Welcome to South Oakland: childhood home of Dan Marino, Andy Warhol, and Bruno Sammartino. At least, that’s what the welcome sign on Frazier Street, at Dan Marino Field, tells us.
Those were the days, huh? One’s mind wanders to a time before Oakland’s tight, pre-war homes had mostly been converted into student housing. When it was still a neighborhood with a large Italian-American community full of workers who’d commute not to the current nearby ginormous eds and meds employers but instead south, down the hill, to the massive Jones & Laughlin steel mill occupying both banks of the Mon.
Setting aside the pesky reality of belching smoke stacks that blackened the sky and rained soot on everyone and everything, it must have been a pretty great place to grow up. The Carnegie museums, library, and concert hall an easy half-mile walk; Schenley Park, even closer; downtown Pittsburgh a mere trolley ride away. Football at Pitt Stadium (R.I.P.), boxing and hockey at The Gardens (ditto). Backyards overgrown with grape vines and fig trees; the intoxicating aroma of stewing marinara wafting from kitchen windows.
… and Mary. Oh! The mind reels at the thought of all those good Catholics sacrificing a half-week’s pay for a quality statue of Her Blessedship–blue-cloaked, head down, and palms out. Maybe she’s posed in a bathtub-shaped grotto or up on a pedestal–or both! In our gauzy rose-colored nostalgia-by-proxy, a saunter down Dawson, Ward, or Juliet was so rife with statuary that the stray houses without a holy figure stand out … but that’s probably just the imagination running wild, like usual.
South Oakland and adjacent Oakland Square are an entirely different scene now. Great neighborhoods still, mind you, with all the same location advantages. Heck, around Chez Orbit, the area has crucial pins on the step-trek and cycling maps as entry point to the great Romeo & Frazier steps and gateway to the Panther Hollow trail. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine either neighborhood as childhood home to many kids today.
With the ever-gobbling-up of greater Oakland by the twin goliaths of Pitt and UPMC, Oakland’s demographic has shifted decidedly from working families to student transients. A stroll anywhere and you’ll see all the tell-tale signs of off-campus living: ratty porch couches, Tibetan prayer flags, Pitt banners, card tables laden with last night’s party debris. Religious iconography? Not so much.
But if you spend a little time, look around a bit, you’ll still find Mary doing her thing. She’s flanked by urn-styled flower pots and nestled between hedges. Mary peeks out from behind blooming flowers and serves her country under a patriotic flag-filled fantasia.
The (blessed) mother of all South Oakland Marys is, of course, The Shrine of the Blessed Mother (aka “Our Lady of the Parkway”) (photo at top). Installed on a beautiful hillside nook where one can both relax in the solace of the space, take in its terrific view across the river, and pretend the unrelenting Parkway traffic below is just rushing water on a boisterous river … with random bursts of road rage. Yes, we’re obliged to do a whole story on the Shrine at some point.
Until then, steps-seekers, park wanderers, and the Mary-obsessed alike can bask in the glow of The Blessed One’s dimmed, but still radiant aura emanating from the dozen-or-so figures and still-potent empty grottoes visible from Oakland’s sidewalks. If only we could peer into all those backyards! Untold riches almost certainly hide in these private spaces. For that, we’ll have to look to the heavens, say a little prayer, make the sign of the cross, and thank the Lord we can party with Mary whenever she’ll have us.
In what was once an overgrown hillside, there is now an inviting oasis of beauty, love, creativity, and wonder. A lovely tree canopy shades maybe a half-acre of lush green grass, glowing groundcover, sculpted walking paths, and picture-perfect spots for repose.
The park is centered around a fantastic constellation-like sculpture created from repurposed bowling balls suspended on metal rods. The space offers educational placards, an outdoor cooking and dining spot, and the most impressive little free library you’ve yet seen. It’s also right in the heart of the city and almost no one knows about it.
Even the most hardcore of Pittsburgh’s many ramblers, nature freaks, and urban explorers can be excused for never having visited Central Park. The tiny off-the-books greenspace has no directional signage from nearby Fifth Avenue and exists at the back of a one-way-in/one-way-out single block of row houses.
The neighborhood is technically West Oakland (at least, that’s what a D.I.Y. welcome sign tells us), but it’s really in the void. The area does have the claim to fame that Andy Warhol was born here–the house has since been demolished–but it’s still not on anyone’s way to anywhere. Just past the tail end of Uptown, downhill from The Hill, and around the bend from (West) Oakland proper, little Moultrie Street exists in a world of its own.
