Higher and Higher: Star-Gazing in Squirrel Hill

sparkle Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David + heart on Forbes Ave.: one of two thousand, in and around Squirrel Hill

The little stars are made from glitter and felt, plastic and wood, popsicle sticks and laminated paper. They’re tied to the tiniest branches of street trees with ribbon, wire, and bailing twine; they rest lazily in boxwood hedges. The stars commune with other memorials left on handrails and steps, safety gates, and police barricades.

Overwhelmingly, though, each of the small totems–a six-pointed Star of David with a heart at its center–has been knit or crocheted by hand and attached to utility poles throughout central Squirrel Hill[1]. When you pass down Wilkins or Shady, Forbes or Negley, you’ll not miss the stars fluttering–dancing, even–in the breeze.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

October 27, 2018 may well go down as Pittsburgh’s 9/11–the remember-exactly-where-you-were date for a generation’s most horrific local atrocity. Me, I was in Bellevue, dressed in a stupid outfit, holding a trombone, and standing in the cold rain at the tail end of the borough’s Halloween parade.

The relentless weather that morning pretty much kept all of the expected crowd home, leaving just us obligated parade marchers to get the news all at the same point. I remember feeling useless and helpless–milling around on the vacant, closed-to-traffic main drag before heading home without even saying goodbye.

crochet Star of David with heart on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

By now, America has sadly gotten plenty of practice grieving for the victims of mass shootings and violent hate crimes. Even if you didn’t make it up to the Tree of Life synagogue in the days following the massacre, you know what the outside scene inevitably looked like. The victims here were all adults–so it didn’t feature quite so many teddy bears as your, yes, average school shooting–but the scene of an overflowing buffet of flowers and personal notes, photographs and mementos set against protective barriers and caution tape was all there.

In the two months since the Tree of Life shooting, most of these memorials have been relocated. But by mid-November a second-wave tribute–beautiful in its decentralization, variety, and spirit–arrived throughout pedestrian Squirrel Hill.

wooden disc with Star of David hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Star of David made from postage stamps hanging on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Right now, thousands of handmade Stars of David decorate nondescript public spaces and street-facing hedges and gates in the neighborhood[2]. They radiate out from the Tree of Life synagogue and populate Squirrel Hill’s business district along Forbes and Murray Aves.

The stars are the work of an impromptu online group called Jewish Hearts for Pittsburgh, started by two “craftivists,” Hinda Mandell and Ellen Dominus Broude, both from separate parts of Upstate New York. The Post-Gazette has an article and short video detailing that effort.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

Likely, most of those who experience the Tree of Life stars will only see them as brief flashes of color, twiddling in the breeze through the passenger-side window–their forms may not even be recognizable at any speed. The Orbit recommends ditching the car and taking a long contemplative walk around middle Squirrel Hill’s wide streets as the best way to inhabit the diffuse tribute.

golden wire Star of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Perhaps it should be no surprise but the totality of the experience is incredibly moving. The first, gut reaction to these handmade, intersected symbols of Judaism and love, sent from supportive crafters from around the world, is the most obvious.

“There is more good in the world than evil,” says Ms. Broude in the P-G video, “An assault against one is an assault against all.”[3] That message–something terrible happened here, but there is way more love than hate in the world–comes though loud and clear, ringing out from the branches and telephone poles.

crochet Star of David with heart on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

But it doesn’t stop there. So many of the knit stars–hung from a single point, stretched out by gravity, and curled in the weather–end up taking on unexpected anthropomorphic qualities. [Yes, there is one extra appendage in this representation.] The little bodies appear alternately huddled and triumphant, at rest and in play, lifted and weightless in the wind.

collage of homemade Stars of David found around Pittsburgh, PA

This atheist goy had to Google “Jewish belief in an afterlife.” While the religion isn’t nearly as hung up on the notion of heaven as Christianity–preferring instead to value and emphasize life here on earth–it’s also not without its post-mortal coil fallback options. This description, from the Chabad site, seems to sum up the philosophy:

