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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
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Welcome to Randyland

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It rises improbably from the Central Northside’s Jacksonia Street, candy-colored testimony to one man’s efforts to revitalize an inner-city neighborhood in transition. Bright yellow dominates the three-story building, but it also features color-coded maps — oranges and teals burst from the walls — of North Side neighborhoods. Wooden stick-ons — footballs for Heinz Field, birds for the aviary — add highlights. And it’s surrounded by banana trees and shrubs shooting happily from enormous lavender pots.

That’s not all. Walk just a block from the pastel palace and you’ll find a narrow street lined by parallel vegetable gardens with carefully bricked walkways and signature topiaries. This whole unlikely oasis is largely the work of one man

Welcome to Randyland.

That’s what Randy Gilson calls his creation. Though volunteers and civic groups have pitched in, Gilson, 50, has done most of the work himself, using recycled and trashed materials to fashion a magnet for a neighborhood reinventing itself.

“Everything I’ve done has been a lesson,” he says. “It taught me that you do not need an army. You, you alone, have been empowered by whatever spirituality you believe in, to achieve all successes.”

Gilson first learned the value of other’s discards while growing up poor in Homestead with his five siblings and mother, a Salvation Army minister. Modest Christmas celebrations reminded the youngster of what his family didn’t have.
 
“We got socks, underwear, one present from Mom and one from the church,” he recalls. “Four little presents under the tree and that was it.”

For young Randy, it was too joyless. He began scouring the neighborhood for abandoned bicycles and toys that he would repair and store in his basement.

“I would bring them up on Christmas Eve so that my house looked like the houses I saw in pictures,” he says.

It was a lesson that served him well in the early 1980s when he moved to the Northside while earning his cooking certification at the Community College of Allegheny County. In his adopted neighborhood, he was struck by the paradox of well-dressed people skirting piles of garbage as they walked from home to car.

An Act of Love
Without really having a master plan, he began to rip out the old metal planters that had been used, ineffectively, to guide the growth of now dead or dying plants. He cleared the related debris. He bought a whiskey barrel, filled it with soil and a shrub, and set it before a house. Like that, he had completed his first streetscape. It inspired him to do others, and it attracted the neighborhood children, who peppered him with questions about his newfound mission. Gilson explains:

“I didn’t know what else to say, so I would answer: ‘We all have to do something through love. This is my way of loving the neighborhood.’ After saying that thousands of times, I started educating myself. I thought, ‘I am doing all that I said I was doing.’ That reinforced my dream.”

He also discovered a hitherto hidden streak of entrepreneurship that may explain why he works primarily without the assistance of established organizations. They already have their projects.

“I wanted a new program, a raw program, an untapped program,” Gilson says. “I wanted a program that I could help drive, not something that would repeat what everybody else did. I wanted to take an untouched situation and create it, mold it, make it my own.”

The New Randy Gilson

A new personality was emerging, part Bob Vila, part Rex Humbard. More confident of himself now, Gilson redoubled his efforts, parlaying his zeal and expertise in procurement to transform his neighborhood. He developed a particular knack for finding building materials dirt-cheap.

With all the demolition in the neighborhood, bricks seldom were a problem. He found what he calls “oops” paint and wood, material that would have been tossed had he not badgered merchants for them. From the long-defunct Holiday House he rescued a gem — the elegant bar from the club’s comedy room that now serves as Gilson’s workbench. For the giant pots he needed for his street plants, he hectored The Home Depot until they sold him distressed pieces at $25 each.

The Big Daddy
Over the course of 25 years, Gilson extended his recycler’s touch to a 30-block area. He estimates that he’s installed 800 streetscapes, 50 vegetable garden plots and eight parks. Tom Armstrong, former chairman of the Pittsburgh City Planning Commission chairman, actually started one of the gardens (with the help of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy) on land he owns — a remarkable contribution to the neighborhood since Armstrong sold the house adjacent to the garden parcel and realizes no revenue from the remaining property. Once Armstrong got the ball rolling, he left the rest to Gilson.

“He’s the one who made it work well,” Armstrong says. “”If you weren’t doing a good job with your parcel, he would give you the dickens. He was the Big Daddy. It’s nice to see it in good hands and see people taking pride in it.”

Though he’s had some help from organizations such as the conservancy, Gilson estimates that he’s invested $90,000 of his own funds in his efforts. That’s a sizable outlay for anyone but even more impressive for someone who’s worked as a cook, then server, at the Westin Pittsburgh Convention Center Hotel (It was the Vista when Gilson began there.) for the past 22 years. But he’s comfortable with the expense.

“If you feel your happiness, your passions,” he says, “then you surely will be rich.”

A Neighborhood Renaissance

His home, though, remains the centerpiece of Randyland. Gilson bought the three-lot parcel at auction in 1996 for $11,000 and has since spent about $100,000 creating the city’s most colorful building. The living quarters, while quite comfortable and well appointed, mirror the oops nature of the outside. Some of the carpeting, for example, was salvaged from the dumpster of a local hotel.

Randyland is more than a colorful curiosity; it’s a vital element in the renaissance of the Central Northside. Real estate agents bring prospects to Randyland to showcase the neighborhood. Tourists visit with cameras, eager to be photographed against the home’s high-bright hues. The neighborhood is abuzz with other activity as well. The Mattress Factory in the nearby Mexican War Streets continues to serve as an anchor. Roughly midway between the Mattress Factory and Randyland, developers Ralph Falbo and Pennrose Management Company have converted the historic “Widows’ Home” to 24 units of rental housing.

And with so much development happening around the corner on Federal Street, Gilson wants to do even more. Now that he’s turned over the vegetable gardens to the neighbors who tend and harvest their 10x20 plots, he plans to finish the map on his home’s exterior and create a community meeting/celebration venue in his yard; he’s already storing outdoor sculptures in his studio. The final component will be a coffee shop on the ground floor which he envisions as a bastion of bonhomie — with no computers.

“I don’t want people to open up a box and build another box around them,” he says.

On a recent oops shopping trip to Shadyside, Gilson unearthed a charm shaped like the piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Inscribed on the charm are the words: “I am unstoppable.” Gilson shelled out $5 for the jewelry and placed it on his keychain because he sees himself as both unstoppable and a piece of the greater puzzle that is human endeavor.

“If I can leave one message for the world,” he says, “it would be this: It’s not what’s in your pocket but what’s in your soul that counts. If things aren’t exactly what you want, recreate them, restructure them, rebuild them your way.”

Captions:

Randy Gilson

The facade of Randy Gilson's house featuring his map of the North Side

Gilson at home, gaining inspiration from the (painted) sky

It's always sunny...

...on Jacksonia Street

All photographs happily copyright Brian Cohen
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