Kirsten Ervin files her second story for Pittsburgh Orbit, inaugurating what we hope will be a new series on Pittsburgh’s alleys. The Ways and Means Committee is called to order!
I came home one day to find DEA agents and men in white coveralls in the alley behind our house, carting out garbage bags bursting with kind bud. The biggest indoor marijuana grow lab in Pittsburgh was discovered in a second-floor loft on Urbana Way two years ago. The stench permeated our own house. I smelled like the inside of a bong for the rest of the day, having some awkward explaining to do at business meetings.
Over the 16 years we’ve lived in Lawrenceville, a lot has happened on Urbana Way. We had a most colorful neighbor living behind us–a self-professed DJ, artist, soap maker, “creative genius”, etc. who went by MC Strawberrie Cream. Mostly she was really good at yelling at whatever boyfriend she was living with at the time. That, and terrorizing the neighborhood with late night playlists of piercing club music, so loud it made conversation difficult. She had electric orange hair and a permanent scowl. Her apartment was on the second story of an older industrial building, with a wide double door and a pulley. There was a dumpster below. Whatever went in that dumpster, or was left in the alley, was gone within minutes, Strawberrie Cream having hoisted it up into her apartment with its electric winch. One time we caught her sitting on top of a heap of trash in the dumpster drinking a beer, her skirt splayed out, picking through the contents.
I am fascinated by the alleys of Pittsburgh and have recently gone exploring the other “Ways” in Lawrenceville, of which there are many. Most have very pleasing names: Blackberry Way, Umpire Way, Plum Way, Eden Way, Antwerp Way. They read like poetry. I wonder how they were named. They have street signs but aren’t streets. They intrigue me, beckoning like secrets. Here are the backs of houses, the backs of yards, the less traveled, the ultimate locals-only. Alleys are not meant to be seen, just as the back of an elaborate embroidery is not meant to be examined. But, in turning it over to reveal the hidden stitching, one meets with a fascinating haphazard tapestry. It’s not pretty, but this is where the work happens.
Likewise, the tiny backyards and fences of the alleyways reveal a lot about how we live, pretty or not. This is where we relax with a beer on a summer night, wash our cars, run through the sprinkler, take out the garbage. Our gardens, cars, grills, toys, and castoffs compete for space in the postage stamp existence of outdoor city life. Here is where the carefully-manicured green patch abuts the yard overrun with weeds and an old refrigerator. Kiddy pools, fire escapes, peeling paint, and barking dogs lean toward each other. It’s the juxtaposition of the junkyard and the sublime.
This is also where Pittsburgh reveals its industrial, immigrant past. Many of the ways are paved with cobblestone and brick, dotted with the breezeways of an ancient European village. Unassuming buildings lift up their back curtains to make way for deliveries and storage. Heavy equipment moves here.
While drinking in the random and accidental beauty of the alleyways, I come across the freshly appointed and carefully streamlined undersides of newer, fancier developments. These are stripped of any secrets or stories–pretty, but so bland as to be indistinct from one another. This is my worry for Lawrenceville, for Pittsburgh. It’s not the money or the so-called sophistication of new transplants that I am worried about. It is the whitewash of what is already here, the antiseptic cleansing of history, and the rejection of the underside of things–the masking of who we are and how we live.
All photos and text by Kirsten Ervin.