There isn’t anything after life, because Jews believe that life never ends. It just goes higher and higher. In the afterlife, the soul is liberated from the body and returns closer to her source than ever before.

crochet Stars of David on tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA

Sure, it was a windy day when we visited and took these photos, but the rapturous lifting of these little forms–literally higher and higher off of their twig and twine moorings, flying up towards the sun–felt like liberation. Hopefully, for the victims, family, and friends of the Tree of Life shooting, they’ll find some peace in this beautiful expression of love.

crochet Star of David with heart hanging from tree limb, Pittsburgh, PA


[1] … and supposedly elsewhere. (But we’ve only seen them in Squirrel Hill.)
[2] Organizers estimate “around 2000” stars. Source: https://www.post-gazette.com/news/faith-religion/2018/11/17/Jewish-Stars-of-David-Tree-of-Life-Pittsburgh-volunteers-knit-crochet-twelve-countries-crafts-facebook/stories/201811170055
[3] Ibid.

Tales of the Trail: The Rutkowski Shoe Memorial

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Township

As memorials go, it’s a strange one. At a small clearing along a bicycle trail sits a rectangular raised plot, bordered by river stones, about the size of a modest backyard garden. The ground is staked with 18 short lengths of white PVC pipe. Each has an article of decommissioned footwear firmly attached, its sole turned toward the sky.

None of the shoes match and they appear to come from a variety of sources. There are women’s dress shoes with chunky heals, rubber-soled trainers, and comfortable sneakers. Though most are adult models, some of the shoes are sized for a small child, while others would fit a still-growing youth. All have been decorated with after-market paint jobs, now disintegrating after years (?) exposed to the elements.

The center of the memorial is a large, engraved stone with the text In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, “Always put your best foot forward.”

green ladies' shoe attached to PVC pipe

Kimberly Rutkowski’s obituary features just the bare minimum information. Her residence was listed as South Fayette, a large suburban township just west of where the memorial lives now. She was survived by a husband and two children. As the stone tells us, Ms. Rutkowski died in January, 2005. She was just 43.

As obituaries tend to do–or not do, as is the case–there is no real personal detail to go on. We don’t know what Ms. Rutkowski cared about or did for fun, what she dreamed of or was made crazy by. We don’t even know what she looked like. But for those of us who never got to meet Kimberly Rutkowski, we can at least share the abstract experience-by-association of putting our best foot forward through the loving, humorous, and thought-provoking memorial in Collier Township.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

The Panhandle Trail starts or ends (your pick) in Rennerdale, just a few miles past Carnegie. It runs 30 miles due west to the outskirts of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a lovely, easy ride through gentle, rolling hills, lush full summer overgrowth, and comes replete with all manner of scurrying creatures, circling hawks, babbling brooks, and eye-popping wildflowers.

It also features a number of human-created attractions, including a bunch of small towns and country hamlets the former Pennsylvania Railroad used to serve before the tracks were replaced with trail. Along the way is a former quarry, a congenial bicycle shop, and enough little restaurants to sate trail-generated hunger almost anywhere along the line. Bike-to-beer fanciers will find the newish Helicon Brewery right along the route in Oakdale.

These are all wonderful accompaniments to a thoroughly-enjoyable bicycle trek, but it was the Rutkowski memorial that kept the Orbit office buzzing for days after we finished the ride.

engraved stone with the text "In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, 'Always put your best foot forward'"

“In Memory of Kim Rutkowski, 2005, ‘Always put your best foot forward'”

Like all great art, the shoe memorial asks more questions than it answers. Was “always put your best foot forward” such a repeated catch-phrase that Ms. Rutkowski’s friends and/or family needed to take it to the next level? Was the deceased herself in on the design? How and why did the creators select this plot of trailside ground? We just don’t know.

So we’re left to wonder and come up with our own personal interpretations.

shoes attached to PVC pipe staked in the ground

There was a time in this blogger’s early life when 43 would have seemed like a ripe old age. Those days–just like that particular birthday–have long since passed. Forty-three is young! Or, at least, it’s what we think of as middle-aged. We know we’re not owed anything in this life, but in one’s early forties we hope to still have nearly as many tomorrows as we had yesterdays.

