Prove your humanity

What’s the best way to call attention to the issue of vacant lots in a community? An arts group in Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood of East Deutschtown has one idea: Build a giant cheeseburger sculpture on one.

The public art piece, which is the size of a camper van, is part of the Fallow Grounds for Sculpture summer residency program. It’s run by Neu Kirche, a community arts center focused on women artists, which is housed in a historic church built by Pittsburgh’s German immigrants.

There are about 27,000 vacant lots in Pittsburgh. And though vacant lots are often seen as the bane of many communities, this group of artists is trying to reimagine them as an opportunity.

“We look at the vacant lots in our community as assets—not as blight,” says Lee Parker, Neu Kirche’s founder and director.

LISTEN: “Cheeseburgers Against Blight”

Parker says Fallow Grounds artist Amy Masters’ cheeseburger sculpture was inspired by the North Side’s Sandwich Week, an annual event where local restaurants compete for the best sandwich title. Masters took that idea of community spirit and combined it with her own experiences of Midwestern roadside attractions, which she says playfully bring communities together and can help rejuvenate the economy of small towns.

She says this North Side roadside attraction will be here until the end of October, unless the community decides to keep it. Parker says the huge sandwich is definitely fulfilling its mission. People driving by on busy Chestnut Street slow down or stop to check it out. But you have to get up close to this not-so-juicy burger to see what’s really going on.

“She created this out of recycled materials,” Parker says. “The green lettuce that you are seeing is a prior work that she created that she repurposed for this.”

The “meat” is broken down tires, and there are toppings like purple onion slices made from plumbing tubing. Parker says artists in the Fallow Grounds residency are interested in reusing materials—in the community and the environment.

“It’s hard to look around this neighborhood and not consider the environmental issues that reside here,” Parker says.

A house was recently demolished on the site where the cheeseburger took shape. Parker says they spend a lot of time cleaning up, raking and getting rid of glass. People who live in the neighborhood help out. Parker says the process is rigorous for the artists, especially when they were working in the hot summer sun.

“Our neighborhood doesn’t have a lot of trees,” she says. “We have a lot of concrete. And we’re in one of the biggest heat zones in the city.”

Another burger-inspired public art piece in Fallow Ground's installation on vacant lots on Pittsburgh's North Side. Photo: Kara Holsopple

Another burger-inspired public art piece in Fallow Ground’s installation on vacant lots on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Photo: Kara Holsopple

Shadonna Preston lives near the sculpture.

“At first I didn’t know what that was, until I saw the last part of the bun,” she says.

Preston thinks the huge burger is pretty cool, but says vacant properties don’t make a big difference in how she views her community. Still, she says public art like this could help bring much-needed attention to the community—and get people talking.

Lee Parker says this giant all-rubber patty on a painted sesame seed bun is a more lighthearted way to look at some of the heavier implications of vacant properties. She says the burger and the other Fallow Grounds pieces—like a community pizza oven—are part of Neu Kirche’s efforts to help revitalize the community in a positive and creative way without gentrification.


Want to see these sculptures for yourself? Neu Kirche is giving a tour of Fallow Grounds’ art pieces on September 25 as part of Pittsburgh’s Re:NEW Festival.