The Protractor Files: One Last Big Score

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

Oh, their demon powers! The perfect arc, the cosine-solving magic, the eternal urban egg hunt! Wherever we go, that’s where we are–and so are they! Attached to the low wall of a concrete pedestrian walkway, stuck to the base of a lamp pole, glued to a park bench, painted red and white on a Polish Hill mailbox. Like the protagonist of any decent jewel heist flick, just when this blogger thought he was out, the Pittsburgh protractors held a dear family member hostage, blackmailing him back to the game for one last score.

protractor glued to base of light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

Squirrel Hill

protractor glued to electrical box, Pittsburgh, PA

#32, Strip District

When Pittsburgh Orbit first wrote about them last year, we suggested right in the post’s title that the protractors are “disappearing”. The existing stock seemed to be in the process of removal by authorities, stripped by trophy-seekers, weather-eroded, and/or painted-over with no replacements arriving to replenish the supply.

Given a little time and perspective, though, reports of the protractors’ demise seem to be somewhat–if not greatly–exaggerated. Many of the specimens spotted in this spree–certainly the solid purple and yellow ones photographed here–appear to be new, unnumbered additions to the landscape since last we looked.

If so, why the change of M.O.? Did the protractor perpetrator just get lazy? Lose count? Or do we have a copycat on our hands? One Office Max dumpster dive plus a tube of Shoe Goo[1] and anyone could add to the city’s long-running street art mystery.

protractor attached to mail box, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

Bloomfield Bridge

And what a mystery it is! How does anyone keep their big yap shut for this long without spilling the beans?

Is there a message to the protractors we’re all just too blind to see? Do they actually mean something or is this just someone’s goofy prank? Like the Trump voter coming to the realization the pathological liar he elected was telling the truth in just enough horrifying ways, are we in on the joke, or the butt of it?

Ah, hell. Maybe that’s something that could–and should–be said of all art[2]. If these little plastic doohickeys glued to nondescript bridge joints and light pole bases get people off their keisters, stretching their gams, asking questions, and looking at the world a little closer, you know, I.R.L. we’ll be happy to take a few lumps for Team Humanity.

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to I-beam in city park, Millvale, PA

Millvale Riverfront Park

protractor glued to pedestrian overpass, Pittsburgh, PA

Pedestrian overpass, Bigelow Blvd.

purple protractor attached to "Receiving Entrance" sign on stone building, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

purple protractor attached to metal expansion joint on bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

40th Street Bridge

protractor attached to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

Polish Hill

protractor glued to park bench, Pittsburgh, PA

Lawrenceville

See also:
A Paean to the Disappearing Pittsburgh Protractors Pittsburgh Orbit, June 5, 2016.
A Protractor Bender Pittsburgh Orbit, June 30, 2016.


[1] “Sources say” this is the origin story and application method for the protractors, but that is not confirmed.
[2] That the protractors may be “art” versus, say, “prank” or “graffiti” is worthy of its own debate.

Down Under: The Bloomfield Bridge Troll

Silhouette of the Polish Hill troll, Pittsburgh, PA

Under the bridge, up in the sky. The Bloomfield Bridge Troll.

Every bridge should have a troll. Some may even deserve a couple.

It hadn’t ever occurred to this blogger that there was room for more than one of the creatures under any given bridge. That is, until he surveyed the fiefdom of The Bloomfield Bridge Troll. Down under that high span, on the steep incline of the Polish Hill side, it is obvious that there is room enough for neighboring Bloomfield to host their own troll to guard his or her side of the deep Skunk Hollow ravine in-between. The two “bridge buddies” may never even get to meet!

Boxy head with top hat of the Polish Hill troll, Pittsburgh, PA

Hard-headed, but well-dressed. The Bloomfield Bridge Troll in top hat.

Perhaps every bridge having its own troll is a little fanciful. Who’d want to get stuck under one of those featureless highway overpasses with a busy interstate rushing by and the only decoration being the reliable Trust Jesus graffiti? Not this bridge-under-hanger-outer, I can tell you that.

On the opposite end, consider some little footbridge over a culvert or babbling brook–no troll with any self-respect is going to hole-up in a hovel s/he can’t even stand upright in.

The Polish Hill troll and concrete support for the Bloomfield Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

The Bloomfield Bridge Troll and concrete bridge support, decoration by paint pellets

The Bloomfield Bridge is no great architectural marvel, but its span is so long and its gulf so deep that those with a fear of heights (ahem) can get a little nauseous just looking down on the long walk over it. From the bridge deck you can see sights in all directions: tall buildings downtown, The Strip District, Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Schenley Heights, Oakland’s Cathedral of Learning.

Under the bridge is just as interesting: there are train tracks in heavy use, the East busway, and an assortment of the old industry buildings that dot the single road, which amazingly has three names*. It’s hard to get lost in a place that’s one-way-in/one-way-out, but Skunk Hollow will do its best to accommodate.

