Lights Out: The Slow Death of Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center

empty retail space in shopping mall, Baden, PA

One of dozens of former retail spaces now empty in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Beaver County

It’s a big room–maybe three thousand square feet. Where there used to be tile, the floor is now scraped clean, down to hard brown mastic. The walls and ceiling persist a very 1980s palette of hot mauve and battleship gray. Each side of the space still has one long set of track lighting, its bulbs intact, trained on the wall as if the space was most recently an art gallery or framing shop–possibly a dramatically-lit purveyor of boutique clothing or novelty gifts. At the back of the former store a single checkout island remains, its electric service dropped through conduit from the ceiling like a lifeline to the outside world.

This big empty space is a mystery–but it’s not alone. Pick a direction and there are many more like it: this one with colored tile and mirrored walls; that one with rectangular scars on the floor where heavy shelving used to be. An old A&P in glorious minty green and candy-apple red; an ex-Radio Shack with placards still advertising home theater, batteries, and wireless phones. In a former Chinese restaurant a grocery buggy is incongruously parked where diners used to eye up menu photos of Szechuan beef and General Tso’s Chicken.

interior of vacant, former grocery store in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

ex-grocery (A&P, probably?)

interior of vacant retail space in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

unknown

On November 1, 1956 an entirely new experience greeted citizens of the commonwealth. With some sixty-five retail spaces–many of them gigantic, sized for furniture or department stores–spread out over three separate, long, low-slung buildings and hosting free parking for four thousand automobiles[1], Northern Lights Shoppers City must have felt every bit of its believable claim as Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center.

The new uber-plaza wasn’t in Philadelphia or its expansive suburbs, nor did it serve metro Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, or Harrisburg. It was located twenty-some miles northwest of us in Beaver County.

interior of vacant retail space in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

The terrific all-things-Beaver County blog Ambridge Memories has a great post on the opening (and, seven months later, Grand Opening) of Northern Lights. In this pre-mall era[2], the “shoppers city” monicker (it would be renamed Northern Lights Shopping Center some time later) turns out to be remarkably on-target. Unlike indoor malls we’ve come to expect, Northern Lights opening array of retail reads like a quintessential Main Street for any small town in America.

In addition to mall staples like department stores, restaurants, shoes, clothing, cards and gifts, there were two pharmacies, three supermarkets (A&P, Kroger, and Star), plus a butcher, green grocer, and bakery. Northern Lights offerings also included a bank, furniture store, optometrist, appliances, laundromat, hardware, automotive, dry cleaner, and beauty salon.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

The little Ohio River town of Conway (pop. ~1,800 in the mid-1950s; a little larger today[3]) might seem a strange choice for the location of such a gigantic development. In fact, the footprint for Northern Lights is just about identical in acreage to Conway’s lower street grid. Imagine a shopping plaza equal in size to your entire home town, with parking for cars numbering twice the total population.

The location was inevitably aimed at drawing from the larger Ohio Valley region, then still booming with active mill towns. Conway sits just about half way between the substantially-larger Ambridge to the south and the quad cities of Rochester-Beaver-Beaver Falls-New Brighton to the north. Across the river and easily accessible are Aliquippa and Monaca.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

Today, it would be unfair to call Northern Lights a dead mall. There are definitely still enough open businesses to fill a lesser destination. Giant Eagle and a Wine & Spirits store alone make the location viable, but the shopping center also includes Dollar Tree, Napoli Pizza, and Avenue Boutique, a dialysis clinic, laundromat, a couple doctors’ offices, barber, and police substation.

But take a walk around and it won’t feel like Northern Lights’ property owners see a lot of future here. The former Ames (which was a Hills before that; we don’t know what the space opened as) is being readied for demolition with all the construction fence and heavy equipment to prove it. A number of glass storefronts are covered in protective plywood. Looking through the windows of other spaces yields an eerie view–not of available retail space, but rather one that reads as closed-and-left-town-in-the-night, leaving a pile of junk behind.

vacant former Radio Shack store in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

ex-Radio Shack

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

There’s no one factor that led Northern Lights to this point. We know retail in general and shopping malls in particular have suffered for years. This is a national trend affecting city, suburb, and small town alike.

