The city of Pittsburgh claims 90 separate neighborhoods—not to mention, all those boroughs, townships and municipal anomalies outside the city proper.
So how do you tell when you’ve left one and entered another?
Sometimes there’s a welcome sign. Most favor a just-the-facts approach. Polish Hill’s says it in Polish: “Witamy do.” Bloomfield’s sign puts “Pittsburgh’s Little Italy” in bold—and covers it in tomatoes, garlic, pasta and the Italian flag.
A few signs go beyond the mere greeting and seem to say a bit more about the neighborhood. Or, they’re just so unusual that you almost have to look twice.
Many of those were designed by one artist, James Simon. To him, most welcome signs don’t leave much of an impression.
“They all seemed kind of generic,” says Simon. “I wanted to create an art piece that’s also a nicely functional greeting for the city.”
Troy Hill is the latest to get one of Simon’s signs: a bright mosaic of ceramic and glass shards bedecked with birds and blue flowers rising above the tightly-packed row houses of Troy Hill, plus a landmark or two. It was finished four years ago, but was just recently installed in the parking lot across from Penn Brewery.
The idea was to create something that spoke to newcomers to Troy Hill, and those who have made it home for generations.
“It changed several times,” says Simon. “There was a big controversy about putting pig imagery into it. Troy Hill was once known as ‘Pig Hill’—the slaughterhouse was at the bottom of the hill (on what’s now Washington’s Landing). Some of the people really wanted a pig. A lot of the old-timers thought that wasn’t a good thing to remember. They took a vote and the ‘no-pig’ people won by one or two people votes. My contract said, ‘No pig imagery.’”
“They wanted to celebrate the architecture, the churches,” says Simon. “I took pictures of the buildings and roughly duplicated them for the skyline at the bottom of the mosaic.”
As for the birds, well, Simon just likes making birds.
“I just designed those, to have something nice that wasn’t pigs,” he says. “It’s fun to make colorful birds. They’re not regional; they’re kind of international. It represents my idea of people from all over the world who came to live here.”
Even a little bit of art goes a long way in a welcome sign. The “Welcome to Deutschtown” sign, with its orange-hued skyline silhouette in the background, is a good example. Millvale’s building-sized mural throws together a lot of local color, from Jean-Marc Chatellier’s pastries, to the the neon clock outside Pamela’s P&G Diner. Mt. Lebanon’s sign turns local attractions into a giant 1950s-style postcard.
Some landmark signs are gone, of course. A few are missed, like the flower pots sprouting each letter of Bloomfield, on the side of the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern. Some aren’t missed, like the old Greenfield sign (since replaced) that curiously dubbed it “A Suburb in The City.”
Braddock upstages many other neighborhoods by being bookended by two eye-catching welcome signs.
Facing the fire-spewing hulk of the Edgar Thomson Works is the one from New Guild Studios.
It features two hand-painted steelworkers pouring molten steel from a bucket, illuminated by concentric circles of orange and red neon. The Braddock-based studio specializes in art for churches—which doesn’t typically require a lot of neon.
“It was really a fun departure,” says New Guild artist David Miriello. “We actually worked on it for probably a year on and off in our spare time. We actually donated all of our work, because it was sort of a labor of love.”
The idea came from Braddock mayor John Fetterman.
“The molten steel is coming out and pouring into a mold that says ‘Braddock,’” says Miriello.
At the other end of Braddock is another sign by Simon, created with help from the Braddock Youth Project. It’s a surreal swirl of colors and figures—a checkerboard-backed turtle, a big-eyed bird, a trumpet playing troubadour—cavorting around the message “Welcome to Braddock.” A grumpy-looking puppy sculpture peers dolorously from atop the sign.
If Simon’s work looks familiar, that’s because it’s all over town. He did a welcome sign for Uptown, and a wordless, textured piece called Uptown Rhythm for Duquesne University. He also did the giant sculptures of musicians on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, now adjacent to the ToonSeum.
His ceramic tile-and-glass style is extremely labor-intensive, and requires some unique materials.
“I’m making it now, more and more,” notes Simon. “It’s very hard to get colorful, nice ceramic tile. The glass is similar to what they use for stained glass windows. There’s a company in Connellsville that still does stained glass.”
Got a fave?
People will always get lost in Pittsburgh, even in the age of GPS. With neighborhood signs, there’s a good chance you’ll at least know what neighborhood you’re lost in.
Send us a photo of your neighborhood sign to feature in a roundup article to be published soon.