“This is an illegal art exhibit,” says Joseph Szabo about the vision-turned-reality he’s worked on for the last eight or ten years. The ambitious project converted overgrown vacant land across the street from his home into the magical pocket park it has become. “Central Park in New York City is my favorite place in the world. I created this as an homage to it.”
Indeed, those familiar with that more famous Central Park can have a bit of fun matching some of its well-known features to Szabo’s landscaping work. As Szabo explains it, the plot of grass along the street, as well as an adjoining lot freshly planted with fruit trees, is The Great Lawn. Twisty pathways make up The Ramble. A D.I.Y. brick oven/grill and its nearby picnic table allow the visitor to simulate Tavern on the Green‘s al fresco dining and cooking experiences. Likewise, a mosaic garden feature with the word Imagine references a similar element of New York’s Strawberry Fields and Belvedere Castle is recreated through a cobblestone stairway leading up to an elevated veranda overlooking the full expanse.
As to the “illegal” nature of Central Park’s creation, it’s certainly true that Szabo began hacking away at the undergrowth without formal permitting or any of those pesky property ownership concerns. By now, though, it’s drifted into a much safer legal gray area.
Community group Uptown Partners provided huge assistance connecting the project with the city and grant funding. Szabo specifically cites U.P. former director Jeane McNutt as instrumental to the process. “Without her help and enthusiasm, Central Park would not be what it is.”
The city, in turn, removed the original jersey barriers that bordered the space and installed large stones used as seating around the central sculpture. City works crews also donated 1500 retired Belgian block paving stones that went into the creation of Belvedere Castle (and elsewhere).
“This is the best thing I’ve done in my life,” says Linda Lewis, Szabo’s longtime next-door neighbor and partner in the project. The informal team of two doesn’t use titles, but Lewis describes herself as “A concerned neighbor of Moultrie Street who worked to develop and maintain the area for children to play; for families to have their annual Easter egg hunt; and for mothers to bring children to get a book or game from the free library. And, I love hearing the birds and seeing the deer.”
Beyond the zillion hours of hard work–after their full-time day jobs–Lewis says, “Joe and I developed this area and spent thousands over the years.” We can also verify that Lewis acts as the unofficial archivist tracking progress on the park. Linda produced way more photos than we can include here, but they show the development of Central Park from an out-of-control/nature-without-man thicket to its gradual clearing, sculpting, and building-out. It’s even become a venue for community events.
“The Central Park project is never done, I’ll keep working at it for as long as I live, God willing,” says Szabo on whether the park is ever complete, “I would like to replace the main entrance with something more substantial. I’m thinking about the arch in Washington Square Park. The Romans built arches just for the hell of it–works for me.”
“I’ll hopefully connect the park to the hillside on Orr Street as Central Park East,” Szabo says of future plans, “This is where Andy Warhol was born. My idea is for a sitting area in a outdoor homage to his studio in SoHo, The Factory. I’m thinking a picnic table by the wall under Kirkpatrick Street, painted silver, and of course many of his silk screens hung on this wall. Andy Warhol’s family lived at 72 Orr Street for his first three years.”
To see Linda Lewis’ before pictures of the space after having experienced it in person is a shocking and awe-inspiring revelation. How could a person look at that untamable mass of bushes and trees, poison ivy and knotweed and think I could turn that into a mini-replica of Central Park?
Ms. Orbit, just as enthusiastic about Szabo’s grand vision, says of this thought process, “That’s the creative spirit in all of us–in order to create magic, sometimes you have to have preposterous instincts. It helps to let go of common sense and reminds us of what any of us can do: we can create magic.”
The term hero gets thrown around a lot–probably way too much; visionary, slightly less so. But to this blogger, no one deserves those descriptors more than folks like Joseph Szabo and Linda Lewis. They’ve spent their precious free time, not to mention money, on a hard, physical, labor-of-love open for all of us to experience. That action converted a neglected hillside into a free-to-all public space virtually from thin air … er, from thick jaggers and stinging nettles. That creation is one full of nature, art, relaxation, and yes, magic.