So, the next time you find yourself on The Panhandle Trail [yes, make sure there is a next time] take the opportunity to pause for Kimberly Rutkowski and her tribute of second-hand pumps and discarded jogging shoes. We’ve only got so much time on this earth–make sure to not only put your best foot forward, but wear those shoes to the nub when you’re doing it.

memorial with shoes nailed to PVC pipe planted in the ground

The Rutkowski shoe memorial, Panhandle Trail, Collier Twp.

Getting there: The Panhandle Trail has its own web site with maps and all the relevant information on trailheads and route. The Rutkowski shoe memorial is on the eastern end of the path, between Rennerdale and Oakdale.

Memorial Day: Roadside Crosses

roadside memorial cross with Christmas wreathes, West Elizabeth, PA

Mark, 66-02, West Elizabeth

A simple cross. Each spar a length of white PVC pipe a couple feet long with the ends capped and sealed. There is one heavily-sun-bleached Christmas wreath attached to the piece and another lays in the grass just in front. Also at the scene is a small, hand-painted, ceramic angel. Peel-and-stick letters on three ends of the pipe describe only the most basic details: Mark, 66-02.

wooden memorial plaque with flowers for Vincent Lapko, Pittsburgh, PA

Vincent Lapko, Nov-30-1983 – Oct-7-2017, Homestead Grays (neé High Level) Bridge [photo: Lee Floyd]

Years ago, the makeshift memorial was hammered into the grass of a wide berm along Route 837 in West Elizabeth. We pass the cross on every trip down to Donora and Monessen, so it’s become a kind of mile marker in this industrial stretch that includes a number of small factory buildings along with large operations for Eastman Chemical Resins and Marathon Petroleum. The enormous, stories-tall gas reservoirs of the latter form an imposing backdrop to the very human-scaled and personally-tended roadside cross put up for the departed.

roadside memorial cross with fireman's helmet and the text "When I am called to duty", Homestead, PA

firefighter’s memorial, Homestead/Munhall

Memorial Day means a lot of things to a lot of different people. It was created to honor those men and women who’ve died in military service for the country and has morphed into the great long weekend of igniting propane under chicken thighs after deeply-discounted blowout sales at department stores and car dealerships.

While those interpretations of the holiday are all valid, The Orbit finds a profound depth in the very personal and extremely individual work of making and tending these unique tributes that seem to pop up just about anywhere.

roadside cross and wreath with lettering "Ryan 1998-2017"

Ryan, 1998-2017, Rt. 65

There’s a lot we don’t know…and will never know just by randomly passing a roadside cross with someone’s first name. Somewhere out there–for any accident that’s resulted in fatality–there must exist the blunt facts of a police record or newspaper obituary. But even with the clues provided–a firefighter’s helmet, a stone painted with the Harley-Davidson logo, an unexpected location along the bicycle trail–the memorials generate more questions than they answer.

hand-painted roadside memorial cross, state route 837, PA

Jordan Celovsky, 1988-2017, Rt. 837

Whatever happened to Mark, Ryan, Jordan, or any of the others remembered in these roadside crosses, it probably wasn’t a happy ending. Their ages–from late teens to mid-thirties–and placement of the crosses (mainly) along busy roadways suggest unexpected, unnatural deaths. These seem likely to be car crash-related, but of course those details are part of what remain a mystery.

The most important unknown, for the vast majority of us, is the character of these people whose lives were cut short on the two-lane blacktop. They were clearly loved and are missed with a reverence we should all be so lucky to have. The Orbit spends a lot of time in the graveyard; very few marble headstones get the loving upkeep of some of these lashed-to-a-guardrail wooden crosses.

wooden memorial cross by bicycle trail

Ronald Vahosky, Great Allegheny Passage bicycle trail

iron memorial cross with plastic flowers on utility pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Nick Fazio, 12/21/90-11/13/15, Bloomfield/Lawrenceville

Back to that anonymous roadside in West Elizabeth–graveled and dusty, noisy with truck traffic, and surrounded by the petrochemical industry. It has none of the solemn peace, flowering dogwoods, frolicking deer, or generations-old sculpted beauty of Allegheny or Union Dale Cemeteries. It offers neither the great cross-river views of St. John’s and Loretto nor the rock star lineup at Homewood.

