Randy Gilson prides himself on celebrating the insignificant. Little did he know that when he purchased a dilapidated house in Pittsburgh for $10,000 at an auction back in 1995, it would become known as one of America’s most colorful public landmarks and among the most photographed places on Instagram.
Growing up in a broken home, poor and sometimes homeless, he ignored the taunting of others and focused on working to create something out of nothing, both with his life and with his surroundings. Randy says that his struggles became his strengths; “I taught myself to repurpose, reuse and recycle.” As a young boy, he would rummage through the trash and recondition toys he found, to the delight of his five siblings at Christmas.
He’d love to sneak over to the yards of his elderly neighbors and mow their overgrown lawns. Distressed by the garbage and abandoned homes in his neighborhood, he later started the Old Allegheny Garden Society. He purchased whiskey barrels, filled them with flowers and placed them along the streets. Neighbors started volunteering to assist him and his dream of creating a peoplehood (his term for connecting people together for a common goal) took shape. Over time, 800 barrels, 50 vegetable gardens and eight parks spruced up the area.
He gave his newly purchased, ramshackle house the “Randy touch,” gathering bricks from homes in the area being torn down and believing in their energy, each with a story of the lives they housed. He lovingly positioned his collections of recycled objects around the yard and invited passersby to come in, chat and peruse at no charge.
Today, Randyland is a whimsical expression of pure joy. Colorful murals line the walls of the outdoor art space. The psychedelic staircase leads to nowhere and is decorated with bright colored metal chairs seemingly suspended in air. Mannequin heads sit on a table next to a pile of sand and toys. The worry box provides pen and paper and invites you to write down your concerns, then drop them in the box. Souvenirs are displayed on the honor system, requesting the purchaser to place the money in a nearby lock box. Seating areas welcome all to stay awhile, take in the assemblage of oddities that encircle them and read the uplifting visitor comments left on the bulletin board from all over the world.
On a lovely Saturday afternoon, my visit to Randyland was an eye-opening experience of wonder and delight. My love of anything quirky and my awe and reverence for anyone a bit eccentric merged into a feeling of pure bliss. As I left that haven of happiness, I had a big smile on my face and a spring in my step, hoping never to forget how one man had the ability to turn waste into wonder.