Signs of the Times

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Once upon a time, signs painted on the side of buildings proliferated in Pittsburgh.  Over the decades as these types of signs went out of fashion, many were left to fade with time.  Remnants of these signs still cling to several buildings.  Some signs are faded but legible while others only show faint traces of having been there.

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These signs tell a story of the history of the city.  Is it a story worth preserving?  If so, what is the appropriate way to preserve it?  Should these signs be refreshed so that they continue to live on?  Or should they be left alone to continue to fad to show their decline from favor?  Yet, there appears to be renewed interest in the hand painted sign.  (This article is one of several about a niche of successful hand painted sign artists.)  Maybe as these buildings are renovated, some of these signs will be refreshed with a modern take.

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Utility Siloes Part 2


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Dismantling in progress (6/24/2018)


After continued observations, I need to modify some of my assumptions in the post Utility Siloes.  It turns out that the existence of the other utility wires attached to the poles does not prevent the old poles from being removed.  Instead, weeks after a new utility pole is installed, the remainder of the deteriorated pole is removed except for the chunk where the other wires are attached.


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Close-up of the dismantling (6/24/2018)

Perhaps the crew that removes poles is different than the crew that installs them.  Although, the installation team is able to lob off the top of the old pole after they transfer the wires to the new one.  Why then can’t they dismantle the rest of the pole at the same time?  And in the case of constricted locations, such as the feature of these posts, why can’t they located the new pole in the same location as the old one?


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Dismantling Complete (6/30/2018)



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View of another dismantled pole, the remaining chunk is secured to the new pole by a rope.




Out of Sight…

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Trash Train Passing through Pittsburgh

Once a week, I put a bag of trash out at the curb before going to bed.  When I leave for work in the morning, it’s gone.  Poof!

Yesterday, while enjoying the beautiful summer day, the stench of garbage made me look up.  Crossing the railroad bridge, chugged a train full of trash.  I couldn’t see either engine or caboose, only car upon car upon car full of trash.  As I passed under it, smelling the breadth of the aura of stink surrounding the train, my mind imagined all the homes, parks, farms, mountains, forests, and prairies that would be polluted by this rotting mass before it reached its final destination.  A destination that is forever polluted.

I don’t litter.  I recycle when possible (or easy).  I don’t have a newspaper delivered as most of it ends up going straight to my recycle bin, wasting energy and resources.  I try to buy yogurt by the quart instead of single serve to reduce the amount of plastic used.  I plan to compost, one day.  Yet, I had no qualms setting out a bag of garbage every week.

In a corner of my mind, I knew that a truck comes and takes the garbage away to something called a landfill.  And that the garbage will sit there…forever.


A Storm Drain Treated as a Trash Can

Today, that image of the trash train is causing me to question my behavior.  Is my habit of collecting all my “garbage” in a plastic bag and setting it at my curb for it to find its way to this train and then to a landfill really any better than the person whose habit is to drop their trash on the ground or down a storm drain?  Is a landfill really any better than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Social media is filled with indignation over the trash vortex floating in our ocean, but maybe there should be more discussion and awareness about the rest of our trash: where it goes and what alternatives we have.

Utility Silos

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The obstruction from utility silos

This spring, the electric company went around my neighborhood installing replacement utility poles where the existing ones were on their last leg.  Watching them do this for a pole just down the street from me, I drew some conclusions about the interaction between the various companies that supply the different technologies available at our fingertips.  The electrical company owns the poles and the electric wire, but other companies own the other fiber optics and cables that use the poles.  The electric company installs new poles when the existing ones are deteriorated.  Once installed, they transfer the electric lines to the new pole.  The old pole is left with all the other lines in place, until the companies that own the rest of the lines transfer them to the new pole.

This arrangement seemed relatively harmless as I watched it in action near my house, but then I found the example above.  In this case, the rigidity of the silos and jurisdictions of the various companies created a physical barrier in the neighborhood that will likely be in place for the next 35 years or so, until the pole is ready to be replaced.  This is in direct contradiction to the City’s initiatives for greater accessibility illustrated by the sidewalk curb ramps installed within the last year at the intersections on either side of this pole.

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Close-up showing the curb, the old pole, the new pole, the foot of sidewalk left, and the combined driveways

The choices were limited for siting this new utility pole.  There are driveway curb cuts immediately adjacent on either side.  Therefore, to place the new pole in line with the existing poles would have partially blocked someone’s driveway.  Apparently, the silos are so entrenched that even under unusual circumstances such as these the various companies cannot work together so that a new pole can be placed in the exact same spot as the old pole.  The sidewalk that was already narrow and could not accommodate the recommended 5-foot clearance around obstructions is now nearly impassible and requires pedestrians to cross partially on the driveways.

