At the corner of Larimer Avenue and Orphan Street is a meadow turning to forest, where the foundations of demolished homes are softened by ivy and moss. This spot is only twenty years into a quiet ruination, but it feels ancient. Wherever I step, in the low grass, dozens of tiny crickets spring out, noiselessly, pale-gray. I can’t find them when I bend over to look. It’s as if I am splashing through an invisible, mysteriously dry puddle.
I visit this corner for its particular emptiness. In steeply hilly Pittsburgh, nowhere else feels like this — it’s flat, and I can see. I lived in flat cities most of my life and didn’t realize, till I found this corner, how much I miss the sensation of being able to look far off and see a street narrow in the distance.
A purple bicycle rusts between a walnut and a Japanese honeysuckle. A beer can, How to use a condom, Parliament, Spree, details that alter context. But Larimer at Orphan is not a postindustrial catastrophe. It is just a corner that people have left alone for a long time.
Larimer and Orphan is not a postindustrial catastrophe. Just a corner that people have left alone for a long time.
You can’t plan a space like this. It happens outside the bounds of intent, at the edges of function and inhabitation. There are corners like this in every city — on a pause between stories. No connection to the past. No plans for the future. No one wakes up here and makes breakfast, or pumps gas, or meets for lunch. The definitionlessness helps me think.
Sitting at Larimer and Orphan on a summer day, I can believe that I am in the middle of the continent. Birds land in a yew tree. A mom and her teen daughter cross the high Larimer bridge. The mom in jeans, laughing. She pushes her girl into the street — a gentle shove, a joke, no anger in the gesture. The boundary between sidewalk and street has a different meaning here, or less meaning, or no meaning. The quiet between cars passing is so deep, it feels like no one will come by again. We could be in a movie about an empty America set in 1933 or 2093.
A red SUV with a bumping stereo slows to see who is sitting on the ground, writing all this, where there is no bench, no coffee shop, no reason to be. I love all waste and solitary places, wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, where we taste the pleasure of believing what we see is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.
What do you think when I say Larimer? I randomly poll people. “A place you don’t go for anything,” says a co-worker. A neighborhood to be avoided. The news has given us such a limited vocabulary. Neglected, forgotten, abandoned. Along the alleys, trash dribbles out of metal cans.
A vast cathedral, punctuated with pink graffiti, has holes in its tallest windows, as if mature trees have been hurled through them. Our Lady Help of Christians. The building will be demolished any day now; a developer just bought it. In a year, maybe less, the idea of Larimer being “a place you don’t go for anything” will be outmoded.
White Pittsburghers knew how to read the absence. The blank space was code for cleaned up.
A short drive away, at the edge of East Liberty, a new apartment complex is going up. The shiny, boxy rentals look exactly like the images on the developer’s website, the rendering made real, as if you could point your finger at one of the doors and a hologram interior would pop up: an empty living room with an empty square-edged sofa. There are no people in the pictures. Who will move here?
When Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena was first proposed, in the 1950s, the newspaper published drawings of a domed futurama surrounded by blank space. As historian Laura Grantmyre observes, white Pittsburghers knew how to read the absence. The builder, who created the drawings, and the city, which disseminated them, were signalling progress; the blank space was visual shorthand for cleaned up. But to the black families whose homes and businesses were razed, cleaned up was ominous code. More than 8,000 residents were removed from the lower Hill, a thriving, historic, black neighborhood — literally erased from the picture. Under Jim Crow, black Pittsburghers couldn’t even get a job at the entertainment palace.
On Larimer at Orphan is a little meat store, Henry Grasso Sausage, neatly tiled in red, green, and white. When I first saw it, I thought I was hallucinating. An Italian store in the ruins? Could I buy a meatball sandwich after my walks down Orphan Street? Turns out, no. Grasso sells raw sausage: hot, sweet, or Sicilian. They sell missile-shaped capicollos, encased in plastic, weighing several pounds each. Nothing you could fit on the end of a fork or bring to a potluck.
The spare interior is dominated by an immense, empty stainless steel table. “Please do not lean on or touch,” a sign reads. Nearby, cartons marked “high stability frying shortening” are lined up. A refrigerator case holds block cheeses. The linoleum is worn but clean, as though often bleached. High on the wall, a dancing pig wrapped with fairy lights shines over a single bottle of balsamic vinegar. Don’t fear the reaper, the AM radio sings. All our times have come, but now they’re gone. A solar-powered pig doodad in the front window nods in time with the hi-hat solo. Across the street, a deer stops grazing and returns the nod.
