Thin Blue Line: Millvale’s “Watermark”

blue line painted on cement support for highway, Millvale, PA

“Watermark” (detail), Route 28 underpass, Millvale

The thin blue line is painted on sidewalks and bridge supports, climbs up onto brick walls and relaxes in the park. It’s also broken into sections, appearing to duck into storm drains, slip down side-streets, and leap across intersections.

Like a giant spool of yarn knocked to the floor, unwound, and batted about by mischievous cats, you’re likely to come across Watermark somewhere in the middle and wonder what’s going on. The piece–part large-format public artwork and part community-engagement project–is doing its thing right now, in Millvale.

blue line painted in front of Millvale Upholstery, Millvale, PA

Millvale Upholstery, Grant Ave.

The line follows a loose path and it’s no hurry to get anywhere. It starts, or maybe it ends–your choice–at the big concrete support for the north end of the 40th Street Bridge in Millvale’s Riverfront Park. From there, it winds a jagged, herky-jerky route out along the jersey barrier retaining wall by the park’s bicycle trail, crosses the town’s busiest intersection, and winds its way up through the Grant Avenue business district. The long blue strand finally concludes in a glorious, unruly tangle in the little Grant Avenue Pocket Park at the top of the street.

blue line painted on jersey barrier retaining wall, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

The Watermark line is around two-thirds of a mile long, as the crow flies, and has the good sense to meander through much of downtown, effectively becoming a guide to a sort-of Tour d’Millvale. Along the way, it winds past Cousin’s Lounge, the upholstery shop, library, and Yetter’s Candy.

This record fiend can’t visit Millvale without poking his black plastic-sniffing schnoz into Attic Records, but the blue line decided to skip to the other side of street to avoid such temptation. Clearly not into model railroading or macaroons, the end of the line happens just before rounding the corner to Esther’s Hobby Shop and Jean Marc’s French bakery.

blue line painted on sidewalk, Millvale, PA

Grant Ave. sidewalk

Watermark is the work of Ann Tarantino, one of six artists participating in Neighborhood Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot. Tarantino tells us the goal of the piece is to “connect the community to water–to link the riverfront to the rest of town.” The GAPP park, along with other buildings in downtown Millvale, was built right on top of the Girty’s Run stream that can be seen flowing through its raised concrete flood walls both above and below the business district. Its influence is felt–if not expressly stated–by the shape, color, and general direction of the blue line.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Scott's Barber Shop, Millvale, PA

Scott’s Barber Shop, Grant Ave.

It’s a tall order, connecting Millvale town to its riverfront. Anyone who’s ever attempted to negotiate the ugly six point intersection where Grant and E. Ohio join the Route 28 on-ramps as either pedestrian or cyclist knows how harrowing the experience can be. Will a thin, painted line actually get riverfront bicycle-riders and cookout cornhole-tossers up to Panza Gallery or happy hour beer-drinkers down to the river? This blogger could only guess…but it got him to follow the trail all the way, just to see where it would go.

blue line painted on brick walk, Millvale, PA

Sheridan Street

The project is not yet complete. Tarantino informs us the blue line itself will still have some more painting and “connectivity” points added, but the major additions will be descriptive signage at both ends and an installation/”final experience” to be installed in the GAPP park. The Orbit will have to wait to check that out just like everyone else, but we were teased that it will involve both sound and light and should be installed later this Fall.

blue line painted on sidewalk in front of Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Millvale, PA

Healy Hahn Funeral Home, Grant Ave.

We talked to a few folks sitting on front stoops along Grant Ave. during an otherwise entirely vacant, bright sunny Labor Day holiday and it’s obvious the explanatory signage will be a benefit. “What does it mean?” said one befuddled hanger-out. His buddy: “It don’t mean nothin’.”

Unlike these critics, however, The Orbit is perfectly happy to live in a world without all the answers and can therefore take a more piqued approach to the abstract project. After a couple visits now, we find the loose, playful, follow-the-blue-line curiosity to be appealing on a number of fronts and begs several enticing questions: Where is it going? Who did this? Why is it here?

blue line painted on asphalt parking lot, Millvale, PA

parking lot, Grant Ave.

