll have forever authored one of the greatest bits of twisted sunshine pop and doobie entendre soft rock to harmonize and flute-solo its way onto Top 40 radio and prime time television.

Now, it’s probably safe to say the inspiration for The Association’s 1966 toe-tapper was not the mother of Jesus Christ–and likely not even a woman at all. I think we can all assume that Mary’s middle name is Jane.

But the Mary–the O.G., blessed virgin, greatest-story-ever-told, gettin-it-done-in-a-manger Mary–indeed comes along all over the place, just about any ol’ time. Every front yard is Mary’s potential domain; any porch her possible perch. The city’s backyards are so full of clandestine, hidden Marys that we’ll never have a true accounting of them all. [You don’t know how that keeps a speculative journalist awake at night!] It’s enough to drive a Mary-curious atheist into confession.

So on this Mother’s Day, we return to an old favorite Orbit subject: Mary, the mother of all mothers, in some of her various occasions around town. Links to earlier coverage appear below.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mommas out there. While your kids won’t be able to take you out to lunch, may your empty cups taste as sweet as the punch.

house with small statuette of Mary by front steps

Tiny Mary, Troy Hill

statue of Mary with feet buried in garden mulch

Quicksand Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary along alley

No Parking Mary, Sharpsburg

statue of Mary and flowers in pot

Flower pot Mary, Burgettstown

statue of Mary in front of house with condemned notice

Condemned Mary, Garfield

all-white statue of Mary on front porch

Monochrome Mary, Bloomfield

statue of Mary in large garden bed

Garden Mary, Saltsburg

statue of Mary in grotto with other statuary wrapped in black plastic bags

She’s Mary, wrapped in plastic. Bloomfield

statue of Mary in front of brick house

Solitary Mary, Friendship

statue of Mary in front of wood frame house

Sunbathing Mary, California-Kirkbride

older wooden house with statue of Mary by the front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

The last Mary in Larimer?

rear-view statue of Mary behind chain link fence

Have you seen the back? Mary, Bloomfield

Mary and friends

statue of Mary embedded in concrete in flower pot

Concrete shoes Mary, penguin, flag, Lawrenceville

statue of Mary with other lawn decorations

Gas meter Mary, et al., Millvale

front porch with multiple statues

Porch Marys (and friends), Lawrenceville

front yard decorated with many small statuettes, Pittsburgh, PA

Lighthouse Mary I, Morningside

front yard covered with decorative figurines, lighthouse, and Mary statuette, Donora, PA

Lighthouse Mary II, Donora

house with statue of Mary

Mary and daughters, Sharpsburg

house with statue of Mary among lawn decorations

Wagon wheel Mary, Reserve

Pedestal Marys

statue of Mary on pedestal in residential backyard

Backyard Mary, Mt. Washington

statues of Mary and angels in front yard

Bay window Mary, Lawrenceville

statuette of Mary on pedestal of bricks, Pittsburgh, PA

Brick pedestal Mary, Esplen

statue of Mary on cinderblocks in backyard

Up-on-blocks Mary, Lawrenceville

Christmas Marys

statue of Mary in front of house with Christmas decorations

Christmas Mary, Reserve

statue of Mary and large Christmas tree

Christmas/camouflage Mary, Millvale

Empty Mary Grottos

empty Mary grotto in front of brick house

Empty grotto, Brighton Heights

brick grotto created for statue of Mary

Repopulated grotto, Oakland

More Orbit Mary coverage:

statue of Mary painted silver

Mary of the berries, Chez Orbit


[1] Almer’s Wikipedia entry confirms that “Along Comes Mary” is indeed Almer’s biggest songwriting success, but that he “invented a waterpipe called the Slave-Master, described by Jack S. Margolis and Richard Clorfene in A Child’s Garden of Grass as ‘the perfect bong.'” So, you know, there were definitely some other hits.