Szabo’s use-what-you’ve-got aesthetic turned discarded bricks, leftover bathroom tile, and post-renovation kitchen cabinets into a Willie Wonka-goes-back-to-the-land-style fantasy world. If this isn’t the work of real American heroes, you show me what is.
Getting there: Central Park is at the end of Moultrie Street in West Oakland/Uptown. Moultrie can only be accessed from Fifth Avenue. It’s very close to the north end of the Birmingham Bridge and even has a marker on Google Maps.
Who doesn’t like an egg hunt? The literal ones are hard to come by, but luckily we’ve got an inexhaustible supply of figurative eggs to bag.
If you’re The Orbit, one of these hunts puts you on your hands and knees, on someone else’s sidewalk, whisking the effluvia of the streets from the shallow impressions made by the city’s long-gone concrete masons and parsing out their disappearing names.
For Easter this year, we’re going to keep it real simple. The next (perhaps final?) installment in our continuing series on sidewalk stamps is almost all pictures with none of the boring blah blah blah to wade through. Honestly, there’s just not that more to say on this subject and we know our busy readers have bunnies to rustle and glazed hams to consume.
Happy Easter, y’all!
Tory Baiano, Greenfield
E. Putch, Oakland
Edward W. Putch, Concrete Construction, Oakland
Guy Orlando, Oakland
Jos. Crimeni Paving, Oakland
John Ferrante, Shadyside
August Didiano Construction Inc., Friendship [photo: Paul Schifino]
More accurately, he’s likely left Pittsburgh entirely*. The possibility also exists that the young “postal slap” artist who decorated the lamp posts and traffic signage of central Oakland over the past year has just moved on to another less public hobby. But we doubt it.
Cap Man #10, Neville St.
Let’s back up. Over the summer, we reported on the serial application of hand-created Sharpie-on-postal label artworks throughout the greater Craig Street and Forbes Ave. area of Oakland. A lot of folks use this medium, but few work in portraiture. [See “Going Postal: Cap Man Fever”, Pittsburgh Orbit, June 11, 2017.] These little sticker pieces were committed by an unknown, anonymous artist who appeared to be (perhaps overly) obsessed with literally plastering his face all over town.
No sooner had we published our second, tangentially-related story [“Going Postal: Rogues Gallery”, Pittsburgh Orbit, July 30, 2017] than a new salvo of Cap Man (self-)portraits began appearing, including a nice run down mostly-residential Neville Street in Oakland.
Cap Man #9, Neville St.
The image was unmistakably our guy–the same upturned, tagged, and jauntily off-center ball cap; the same flat expression and deep-seated eyes on a familiar young white guy face–so we bagged them. [Observant Orbit readers will note our photographs are from a point after some heavy mid-summer rains soaked the stickers thoroughly, leaving the dried artifacts crinkled, but still color-rich.] Then we waited for more…and waited…and waited.
But, as we learned from the years counting the seconds for Chinese Democracy to drop, there’s a point where it’s healthiest to just let go. This then may be a final goodbye as well as a thankful tribute to Cap Man. For whatever brief period, he made the sidewalks of Oakland a little more interesting and the art of the postal slap a little more creative.
Cap Man #11, Neville Street
So what’s become of Cap Man? Our original hypothesis–a Pitt student who slapped his way across Oakland in the daily commute from a bus stop on Fifth and/or Craig Street to his campus classrooms–still holds water. Perhaps even more so, considering the termination of the ink portraits roughly coincides with the end of the university’s summer term.
That said, it’s safe to say there’s a fair chance we’ll just never know what was up with this dude. Cap Man may well have taken his business or computer science degree back to Philadelphia, New York, or Washington, D.C. and is now safely installed running the numbers or pushing digits far from the telephone poles of central Oakland and the bus shelters of Bloomfield. Hopefully he’s still got his collection of Sharpies and they’re not just used for addressing large packages and system diagraming on large conference room brainstorming tablets.
Wherever you are and whatever you’re up to, godspeed, Cap Man.
Cap Man #12, Forbes Ave.
* A little gender assumption here, yes, but as explained in the earlier post, Pittsburgh Orbit believes these are self-portraits of a young man.
Tiny one-of-a-kind artworks decorate a bus shelter, steel light poles, a cross-walk signal, and the back sides of street signs. Pictured on them are the faces of fading-from-memory pop culture figures, a couple buxom babes, and a kind of high school outsider iconography we hope is never lost. More than any other subject, though, are the bad guys.