But…this is where it happened. And for the people who loved Mark and Vincent, Ryan and Jordan, these lonely stretches of ex-urban highway seem to have become hallowed ground in a way that may never seem completely appropriate for more pristine, formal burial grounds.

* * *

metal cross attached to iron train trestle, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown, West Liberty Ave.

Roadside crosses, though not obviously memorials, showed up in a couple other places on our travels. These anonymous acts of faith–a metal cross on steel girder (above) and old world painted wood cross on utility pole (below) come with even less to go on.

Do they remember a specific traffic fatality like the more personalized examples above? Or do these crosses have nothing to do with an individual or specific intersection and just represent a quiet-but-public expression of religious belief?

wooden cross attached to utility pole, Pittsburgh

unknown, Lawrenceville

There’s a couple more here, too. This loving, heart-shaped and patio-sized tribute to “mom / grandma / friend” on Route 51 is hard to suss out. Did grandma pass away at this stretch of highway [it’s as likely as anywhere] or did the family just decide to landscape their elaborate memorial in a naked roadside where the greater Coraopolis/Moon Township commuter community could pay their respects? Who knows!

roadside memorial heart with sign

mom / grandma / friend, Rt. 51

Finally, the one that really hits home. We wrote a while back about the ghost bicycle for Susan Hicks in central Oakland and went into a whole spiel about putting our faith in robots. We’ve been fortunate enough that there haven’t been too many other cycling fatalities in the city since then.

One painful exception is Dennis Flanagan, a cyclist who was killed riding on a fast-moving stretch of West Carson Street in 2016. For the ghost bicycle left to mark the spot of Flanagan’s fatal accident, the teddy bears have faded, plastic flowers droop, gears and chain are rusty. But the painted-white bicycle remains, locked to a street sign faithfully reminding passers-by that Dennis Flanagan was here and we all need to look out for each other. That’s what Memorial Day means to me.

ghost bicycle memorial decorated with plastic flowers and stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

ghost bicycle, West End

The Serpentine Similar: Prop Rocks and Flood Stones

river stones labeled with peoples names and ages, Pittsburgh, PA

This is one obscure rock group. The Serpentine stones.

A most unique thing to find in the dirt. Twenty-some river stones, each inscribed with a person’s name, age, and mystery glyph. The collection is carefully laid out so all the written-on surfaces are upright, readable, and may be consumed from a single vantage point. Like the work of a patio builder, the flat stones have been arranged to interconnect gracefully with a minimum of negative space, but also just barely touching so as to avoid any awkward overlap.

Someone wanted these totems to be found, to be read, to be thought-about. But they didn’t want to make them too obvious either. Far enough off the bicycle trail, camouflaged against the stone foundation of a bridge support, darkened in the underpass, and dusted with months (years?) worth of grime, we only stumbled across them because there happened to be a new piece of intriguing stencil graffiti just above on the adjacent wall.

river stone painted with white text reading "Raymond Maat", Pittsburgh, PA

Rock star Raymond Maat

From any distance, the only legible names are the big ones out front: Raymond Maat and Viola Sayre. Written in white paint pen, each of names appears on its own, larger, burrito-sized brown stone. Even from several paces, the ink/background contrast was enough to catch this blogger’s ever-roving eye.