I thought I was hallucinating. A dancing pig wrapped with fairy lights was shining over a bottle of balsamic vinegar.
In a livelier neighborhood, there would be a line of people out the door, but much of Grasso’s business is wholesale, and foot traffic is sparse on weekdays. Most afternoons, I find the guys in their routine, grinding pork shoulder, sanitizing the worktable. But why keep a meat store on such a lonely corner? Joe Grasso tells me there once were dozens of Italian shops along the avenue. This is the last one left, an orphan.
Larimer was Pittsburgh’s original Little Italy, before Bloomfield claimed the crown. But it was always a multi-ethnic neighborhood. In the 19th century, African Americans farmed alongside newly arrived Germans and Irish. Families intermingled, moved away, stayed on. From about 1900 through the 1970s, the avenue was crowded with Italian-owned groceries, cigar stores, gas stations, and bars. Joe’s grandfather opened a shop in the ’30s, and Grasso men have been working it ever since.
“Why move?” Joe says. “Our customers know where we are.”
As Little Italy faded, more black families arrived in Larimer. Some had been displaced by the redevelopment of the Hill. Others came for the chance to buy a house with a low down payment and a government-backed loan. The neighborhood was like hundreds of others across the industrial Midwest: mixed-race, working class. But when the steel industry collapsed, foreclosures became rentals. Streets went unrepaired. The library and grade school closed their doors. After losing most of its parishioners, the cathedral did too.
This is how a neighborhood empties out.
As someone who adopted a child from an orphanage, I have a lot to think about when I walk the four blocks of Orphan Street. There is a hole in every story. We all lose our parents eventually, but some absences are inscribed earlier than others. As Alison Kinney writes, the literary orphan “belongs to no world except that of narrative opportunity.”
The origins of the street’s name are a mystery. A 19th-century map shows a plot of land, in the valley below, assigned to Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum. But today neither Orphan nor Larimer connects to that valley, and the diocese has no record of an orphanage ever being in the neighborhood. It says Saint Joseph’s was on Troy Hill, across the Allegheny River, on the flip side of Pittsburgh.
At the dead end of Orphan, behind a concrete barrier, the road continues for about 50 feet, then fades off, like a story with no resolution. There you find the remains of steps leading down to the valley, toward what might have been an orphanage, but you can see them only in the fall, when the grass dies back. The city has no record of these steps.
When I stop by the store, Joe Grasso and his brother in law, Jim Norkus, are making capicollo. The translucent casing reminds me of the mummy queen’s skin in archaeological photos. Each unbound loaf looks like a miniature pig, the “snout” being the casing clipped with metal, the “tail” a curlicue tied with twine. The decorative pigs on the cheese case strike human poses: they read books, hold business cards, wear jaunty caps.
The decorative pigs on the cheese case strike human poses: they read books, hold business cards, wear jaunty caps.
Joe winds twine as the capicollos are carried out of the cooler, dangling from steel rods, in a parade that seems never to end. They make a waxy whumping noise as they hit the meat table. I ask, Why are they bound like that? “To keep them tight,” Joe says, slicing the twine with a knife. Oh, like girdles. “What you said.” He smiles and cuts me a slice. It is wonderful — salty and tender and a tiny bit spicy. I imagine thin folds of capicollo on toast, with a slice of provolone, a little olive oil.
I wonder why Grasso is not more famous in Pittsburgh. The shop on a desolate corner would thrill a certain kind of person — one of the young, mostly white, tech workers who are remaking the city’s food culture, and so much else. Restaurants and specialty stores catch fire in depopulated neighborhoods. It is a pattern on repeat worldwide.
Betty Lane — or “Miss Betty,” as she is known around Larimer — bought her first house in the neighborhood in the ’70s. Betty believes in freestanding homes with yards, and in owning them. She believes in growing food. Her garden has pear and peach trees. When the city tries to condemn property in Larimer, Miss Betty will intervene. “Nuh uh, that’s not going to happen,” she laughs. A tall, striking black woman, not young, she goes to meetings downtown and somehow comes back with funds for her neighbors to make repairs. “I can do that, yknow.”
When the city tries to condemn property, Miss Betty will intervene: ‘Nuh uh, that’s not going to happen.’ She helps me understand how black people get erased from the picture.
