Born Again: The Babyland Totems

sculpture of black plaster head with fake white hair and flowers attached to utility pole

street totem by twilight

Those eyes! Wide open, wild as the wind, staring straight back at–no, through–you. The steely glare cuts right into the cold, dark, February night. Evocatively–as if arranged by set designers on a commercial shoot–the ice blue of those peepers echoes the color of rain-slicked Negley Avenue reflecting the deep indigo sky above. It’s only just six o’clock, but it may as well be midnight.

sculpture of black plaster head with flowers attached to wood

bean baggie baby on board

The Babyland Totems don’t always look quite so startling. But even in broad daylight they’re an exciting and unnerving collection of figures to come across purely by accident. Most of the little objets d’art feature plaster cloth-formed humanoid faces, painted either black or brown, and decorated with curly hair, red lips, and, of course, those pale blue eyes.

Each of the softball-sized heads projects from a bundle of colorful fake flowers within a decorative cloth wrap that serves as the little icon’s body. Random accessories–a beanbag, plastic barrettes, a toy army tank–make their appearances, too.

sculpture of black plaster head with fake flowers

verbena tiara

The effect is very much that of the youngest babies, released from the womb, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and surrounded by the magic and love of a new life. It’s hard to tell how content these little fellows are–some appear to be smiling, for sure, but others are mid-scream. We’ve all seen real-life infants taking the same wide range of emotions.

plaster head with fake flowers resting on brick window ledge

window ledge widow’s walk

At the same time, one cannot help but think of these as memorials. Close one eye, tilt your head, and almost every one of the totems takes the form of a simple cross. That familiar shape, the reverent individual attention, and those pink, white, and purple flowers remind us of fresh decorations on grave markers or the all-too-common roadside crosses that appear seemingly out-of-nowhere on the berms of highways and grassy undergrowth along busy through-streets.

The Orbit has spent enough time in and around graveyards to know that grounds crews routinely flush these kinds of plastic flowers–along with the accumulated teddy bears, deflated balloons, and past-date holiday decorations–a couple times a year. If some of Allegheny Cemetery’s fall cleanup ended up here–instead of the landfill–well, we can’t think of a better (re-)use of the material.

skull and bell attached to utility pole

skull’s out for summer

Babyland, the all-things-newborn supply shop, served Pittsburgh’s East End for over sixty years[1]. For anyone who was in the area before, say, the late oughts, you’ll not soon forget the circular cartoonish images of babies pulling their own diapers down that used to decorate the outside brickwork. Those were replaced by actual photos of super cute tykes not too long before the business closed in 2012. The squat retail space at the corner of Penn and Negley has been sitting vacant ever since.

Unlike some places in town, this will inevitably change fast–in fact, it’s amazing the little building at this prominent intersection hasn’t been razed for the next set of Legoland condos or a fluorescent-lit fast casual chain restaurant already. Development has come loud and hard to East Liberty and the Penn Avenue corridor and we all know there’s plenty to memorialize even where it hasn’t actually happened…yet.

sculpture of black plaster head with golden hair and flowers attached to utility pole

totem/pole

The other obvious–and most important–side to all this is the continuing story of displacement and eviction of East Liberty’s population. From the old Babyland location, one merely has to look east, across Negley Ave., to see a completely denuded landscape where the big Penn Plaza apartment complex stood for the last 50 years. The fallow ground is now an otherworldly red-brown as crushed brick mixes roughly 50/50 with barren soil.

Had the Babyland artist wished to eulogize Penn Plaza instead, he or she couldn’t (at least, not in the same way)–there’s nothing left to even hang a piece of artwork on. [In fairness, there is one set of steps, their handrails, and a full perimeter of chain link fence–but you get the idea.]

stairway leading down to large empty lot

former Penn Plaza apartments lot, East Liberty

In the last two years, Penn Plaza has gone from a large, lived-in pubic housing complex to a mountain of upturned brown brick to the big muddy field it is today. For those of us who didn’t live there, the transformation may have been startling, but we see this kind of ruthless, scorched-earth demolition and redevelopment happening all over.