Northern Lights would have to deal with serious competition–first from the more modern Beaver Valley Mall (opened 1970), then The Internet. Couple that with the loss of thousands and thousands of well-paying steel industry jobs and the massive buying power they once provided all evaporating.in short order in the 1980s.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

Perhaps the cruelest plot point is that Northern Lights Shopping Center–itself a ruthless aggressor in the retail war with various Main Streets up and down the Ohio River Valley–was ultimately cannibalized by the same buy-cheap-and-convenient economic forces that brought it to life.

In 2014, WalMart opened a new megastore on the hillside just above the plaza, despite a major legal fight with Giant Eagle. The route to get there is a brand new road, created via eminent domain, right through the demolished space where J.C. Penny used to be[4]. If no one shops at Northern Lights anymore, at least they drive through its enormous parking lot to get to WalMart.

interior of vacant Chinese restaurant in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

ex-Chinese restaurant


[1] Source: http://ambridgememories.blogspot.com/2013/11/northern-lights-shoppers-city-opening.html
[2] Actually, Southdale Center, the “world’s first modern shopping mall,” opened in 1956–the very same year as Northern Lights–in suburban Minneapolis. Source: https://gizmodo.com/the-worlds-first-modern-shopping-mall-5114869
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] Source: https://archive.triblive.com/news/pittsburgh-allegheny/work-on-wal-mart-supercenter-set-to-begin-in-beaver-county/

Black-and-Gold: To the House! Steelers Structures

brick building with trophies in the window painted gold with black trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Martial Arts Against Street Violence, Homewood

To paraphrase a well-trod cliché, if you build it, they will paint it black and gold.

What’s the point of owning your own diner, butcher shop, or martial arts studio if you can’t serve up those eggs and home fries or break lumber with your bare feet in a building faithfully decked-out in the home team colors? Firing the boss and doing what you want is the American dream! And just like those other local goals–one for the thumb, cracking open a six-pack, and, yes, stairway to seven–dreams really do come true*.

Today, for the start of the 2018 campaign, The Orbit salutes the über-fans who’ve gathered up brushes and tarps to decorate the façades of storefronts and residential exteriors in tribute to their favorite professional football team. Collectively, we’re calling these Steelers structures.

retail storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers storefront: Lawrenceville

empty retail storefront with cutout of Pittsburgh Steelers football player, McKeesport, PA

Steelers storefront: McKeesport

diner storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers diner: O’Leary’s, Southside

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

Steelers sweet shop: Cutty’s Candy Store, Homewood

retail storefront painted black and gold, Homestead, PA

Steelers snack shop: S&S Food Mart, Homestead

exterior of Ray's Barber Shop, Pittsburgh, with two homemade Steelers emblems

Steelers barber shop: Ray’s, Shadeland

storefront painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers dojo: Three Rivers Martial Arts, Brookline

There are plenty of Steelers bars out there–pretty much every decent-sized American city has one (or more). Why, from Mugs ‘n Jugs in Clearwater, Florida to The Peanut Farm in Anchorage, Alaska, there will be no problem with Pittsburgh ex-pats catching the exploits of Antonio, Juju, and the gang any time soon. [There’s a semi-complete list up at SteerersBars.com.]

But if your local tavern runs the Steelers games on flat screen and imports a case of Iron City Beer for homesick fans, know they’re just doing the bare minimum. Real Steelers bars call to you from the street, wearing their own form of black-and-gold uniform or come bemuraled in crude renderings of trademark-safe generic football players frolicking on the gridiron.

brick building with first floor bar exterior painted black and gold, Brownsville, PA

Steelers bar: Brownsville

black tavern door with gold trim, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers bar: Gametime Tavern, Spring Garden

exterior of roadhouse bar painted black and gold, McKeesport, PA

Steelers roadhouse: Mellon’s Pub, McKeesport

The fully-committed football fan doesn’t just enjoy a couple dozen games a year. No no no. He or she wants to live football–through the long, cold off season, the extended draft weekend, mini-camp, and boring preseason exhibitions.

