Reflections On A Hundred

St. Paul's Cathedral in Pittsburgh reflected in mirrored glass

St. Paul’s Cathedral, Oakland

A hundred! One whole century! What a very round integer!

Yes, today Pittsburgh Orbit trips the old blogometer into three digit land. It all happened in just under one calendar year. We promise to not make a big deal about that date too, but in lieu of any real story today, we’ll take this rare opportunity to reflect on a year in the blogosphere and The Orbit‘s one hundred tiny episodes so far.

reflection of small shops on Craig Street in large glass windows, Pittsburgh, PA

Craig Street, Oakland

Why blog? Frankly, it’s not something this majority introvert ever really considered. The “me me me“-ness of so much blogging is nauseating at best and just plain pathetic (much of) the rest of the time. And what hasn’t already been covered? The answer, it turns out, is a lot. But, you know, a suggestion here, an idea there–next thing we know, we’re up and blogging.

Plus, it’s fun! Roll together a bunch of things we already loved to do (bicycle, hike, explore, take photographs, drink beer, find out about other people, write) and wrap those experiences up in little easy-to-chew bite-sized chunks. It’s a tremendous regular creative prompt and get-out-the-door keister-kicker. We recommend it!

Reflection of the former Mellon National Bank, Downtown Pittsburgh in mirrored glass windows

Former Mellon National Bank, Downtown

Who reads this stuff? A good question! The stats tell us there are site visitors from all around the world, but mainly from the U.S. and Canada (and we imagine most of those are current or former Pittsburghers). Apparently they get here from umpteen different means–social media, Reddit discussions, search engines, email lists, etc.

We’ve gotten a lot of really nice feedback from friends and site visitors, but it’s been most rewarding to connect with the various outside groups, each scratching their own funny itches. Pittsburgh’s bike and pedestrian community seems to check in on the city steps stories, there’s a devoted crew of ghost sign hunters over in the U.K., the street art folks are kept in ready supply, everybody likes to read about their friends, and just about anyone who came across them seems to love the Antignanis. Oh, and every single day someone comes in looking for Jaws.

Reflection of Market Square, Downtown Pittsburgh in glass windows

Market Square, Downtown

Regrets? Yeah, this blogger has a few! For a fellow as music-obsessed as this one, we’ve barely touched the category. We’re also starving for some more food and drink stories (the weird pizza series, notwithstanding). We’ve barely touched the South Hills, the hilltops, and still haven’t made it to Duck Hollow or Fairywood. And gosh darnit, if we’re left without being able to interview Bill Bored about the Cardboards, then this whole thing has been a waste of everybody’s time. (I suppose it won’t have been a waste of Bill Bored’s time.)

University of Pittsburgh building reflected in glass windows

University of Pittsburgh, Oakland

There are also a ton of things that would have made great Orbit obits but either disappeared before we started writing, or we were in the wrong place at the right time, or just couldn’t have done them justice: the old Nickel Bingo Parlor, Chiodo’s–its decades of dangling undergarments and its “mystery sandwich”–(former) White Towers, The Suburban Lounge and their house band The Casual Approach, St. Nicholas Church grotto–ah, hell, the list goes on and on. In any case: forgive us–we’re doing our best. Sigh.

Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh reflected in glass windows

Mellon Institute, Oakland

What’s next? Honestly, the eternal tap of great ideas has run from a gushing main to more of a babbling brook–but it’s still flowing! Maybe this blogger just needs to get up off the thinkin’ chair and put his nose to the grindstone. That said, we’ve got some fun stuff planned around Lent, springtime, weird sports, fried fish, wacky artists, a hunt for the elusive paw-paw, and of course, Cemetober. Keep that Internet web browser dialed-in right here, folks.

reflection-oliver-way

Oliver Ave., Downtown

An Orbit Obit: The Myrtle Booth Tanning Salon (Storefront)

Window for former Myrtle Booth Tanning Salon, Pittsburgh, PA

Myrtle Booth Tanning Salon (storefront), R.I.P.

Very recently, the long-vacant storefront at 4116 Main Street in Lawrenceville/Bloomfield finally turned over. By chance, I was lucky enough to have ganked this photo of the most recent business a few months before it disappeared.

Why do I care about an ex-tanning salon? I don’t even like real sun that much! Well, there were just so many little things to love about the Myrtle Booth windows.

