Step Beat: Talking Missed Connections and Mis.Steps with Ms. Steps

bent street sign for the intersection of Lappe Lane and Shirls Street with downtown Pittsburgh in the distance

Only the street sign remains: where Lappe Lane used to end at Shirls Street, Spring Hill

Lappe Lane is one of the more fascinating throughways you’re likely to travel. Roughly equal parts city steps, paved road, and (non-existent) “paper street,” Lappe begins down in Spring Garden and then runs straight up and over the hill, back down the other side, through a cemetery (though you wouldn’t know it), and just keeps going.

If you like hiking the steps, there’s a decent chance you’ve already climbed Lappe Lane’s lower flights where the stairs intersect Spring Garden Ave. or Goehring Street and continue up to Yetta and St. John’s Cemetery at the top of the hill. These early sections offer great options to what entry-level step trekkers are after–steep vertical ascents, great city views, kooky between-house catwalks, and lots of nice here-to-theres with alternate options to get back down the hill.

Even so, you’ve probably never made it up here, where we are, at the very end. And that’s because–like some twisted Zen koan–even where Lappe Lane finally ends, it doesn’t actually go there.

hillside with staircase overgrown with weeds, Pittsburgh, PA

Lappe Lane, from South Side Ave. to Fabyan Street, Spring Hill

Laura Zurowski has an ambitious goal: visit and document every one of Pittsburgh’s seven hundred and thirty-nine (known) sets of public steps. As if all the navigating, stair-climbing, and list-checking-off weren’t enough, Zurowski’s Mis.Steps project gets even more complicated. No mere exercise/sight-seeing venture, each and every steps visit is followed by an additional mixed media exploration via old-school/pre-digital instant photography, short prose, colored sidewalk chalk, print-making, and final distribution via the computer Internet.

We’ll get to all this. Today, though, we’re just trying to locate the very last two flights of Lappe Lane, at the far north end of Spring Hill.

woman taking photograph of weed-covered set of public stairs in Pittsburgh, PA

In the weeds: Laura Zurowski with her Polaroid Spectra 2 camera

“Pittsburgh chose me,” Zurowski says of her relocation from Providence, by-way-of upstate New York. The decision came six years ago alongside the desire to own a home in a place she could pursue more creative projects. “I asked myself, ‘What do I want life to be?’ and the answer was that I wanted to be open to ideas; to have a more robust, creative existence.”

The interest in the city steps only came some time after the move. Seeing the volume of empty houses in Pittsburgh was new, startling, and inspirational–but also melancholy. “Every one of those (abandoned) homes contained people’s lives, so seeing them empty is really sad,” Zurowski says, “With the steps–even if they’re in bad condition–I never feel sad like I do with empty houses.”

That, coupled with Bob Regan’s Orbit essential The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City (The Local History Company, 2004) was enough to send Zurowski on her mission.

woman marking public steps with sidewalk chalk

Chalk it up: Zurowski tags another completed set of steps with a Polaroid-sized chalk square.

We see one small boarded-up home, but for the most part, the houses on this block all appear both lived-in and loved. Lappe Lane’s thirty-or-so steps starting from South Side Ave. [Mis.Steps Trip #109] are easy enough to spot. There is no street sign at this intersection, but a familiar pair of red-brown handrails reaches out of the hillside and right down to the edge of the quiet residential road.

But try walking up these stairs and you’re quickly ensnared in wild jumble of weedy overgrowth, thorny bramble, and whatever those plants are that leave prickly stickers on your socks and pant legs. Even half-way up the short flight, it’s obvious you’ll not be going far. One of the uphill homeowners has–perhaps, illegally–built an elaborate A-frame treehouse directly blocking the public right-of-way. Even if someone wanted to, no one’s going anywhere on these steps.

Polaroid photo of overgrown city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Trip #109: Lappe Lane – S. Side Ave. Polaroid [photo: Laura Zurowski]

Zurowski fights her way through the thicket of tall grass, up past the first plateau, and on until nearly swallowed by the plant kingdom. There’s a shrugged acceptance this is far as these particular steps will allow, an untangling from the jaggers, careful descent back to the landing, and then hands dart into the backpack for the Polaroid camera. The single picture–there is only one per set of steps–is taken in an instant.