The little ink portraits, drawn in heavy black felt tip on repurposed U.S. Postal Service “228” sticky-back shipping labels, are never signed. That said, the common medium, subjects, style, and presentation locale, lead us to believe they’re all the work of a single actor. The fact that new pieces just stopped all at once earlier this year suggests the artist has moved-on–either to other media or, more likely, literally out of the greater Bloomfield-Oakland area where all these examples were spotted.
Mug shot, Bloomfield
Rogues gallery, Bloomfield
We don’t know who did these, but we’ve watched enough Luther and The Fall to consider ourselves well-prepped for psychological profiling. The subject matter here–kitschy demi-celebrities Gary Coleman, Rodney Dangerfield, and Moe from the Three Stooges, the skull-and-headphones of a Hot Topic silk screen, and criminal anti-heroes like Al Capone and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz–just feels a little too on-the-nose to deny. We’re definitely making an assumption, but this is the work of young man.
Skull & headphones, Oakland
Head in hands, Bloomfield
The other thing we’ve got on this theory is “Cap Man“. Our story on the string of (apparent) self-portraits committed in awfully-similar medium and style ran earlier this year. In that, we saw the same “postal slaps”–also penned in black Sharpie, stuck to street signs in the vicinity of Craig & Forbes–very close to all of the Oakland specimens here. The Cap Man drawings, however, are not based on previously-published photos, but rather appear to be self-portraits of a young, white, ballcap-wearing male.
Rappin’ Rodney Dangerfield, Oakland
Whatchutalkinbout, Orbit? Gary Coleman, Oakland
What became of Cap Man? In the earlier piece, we theorized that he’s a bus rider, taking the 54C from Bloomfield to Oakland–perhaps even drawing his portraits right there in the back seats, his telephone and Google Images as visual reference, one-a-day on the short 10-minute ride.
If so, his destination was likely central Oakland and Studentland, U.S.A. If so, he’s got umpteen different explanations for taking his big markers home for the summer and allowing the post office to restock its supply of blank shipping labels. Maybe–just maybe–Cap Man will return for another season of infrastructure decoration in the fall.
All these years wasted! A lifetime, really. Day after day, week after week, month after month rolling around with neither goal nor focus. Eyes dawdling in every direction but down! Into electrical wires, on the backsides of buildings, caught in treetops, telephone poles, and up in the clouds. Regrets: yeah, we’ve had a few.
Sure: we’d seen sidewalk/mason stamps before, but they never really occupied prime territory in this blogger’s dog-eared and ill-folded mental map. Maybe it was just plain not paying attention or the willful ignorance of avoiding their alluring street-level stare. Either way, the city’s concrete masons never made that great of an impression on us [har har]. That was, however, until Orbit reader Larry Kramer came into our life with his post-Easter walk-through on the year-round egg hunt that is stamp collecting.
Didiano Bros. Cement Contr., Lawrenceville
Jos. Lucente & Son, Gen. Cont., Lawrenceville
Larry’s piece was a great beginner’s guide to the greatest hits–plus a few deep cuts/one-hit-wonders–of Pittsburgh sidewalk-laying history. Di Bucci, Pucciarelli, Baleno, Ciriello–these are the Beatles, Stones, Michael Jackson, and Prince (respectively) of local cement work. You’ll come to recognize their tell-tale signature shapes from any distance–across the street or cruising by in a two-wheel, slow-motion neighborhood drag.
A little tip: don’t get too excited when you bag your first diamond-shaped Santo–it’s about as hard to find as Best of Bread or Whipped Cream and Other Delights at any thrift shop–and worth the same fifty cents. In just a few short months, we’ve developed a whole new outlook on life and a more discerning palate in this most al fresco of dining experiences.
Neno Colucci Cement Contractor, Lawrenceville
Didiano, Lucente, Colucci, Palmieri, Ciummo, Pollice. It’s a stereotype, for sure, but the names–which read like a passenger manifest on a one-way liner from Naples to Ellis Island–don’t lie. Italian-Americans poured a lot of concrete in Pittsburgh over the last century and still seem to dominate the business today. After you bag all the big-name repeat offenders, it’s these other smaller-scale, long-gone operators who may only have a handful of remaining stamps that keep the hunt alive and exciting.
