Tag: conservation

Pittsburgh’s Beauty off the Beaten Path: Randyland

Their swan song??
Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi
Welcome to Randyland!
Welcome to Randyland!

In my Pittsburgh’s Beauty off the Beaten Path series I describe a particularly beautiful, but underappreciated, spot in the city. I hope these posts will give you inspiration for future adventures and will remind you that Pittsburgh, for all its industrial buildings and soot-covered past, is a city bursting with beauty.  An Introduction to the series is located here.

Last Sunday my husband wanted to take the kids to the Children’s Museum to check out the new Waterplay and Clifford exhibits with them.  We left early and had some time before the Museum opened, so we decided to explore some of the surrounding Northside neighborhoods.  While driving down central Northside’s Jacksonia Street, we glimpsed what appeared to be a heavenly mirage in an otherwise economically depressed neighborhood–a panoply of bright colors covering the entire facade of a corner home.  We couldn’t resist getting a closer look…and I’m so glad we did!

randyfrontfacade

We found what may be my GREATEST discovery in Pittsburgh yet–Randyland!  Situated on the corner of Arch and Jacksonia streets sits the artistic masterpiece and home of Randy Gilson. Gilson has taken his house, the next house over, and the land in between and turned it into a veritable wonderland of quirky artistic expression.  He has covered the walls with elaborate murals painted in eye-popping hues.  He has collected an impressive array of other people’s “trash” and used it to decorate his home.  And he has greenified an otherwise barren-looking environment by planting throughout.  He calls this magical place Randyland. It’s very difficult for me to describe the experience of exploring Randyland–its eccentricity and artistic audacity defy expression.  And yet, I feel I must give you a taste of our visit…if only to entice you to get out there and take a look at it yourself.

Pittsburgh map
Pittsburgh map

The main facade is located on Arch Street.  It is painted in a bright yellow with trim in shades of blue, purple, orange, pink, and greens.  Adorning the front of the building are giant colorful butterflies, old Coca Cola signs, graffiti reading “PEACE,” “JOY,” and “LOVE” and painted-on windows where black silhouettes of people appear to be deep in conversation.  On the Jacksonia Street side of the home is a painted Pittsburgh map situated alongside a wall full of old street signs.  The map is full of playful details capturing the essence of different Pittsburgh spots.  If I didn’t have kids along with me that morning, I probably could have spent a good 30 minutes exploring the intricacies of this map.  But the best part was still to come…

Randy's backyard
Randy’s backyard

As we continued down Jacksonia Street, we came upon an open gate with a promising sign that said, “Another Day in Paradise.”  We weren’t sure if we should proceed into the yard, but an OPEN sign assured us it was acceptable to trespass.  So we entered into the bizarre parallel universe that is Gilson’s backyard.  Nearly every inch of the surrounding walls are covered in murals.  Fire escapes are decorated with suspended old metal chairs.

Chairs suspended from a fire escape
Chairs suspended from a fire escape

 

 

 

 

 

Old buckets are carefully affixed to the sides of gates. Lines of model dinosaurs appear to be frozen in migration.  They are followed by lines of rats with red eyes.  Statues peek out from corners–some are covered with old rusty chains.  Others have plastic snakes wound around them.  Huge plastic spiders are tucked into pots overflowing with greenery.  Pretend geese are caught in mid-waddle.  A giant alligator statue hangs out on the ground with 80’s style sunglasses perched on its massive jaw.  Frogs, gnomes, pinwheels, mannequins, butterflies, swans, old pots, sunflowers, you-name-it, are crammed into the Space.  And a welcoming pergola sits in the center of the yard with adult and child-sized seating under it.  It’s the perfect place to reflect on Randyland–to ponder what Gilson has done to beautify this old house, buried on this old street, with a bunch of other peoples’ trash.  It’s unbelievable.  It’s overwhelming. It’s beautiful.  And it’s sheer genius.

Kid-sized seating amongst the artwork
Kid-sized seating amongst the artwork

For all its superficial recklessness–close inspection reveals that this place is carefully and lovingly maintained by an eccentric, but inspiring, individual.  So-who is Randy Gilson? According to a 2008 Pop City article,  Randy Gilson grew up in poverty in Homestead.  He moved to the Northside during the 1980’s while pursuing his cooking certification at the Community College of Allegheny County and acquired his property at auction for $11,000 in the 1990’s.  Since then, he has invested over $100,000 in renovations.  He has even expanded his focus to the Northside neighborhood in general.