The Orbitmobile (Orbicycle?) never goes far without a couple bottles of water and it’s lucky we had them on this day. It would take gently emptying both containers to rinse off the thick layer of blown dirt and dropped bridge debris to get the stones to a point where they were reasonable to read (and photograph). Even so, we still could have used another bottle.

collection of river stones with barely-legible text written on them, Pittsburgh, PA

The collection as it was discovered (pre-rinsed)

It was only getting up close that would reveal the many other details. Henry McCallum (age 11)Catherine Krueger (age 61)Eduard Raven (age 24)Dennis Girvin (age 27), and a dozen or so more like them, each with one of a couple different symbols. Some have what appears to be feather; others an invented rune, shaped like a capital letter U with an extra wavy line bisecting the verticals. Two of the stones simply read unknown.

river stones labeled with peoples names and ages, Pittsburgh, PA

Henry McCallum (age 11), Catherine Krueger (age 61), Philip Piaza (age 19), Eduard Raven (age 24)

And then, there it is! Placed right in the center of the pack, its painted-on text further worn away than the rest of its buddies. A single stone has what appears to be an explanation for this obscure rock group: Victims of the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood.

With that, it seemed so obvious. Stones–likely pulled from the river just feet away and smoothed by its waters–placed just at the riverbank like a sacrificial altar. This spot is well within the flood plain if (and when) the big one ever strikes Pittsburgh again. What a delightful, hidden, reverent memorial to one of worst natural disasters to ever befall the region.

river stone painted with white text reading "Victims of 1936 St. Patrick's Day Flood", Pittsburgh, PA

Victims of 1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood

… or is it?

We don’t know what bloggers did before the computer Internet came along, but luckily The Orbit is well-acquainted with The Google Machine and we worked our index fingers to the bone hunt-and-pecking around for info.

It turns out “Raymond Maat”, “Viola Sayre”, and “Seth Jormundgander” (at least) were all characters created for an alternate reality game/immersive theater production called Serpentine put on by Uncumber Theatrics in 2016. It is entirely unclear from Uncumber’s web site what actually happened in the game or how these painted stones may have figured into it–but that’s likely on purpose. I guess you had to be there, man…and we weren’t. [Yes: we have added this one to our lengthy list of life regrets. Readers: if you played/participated in Serpentine we’d love to hear about the experience in the comments.]

river stones labeled with peoples names and ages, Pittsburgh, PA

Seth Jormundgander, James Green (age 65), Dennis Girvin (age 27)

Regardless of whether we got had or had the hadders, we love the fact that Uncumber made the unlikely choice to just leave this elaborate handmade prop right out in the open–hidden in plain sight, as it were. Those of us who might happen across it, scratch our heads, and take the time to think about the plight of poor Roland Mars (age 31) and Nathanial Peterson (age 39) can still get a little contact high off Serpentine‘s medical-grade Maui wowee. Does it matter if real people’s names were used for theatrical sport? What if they were simply invented entirely as color elements to move along the game’s narrative?*

We don’t have the answers to the questions. In the spirit, however, The Orbit has made the decision not to tell our readers any specifics on where to find the Serpentine stones. There are plenty of clues here (and elsewhere) if you want to go looking for them yourself. Or, just go out–anywhere–poke around, and keep the peepers open. Something will come into view soon enough.

river stones painted with white text reading "Nathanial Peterson (age 39)" and "Roland Mars (age 31)", Pittsburgh, PA

Nathanial Peterson (age 39), Roland Mars (age 31)

UPDATE (24 July): Like this blogger’s waistline, the plot has officially thickened. Astute reader–or perhaps, inside operative–“Fourth River Fortean” pointed us to a 1981 Pittsburgh Press article that details the death of one Dennis Girvin (age 27) who “drowned while partying and swimming” in the Allegheny River.


* We were unable to locate an actual list of the victims of the St. Patrick’s Day Flood to compare these names against, nor did Googling the names from the stones reveal any connection to the flood of 1936.

The Sad Toys of Homewood’s “Killing Fields”

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

The sad toys of “The Killing Fields”, Homewood South

Against deep blue sky and thick green long-overgrown grass, the fuzzy little bodies pop from the chain link fence they cling to. Tigers, monkeys, floppy-eared dogs and bunny rabbits fill the ranks, as do a lion, zebra, and giant duck. We didn’t know dinosaurs could be cuddly and furry, but there’s one of those too.