Ciummo Bros., Friendship
There seems to be very little documentation on the computer Internet of this particular underfoot history–and most of that comes from some pretty rinky-dink sources. From what we can tell, though, the legacy of sidewalk stamps has some unique cultural differences based on what part of the country was having their pedestrian paths prepped.
D. Pollice & Sons General Contractor, Oakland
Jos. Crimeni Paving, Oakland
Here in Pittsburgh, the obvious thematic threads between our stamps are that they include the surnames of (mostly Italian) individual contractors, (seven-digit) phone numbers, and (often) extra business info squeezed in, ex: Cement Contr., Gen. Con., Landscaping & Construction. Our stamps are never dated. (Sigh–that would be so interesting!)
Other cities like Vancouver and Milwaukee have made dating the concrete pour the primary stamp. In Corvallis, Oregon the system was to include street name, contractor, and year of installation, but with a standard form and typeface (if it can be called that) containing no individual flourish. In the latter case, every (known) stamp in town seems to have been impressively mapped and labeled. There are other blog entries documenting small collections from Los Angeles, Oakland/Berkeley, Denver, and Chicago–but there’s just not that much interest out there.
Dormont Concrete Co., Oakland
The new school. Depressingly sterile in their oblong, bloated rectangle shape and factory-set letters, it’s still great to see today’s masons leave their mark–and phone number–in their work…the stamps are just not as attractive or interesting.
Nick Scotti (whose unique diamond-shaped six-sider was included in Larry’s piece) shows up with two different new-fangled stamps. The “Concrete Man” of Verona and Antonio DiFiore are working with similar off-the-shelf models. Vento Landscaping & Construction obviously paid for a nicer, custom design.
Vento Landscaping & Construction, Friendship
Nick Scotti concrete contr., Bloomfield
Nick Scotti, Cement Contr. (hand-written phone number), Oakland
Concrete Man, Friendship
Antonio DiFiore, General Contr., Morningside
Finally…these are pretty neat, but there must be more of the really cool metal plaques that Larry mentioned, right? You bet your big brass there are! We’re working on a follow-up that will include the really old-school inset pieces along with some of the other oddball stamps and things we’ve found. That’ll be up….sometime.
Got a tip on an unrecognized stamp? A suggestion of an impression? We’d love to hear about it.
The ball cap is cocked high, resting on the back of the head at a jaunty just-off-center angle. Its bill is pure black, minus a small rectangular label on the inside brim. When you can see the man’s eyes, they stare directly back with a cold, dispassionate expression. More often, though, they’re shrouded in the heavy shadows cast by his supraorbital ridge.
Cap Man–our name for this anonymous figure–is the subject of a series of tiny artworks currently on view for a limited time* in the general vicinity of Craig Street and Forbes Avenue in Oakland. You’re going to have to work a little to find them.
Cap Man #1, Forbes Ave.
Cap Man #2, Craig Street
Both the medium and presentation for the Cap Man portraits are as DIY and proletariat as they come–thick black felt tip ink drawn on repurposed U.S. Postal Service “228” priority mail labels. The little stickers have been peeled off and applied haphazardly to a free publication bin, an electrical box, street poles, and–clearly the venue of choice–the back sides of metal street signs.
Cap Man’s creator certainly isn’t the first to use this medium. Alternately going by the general term sticker art or the more specific postal slaps, you’ll see similar pieces littering mailboxes and light poles all over the city and (apparently) across the country. Typically, though, they’re filled with either bright big-lettered tags that look like studies for future spray paint work or blunt messages like the series of FUCK TRUMP stickers around town. The Cap Man original ink portraits are something a little more interesting.
Cap Man #3, Craig Street
Cap Man #4, Bellefield Ave.
We don’t know who this person is–either artist or subject. It’s probably safe to assume, though, that the two are one in the same–self-portraits of a young man on the move. The angle of the image seems to suggest the artist is working from a lap-held mirror, or (more likely) his phone.
A theory: The proximity of where the stickers have been left suggests the possibility the perpetrator is riding the bus to Oakland, getting off at Fifth & Craig (or thereabouts), and then tagging the first bare surface he or she encounters on the ensuing walk down Craig Street and around the corner, heading toward the museum maybe, or Pitt.