Riding an alligator
Riding an alligator

 

 

 

 

He has installed streetscapes, vegetable gardens, and public parks throughout the area.  In the opinion of many individuals, Randy Gilson is singlehandedly leading the revitalization of the Northside. According to the same article, Gilson developed his interest in recycling old materials at Christmastime during his poor childhood.  His family never got many gifts at Christmas, so he used to travel around his neighborhood, gathering other peoples’ discarded items and fixing them up to put under his own Christmas tree.

Playing with the dinosaurs
Playing with the dinosaurs

****

My family spent about 45 minutes exploring Randyland.  As you can imagine, my kids were enthralled. They played with the toy animals, tried out the different seating arrangements, and just stared–trying to absorb the scene.  I will certainly bring my kids back to this spot.  In fact, I would even arrange a morning playdate here since hefty chunks of time could be spent wandering through the booty. However, please note:  I do not know Randyland’s hours of operation.  All I can say for sure is that on a beautiful Sunday morning it was open for exploration.

Their swan song??
Their swan song??

For me, Randyland represents exactly what Pittsburgh is becoming–an old city, previously broken and discarded by the steel industry, but now slowly being reborn into a city of incredible potential and beauty through a passion for sustainability of individuals like Randy Gilson.

Trust me: it’s an inspiring place to be.  Thank you, Randy Gilson, for what you do…

My Crush on Alice Waters and Pittsburgh’s Wild Purveyors Market Stand

Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

I have a legitimate, bonafide, wish-I-could-date-her-kind-of crush on Alice Waters.  The free-spirited proprietor of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse Restaurant has created a legacy that inspires me immensely.  And it probably inspires you too–although you might not realize that she conceived it.  Way back in the middle of the last century, when the American culinary scene was just plain boring–filled with previously frozen meat products, canned vegetables, and starch after starch–Alice Waters burst onto the set with panache, guts, and vision.  She was the idealist who first proposed that Americans deserved to eat food that was fresh, organic, and seasonal.  She was the visionary who believed in local and sustainable production of food.  And closest to my heart, she was kind enough to bring her vision to children, creating the Edible Schoolyard in a Berkeley, Ca middle school.

The Edible Schoolyard included a one-acre garden where children learned to grow their own food and a kitchen where they learned how to create tasty and healthy meals.  Her “eco-gastronomic” curriculum has inspired schools across the nation.  You probably have even seen vegetable gardens in schools here in Pittsburgh thanks to Ms. Waters and her grand vision.

Me at Chez Panisse
Me at Chez Panisse

I recently was lucky enough to visit her restaurant in Berkeley, California.  My God!! This place was unbelievable. Aesthetically, it was heavenly.  She has incorporated her vision of green living into the very architecture of the place.  A giant, gnarled, tree sits smack-dab in the front of the restaurant on a busy city street. The entranceway is framed by greenery of many different varieties.  The windows are all left open and the breeze flows so freely that it is easy to forget that you are inside of a man-made structure.  And the food–it was incredible!  I had a rabbit confit that was undeniably the best thing I have ever eaten.  I still salivate at the thought of that succulent, perfectly seasoned meat.

Ever since visiting Chez Panisse and reading a book about it called Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution,  I have been inspired to adopt her philosophy of food.  I have become committed to buying as much organic and (ideally) seasonal and locally produced food as I can because a) it’s healthier and b) it just TASTES BETTER!  Much, much, much better.  I plan on joining a CSA (or community-supported agriculture) venture this Spring.  And I am out there in the city, trying to find grocers who match my philosophy.

I was recently advised to check out a relatively new market in Pittsburgh by one of the best chefs I know.  He served me an elk and goat lasagna that totally blew my socks off.  When I asked him where in the hell he had found elk meat in this city, he told me about Wild Purveyors, a market in Upper Lawrenceville.  I was instantly intrigued.  I am a fearless cook and love nothing more than experimenting with different foods.  Also, I love venison meat, but don’t want to have to invest in a gun and cammo to obtain it.  He assured me that the market would have venison and much, much more–procured with an Alice Waters-approved philsophy.

wildpurveyors

Wild Purveyors

Wild Purveyors is tucked away on a nondescript section of Butler Street in Upper Lawrenceville, past where most of the commercial development has taken place in this area.  From the street, the market doesn’t look like much.  In fact, I didn’t even believe it was open because the lighting was so subtle.  Nevertheless, when I pushed my way through the door, I knew some kind of culinary genius was occurring there.  I was greeted by a large selection of local artisanal and farmstead cheeses to sample.  I was welcomed by wildly foraged mushrooms that WERE NOT that expensive.  I was seduced by beautifully-appearing organic winter vegetables (and even some aged ones that are only 99 cents/lb!).  And I absolutely fell in love when I explored their meat refrigerators.  Elk, venison, beef, chicken, quail, lamb, goat… all very reasonably priced and humanely raised.

