Water’s Gone Cold: An Elegy for Tea Bags

brick wall painted with logo for Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Side wall of Tea Bags with logo/mural (and painted-over tag line), Lawrenceville

Once, I’m told by my lifelong Lawrenceville neighbor, Butler Street included a bar whose sign advertised No TV, but a fight every night. Mark claims the message was no exaggeration–just pure statement of fact. That space is now V3 personal (fancy) pizzas. There’s still no television, but it’s doubtful there’s an equal amount of trouble.

Another friend talks about a saloon in Michigan called The Home Bar, so named because “no matter what you did, you can always come back”. The Home Bar is apparently still around, allowing Kalamazoo’s citizenry back in some thirty years on.

Tea Bags bar logo of anthropomorphized tea bag with sunglasses and toothy grin, Pittsburgh, PA

Advertising one’s establishment as a source of a certain amount of calamity seems like a strange business model, but it obviously works…enough.

Always in hot water has been Tea Bags goofy salacious tag line for at least a couple decades. It used to be featured in big scrolling letters under the rest of the bar’s alley side mural, but was sadly painted over a few years ago*. The slogan remains etched into the custom behind-the-bar mirrors, but they won’t last long…and you probably can’t get in to see them anyway.

The Main Street Lawrenceville/Bloomfield corner bar has yelled its final last call, packed up its Cherry Master machine, green bar stools, large jars of alcohol-soaked cherries, and loaded them into a box truck directed to who-knows-where. The process to transfer Tea Bags liquor license to new owners is well underway.

mirror behind bar with "Tea Bags - Always in Hot Water" logo, Pittsburgh, PA

A well-stocked bar: soaked cherries, potato chips, Handi-wipes, paper plates.

The new, yet-to-be-named business taking over the space [assuming all the paperwork goes through] will be a fair departure from Tea Bags’ nuts-and-bolts no-frills corner bar. From Bloomfield Development Corp.’s posting of the business plan:

“The bar/restaurant is a price friendly location for those who seek educated bar-man ship (sic.) and well crafted cocktails, with an approachable yet notable beer selection, and easy yet technique driven menu items. Pop culture, art, music and skateboarding nuances will account for the subtle design details to create an easy feeling atmosphere that is appreciated by the local 25-35 age range.”

man and woman at bar with bartender looking on, Tea Bags, Pittsburgh, PA

Looks like somebody’s in hot water! The kind of typical skateboarding Millenials who will inevitably gravitate to the new bar’s “easy-feeling atmosphere”.

Call this blogger an old, non-skateboarding fuddy duddy**, but it’s painful to see oneself demographically excluded from a new place in the neighborhood before they’ve even selected a name.

It’s becoming a sad, repeated refrain–even right here in the virtual pages of Pittsburgh Orbit. The old place catering to every(wo)man closes from declining business or gets bought-out or someone just retires. The new owners want to get them some of that Google and Uber dough. Why eke out a living on dollar Jello shots when you charge six bucks for an I.P.A. and ten for a hamburger? It makes economic sense–if you can sell it–but feels like a little part of the city is dying with every one of these upsell transitions.

3-story brick building with Tea Bags bar on first floor, Pittsburgh, PA

Not an optical illusion: Tea Bags trapezoidal shape

This blogger won’t claim to have been a regular at the bar [so maybe I’m part of the problem!] but he’s slanted a few in its smoky, natural light-defying confines over the years. Along with Wilson’s Pharmacy, Sunoco, and the 54C, Tea Bags has been the most constant presence in the general Penn & Main crossroads for the last twenty years. I must have walked, ridden, and driven past the bar thousands of times by now–pretty much every single day. Even with that frequency, seeing the big-toothed grin on the sunglasses-wearing anthropomorphized tea bag never fails to bring a smile.

If it were up to Pittsburgh Orbit, we’d extract the entire Woolslayer Way mural wall and preserve it forever in a sacred, public place–just like Romare Bearden’s glorious “Pittsburgh Memories” mosaic in the Gateway Plaza T station.

That probably won’t happen, though. So take a little advice from us and get thee over to Main Street to check out Tea Bags’ smiling tea bags while you still can. The water’s cooling down mighty fast.

mural detail of anthropomorphized tea bag wearing sunglasses and with wide toothy grin, Tea Bags bar, Pittsburgh, PA

Grinning tea bag logo (detail)


* The reason is unknown, but we assume graffiti cover-up as the likely explanation.
** Not to mention grammar snob. Whoever wrote this business plan needs to learn how to deploy a hyphen correctly!

