Latest posts by Nadine Champsi (see all)
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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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…