Hopefully having the answers to some of these in the convenient electronic format in front of them now won’t dampen our readers’ interest in checking out Watermark for themselves. If so, that would be a shame. The way to see the piece is on your feet, walking the cement and brick sidewalks of Millvale, headed for some of P&G’s mind-melting, Michelle Obama-approved hotcakes or a piece of Dutch apple pie from the legendary hands of Frank Ruzomberka at the Grant Bar.

Is Watermark great art? I don’t know about that. But it’s a simple, low-tech (at least, until we get that sound and vision experience), and effective conversation-starter. We think it also succeeds at making any side-walker or stoop-sitter both active participant in and art critic of an odd little curio traipsing through their borough. Those are interesting challenges to rise to and we had a fine time chasing its long blue tail.

blue line painted in front of Wild at Heart Body Arts, Millvale, PA

Wild at Heart Body Arts / Tattoo, Grant Ave.

Love it or hate it, the whole thing will disappear in 2019. Watermark, like the other Neighborhood Allies projects in this series, is temporary. It is scheduled to have just a two-year lifespan. Tarantino tells us the line was created with a type of paint that can be rinsed with a cleaning solution and power-washed away like it was never there at all.

blue line painted on cement of Grant Avenue Pocket Park, Millvale, PA

Grant Avenue Pocket Park

Watermark is a project sponsored by Neighbor Allies’ Temporary Public Art Pilot and the Office of Public Art. It is funded by Heinz Endowments and Hillman Foundation and supported by community-based organizations Millvale Community Development Corporation, Millvale Community Library, and the Society to Preserve the Murals of Maxo Vanka.

Tarantino will continue to update news of the project at her website. You can follow her on Instagram at @anntarantino.

The Protractor Files: One Last Big Score

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

Oh, their demon powers! The perfect arc, the cosine-solving magic, the eternal urban egg hunt! Wherever we go, that’s where we are–and so are they! Attached to the low wall of a concrete pedestrian walkway, stuck to the base of a lamp pole, glued to a park bench, painted red and white on a Polish Hill mailbox. Like the protagonist of any decent jewel heist flick, just when this blogger thought he was out, the Pittsburgh protractors held a dear family member hostage, blackmailing him back to the game for one last score.

protractor glued to base of light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Squirrel Hill

protractor glued to electrical box, Pittsburgh, PA

#32, Strip District

When Pittsburgh Orbit first wrote about them last year, we suggested right in the post’s title that the protractors are “disappearing”. The existing stock seemed to be in the process of removal by authorities, stripped by trophy-seekers, weather-eroded, and/or painted-over with no replacements arriving to replenish the supply.

Given a little time and perspective, though, reports of the protractors’ demise seem to be somewhat–if not greatly–exaggerated. Many of the specimens spotted in this spree–certainly the solid purple and yellow ones photographed here–appear to be new, unnumbered additions to the landscape since last we looked.

If so, why the change of M.O.? Did the protractor perpetrator just get lazy? Lose count? Or do we have a copycat on our hands? One Office Max dumpster dive plus a tube of Shoe Goo[1] and anyone could add to the city’s long-running street art mystery.

protractor attached to mail box, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

And what a mystery it is! How does anyone keep their big yap shut for this long without spilling the beans?

Is there a message to the protractors we’re all just too blind to see? Do they actually mean something or is this just someone’s goofy prank? Like the Trump voter coming to the realization the pathological liar he elected was telling the truth in just enough horrifying ways, are we in on the joke, or the butt of it?

Ah, hell. Maybe that’s something that could–and should–be said of all art[2]. If these little plastic doohickeys glued to nondescript bridge joints and light pole bases get people off their keisters, stretching their gams, asking questions, and looking at the world a little closer, you know, I.R.L. we’ll be happy to take a few lumps for Team Humanity.

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to I-beam in city park, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

protractor glued to pedestrian overpass, Pittsburgh, PA

Pedestrian overpass, Bigelow Blvd.

purple protractor attached to "Receiving Entrance" sign on stone building, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

purple protractor attached to metal expansion joint on bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

40th Street Bridge

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to park bench, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

See also:
A Paean to the Disappearing Pittsburgh Protractors Pittsburgh Orbit, June 5, 2016.
A Protractor Bender Pittsburgh Orbit, June 30, 2016.