“My friend who’s a photographer said, ‘You’re going to have a really hard time coming up with 739 ways to take pictures of stairs’,” Zurowski says, “And it would be hard if they were all the same–but I haven’t come across two sets that look alike.”

“I look at the Polaroid [photos] like they’re portraits of people,” Zurowski continues, “If I were going to give human-like qualities to the steps, what would they be like? Hopefully the Polaroid captures the essence of what each flight of steps is all about.”

Polaroid photo of public staircase with trees and house behind

Late summer scene: Polaroid from Trip #61 – Harpster Street, Oct. 2017, Troy Hill [photo: Laura Zurowski]

The instant photograph is ejected from the camera, rested on a stair tread, and then the journals come out. There are two of them: one for “field notes”; the other, narrative impressions. With each visit, Zurowski includes a short meditation on the scene, which will be used later on.

Zurowski scratches a rough square, just about the size of a Polaroid picture, with sidewalk chalk on one of the stair risers. Mis.Steps super fans are undoubtedly taking selfies with chalk squares around town right now. Finally, the iPhone is used to snap one last picture summing up the whole scene.

With that, we’re on to Trip #110–the very end of Lappe Lane, just up the hill from where we are now. Here, Zurowski will do it all over again, but, just like every other one of those 739 sets of steps, this one is completely different from the one we just saw. For one, there aren’t any steps here (anymore).

autumn leaves on long set of public steps in Pittsburgh, PA

A blast of autumn past: Mis.Steps summary photo (including Polaroid and chalk square) from Trip #68 – Basin Street, Troy Hill/Spring Garden, Oct. 2017 [photo: Laura Zurowski]

That’s a lot of process–but it ain’t over yet! Back home, Zurowski completes the cycle with the publishing of each Mis.Steps adventure every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The narrative is honed, the Polaroid digitized, and the pairing of image + words goes out to the world via the Mis.Steps’ blog, Instagram, and Craig’s List “Missed Connections” page. That’s right: between “Kinky Dom Roleplay – m4m (Canonsburg)” and “Thanks for the hot time – m4m (McKeesport)” there’s a little story and photo about listening to birdsongs on the Morningside Avenue steps.

Risograph print of a Polaroid photo showing public stairs with a woman leaning on handrail

#20 Diulius Way, Central Oakland. Risograph print by Jimmy Riordan.

I know what you’re thinking: All this sounds great, but there’s nothing to hang on my wall or swap with friends! That’s where you’re sorely mistaken. Conveniently, Mis.Steps has taken the whole project out of the aether and fed it through a 1980s-era technology at the hands of Braddock printer Jimmy Riordan.

The result is a hard copy series of “trading cards” that further abstract the original murky Polaroid into ghostly, high-contrast 3-color art prints. In addition to the photographic image, the cards contain the Mis.Steps index number, street and neighborhood names, location, step count, and the city’s construction date (if known) on the front and the narrative text on the back. Card collections are available from the Mis.Steps website and Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill.

collage of nine Risograph prints made from Laura Zukowski's steps photos

No two alike: various Mis.Steps Polaroid-sized Risograph trading cards printed by Jimmy Riordan

If it’s not obvious yet, Laura Zurowski really loves Pittsburgh’s city steps–Orbit readers know we share an opinion on this matter. “If there’s an underlying goal,” Zurowski says of the Mis.Steps project, “It’s to get people to visit the stairs. I’d like to encourage people to look around, to check out other parts of the city, and to become connected with their neighborhoods.” We couldn’t agree more.

woman at top of long set of public stairs looking at a view of downtown Pittsburgh, PA

Route with a view: Zurowski at the top of the Vinial Street steps, part of the “Spring Garden Stair Stepping” event, Troy Hill

Still not enough Mis.Steps for you? Well, you’re in luck. Zurowski has teamed up with Threadbare Cider for a series of combined guided city step hikes and cider house tours/tastings dubbed Spring Garden Stair Stepping (and Cider Sipping). You’re probably too late for today’s kick off hike–and it sold out way ahead of time anyway–but there will be a couple more chances with repeat events April 15 and May 20.

Look Out Loretto, Part 2: He’s Dead, Wrapped in Plastic

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown (detail)

He stands bolt upright, looking straight into the camera. The man is young–probably in his early twenties–dressed formally in jacket and tie with a corsage pinned to the lapel. Black hair is combed flat and parted hard to one side with a pair of troublesome locks springing loose across the forehead just above his eyebrow. The facial expression is curious: fixed formal, let’s-get-this-right sternness appears just on the edge of breaking to a suppressed, forbidden smile. This may have been his wedding day.