Color Me In Presston: The Front Yard Marys of McKees Rocks, Part 1

statuette of Mary with deer statue in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Going stag: Mary and uni-antlered deer on a front lawn in the Presston neighborhood of McKees Rocks.

You’ll not accidentally find yourself in Presston. No, those making the trip to the tiny residential neighborhood at the northernmost end of McKees Rocks either live there, are visiting someone who does, or–in the case of your particularly wayward author–are just dying to find out what’s on the other side of all those big factory buildings along the riverfront.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Mary and friends

The journey to Presston–yes, that’s spelled correctly with two S’s–involves a circuitous route over the little bridge at Chartiers Creek, down River Avenue, past Lane Steel and Six Star Service, and through the McKees Rocks “bottoms” [not “flats” like everywhere else] with its rows of worker housing and glorious trio of onion-domed Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches*.

From there, one must locate the only point to breach the massive concrete base of the McKees Rocks Bridge on Helen Street, hang a left on George, and then straight down Nichol Ave. You’ll run parallel with train tracks on one side and see the kind of enormous industrial buildings that don’t really exist in the city proper (at least, not anymore) on the other. This giant footprint is currently home to McKees Rocks Fabrication and Penn Waste Systems, PVS Nolwood Chemicals and Cargill Salt.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Our Lady of Perpetual Gas Service: Meter Greeter Mary

Finally, tucked away at the end of this half-mile of corrugated steel, guard booths, and security fencing, is a pair of dead-end residential streets. Each is lined up and down with matching two-story wood frame double-houses. Behind you lie factory buildings and train tracks; ahead is brownfield and the Ohio River. You’ve ended up–the only way you possibly can–in Presston.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

A historical plaque on the site informs us the neighborhood was built as worker housing by the Pressed Steel Car Company–which is presumably where it gets its name and double-S spelling. The uniform duplexes had been built by 1909 when there was a workers strike leading to the “‘Bloody Sunday Uprising’ where at least 11 people died.”

Pennsylvania state historical marker for Presston

Presston historical plaque

The marker goes on to state that the company sold the houses–we assume to private individuals–after Pressed Steel Car ceased operation in 1949. Like we saw at Aluminum City Terrace in New Kensington and Donora’s Cement City, things get a lot more interesting when the company lets go of control and people get do to do their own thing with the houses they own.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Ain’t that aMARYca: patriotic Mary and big baby Jesus

We don’t know what the houses looked like when they were sold off in 1949, but now, seventy years later, there’s been a predictable divergence in styles and updates, adaptations and repair. Aluminum siding has been added to all but a just a few of the wood houses, porches reconfigured into front rooms, a couple of the duplexes were merged into single, larger homes. There are a few empty spots where fire or neglect have claimed some of the old houses, but for the most part, almost every lot is full.

What really impressed this outsider is how Presston’s residents have gone nuts with yard decoration. The little space in front of each house may only be a hundred square feet or so–that’s just not enough real estate to warrant keeping up a grass lawn. In a neighborhood where everyone simply must know everyone else, it also seems unlikely either theft or vandalism is a problem.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Squirrel Mary

At least that’s The Orbit’s hypothesis for why, house-for-house, Presston has an off-the-charts quantity of front yard ornamentation: tiny angels and garden gnomes, holiday displays and concrete statuary, repurposed toys and patriotic signs. It’s an exaggeration, but it feels as if nearly every one of Presston’s hundred-and-fifty-or-so little houses had stepped up to make a front-facing effort to greet the neighbors and express itself to the world.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Mary, garden gnome, and autumn friend

… which brings us to Mary.

Yes, the quantity of holy mothers standing guard and blessed virgins decorating and protecting the front porches, steps, and sidewalks of Ohio and Orchard Streets is staggering. The über-pious residents of Bloomfield and South Oakland–not to mention McKees Rocks proper–likely put in extra hail Marys just to try to keep up with the blue-robed wave of tiny Presston.