[1] “Sources say” this is the origin story and application method for the protractors, but that is not confirmed.
[2] That the protractors may be “art” versus, say, “prank” or “graffiti” is worthy of its own debate.

Art/Work: Big Industry Art

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

Mural, Hill District

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

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

Mosaic, Bloomfield

Mural of steelworker, downtown Pittsburgh, PA

(light-up) Mural, Downtown

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

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

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

Mural, Pittsburgh Plate Glass workers, Ford City

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

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

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

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

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

Mural, Red Star Iron Works, Millvale


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

More Time for the Skyline

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

Spirit Lounge Pittsburgh 200th Birthday Celebration

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

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

Airbrush painting of the Pittsburgh skyline seen from the North Side

Warhola Recycling, North Side

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

fantasy skyline with various Pittsburgh elements included

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

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

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

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

Garland Parklet, East Liberty

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

Pittsburgh skyline mural painted on cinderblock building

Red Star Ironworks, Millvale

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

mural on brick wall including the downtown Pittsburgh skyline

Mural, Art All Night 2016, Lawrenceville

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

Christmas Under the Bridge

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

We are, if the clever Orbit reader has not already divined, kerchief deep into Christmas season. It’s the all-consuming megalopolis of a holiday whose red and green, pine cone-encrusted, jingle-bell-adorned, egg nog-slurping tentacles reach so deeply that even Casey Kasem is banished from the airwaves until after the new year rolls around. Sigh. What to do when a blogger can’t even get any Hot Chocolate with his hot chocolate?

We expect this–and certainly know it’s coming–but had no idea that Ol’ St. Nick’s lords-a-leaping, geese-a-laying influence would extend all the way down under the bridges of the North Side, and yet it does. But we’re here to say that, just like Scrooge, even this bah-humbugging blogger can turn around to The Christmas SpiritTM when and where he never expected he would.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Yet another lovely sun-drenched December weekend day and another healthy afternoon two-wheeled constitutional. [Weather gods: why hath thou forsaken this blogger? How long must he wait for 45 degrees and drizzling?] This time the ride took us across the 40th Street Bridge and down to the Allegheny River trail.

It was a most curious surprise to come across. Against the tremendous concrete support for the railroad bridge that spans the Allegheny near Millvale Riverfront Park, rests a spindly, homemade Christmas tree-like sculpture, made of thick wound black wire, a discarded metal stake, and plastic holly. The tree is sparsely decorated with a handful of traditional ornaments, something that looks like a space invader, and one full set of refrigerator poetry. The current offering reads cadaver angels put wealth in the river. We poked around, snapped a few pics, went right down to the water’s edge. It was a fun little surprise, but then we were back on our way.

Refrigerator poetry from trail Christmas tree #1 reading "Cadaver angels put wealth in the river."

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Refrigerator poetry, Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1

So yet another trailside Christmas tree popping out at us just another minute or two further down the trail was starting to feel like a legitimate yuletide miracle. Here, under the 31st Street Bridge, is a medium-size Douglas fir, decked out in red, green, and silver garland, with giant candy cane ornaments, and one drug store Santa hat for a topper. A simple unfurled piece of cardboard includes the cursive Sharpie message Merry Christmas, Thank you.

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2 (under 31st Street Bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #2, detail

Here I met M.J., one of a number of people who camp under the on-ramp to the 31st Street Bridge. We talked for a while and I got some of the story on the tree and the group that lives here. The tree was brought in, along with a full Thanksgiving dinner spread, the week prior.

I saw a bag of apples and was heading to The Strip anyway, so I asked if I could pick up some food for the group. Surprisingly, M.J. explained that they were actually doing O.K. with food thanks to regular deliveries from the same organization that provided the tree and turkey dinner. [M.J. didn’t have a name.] I asked what the group’s other greatest needs are and he told me that he wished he could get battery-operated lanterns for everyone. He also mentioned bedding and tarps. So far, this blogger has struck out locating the kind of lanterns M.J. described, [and believe you me, he has tried] but it isn’t Christmas yet!