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?

Rankin Amateurs

faded mural with a mixed group of people in front of elementary school, Rankin, PA

Rankin Elementary: home of tomorrow’s professionals and today’s friendly aliens

Two of the friendliest alien lifeforms one is likely to encounter wave hello from the distance. Welcome to Rankin! they seem to suggest. The creatures’ giant insectoid bodies are as large as the glass entry doors of an elementary school, comical color-coordinated antennae bob from their big-eyed heads.

In front are a panoply of the borough’s truly fine citizens: a physician, the mayor, 4-H club members, their advisor, and one sullen teenager*. In the background, Old Glory waves spectacularly as a perpetual rainbow gilds the perfectly blue sky.

fading mural with businessman and exterior of Dipcraft Mfg. Co., Rankin, PA

Businessman, Dipcraft Mfg. Co.

It’s one of the Images of Rankin, a series of four large murals** created by artist Connie Merriman along with a dozen Woodland Hills high school students. The paintings pay tribute to positive community members in Rankin through posed group portraits with backdrops of notable borough locations. The set turns twenty this year.

The images decorate an otherwise drab, high cement retaining wall half-way between, and parallel-to 2nd Ave. (aka Rankin Blvd., below) and 3rd Ave. (above). They form the backdrop to a small parklet with a wooden gazebo/bandstand at the north end.

fading mural with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, Rankin, PA

The ladies and gentlemen of Rankin

Rankin Borough has had a rough few decades. The giant U.S. Steel mill along the river stopped producing in the late 1970s and it never had the business district that neighboring Swissvale (to the north) and Braddock (south) have. Today, its unruly collection of squat row houses, frame worker homes, and newer (but not new) apartment terraces have clearly had their share of wear and tear.

But there’s a lot of pride in these paintings that celebrate the people in the neighborhood that are (or, at least, were, in 1996) still fighting for it–a councilwoman, president of the CDC, members of the Rankin Christian Center, a businessman, a community organizer. Like Alfred Hitchcock before them, the 4-H Club members took the opportunity to paint themselves into Rankin’s history.

fading mural of kids hanging out, Rankin, PA

Youth of Rankin: watch out for that weed!

Back in March, we covered the tragic and beautiful deterioration of the murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy. Many of the thoughts from that post could be restated here, but there are some notable differences. Where the Speakeasy paintings suffered from paint flaking and water seepage, the Rankin murals are more intact, but have been substantially sun-bleached and overtaken by nature.

In both cases, the artists’ work is skilled and recognizable–I bet everyone in town could name the figures portrayed. That said, these ain’t Rembrandt. There’s a delightful amateur quality that’s somewhere between folk/outsider art and thrift store chic. The trees look like cartoon backdrops and perspectives are distorted; hands are formed like stiff mannequin parts and people tilt awkwardly as if magnetically drawn. And then there are those overly-excited bug-like aliens…

Retaining wall with murals, Rankin, PA

In context: retaining wall with the Rankin murals


* All mural subject identification comes from the very informative entry at pghmurals.com
** The paintings are actually on OSB mounted to the wall, so they probably aren’t technically “murals”.

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.

Murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

Waiter

Nothing lasts forever, we know this. This is especially true of art, which is produced in much greater quantity than there is demand, often in fragile formats and up to extremely subjective taste and value judgement. But to have one’s canvas get dusty in the basement or torn in a move has got to be a wholly different experience than watching the slow-motion disintegration of something as large and inescapable as a giant public mural right along a major thoroughfare where passers-by literally can’t miss it.

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

George Gershwin

The Murals of the Sewickley Speakeasy have a lot going against them, at least in terms of longevity. First, they’ve got to deal with an inhospitable Western Pennsylvania climate–drastic temperature fluctuations, dense humidity, snow, ice, sleet, rain, and, yes, occasional bright sunshine. Then, they’ve been painted on a retaining wall holding back a steep incline. The hillside runoff alone, leaching through the concrete, would likely separate paint from surface material in short order. Add to this the wall’s position, mere feet from busy Route 65, which must receive plenty of kicked-up salt, exhaust, and road debris.

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

W.C. Fields

Given all that, maybe it’s no surprise the murals have weathered so severely in not even twenty years. We don’t know what they looked like when the paint was fresh, but even with an obvious nostalgia theme in mind, dollars to doughnuts they didn’t have the washed-out, sepia-toned color you’ll find today–and that’s where you can still make out an image at all. On large stretches of the seven mural sections, great amounts of the underlying paint and nearly all of the recognizable figures are gone.