Betty Lane helps me understand how black people get erased from the picture. One day, elderly residents get a notice in the mail about “delinquent” utility fees amounting to a few dollars. If they haven’t kept all their receipts for paid water bills going back years — and who does? — they can be forced out. The city will bureaucratize, press the terms of a confusing agreement, say they owe a fine or back taxes. Betty fields my questions patiently. She is dressed in red sweater, red pants, and closefitting crocheted cap. That’s how it happens? I ask. Someone downtown counts on you to be despairing, or too tired, to fight? They figure you’ll just give up? “Yes,” she says, “that’s how it’s done.”
Betty’s days are all phone calls and meetings: to inform, to petition, to get people to mow, to halt repossession. To envision, to plan, to articulate plans, to insist, make way, shore up, rise up, speak up. To heal, to plant, to sort out the roots carefully, to demand her own, help others demand their own. To never be pushed around.
We are standing in front of her house on Paulson Avenue, one of the neighborhood’s few intact residential streets. Every car that passes slows for a wave and a greeting. Morning! Good to see you! Betty winks at me. “At my age,” she says, “it’s good to be seen.”
Larimer this week is peaceful and quiet. I read the Zone 5 police bulletin that arrives in my inbox. “Nothing to report,” it says. Occasionally there is a fight near Paulson. At the corner of Larimer and Orphan, crime seems abstract. This part of the neighborhood looks like rural Maine, but violence is threaded through its history.
Arthur Volpe, who got rich selling liquor in Pittsburgh during Prohibition, was shot in the head in 1933, while eating cornflakes for lunch. His brothers James and John were shot too, same afternoon, same diner. Mobster Michael J. Genovese grew up on Larimer Avenue and headed a cocaine enterprise into the ’80s. Larimer elders are more likely to share memories of movie theaters and Saints’ Day festivals than the racketeering of Little Italy. But Betty Lane remembers organized crime, and she talks about the trauma of gun violence.
She trills her tongue, Trrrrrrr. She means the gunshots, but the sound is as soft as a playing card stuck in a bicycle wheel.
One day she ran out of her house to find a 16-year-old boy shot in the street. This was in the ’80s, after the drug business had passed from the Mafia to black gangs. Someone please call the police. As she tells her story — which is less about crime and more about what it feels like to hold a boy in your arms as he dies — she trills her tongue, Trrrrrrr. She means the gunshots, but the sound she makes is as soft as a playing card stuck in a bicycle wheel.
“There are still drugs on Lenora Street,” Betty says, with caution in her voice, schooling me about areas to avoid. She remembers the shootings at the Italian clubs on Larimer Avenue, half a lifetime ago. Back then, she says, “We knew where not to go.” By we, she means black people, women, anyone who did not grow up in the neighborhood.
All summer I walk down Lenora, past a playground with a spray park, showerheads along a concrete wall. The park is empty, but not sinister. I hear the sound of water splashing, as if the coolness were meant especially for me, and I often stop to dip my hands.
Lenora Street dead-ends at Orphan in front of a house with 23 push mowers in the yard, some with clover growing through them. One day a white woman greets me from the porch. She doesn’t tell me to stay off Lenora, but she does suggest that people living there would not be open to sharing their stories. More important: I should not be walking around in the heat. She gives me a bottle of cold water and tells me to keep to the shade.
Not every developer in Larimer is a white absentee landlord. Emmett Miles, who is black, wants to use the meadows at Orphan for pasture. “Urban ag,” he says. Cows, sturdy and solid. Cows giving birth across from the Grasso meat table. That would be a nice symmetry. When I bring it up a few weeks later, Emmett has changed his mind and decided to put the cows next to the old grade school, which he also owns. He plans to renovate it as a community center and organic garden.
The cows in my mind pop like bubbles. Emmett’s new plan for the meadow lots is veterans’ housing.
“I don’t want kids throwing rocks at cows,” he explains. “A neighborhood has to get used to animals, animals have to get used to the neighborhood.” The cows in my mind pop like bubbles. In their place I picture retired officers and soldiers. Emmett’s new plan for the meadow lots is veterans’ housing.
Betty Lane and others worked on a proposal for multi-generational, racially diverse co-housing one block north. Their site plan showed a cluster of homes with terraces and gardens, all owned and managed collectively. The renderings depicted the people involved with the project: black and white, young and old. Larimer Cohousing disbanded last spring. The mayor supported the project; City Council did not. But some who were involved haven’t given up hope of moving to Larimer.