One can literally inhabit the football lifestyle in a full-on Steelers house. Why fool around? Let’s go foundation-to-roofline in black-and-gold! The house will pop from the snow and bare trees in winter; in the fall, you’ll be conveniently camouflaged in your game-day jersey.

house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers house: South Side Slopes

row house painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers row house: Lawrenceville

Not every homeowner is willing to go all-in on the black-and-gold, which leads to phenomena of the Steelers porch. This very much feels like a keep-the-peace compromise between one super fan and the rest of his or her (but who are we kidding? it’s probably his) family. That, or said supporter just didn’t want to do the hazardous second- and third-floor work on the extension ladder.

Either way, these awkward “business inside, party on the porch” houses get much respect…but probably not from the home decorati.

frame house with black-and-gold porch, Beaver Falls, PA

Steelers porch: Beaver Falls

house with brick porch painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers porch: East Liberty

house front painted Steelers gold with black trim, Sharpsburg, PA

Steelers porch: Sharpsburg

Ma won’t even let you paint the porch? Well, there’s still an opportunity for a Steelers garage out back or around the side. The industrious football fan  can decorate a two-car shed in a bye-week afternoon. (Or even more time if his buddies “help”.) There’s no ladder work involved and they’ll look great housing your Steelermobile.

older 2-car garage with doors painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: Spring Hill

2-car garage painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers garage: South Side Slopes

At this point, the casual Orbit reader may justifiably assume Steelers structures exist only in the spheres of retail storefronts, watering holes, and home improvement.

And you’d be wrong again! Make no mistake: you’ll have no problem locating the region’s favorite color scheme on factory buildings, car lots, and at least one (former) secret society.

ornamental dome painted black and gold on Dipcraft Manufacturing Company building, Rankin, PA

Steelers dome: Dipcraft Mfg. Co., Rankin

small masonry building painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers used car lot: Lawrenceville

brick building with cinderblock doorway painted black and gold, Pittsburgh, PA

Steelers ex-secret society: Pythian Temple, Hill District

For those wishing to further pursue additional Orbit coverage of Steelers fandom, see also:


* No, a seventh Super Bowl win has not come to Pittsburgh…yet.

Hold the Cheese: A Pi Day Salute to Ghost Pizza

neon sign reading "IZZA" (the letter "P" is burnt out), Natrona Heights, PA

unknown, Natrona Heights

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[1].

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!

hand-painted sign for Venice Pizza on cinderblock wall, covered in vines, Pittsburgh, PA

Venice Pizza I, Lawrenceville

cinderblock wall with mural for former Venice Pizza & Pasta, Pittsburgh, PA

Venice Pizza II, Lawrenceville[2]

Brick commercial building with green, white, and red storefront, Clairton, PA

unknown[3], Clairton

glass storefront windows painted with the name of DeSalla's Pizza and running pizza delivery man, Pittsburgh, PA

DeSalla’s, Allentown[4]

rear of commercial building with hand-painted sign reading "Astro Pizza", Pittsburgh, PA

Astro Pizza, East Liberty

freestanding brick restaurant with Italian red, green, and white awning and "For Sale" sign, Monongahela, PA

unknown[3], Monongahela

empty glass storefront with the word "Pizza" on glass, Pittsburgh, PA

Potenza Pizza & Pasta, North Oakland

glass storefront window with hand painted image of a bear eating pizza, Pittsburgh, PA

Pizza Bear, DeSalla’s, Allentown


[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] 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.
[4] 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.