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

Greta Garbo

What’s left, though, is beautiful and tragic. I’m sure when the owners of the Sewickley Speakeasy commissioned these pieces they set out for an inviting, mood-setting series of vignettes to invoke not just the conviviality of any great nightspot, but certainly also the high-style/wink-and-nod underground romanticism of Jazz Age urban life–a place where some of America’s greatest musicians and movie stars mixed with politicians, bootleggers, flappers, and toe-tappers (not to mention the penciled-in family members of the bar’s owner).

Some of that still shines through the cracks, but mostly we get ghosts–fractured, fallen apart, and disappearing into clouds of base primer and bare concrete. In some cases, the remaining images are astonishing. George Gershwin, still nearly intact but soot-covered enough to look as in black face, sits at an invisible piano. W.C. Fields, with cocked top hat and great drunkard’s schnoz, is clearly identifiable against a blitzed-out snowstorm of fragmented paint chips. All smiles, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Pittsburgh’s-own Lena Horne still look like they’re having fun, oblivious to the dust storm blowing in fast*.

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, piano player

The Orbit reached out to August Vernon, the artist who painted the murals back in 1999, but either he doesn’t want to talk to us or he really doesn’t check his email. From what we can tell, Vernon continues to paint large-scale murals, but now from a home base in a warmer, sunnier climate (either Florida or South Carolina–his web site lists both). The artist’s changes in latitude have likely put grimy Route 65 and the Sewickley Speakeasy murals far in his pastel-colored rearview mirror. That’s too bad, as we really wanted to know what the experience is like to see such an epic project fall into this nether state and what the outlook is like for a working artist who must confront this potential deterioration on a daily basis. We’d also love to get his memories on creating the Speakeasy murals.

At this point it seems unlikely we’ll hear from Vernon, and if so, that’s something he shares with his most famous characters. We’ll never know the real Clara Bow, or Rudolf Valentino, or Bette Davis. The world was left with their films, and we’ve got Vernon’s painted tributes–at least, until they’re gone with the wind.

disintegrating mural from Sewickley Speakeasy, Sewickley, PA

Clara Bow, Al Capone and friends


* Help identifying some of these characters from an entry on pghmurals.com based on a 1999 Post Gazette article by Barbara Cloud.

 

Valentine’s Day Hearts

graffiti on brick wall of dozens of small hearts above a row of commercial trash bins, Pittsburgh, PA

Flying hearts (or maybe just flying flies) and trash bins, Oakland

Hearts. They’re just about everywhere this time of year, right? In shop windows, taped to cubicle nameplates, iced into bakery desserts, crocheted in red yarn and pinned on comfy sweaters. But try to find a real one–O.K., not a real real one, but an un-store bought/handmade/interesting representation of a heart–it ain’t so easy. There are some of them out on the street, though.

Neon sign of a red heart with green bands surrounding from a tattoo parlour, Pittsburgh, PA

Tattoo parlour neon sign, South Side

Love is a great thing, right? If so, why is Valentine’s Day such a loathsome event? [To call this a “holiday” is a major stretch.] It’s contrived from no clear history, crassly commercial, and oozes sickeningly forced sentimentality. No major shopping event between Christmas and Easter? Let’s sell some candy in February! Oh, and pink is just the worst, most nauseating color. This open-to-all-other-hues blogger shudders just thinking about it.

Valentine’s Day seems almost diabolically created to make single people feel bad and puts a lot of couples into a weird state of obligatory self-congratulation. Dear, I don’t subscribe to the man’s holiday, but I also don’t want you to think I don’t care. Being in a good relationship can be terrific, but it ain’t great every single day, and maybe it doesn’t just happen to be firing on February 14 each year–but you wouldn’t know it from the full tables at fancy restaurants and stacks of Whitman’s samplers at Rite-Aid.