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1 (under 33rd Street railroad bridge)

Allegheny River trail Christmas tree #1, detail


Related: Bridgette Wright’s blog post for Bike Pittsburgh details a couple of coordinated efforts to bring “care packs” to Pittsburgh’s homeless communities over the Christmas holiday. They’ll be using bicycles to deliver the packages to locations like this one under the 31st Street Bridge that are inaccessible by automobile.

Two Great Tastes: Get Write with God

wall painted with "Jesus is the answer", Pittsburgh, PA

Watch that first step: it’s a doozy. “Jesus is the answer,” Homewood

He measured it on the four sides; it had a wall all around, the length five hundred and the width five hundred, to divide between the holy and the profane. (Ezekiel 42:20)

Back in the early Spring, we inaugurated the Two Great Tastes series with a piece on how snow and trains just naturally look (and photograph) great together. We also included a bunch of other pithy two-fers involving things like French cop movies, Zubaz, and fried fish sandwiches. This blogger certainly can’t predict when another one of these terrific combos will come along, but believe you me: The Orbit knows it when we see it.

And see it we did! Or do. Or keep on seeing as we come across the seemingly incongruous one-two of (Christian) religion and street graffiti. It might seem weird to take up both scripture and Rust-Oleum, but, you know, it’s the greatest story ever told and these colors, like true faith and decent exterior enamel, definitely won’t run.

Abandoned storefront with graffiti reading "Rap music suck. Go to church."

The door’s open but the ride ain’t free. “Rap music suck. Go to church.” Clairton

Generalizations about entire musical genres aside, it’s hard to understand the connection between the relative quality of rap music and the commandment to attend church. We know correlation is not causation as one might just as inaccurately assume spray paint-wielding taggers would be unlikely in a house of the lord on Sunday.

Church stair rail with graffiti reading "God is dead, Devil is everywhere"

Crossed the deserts bare, man. “God is dead, Devil is everywhere.” Millvale

Is God dead? Is The Devil really everywhere? At least one troubled soul sure felt strongly enough about it to render this haunting message in black Sharpie on the stair rail of the great Holy Spirit Parish Catholic church in Millvale. We have to assume that, like the song says, “people are cracking up all over.” And when reaching out to the mental health system involves vandalizing church property, well…we’ve still got a ways to go.

Tell him what you want. “Jesus rides freight trains.” Strip District

Another questionable assertion, this one on a boxcar in the Strip District. I don’t know if Jesus rides freight trains, but they’re probably more reliable than AmTrak. That said, if Jesus really wants to commune with the in-transit laity there are going to be a lot more of them on the Greyhound or MegaBus (not to mention the DMV). And let me tell you something: some of those bus riders could learn something from a good ol’ monastic vow of silence!

Graffiti on tile wall reading "The Devil made me do it the first time ...", Pittsburgh, PA

Out on the tiles. “The Devil made me do it the first time …” Lawrenceville

So many questions: What is it? Who made you do it the next time? How many times did you do it? Did you ever get tired of it? Why do I need to hear about it? We’ll likely never know what TSU was going on about here, but hopefully admitting it was a least a first step to reaching a better place.

Brick wall with graffiti reading "What if the only things God blesses you with tommrow is what u r thankful for today"

He would / Die 4 / U. “What if the only things God blesses you with tommrow is what u r thankful for today,” (sic.) Manchester

The Orbit‘s copy-editing team is having a fit with this one, but relax, guys: everything’s cool. The suggestion (we can’t actually locate a Biblical reference for this one) that the salvation we’re waiting for in the future is here right now strikes this frequent grass-is-greener blogger as actually quite profound. The statement speaks to both live for today and be grateful for what you have sentiments, and also that the (presumably) afterlife-believing perpetrator wants us to be happy, right here in this world. Amen.

Ghost House: Wearing a Hearth on the Eaves

Brick house with exposed fireplace, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Central North Side

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

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

Brick house with exposed fireplace, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Central North Side

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

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

Brick house with two exposed fireplaces, Pittsburgh, Pa.

East Deutschtown

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

Brick house with two exposed fireplaces, Millvale, Pa.

Millvale

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

Brick house with two exposed fireplaces, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Hill District