But for the S’Libertarians whose friends and loved-ones moved away, who saw their community disintegrate, or worst of all–personally suffered the loss of a family home–the upscaling/gentrification/whitewashing (take your pick) of East Liberty has got to pack the same savage punch as a hurricane or tornado blowing through other parts of the world, dismembering the lives in its path.

sculpture of black plaster head with plastic toy tank attached to wood

Babyland: tanks for the memories

Without any better information to work from[2], all we can do is speculate and enjoy the Babyland totems while they’re still around–and they probably won’t be here for long. Like the former retail building they’re installed around or the old Penn Plaza apartments, something will take them sooner or later. Whether that’s a designated city clean-up crew, street art souvenir hunters[3], or just a heavy blast of rain, we can’t predict. But it’s another of life’s constant reminders that everything–even a big multistory brick and steel apartment complex–is really just here for a snap of the fingers or a blink of one of those haunting baby blue eyes.

playing cards wrapped in twine hanging from cowbell

the old Babyland, hanging by a thread

A note on the photos: These pictures were all taken on Feb. 13 (daytime) and Feb. 14 (evening), 2018. We have it on good authority that at least one more totem was part of the original installation, but it had disappeared by the time we got on the scene. Within a few days of the 14th, the two pieces from the plywood over Babyland’s Penn Ave. entrance [“bean baggie baby on board” and “tanks for the memories” (our labels), above] were also removed.

sculpture of black plaster head laying on wet sidewalk concrete

head down to Babyland! [4]


[1] “Longtime East Liberty business Babyland to close and move”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 8, 2012.
[2] In the course of reporting this piece, we located the artist who created the Babyland totems and made several offers to discuss the work. The artist declined to be interviewed for this story and since there’s no attribution on the individual pieces, we’ve decided to preserve that anonymity.
[3] The Orbit adheres to a strict code of preservation of street art so we do not condone taking pieces such as these for personal consumption.
[4] After finding this lost noggin on the sidewalk, we did our best to reattach it to the rest of the piece using a twig to join the two. How long that lasted is unknown.

Tin Can Pole Art

tin can lid painted with heart and text "I love you Pittsburgh. Goodbye." nailed to telephone pole. Pittsburgh, PA

“I love you Pittsburgh. Goodbye.” Lawrenceville

Such a lovely farewell kiss. The severed lid from a steel can–it looks like it was from one of the big 28-ouncers like you get tomatoes in–tacked into the rough wood of a Lawrenceville telephone pole. Painted onto the flat surface is a decorative white heart with the simple, touching message I love you Pittsburgh, Goodbye.

Less romantic, hypochondriac Orbit readers may get hung up on the totem as a sharp-edged breeding ground for tetanus–but don’t fall for it. The anonymous artist has left this Easter egg high enough off the street and applied it securely to the pole in a way that no one will be injured, unless they’re really trying. On the contrary, this little rusting love letter may just save a life.

abstract painting on unrolled steel can with message "We gave this place our best shot and no matter what happens now ... it was worth it & we made this work.", Pittsburgh, PA

“We gave this place our best shot and no matter what happens now … it was worth it & we made this work.” Shadyside

rusted tin can with painting of a skull, nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

skull can, Oakland

Someone’s out there, taking those most lethal occupants of the recycling bin and having a fine time dismantling the component parts, flattening them into two-dimensional work surfaces, and turning the little pieces into cryptic pictograms and coded messages, hidden-in-plain-sight curios and tiny objects d’art.

You may have walked by some of these a hundred times and never noticed. At just a couple inches wide, the little artworks are especially well-camouflaged against the deep brown tarred wood of the telephone poles they’re displayed upon, quite often out of eye level at the peak of arms’ reach.

tin can flattened and painted, nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

A Friday night “to-do” list: love, anarchy, the devil, and a martini, Bloomfield

Cut tin can painted with text and nailed to telephone pole. Text reads "Back then, if it exploded, we laughed", Pittsburgh, PA

“Back then, if it exploded, we laughed”, Shadyside

Whether we’re talking about one lone assailant or a whole gang of tin candidates is anyone’s guess. Besides a few name-like tags [J.A.K.; KYT; Nick (damn); Leroy…are these real people?] there is no attribution here to work from.