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

We’re gonna paint the blessed mother pink! Little pink house for Mary and me.

Why, it kills a nebby blogger that between the ticking of the clock, a lack of connections, and the fear of getting a boot in the keister, he just couldn’t make it around to check out the alley-side view of these houses. Given the opportunity, we may have found just as many–or more–Marys holding court around back as they had pointing street-side.

Sigh. The thought of another dozen loose Marys–getting it done between the charcoal grill and patio set, next to the garden hose, or in the shadow of the tool shed–is almost too much to bear…almost.

statuette of Mary in gravel front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

White stone Mary

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Shy Mary

To the good citizens of Presston: we’re hooked. We know your collection of street-facing Marys is only one small detail in the rich story of a neighborhood that doesn’t just have a unique spot on the map, but promises a fascinating history–complete with strikes and conflict, economic upheaval and population change, pressed steel cars and, yes, a whole lotta Mary.

If you’ll have us, we’d love to know more about that history. Give us a holler. Until then, color The Orbit impressed with Presston.

statuette of Mary on front porch of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Hiding in the corner Mary

statuette of Mary in front yard of row house, McKees Rocks, PA

Solar light Mary


* In fairness–depending on which direction you’re coming from–one may skip these first steps by taking the Helen Street exit off the McKees Rocks Bridge. That wasn’t how we got to Presston, and it’s still one-way-in/one-way-out no matter how you get to Nichol Avenue.

Looking for a Lost Little Italy in Larimer

red, white, and green painted storefront for Henry Grasso, Co. Inc. Pittsburgh, PA

Last of the red, white, and green: Henry Grasso, Co. Inc., Larimer Ave.

There’s a scene early on in Striking Distance where police captain Nick Detillo (Dennis Farina in full cop mustache and salt-and-pepper wave) downplays his career aspirations. Asked by Bruce Willis’ Detective Tom Hardy if he’s bucking for advancement in the force, Detillo responds humbly, “Not me kid. I’m just a Larimer Avenue dago.” [Please pardon the ethnic slur. We’re quoting–and it’s important to the story.]

Writer, director, and Pittsburgh native Rowdy Herrington peppered the movie’s dialog and mise en scène with local references, so it’s no surprise the Italian-American Detillo clan gets fleshed-out with a nod to the old neighborhood. But why not choose one of the more obvious Little Italys–say, Bloomfield, Panther Hollow, or South Oakland?

movie still from "Striking Distance" with character Nick Detillo's line "Not me, kid. I'm just a Larimer Avenue dago."

Who’s the best cop? Dennis Farina as Capt. Nick Detillo in “Striking Distance”

In record geek terms, it’s a deep cut–one that Rowdy Herrington gets much respect for including.

Dennis Farina was born in Chicago in 1944. Like every other member of the Striking Distance cast, he made no attempt to replicate a Pittsburgh accent for the movie–but the dates line up. From the early part of the 20th Century until some time in the 1960s, Larimer was the Little Italy for Pittsburgh. A neighborhood with any random block holding a majority of Italian surnames; the location where The Italian Sons and Daughters of America was formed; an enclave hosting the Pittsburgh Italian Hospital. [Yes: that was thing–it’s now a vacant lot at the corner of Paulson and Maxwell.] It is entirely likely that the fictional Detillo family could have all grown up in Larimer.

The amateur anthropologists and wanna-be archeologists of Pittsburgh Orbit like any challenge that invites bicycle-based poking down alleys and remorseless nebbing into empty retail windows. We set out with the loose goal of seeing what–if any–traces of Detillo-era, Italian-American Larimer we could still find today.

detail from 1924 platte map showing two blocks of the Larimer neighborhood with a majority of property owners having Italian surnames

Larimer, 1924. Map detail of two blocks between Larimer Ave. and Ashley St., Mayflower and Meadow. [source: G.M. Hopkins Company Maps]

The short version: there ain’t much left.

