Like most children, Randy Gilson grew up seeing himself through the eyes of others. He was "a funny-looking little kid" whose family was poor and who made C's, D's and E's in school.
But he kept the Randy he would become safe inside, and when he found the Central North Side in the early 1980s, he says, "I replanted myself."
To take his oft-used gardening metaphors a step further, he blossomed, and with everything he does, he makes his neighborhood more colorful.
When the "Today" show found him serving breakfast at the Downtown Westin late last fall, he was doing his Randy magic on them -- displaying his natural exuberance -- without knowing they were the camera crew come to spend the day with him. "Today" correspondent Amy Robach told her audience that her mother, on whom Randy had once waited, told her she had to do a story on this guy. The segment ran on Dec. 30 (available online here).
After it aired, he said he was swamped with congratulations "from people all over the world."
Doug Nimmo, owner of Doug's Market on Arch Street, wrote on a neighborhood Web site: "All your hard work has made this neighborhood a much better place to live, Randy. You have been a great friend for 25 years now, and I would not have bought that corner grocery store without your push and positive attitude 14 years ago."
An irrepressible hugger, Mr. Gilson can be a waterfall when you only need a sip. His neighbors chuckle and poke fun at him, usually lovingly, and hug him back, but his effervescence spills beyond the North Side.
"I say to every customer, 'Everyone is delightful here. You will love our city.' "
After finding out their interests, he recommends places to visit. "I say, 'If you get lost, look for someone with a smile. If it's not on their lips, look in their eyes."
He sees everyone as delightful because of a hard resolve to remake the world. He sees beauty, joy and love where others see potholes, buckled sidewalks and people in dark coats. His exuberance comes off as unappraising, but Mr. Gilson, who has worked as a waiter most of his adult life, has made savvy investments and scavenged artfully to create his world. It now centers around a childlike wonderland he calls -- and increasing numbers of tourists know as -- Randyland.
On the corner of Jacksonia and Arch streets, he has amassed properties into a cacophony of color that you can see from Mount Washington as a patch of neon lime and lemon on a clear day. Everything that can be painted is painted. There are sculptures of bugs on the buildings, murals, polka dots and stripes, pink and purple trim on soffit and fascia and moulding, plastic geese in a flower bed, picture maps on the side of one building and old street and retail signs. No matter how often you pass Randyland, you see something you didn't see before.
Mr. Gilson started sowing his world in 1982. The neighborhood had not turned the corner on blight.
"I had a $1,000 unemployment check, and I said, 'Y'know what? All these vacant homes? I want to make them look nice.
"So I went out and bought 20 whiskey barrels for $9.99 each and some soil and shrubs and flowers and I asked for donations so we could have a street party. I did barrel by barrel, block by block."
With appearances on local and national TV and scenes in the local documentary, "The Spirit of Pittsburgh," Mr. Gilson now has moderate local fame. His serious contributions are sometimes overshadowed by a gushing audacity with which he jumps grandly into projects and makes it up as he goes along. The media often make it seem as if he single-handedly brought the neighborhood around. He is quick to credit the many activists before and concurrent with him.
Marirose Radelet, a longtime resident who was active in the community gardens when Mr. Gilson brought his boombox in, says they had several run-ins. "I didn't want a barrel, and he could not understand that. I asked him to turn the boombox off; I wanted to listen to the birds.
"He has come around to considering the possibility that people can have different views. And I have come to appreciate him. We take people who visit us to see his place, and we all say, 'Holy cow, look at that!'
"He has made people think in a different way. He was a pioneer in beautification for his neighborhood, and it is his neighborhood," she said, laughing.
Joan Kimmel, a co-owner of the Urban Gardener nursery and one of many he ejected from the community garden because he became a self-described weeding tsar, said, "He bankrolled all this. All the stuff that's weird and interesting in the garden is his, and he gardened every vacant tree well. He's the one who got the whiskey barrels and made sure every one had at least a juniper."
Of his personality, she said, "You just have to receive. You have to say what you want to say early, and then let Randy take it away. Whatever he's talking about, he never fails to end it with 'It's all love, baby.' "
People who have known him for years say he has resolved to be "the ambassador of happy" with the strength that got him through a difficult childhood.
"The one ingredient in our house was love," Mr. Gilson says of his upbringing in Homestead. His mother settled there with her six children after fleeing their father, who abused her. She was a Salvation Army minister who could afford just two or three little things for each kid at Christmas, on the order of socks.
"I had to invent games, 'cause I knew I was never going to have good toys," said Mr. Gilson. "I used to build forts. That's what the community gardens reminded me of because of the fences around them."
As many houses in the Central North Side were gutted for rehab, Mr. Gilson would get the jump on items left in the alley on garbage day.
"These were treasures, pieces of a puzzle. Different sizes and materials. Cut stones, parts of architecture. People would say, 'Please take it!' "
He began claiming the community garden because of the many weedy spaces, he said. He eventually carved footpaths, broadened plots and placed architectural pieces as accents.
"People said, 'You can't come in here and do whatever you want,' so I said I would do the parts that weren't done. I cleaned plots for people, I rototilled, I hauled compost and people would give me $10, but no one would help me. Or they would help for an hour and see how hard it was and leave."
Gardening became an obsession, he admits.
"I told one guy, 'You have to weed. Other gardeners are complaining,' and he said, 'It's my plot you can't tell me what to do,' and I said, 'If you don't weed, I'm taking your stuff out and putting it on your doorstep.'
"I caught people raiding the garden. They said, 'We thought it was free.' I said, 'You are never welcome back here again because you do not respect gardeners.' "
Lately, he said, he has backed away. "It's like, 'Randy, there are so many cool people in the gardens, you don't have to be a tsar anymore.' "
But he is too rooted ever to leave the neighborhood, he said. "I love it here," he whispers. "It was the architecture at first, but the people are No. 1 now. It's eclectic, it's confident, all ages, all incomes, all colors and dreamers. All I did was make it fun."
Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at post-gazette.com/localnews. First Published January 16, 2010 5:00 AM