That said, many of these specimens have common elements. First, let’s just start with the genre. It’s a niche market, for sure–ex-food container nailed to telephone pole. Second, there’s proximity–all the ones we’ve encountered are in the same one or two square miles between East End neighborhoods Shadyside, Bloomfield, Garfield, and Lawrenceville.

Most importantly, though, the apparent paint pens, handwriting, style of dotted lines, arrows, and indecipherable messages is even more precise. Several of the tiny artworks contain the same iconography of a glowing martini glass, heart, anarchy circle-A, and devil figure.

small painting on steel can of devil with the text "I choose...", Pittsburgh, PA

“I choose…”, Shadyside

small painting on steel can with text "to follow my heart...up the mountain, or...", Pittsburgh, PA

“to follow my heart…up the mountain, or…”, Shadyside

There are some definite outliers in the field. Another large can lid spotted in Shadyside is painted with a night scene featuring a blue river valley between green fields and trees (below). The original pastoral feel has now been accidentally transformed into a scarier, menacing landscape as seasons of rust creep through to the surface. It’s also worth noting that this lid was attached with a pair of Phillips-head screws rather than the full-perimeter flat tacks we found on the other pieces.

painting on steel can lid of night landscape, Pittsburgh, PA

night scene with river, trees, and green grass, Shadyside

tin can lid painted with text "Me vs. Time, KYT, '02" nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“Me vs. Time”, Garfield

Lastly, there’s even a sub-genre to this already arch form. In a couple places, we came across the big steel can lids with their flared attachment edges and gaping mouth holes that make them look like absurd anthropomorphized flowers. We imagine these come from five- or ten-gallon bulk-size containers of asphalt sealant or roofing tar–but haven’t actually ID’d them yet.

It’s a considerably larger canvas to work from. The wider-than-the-pole size likewise shouts out at the passer-by, where a soup can is more of a whisper. I’m not sure these two examples (below) tell us much about the form, other than we like the possibilities and we’d love to see more of them in action, out in the wild.

round metal lid painted with long string of text nailed to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

“You spin me right round…”, Duck Hollow

cardboard "Clarence the Bird ... Make the World Beautiful" artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

big lid painting [plus Clarence], Friendship

Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 2: A Beautiful Friendship

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Gross

Nevertheless, the bird persisted.

Call the little guy flighty, fragile, scrawny, left-leaning (or, at least, always left-facing), single-minded–heck, even a broken record! Sure, he could stand to put on a few ounces and what’s with that damn flipper-flapping all the time–give it a rest! Whatever you do, though, you’ll not call Clarence the Bird anything less than thorough.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Stack Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Choate Way

When last we left the little fellow [Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 1: Millvale and Beyond, Pittsburgh Orbit: March 19], Clarence’s spring fever was in overdrive, nesting his feathers and pointing his beak throughout Bloomfield–down Millvale Ave., in the warren of cattywumpus alley-streets west of Edmond, and up by the Penn Avenue Aldi.

Impressive, for sure, but those sightings were merely the appetizer for the grand buffet that is Clarence’s A Beautiful Friendship campaign.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Ella

tiny paper drawing of Clarence the Bird stapled to tree stump, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Ella and Dupont Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dupont Way

From the dense row house heart-of-Bloomfield all the way out to where Friendship Avenue becomes Friendship neighborhood, Clarence has left a bread crumb trail in cardboard and paper stock, fine-tipped ink pen and crude Sharpie. The tiny original artworks have been stapled, tacked, faded, torn, and (I’m sure) disattached and absconded-with. But the pieces still hanging-around–and there are a lot–look great covering (nearly) every single block up and down the long street.

Here then is the latest from The Orbit‘s Clarence Tracker 2000TM logging of Mr. The Bird’s Friendship Avenue activity, starting on the Penn Avenue/Children’s Hospital end and working east as far as South Pacific.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Taylor

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dryden Way

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Dryden Way

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pearl

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pearl

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Edmond

Clarence the Bird original artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship Park

Clarence the Bird original artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Mathilda

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Mathilda and Edmond

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Millvale

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship between Winebiddle and Gross

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Winebiddle (partial)

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Evaline

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship at Pacific

Note: There are even more Clarence the Bird “droppings” on the eastern end of Friendship Ave., between Pacific and Roup (at least), but the ones we found there were previously reported on in our story Birdwatching: Clarence the Bird Watching [Pittsburgh Orbit: Jan. 5, 2017].

