Randyland: How Happiness Helped Build a Neighborhood
Feb 28, 2018 05:05PM
By Vanessa Orr
Randy Gilson spreads happiness wherever he goes. As the owner of Randyland, a funky, frenetic North Side landmark, he greets visitors to his art-inspired home along the Mexican War Streets with a unique brand of humor, humility and infectious cheer.
While his outdoor gallery now attracts people from all over the world, this self-taught painter and collector of found objects didn’t originally set out to make art; instead, he was just looking for a way to channel the energy and anxiety caused by his ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and to bring light into what was, at the time, a rough existence.
“I was an unhappy little kid for a long time,” Gilson said. “My family moved a lot, and every time I got in a new school, it was a whole new program. I had a hard time understanding things, and I felt backwards and stupid—like a mistake.”
It wasn’t until Gilson’s mother left her abusive husband and moved her six children to Pittsburgh that he realized that while he may not have done well in school, he had other talents. “We were really poor, so we didn’t have Christmas,” he said of the family’s first year living in Homestead. “I went out and found toys in the garbage and washed them off and put them under the tree. That’s when I realized that I had eyes to see, a mind to think, hands to take things home, a mouth to speak, feet to walk and a heart to be happy—Jesus had made me a toolbox!”
Gilson also realized that while book-learning wasn’t his strong suit, he was blessed with common sense. “I think in some ways ADHD makes you wise, because even though you think too much and go in a lot of different directions, you also figure things out in interesting ways,” he said. “Other kids would come to me because I knew how to answer things; I became their big brother and a mentor.
“I would watch people do bad things and dig themselves into holes that they couldn’t get out of,” he explained of his upbringing in an area rife with drugs and street gangs. “I started to filter myself; to let the negatives out and the positives in. I realized that no one was going to help me; I was in charge of me. So I started to challenge myself.”
Fast-forward about 20 years, and Gilson found himself living on the North Side, which at the time faced its own problems. “There were gangs and fighting, and people just locked themselves in their houses,” he said. “There was garbage everywhere, and weeds were six feet high in some lots. My ADHD makes me nervous, so I like to use my hands to build and fix things. I figured I’d start cleaning up a couple lots; people pointed and laughed, but I didn’t care what they thought.”
Gilson started the Old Allegheny Garden Society, and slowly began to earn the trust of the people in the area as he continued on his one-man mission to beautify his surroundings. “At first, the kids were the only people that would talk to me; they wanted to know what I was doing,” said Gilson. “One kid became 10, then became 20, then became 50; they all started looking for Mr. Randy.”
While parents in the neighborhood were at first hesitant about these friendships, they soon came to trust Gilson when they realized that their kids were safe and not getting into trouble. When a home a few blocks away came up for sale, a neighborhood group told Gilson about it, and his reputation was so well known that a bank agreed to lend him $10,000, even on his waiter’s salary, that he used to buy the run-down property.
“I didn’t know what color to paint it, but I met a real estate woman while I was waiting on her, and she said that yellow sells a house,” said Gilson. “So I made the outside really bright yellow. Now you can see it from every skyscraper in Pittsburgh.”
Anyone who wants to see it in person is also welcome, and thousands of people come by each year to see Gilson’s projects, which include vibrantly painted murals as well as found art in every form–from a wall of mirrors that reflects visitors’ delight, to a row of rocking horses, to decorated mannequin heads and more. A courtyard wall features signs welcoming visitors in more than 100 languages, and large butterflies, spiders and scorpions adorn the walls and telephone poles outside.
While Randyland is home to Randy and his partner, Mac, it is also a point of pride for Pittsburgh, and one that Gilson hopes will remain a part of the city for a long time to come. “I bought it for $10,000 and now it’s worth $1 million,” he said, adding that people’s good deeds have driven crime away and resulted in the gentrification of the area, which is now a hot real estate market. “I make $26,000 as a waiter, so sooner or later I’m going to lose the house. I had to decide whether to give it away or sell it, so I’ve decided to give it away.”
Within the next couple of years, Gilson plans to start a nonprofit foundation to take over the house and keep it open for generations to enjoy. “I picture a multi-community dream foundation—a house of happiness and love,” he said. “I’ve spent 41 years grooming this community, helping it, teaching it love, and I want to make sure that that dream is for everyone.”
Randyland is located at 1501 Arch Street in Pittsburgh. For more information, visit www.randylandpgh.com.