In this scenario, the drawings may even be inked right there in the aft seats of the 54C or the 93A, a daily discipline perfect for the 10-minute hands-free commute. The shaky nature of this workspace would also help to explain why a couple of the portraits are clearly off–as if the otherwise competent hand that drew them was jostled mid-stroke…but this may just be a romantic pipe dream from a blogger who reads too many detective stories.
Cap Man #5, Forbes Ave.
Cap Man #6, Forbes Ave.
Let’s face it: ball caps look pretty dumb on anyone who’s not either twelve years old or actively playing baseball at that moment. That said, we’re glad Cap Man has given his stark two-tone/big negative space portraits something distinctive to, uh, hang his hat on. As a visual element, it makes his head stand out, provides structure, and frames the top of the drawings. It also provides a nice thematic grouping for the current exhibition in Oakland.
We suspect Cap Man’s old-school selfies aren’t the only street-facing work of this artist. Bloomfield is currently host to another pretty distinct series of postal slaps that look like they may have come from the very same hands. That, however, is a subject for another post on another day. Until then, a tip of the hat to you, Cap Man, it’s been a good time finding your tiny pictures.
Cap Man #7, Forbes Ave.
Cap Man #8 (detail), Schenley Plaza
* Limited, but unspecified: sunlight, rain, or graffiti cleanup efforts will eventually claim these pieces.
What’s not to like? Fresh-baked bread–right out of the oven–some kind of sauce, a lake of molten cheese. There are umpteen different things you can throw on top for more flavor–and each one has its defenders and cynics–but these are almost superfluous. Pizza–Hot, Fresh, & Delicious, as if the standard-issue paperboard box needed to remind us of it–is (unofficially) America’s national dish.
Pizzerias are a classic formula that’s never needed to be updated–order a single cut for a quick lunch or a whole pie for a group dinner. They get dressed-up in fancy toppings and elaborate food narratives one day, but it still tastes great as greasy street food the next. Pizza places are future-proof: utilitarian as gas stations and lusty as saloons. No one wants Internet pizza.
All that said, not every pizza joint is going to have the long-term endurance of Beto’s or P&M. So on this Pi Day, we celebrate some of the fallen soldiers on pizza’s long campaign to win the hearts, minds, waistlines, and cholesterol counts of America. Buon appetito!
Venice Pizza I, Lawrenceville
Venice Pizza II, Lawrenceville
Astro Pizza, East Liberty
Potenza Pizza & Pasta, North Oakland
Pizza Bear, DeSalla’s, Allentown
 The United States has no official “national dish”. The obvious rivals for this title–hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie, and the like–could make strong counter-arguments, but this blogger thinks you’re fooling yourself if you buy them.
 That’s Amore pizza now occupies this building, but the obvious paint-over of the Venice name still qualifies the original tenant as ghost pizza.
 We can’t be sure the storefronts in Clairton and Monongahela were pizzerias, but the tell-tale green/white/red color scheme suggests they were either that or more full-on Italian restaurants.
 An Orbit reader from Allentown informs us that “DeSalla’s is not closed!” That may be true, but it sure looked like it the day we were there and they’ve got a prominent For Sale sign in the window, which suggests it won’t be long either way.
Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Oakland
“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”
The speaker [I’m afraid I was moving too fast to get any names] is a genial, middle-aged man leaning up against a plain white passenger van that sports a glorious gold-painted menorah on its roof. Across the middle of the piece is a placard with stenciled letters: Happy Chanukah. The ornament is clearly custom-crafted and has sibling menorahs of the same exact design on dozens of other vehicles across the lot.
“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”
When you start ogling menorahmobiles–vehicles decorated with oversize ornamental electric menorahs for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah–you’ll find there are four basic models, distributed in roughly equal proportions.
There’s the plastic, light-up magnetic roof-topper made by Magnet Menorah. It basically looks like a similar-sized adjunct to the delivery car for a corporate pizza chain, only it’s got the image of nine candles, a phalanx of dreidels, a pile of gelt (gold coins), and the scrolled text Happy Chanukah in place of the Domino’s or Pizza Hut logo. This one may satisfy obligations–and is certainly convenient with minimums of both muss and fuss–but it’s got no soul. I was told “Those don’t count” by one, and even as both novice and outsider, I have to agree.
