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Yes, In My Back Yard

Artist Gary Pletsch will protest the Mon-Fayette Expressway by paving his own garden

The front of Gary Pletsch's house on Trenton Avenue in Wilkinsburg looks like so many other well-worn rentals on the street -- and like so many houses in the old eastern boroughs like Swissvale, Rankin and Braddock that mark a dense, soot-stained brick path down to the Monongahela River. Though this house isn't in the path of the proposed Mon-Fayette Expressway -- a 24-mile, $1.9 billion, largely unfunded toll road that would fly cars from open lands in Fayette County past the Mon Valley and right up to Oakland, ostensibly for the sake of economic development -- it's a ringer for so many that are.

The front was once painted mustard yellow and sports a functionally worthless "decorative" rooflet where a wide porch roof once hung; the crumbly red brick sides are covered with thick waxy ivy. The back porch, technically the domain of the downstairs tenant, is covered with the alligator scales of old lead-based paint.

A 3-foot concrete path separates Pletsch's house from its nearly identical neighbor, also broken into apartments. At the end of this passageway, above a cheap chain-link gate, is honeysuckle -- piles and piles of it that Pletsch has gathered into an arbor, its heady, buttery flowers now beginning to pass out of season and fall on his guests.

"You'd never know what was back here," Pletsch says. And, in fact, behind the worn if easygoing streets of Wilkinsburg is a meticulously raucous Eden, Pletsch's 12-year-old garden, a cacophony of plants six inches to six feet high, climbing graceful, built-to-rot sculptures. It's expanded from Pletsch's small yard to the space behind his neighbor's and on into the back lawns of two modern apartment buildings behind him.

"I like to layer stuff," Pletsch says, rather than forcing each plant to keep its own counsel. Sunflowers are popping up; goldenrod, an allergic's nightmare, is filling in for late August. His "base coat," purple perilla creeps everywhere along the ground. "My friend said it was like a beautiful red wine had been poured over the garden," Pletsch says, a little dreamily.

Tall yet sturdy, with deep-set blue eyes and long gray hair, Gary Pletsch is easy on the eyes. Before becoming a potter, Pletsch was a dancer and a model; he originally comes from Illinois farm country. He eases himself onto the garden bench with a plastic mug of Yuengling.

The garden is informally open to all; his friends, neighborhood kids and fellow gardeners stop by. But the usual trickle of guests will become a swarm of hundreds June 28, at Pletsch's annual dawn-to-dusk "Arty Party," when he plans a ritual sacrifice to virtually destroy it all.

To protest the coming of the Mon-Fayette Expressway -- with its accompanying destruction of natural and historical areas -- Pletsch plans to rip a wide path through his garden and pour a concrete sidewalk in its place.


How many hours does he spend in the garden?

"I don't say that," Pletsch says. Then: "Minimum, three hours a day. I'm out here all the time."

Pletsch shows the path of his metaphoric Mon-Fayette: The gate to his back alley is Pittsburgh where the proposed highway will end, and the front gate, under the honeysuckle, is Jefferson Hills, the closest completed point to Pittsburgh. All of this greenery, in a three-foot-wide swath, will be ripped up. Pletsch shows the crux of the Expressway's 'Y' -- where, as it approaches the city, it will cross the Monongahela and fork, sending one of its legs off to Monroeville while the rest continues into town. His backyard will have a 'Y,' too -- "we must talk about the Monroeville bypass!" he says sardonically.

"It's a serious cut I'm doing. Just like this damn toll road. But I'm getting nervous. A lot of my [art] is more subtle than this -- this is going to be in-your-face." Some of his buddies will be pouring concrete in the wake of his destruction, as much as Pletsch can afford to supply. ("I'm not getting a grant or anything for this," he says.)

"How audacious of me to just start digging!" he says excitedly. Then he adds, "It's really going to be painful."

Pletsch admits he's no scholar, but says he recently became an egghead on highways: "I'll read anything about roads!" he says cheerfully, apparently unaware that roads are one of the nerdiest of nerd topics. "Why does a city work?" he asks. "Doesn't Pittsburgh see how this is going to make traffic so much worse? 'All roads ease congestion,' so that's why we keep building roads?"

To add to his own monumental protest gesture, Pletsch has invited more traditional wonks and activists to participate, including Heather Sage, outreach coordinator for the environmental group PennFuture, which authored a "Citizens' Plan" as an alternative to the MFE. Unlike the highway proposal, which does one big thing, PennFuture's plan proposes several small things: upgrading existing roads, building a few new roads, using a Main-Street development approach in old Mon Valley towns and adding more public transit. On the day of Pletsch's "Arty Party," Sage will hang maps of the proposed MFE all over his living room, illustrated with photographs of actual affected places.