By our count, there are exactly two extant businesses in the neighborhood that date from the old days. Henry Grasso’s Italian foods shop on Larimer Ave. (see photo, top) is still, as the sign says, original manufacturers of the Italian sausage and capicollo. Dressed for the part in the red, white, and green colors of the Italian flag, Grasso’s is the picture of an old American neighborhood butcher/grocer you’ll see few other places.

On the other side of the neighborhood, Stagno’s Bakery no longer staffs their retail storefront, and the corner of Auburn and Lowell suffers for it. But they’re very much still baking up Italian bread in their two big cinderblock buildings. You’ll find the product on bakery shelves and restaurant bread baskets all over the city. [Side note: one of Stagno’s old blue delivery vans even gets a cameo in the Striking Distance chase scene. Coincidence?]

run down exterior of former retail shop for Stagno's Bakery, Pittsburgh, PA

Still making bread…just not selling retail. Stagno’s Bakery, Auburn Street.

The former Our Lady Help of Christians still stands on the corner of Meadow and Turrett Streets. With its attached school building, the massive Roman-Catholic church basically takes up an entire city block and reaches four or five stories into the sky.

Built in 1897 (rebuilt 1905), Our Lady Help is a crumbling beauty. The multiple copper domes remain, gleaming in even the dappled sunlight of last weekend, but since the church closed in 1992, a crew has clearly gone through and stripped anything of value. The stained glass, statuary, and thick oak doors are all gone, replaced with temporary protective plywood. Ivy climbs the exterior walls and weeds have breached the joints in the stone front stairs. Perhaps inevitable, a blue condemned notice is stapled to the front door. Sigh.

view of 1905 Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic church, now abandoned and condemned, Pittsburgh, PA

(former) Our Lady Help of Christians Roman-Catholic Church, Meadow Street

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s page on Our Lady Help details the deep Italian roots of the church:

Our Lady Help of Christians was established in 1898 as an Italian parish. The origin of the parish can be traced to the rise of immigrants from Italy in the late nineteenth century.  In 1895 the Italian Franciscan Fathers were invited to come to Pittsburgh. They took charge of the Italian parish in the Hill District, St. Peter. In 1894, the Italian residents of the East Liberty area petitioned the bishop for permission to form their own parish. This petition was denied. To meet the needs of the East Liberty Italians, the pastor of St. Peter began visiting the area to celebrate Mass.  The first Mass for Italians celebrated in East Liberty took place in February of 1895 in the school hall of Ss. Peter and Paul parish. From that point, a Mass was celebrated almost monthly for the Italians.

There are a lot of reasons why (local) Catholic churches are having a hard time. Overall, Pittsburgh has lost half its population and people just don’t attend mass like they did in the old days. And then there’s the whole, horrific priest sex abuse (and cover-up) business.

But when a entire congregation this large relocates to the suburbs of Penn Hills and Plum, Forest Hills and Churchill, the Latin scripture reads pretty clear on the old plaster walls.

painted sign for Fiore's Home Dressed Meats on brick wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Ghost sign for former Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats (now State Senator Ferlo’s local office), Larimer Ave.

Beyond this handful of obvious touchstones, we’re really left grasping at straws.

Vacant lots outnumber buildings on Larimer Avenue today, but there are may be a dozen surviving retail storefronts on the old main drag. One of these features a ghost sign for Fiore’s Home Dressed Meats, but that’s really the only clue to what any of the businesses in these pre-war two- and three-story brick buildings once were.

While there’s still plenty of open space in the neighborhood, Larimer’s housing has fared better overall than its commercial structures. There is a particular type of after-market tin-slatted porch and window awning you see all over Pittsburgh (and elsewhere)–we imagine some door-to-door salesman made a killing hawking these in the 1950s.