On Making America Great … Again

President John F. Kennedy addresses a large outdoor crowd in Monessen, PA, Oct. 13, 1962

President John F. Kennedy speaking in Monessen, Oct. 13, 1962 [photo: Cecil W. Stoughton/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum]

The scene is likely one of–if not the–most remembered days in Monessen history. The President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, stands at a lectern on a stage erected in the parking lot of an A&P supermarket. There, he addresses a sea of faces as far as the camera can trace them in the distance. Dressed in business suits and Sunday best, the crowds peer from windows and crane from behind the stage and up the adjoining streets. The Post-Gazette reports there were an estimated 25,000 people–more than the entire population of the small city[1]–crowding in to be a part of it.[2]

Attendees carry signs of support: Hail to the Chief! and Monessen Welcomes Our President and Hello Hello JFK. Tri-color bunting hangs from buildings and lamp posts. Behind the president are billboard-sized welcome signs from the Croatian Hall, Italian Society of Mutual Aid, Ukrainian Club, and others. A banner fifty feet long stretches under the third floor windows of the Duquesne Hotel: Thank you Mr. President for signing our pay bill – postal workers of Monessen, PA.

parking lot of Foodland grocery store, Monessen, PA

The same scene today, 6th and Donner Ave.

A lot has changed in the last fifty-five years. For one, it’s hard to imagine a crowd today dressing up to thank a politician two years into his or her term. More than that, though, Monessen and the rest of the Mon Valley have suffered as much as anywhere in the country during this time. As a result, the city looks radically different today.

There’s still a grocery store at the same Donner Ave. location [it’s a Foodland now] but gone is pretty much everything else in this scene. The collection of three-story turn-of-the-century buildings between 6th and 7th Streets has been replaced by a couple of nondescript commercial storefronts, plus one small parking lot.

3-story brick former EIS Manufacturing building with broken windows and roof caved-in, Monessen, PA

Former EIS Manufacturing plant, Schoonmaker Ave.

What’s changed more, though, are the opportunities for finding anyone to fill these spaces.[3] Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel employed thousands of people at solid, union wages until it ultimately shut its Monessen operation in the 1980s. A raft of other, smaller industries were based on the same giant swath of curling riverfront and thrived through most of the last century. Today, the city’s population of 7,500 is around a third of its 1930s peak.[1]

For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, the small city boomed in all possible ways. Monessen steel built the Golden Gate Bridge and helped defeat the Nazis in World War II. Cassandra Vivian’s Monessen: A Typical Steel Country Town describes a rich cultural environment where immigrants from dozens of countries (mostly eastern and southern Europe) both blended with each other and held onto the food and language, music and dance of the old world. I’m sure it was rough, but it must have been a fascinating place to grow up.

late Victorian wood frame 4-square house, vacant and dilapidated, Monessen, PA

When you lose two-thirds of your population, you end up with a lot of these. Vacant home on Reed Ave.

The slogan Make America Great Again is an easy one to write off cynically as reactionary, nationalistic, resentful, even hate-filled–it’s that appended again that really twists the knife. When, exactly, was America “great” the first time? Was it back before we could conceive of a black president? When a woman’s place was safely in the kitchen? When we pretended that gay people don’t exist? Or was it just when white men were reliably in charge of everything?

The industrial towns and small cities of the Mon Valley suggest such a different reading of this phrase that it’s important to try to see the appeal not on social or cultural terms, but as pure economics. Towns like Charleroi, Donora, Monogahela, and Monessen are achingly beautiful and heartbreakingly vacant. The valley’s need for something better is palpable.

three-story late Victorian retail/apartment building, vacant and dilapidated, Monessen, PA

A picture of Health, Donner Ave.

The commercial districts of these towns share a common general design: compact, late 19th/early 20th century two-, three- and four-story brick façades built to support a workforce of thousands who commuted on foot to the local mills and small factories just blocks away.

Those big commercial stretches obviously once thrived with green grocers and dry goods, butchers, bakers, theaters, and hardware–you can still see some of it in the ghost signs fading on brick walls. Today, though, the ghosts are often all that’s left on blocks and blocks of vacant storefronts, empty lots strewn with debris, cracked windows, and caved-in roofs.

ghost sign for Brooks Department Store, with text "Everything for Everybody, chinaware, oil cloth, millinery, cloaks & suits", Monessen, PA

“Everything For Everybody” sounds pretty appealing, almost like a campaign promise…hey, wait! Ghost sign, Donner Ave.

