On the Pittsburgh Signs Project: Through Its Signs, The City Is a Mystic Cosmos

17Dec08

In which The Gay Recluse reads a book of signs.

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One strange thing about growing up in Pittsburgh was that even before we lived anywhere else, we used to say that it — i.e., Pittsburgh — was haunted. But when people would ask us why, we were at a loss to explain: either you got it, it seemed, or you did not.

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But now that we live in the equally haunted neighborhood of Washington Heights, we’re in a better position to explain. Like Washington Heights, Pittsburgh — or at least many parts of it — resonates with a decrepitude that can only be attained after the big show has ended, so to speak, after the spotlight of “development” and capital and investment has moved to newer and more exciting venues, leaving the hulking wrecks from the old production to languish in the shadows. Nowhere is this contrast greater than upper and lower Manhattan, but Pittsburgh — like so much of the Midwest — has also been left behind in the last twenty years; to spend even an hour or two driving across its bridges and through its tunnels is to be shocked by the deterioration, the sense that the bridge you are crossing might just fall into the river at any second, and most of all, a sense that you are not in the United States of freedom and equality, but some mockery of this, some communist blok country from the 1980s, even down to the ridiculou$ new sports arenas that have recently replaced the old ones.

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There is, of course, an exhilaration that comes from being removed from the toxic streams of money that circulate around and through us so constantly, at our downtown corporate jobs, and in the lives of those we read about in The Times or watch on The Hills teevee. There’s an uncanny feeling of safety here, not unlike what we used to experience as a child when we would retreat to the back of our mother’s closet for a few hours, just to escape the mayhem of the family. You walk through these streets and see the cracked building facades, the crumbling letters of a dead marquis, and the windows that are somehow never quite square, and you know that these are places of survival, where luxury of any kind — except perhaps the most base — is only a taunting echo across the lost decades. But underneath the despair, there is also for us — the observer — relief.

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We of course have always preferred this backstage environment, where the rules of normal society may or may not apply, where there’s a certain code of conduct that arises out of the need to scratch out an existence in these corrupted hills. It’s not that people aren’t conservative, but there’s less pretense and optimism — and consequently, public judgment — than what you find in the West; even the mountains around Pittsburgh are more stoic than angry; they seem old and resigned to their fate.

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The Pittsburgh Signs Project — a new book being published by CMU Press — beautifully documents this fading existence in a series of 250 photographs by Jennifer Baron, Greg Langel, Elizabeth Perry, and Mark Stroup. We can’t help linger over this pleasingly obsessive record of a neglected and disappearing past, not so much with a thought to save or preserve any of it, but simply to consider the transforming power of time and erosion; objects here that would have once inspired disdain now possess a dignity that thankfully transcends the more tedious elements of nostalgia or kitsch that sometimes threatens to ruin our appreciation of pop culture, especially those mass-produced elements of it. Rather, we get the sense that each of these signs is a unique artifact recovered from the bottom of the ocean. Or you might think of it like strolling through a graveyard in which you have no personal relation with any of the dead; with each one, we try to imagine what life was like when it was new, when it was shining with the dreams of those who created it, and seemed to offer an escape that’s all but unthinkable now. This of course is not done with condescension or pity, but rather jealousy that those who once lived could have been offered so much more than what we are left with today.

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The Pittsburgh Signs Project, just named one of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s books of the year can be purchased here or contact the editors directly at 250signs [at] gmail [dot] com. Read more here and here.

All photographs courtesy of and by Jennifer Baron, editor and contributor to the Pittsburgh Signs Project (click for PSP website or here for the PSP Facebook), except for South Hills Bowl by Dan Buczynski and Twin Hi-Way Drive-In by Corey LeChat.

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4 Responses to “On the Pittsburgh Signs Project: Through Its Signs, The City Is a Mystic Cosmos”

  1. I love this sub area of design and architecture. These signs that were once sparkly and vibrant are now like old tattered postcards you find in your grandmother’s attic of place that is no more. So interesting! Great post.

  2. 2 orinink

    spent last night watching leonardo de caprio play a fey little homewrecking rimbaud,in “total eclipse”wondering why i do not see very many positive gay romances on screen(humor me).made me think back to a few weeks ago when i saw “Were the world Mine”everyone loves this movie ,i thought it reeked of the gay as selfish child that needs to be cajoled and ultimately controlled syndrome.I detest being tolerated.
    I wondered When will two men love unapologetically ,without damaging everyone around them on screen.When will the historical affronts of strieghts against gays be depicted.Why are so many films about us tragedies as opposed to affirmations?
    are they a warning to the youth like my mothers showing of the AIDS toll on the cover of the new york post when i was an adolescent.

    Do u think perhaps that these photo’s are metaphorical for the american dream,lots of bright blooming signs rotting underneath because they are inanimate,cut off from nature,running from rot and unlike nature will never be able to regenerate itself.will allways be only victims of nature,for rot is nature.
    do you think perhaps the reason why empires fail is because they do not embrace true human nature,that they live in signs and symbols and abstractions.Power becomes there pasttime as opposed to creation and acceptance that none of us are immortal or can be fully controlled.
    these decaying landscapes,are they not symbolic of our true disinterest in anything but our immediate needs,our disrespect for the “ancient truths”for the environment.

    • Hey orinink! I agree with you about the movies, although to me the issue is presenting gay characters rooted more in truth than stereotype — which may or may not entail destroying everyone around them — yet for some reason it seems impossible for most filmmakers to deliver anything resonating in the former more than the latter. Not sure exactly why! As for the photos, I agree that they are metaphors for the American dream, but my sense is that empires ultimately fail because the only way to truly learn about oneself is through resignation and defeat (in short, the Wotan myth applies pretty much everywhere.)


  1. 1 The Digest. 01.05.09. at C-MONSTER.net

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