Sunday, April 25, 2010

Abandoned Things: Love Canal, New York

I first saw Love Canal, a modest suburban neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York in May of 1983. I’d been visiting my friends Walt & Ruth in Buffalo, a stopover for a few days when traveling from Chicago to Boston by train. Walt, a photographer who’d been a classmate of mine a few years earlier, wanted to show me the neighborhood he’d been photographing which had been built atop an industrial waste landfill. It was one of the spookiest things I’d ever seen – a true modern day ghost town of boarded-up houses on street after empty street.

I regret that I didn’t photograph the neighborhood that day. We’d simply done a drive thru on our way to another destination – probably Niagara Falls. I have photographs of Walt & Ruth posing like tourists in front of the falls, but I don’t have a single shot to document the abandoned homes and school at one of the biggest man-made environmental tragedies known.

Last week, I returned to see what remains at Love Canal. There’s not much left to photograph now. A fence now surrounds the most toxic section, the containment area where the 99th Street Elementary School and the homes nearest it once stood – until evidence of the chemical dump they’d been built upon seeped into basements and storm sewers, and formed puddles in yards and the school playground during a particularly rainy period in 1976.

The elementary school and some of the neighborhood homes had been built on a chemical dump site where Hooker Chemical Company had buried drums of toxic waste from 1942-1952. The dump site was an old canal, a project begun in the 1890s by William T. Love (thus the name Love Canal) but never completed. Hooker Chemical Company buried an estimated 22,000 tons of chemical waste in 55-gallon barrels in the partially dug canal, and then sold the land to the Niagara Falls School Board in 1953 for one dollar. Among the chemicals buried there were dioxin, benzene and other substances known to be carcinogenic. Included in the deed was a disclaimer stating that the land had been used for chemical waste disposal and notification that the sale of the property released the company of responsibility or liability for future damages. In 1955 the 99th Street Elementary School was built on that property and new homes were built on the adjacent land.

I’ve written previously about memory images. Since 1983, my only images of Love Canal are those visions stored in my brain. Fortunately, the University of Buffalo has an extensive archive which includes records, a newspaper database, and a photo database of images available online with images of the school, homes, and toxic waste barrels. Looking at these photographs, I was surprised to find the homes were more modest than I remembered them. Even more surprising to me is that I didn’t even mention seeing Love Canal in my journal (I searched for an entry when trying to pinpoint the date of my earlier visit).

How could I not write a single word about that experience or take a single photograph? Granted, this was before I was writing seriously, and my journaling efforts were more of a general account of my days than a place to explore thoughts and feelings. I was a reader back then, and not a writer. But I did carry my camera with me nearly everywhere I went, and yet I didn’t use it. I do recall feeling overwhelmed by what I saw, but instead of trying to record it I simply rode away.

Last week as my husband and I drove around the vacant lots of what had once been a community, I tried to align what was left with my memory of what had been there 27 years earlier when I’d ridden on those same streets with Walt & Ruth. Outside the containment fence are blocks where children once skateboarded and rode bikes and played games. All that remain now are street signs, fire hydrants, and sidewalks with driveway cuts leading to overgrown yards where houses once stood. Inside the fence, the sidewalk continues past acres of ground where vent pipes jut up at regular intervals amid a feeble landscaping attempt using shrubbery along the edge of a slight rise. In the distance a single building, which I believe is an EPA Treatment Facility, is located deep inside the fenced area. Underground behind the fence, an estimated 2,000 tons of chemicals are still buried.

While my husband and I walked along the streets outside the fence, another car circled the area. Later, I saw the driver and passenger stop and get out to shoot a photograph. Were they like me? Or were they former residents? What would it be like to return to this place if it had once been your home? And, I couldn’t help thinking about our recent visit to Centralia, PA where there had also been other visitors at that site. Are we becoming environmental disaster tourists?

