David Byrne about Croatian painter Vanka
'The church is Croatian and the murals, by Maxo Vanka, are spectacular. The Diego Riviera of Pittsburgh, I would say.'
Pittsburgh May 14
Last night the audience sang Happy Birthday to me as we walked on stage. We're in a beautiful renovated theater in downtown- the topless muses frolic on a ceiling mural.
Leigh is from here and her parents give me a pre-birthday present — a glass dish her mom made with a copy of a peculiar Austin roundabout traffic sign on it — the same sign I had embroidered on some of our merch.
The next day I met my friend John Chernoff, writer and drummer, at the Mattress factory, an art space on the North Side. He talked about city finances. Some old timers remember when Pittsburgh was booming and smoky. With the combined smoke from the foundries, the coal dust and the coal heat in the houses the sky was often dark at noon. Black clouds covered the city for much of the year.
The last steel mill closed recently. They tear them down and the area that remains is called Brownland. They were vast- the largest one stretched for miles along the riverbank. The little valleys that eked out from the river each contained their own mines and a little town of workers housing and churches squished into the remaining space. A law, still on the books, says that if coal is found under your house you have to allow it to be dug out.
[John's correction: "Brownland" should be "Brownfields." "Brownfields" are former industrial sites that are being rehabilitated. The developments along the river are all Brownfields. There are a lot of sites that are under major reconstruction, such as the old Homestead foundry site that is now a development called Waterfront. Along the South Side, the site of the old Jones and Laughlin plant, among others, are all being redevelopment. But the main thing that makes them a "brownfield site" is that they have been cleared in preparation for them to be rehabilitated or redeveloped."]
Now, of course, with the passing of all this, these towns are boarded up, as are large sections of Pittsburgh's neighborhoods. But other parts are emerging, beginning to revive in one form or another.
The city is pretty much bankrupt, especially after having build 2 incredible stadiums right next to one another.
[John's amplification and correction: "The city is not bankrupt because of the stadiums. There are a lot of factors, such as the shrinking population, and what you mentioned of the large nonprofit institutions that don't pay taxes, among other things like many other cities, including lack of federal and state funding support. The boarded up city neighborhoods you refer to are actually some of the old mill and mining towns. It's not neighborhoods in the city itself. And of course, there are people working to turn those places around in addition to the oligarchs -- grassroots community groups
and small businesses all over the place. The bakery we visited is an example of a business locating itself in such an old town like Millvale."]
The voters said no to the expenditure, but a revamped initiative snuck through, and now the bills have come due, and as there was no raise in taxes to pay them- the Republican legislature squashed any tax raising, especially on the wealthier suburbans- well, other services have been cut, city pools closed, police force has been cut, etc. The burden falls on the mostly poor in the city itself- who just don't have the money for it. Luckily some of the oligarchs, the Heinz's, the Mellon's and others live in the city and don't want their town to go straight to hell- so they work to reinvigorate the city center, block by block, and to figure out some means of obtaining funds from the wealthier landowners. The largest tenants in the city are schools and hospitals – which don't pay taxes, so something has to be done.
[John: "there are grassroots efforts being made to work on such matters as the North Side neighborhoods around the stadium. The renovated houses we saw on the North Side, around Central North Side and Mexican War Streets, cost lots of money. The neighborhood is a mix of income levels and of privately and publicly supported housing investments."]
Various disastrous 60s and 70s urban renewal schemes have yet to be undone- a beautiful freeway cuts the North Side in two- insulating the stadiums and all their attendant businesses from the local neighborhoods. Housing projects create high crime zones and only the neighborhoods that were deemed beyond help- the neighborhoods of immigrant workers housing scattered here and there- are reviving. Some of them look beautiful. They still have local bars, mom and pop stores and some pedestrian traffic. We met after the show at a bar in a Polish or Czech neighborhood called Gooski's (sp?). It was packed.
At the Mattress Factory the Turrell installations are spectacular — they have about 4 of them. One room is so dark and the piece is just barely on the threshold of sight- one can't be sure of one is perceiving anything or not.
A piece in the alley is made of tombstones engraved with names and occupations of immigrants. A Calvino quote about finding one's part in a place one has yet to visit is inspiring- now I want to try reading him again.
After lunch we look for a church in Millvale that had been recommended to me as having interesting murals. Millvale is a few miles down (up?) the river, a former mining village nestled in a little valley. Lots of boarded up stores, but a great French bakery- I buy a cake as it's my birthday.
The church is Croatian and the murals, by Maxo Vanka, are spectacular. The Diego Riviera of Pittsburgh, I would say. They murals were done during 8 weeks in 1937 and they cover the interior of the church. Of course there is the virgin holding the child, but below her, for example, on either side of what is now the altar, are Croatian people, on the left from the old world, and on the right form the new- a steel foundry can be seen belching smoke behind them.
But more amazing are the political murals that echo the crucifixion- widows mourn over a soldier in a coffin containing a bleeding corpse - crosses cover the hillside behind them. Another wall depicts a corrupt justice in a gas mask holding scales on which the gold outweighs the bread. Clearly WWI had a big effect on Maxo.
The virgin, on the verge of being bayoneted herself, separates two soldiers.
On another mural an oligarch done as Death reads the stock reports while being served a chicken dinner by two black servants. One more- Jesus is stabbed, a second crucifixion,
These are badly in need of renovation- probably years of coal dust have darkened them, but one can hope that these amazing things will survive and be cleaned soon.