Like Kennedy, Donald Trump (and, notably, not Hillary Clinton[5]) also visited Monessen during his presidential campaign last year. It was for an invite-only crowd of just 200, where he was photographed in front of a bunch of crushed aluminum[4]. Whatever. Eighty percent of life is showing up, right?

Those of us who inhabit the “liberal bubble” may cringe at the pandering macro-jingoism of Make America Great Again and the pathological lies and hate-filled rhetoric it came with. But to look closely at the desperate mill towns upriver from Pittsburgh, it’s not hard to hope Monessen has a brighter future than its fading present. Whether honest or not [we’ll go with not], in that way Trump was ultimately selling the same thing as Barack Obama eight years earlier, Hope.

Old drug store window with word "Prescriptions" painted on glass, Monessen, PA

We’re going to need a bigger pill. Former drug store, Donner Ave.


See also:
* “24 Hours with JFK and Teenie Harris”, Kerin Shellenbarger, Carnegie Museum of Art blog, Nov. 22, 2013. A great account of JFK’s full two-day, five-stop campaign swing through the area in 1962 with terrific photos from Teenie Harris.


Notes:
[1] Wikipedia lists Monessen’s population at 18,424 for the 1960 census.
[2] “In Monessen, in 1962, JFK was one of the people”Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 16, 2013.
[3] In fairness, both replacement buildings appear to be currently-occupied (by a daycare center and pair of professional offices), but there are many more in downtown Monessen that are not.
[4] “Trump campaign rolls through Monessen”, TribLive.com, June 28, 2016.
[5] That Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign in Monessen–or any individual town–is no crime, but it’s pretty clear that ignoring much of the industrial North hurt her vote significantly in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Photo Grab Bag: Ghost Sign Roundup

ghost sign with layered text, McKeesport, PA

(unknown), McKeesport

Longtime readers know The Orbit is in the business of making dreams come true–and business is good. It was pointed out by super fan/sometime contributor Lee that probably a lot of folks don’t see the loose photos that end up on The Orbit‘s artsy dark and/or snarky narc pages and maybe we should roll them up into an actual blog post once in a while.

So here you go. Like Cheech and/or Chong, we’ve pulled out the gatefold copy of Fragile and are rounding up and rolling out a first collection of non-specific pictures from the last year or so. Here, they’re grouped on the pseudo-theme of ghost signs. Don’t inhale too deeply.

ghost sign/advertisement for Hipco Batteries, Pittsburgh, PA

Hipco Batteries, Manchester

It’s a bold claim, but the Hipco Batteries ad has to be the city’s greatest ghost sign. The incredible painted image has some classic “vernacular typography”, one giant old school No. 6 dry cell battery, and a sadistic, grinning red devil, his tongue wagging like a pervert from his open, fanged mouth. He’s very excited, with one hand reaching out, palm up, and the other employing a Hipwell flashlight to no doubt look for trouble in the dark.

This begs the question: do devils really need flashlights? Well, we know this one does. Unlike the subjects of every other photo in this post, the Hipwell Manufacturing Company, founded in 1887, amazingly still exists and continues to manufacture a line of flashlights (but no longer batteries) right in this big old brick building on West North Avenue[1].

ghost sign for former La Salle Electric, Pittsburgh, PA

La Salle Electric, Manchester

The pair of conjoined industrial buildings that once housed La Salle Electric, just off Brighton Road in Manchester, were torn down earlier this year. Now there’s just a re-grassed vacant lot where they used to be. Whatever prompted that action, it’s sad for a lot of reasons–mainly that we’ve got a limited supply of this kind of late 19th century industrial buildings out there and it’s a bummer to lose two of them in one fell swoop.