Memory is fallible. The images in my memory don’t quite match the photographs in the database at the University of Buffalo’s Love Canal Archive, but luckily those images exist and are available for all to see. Memory images are not as accurate as those captured in negatives and slides. Instead, they’re a little more like the latent images on undeveloped film. I imagine there are lots of other photographs out there of Love Canal, including those of my friend (and I’ve been badgering him to dig those negatives out of his files). These are important images that document the demise of Love Canal, particularly because memory itself is so unreliable. It’s amazing that only a few years before the school and homes were built on that contaminated site, it was still being used as a dump site. What were people thinking? This had not been a distant history; it was the recent past. The time line from the construction of the elementary school to the destruction of the neighborhood occurred within a single generation.

There is an ongoing long term observational study which follows the long term health effects of former residents who choose to participate in it. More information and other reports can be found at the New York State Department of Health website.

Perhaps last week’s Earth Day has me thinking about Love Canal again. I’d heard an NPR story on the radio about this being the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. That show noted that the first Earth Day occurred on April 22, 1970 and had been intended as a singular event, and that the EPA had not even existed until then. Hard to imagine. Even harder to imagine how reckless and na├»ve we were about our land, our water, and our air. Let’s hope our collective memory improves.

Photo Credits: All photographs copyright 2010 by Dory Adams

Further Reading:

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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Saving Frank Lloyd Wright's Graycliff

Graycliff (copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon)

Frank Lloyd Wright speaks to me. At least his houses do. And I am envious of anyone who lives in one. Yes, I know they are notorious for leaks and other functionality issues. This is a case where form trumps function. Living in a Wright house would be living in art.

I’ve toured Wright’s most famous house, Fallingwater, in every season and it never fails to amaze me. There are places in
nature that stir a similar sense of belonging for me, such as coastal Maine and the northern coast of California. I get that same feeling when I enter a Wright house: I belong here; this should be mine. This feeling of connection was one of the architect’s goals. Wright designed his homes to become part of the landscape surrounding it, using indigenous materials to integrate the building with the site. Early this month I made my first visit to Graycliff, which overlooks Lake Erie just south of Buffalo, New York. Guess what – that one should be mine, too.

Some Wright-designed homes remain in the hands of private owners. Writer T.C. Boyle, whose latest novel The W
omen is about several of FLW’s romantic liaisons, owns and lives in a Wright home. Built in 1910 for George C. Stewart, it was the first Wright home built in California and the only one there in the Prairie style. If you happen to be in the market for a Wright-designed home, here are a few that may still be available.

My favorite novel about Wright is Nancy Horan’s deeply researched and beautifully crafted Loving Frank, based on Wright’s scandalous love affair with Mamah Cheney after he’d been commissioned by Cheney’s husband to build a house for their family in Chicago’s Oak Park neighborhood. Horan’s home was on the same street as the Cheney house, and her walks past it inspired her to write the story. It took Horan seven years to write Loving Frank, and her focus on Mamah Cheney (who had previously been little more than a footnote in Wright biographies) shows a fascinating and intelligent woman who boldly took great risks and made difficult choices, particularly in an era when women did not even have the right to vote.

I’m always struck by how modern Wright’s houses were for the era in which they were designed. In fact, they still seem modern today, nearly a century later. Despite its yet to be restored interior, Graycliff shares that modern ambiance. Graycliff was the summer home for the Darwin and Isabelle Martin family. Their main residence, located in Buffalo where Darwin Martin was CEO at the Larkin Company, had also been designed by Wright. The Martins lived a Wright lifestyle year round (I’m just a tad envious, but won’t dwell on that here). When Darwin Martin commissioned Wright to design and build Graycliff, he instructed Wright that this one was to be Isabelle’s house and that it was her wishes that would have to be satisfied. Isabelle’s eyesight was failing and she wanted a house filled with as much natural light as possible. Rows of glass doors and floor-to-ceiling windows on Graycliff’s main floor bring light through the house and frame the view of the lake. As we approached the house by walking down the front driveway, our gaze was drawn to those windows where we could see straight through the house to the lake. I was already in love with Graycliff before I set foot inside.

Frank Lloyd Wright was notorious for his disagreements with clients over what he had planned for them versus what the owners actually wanted built. Isabelle Martin was firm in her demands, and for the most part FLW complied. Having worked with Wright previously on their Buffalo house, she had experience on her side and had figured out how to handle him. When he balked at a request or told her that it was not possible, she would declare that surely a man of his genius could figure it out.