Mural of human heart on cinderblock wall by Jeremy Raymer, Pittsburgh, PA

Mural by Jeremy Raymer, Lawrenceville

The heart is a strange symbol for love–although maybe not any more peculiar than anything else we (humans) might have selected. A heaving, involuntary muscle that looks terrifyingly freaky when we actually see a real one going at it. O.R. nurses and surgeons must get used to the sight, but I doubt this blogger ever would. The simplified, symmetric, cartoon representation we’ve adopted doesn’t look anything like a real human heart. If it did, we’d have to find another symbol for the emotion.

spray painted heart stencil

Spray paint/stencil, Bigelow Blvd. pedestrian overpass, Polish Hill

All this belly-aching, but valentines (the physical tokens of affection, not the day) can be pretty darn swell. Fold some paper, cut out some letters, whip out the glue stick.They’re probably one of the few ways (some) people still keep up their craft chops post-elementary school. Mrs. The Orbit never fails to deliver particularly creative, wonderful, and wacky inventions. [She could teach a class!] At least, we hope some other people still hand make theirs, or does everybody just buy a card at the drug store now? Well, if you do, don’t–it’s fun to make your own, it’s a really terrific gesture, and everyone likes to have something, uh, from the heart.

Heart-shaped gravestone, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

They called him “Teddy Bear” (maybe). Heart-shaped gravestone, Highwood Cemetery

A Fine Time for the Skyline

Mural painted on garage door of man on motorcycle with the Pittsburgh skyline behind him and a banner reading "Gone but not Forgotten"

Gone but not forgotten, Homewood

Is the Pittsburgh skyline that distinct? This blogger wouldn’t have thought so, but it kept turning up, rendered by hand, in a variety of locales. The image is an interesting choice, especially for some obvious small time players. It’s there on a shuttered candy shop, a no-longer-serving Chinese restaurant, and a tribute to a fallen motorcyclist. [Note to self: cancel appointment to have Pittsburgh skyline tattooed across midriff.]

The iconography seems well established. Each representation features PPG’s signature spiked towers, the giant hypodermic needle that locates Fifth Avenue Place, and the taller-than-them-all monolith of the USX (née U.S. Steel) tower. Optional other inclusions are the fountain at Point State Park, the Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne bridges, Oxford Centre’s very ’80s lopped cube, and the Kopper’s/Gulf Tower art deco two-fer.

Mural of a spirit blowing glass above the Pittsburgh skyline at Gallery G Glass, Pittsburgh, PA

Gallery G Glass, Bloomfield

The loose outline of a great glass-blowing water spirit floats weightlessly in front of a rough depiction of downtown’s tall buildings. It looks like Matisse, as rendered by a precocious fifth-grader. This lanky figure seems to spring from a Smurfs-like version of the Point State Park fountain. Earth, air, fire, and water: all the elements are there. The mural pictured here is actually just one half of a set–its nearly-identical twin faces the other direction and sits just on the other side of Gallery G’s front entryway on Liberty Ave.

Sign for Cutty's Candy Store that includes the Pittsburgh skyline and a version of the Steelers logo with the word "Cutty" added

Cutty’s Candy Store, Homewood

We loved this combination Pittsburgh portrait/ornate Steelers tribute/Candy Store business sign so much we ganked it for the Orbit masthead. The skyline has all the usual players, but here they’re rendered in a really effective semi-detailed black & white, resting on a set of rococo brass work, and reading brilliantly against the pitch black background. Maybe if Cutty had made the text as easy to read the candy store would still be in business and we could have popped in for some licorice on the ride. That was not to be.

mural of the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh painted on brick wall of former Yen's Gourmet restaurant, Pittsburgh, PA

Yen’s Gourmet (detail), East Liberty

We’re gathering the materials on the inevitable Orbit obit to Yen’s Gourmet (R.I.P.) on Penn Avenue and this one popped-out. The long brick wall that makes up the east-facing side of the building has one continuous mural of a congenial, multicultural East Liberty. Bathed in sunshine, people of all stripes walk the streets, curb their pets, shop, and frolic. There is at least one incongruous wolf (maybe it’s just a husky) with its eyes trained on you, the viewer and its tongue salivating. It is both painful and totally fitting that this portrait will never include the greatest elements of change in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood that would ultimately send Yen and his $6.95 all-you-can-eat buffet packing*.  Likely the new Ace Hotel does not have such a deal.

Chromos Eyewear sign of a large pair of glasses, with the Pittsburgh skyline in each lens

Chromos Eyewear, Lawrenceville

This is almost certainly the newest skyline around as Chromos only took up shop in Lawrenceville’s tenth ward fairly recently–but how great to keep up the tradition and what an effective use of the idiom! One giant pair of glasses serving as this eyewear shop’s name-free shingle, each with a silhouetted downtown Pittsburgh skyline clearly in view. Real glass allows daylight through the rest of the lenses just like, you know, real glasses. Well done, Chromos.


* Just guessing here: we have no idea why Yen’s Gourmet closed their doors.