After a look around, a quick chat with friendly employees, and a review of their pamphlets, it became clear to me that the philosophy of this place is totally in tune with my own.  It specializes in seasonal, locally-sourced raw and local foods and it is a pick-up site for several CSA’s, including cheese, meat, mushroom, and fruits/vegetable ones. Although, the produce selection was limited at this time of year, I know the choices will be better as the world thaws this Spring.  Note: it’s not the kind of place where you can do the entirety of your grocery shopping.  But if you are a true foodie–Wild Purveyors is a must-see!   Not only do love it..but Alice Waters would too!

Our Hobbit Hole and My Visit to the Pittsburgh Green House

Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

My husband and I have a life goal that some may consider slightly odd…or, let’s face it…really odd. Ever since revisiting the Shire in the recent film “The Hobbit” we have been aspiring to build and reside in our own Bag End-like hobbit hole. Ideally this humble abode would be nestled in a southward-facing hillside somewhere within an easy commute to the city.  And preferably it would have a living tree inside providing support. And a root cellar, of course–for all the rutabagas, turnips, and potatoes that a hobbit must produce. But these are just details…

After conceiving of this plan, we did some googling and discovered that people actually construct and live in hobbit holes on our Earth already. Here’s a link to an article about homes built in the “hobbitat” style in several different countries.

We dream of our very own hobbit hole for a couple of reasons.  First, we think it would obviously be an unbelievably cool place to live.  I mean-who wouldn’t want to live in a home like this one built by Simon Dale in Wales:

Also, we love the value system of the Shire.  The focus on the simple things in life–family, friends, good food, nature–it is beautiful to us.  In fact, we believed in living our life this way to such a degree that I gladly left the rat-race of a medical career to make it happen.  So why not live in a house that looks like it came from Hobbiton?

Finally, we think that a hobbit hole would be ridiculously “green.”  By using the already-existent topographical features of the land as a part of the house, it would have the minimum amount of environmental impact.

Despite these grand plans, we are also realistic about this project’s timeframe.  Building a hobbit hole might just have to wait until the kids are grown and the loans are paid off. In the meantime, we are super interested in making our current residence as “green” as possible.  We invest in energy-efficient appliances.  We recycle and are trying our hand at composting.  We plan to expand our edible garden and build a rain barrel for our backyard this Spring.

Still…we definitely feel like newbies in the field of “green living.”  If we want to build our own eco-friendly hobbit hole one day, we know that we’re going to have to learn about the nitty-gritty of things like weatherproofing, insulation, and air sealing. So we’re trying to find a way to make this scary-sounding vocabulary more accessible to us. For this reason, I was thrilled to learn about the Pittsburgh Green House during a recent visit to Construction Junction.

pittsburghgreenhouse

The Pittsburgh Green House

The Pittsburgh Green House is a renovated home that is located next to Home Depot in East Liberty. It was conceived by ACTION-Housing, Inc. to serve as an educational facility for contractors and for the public to learn about residential resource savings and green living.  It holds a variety of related workshops, including some upcoming ones on improving indoor air quality and increasing household water conservation.  I was able to pay it a visit during a recent seed-starting workshop run by a Phipps Master Gardener.  It ended up being a really cool place to poke around!

It is set up like a regular house with bathrooms, a basement, an attic, and an outdoor garden (in addition to regular classrooms and resource rooms).  Each of these rooms include hands-on activities, informative signage, and displays that suit it.  For example, in the bathrooms you can learn about energy-efficient toilets, showerheads, and faucets.  In the backyard, you can tour a garden planted by Phipps Conservatory as well as learn all about recyclable materials.  In the basement, you can learn about insulating your hot water heater.

There is really a HUGE amount of information to be gleaned from the facility and the people who work in it.  I truly wish I could have spent a lot more time exploring this cool space.  I will definitely try to pay it a visit again when I can get away from the kids.  And this is key–it’s NOT a place to bring young kids. There is truly NOTHING that is geared toward children in the facility.  They will be very bored, very quickly.  And you know what happens when a kid gets bored…destruction!  And we think this would be a real shame in a place that is so inspirational to a couple of hopeless romantics trying to peacefully build their own hobbit hole :).

The Pittsburgh Green House is located at 308 N. Sheridan Avenue, Pittsburgh PA 15206.  Here’s a link to directions.  The hours are very limited, so please call ahead to make sure it will be open before making the trip!