The tour of Graycliff’s interior was particularly interesting because restorations are underway by the Graycliff Conservancy, which managed to purchase the house in 1999 with backing from The Baird Foundation to guarantee the $450,000 mortgage and provide another $200,000 toward restoration. The outside, with the exception of the sunken garden on the cliff side of the house, has been restored and now they have begun work on the interior. The Piarist Order of priests, who owned the property from 1950-1999 and established a boarding school there, had built an addition onto the front terrace for a chapel. These alterations have been removed and the house restored to its original configuration. Walking through the house I imagined what it would be like to live there. I saw exactly which sunlit corner of what is known as the fern room would be my writing space, and could envision my desk pushed against a window there with a view of the garden and lake. Upstairs, the long gallery above the front terrace would make the perfect library, with a long row of bookshelves along the interior wall.

When the priests put Graycliff on the market in 1996, there was little interest in it except for the lakefront property. In fact, an upscale housing development now stands within a hundred feet of Graycliff on land which was once owned by Dexter Rumsey, from whom Darwin Martin had originally purchased the parcel of property for Graycliff. There was some question of whether enough of Wright’s design elements had survived under the alterations made by the Piarist priests for the estate to be worth saving, but fortunately the group that became the Graycliff Conservancy investigated and confirmed that the bones and details were still intact and worth restoring.

There is a very 1950s looking chain link fence at the cliff precipice that would surely make Wright rant and rave in his grave. The docent for our tour claimed the fence dated back to the Martin family because they had young grandchildren who played there. I can imagine Frank saying one good 60-foot tumble will teach the little rascals to stay back from the edge and demanding that the fence be removed. Wright was known to place demands on the families living in his houses right down to the arrangement of the furniture and personal belongings. Surely he would have objected to a fence impeding the flow of the sightline he had designed with the sunken garden and esplanade leading from the terrace to the cliff – particularly a fence as ugly and utilitarian as that one. Wright had originally planned for steps to be landscaped into the side of the cliff to the beach below, but Darwin Martin hired a different builder to construct a metal staircase instead, which still stands but is in serious disrepair.

Stairs to the lake at Graycliff
(copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon)

The administration building for the Larkin Company in Buffalo was also designed by Wright. However, it was demolished in 1950 and a parking lot is now at that site. One low wall still remains, but there is nothing particularly interesting about it except that serves as a shameful reminder of that architectural loss.

Wright’s architectural grammar was one of horizontal lines and cantilevered terraces, continuity of interior and exterior space, and undivided rooms opening into one another. He literally took us out of the box with his thinking – the house was no longer a box of rooms. He was also a flamboyant character and lived a life of stories. It’s no wonder that writers and readers find him interesting. His life had everything that makes a good tale – conflict, drama, beauty, tragedy, romance, lies, suspense, mystery, and even murder. Even his houses reveal great stories.

Photo Credits:
Photographs of Graycliff, copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

Around the Blogosphere

Congratulations to Paul Harding, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction last week for his novel Tinkers. This win is particularly poignant for the small press, Bellevue Literary Press, and its editor Erika Goldman – and for Jonathan Rabinowitz, editor at another small press who turned down the project but who nonetheless championed the book by bringing it to the attention of Goldman.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Experience 78th Street Studios

78th Street Studios, Cleveland
(copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon

(click on images for larger view)

Dan Bush, owner of 78th Street Studios in Cleveland, got it exactly right when he turned an old brick industrial building into an arts complex of galleries and studio space. The American Greetings Building, which had previously housed the greeting card company’s creative studios, has been re-purposed and revived. The 78th Street Studios recently launched a new monthly event called “Third Fridays” to their events calendar. The third weekend in April the galleries, studios and businesses will hold an open house on Friday evening (April 16th, 5-9 PM) and Saturday afternoon (April 17th, 3-7 PM). Located at the outer edge of the Gordon Square Arts District, 78th Street Studios is easy to find with plenty of free off-street parking available on the premises.