“Those don’t count.” magnet menorah by Magnet Menorah
Also commercially available is the competing, stainless steel model from CarMenorah.com. It features the eight daily Chanukah candles (each a separate, switchable LED light), four angled outward in one direction and four in the other, plus the tall center shamash. This design doesn’t have the convenient magnets, but it’s mounted to a roof-spanning bar that lashes discreetly for a nice tight side-to-side presentation. CarMenorahs come with one of a few optional professionally-printed wrapper-bases with messages like Happy Chanukah and Chabad wishes you a Happy Chanukah.
Simply by virtue of its choice in materials, CarMenorah’s design looks a lot nicer than the light-up plastic taxi topper offered by Magnet Menorah, but it still lacks any real individuality.
Stainless steel and LED CarMenorah.com design
Once you get past these mail-order, pre-fab car menorahs, we get to the good stuff.
Many vehicles feature menorahs with the same overall design as the CarMenorah piece, but built of wood on a 2×4 base rather than pre-assembled stainless steel. The more up-to-date of these include switchable LED lights; others had old-school tiny incandescent bulbs. Each set seems to have included a good-sized blank white board with room enough for the family to create their own custom messages across each side. Many simply pulled out the stencils and colored-in Happy Chanukah, but we also saw the additions of floral artwork, 8 Great Nights, and one pan of frying latkes.
Wooden menorahs make for 8 great nights!
Thanks a latke, menorahmobile!
Finally, there is a particularly unique-to-Pittsburgh design that stands (literally) above all other car menorahs. Constructed of stout PVC pipe, spaced and jointed at 45-degree angles, and connected to a base spanning the width of the roof of a car, these menorahs extend probably 30 inches off the vehicle’s roof. A switch array connects the nine candle lights to the vehicle’s cigarette lighter. These menorahs become glorious headdresses to the otherwise plain Maximas and Odysseys they adorn.
Aside from the clever ingenuity of these materials, the PVC menorah wins on both simple elegance and sheer grandeur of its design. The menorah alone, spray-painted silver with no other adornment, is a striking and beautiful sight–the automobile underneath becomes but a humble pedestal for such interesting rolling modern sculpture.
PVC car menorah, electrical pole not included
If the spectator wants to see the full panoply of menorahmobiles, ground zero is Chabad of Pittsburgh’s Grand Menorah Parade. This year, it was held on Dec. 28, the fifth day of Chanukah. Detail-focused Orbit readers will note many photos included here have five bulbs lit and three dark.
The parade group assembles in the big back parking lot of Rodef Shalom Temple in Oakland and let this blogger tell you: it’s menorahmobiles as far and wide as the eye can see. Any lapse in reporting on this story can be blamed on the simple overwhelming number of subjects to try to catch, photograph, and say hello to in the midst of rapidly-diminishing daylight and the parade group’s imminent takeoff.
Street menorahmobile, Squirrel Hill
One on the street and one in the driveway. Squirrel Hill.
While fans can bag a virtually unlimited number of menorahmobiles in the setup for the parade, it’s also great to spot them “in the wild”. For the eight days of Chanukah, jaunts down the residential streets of Squirrel Hill will yield cockscombed Corollas and mohawked minivans casually parked on curbsides and driveways throughout.
* * *
One final thought: While this exercise was enlightening and fun, ultimately we found ourselves wishing the vehicle owners put more emphasis on creativity and individuality than simply selecting one of four off-the-shelf models. Menorahs come in infinite fantastic and original designs and have been a common subject for Jewish artists forever. Of course the roof of an automobile imposes some practical limitations to what the car’s owner can do, but I bet the community would come up with some really incredible creations if just given a little bit more of a prompt.
Lineup for the Grand Menorah Parade at sundown, Rodef Shalom, Oakland
Last week marked the one year anniversary ofSusan Michelle Hicks‘ death. This blogger didn’t know her personally, but Ms. Hicks was “friends of friends” who commuted–and was killed–riding her bicycle on a stretch of Forbes Avenue in Oakland where I ride all the time. Quite literally, it could have been me.
Very near the tragic spot where Ms. Hicks died, just across the street from Dippy the Dinosaur and the Carnegie Music Hall, is a so-called “ghost bike” memorial. Chained to the pole of a stout street lamp, it’s a decommissioned older bicycle, painted completely white, draped in flowers, ribbons, personal messages, and a strand of solar-powered lights. A felt-tipped pen left on the seat invites visitors to ink inscriptions to the fallen–many have done so.