In a private Facebook group, Italian octogenarians share photos of themselves posing with motorcycles in 1953, when they were eighteen. Back in the day, they report, the pretty girls weren’t let off their front porches. The men — still vigorous: ex-runningbacks in khakis — meet up in a café in Highland Park. They are generous, buying me coffee, sharing the names of vanished theaters, the titles of their favorite songs. They tell me about how they “loafed” on street corners, about the friends who died in Vietnam and the ones who OD’d. The men’s connection to the past, and to each other, is so intense, it is practically geologic. It’s as if you could dig beneath the surface of Larimer Avenue and find a vein of something sparkly, like crushed glass or sequins, a layer of comradeship compressed by forces of nostalgia.
A plaque for Mussolini. Tony confirms this fact without blinking, as though Il Duce were a patron saint of Pittsburgh.
There are some Italians still living in Larimer. At almost 100, Tony Mainiero must be the oldest. I come by while he is out washing his car and tell him Betty Lane remembers a statue of Mussolini in the neighborhood. Could that possibly be true? “A plaque,” he corrects me. “Went up in front of Our Lady Help of Christians in 1936.” Tony confirms this fact without blinking, as though Il Duce were a patron saint of Pittsburgh. “We favored Mussolini at that time.”
At Grasso, I press Joe about his grandfather Giuseppe, my pen poised to record memories from the old country. He doesn’t have any. I ask Joe about the family’s greatest struggle. But in 85 years of business, they have seen neither major setback nor grand success. This, it dawns on me, is the story: my search for Grasso’s spectacular past. A place full of absence needs a history, or the writer is stuck with a blank page.
But Joe and the guys are not invested in the past. Instead they talk about what’s here: how the new stainless steel sausage stuffer is “the Cadillac of stuffers.” Anyone who knows about the old one, Joe says cheerfully, “is long gone.” Joe is busy with the dolly, pulling a thousand pounds of pork shoulder into the cooler. Now we’re slow dancing, swaying to the music. Slow dancing, just me and my girl.
Not far from the shiny new rentals on Highland Avenue is a shop called The Shop. On display is a pendant fine as a strand of plaited hair. The Shop is one of those boutiques whose emptiness lends it a cool look, like an aquarium. On pale wood tables, generous empty space surrounds a few, carefully edited items: linen napkins, a trivet, a vase. The spareness is an unlikely echo of the Grasso Meats interior. I have never seen a customer inside this boutique. But whereas Grasso’s emptiness reveals a focus on making, The Shop resembles a waiting room. The woman behind the counter looks into her phone.
Mustachioed bartenders shake temperance-time cocktails: Clover Club, White Lady, Gin Fizz. This is the new nostalgia, a simulacrum of the past.
Nearby, a recently opened lounge features mustachioed bartenders shaking temperance-time cocktails: Clover Club, White Lady, Gin Fizz. This is the new nostalgia, a simulacrum of the past, or a past. Its atmosphere, lit with Edison bulbs, is cultivated by designers young enough to have never owned a Bell telephone. Perhaps some of the bar’s reclaimed wood comes from buildings knocked down in Larimer, whose timber can be found in local salvage yards.
I ask Joe Grasso about his plans for the meat store. Any thoughts of expansion? Maybe a food truck up the hill on Bryant Street? Given the tech startups in East Liberty, it won’t be long before there are people with deep pockets walking down Larimer, looking for homemade, small-batch food. Joe, though, is not rushing into the future. “When that happens,” he says with the restraint of someone who has known booms and busts, “I’ll think about it.”
On my next visit, I find an earth mover in the lot next door, loading up dirt to fill in the side of a cliff that slipped in heavy rains the week before. The operator is an older white guy with missing teeth. It so happens he tore down the buildings on this block in the mid-’80s. Behind one of them he discovered a prohibition still with jugs holding dregs of gin. To prove it, he gets out his phone and shows me pictures. The past leaks into the present: moonshine. My mind fills the absence with bootleggers, speakeasies, women sipping gin from teacups. I didn’t think I had any idea what “jugs from prohibition” look like, but it turns out I do. Even my kid could identify them. They are the kind marked “XXX” in a Popeye cartoon.
I am standing in that same lot, some months later, as my adopted son climbs around on a defunct tractor he discovered. It looks like it has been here a hundred years. Yellow, rusted. Amazingly, there is a box of old tools still bolted to it.