Here, we can only focus on the relatively minor loss of this great ghost sign, painted across the point where the two buildings met. You can see the red brick side appears to have shifted ever so slightly, distorting the alignment of the white background and breaking the A in “Salle”. And what a great pair of arrows! The office is that way, you can pick up your stuff on the other side. Ugh. I mean, the office used to be that way…

ghost sign for former Regent Sportswear Shop, Pittsburgh, PA

Regent Sportswear (and Wig Shop?), East Liberty

The rear entrance to the former Regent Sportswear Shop doesn’t have what we usually consider “ghost signs”, but still seems like it ought to count. Regent’s 3-D sign, the typeface in Wigs, and the multi-color blue/gray/white brick treatment all suggest a 1960s/70s makeover to a building that probably goes back to the very early 1900s. Somewhere out there is a person who bought a terrycloth track suit or tried on someone else’s hair at Regent’s and we sure hope this last reminder in the Kirkwood Street alley makes him or her feel something. Hopefully that feeling is not, you know, “itchy”.

ghost sign reading "Sal's Meats Since 1921", Ambridge, PA

Sal’s Meats, Ambridge

Sadly, Sal’s Meats, like most of the businesses in Ambridge, ain’t there any more. But at least we’ve still got this great ghost sign. Painted signs don’t get any graphically stronger than bold red text on a white background, painted fifteen feet across on a deep red brick wall. Sal’s Meats, since 1921. ‘Nuf sed.

ghost sign for former Penn Bowling Lanes, Pittsburgh, PA

Penn Bowling Lanes, Downtown

What a time when the downtown worker could bowl ten frames over a lunch break! This literal back alley entrance on Exchange Way (between Liberty and Penn, downtown) suggests the bowling may have taken place in the basement, but who knows? Heck, maybe those wooden lanes, pin-setters, ball returns, and beer taps are all still down there, covered in forty years of dust. Either way, we’re glad no one felt the need to paint over this incredible patchwork wall with its reminder of old Pittsburgh.

ghost sign for Dr. D.E. Earley, Optometrist, New Martinsville, W. Va.

Dr. D.E. Earley, Optometrist, New Martinsville, W. Va.

Last winter, we made a special stop for the mind-boggling buffet at Quinets Court in the fine little West Virginia town of New Martinsville (about 90 minutes from Pittsburgh–and well worth the trip)[2]. The inevitable post-gorge belt-loosening constitutional yielded some fine views of the Ohio River and a bunch of great little oddities in the four-block downtown stretch. This ghost sign for Dr. D.E. Earley, Optometrist looks like it could go back a hundred years. That’s a long time to wait to get your eyes examined and glasses fitted, but then again, you’ve got a steam tray full of Quinets cobbler two blocks away. I can think of worse ways to spend a century.

Former storefront for G's Restaurant and Pizzeria, Pittsburgh, PA

G’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, Downtown

Bathed in low winter sunlight, made awkwardly diffuse by scaffolding and construction fence, this photo of the former G’s Restaurant and Pizzeria on Forbes Ave. got shoehorned into an update story on the last remaining Toynbee Tile on Smithfield Street and the face of a rapidly changing downtown Pittsburgh. But we felt like there was a little more to say here.

G’s Restaurant, along with the former Honus Wagner Sports building next door, were razed earlier this year. Point Park University is building a big new performance arts building/theater on the property. This will no doubt be a great cultural asset, but The Orbit‘s going to miss this pair of early 1900s terra cotta storefronts, each with their own goofy mid-century add-ons.


