At the corner of Penn Circle and Highland Avenue, at the edge of the many-times-revitalized East Liberty, down on its luck for quite some time, a lovely old building is being transformed into an address that promises its future tenants an ambiance of "urban chic."
For now, though, the writing scrawled on one window in the still-uninhabited building reads: "Happy B-Day Julia!"
I have lived off and on for the past 36 years in East End neighborhoods -- Bloomfield, Morningside and now Stanton Heights, all unchic neighborhoods that are nonetheless property-proud. My neighbors and I tend our flower beds, put in new porches and paint our front doors.
Architecturally, our houses are far from ever attaining historic landmark status, and no tap of a magic wand can turn them into McMansions. Some homeowners' efforts are a little less mainstream, and why not? We have nothing much to lose.
Drive our streets in the spring and you may see pink swimming pool noodles hung from gutters in shallow U-shapes that mimic bunting on the Fourth of July. Come by anytime and you will see an old three-story brick home painted gold -- not tasteful colonial gold, but Strip District Steelers Gold with black trim. With little to lose, some of us like to have a little fun.
Renters are notorious for a cavalier attitude toward the property that they temporarily inhabit. What the landlord considers to be behavior bordering on destructive, the renter may view as merely a decorating risk. My art-major college roommates, for example, painted the living room in our rented house a shade of magenta most often seen by viruses attacking an internal organ.
Given that experience, perhaps it's not surprising that I have a soft spot for draped swimming pool noodles and Steelers Gold brick, along with the "Happy B-Day Julia!" painted on that second-story window of the old Wallace Building, now being redeveloped as part of the Walnut on Highland project.
In my narrative, the painter in that apartment was a student, another someone low on luxuries. Enter Julia, friend or sweetheart.
Painting "Happy B-Day Julia!" as a gift was an inspired choice; it cost little or nothing and has lasted for some 20 years. Unlike the graffiti artist's tag, it was a generous rather than egocentric gesture.
The painter used a straightforward and unadorned font, not the ubiquitous balloon letters that pop up on public buildings, and, working from the inside, even had to paint the letters backward. The abbreviation to "B-Day," probably necessitated by the width of the window, always has seemed friendly in its casualness, an invitation to drivers and passersby to join the party inside for Julia.
I don't remember very well what the corner of Penn Circle and Highland used to look like, but even when that window is upgraded to urban chic I will remember "Happy B-Day Julia!" It gave me a little lift the first time I saw it and every time thereafter, as a reminder of those lives beyond my own dailiness.
For me, it's a phrase worth repeating, a phrase that, were I from a more mystically minded city, I might call a mantra.
Happy B-Day Julia! Take a risk, decorating or otherwise. Look beyond yourself. No matter the name, it's the Julia's and Julian's that matter.
Happy B-Day Julia! Find something to give.
Katrine Watkins of Stanton Heights, a Shaler Area School District librarian, can be reached at email@example.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes "Local Dispatch" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.