We first heard about 78th Street Studios last year through news of the photography exhibit “Look Out Cleveland: Photographs of Bob Dylan and The Band” at Kokoon Arts Gallery. Those photographs turned out to be the work of Kokoon owner Bill Scheele and his brother John Scheele. I wasn’t able to join my husband and a friend on the day they drove to Cleveland to see the exhibit. When they came back talking enthusiastically about everything – the photographs, the building, the galleries, and even Bill Scheele himself who’d spent time talking with them about his photographs and the years between 1969-1976 when he worked as the equipment and stage manager for The Band – I realized I’d missed out on something wonderful. I had to go see it for myself.

In late January, I made my first visit to 78th Street Studios. Our first stop that day was to view Bill’s photographs which were then on exhibit at Visible Voice Books in the nearby Tremont area of town. Later that afternoon, we met up with Bill at his gallery to chat. He was generous with his time as we talked about his diverse background in the arts, his work in the music industry, and about the metamorphosis of Kokoon Arts Gallery. This will be the first in a series of several posts based on that interview which will run from time to time over the next few months.

Bill Scheele and Dory Adams at Kokoon Arts Gallery
(copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon)

The 78th Street Studios complex is interesting in itself for the re-purposing of the buildings where it is housed, blending industrial ambiance with the making and exhibition of art. “A lot of people aren’t used to coming to what looks like a giant factory building,” said Bill Scheele, “and yet when they come in and they see everything that’s going on they’re totally in awe – and nicely so. It’s like discovering a magic world to explore in this crusty shell.”

Kokoon Arts Gallery has been part of the 78th Street Studios since 2007. In describing the challenge of getting the word out about the unique experience there, Scheele said: “We’re still trying to attract people and get them to know that we exist. We have three of the finest and longest-term galleries in this building with myself, and Ken Lesko, and Bill Tregoning. We all handle quite a different array of work than, let’s say, you’ll find in Tremont. Tremont is more of an upstart artist’s type of gallery area. Nothing wrong with that – I’m not saying that. But it’s a different type of approach. We also have the Legation kids down here now at the end of the hall, and they handle more of the younger crowd as well. So we’re getting more of a mix, and that’s what I like. We’ve got the recording studios here and some music business people, a magazine publisher, individual artist studios and even some people actually living and working in the building, as well as the galleries, a frame shop, and two different auction houses. We have a real array of people that I don’t think anyone else can hold a candle to, and it’s all essentially under one giant roof. That to us is what makes us different than other arts areas in town. So, these are several of the reasons I like it here: (1) there’s a diverse group of people in action here; (2) it’s frankly easy to get to once you know it; and (3) there’s immediate parking that’s free.”

Bill Scheele at Kokoon Arts Gallery
(copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon)

It was, indeed, easy for us to get to the 78th Street Studios from our first stop in Tremont – even though we’re out-of-towners and not that familiar with Cleveland. Bill spoke of how the river has become a great divide of sorts which Clevelanders are reluctant to cross. We have a similar situation here in Pittsburgh, but with more rivers forming geographic divisions. “It’s intriguing to people as they make their way here,” Scheele said. “They don’t always find it easy, even though we’ve got banners up and we try to direct them and say there are banners at 78th and 80th Streets at Lake Avenue, so you just come down either road and you’ll find that within the block you’ll see a big parking lot and that’s our big building. One of the things that immediately appealed to me was our big parking lot here. I’ve done things throughout this town in different places, and parking has always been one of the predominant prohibitive issues.” Bill emphasized that the 78th Street Studios are actually part of the Gordon Square Arts District, but located at its western edge instead of in the heart of the business district. “Something that we’re glad of is that merchants in the Gordon Square Arts District, which is at 65th and Detroit Avenue – essentially a little bit more than ten blocks east of us – are beginning to refer people to our building,” Scheele said. “Gordon Square Arts District has made a lot of noise about what they’re doing, and we’re still part of that even though we’re not right there. Now people are starting to be referred to this building by merchants down there, and that’s what we want to hear. There hasn’t been that much of a connection yet, and it’s been a frustrating problem and goes back to that thing about not being right on the street.”