Clarence the Bird Takes Bloomfield! Part 1: Millvale Ave. and Beyond

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

South Pacific Ave.

Talk about a one-track mind! Freakin’ Clarence the Bird–him with his beaky-ass schnoz and big pointed wings looking more like fur than feathers. You try changing out of your gym clothes in that get-up–young fowl are merciless! Ah, Hell–he’ll get over it. All the dude has on his tiny noodle is trying to make the world a little nicer place, and he’s not afraid to tell you that…over and over and over again.

Clarence may be thinking big picture, but he sure follows through by, as they say, acting local. Lately, the little guy has been choosing to spend most of his time in just a short one-mile stretch of Bloomfield and on towards Friendship.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

We first caught wind of his latest pole-tagging spree down at the south end of Millvale Avenue, right by Sonny’s Tavern and the bridge to Oakland. It turns out Clarence was working his way north with almost one occurrence every block up to Dog’n’Burger. A second jag took Ol’ Big Wings down Friendship Avenue, even stopping for a tiny taste of sidewalk stump. (A stump!) Yes, a stump. [We’ll get to Clarence’s full-on assault of Friendship Ave. in part 2.]

There’s not a lot more for this blogger to say, except Clarence: we’re with you, dude. Keep on doing your world-beautiful avian thing. We’ll keep looking out for you and you know The Orbit‘s got your little bird back.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

cardboard Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

paper Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Millvale Ave.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Torley Street

cardboard Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Elk Way

Clarence the Bird drawing stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

State Way & Lima Way [note the bonus back yard Marys!]

Clarence the Bird art on telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Edmond Street

All the wing-flapping and telephone pole loitering must work up a mighty hunger–even a tiny bird’s gotta eat too, right? C. the B. must have the same hankering for foo-foo brunch every other hung-over dog-chewed playboy and day-glow choreographer seems to get. Hey–eating seed is for the birds! Whatever.

We spotted a couple-a-three recent-ish Clarences down on Lawrenceville’s main drag, including a pair of very nice two-color (black-and-white) drawings on brown bag (?) and one of his rare, text-only Make the world beautiful signs. Go ahead and get you another plate off the buffet, Your Birdness–it’s been a busy couple months and this gloomy world could use a fresh coat of paint.

"Clarence the Bird" hand-drawn artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Butler Street

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Butler Street

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Butler Street


See also:

Birdwatching, Clarence the Bird Watching

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to wood covering empty storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Avenue, Garfield

Traditional birdwatching likely takes place at a more inviting season. Not only is it nicer for the spectator to be outside in a warmer, drier climate–one filled with the bright colors and in-bloom flora of the other three-quarters of the year–but (we assume) there simply must be a lot more birds to look at.

This blogger imagines typical northern birders–just like baseball fans–consider winter the long dark off-season. Weather and the absence of fowl require avian fanciers to temporarily retire binoculars and sun visors, instead spending their time curled up by the fireplace leafing through back copies of Birder’s World magazine and plotting strategies to snare an up-close photo of the green-winged teal, surf scoter, or greater white-fronted goose when the season turns.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to empty storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Avenue, Garfield

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship Avenue, Friendship

So it’s a right fine unexpected treat to spot the friendly face and outstretched, oversized wings of Clarence the Bird peering back at you as a fellow makes his or her rounds throughout the day. There he is, tacked to a telephone pole on a residential throughway and mingling with the high-minded street art on Penn Avenue.

For the most part, we didn’t get too close. Not wanting to scare poor Clarence out from his various perches, we caught him here in the wild, hiding amongst the traffic signs, crumbling plaster, and effluvia of street handbills and stray graffiti.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to former storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Avenue, Garfield

cardboard sign with pen drawing of a bird and the text "Clarence the Bird...", Pittsburgh, PA

Main Street, Lawrenceville

This blogger knows what you’re thinking: Someone sure missed the memo on that whole flying south for the winter thing, right?