There’s no way to prove this, but anecdotal evidence points to the popularity of red-and-white (and to a lesser extent, green-and-white) color combos in certain locales. There are still a bunch of these Italian-colored tin awnings throughout Larimer. [Note: You don’t have to tell this blogger–you want us to cry over tin awnings? No: but it’s all I got.]

small house with tin awning and green paint, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a stretch, but the red-and-white awning with a green paint job look familiar. [Bonus points for the pair of old-school aerial antennas!]

Oh, and what about Mary? Every old Catholic neighborhood worth its rosaries has a couple dozen houses sporting ceramic statuettes of The Blessed Virgin doing her palms-out thing on the front lawn or nestled up against the porch. There are even more Marys relaxing in people’s back yards–but it’s harder to get the invitation to visit up close.

I’m telling you, the Orbitmobile criss-crossed Larimer a dozen times, rolling down every street and just about every alleyway coming and going. In those rides, we spotted exactly one extant front yard Mary outside a unique frame house that appears to at one time have been a pair of separate, conjoined buildings.

older wooden house with statue of Mary by the front porch, Pittsburgh, PA

Possibly the last front yard Mary in Larimer?

That home, on a short dead-end of the aptly named Orphan Street, is at a little horn-shaped peninsula forming the very northeast corner of Larimer. In front of the house, the steep drop-off down to Washington Blvd.; behind, dense greenery all the way over to Highland Park.

We don’t know who lives here–if they’re black or white, hard core Catholic or just enjoy a quirky lawn ornament–but this little icon living on the most precarious of properties feels very much like the last representative of a disappeared people.

Times and places change, people move on–these are unalterable truths. But it’s comforting to think that if Nick Detillo were to make it back to the old neighborhood today, he could still get a pound of capicollo from Henry Grosso and still say a prayer to Mary.

Alms Race: The Front Yard Marys of Beaver County

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

ghost Mary, New Brighton

Mary. We’ve already talked about the blessed virgin/most famous mama’s ability to get around. This week, Mary makes it clear her home-anointing juju doesn’t stop at the Allegheny County line. No, not content to let metro Pittsburgh have all the fun, Beaver County enters the escalating alms race with a shock and awe campaign of heavy-duty religion and hardcore beatitude.

You’ll find her Maryness all over Allegheny County’s western neighbor–from Harmony to New Galilee, Shippingport to Vanport, Raccoon to Big Beaver. There are so many likenesses of Mary in the front yards, porches, and gardens of homes across Beaver County that each of its larger towns could easily supply a post’s worth all on its own. That’s an intriguing opportunity for the Mary-obsessed, but let’s face it–sometimes there’s just too much Mary…even for dedicated Orbit readers.

Like The Bible and Catholic mass, this post is going to be long on pictures and short on words, so let’s get down to it. Here’s a random sampling of but a few of Beaver County’s unlimited supply of front yard Marys.

Mary statuette in front of house with large aerial antenna, New Brighton, PA

Our Lady of Perpetual Reception, New Brighton

Mary statuette on front porch of house, Beaver Falls, PA

front porch autumnal Mary, Beaver Falls

statue of Mary on pedestal in front yard, Ambridge, PA

chain link Mary, Ambridge

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

patriotic Mary, New Brighton

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

New Brighton

Mary statuette in front of house, Monaca, PA

Monaca

Mary statuette in back yard of house, Monaca, PA

voyeuristic Mary, Monaca

Mary statuette in front of house, Eastvale, PA

Eastvale

brick house with Mary statue in front yard, Baden, PA

Baden

Mary statuette in front of house, New Brighton, PA

New Brighton

Mary statuette and dog statuette in front yard, Ambridge, PA

Mary with pet pooch, Ambridge

house with Mary statuette in front yard, Baden, PA

Baden

Mary statuette on front steps of brick house, Ambridge, PA

Ambridge


Further reading:

A Splendid Day in Esplen

view of McKees Rocks, PA from Pittsburgh neighborhood of Esplen

Esplen: Gateway to McKees Rocks. View of downtown McKees Rocks from the end of Radcliffe Street.