The small rectangular photograph is preserved in thick, transparent violet-hued Lucite and has one transverse crack across the man’s chest. A handful of small dings decorate the surface as if an assailant has taken to it with a crude weapon but gave up before doing any real damage. Otherwise, it is in fine shape.

The combined piece is about the size of a deck of playing cards and mounted to a beautiful marble headstone featuring Jesus on the cross, a pointed arch shape like a cathedral window, and a fading old-world cross-and-sun image we’re not familiar with. [Pious Orbit readers: help us out here–what is that thing?]

marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of middle-aged man encased in plastic, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The irony of the photos mounted to headstones at Loretto Cemetery–most preserved on ceramic discs as we discussed in the previous post, but this and one other encased in thick acrylic–is that for so many, we don’t even know the names of the deceased.

What’s unique among the vast majority of photo markers here is the complete absence of identification remaining. At one time, the de rigueur details–name, birth and death dates, perhaps an epitaph or Lahke mu Zamlja inscription–almost surely filled the flat faces of the stones. But now on all but a few, they’ve been completely wiped-clean.

ceramic photograph with image almost completely disappeared on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

How this came to be, we can only speculate on–but that’s what this blogger does best! It seems likely the cause has to do with the underlying material (marble? fieldstone?) and what was literally falling from the sky around Pittsburgh through most of the twentieth century. With the Jones & Laughlin steel mill occupying both sides of the river just downhill from Loretto Cemetery until the 1980s–not to mention plenty more like it up and down each of the rivers–regular doses of acid rain had to do a number on all the headstones made from susceptible materials.

This is a noteworthy turn of the tables for an environment where typically all we know are names and dates, forever left to wonder who these people were.

marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph now broken, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown grave with faded and broken photo

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, broken, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

faded and broken ceramic photo (detail), unknown

In Part 1 of this story we looked at a bunch of these headstone photos where the name of the deceased may or may not be known, but at least we got a pretty good (literal) picture of him or her. In almost all cases the ceramic has weathered with irregular cracking throughout the piece, but the image survives with enough clarity to get a sense of the person below the earth.

Not all these photos fared as well, though. First of all, at this point there are roughly an equal number of empty oval cutouts in headstones where the photos simply don’t exist any more. It’s impossible to know if these were stolen or vandalized or simply dropped out of their markers through a century of freeze-and-thaw cycles.

But even the ones that are still here aren’t necessarily all here. The sun had faded a number of the South-facing photos to mere ghosts represented in strange gray negatives. One of the pieces (above) has been broken with only the bottom half remaining. The detail is all gone, leaving just a vague outline of the woman’s face and basic description of the house dress she wore in the photo.

ceramic photograph with image almost completely disappeared on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

faded ceramic photo, unknown

detail from granite headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of man in military dress, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Joseph Andreucci

Consider the plight of Joseph Andreucci (above) whose loved-ones ponied-up for a beautiful deep red and black granite that never suffered the erosion present on so many of the other stones. All this only to have his photo in military dress attire worn- or scraped-through to the iridescent green of oxidizing copper underneath.

The poor fellow below is not only unknown in name, but unknowable as image. It appears that some miscreant took a hammer directly to the photograph, rendering it completely unrecognizable. All that remains is a hint of combed, dark hair above the damage and a suit with jaunty floral accent below.

ceramic photograph with image vandalized on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

If it’s possible to end both on a high note and six feet under, we’ll wrap this whole thing up with the big smile and voluminous curly locks of Anna Vensak. Her passing in 1996 is decidedly outside of the early century/between-the-wars window where we find all the other headstones in the series. But it seems notable for inclusion by virtue of its proximity here at Loretto Cemetery and the monument-maker’s continued use of the technique–certainly antiquated by the 1990s–deploying the oval-shaped photo, mortared directly to an inset cutout in the stone.

detail of granite headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Anna Vensak

In an age where photographs are so immediate, disposable, and omni-present as they currently are, it’s fascinating to think of a time not that long ago when a single image may be all that remains of the legacy of a human being’s time here on earth. For that one last opportunity to reach beyond this mortal coil to end up cracked, faded out entirely, or lost in the weeds of Arlington Heights is humbling at best and reaches to full-on existential crisis at worst. Either way, The Orbit will still be here, looking out for you.