I’ve been to Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Booth is clearly a riff on Myrtle Beach, the popular South Carolina beach/party town where many pasty northerners prefer to vacation this time of year. This blogger-to-be used to live just up the coast in Wilmington, NC. In the couple years I lived there, I made the hour-long drive down to Myrtle Beach a number of times, seemingly all for some goofy reason.

I remember driving down with my friends Detlef and David on the former’s quest for plastic pants, a necessary adjunct to the aspirationally-epic rock and roll he was performing at the time. No memory of whether he located them or not. I also remember making the trip with musical pen pal Marion, visiting the southern United States from Great Britain, along with Portland Orbit‘s own David. The parade of signs advertising “shag dancing,” “shag contest,” “shag music,” and just plain “shagging” turned her porcelain English sun-starved cheeks blood red. In the lowlands of the South, nothing could be tamer than shagging, but we understand it means something entirely different across the lake.

Handmade sign advertising shag dancing classes

Shag classes in Myrtle Beach: come join in or watch! [photo: the Internet]

You know what? I was there at least one more time. David (again, Orbit David) (what a prince!) helped me pack up a U-Haul and move from Wilmington to Pittsburgh. My repayment was to take him to Medieval Times wherein we ate giant turkey drumsticks, drank Pepsi products, and watched the pageantry of real humans and horses parading and jousting on the dirt floor of suburban Myrtle Beach sprawl. [Note to those relocating cross-country: an evening for two at Medieval Times is a lot cheaper than professional movers and pretty solid entertainment. Go Green Knight!]

Medieval Times theater/restaurant

Medieval Times: Where you’re the king and the Pepsi products are all-you-can-drink [photo: the Internet]

All this is to say Myrtle Beach is fine, but it’s not the destination I’d name my business after. But then, I probably won’t ever open a tanning salon. As my mother is wont to say, “maybe in my next life…”

Every square inch of their big front windows was painted over

I don’t know that I can name any other business that so successfully blocked out the light as Myrtle Booth. The irony that a tanning salon–in legendarily bleak Pittsburgh, no less–would attempt to thwart real sunlight from breaching its interior is just too great. Maybe people walk around naked in tanning salons? [Note to self: investigate!] I feel like that’s the only plausible explanation for this particular design decision.

The way the window was fallING apart

I can’t remember a time Myrtle Booth was actually open for business and we’ve been in the neighborhood for fifteen years now. You can see that aged wear it the way the white background paint has flaked off and has an amazing art-imitates-life look of loose sand on a wooden surface. I also love the single aborted attempt at graffiti in the pair of small black spray paint runs in the bottom right corner. What happened? Did the assailant just run out of paint at the wrong time? S/he never felt the need to come back and finish the job? Kids these days! No commitment!

Windows for Overcast Skate Shop retail store, Pittsburgh, PA

Overcast Skate Shop, the new occupants of 4116 Main Street

Back in May, we eulogized the relocation of Goeller Generator, a decades-old non-sexy business that cashed-in on rapidly-gentrifying Lawrenceville to make way for new upscale eats and digs in the Sixth Ward. The change from Myrtle Booth to its new life as Overcast Skate Shop is happening in the same general part of town, but with a very different set of circumstances. It’s hard to feel anything negative about a new business moving into to a storefront that’s been empty for so long and we wish them well, but I’ll still miss those big front windows.

An Orbit Obit: Goeller Generator, R.I.P.

faded sign for Goeller Generator, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Goeller Generator in Lawrenceville, 1946-2015

It was mere weeks ago that I finally took note (and, thankfully, took photo) of the beautifully faded Goeller Generator sign against the equally-transfixing rough weathered multi-color wall of the retail space next door (current home of gift shop Divertido).

Imagine my surprise, then, to pass this week by a pile of rubble and big hole in the ground where Goeller used to be.  The squat, one-story pair of cinder-block structures were no architectural marvel, and I can’t say that I’ve ever required the offerings of a generator sales and service shop (so maybe I’m part of the problem!) but I liked the fact that it was there–a constant among all the change that’s happened around it on Butler Street in Lawrenceville.

construction site with a large hole dug in the ground

A big hole in the ground

The move is so recent that there’s no mention of it on Goeller’s website, which still states proudly “We have been in the same location since 1946,” and had only in the last year or two gotten a new lit-up painted sign/mural on the wall facing 36th Street.