This blogger ain’t too proud to admit he had to look it up. Where the heck is Esplen? Well, it turns out we’d been there–or, at least, driven past–plenty of times and just didn’t even know it. You probably have as well.

The little boomerang-shaped neighborhood sits at the far western edge of the city, bounded by the Ohio River, Chartiers Creek, and a set of train tracks. There is no welcome sign. If you don’t live in the area, you’ve still probably whizzed by on West Carson Street/Rt. 51 as it heads out toward McKees Rocks, Neville Island, Coraopolis, and points west. In fact, from several Esplen dead-end streets there are some quite fine, elevated views across the creek to Chartiers Ave., downtown McKees Rocks’ main drag[1].

small cinderblock building with "Lab" over front door, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery Lab

A visit to Esplen won’t take you all day. With ten or twelve very short streets, plus a similar number of alleys and block-long connectors–may be a couple hundred total houses–you can probably tour the entire neighborhood and still have time for the Sunday crossword all before lunch.

Esplen is largely zoned commercial/industrial and is home to several small factories, a trucking center, some kind of chemical plant with its own mystery “Lab”, two different plumbing and heating outfits, etc. All this and the only actual retail business is a single Sunoco station. Presumably, Esplenites cross the creek to shop in the Rocks’ business district just blocks away.

statuette of Mary with white flowers, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary with flowers, Oregon Street

statuette of Mary on pedestal of bricks, Pittsburgh, PA

She’s a brick house Mary, Oregon Street

Esplen is a tiny neighborhood–among the smallest in the city both in acreage and population–but it still has a bunch of our favorite Pittsburgh things. There is a fine pair of front yard Marys at two different Oregon Street houses, some rugged untamed hillsides–one with a couple weird tunnels (storm drains from uphill Sheraden? former sewers?)–and a set of houses built on the face of a rock wall so steep there are two flights of steps to get to the front doors. A hand-painted sign informed us the mail is delivered milkman-style via the Caledonia Way alley behind the houses.

hand-painted sign reading "Mail Box Side Porch", Pittsburgh, PA

“Mail Box Side Porch”, Caldonia Way

two frame houses with long sets of steel steps to reach the front door, Pittsburgh, PA

This is why the mail is delivered via the back alley/side porch, Oregon Street

There is no official art gallery in Esplen, but one Poplar Way cinderblock garage has its exterior wall stocked with an odd assortment of recycled signage, plus the grill from a truck, and a sun-bleached portrait of Elvis. In a pinch, it’ll do.

Another Oregon Street house (not pictured) will be fully decked out for the holiday–you name the holiday–complete with both a prominent rebel/Confederate flag and a framed poster of (black athlete) Bo Jackson on the front porch. Esplenites are clearly comfortable with dichotomy on this matter.

garage decorated with "Peace on Earth" letters, stop signs, "School Bus" sign, and mounted photograph of Elvis Presley, Pittsburgh, PA

Poplar Way garage gallery

cement retaining wall in hillside with two tunnels, Pittsburgh, PA

Mystery tunnels, Esplen Street

Should you add Esplen to your must do list? As pro-Pittsburgh/gotta-see-it-all as The Orbit is, it’s hard for even us to lobby this one. It’s a cheap date, for sure–you’re only out the couple bucks for a Sunoco coffee and the gas to get you over the McKees Rocks Bridge[2]–but Bicycle Heaven is free! If our time was worth anything, would we be blogging?

That said, there’s just not much for even the most easily-amused to poke around and ponder upon. Esplen is essential if you’re trying to visit/report on every one of Pittsburgh’s 90 neighborhoods (we are), but we still recommend you take your out-of-towners to more A-list attractions like the Rising Main steps, Howard Street, or the ex-atom smasher first.

