Quirky creative endeavors make me happy – whether they’re mine or someone else’s.
I get particularly excited about ambitious art projects that require risk, investment, and a willingness to ignore the ubiquitous naysayers of the world.
On a recent trip to Pittsburgh, PA, I visited two such labors of love – Randyland and Bicycle Heaven. These now-popular tourist attractions began as crazy pipe dreams, growing over time to become brick and mortar establishments that inspire others.
Randyland is the brainchild (or heartchild, perhaps) of Randy Gilson, a self-proclaimed “dreamer” and “punk” who grew up in Homestead, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh. According to his bio, Randy had a rough childhood, and he struggled to graduate from high school. However, he became known for finding ways to help and inspire others through good deeds. In 1982, he purchased the Randyland house at auction for $10,000 without a clear plan for what to do with it.
At the time, Randyland’s North Side neighborhood was filled with abandoned homes. Randy started to purchase whiskey barrels and convert them into street planters in an attempt to spruce things up. He called his endeavor the Old Allegheny Garden Society, and he found that the more he did, the more people joined him in his beautification efforts.
Randy claims that his piece of property “became a place for [his] passion and intelligence to run wild.” This unplanned exuberance is one of the most striking features about the house and grounds. Almost everything on site was scavenged or upcycled, which means that the property contains a wide diversity of items that have been transformed into art – from mannequin heads to lawn chairs to broken chips of mirror glass. What unites everything on display is the ecstatic color palette. There are no earth tones at Randyland; everything is electric pink, day-glo blue, or incandescent yellow.
As a result, the place exudes joy. In a neighborhood of brownstone houses and old factory buildings (many of which have since been remodeled; this once run-down area has become quite desirable), Randyland jumps out as an eager expression of enthusiasm for life. The appeal of this message is evident in the site’s degree of social media exposure – it currently rates as the #3 Pittsburgh attraction on Yelp, and apparently is it one of the most popular Instagram photo sites in the world.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet Randy, but the myriad Yelp reviews of Randyland suggest that he is a friendly and positive as the place he created. According to his bio, “he urges others to ask, ‘why aren’t we watering, feeding, and weeding our dreams?’” At least for me, this is the $64,000 question, always.
Not far from Randyland sits another alternative Pittsburgh attraction – Bicycle Heaven. As a lifelong biker and bike aficionado, I naturally sought this place out, but even people who don’t care much about bicycles have to be impressed by the sheer quantity of two-wheeled transportation forms (and their associated parts and paraphernalia) crammed into this building.
Craig Morrow started his bike collection with just one bike in 1996. He and his wife Mindy opened the museum in 2011 in an industrial part of Pittsburgh, and Bicycle Heaven, too, has grown to be one of the most popular attractions in the city, according to Trip Advisor.
“Stuffed” and “sprawling” are perhaps the best words to describe this place. There are over 4000 bicycles inside, including an amazing assortment of banana-seat Schwinns, antique woodies, bikes used on movie sets, and Bowden Spacelanders, strange space-age looking fiberglass bicycles that had a limited run. In addition, there are cassettes, tires, sprockets, chainguards, baskets, bells, and shifters galore – not to mention bike magazines, posters, and other memorabilia.
The single-minded focus required to collect this many objects from a single, constantly-evolving industry is impressive. But even more than the obsession required to maintain this place, the sheer visual effect created by the assemblages in The Bicycle Museum is what really floored me. There’s a darkroom covered with day-glo painted chainrings and lit with a blacklight. There’s a hall adorned with nothing but brightly colored metal chainguards. There are buckets of bottom brackets nestled into one another and piles of tires which, en masse, beg to be seen as an art installation.
I could spend hours wandering in places like Randyland and Bicycle Heaven – not just because there’s so much to look at, but also because I love getting a hit off of their creators’ inspiration. “Just do it,” their labors of love seem to say. “Whatever it is you’re passionate about, make it, find it, create it.”
Which, of course, is easier to do in the industrial section of Pittsburgh than it is in, say, San Francisco or Brooklyn. Cheap rent – both for the project and for a home – facilitates creative undertakings, and the days of cheap rents on the coasts are long gone.
Still, the message is clear. Create the beauty and quirkiness you want. Not many of us will be able to do it on the scale that Randy and Craig have, but we can all celebrate our passions on smaller scales – perhaps even daily.
We all know this, and we all forget it – hence, the Instagram photos, I suspect. We all need reminders.