I e-asked around, my neighbors delivered, and the story is predictable. Zoned-retail real estate on Butler Avenue is worth a pretty penny right now and Goeller cashed-in to make way for a new development featuring a hamburger restaurant called Burgh’ers on the first floor and apartments upstairs. One report mentioned that Goeller will continue operating in a new location.

cinder-block wall of partially demolished Goeller Generator, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Over-the-Wall Club bonus: Goeller’s last wall standing with Our Lady of the Angels

Now, this blogger can eat the hell out of a fancy hamburger, even if he’s disgusted with himself for doing so. I’m also glad the neighborhood’s empty storefronts have mostly filled up and I like having more than Hambone’s and Barb’s Country Kitchen as walkable dining options. [No disrespect: I still patronize both!] But the whiplash rate of development/gentrification in Lawrenceville is pretty scary. Forever we’ve heard about this stuff happening in other cities, but I naively imagined it would never be so in Pittsburgh, let alone right in my neighborhood. Sigh.

If Frankie’s closes, it’s time to move to Rankin.

The Ultimate Pittsburgh Greenhouse Experience

worn painted wooden sign reading "Greenhouse"

Here’s how you get there: Go out Penn Avenue all way through Wilkinsburg and Forest Hills. Pass Vincent’s Pizza Park. [Pro tip: keep Vincent’s in mind–time things right and you can stop there for lunch on the way back.] Take the turn onto Electric Avenue to get you down into Turtle Creek. When you’re stopped, staring straight up at the giant old Westinghouse plant, make that left. You’ll slide onto the Tri-Boro Expressway, but you won’t be there long.

As soon as you see a handmade sign reading Greenhouse stuck into the grass, take that left, and then a quick right where the road forks and leads you straight up the hillside. Follow it around until you get to Henkel’s Greenhouse.

temporary roadsign for Henkel's Greenhouse

Directions to Henkel’s: it’s somewhere up the hill

Why go all the way out to Turtle Creek when there are so many places that will sell you plantlings between here and there? I’ll tell you why: Henkel’s is the ultimate Pittsburgh greenhouse experience. Thanks to my buddy Bill for the tip on this one, it’s become an annual tradition ever since.

This weekend is a couple of things: today is Mother’s Day. Nothing says “thank you for bringing me into the world” like a drug store greeting card and brunch at King’s, but this blogger really does love his momma, and momma is a terrific gardener. It also happens to be exactly the right time to get your vegetables in the ground, and this turned out to be a perfect sunshiny hot weekend to get on it (but don’t worry if you didn’t, there’s still time).

So we’re going to honor mothers, gardeners, thumbs (green and otherwise), and terrific old-school family businesses with this little Orbit tribute to Henkel’s Greenhouse via three great reasons to get your keister out to Turtle Creek.

Henkel's Greenhouse, Turtle Creek

Henkel’s Greenhouse, Turtle Creek

Reason #1: Four generations of Henkels growing your plants

I’m not going to pretend that I know the Henkel’s whole family tree and The Orbit isn’t the kind of shady “journalism” that “asks hard questions” and “gets answers.” No, we go with our gut and just hope we’re right. But here’s what our gut has witnessed over the years: a relationship of what appears to be great-grandpa, grandpa, father, and son (yes: all Henkel growers seem to be male), ages roughly eight to eighty, sowin’ and growin’ together. It’s beautiful. (But guys: maybe let the ladies get in the dirt too.)

Henkel's Greenhouse with tomato varieties

Tomato/pepper greenhouse, Henkel’s

Reason #2: The trip to the greenhouse

It’s a little bit of an adventure just getting up there.  The signage is minimal, you’re very far off any commercial drag, and the single-lane road that takes you there could well be on a mountain in West Virginia. Home Depot, this ain’t. Once you’re there, Henkel’s occupies the large yard of a humble two-story frame house, built up a steep hillside, cobbled together over likely decades with jerry-rigged kits and recycled shipping pallets.

cardboard box containing vegetable plants for replanting

What twelve bucks gets you

Reason #3: It’s cheap*

Here’s what twelve bucks buys you at Henkel’s**:

  • 9 tomato (3 each: Golden Boy, Potato Leaf, Viva Italia)
  • 15 pepper (6 Sweet Banana, 3 Early Sensation, 6 Inferno)
  • 4 zucchini
  • 3 sweet Italian basil

* Realistically, travel time and expense to Turtle Creek likely erases any monetary savings, but it’s still cheap.