We have been searching the meadow for a diamond ring that he says someone lost long ago; “hunting for riches,” as he put it. Now he’s over that idea. “I’d give everything,” he declares, “for this tractor!” I picture him buying this hulking metal skeleton with all the nickels in his piggy bank and keeping it in our driveway.
I can’t stop thinking about yesterday’s police bulletin. Do I look like someone waiting to buy drugs?
I can’t stop thinking about yesterday’s police bulletin: a brick of heroin and a loaded AK-47 seized in the 500 block of Paulson. That’s Betty Lane’s block. As if to ward off harm, I hold my arms open, a gesture that says, plain as daylight, I am just a mom off track with a boy who loves tractors what can I do! As usual, no one is around. But then a well-washed pickup comes too fast down the alley. I stand there, a white woman trying to make my body say, no worries, we’ll be gone in a flash.
At this moment, I feel out of bounds. Are there heroin bags hidden in the tractor? Do I look like someone waiting to buy drugs? How would that look, even? An air of tension connects this place to Paulson Avenue, if only in my mind. I would not feel this way had I not read the police blotter. Should I consider myself informed, or paranoid?
The lot next to Grasso is all dirt and rock piles: a boy’s dream. Two more minutes, I tell my son. Trusting — making myself trust — that the emptiness, my waste and solitary place, is safe, because we are not where I know not to go.
The next day, the yellow tractor is gone.
At the cathedral, the holes in the dome frame patches of sky. I wonder what it’s like inside the apse when it rains. Rose Macaulay wrote, “Of all ruins, possibly the most moving are those of long-deserted cities.” I do feel moved by this church. Everything that happened here — both the faith and the ruin — is plain. Unlike the new “old” cocktail bar, the cathedral does not pretend to be something it is not.
I do feel moved by this church. Everything that happened here, the faith and the ruin, is plain.
One day a city salvage truck is parked outside, and the padlock is off the doors. A crew loading up pews has no objection to my snapping a picture. Inside, the pulpit is covered with tags in black and silver spray paint. Papers spill into the aisles. Sunlight fills the vast, trashed space. I share the photo on the private Facebook page with the Italian octogenarians. “I got to see this today,” I write. No one receives it as a meditation on mortality. “Terrible,” they comment. “A disgrace.” And: “How could this happen?”
That’s when I realize that many of the Italian people who left the neighborhood have never come back to visit. They had no idea that the building was in ruins. The absence I witness on a daily basis exists for them as an intact presence: the cathedral of their childhood, where they went to Sunday school and got married.
An older black couple comes in to Grasso and is greeted by name. They ask for two pounds of hot sausage. Neatly and casually dressed, he in Reeboks and she in sandals and silver hoop earrings. A young couple comes in, also black. He walks with a white, red-tipped cane and wears camo print shorts. She is in white platform Nike Airs. They would like four pounds of sweet.
“I’m tellin ya, huh? That’s the way it goes these days,” Joe says, in a clean apron and a blue checked shirt. Saturdays are busy. He shuts the crank-handle cash register and hands over a box with a tender coil of sausage. “Fresh made today.” You led me away from home, sings the AM radio, just to save you from being alone. You stole my heart and that’s what really hurts.
Joe piles on the counter five pounds of sausage, a pack of meatballs, and a thick slab of Fontinella. ‘Now I’m spending all my money,’ she says.
Another black woman comes in, wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Jim, in a Pirates shirt, sneaks up behind her and fiddles with her braids. Is this really happening? I wince. “Who’s that playing with my hair?” the woman asks in a lighthearted voice. Jim is doing a thing you never do, especially if you’re a white person, you never touch a black woman’s hair. And yet, she shows no offense. The two of them are giggling like kids.
I am surprised at the lack of racial tension. There are gentle jibes about knee surgeries and inquiries after kids. The atmosphere is light, with none of the stiff formality across race lines that you find elsewhere in segregated Pittsburgh. If Grasso goes upscale, will this ease still exist? How, in a city that struggles even to pay lip service to “diversity,” did this orphaned store find a state of grace?
A lovely woman with long, loose curls and a dark pantsuit leans toward me and remarks, “now I’m spending all my money,” as Joe piles on the counter five pounds of sausage, a pack of meatballs, and a thick slab of Fontinella. She says it in that way I understand — we are sharing the camaraderie of two women out food shopping, ah, it’s so good I can’t help myself, feigning a sense of regret — but by the rules of our banter, which I find are very much in place, we both understand that she is not making a mistake.