[1] See article: In The Spotlight: Hipwell Manufacturing (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 10, 2002) for the full story.
[2] The Orbit actually needs to make the trip to Quinets again for a full review–or even if just for that eggplant parm, and the kielbasa and kraut, and the fried chicken, and the haluski, and the brown sugar sweet potatoes, and the butterscotch pie, and the…

Up in Smoke: Ex-Snack Shops

mural of soft-serve ice cream cones in colorful silhouette, former Tastee Queen, Ambridge, PA

Tastee Queen, Ambridge

Scene: The freezer aisle at the Lawrenceville Shop’n’Save, 9:30 on a recent Sunday evening. An enormous man is paused, his buggy half-full with potato chips, Cheez Doodles, canned chili, two-liter pop bottles, the makings for deli sandwiches–there’s not a fruit or vegetable in sight. He’s dressed in the kind of long short pants that big men often wear and a t-shirt in the Rastafarian red/green/black/gold color scheme featuring a prominent marijuana leaf and the single word STONED. The man is engaged in a cell phone conversation communicating ice cream flavors to an associate: “They got rocky road, they got butter pecan, they got moose tracks, they got strawberry, they got double chocolate…”

former Coney Island Convenience store, McKeesport, PA

Coney Island Convenience, McKeesport

As fascinating as this was (would this guy keep naming flavors all the way down to the Ben & Jerry’s section? would the team consider sherbet, ice milk, and/or frozen yogurt? how about the add-ons: chocolate sauce, nuts, whipped-cream? what would the final decision be?) this eves-dropper can only pretend to peruse the Stouffer’s frozen dinners for so long–we needed to move along.

former Howze Corner Store, Wilkinsburg, PA

Howze Corner Store, Wilkinsburg

What’s a doobie smoker to do? Gone (for the most part) are the mom & pop corner convenience stores, replaced almost entirely by the one-two punch of supermarkets and gas & sips. Good luck finding a retailer with only one brand of potato chips or a single freezer for the ice cream. It’s a wonder we’re not all standing confused and on the help line right now trying to make an informed, intelligent decision on Funyuns vs. Fritos, Cheetos vs. Cheese Puffs, ridges vs. kettle-cooked. Somehow, we must all dig deep and make these most difficult of life’s decisions.

snack trailer with cartoon images and sign "Temporarily closed for remodeling"

unknown (snack trailer), Hill District

In central Lawrenceville, we lost our independent snack shop three or four years ago. Mrs. The Orbit always cites Star Discount* as the place where ladies of the evening could purchase undergarments and bingo freaks could stock up on daubers. Lottery tickets and cigarettes were likely paying the bills, but “Star’s” also carried Herr’s and Snyder’s chips and pretzels as well as Cotton Club pop. Everyone behind the counter was always smoking.

Star Discount was replaced by the trifecta of Row House Cinema, Smoke BBQ, and Bierport (née Atlas Beer)–all of which we’ve patronized and enjoyed–but even if they let you in the door, try getting a $1.99 bag of cheese puffs from Smoke!

former Haley's Market, Pittsburgh, PA

Haley’s Market, Lincoln

Growing up in southwest Virginia, the peaceful, gentle climb to Cascade Falls in the nearby national forest, followed by a celebratory post-hike soft-serve at Dairy Princess made for a fine afternoon. In collecting images for this story, it was nice to see the tradition of knock-off ice cream shops perpetuated in both Tastee Queen (Ambridge) and Tasty Queen (Bruceton Mills, West Virginia). Unfortunately, all three businesses seem to have met a similar fate**. At least we still have Tastee Queen’s glorious technicolor soft-serve silhouettes.

former Tasty Queen ice cream shop, Bruceton Mills, WV

Tasty Queen, Bruceton Mills, WV


* Star Discount would make a great Orbit obit, but we sadly never took the photographic record to do it justice.
** This blogger almost met an even more violent version of the same fate taking this photo of Tasty Queen.

Dead Mall: Allegheny Center

Former office building in Allegheny Center, Pittsburgh, PA

Former office building, former Dollar Bank

It was a Saturday afternoon and this American was at the mall. Nothing strange about that, right? Where it gets weird is that he was the only one at the mall. And I mean literally the only living creature on this giant plot of city-center property*.

I wasn’t even there to buy anything! But that’s lucky, because believe me, there was nothing for sale–no novelty t-shirts, no shoes, no Spencer Gifts, no Licorice Pizza, and (sigh) no Orange Julius.