** This blogger is obviously interested in vegetables, but Henkel’s has a full compliment of flowers, shrubs, ground cover, etc.–which we’ve purchased in the past. I just didn’t pick any of those up this year. They also have lots of other vegetables, but I just stuck with the basics this year.

stacked planting containers

view of greenhouse through ventilation slats

 

Lackzoom Acidophilus

Terra cotta facade storefront in Pittsburgh with the engraved names Lackzoom and Acidophilus

5438 Penn Ave: Lackzoom Acidophilus

I must have passed it a thousand times or more.  Certainly I’d noticed the white terra cotta facade and its odd trapezoidal shape, canted in such a way that it doesn’t quite align with the street, like a mis-set bone.

But it wasn’t until very recently that I happened to actually look up and take in the detail above the doorway/windows.  Two names (?) permanently formed into the ceramic tile that read like ancient runes, some hep jazzcat jive, or a preposterous stage name: Lackzoom Acidophilus.

The small, two-story building at 5438 Penn Avenue turns out to have been the one-time laboratory and corporate headquarters for the lineal parent of the General Nutrition Corporation (or GNC), the Pittsburgh-based retail giant that made a fortune over the last half century urging America to “Live Well” vis-a-vis shopping and popping (malls and pills, respectively).

Terra cotta tile reading "Lackzoom"

It’s no surprise that I’m not the only one to ever spot this curious storefront, but there’s remarkably little information out there on it.  The definitive piece seems to be a short Western Pennsylvania History Magazine article written in 2003 by Chris Potter.

Potter’s story details David Shakarian, founder of GNC, whose:

… Armenian parents ran a business called “Lackzoom” which sold yogurt, buttermilk, and Bulgarian acidophilus–milk fortified with the bacteria lactobacillus acidophilus to intestinal bacteria that make digesting milk difficult for some.

Apparently the original Lackzoom never survived The Great Depression, but Shakarian would go on to found his own health food store, and eventually the GNC chain. In 1983, the year before his death, Shakarian was named by Forbes magazine as the wealthiest Pittsburgher on their annual list. Live well, indeed.

Pittsburgh ghost sign reading "Lackzoom and Acidophilus"

Ghost sign, obscured by flora: “Lackzoom and Acidophilus”

Dead Mall: Century III

Century III shopping mall common area with empty kiosk and candy machines

Century III Mall: from dust to dust

The “dead mall” phenomenon is certainly not anything unique to Pittsburgh.  It’s been documented in sites like deadmalls.com and articles like a recent New York Times piece on “the economics and nostalgia of dead malls.”  For those of us old enough to remember when the local shopping mall was the predator, not the prey, it’s almost inconceivable that these retail-draining, downtown-killing behemoths could ever be ousted, but whether it be the Internet or competition cannibalizing their own, it’s for real, and it’s happening everywhere.

The Century III Mall, located in the borough of West Mifflin, in the southeast suburbs of Pittsburgh, is not technically dead.  It is, in fact, still open for business, with anchor tenants and a relatively clean and cared-for interior.  It maintains three anchor tenants (with Sears having recently pulled-out), a two-restaurant food court, and just enough open businesses to think they may draw a crowd on weekends and the run-up to Christmas.

That said, it’s probably only a matter of time.  The mall is supposedly only 40% occupied, down from 80% ten years ago, and walking through on a recent Friday afternoon there were next to no customers in any of the remaining stores.  The clerk at the jewelry kiosk was clearly asleep.

Century III Mall empty storefront detail

Century III: empty storefront detail

Century III Mall empty storefront detail

Century III: empty storefront detail

Century III does have a uniquely Pittsburgh backstory, though, connected to the steel industry right at the end of its reign on the region’s economy.  The Wikipedia article on the mall summarizes well:

The name Century III was conceived at the time of the nation’s Bicentennial, making light of the time at hand – the advent of America’s third century. When the mall opened in 1979, it was the third largest enclosed shopping center in the world. The site is a recycled former U.S. Steel industrial area, a huge slag pile once known as Brown’s Dump. Slag, a waste product of steel making, had for years been transported by rail cars from the mills of Pittsburgh to this once remote valley.

Aerial photo of former slag heap "Brown's Dump"

“Brown’s Dump” (no snickering), pre-mall

This transformation of the ultimate brownfield–a steel industry slag heap–into a bright and shiny shopping mecca must have made business section headlines all over the place.  But its (seemingly inevitable) demise at this point is now a sad ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust, slag-to-slag parable of retail in the twenty-first century.  It’s unlikely this particular heap will last the sixty-some years it would take for it to reach Century IV.

Blog author reflected in empty mall mirrors

Century Selfiii: the author, fractured and alone at the mall