Meanwhile, another PennFuture issue will be on display in Pletsch's basement: long-wall mining, a coal-extraction technique that destabilizes the earth's surface. By hanging a black plastic tarp across part of the basement, Pletsch says it "should tart up nicely and look like a mine." The Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP) will also have a display, sexed up by a gaspy sound loop by Soma Mestizo's Herman Pearl (Pletsch's next-door neighbor). The Nine Mile Run Watershed Association will show how to catch and filter rainwater at home. The garden protest will occur simultaneously with the latest installment of Stephanie Flom's Persephone Project, which reclaims ignored spots -- in this case, an abandoned Wilkinsburg lot a few blocks from Pletsch's house -- for public-art-and-gardening projects.

"Gary had said that among his friends there was not much awareness," Sage says. "Either they felt it was a done deal, or they didn't have any idea it was going on. The road isn't here yet. We have a chance to say we don't want this. It won't necessarily go through Gary's neighborhood, but he considers Pittsburgh his community, and he thinks it will impact the community. The scale of [the road] is going to be enormous. By putting this project through his personal pace, he's giving a sense of impact."

Tom and Disa Petrola -- longtime friends who were married in Pletsch's garden -- will also be on hand, Disa with food from her new catering business, and Tom with borrowed road cones and barrels; he's currently studying construction management in order to become an environmental engineer. "We just hang around where he needs us and explain things," Disa says. "A lot of times, we just explain Gary."


"He feels he has to destroy some of his own garden to symbolize what he thinks the Mon-Fayette project would be?" asks Joe Agnello, Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission spokesman. The PTC is in charge of the highway project. "I don't see the analogy -- but it's America! And I'm all for art. It's not like a bull loose in a china shop here," he says of the highway plan. "This is being done a lot more carefully than that.

"To truly symbolize the MFE," says Agnello, Pletsch "would have to build something in the place -- a sidewalk -- so people can have access to other parts of his garden in a more efficient fashion. Oh, he is? Well, I'll give him credit for that. & This does sound rather ingenious. I think it could work very well as a piece of art; I don't know how well it will work as a literal representation of the Mon-Fayette Expressway. His swath will represent a bigger part of his garden than the width of our highway right-of-way would represent" in the affected communities.

Asked about Pletsch's symbolic juxtaposition between enormous impersonal infrastructure and intimate personal space, Agnello waxes philosophical. "When you're driving, it's almost like you're in a parallel universe or something, and if you were to park your car and walk down over the hill and over the barrier fence, you're in somebody's backyard. And in a way that's good! A limited-access highway should feel like that, and the neighbors of the highway probably want to feel that way, too. 'Oh, that's the highway, I can hear the drone, but it doesn't touch my everyday life, except when I'm on it.' And the Turnpike is even more like that, because you can get on only at certain places."

Agnello snaps back from his thoughts: "I think we're better off staying in the real world on this thing."


Besides his plants, Pletsch's big cut will take out some bona fide art: the remains of Anne Wolf's 1998 earthen sculpture Sewn Ruin. It might also put in jeopardy two free-standing Wolf sculptures, wooden chairs balanced on five-foot legs.

Right now, Wolf's earth sculpture is fairly unassuming -- a snaky, two-foot high series of mounds grown over with grass and garden plants. But when it was installed, her piece was the star of Pletsch's party. "It's made from hundreds of hand-dyed and hand-stitched sacks stuffed with mulch, sort of based on the idea of a ruined wall, with grass growing over it," she says. "I created it in a sort of U-shape in the center of the garden. It was meant to stay and decay and become part of the garden. And the 'road' will cut right through it.

"I was kind of upset when I heard about it," she recalls from her home near San Francisco. "I even said, 'Gary, do you really need to do this?' He was just delighted that it was creating these strong feelings in people.

"What Gary is doing is questioning the cultural value of efficiency," Wolf says. "Efficiency has to do with getting from one place to another in the quickest way. Effectiveness has to do with the quality of your life. The way Gary's garden is, you meander through it, seeing layers of color and all the care he's put into it. This applies to the greater society with roads and buildings. If you're only looking at efficiency, how to get from Point A to Point B the quickest, you may be running over sacred ground."

Pletsch is a little giddy with the thought of unearthing Wolf's sculpture: "We'll probably see the bags and everything," with a smidgen of a kid's fascination with pure gross guts. "Anne says, 'Gary, you're a creator, not a destroyer.' But I had to come from somewhere showing my protest. It's overwhelming, this 'business as usual.' I can't go to meetings and talk. People can come over here."

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