Garage door with painting of two toddlers looking in their diapers and the words "There IS a difference in plumbing", Pittsburgh, PA

Sex ed, Esplen-style


[1] Our first visit–when we took all these photos–was back in late winter when the trees were still bare, exposing views of McKees Rocks that may not exist during the lush months of summer.
[2] The western neighborhoods of Pittsburgh are not easily accessible by bicycle from the rest of the city, so yes–we drove to Esplen. If any Orbit reader has a safe, bicycle-friendly route out that way, please let us know.

The Front (and Back) Yard Marys of Bloomfield, Part 2

statuette of Mary in grotto, Pittsburgh, PA

Ella Street

“But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” – James 1:14

When first we reported on The Front Yard Marys of Bloomfield (Pittsburgh Orbit: June 26, 2016), this blogger naively believed he’d bagged them all. But oh, like James, how The Orbit was lured and enticed by its own desire.

It wasn’t that we weren’t thorough. No, the way we’d figured it, every thoroughfare, side street, and back-alley was meticulously criss-crossed in a slow-motion two-wheel scan for Herself*. In this quest, we found The Blessed Mother, again and again, peering back at us from stoops and yardlets, porches and grottos all over the neighborhood.

Mary statuette seen through chainlink fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Chain link Mary, Idaline Street

statuette of Mary lying face down in backyard dirt, Pittsburgh, PA

That’s no way to treat a lady! Face-down Mary and homemade snow plow grotto, Carroll Street

But Mary–or, Marys–still managed to elude us. They clung to the shadows, behind fences, and deep in private spaces. How many more? It makes a blogger insane. Should we blow the entire Orbit budget on drone aviation/surveillance just to spy into the secluded no-access recesses of inner Bloomfield? No–that would be creepy, weird, and extreme. How many more? Should we deploy guises in our mission? The stock Mormon and Jehovah’s Witness costumes probably won’t get us far in this case, but how about dressing as “backyard inspectors” who “just need to take a few pictures” because “it’s regulation”? That could get us quick glimpses into those most private of sanctums. How many more?

Statuette of Mary in grotto of row house side yard, Pittsburgh, PA

Row houses, chain link, grape vines, Mary-and-grotto: that looks like Bloomfield to me, Torley Street

statuette of Mary by red brick rowhouse, Pittsburgh, PA

Ella Street

In The Orbit‘s defense, the Marys that did manage to emerge in the (nearly a) year since that initial post are not obvious. They’re deep cuts, B-sides, studio outtakes only fit for super fans who already own all the official releases. We’re talking a camouflaged Mary two backyards and three fences deep off tiny Mott Way; Mary face down in soggy dirt; an empty grotto your average Joseph–or customer on the way to Shur-Save–wouldn’t bat an eye at.

homemade Mary grotto without statuette in back yard of small house, Pittsburgh, PA

Empty Mary grotto, Ella Street

Mary statuette against garage wall behind chain link fence, Pittsburgh, PA

Camo Mary, Mott Way

For the obsessive collector, it’s all about the pursuit, but any hunt must be sustained by the occasional kill–[choice of words]–blessed encounter to keep up both morale and momentum. It’s fine if we haven’t bagged them all–we never will and (keep telling ourselves) that’s OK! Regardless, you’ve still got to bring something home for supper or the whole family goes hungry.

Like our old boss always said, “there’s a lot of good eating in Bloomfield”. If what they’re serving up is Mary–low-milage, sun-dried, and salt-cured–we’ll go back for seconds. Oh yeah, we’ll go back for more.

statuette of Mary in wooden backyard flower box, Pittsburgh, PA

Mary of the flower boxes, Carroll Street

two statuettes of Mary in a row house backyard, Pittsburgh, PA

Row houses, chain link, grape vines, and a pair of Marys, State Way


* Every street except Ella, whose two different front demi-yard Marys were inexcusably missed the first time around, but are captured here.