Empty common area of Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Main common area

Allegheny Center, one of Pittsburgh’s three ginormous, well-intentioned, but ultimately disastrous urban redevelopment projects of the 1960s, is today the most intact of that triumvirate. The Civic Arena was torn down several years ago and its massive site is currently in development for yet another makeover. East Liberty’s business district is more gradually having its wrongs…undone (I’m not sure “righted” is fair–certainly the displaced residents wouldn’t think so).

This isn’t your average dead mall. For one, it’s not way out in the suburbs–just one river crossing and a few blocks separate Allegheny Center from downtown Pittsburgh. For another, even though as a shopping mall it’s definitely long gone, some amount of the property is very much in use. Many of the former retail spaces are now occupied by an unlikely collection of anonymous back offices for banks, utilities, tech companies, etc. There’s even a working soup-and-sandwich restaurant to serve the captive clientele (but it’s not open over the weekend).

Things are going to change fast for Allegheny Center real soon. Announced last year, the complex is about to have a whole bunch of money dumped into it to convert the mall space to a incubator and campus for high tech companies with the new name Nova Place. Radiant Hall has moved into the ground floor of the office building and Quantum Theatre will stage its next production (Ibsen’s The Master Builder) upstairs in April. We thought The Orbit ought to get in there and take a look before everything changes once again.

Large hexagon-shaped planters filled with both dirt and styrofoam packing peanuts, Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Empty hex planters

Allegheny Center isn’t just a (former) shopping mall. It’s a small complex of buildings that includes an eight-story office building and a similarly-sized set of apartments (which may still be in use). There’s also a terrific freestanding bank branch that has the center’s very of-its-time midcentury modern curved boxes.

Much has been made about what The North Side lost when the Allegheny Center project came in–most notably its beautiful, central market house and sensible street grid. That was all before this blogger’s time, but the pictures are heartbreaking.

Entrance to parking garage and curved, projecting windows, Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Parking garage entrance and characteristic curved exterior features

That said, the fifty years that have passed since Allegheny Center was built in 1966 have largely been kind to what could have been a horrific featureless and windowless box like many of its enclosed mall peers. The overall design is an inventive mixture of interior and exterior space. Shoppers could get to destinations both within the enclosed mall area and also from a number of outside-facing storefronts. Allegheny Center’s original plan devoted much of its space to an open garden/park are on what is now just a bizarre gray plane. The center had mixed use as a central focus, accommodating retail, dining, office, and residential space. Parking is entirely hidden within underground garages. Maybe most surprising, given what we’ve seen of mall design since, nearly 100% of the exterior space contains big windows with views of downtown Pittsburgh (to the south) and up to the hills of Fineview (north).

Aerial photo showing Allegheny Center's original open space parklet and red polymer surface

Aerial photo of Allegheny Center’s original open space parklet with red polymer surface [photo: concretedecor.net]

It’s also in amazingly great condition. I was struck by how absolutely clean and immaculately cared-for the entire property seems to be. Inside the mall, the arched atrium windows still let in a great slanted light, the original tile may show its age in color selection, but not in cracks or wear. Windows–there are many–are clean and bright.

Outside we didn’t see any of the tell-tale signs of other dead malls–no rust or leaks, no cracked window panes or graffiti, no trash, cigarette butts, or weeds. The exterior retail spaces have all been boarded-over with plywood to protect them. We obviously don’t know what things look like underneath, but if they resemble the rest of property, restaurants and retail stores could move back in tomorrow. [Note to Lou Pappan’s heirs: please consider this!]

While it’s certainly dated, the architectural design has the remarkable quality of being both curved and boxy, regular and asymmetric, retro and modern. By today’s standards, it’s cool…or, at least, it could be. By any yardstick, it’s got a lot more potential than Century III. Let’s all cross our fingers for Nova Place.

Empty exterior common/garden area, Allegheny Center Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Exterior common area with boarded-up former storefronts, former parklet


* This is only a slight exaggeration–during our half-hour visit we did see one dog-walker (outside) and one security officer (inside).

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