Look Out Loretto, Part 1: Lahka Mu Zamlja

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of a young girl and baby, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The first thing you’ll notice are the names: Kolesar, Zgurich, Csajka, Lippl, Knezevic. Any cemetery in Pittsburgh–certainly any older cemetery associated with a Catholic parish–will have its share of Eastern Europeans as long-term residents, but this one’s different.

Sure, there’s a couple token Irish and Italian names loitering among the stones–we spotted a Finnegan, a DiBlasio, and an Andreucci–but you’ll not any find any Smith, Jones, Williams, or Davis buried here. Kusmircak, Blosl, Czegan, Fabijanec, and Kuchta are the rule, not the exception.

marble headstone with large cross and embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

Loretto Cemetery rests at the very easternmost end of the big mount that rises above the South Side. Far below, but difficult to see from the steep angle, is an S-shaped crook in the Monongahela as it snakes between Hazelwood and the South Side. It’s an enviable location: quiet, vacant, and with terrific long views across the river to Oakland and Greenfield on the other side.

We hadn’t come here looking for the dead, but any new cemetery is worth a poke-see when you trip across it. When we did, those names–Cvetkovic, Vnencsak, Mlinac, Turkovich, Opacic–just popped right out like candy on the shelf. Something interesting would surely await.

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Toni Poljak

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of baby in high chair, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

That something came in the form of a small black-and-white photograph, cast onto an oval-shaped ceramic disc and inset directly into one of the tower-like headstones. The posed portrait was of a middle-aged woman, “Mother” Antonija Komlenić, Victorian in both high-necked formal dress and dour, no-fun-allowed expression.

The colored mortar used to anchor the piece in stone is half chipped-away, eroded by a century of industrial mill exhaust and harsh Western Pennsylvania weather[1]. The image is all there, but it’s faded and scored by sharp cracks awkwardly bisecting Komlenić’s face and torso.

headstone for Antonija Komlenić, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonija Komlenić

detail of ceramic photograph on headstone for Antonija Komlenić, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonija Komlenić (detail)

Looking around a little closer now, another headstone is embedded with the same kind of oval-shaped photo just steps away. This one features a large man in suit and tie, his head is cocked and he wears a kind of bushy mustache that hasn’t been in vogue for a very long time. Both the deep black of his dress jacket and the shade of the photo’s backdrop have worn away significantly. There’s an angled crack through the ceramic just under the deceased’s chin suggesting a sinister garrote, but the man’s face is calm–bored, even–and remarkably untouched by the hands of time.

Suddenly aware and on the lookout for more, the grave photos are all over–on stones tall and thin, mounted below marble crosses and flat on granite. There may be a couple dozen in total, scattered across the sections closest to Loretto’s entry gate on Devlin Street. At least as many feature an empty cutaway in the stone where the inset image is no longer present; its former tenant stolen or broken, weathered or vandalized long ago.

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of older man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail from headstone reading "Rojan 1893 - Umro 1927 - Lahka mu zamlja", Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Lahka mu Zamlja

Lahka Mu Zamlja (alternately Laka Mu Zemlja), the Internet informs us, is either a Serbian or Croatian (perhaps both?) expression of condolence that translates to “may the black earth be easy on him.” Confirming this with Google translate was not very successful–it came up with preposterous gropes in the dark such as “easy land of mu” or “light mu country”[2]. But as this is likely an arcane idiom, it seems a pretty safe Balkanization of Rest in Peace.

We found this phrase on quite a number of Loretto’s graves, including some of the very ones with the inset portraits. While it’s impossible to know how “easy” the black earth was on each of these folks, the atmosphere above ground has taken varying degrees of torture out on their memorials. The photos here labeled unknown aren’t for lack of note-taking–there simply isn’t any text still readable on the headstones.

weathered marble headstone in the shape of a cross with embedded ceramic photograph of young woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The Orbit has spent considerable time in a whole lot of bone yards over the years and we’ve written quite a bit on the subject already. It’s nothing special to see more recent headstones with all manner of high-tech integral photos, bas reliefs, and digital engravings of the deceased, his or her family, loved ones, hobbies, and The Pittsburgh Steelers. But these hundred-year-old…ish[3] photographs-turned-grave ornaments are new to this blogger. Even if I have encountered other late Victorian/pre-war ceramic photos on headstones before, it certainly wasn’t with the quantity or density found in Loretto.