Bill Scheele at Kokoon Arts Gallery
(copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon)

Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and the buzz about the 78th Street Studios is catching on. “That’s what we need,” Scheele said. “We need this link to the fact that frankly this area, Detroit Shoreway and Gordon Square, are very much evolving over the last few years. Tremont’s not that far away, and it’s also on the near west side of Cleveland. So, finally the west side is offering Cleveland something of a cultural attitude for the first time. Cleveland Public Theater was actually the first entity in the Gordon Square / Detroit Shoreway area to start out about 25 years ago with a performance theater type of venture. They’re probably the oldest arts residents in this region.”

Bill showed us the floor plan of the building which included the new studio spaces and discussed the vision for future development of space. “This building has sort of had different uses over time,” Scheele said. “This area is a total of 20,000 square feet. It used to be a Corian counter manufacturing company, so it’s basically just empty and open space. There are restrooms and an exit entry here, there’s a little build-out here and here. What Dan Bush, the owner, has started to do is build out these first four areas as artist studios. They’re already paid for and they’re almost totally completed. This area might be for some further build-out, to begin to keep attracting artists here with very affordable workspace. Then this area is going to be left open for various events held here. The auction companies here have used it and there have been some benefits held here. I keep pushing for some sort of social lounge area, so people can hang out and get a cup of coffee or maybe go and get a drink. I think people would feel inclined to mingle a little bit more. We now need a place where there can be a gathering. So, I think this (taps fingers on floor plan diagram) is a good effort to continue to keep the building evolving in different ways.”

Before we left, we bought a print of one of Scheele’s photographs (a birthday gift to me from my husband). It was difficult to decide which print to order, but I was particularly drawn to an image of Levon Helm that seemed fitting in light of our March road trip to Woodstock for a Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm Studios.

If you live within driving distance of Cleveland, I hope you’ll make your way to Kokoon Arts Gallery (located on the second floor) at the 78th Street Studios and see what’s happening there. Say hello to Bill for me, and tell him I’ll be back soon to pick up my photograph and see what’s new.

Kokoon Arts Gallery at 78th Street Studios
(copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon)

Kokoon Arts Gallery presents a diverse stable of artists salon-style, including historic Cleveland School artists Frank Wilcox and Paul Travis; natural history artists William E. Scheele, Robert Hainard and Mary Wawrytko; contemporary painters Alfredo Arreguin, Lee Heinen, Randall Tiedman, Michael Prunty, Lee and Keri Gortz, ceramics by Andres LeBlond, Joseph Blue Sky and Donna Webb; prints, photography and computer graphics by Karen Kunc, Darren Waterston, Richard Taylor, Paul Jacklitch, Michael Nekic and William G. Scheele.

Photo credits: Photographs copyright © 2010 by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission

Around the Blogosphere
  • Be part of the Global Mosaic on Sunday, May 2nd at 15:00 hours U.T.C. (Coordinated Universal Time, previously known as Greenwich Mean Time) by taking a photograph of where you are and sending it to the New York Times. Details at Lens. (For fellow Pittsburghers, this would be 11:00 a.m.)
  • Charming story about photographer Ansel Adams by Jim Hughes in “Ansel Adams, A Warm and Generous Man” at The Online Photographer. Kevin and I have always wished we could’ve visited Ansel’s house in Carmel to see the green flash over the ocean at sunset, a phenomenon Adams wrote about in his books. Looks like we could’ve just dropped in for cocktails to watch it with Ansel himself, if we’d been bold enough!

Featured Book

Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods: An All-American Tale Told Through Baseball Cards comes out tomorrow. I’ve been looking forward to reading this one, not because I’m a baseball fan (although I did have a thing for watching Pirate Andy Van Slyke in the early 1990s – truly poetry in motion, in centerfield or at bat) but because I’ve loved reading about Josh’s coming of age at his Cardboard Gods blog over the past few years. Full disclosure, Josh is a pal and MFA program classmate of mine. He’ll be doing a guest post here at my blog next month. You can listen to a podcast of an interview with Josh on NPR radio’s Only a Game, read a review at Pitchers and Poets and buy Josh’s book at your favorite bookstore or online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or IndieBound.