My “Little Free Library” and our Trip to Construction Junction

Nadine Champsi

Nadine Champsi

I am a doctor turned write-at-home-mom who runs the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog and is editor of Kidsburgh. I have two wonderful young children and am happily married. My interests include cooking, green-living, gardening, being in the outdoors, listening to great music, checking out the city's cool art, coming up with creative things to do with my kids, and having as many adventures as I can!
Nadine Champsi

Like all good Chaos Muppets, I am a collector of extremely important items.  I have hauled around porcelain dolls, carousel horses, Halloween costumes, dress-up clothes, etc from my childhood.   I have accumulated garbage bags full of boy’s and girl’s clothing from NB to size 6 or 7 that take up ridiculous amounts of storage space in my home.  I am constantly picking up items from garbage piles throughout the city and then safely squirreling them away in my home for later use.  My Order Muppet friends love when I come to their homes because they know I will take their junk off their hands.

The collection that I hold most dear to my heart is contained in about 15-20 giant cardboard boxes–my books.  I have suckered various men in my life into moving these boxes from the West Coast to the East Coast, throughout New England, and now all over Pittsburgh.  This back-breaking labor has resulted in various catastrophes, including boxes splitting open while walking up staircases, boxes causing slips on icy driveways, boxes leading to back injuries and physical therapy.  Despite all these calamities, I can not convince myself to unload of them permanently.

And yet, as we have accumulated more and more kid’s sh-t, the boxes have started taking up very valuable real estate in my home.  Plus, the books are collecting dust rather than being used as they should be–educating and inspiring people.   Well, the solution to my problem was fortuitously delivered to my mailbox within the pages of Pittsburgh’s Shady Avenue magazine.  It was there that I learned that an international movement to build “Little Free Libraries” has made its way to Pittsburgh. For those of you who are still unfamiliar with the Little Free Library idea, it is a relatively recent community movement where homeowners or business owners set up a book swap in a cleverly designed house-like structure on their property.  Here’s a picture of one creative model:

Little Free Library in Lansing Michigan
Little Free Library in Lansing Michigan

The Little Free Library movement has so inspired me that I have been incessantly thinking and talking about it to my family and friends.  I think the effort to promote literacy and share ideas is absolutely beautiful–the perfect purpose for the books I have lovingly held on to for all these years.  After browsing the homepage of the movement, it became clear that buying a pre-made one was outside of our budget ($250).  However, I found plans for building one from scratch that I eagerly presented to my very handy and crafty husband.  When he told me that he may not be able to get to the project until springtime, I literally burst into tears about it…TEARS…and not only in front of him, but in front of my IN-LAWS.  I need a Little Free Library and I need it VERY SOON.

So, we traveled to Construction Junction this weekend to see if possibly we could refurbish an old cabinet into a Little Free Library that would be ready in a more timely manner.  Plus, I really LIKE the idea of reusing somebody else’s discarded item to create something so wonderful.  As some of you may know, Construction Junction is the perfect place to find such a treasure.

For those of you who haven’t had the privilege of visiting Construction Junction yet, it is very cool. Located just off Penn Avenue in Point Breeze, it houses a huge collection of used and surplus building materials and furniture items that are sold at very low cost to the community in order to promote conservation and the reuse of usable materials.

Cool arch for sale at Construction Junction
Cool arch for sale at Construction Junction

The place is a treasure trove of interesting items.  There are old pieces of furniture, kitchen appliances, kitchen cabinetry, doors, bathroom items, flooring, lumber, hardware, and so, so, so much more.  The coolest thing I found today was Amazon recycled paint, created from unfinished cans of paint.  And yes, I found a cabinet to turn into my Little Free Library…pictures of its creation to follow…

Old stove
Old-timey stove

And, since this is a Mommy Blog, thought I’d briefly mention the kid-friendliness of Construction Junction. To put it clearly–if your kid is still putting things in his or her mouth, you need to watch them every second.  In fact, you might as well just restrain them in a stroller because the place is a minefield of danger.  There are lead paint warning signs every 5 feet in the place and when you see some of the stuff they have, you will know they are not joking.  There are also random exposed nails, doors that could easily close on fingers, hallways that kids could easily disappear into.  In other words, this place is going to be the most interesting experience of your child’s life…so if they are old enough to wander around make sure to watch them very, very closely.  That being said, just because you have your kids with you, doesn’t mean  that you shouldn’t visit Construction Junction. EVERYBODY who has an interest in conservation and frugality should visit Construction Junction. The place is amazing.

Refurbished doors that may look familiar--were used at Phipps Conservatory in their holiday show
Refurbished doors that may look familiar–were used at Phipps Conservatory in their holiday show
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