The Polish Hill troll with Bloomfield visible in the distance, Pittsburgh, PA

A troll’s eye view of Bloomfield across Skunk Hollow

Pittsburgh famously calls itself the “City of Bridges,” with varying counts putting us at one of the top four in total quantity for the world**. Given that we have between 446 and 2000 bridges, depending on who’s counting–and how–it stands to reason that we’d have an enormous troll population.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Aside from the uninspired Troll’s Restaurant*** (not quite under the 31st Street Bridge on Washington’s Landing), the Bloomfield Bridge Troll is the only one this blogger has encountered thusfar.

Cut out steel placard on the Polish Hill troll's concrete pedestal, Pittsburgh, PA

Prescription: Cisko. Steel placard on the troll’s pedestal.

In any case, hats off to whomever fabricated and installed the iron and/or steel Bloomfield Bridge Troll–an adjacent cut steel placard with the name “Cisko” may be a clue to that. With its jaunty chapeau, skeletal rib cage, defiant stogie, and drink-holder left hand (it was grasping a full water bottle when we visited–who says trolls only want to party?), the troll is a welcome surprise addition to always-mysterious Polish Hill.


* Lorigan Street > Neville Street > Sassafras Street.
** This is a major issue of debate among the bridge-counting set. Other cities vying for the title of most bridges include Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Venice.
*** Troll’s also has the bizarre status of being one of only a handful of dining establishments to actually take advantage of a position on one of the rivers.

Valentine’s Day Hearts

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

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

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

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

Tattoo parlour neon sign, South Side

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

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

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

Mural by Jeremy Raymer, Lawrenceville

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

spray painted heart stencil

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

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

Heart-shaped gravestone, Highwood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

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

The French Fry Sculpture: John Raymond Henry’s “Pittsburgh” (in snow)

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

John Raymond Henry’s “Pittsburgh” (aka “The French Fry sculpture”), Frank Curto Park, Polish Hill

To call reaching the awkward Frank Curto Park–on foot, in the snow–a “slog” makes every other legitimate slog seem like mere inconvenience. It’s just two miles from home, but the ascent of the Bloomfield Bridge, up and down through slick Polish Hill back streets, and then the final unpleasant half mile hike along busy Bigelow Boulevard on an uncleaned roadside walkway deserves its own taxonomy for journalistic hardship.

But we’ve had this one on the Orbit‘s big list for some time–and you don’t mess with a blogger’s list! French Fry Sculpture in snow the item reads and that’s what we were after. With this weekend’s first legitimate whitening coinciding with a gloriously obligation-free Saturday, well, the die was cast. We booted-up and made the super slog.

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

Officially titled Pittsburgh, John Raymond Henry‘s giant public art piece is more commonly referred to by locals as “The French Fry Sculpture.” That’s clearly a bit of gentle fun-making, but it’s not undeserved. Aside from the zip code it happens to reside in–and possibly the Aztec gold that echoes the color of the “three sisters” bridges (and others) downtown–there’s just not that much that cries out as any reference point to our fair city.

On the other hand, the long squared-off yellow pieces collide in a cattywampus pile as if tossed directly from roiling oil bath to serving tray by a giant. These can’t help but abstractly resemble a certain delicious deep-fried side dish this city takes with perverse seriousness. Pittsburgh: you’ve been rebranded.

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

According to PittsburghArtPlaces.org, Pittsburgh (the objet d’art) was “created as part of the 1977 Three Rivers Arts Festival Sculpturescape program. The work originally resided at the University of Pittsburgh near the Hillman Library” [before moving to Frank Curto Park the following year].[1]

The piece is very much of its time–and maybe that’s no coincidence. Henry seems to have in part defined that time as he was something a big name in the big public art world for a couple decades, starting in the 1970s. The artist has several dozen such “monumental sculptures” in public parks from Miami to Salt Lake, Washington, D.C. to Sioux City. Why, if you’re a second- or third-tier urban center without “a Henry,” you’ve probably got a lonely patch of grass and some bored public works crews.

Wooden Persephone Project sculpture in snow with John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in background, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA

The Orbit remains undecided. The piece has been well-maintained by its owners (the city), but that’s not to say it’s aged gracefully. It has a certain generic modern public art feel and a clumsy scheme that makes one all too aware of its joints. Looking at Henry’s other works (similar in aesthetics and scale, but often more visually successful) this one just feels like it doesn’t hit.

That said, as a blast of high-saturation yellow, it reads well against the lush green of the park in the warmer months, and still pops when surrounded by white snow and bare trees, as we see here. It’s something you can appreciate whizzing by in a car on Bigelow (probably the way most Pittsburghers have experienced it) and still rewards actually stopping in the park and giving it a walk-around. And hell, who doesn’t like french fries?

John Raymond Henry "Pittsburgh" sculpture (aka "The French Fry sculpture") in snow, Frank Curto Park, Pittsburgh, PA


Note: There ended being a lot more to talk about here than we first expected, including our harrowing egress from the park and the obvious questions Who was Frank Curto? What’s up with this “park” that no one can get to? and What about the wild turkeys that hang out there? It also turns out the space has a number of other public artworks, as well as a art garden project–you just wouldn’t catch any of this through the windshield. We’re going to save all these for a future Orbit story.

