Step Beat: Oakley Dokeley, The Oakley Way Rehab

Detail of public steps with mosaic decoration of a woman's head, Pittsburgh, PA

It’s a cruel reality: when you’re working the city step beat, there ain’t a lot of news to report. No, most of the stories we run end up being about going to visit steps that inevitably won’t be around for long, occasional Indiana Jones-style heroics to hike them, or the historical curiosities of infrastructure ruins that were once so vital and now–all too often–go nowhere and serve no one.

So it is with no small amount of glee that The Orbit goes to press with a story on not only the complete rehabilitation of a set of core city steps, but the genuine newsy news that they’ve been wonderfully dressed-up in brand-new full-color mosaic tile.

public steps with mosaic decoration including houses, sky, a fox, a bird, sun, and stars, Pittsburgh, PA

Oakley Way Steps, top mosaic section

Oakley Way is one of the many climbs that create access points from the South Side Slopes above to the flats below (and vice-versa). The street is actually seven short (but mostly vertical) blocks long–part city steps/part steep road-with-steps sidewalk. The bottommost stretch (from Josephine to McCord) is the only section that’s received the mosaic treatment, but some of the upper sections have also been nicely rehabbed with patched concrete and fully repaired and repainted blue handrails.

Artist Laura Jean McLaughlin led a group of volunteers in the design, construction, and installation of the mosaic risers. That process was covered in a recent Post-Gazette piece that only scooped us because we got side-tracked by Fairywood and tryptophan and shelved the post for a month. Fooey!

looking up Oakley Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

Looking up: the Oakley Way steps

Spread across seventy-seven consecutive risers, the mosaic’s central figure is a tall red-booted woman in a checkered skirt who–based on the proportional size of the river, bridge, and factory building also in the piece–must stand about the height of the US Steel tower. Also decorating the lush scene are Slopes homes, grass, flowers, a fox, a bird, the sun and stars.

If you’ve seen any of McLaughlin’s other local projects you’ll recognize her loose, cartoonish, and earthy signatures. A lesser blog might invoke the term “whimsical,” or even (shudder) “funky”. The Orbit won’t stoop to that level, so we’ll just say they’re fun, very Slopes-centric, and a great compliment to the D.P.W.’s fix-up work.

Oakley Street city steps, Pittsburgh, PA

View down the bottommost section of Oakley Way (from McCord Street)

We’ve argued in these very virtual pages that Pittsburgh’s network of public steps is a city asset unlike any other–part transit route, part jungle gym, part historical oddity, and what should be a big draw for tourism*. It’s encouraging to see any set of steps getting much-needed maintenance, but it’s especially great to see them dressed to thrill with such a wonderful addition as McLaughlin’s mosaic.

There’s at least one other similar project out there and completed. Linda Wallen’s mosaic work at the base of the steps off Itin Street in Spring Garden isn’t nearly as ambitious as Oakley Way, but it’s still a great twinkling beacon in the great constellation of city step dark stars. May these two heroic projects guide step freaks to a new, golden dawn of altitude adjustment, wide perspectives, and throbbing calf muscles.

public steps with mosaic tile decoration of woman's head with houses and deer in the background, Pittsburgh, PA

Old and new: remnants of an earlier, defunct passage under the rehabbed Oakley Way steps


* Visitors who don’t want to lose their breath climbing dozens of flights of steps to dilapidated neighborhoods with spectacular views should consider lodging other than Chez Orbit’s fold-out sofa.

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?

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yetta: The Mosaic Houses of Spring Hill

A row of frame houses with mosaics covering the basement/foundation walls, Pittsburgh, Pa.

The mosaic houses of Spring Hill

It’s been said that Pittsburgh is place where you can have a basement apartment with a view. In Spring Hill, you have to actually take some steps up to reach the basement–and what a view!

By the time I got up there, it had been a workout. First, up and down, back and forth through the aptly-named Hill District looking for remaining traces of the Jewish Hill District. But the Hill was only the appetizer–scaling the steep Itin Street incline to Spring Hill proved to be the main course.

Stairway between houses with mosaics, Pittsburgh, Pa.

This panting blogger’s wiener was apparently too appealing a target for one four-year-old with a brand new water cannon. As his parents sorted through the poison ivy looking for a rose bush, their youth made it rain–on my short trousers. And let me tell you, he may be a little guy, but Max’s aim is true, his judgement unsparing, and he yields no mercy to the winded cyclist.

So when Kate gave me the tip to continue on even further up the hill (OK, just one short block) to Yetta Street for the checking out of a set of mosaics, it was time to go.

Yetta Street mosaic detail

And rewarded we were! There aren’t quite enough of them to justify this as a “neighborhood thing,” but with three clearly-related mosaic-bedecked houses in a row, plus one more down the block, it’s at least some inclination of a movement that will hopefully grow into said thing.

The styles and subjects range from groovy blasts of abstract color and shape to more recognizable scenes of gardens, flowers, and undersea life. One section may or may not be a loose impressionistic map of downtown Pittsburgh and its surrounding rivers. The Basilica of San Vitale this is not, but they’re quite nice.

Yetta Street mosaic detail

The mosaics are all set into the basement walls added under the front porches of the houses on the north (up hill) side of Yetta. The prim Victorian frame houses above with the scattershot artwork below give a terrific kind of business upstairs/party in the basement effect. This kind of decorative anachronism probably drives the historical crowd to hysteria, but, you know, live a little.

Victorian house in Pittsburgh, Pa. with mosaic on basement walls

Business upstairs/party in the basement

Yetta Street mosaic detail

I’d guess they all came from the same set of hands, but there wasn’t anyone around when we visited to ask. I’d love to know how recently these were added, if more neighbors are signing on, how the whole thing got started, etc. So we’ll have to wait for a subsequent trip up to Spring Hill to try again. I’m sure young Max is reloading as I type.

boy holding a super-soaker squirt gun

Watch your trousers: Max and his super-soaker

UPDATE (6/3/2015): The eagle-eyed and impressively-associated readers of The Pittsburgh Orbit quickly alerted us that the Spring Hill mosaics are both the work of Linda Wallen and that there are more of them in the neighborhood that we missed. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk with Linda and get the full story.