The effect of seeing the Hicks ghost bike–or any other–is incredibly moving. It’s both beautiful and haunting, arresting, sombre, and reverent. It’s also encouraging that this obviously-un-sanctioned memorial has been allowed to remain intact; city works crews choosing to leave it alone–now, for over a year–in this very public, well-travelled spot instead of treating it as an act of litter or vandalism.
Statistically, Pittsburgh is among the very safest U.S. cities to be a bicycle rider/pedestrian. This is, perhaps, surprising given our severe infrastructure challenges, but according to some numbers collected by Bike PGH, the city’s rate of 1.8 fatalities per 10,000 commuters is way down the list of American cities. As comparison, the bottom of the collection contains Ft. Worth, Detroit, and Jacksonville, all with an average of 40 to 50 fatalities on the same scale.
That said, it’s sadly no surprise this particular tragedy happened in the heart of Oakland. Any Pittsburgh cyclist will tell you what a nightmare it is to navigate the neighborhood on two wheels. It’s nearly impossible to feel safe riding from, say, Neville to Atwood, or CMU to Pitt without either breaking some kind of law or going way out of your way–and this is a part of town with 40-some thousand college students! I get mad at the kids riding on sidewalks, but what alternative do they have?
Anti-Uber sign, Oakland
On a recent ride home from work, I came across a batch of wooden signs nailed to telephone poles. On each was a hand-scripted message: Are we the last generation who learns to drive? read one on Craig Street, and Humans crave community, not isolation another. The messages continued in Bloomfield: Automation smothers natural beauty and awe and Deep in your humanness, your heart longs not to be mechanized.*
If you’ve spent any time in the East End over the last half year, you know where these are coming from. Uber self-driving cars are being tested all over the city–we see them every day**. It’s a technology that’s not without controversy, but surprisingly little considering the potential societal implications. Overall, opinion has felt more like a collective ho-hum.
Uber self-driving cars testing in Pittsburgh [photos, clockwise from top left: P. Worthington, M. Hertzman, A. Hoff, K. Barca]
The full point of these guerrilla signs is not entirely clear, but each contains Uber’s name in a crossed-out circle. We can assume the opposition to the ride-sharing company is the anonymous sign-poster’s major thesis, but there are also messages around community, beauty, and “humanness”.
Is Uber being accused of colossal corporate takeover? Or is the issue that they’re developing self-driving technology? Assuming the latter, how does changing the way a car navigates “smother natural beauty and awe”? [We did a pretty good job of this way before Uber came along.] Plenty of people drive alone every day–why do these vehicles create any more isolation than any other solo car trip?
If we’re worried about the number of Uber (and other) human drivers who may be put out of work by this technology, that’s legit. But let’s not assume that’s the only sociological possibility for self-driving vehicles. There is the very real likelihood that autonomous cars will be much safer on the road than humans. They certainly won’t drive drunk or fall asleep at the wheel. They won’t show off to impress the girls in the back seat and won’t take their eyes off the road when their phones light up. There are a whole lot of people with disabilities who can’t wait for an alternative to Access.
Anti-Uber sign, Bloomfield
Bicycle riders are not saints. There are a lot of dangerous people out there, and we come across them every day–treating sidewalks as bicycle lanes, recklessly jack-rabbiting through traffic, ignoring traffic lights, signaling, and stop signs. Cyclists who take off without a helmet or foregoing lights in the dark are just plain foolish.
These are condemnable actions that frankly burn this biker’s breeches–you guys give us all a bad name! That said, it’s nothing compared to the regular behavior we see from drivers toward cyclists. I’ve never been hit by a vehicle driven by a computer; the same can’t be said for humans. In my years (ahem, decades) on two wheels, I’ve been spit on, had trash thrown at me, yelled-at, cat-called, and aggressively hip-greased more times than I can recall. Drivers routinely drift absent-mindedly, park in bicycle lanes, and wildly swing open their parked doors without first consulting their mirrors. While driving, they eat and drink, talk on the phone, apply lipstick in the rearview mirror, and, of course, are constantly texting.
Given all this, I’ll take my chances with the robots. If they’d been deployed to Oakland last year at this time, maybe Susan Hicks would still be with us and on the road today.
Ghost bike for Susan Hicks, Oakland
* If anyone has seen more of these, we’d love to know about them.
** So far, always with a human in the driver’s seat.