The Alleyway of Magical Delights: Remly Way

long retaining wall decorated with hundreds of organized objects

“Little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of dollars.” Remly Way, Wilmerding

If there is a single image that captures both the dedication to this awkward space and the keeper’s ability to warm up, beautify, and humanize the most lifeless of urban landscapes, it may be found in a tiny row of marigolds. The flowers are planted in a thin channel–there’s maybe five inches of arable soil–between the cement curb and an imposing retaining wall, scarred with decades of cracks, pockmarks, and vestigial stains.

Those tiny flowers, spaced neatly in a freshly-mulched bed, offer just a hint at what the first-time visitor will encounter in the next couple hundred feet, but they sure let you know someone is paying attention back here. What lies ahead is the most magical transformation of a mundane alleyway you’ll encounter anytime soon.

cement retaining wall with thin row of marigold flowers planted along the curb

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” marigolds and cement

“It used to be all weeds. I got sick of looking at weeds,” says Carl Remly of his effort to clean up the little street that runs behind his house. Remly is a self-described workaholic who lives on the block and is “not too good at sitting around.” We believe him.

The combined do-good spirit and boundless energy led Remly from weeding to gardening (“I was never what you’d call a green thumb”) to decorating his tiny front yard with an oddball collection of dinosaur models, tiki figures, and bric-a-brac.

When he turned his sights on the back alley, though, Carl Remly managed to convert what was a typically ignored minor passageway into an incredible outdoor, curated art environment that is both magical and comical, wacky and serene. Don’t look for it on the map, but we’re going to refer to this highly-recommended destination as Remly Way.

brick row house with many lawn decorations

“It started with the dinosaurs in the front yard” Carl Remly’s house on Middle Street, Wilmerding

Miller Street is a three- or four-block-long, one-way alley that runs behind a stretch of century-old row house blocks in north Wilmerding. From gaps between the long buildings, you can look straight out across Turtle Creek (the creek itself, not the town named after the creek) and see several giant old Westinghouse factories. One imagines many of the folks who originally lived in these tight worker homes must have spent their days in the big brick Air Brake Machine Shop.

By chance, Miller Street also appears to be the only section of the borough Google didn’t (or couldn’t) make it down to photograph for their StreetView feature. Perhaps Remly’s work will bring the crew back for another well-deserved drive-through.

Christmas decorations in alley with view of former Westinghouse factory

View of the old Westinghouse factory from Remly Way

Part visionary garden, part art environment, and part open-air museum, Remly Way has at least four distinct stages. Each is approximately a half-block long following the contours of the big retaining wall holding up the Tri-Boro Expressway, above.

Section I: A Curious Entree (our name) is that single row of marigolds (and other flowers) at the far eastern edge where Miller Street meets Short Alley. One needn’t begin the exploration here–and if you’re in a car, you can’t (it’s a one-way, going the other direction)–but The Orbit recommends you walk it from that starting point for maximum dramatic impact.

In Section II: Christmas in June, the space between curb and wall expands just a little to give Remly the room to house larger plants, figurines, statuary, and a recycled artificial Christmas tree about every 10 feet. “A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop,” Remly says of his favorite decoration source.

concrete retaining wall decorated with artificial Christmas trees, flowers, and other items

“A lot of Christmas trees are just a buck a piece at the thrift shop.”

row of Christmas decorations against retaining wall in long alley

Christmas in June. Remly Way should ideally be experienced both during the day and all lit up at night.

Up until now, the alley has been a pleasant side trip–a creative way one neighbor is making the most of a thin sliver of neglected space. That all changes when we get to Remly Way’s third stage: The Museum. Here, Carl Remly’s genius for design and composition come into full form and the minds of passers-by are forever blown in the process.

On the PennDOT-sponsored shelving created by heavy steel corrugated wall sections, Remly has converted the negative space into intricate, curated collections of oddball figurines, decorative items, and topiary. There is a section containing nothing but model ducks; another with animals cast in brass and a frog fantasia. Still another groups together bald eagles, their wings reliably spread as if in imminent lift-off.

retaining wall with many model ducks

“I have a little bit of a theme to everything,” the duck display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Brass/frog display

“You read the Sunday paper and somebody in Upper Saint Clair gets the garden of the year because they paid a lot of money,” Remly says, “I just wanted to show that little people in Wilmerding can make something nice without spending thousands of  dollars.”

In addition to being a workaholic, Remly also confesses to being a shopaholic who makes frequent trips to flea markets, junk stores, thrift shops, and Home Depot’s post-seasonal sales.

“I have two garages that are supposed to be for my (commercial door installation) business,” Remly says, “But now they’re the holding area for all my stuff.”

retaining wall with many model bird figures

Bird display

retaining wall with many model animal figures

Bunny/cat/rooster display

By the time you reach Remly Way’s final phase, Section IV: Re-entry/The Coming Down, one needs to give the peepers a rest after the eye-popping density of the previous collections. That comes in the form of a tiny parklet at the only space along the alley that will permit it–a small alcove of green grass, shaded by a bank of short trees above.

Here, Remly has included–you guessed it–more Christmas trees, plus big freestanding cartoon character decorations, a seating area in purple wicker, at least one light-up Big Foot cut-out, and a homemade sign that reads Stay Safe and Healthy. The sign is decorated with drawings of airplanes and battleships fighting the coronavirus by Remly’s grandchildren.

small parklet decorated with Christmas trees and lawn decorations

Remly Way parklet, Miller Street

cut-out Big Foot figure wrapped in Christmas lights

Light-up Big Foot, Remly Way parklet

More than a few times in our short conversation Carl Remly mentioned the desire to brighten the spirits of his neighbors and other visitors to the alley. He puts up a Christmas display every year, but with the arrival and uncertainty of everything around the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for a spring/summer pick-me-up was especially strong.

I’m here to tell you, it works. There’s a kind of magic in that little alley–a sense that if someone cares this much about his neighbors and fellow human beings that things just have to work out somehow. The experience is beautiful and surprising, free and accessible. It’s also exactly what we need more of right now.

Like the sign in Remly parklet says, stay safe and healthy, y’all.

back porches of row house with elaborate decorations

Memorial to Carl Remly’s late wife Wannitta and other decorations

porch lit with elaborate light display

The flying unicorns at night

Getting there: Our recommendation is to park somewhere around the 300 or 400 block of Middle Ave., Wilmerding (look for Fan Club Sports Bar), walk to Short Alley (note: there’s no street sign), and then left at the concrete wall (to Miller Street aka Remly Way)–you’ll see the flowers.

The Ways and Means Committee

Banner Way

Banner Way

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.

ivy-covered 5-story brick building, Pittsburgh, PA

Banner Way

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.

Blackberry Way, Pittsburgh, PA

Blackberry Way

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.

old Chevrolet truck, Pittsburgh, PA

Locarna Way

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.

Banner Way

Banner Way

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.

Plum Way

Plum Way

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.

Cotton Way

Cotton Way

All photos and text by Kirsten Ervin.