Sources:
[1] Pittsburgh Art Places entry for Pittsburghhttp://pittsburghartplaces.org/accounts/view/628
[2] Frank Curto Park wiki entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Curto
[3] John Raymond Henry website: http://johnhenrysculptor.com/

Polish Hill’s Abstract Art Walks

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street

If Don and Phil Everly are to be believed, a man in Kentucky sure is lucky to lie down in Bowling Green. Well, you can bet your dupa that man, woman, and child sure are lucky to wake up in Polish Hill–its spectacular vistas, its legendary city steps, its cattywumpus streets clinging to the hillside. To this list, you can add one more bonus. The residents of Melwood, Herron, and Brereton get the year-round, open-air, free-admission modern art walks of Bethoven and Finland Streets.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Finland Street

The works are created and maintained as a joint effort between some number of indefatigable spray paint-weilding taggers and what we imagine is a combination of city D.P.W. “graffiti busters” and concerned citizens taking matters into their own hands. This cat-and-mouse adversarial partnership ensures that every season the palette will shift, the structure will renew, and the layers will be reborn yet again.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street

The quirkiest thing about these artists is exactly what makes the whole thing work. A graffiti cover-up team could easily just invest in bulk orders of battleship gray exterior primer. End of story. That’s what it’s like along the jail trail, down in “The Run,” and a bunch of other places*. One clean sweep every spring. If so, there’d be one less blogger loitering at the top of the hill.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street

But it ain’t like that in Polish Hill. Instead, the clean-up crews (whoever they are) seem to use whatever extra paint they just happen to have laying around. I don’t see any green or black in these photos, but just about every other color in the spectrum is represented. The way these layers peel, flake, and erode suggests they may just be using leftover house paint, rather than some heavy-duty, element thwarting, highway-grade pigment.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Finland Street

Further, the painters use an irregular approach to the graffiti cover. Sometimes roughly squaring off big fields, others targeting individual spots just as needed. The effect is to give the abstraction a loose (if undefined) composition that wouldn’t have been there without the smaller details.

Mark Rothko "Yellow, Cherry, Orange" (1947)

Mark Rothko “Yellow, Cherry, Orange” (1947)

Maybe you have to mentally crop the big retaining wall-sized sections down into more digestible chunks, let the eye focus go a little soft, relax a little bit for it to make sense. But you really don’t have to stretch too far to imagine these pieces sitting side-by-side the great abstract expressionists. I imagine a Hans Hofmann or a Franz Kline or a Mark Rothko being quite pleased to share wall space along Bethoven Street.

graffiti cover-up, Pittsburgh, PA

Bethoven Street


* In fairness, the city uses a few different shades of white and gray and some of the results are still interesting…but they’re not like these.

Step Beat: The Shortest Street in Pittsburgh

Jewel Street city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

“Little” Jewel Street in Polish Hill: Pittsburgh’s shortest street (we think)

Years ago, this blogger attended a dinner party at a house on the steep hill high above upper Lawrenceville. I remember very clearly that there were fifty-six exterior stairs to get from the street to the (second floor) kitchen door where people entered the house. Man, I thought to myself at the time, that’s a long way up to haul your groceries.

It’s funny to think that one home’s front entrance walk (up) would be four times the length of an official city street, but that seems to be the case. Though I don’t know it for sure, at just thirteen steps, plus one short walkway at the top, tiny Jewel Street* in Polish Hill is very likely the shortest street in Pittsburgh**.

Jewel Street city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Looking down the full length of Jewel Street, all thirteen steps of it

Back in May, when The Orbit reported on the remarkable intersection of Romeo & Frazier, we got all urbanophysical about what a “street” really is. Little Jewel Street seems to push that notion over the top, and then some. Let’s not worry that no vehicles are traveling on this particular thoroughfare and just consider that it has only ever served one house. There are likely other public streets in the city that have just one address on them now, but I’d wager that most of them were built back in the day when there were rickety worker houses up and down every pointy hill and slanted dale in the ‘burgh.

Jewel and Flavian Street city steps in Pittsburgh, PA

Jewel Street from the Flavian Street steps

How the first residents of the only house on Little Jewel Street managed to swing the deal where they didn’t have to build or maintain their own steps is beyond both my knowledge and researching capacity. But if they hadn’t, Pittsburgh would be stuck with some anonymous half-block-long shortest street that no one would even blink an eye at. To you, Little Jewel Street, keep on keepin’ on. We’re on your side.


* There is a two-block-long alley across Melwood Avenue which becomes a substantial set of city steps, both marked as Jewel Street. But here’s the thing: from the spot we’re talking about, you have to travel down an entirely separate street (the Flavian Street city steps) and make a hard left to get to this other Jewel. Each is an entirely separate entity. Even seemingly all-knowing Google Maps isn’t aware of this set. So we think it’s fair to count the very short residential section of Jewel off Flavian as its own street, despite the repetition in name.

** The Internet has very little to say about Pittsburgh’s shortest street, the main nominations being a pair of streets in the South Side–one of which no longer exists–both well over the length of Little Jewel.