Real Gardens

Contrasting Gardens in Pittsburgh

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I’m home from visiting Pittsburgh, where I attended the big Garden Writers Symposium, and thankfully I returned with a few photos to post here.  (After posting here for eight years this summer I’m thrilled to find anything new to write about.)
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First up, a study in contrasts starts with the estates of Sewickley Valley, Pittsburgh’s oldest wealthy area, where we saw the formal garden shown above.  Old and wealthy?  Check. Interesting?  Not to me or, from  chatter I  heard on the bus, very many of us.

And how about this next one for old, wealthy and just weird?  The back yard shown here is mainly mulch.  The homeowner clearly likes the look but visiting garden writers were collectively puzzled.

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Randy greets us warmly. Exuberantly.

An entirely different garden, home and neighborhood was stumbled upon by my pals and me on our way to a museum we’d been told not to miss (details coming soon).  The neighborhood is the Northshore, where Randy Gilson moved in almost 20 ago and proceeded to paint the town, just about.  As he tells it:

I really fell in love with the architecture even though it was in a rough neighborhood. There were a lot of empty lots littered with garbage.  It seemed like there was a lot of separation of values and people were not getting along and no one picking up any of the weeds or litter. That’s when I started thinking that I need to do something myself.

I dipped into my savings from my job as a waiter and started cleaning up the neighborhood, starting with the litter and planting hundreds of mini gardens.  With one thousand dollars, I bought whiskey barrels and put them in front of all the empty houses with shrubbery and flowers, and that’s when the magic started to happen!

In 1995, I purchased this dilapidated, abandoned building with a credit card and began turning it into my expression of art, which was later dubbed by a friend, “Randyland.”

Over the years, I’ve created many pieces of street art, in addition to 800 gardens, 50 vegetable gardens and 8 parks.  Doing all of this on a shoestring budget taught me how to recycle. So when I bought the building, I thought well why not use the same ideas? I could recycle paint, wood and things I find in the alley ways. So I started applying these ides into this building and turning it into a giant outdoors art gallery.

Got that?  He’s created 800 gardens and 8 parks in this formerly unloved neighborhood and believe me, you cannot NOT stop and feast your eyes, not to mention experience the exuberance of Randy himself.

Here’s Randy touching up a mural and greeting us warmly.

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Scenes from the Randyland garden.

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Other homes in the same block of Arch Street.

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The ringleader and driver for our Pittsburgh wanderings was Susan Reimer, shown above gobsmacked by Randyland.  There was nothing like it in Pittsburgh when she was growing up there.  The other two escapees from hotel conference rooms that gorgeous afternoon were Ginny Smith and Carrie Engel.

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Detail showing Randy’s love of period metal chairs.  (What are they called?  I have two of them and have always wondered.)

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Another side of Randy’s home, sidewalk view.

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Still another.

Randy’s become quite a celebrity there in Pittsburgh and even on the “Today Show,” he told us, and if you’re ever nearby do stop and meet him.  Then leave a nice contribution so he can create still more colorful and joyful urban renewal projects.

May every “rough neighborhood” in the world find its own Randy Gilson.

Posted by on August 14, 2014 at 3:43 pm, in the category Real Gardens.
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19 Responses to “Contrasting Gardens in Pittsburgh”

  1. Lulu says:

    What an interesting passion!

    I’ve always heard them called motel chairs.

  2. VP says:

    Hear hear! This is great. Has Randy’s enthusiasm rubbed off on anyone else in his neighbourhood and joined him to help transform this space?

  3. Nancy says:

    Here is a request to all the garden writers. Since your readers aren’t with you on these great outings, please share the places you visited that we could see if we were there. Restaurants, nurseries, beautiful streets, I want to know. This is a prime example of wanting to know more because I live close enought to Pittsburg to visit those places. There aren’t enough resources for garden travelers. Why isn’t there a quarterly on garden travel? Throw in a few tokens for kids and dads like golf or fishing spots. Oh, remember real people’s pocketbooks. We don’t do 5 stars.

  4. Ginny Smith says:

    Hi Susan – Randyland was a high point for me also. It’s the idea that one person – and in this case, not a wealthy one – can transform a neighborhood with a simple idea, a lot of energy, and the kind of fun-loving imagination that gets stamped out of so many of us over time. I’ll always remember Randy yelling, as we got out of the car: “You like junk? Here’s a garden made of junk!” You can pay all sorts of people to build you a formal garden, but you won’t learn much about the owner. In that way, Randyland is pure autobiography.

  5. Carrie Engel says:

    Awesome is an overused word, at least I thought so until I saw Randyland. He told us he was a waiter, but I was still surprised when I heard him taking orders Tuesday morning at the Westin, the very hotel I stayed in while in Pittsburgh. What this man has done for his community and the garden community at large cannot be overstated. Quirky? Yes. Genius? Absolutely! Thank you for including me in your adventure. I’ll never forget it.

  6. Rachelle DeMunck says:

    While you were here in Pittsburgh, did you get a chance to visit Phipps Conservatory? Another great place to visit is Old Economy Village in Ambridge.

  7. Sandra Knauf says:

    Thanks for sharing this! Randyland is the perfect manifestation of a creative, intelligent, fun, good and caring spirit. A true inspiration for making the world a better place.

  8. HUGE SMILE! I love this and I love this guy. Thank you for sharing. What a great reminder that spreading joy is so very simple. Do you mind if I share this post with my readers on my blog and FB page. (not entirely sure what the appropriate etiquette is.) Thanks. ~Julie

  9. Pam/Digging says:

    One person with a vision and drive can really make an impact, as your post about Randy shows. What a fascinating story — and super cool art! I wonder if others in the area have taken up his work, or if he’s still the main driver of all that crazy beauty.

  10. greg draiss says:

    At first I liked the painting and art work. At second look while the artwork is still fine they are after all empty buildings…………….aka blight.

    We ridiculed Disney when they built their planned communities with faux fronts
    on commercial buildings “until someone wants to open a business there.”

    So what is the difference here? Art imitating life or pretending art can cover up blight. Soon the pain will wear thin, fade and become just more graffiti on the land. Ad like the Disney socially engineered community the buildings will still be abandoned.

    These buildings will be a long time vacant as well. Who wants to scrape all that paint off all those windows just to plant a window sill herb garden.

    NOT ME!

    The TROLL

  11. Steph B. says:

    I love that Randyland shows how gardens can transform a community. And even the “wealthy” gardens are an expression of something (I guess it’s “we have enough available cash to hire a landscaper to weed the mulch pile regularly”). But don’t both types of gardens say, “someone lives here”?

    I think signs of emptiness, neglect or abandonment are really what detracts from a neighborhood. Flowers, even more than new paint, are signs of life and residency (if not permanency).

  12. Michelle says:

    Oh how I love this post. I grew up in Pittsburgh and my grandparents lived in a neighborhood with these “party wall” houses. The garden courtyards of my grandma and her neighbors did not have the boldness of Randyland but they are where I first became enchanted with gardens. I am so glad for this peek into the current urban gardening efforts in the heart of the ‘burgh.

  13. Wow! I love to meet people like this and the exciting things they’re doing.

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