Certainly, even in these darkest, gloomiest, and most dreary of days, Clarence the Bird eschewed a sun-filled January of jello shots in Daytona Beach or working up a savage tan in Belize to instead rest his wings right here at home in the East End. Whether Clarence is a loyal Steeler fan hoping for the best in the playoffs or just too lazy to make the trip south, we don’t know. Either way, we’re betting he’s regretting that decision right about now. That said, The Orbit is selfishly very happy he stuck around.

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Avenue, Garfield

cardboard "Clarence the Bird ... Make the World Beautiful" artwork stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Friendship Avenue, Friendship

Like the Pittsburgh protractors–or men wearing Zubaz–once you start looking out for Clarence, he’s everywhere. On cardboard with crude Sharpie and in fine lines on card stock and curlicues, Clarence gets around. This most urban of avian creatures loves to nest in the protective plywood covering abandoned store fronts on Penn Avenue, mingling with wheat pasted street art and course slurred graffiti. On one Main Street pole, Clarence isn’t even present but has left us a bold-faced title card with his name followed by a tantalizing ellipsis begging the question where is Clarence the Bird and what is he up to?

Clarence the Bird artwork among collage on empty storefront, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Avenue, Garfield

cardboard sign with the words "Clarence the Bird..." stapled to telephone pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Main Street, Lawrenceville

The last time we crossed paths with Mr. The Bird he was urging us to Make the World Beautiful in three of four consecutive Butler Street telephone pole hang-outs. After migrating up the hill to greater Garfield/Friendship*, Clarence seems to have both cloned himself many times over and abandoned the explicit message almost entirely. [The one photo included above is the only exception we spotted.]

While this blogger still agrees with the sentiment–and misses Clarence’s fine calligraphy in the inscription–it’s safe to say that actions speak louder than words and Clarence is out there doing his best to decorate the landscape without ever having to brag about it. You go, bird!

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to info kiosk, Pittsburgh, PA

Fourth Presbyterian Church, Friendship

Clarence the Bird artwork stapled to info kiosk, Pittsburgh, PA

Fourth Presbyterian Church, Friendship (detail)


* The way Lawrenceville rents are going, we can’t blame the guy.

Put Clarence the Bird On It

ink on cardboard street art of a bird with the text "Clarence the Bird...Make the world beautiful", Pittsbugh, PA

Out and about, on our way to something-or-other. Yet another spectacular non-winter day in the middle of February. Then, from nowhere, a hand-inked and slightly-weathered swath of grainy card stock, crudely stapled to a telephone pole. On it, the image of a fluttering fantasy bird–a long beak, gloriously-oversized wings pitched high in mid-flutter, and a preposterous dangling tail feather. Bloggers with less couth would suggest this bird is a pimp. The calligraph Clarence the Bird…Make the World Beautiful frames the fine creature.

ink on cardboard street art of a bird with the text "Clarence the Bird...Make the world beautiful", Pittsbugh, PA

We pull out the trusty electronic image-preserver, do our duty, and continue on down Butler Street. Where were we going? All I remember is the light was getting low. More worried about the damn photograph than where we were headed. Anyway, the next telephone pole, another Clarence the Bird drawing, this one on corrugated cardboard. Aside from the base material, the drawings are strikingly similar–clearly by the same hand, but again an original drawing. The pole after that? Yeah: same thing. This is turning into a legitimate bird happening. What’s going on around here?

ink on cardboard street art of a bird with the text "Clarence the Bird...Make the world beautiful", Pittsbugh, PA

Four drawings in total [hopefully we didn’t miss any] on successive Butler Street light poles, roughly around Home and 47th Streets on the cemetery side. Who is Clarence the Bird? And why is he so darned determined to “make the world beautiful”? Make no mistake: we applaud this end game. The Orbit may never be able to properly answer more than the what in this curious equation, but that’s all right–being left in wonder is no great hardship. Some might even suggest that it’s the greatest reward we could ask for. Clarence–or whoever you are–you’ve done good.

ink on cardboard street art of a bird with the text "Clarence the Bird...Make the world beautiful", Pittsbugh, PA