They’re something special, for sure. For one, simply because of the number that are still here [and that’s even more remarkable by the obvious number that are not]. More than that, though, it may be the context or the unpredictable deterioration they’ve been through, but the people in these photos seem to look right through you with a dark, foreboding wisdom of time and fate.

Old photos are almost always interesting. In these, though, there’s somehow a deeper presence. “Wife” Maria Miklin died in 1941, but her sepia-toned portrait as a young woman–scored, chipped, and cracked across the face and torso–seems to defiantly say is that all you got? Just wait ’til you get here, Jack. Lahka Mu Zamlja, indeed.

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Maria Miklin

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of a woman in bridal gown, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

If existential blogging is what you’re looking for, The Orbit is qualified to satisfy. This whole bag conjured up all kinds of deep thoughts on memory and preservation and forever–luckily, we’ve also got a bunch more interesting photos to back that up. We’ll get to all that in Part 2.

GETTING THERE: Loretto Cemetery is in Arlington Heights and can be reached by going all the way to the east end of Arlington Ave. until it curls around to become Devlin Street. If you want a great hike, though, The Orbit recommends starting on the South Side at the base of the Oakley Way steps and making the journey all the way up and over on foot.


[1] In this case, literally a century; Antonija Komlenić died exactly one hundred years ago, in 1916.
[2] Note to Google: when you get tired of mucking about with driverless cars, see if you can translate “mu” from Croatian!
[3] An incredible number of these headstones have no remaining legible text, but the ones that do date from the 1910s to 1940s.

An Orbit Obit: The Lost Art of Found Photographs

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown girl

You used to find them everywhere. Someone else’s photographs, lost, torn to bits, or simply discarded as substandard. Dropped from wallets, ripped-up in tear-stained anger, fallen from automobile door pockets and sun visors, blown by the wind. Once, an entire paper bag full of slides from a stranger’s family vacation out West.

O, the riches of big box parking lots of yore! Rejected photos were so often immediately jettisoned right onto the lined pavement of the Target or Rite Aid that processed them. You can picture the disgruntled customer flipping through a just-picked-up batch in the front seat of his or her sedan. For every stray finger obscuring the lens or flash that didn’t pop, a picture tossed right out the window. This pre-blogger was even known to rescue misfires directly from photo processing waste bins[1].

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown baby

The Orbit‘s files are stuffed with dozens–probably hundreds–of found photos, but now that the world’s gone digital, we almost never come across them anymore. So that’s what made this recent find such a gas.

Kirsten Ervin[2] occasionally merges civic duty and her daily constitutional with a cleanup of litter found in Lawrenceville’s Arsenal Park. That will make it’s own fine story–hopefully one day appearing on these very virtual pages–but we’ll leave the telling of it to Kirsten. Suffice to say that among the many curiosities that eluded the waste bin and made it home was this collection of photographs.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown boy

What a find indeed! Five wallet-sized color photos, one each of two babies (or, possibly, two photos of the same baby), one boy, and two young ladies of indeterminate age. In each, their time spent outdoors in the elements of Arsenal Park has drastically affected the images[3]. A girl’s posed smile barely visible through a swirl of dreamy fog–her red hair and purple sweater psychedelically lifting and blurring into the background. The pair of infants seem blissfully unaware of an encroaching ooze. The woman’s big grin and shoulder length brown hair the last recognizable elements as her face and torso dissolve into the picture’s white background.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown baby

They’re arresting images, and it’s everything the chase for found photos ever promised. The standard questions are there: who are these people? and how did the photos end up here? But it’s also so much more. The beautiful decay and accidental destruction of the original pictures is lovely and haunting and thoroughly thought-provoking. If these are the last found photos we ever come across, we’ll know we went out with a bang.

water-damaged wallet size photograph of an unknown woman

All photos courtesy of Kirsten Ervin.


[1] Yes, this is kind of cheating, and no, we’re not proud–but this story isn’t about that.
[2] Full disclosure: a full time resident of Chez Orbit.
[3] Cleaning the mud-soaked photographs following their return home may have inadvertently contributed to the image distortion.