I do not know if anyone paused before installing this new utility pole to ask if there was a different or better way to approach the situation.  From my experiences at my office in trying to work with others to design an approach that looks at the organization as a whole while still respecting and acknowledging each area of expertise and specialization, it is difficult to get all parties at the table to apply creative thinking and openness to how we can approach our work.  No doubt, even if someone was able to get all relevant parties involved in this utility pole to the table, they would have encountered similar challenges.

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Evidence that the old poles eventually get removed and an example of where a new pole was placed next to the old along side the curb

Checking on the Rivers



Silt deposit after the flooding rivers receded enough to uncover the fountain at The Point (February 20, 2018)


Over the last few years, I have developed a habit of “checking on the rivers” regularly by crossing them on my way to various activities or eating my lunch on their shores.  This habit started as a way to get a break from the office and clear my mind.  After having read several books by John Muir and James Fennimore Cooper, I found a deeper meaning in these “check-ups”.  Both authors wrote wonderfully descriptive passages of nature scenes and kayaking on rivers and oceans.  While crossing the Allegheny one day, something about the view recalled some of these passages.  I was filled with a sense of wonder and awe that this river running through the heart of our city is still the same force of nature described by Muir and Cooper in other locations, despite the man-made attempts at controlling it through dams and bridges and concrete lining the shores.

This winter, the weather patterns are reinforcing the power of nature as exhibited by the rivers.  During our cold snap over MLK Jr Day weekend, the rivers froze.  The Allegheny had some pockets of open water surrounded by thick ice, but the Monongahela froze all the way across.  Commercial traffic on the Monongahela started up again on Tuesday, breaking a path through the ice along the shipping lane, but on the coldest days that week, the channel remained clogged with chunks of ice that appeared to be refreezing together between shipments.  As the weather warmed up slightly, the rest of the river remained frozen, but the shipping lane cleared of ice, until it got cold again and refroze.

Marveling at the sight of the frozen rivers, I found myself beset by the feeling that impels people to walk across frozen bodies of water without knowing whether or not the ice is actually thick enough to hold you.

Since then, an extended period of unseasonably high temperatures and record pushing rainfall has brought on over a week of flooding and high water on the rivers. The fountain at The Point is supposed to have gone underwater at least twice in that time. Multiple roads and ramps downtown have been forced to close off and on due to high water. The highest I saw the water, a few hours before it’s first peak, it appeared to be within a few feet of the base of PNC Park.

Every time I pass by one or the other, I compare the water height against the familiar features. On the Monongahela, several of the trees lining the shore have been standing in water for days. I wonder how long they will hold out before they join the other logs floating down the middle of the swollen torrent. On the Allegheny, the trails on both sides of the river are either more or less under water. As I look down from the high perch of the bridges or the sidewalk along Fort Duquesne Blvd, I am amazed at how effortless it seems the water just slips over the edge of the trail. Whenever I’ve walked that same path, the water always seemed far below.

As I spent my lunch breaks this week running from one to another of the rivers to check on the effects of all this water, I laughed at my eager curiosity to explore these flooded shores compared to the terror I experienced as a kid when my Dad took my brother and I along on similar exploration of the flooded Delaware River. My heart clutched as the waters of the Delaware bubbled and gurgled inches from the road we traveled. When we pulled off to park and watch the water a uniformed personnel directed us to move to higher ground. That area was being evacuated due to the rupture of an ice dam upstream that released a 50 ft high wall of water expected to hit that part in 10-20 minutes. My Dad got us back in the car and headed up the road again at what seemed to me to be a snail’s pace. My eyes detected signs of the water being even closer to the level of the road as we went back the way we came. I only breathed freely again, when we reached a lookout off the Appalachian Trail hundreds of feet above the bed of the river. We waited and watched for a long time, but never saw the promised wall of water.

Ever since that day, my mind has contemplated the idea of a wall of water traveling down a river with interest trying to picture and understand how that would work. The extreme variations in the heights of Pittsburgh’s three rivers the last couple weeks are the closest real-life examples I’ve had of massive amounts of extra water flowing downriver. My curiosity is teased by this, impelling me to explore, urging me to go on, go closer. Yet, the fear of the water’s power still remains tucked up in the corners of my mind. It mingled with wonder and awe as I stood at the edge of the silt deposited by the rivers around the fountain at The Point.