Overwhelmingly, though, the majority in this population is the teddy bear. Dozens of bears hang from the fence and nearby telephone pole: in a bow tie and with a Valentine’s heart, dressed in a Scotsman’s plaid and with matching Christmas hat and scarf, still buoyantly wide-eyed awake and drooping limply with the weight of the world.

telephone pole decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas garland, Pittsburgh, PA

The long, east-west alleys of Homewood are, like many sets of children born to the 1970s, group-named with a common initial letter: Ferdinand, Fletcher, Fuchsia, Fielding, Forest, Felicia, Fleury. Heading south, the very last of these–before you cross Hamilton Avenue and both street grid and naming scheme change–is Formosa Way.

The little alleyway is typical of many old Pittsburgh backstreets–a single lane, weedy, cracked, and stained with decades of practical use and a typically low seat on the Department of Public Works priority list for maintenance. Formosa Way runs parallel between Kelly Street and Hamilton Ave. and (at least at one time) was the main entrance for many row houses that fronted the alley for blocks in either direction.

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

All things considered, the 7300 block of Formosa Way looks a whole lot better than many Pittsburgh alleys. There’s next-to-no litter, nor signs of illegal dumping. The backyards of the row houses facing the adjoining streets may be untamed, but are now lush, tall-grassed expanses that bring welcome deep green open space to what at one time must have been dense blocks of brick worker housing.

What’s not so expected is the stretch of thirty-some feet of chain link fence, now bordering an overgrown vacant lot, plus one service pole across the alley. Attached to the intertwined steel strands and lashed to the wooden pole are scores–a hundred or more–soft children’s playthings along with assorted pinwheels, holiday decorations, and Christmas garland. These tributes have clearly been here for some time: their synthetic fur is matted, gnarled, and bleached white in years’ worth of sun, rain, frost, and thaw.

boarded-up row houses and chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a strange realization that the small patch of earth one has bicycled-through mere hours before is known locally as The Killing Fields…or, at least, it was at one time*. That particular name arrived during the crack-fueled gang violence of the 1990s, but persisted (we understand) until quite recently. Right here at Formosa and Collier, several blocks of derelict housing were razed in 2012*. A short set of five boarded-up row houses immediately adjoining the fence appear headed for the same fate.

That said, on this fine, bright sunny Sunday early afternoon, the blocks around Formosa Way feel much more like the Sunday-go-to-meetin’ fields or the wash-the-car-with-the-radio-on fields. Those activities, along with stoking up big barrel charcoal grills and neighbors swapping gossip on front porches are the most obvious occupations to the peddle-by blogger.

telephone pole decorated with stuffed animals and Christmas garland, Pittsburgh, PA

No label is attached to the fence of sad toys, there is no description for the installation, and attribution for the collection is not given. But what’s here seems obvious enough for even the densest of outsiders to put two and two together. This pair of diametrically-opposed and inseparably-linked events–decades of street violence and the impromptu memorial to lost innocence–say so much about the deep loss generations of Homewood families must have felt.

If each stuffed animal on the Formosa Way fence represents just one casualty in the neighborhood’s struggle, it is a weight no single community should have to bear. It’s more likely that not every victim received a tribute here–that a suitable memorial may need to be twice, three or more times greater to accurately represent the actual loss. For now, we can only hope the collection of playthings stops right where it is.

chain link fence decorated with stuffed animals, Pittsburgh, PA

Final note: While most Pittsburgh Orbit stories sit just fine in the quasi-legitimate world of “speculative journalism”, this one does not. It’s crying out for more information from the Homewood community, the creators of the fence, residents of Formosa Way, etc.–we know this. Time and schedule wouldn’t allow that kind of “real journalism” for this week’s post, but we absolutely plan on continuing the story.

If you live in Homewood or have information on the Formosa Way fence, we would love to hear from you.


“Demolition gives Homewood residents hope”, Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 5, 2012 and “The ‘killing fields’ demolished in Homewood”New Pittsburgh Courier, 2012.