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Sunday, April 4, 2010


Spring has become my favorite season. It’s the flowering trees that dazzle me. Those first blossoms of cherry, dogwood, and redbud make me want to run and skip – even though my running and skipping days are long behind me. Regardless of age, those flowering trees still manage to blossom in awesome contrast to the bare-branched winters. We turned the corner from winter to spring this past week here in Pittsburgh. March is such a tease with her hint of spring. T.S. Eliot got it wrong; March is the cruelest month – at least in western Pennsylvania. In March, the trees are still bare and the days are still gray and short on sunlight. Even when spring flowers manage to push up and bud, they usually end up being snuffed out by frost or a late snow. But with April, it’s warm enough to open the windows wide to fresh air and birdsong. I’m already anticipating afternoons in my “summer office” – also known as the back porch.

The view from my summer office will be a little different this year. The maple tree that shaded much of the backyard is gone. It had become hollow and unstable, so last fall we finally had it cut down after several seasons of delaying that act. We were sad to lose the tree, but with the heavy record-setting snowfall in February we were glad we didn’t have to worry about the tree crashing down under the burden. That snow essentially shut down the city for several days, and many trees in the area came down under the weight of snow and ice. Mammoth icicles were so impressive that I spent an afternoon out photographing them on houses. Those icicles did a lot of damage in the neighborhood, pulling down aluminum awnings and roof gutters. The worst damage we suffered was borne by my angel garden statue, which I’d forgotten to store away for the winter. She took a direct hit, decapitated by a falling icicle. “Wow,” I said to my husband as I looked out at where her head had come to rest about a foot from her toppled body, “this is way too metaphorical for me. Usually they only lose a wing.”

We kept watch on the huge ice dams that had formed in our roof gutters, the long icicles too thick to knock down or break off. We took to looking up before stepping outside. Every day or so we’d hear a huge crash as sheets of ice suddenly let go and fell into the yard and driveway. I tried to remember which book I’d read where an icicle had been used by an angel as a means of settling a score with a villain. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones? Abby Frucht’s Polly’s Ghost? I couldn’t remember; it had been too long since I’d read it. I kept my gaze on the icicles.

A few days after my angel lost her head, she appeared on Kevin’s workbench in the garage where a big clamp held her glued-on head in place. It turned out that one of her wings was damaged as well, but after a little superglue and some recovery time on the workbench she’s now back on duty watching over the flowerbeds where hosta and ferns are sending up new shoots.

Things looked incredibly bare after the maple was gone – exposed and open. We planted a white birch and a dogwood in its place. Both trees made it through the winter. I’m not sure if the dogwood will bloom this first season, but I’m hopeful. There are buds on it, but whether they’re leaf or flower buds remains to be seen.
It’s all different this spring – new trees, different light. The flowers will be different, too, since the backyard flowerbeds will be in full sun instead of deep shade. We’ll plant zinnias and have colorful cutting flowers all summer long, just like the zinnias my grandfather filled his backyard with and my parents grew in their front garden which the driveway circled around.

Summer evenings are the best time. When the day’s work is done, the summer office turns into the summer dining room where we watch the shadows deepen at sunset while we eat our evening meal. Birds come to the feeders and sometimes stop for a little splash in the water garden. The leaves on our new trees will shimmer and briefly become translucent, back lit by the sun before it dips below our horizon line.

Spring is finally here and summer stretches out ahead of us like a promise. I feel rejuvenated – the world opening up to me again after the dormant winter. The summer office is now open; stories yet to be written, in bud and ready to blossom.

Photo credits: Photographs copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Around the Blogosphere

I’ve been a member of She Writes, an online community of women writers, since it began last June. One of the first groups I joined there was “Bloggers: Let’s Make it Work!” which was started by Laura Didyk. There are now nearly 8000 members at She Writes, and last week the 1000th member joined our blogger group. Julie Jeffs celebrates that milestone with her post “How Many Bloggers Does It Take . . .” in which Laura shares memories of this first year, including mention of me as the first member to join the blogger group.

Contest Winner

Edd Fuller is the winner of last week’s contest for two free passes to the Carnegie Museum of Art. Passes are courtesy of Pittsburgh Budget Cars, a company that deals in used cars in Pittsburgh.

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